“Patriarchy has no gender.” ― bell hooks, Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom
This is indeed a strange point in our cultural history. With all the talk about toxic masculinity and the fall of many prominent men of a particular stature, I’m hearing from a lot of men unsure about how to move forward into a brave new world of true gender equality. What is safe and appropriate to say or do around women now that the old standards of thinly veiled misogyny will no longer be tolerated?
I have even done some impotent hand-wringing myself over recollections of my past interactions with women in my life, both in and out of the workplace. In light of what I’ve seen in the news or reading in my feed, it seemed appropriate that I take an honest assessment of my thoughts, views, and deeds in relation, or reaction to, ‘the feminine’ in my life. I wanted to know where I had perhaps stepped over the line of propriety, caused harm or, at the very least, made others feel uncomfortable. How much responsibility was I willing to take for being part of the problem of using power and influence over women to satisfy patriarchal lust?
I even went to so far as to write out a letter of apology to one such woman, an avatar I named, ‘An Angry Woman.’ You can read the post here. It wasn’t exactly what I wanted to say but catalyzed this piece, so it was, at the very least, a worthy intellectual exercise, necessary to bridge me to this conversation. I asked my wife to read it, and I could tell by the look on her face as she got deeper into the piece that I had missed my intended mark.
“Well, what do you think?” I asked Jennifer, both eager and afraid of her answer. “I don’t know,” she replied slowly. “I don’t think any woman wants you to tell them that you’re sorry. My guess is that they don’t want you to tell them anything. They want to know what you’re going to do to change it.”
By ‘it,’ I understood that she meant the culture or atmosphere by which such suggestions or expectations of a quid pro quo of sexual favors in exchange for career advancement might occur. It was a good question.
This, I suspect, is not a moment for intellectualization, there’s been plenty of talk about the how and why we find ourselves at this particular choice point, men and women together. Now, I believe, is the time for all good men of conscience, to get into the game and take some action.
I grew up with a Cuban mother. I remember many family reunions with her, her six sisters and two brothers and saw firsthand what it was like to have a strong matriarchal lineage preside over those gatherings. There were times when my mother and more than a few of her sisters acted in antagonistic ways toward their men, gelding them with their words. Maybe the women did that out of fear of being dominated, enacting a good offense as their defense. Maybe they got tired of waiting for their men to take their proper place side by side with them and merely stepped in to fill the leadership vacuum.
Having had this example of a strong and dominant feminine presence in my youth, I could have gone either way: I could have become a soft complaint man, a safely feminized masculine or instead become a strident hyper-masculine reactionary; always ready to go to war with the feminine.
When I was seventeen, I was falsely accused of rape. I lived with that accusation for fifteen years until the true perpetrator came forward and admitted his guilt. As bad as that was for me, a rape had occurred, and the victim suffered double jeopardy; once for the physical aspect of the act, then secondly as she suffered in silence. In my family, regardless of the reason, we didn’t talk about such things. No one would talk about what happened, either to me or to her as if ignoring the act would somehow lessen the sting of betrayal.
Maybe it was because of this history that for many years I was highly sensitized to anyone who would, perceptively, take my power away. I was constantly emotionally vigilant for anyone who would tell me what to do, where and when. I was equally hostile to men who would seek my subjugation as well as the women who tried to control me, even for the best of reasons. It would take me a long time to get over that.
I worked professionally in the hospitality industry as a chef, an environment that for many years was not generally celebrated for its cultural or gender sensitivity. Some would argue that even though women and minorities have been a cause for a recent breakthrough in the reinvigoration of the art form, it still has a long way to go. To be a white man as a chef implied that one had unlimited upward mobility. If you were female, you almost always ended up in the pastry kitchen; the ‘pink dungeon’ as many called it.
One of the very first chefs I worked under was a woman. She was much tougher than any man I knew at the time: more driven, focused and determined. She had to be, as she explained it, to be taken seriously by her male counterparts. She also took it upon herself to make me the object of her scorn, her emotional whipping post; paying back all the indignities that she had suffered under the ‘Culinary Bro Code’ onto me with almost biblical glee. At the time, I took it as the usual hazing that occurs in some crafts, but now I understand all too well, her smoldering anger of being treated less than equal in spite of her professional performance. I never forgot her bitter sadness.
I’m not sure when and why I made the decision not to engage the bullshit version of masculinity that I had been conditioned to become. When my son bought his first collection of CDs many of them were rap. I went through his collection and, standing in front of him, tossed a couple of them into the garbage. It wasn’t because they were rap, I told him, as he stood with a shocked look on his face. I could appreciate any musical art form, I assured him, but I wasn’t going to let anything into our house that denigrated women and glorified violence. When I overheard my children making fun of a neighborhood kid, I scolded them. When they said it was only a joke, I tried to teach them that at the heart of every joke was a lie waiting to be believed.
I stood for this at home, as I did at work. I wouldn’t allow a slippery slope of jokes, innuendo or outright manipulation for profit or pleasure to occur, not because I’m better than anyone else, but rather because I have seen the effects of this abuse of power first hand. I took a stand.
The question is: will you?
Women are showing us the way, but they can’t do it alone.
“Well, the tyranny of masculinity and the tyranny of patriarchy I think has been much more deadly to men than it has to women. It hasn’t killed our hearts. It’s killed men’s hearts. It’s silenced them; it’s cut them off.” – Eve Ensler
The incredible opportunity that lays in front of all of us is not one of finally confronting toxic masculinity; it’s about eliminating the abuse of power called patriarchy. We, men, can either be part of the solution or we, meaning masculinity, will get dragged down with it. If we, as a culture, are to succeed in forging a new humanistic way forward, it will have to be done together, with both the enlightened feminine and the inspired masculine charting the course.
Right now, it would be easy to confuse toxic masculinity with patriarchy as more and more men are getting called out, and suffering the consequences of their lechery. But it would be a mistake to paint this present moment with only the wide brush of masculinity, even though those that are getting called out are men.
To my mind, and heart, this is more of an indictment of the institutionalized abuse of power which leads to depravity than just the person who happens to be of a certain gender. If power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, don’t forget that the men in the news are being brought down by women at least as powerful, if not more. There are still many more women who currently suffer, primarily because they have no power. They don’t need saving; they don’t need a leader; they can do that all by themselves on a level playing field. What they really need is partners.
The women in our lives are waiting for us to take our place at their side, but they’re only willing to wait for so long. The only way to do that, in my estimation, is for us, as men, to get ‘harmonized.’
Do Your Work
I suspect that, given the men that I have met, worked with or befriended, very few of us grew up in a gender-balanced household with excellent role models. A lot of us, including myself, have suffered under confusing and sometimes conflicting versions of manhood. Sometimes, how we were trained shamed or conditioned to be flew in the face of what we knew in our hearts to be true. If we were to be taken seriously, then we were encouraged, sometimes forced to throw away such childish notions as ‘it’s okay for a boy to cry.’ Our survival depended on it, we were told.
Most insidiously, most of us have gotten it into our minds that this is as good as it’s ever going to get, regardless of what our hearts whisper to us. We just need to shut up and suffer the rest of our lives. Grousing about it won’t help, and no one else is really that eager to hear of our problems; after all, they have their own crap to worry about.
That is utter bullshit. If we feel disconnected from our passion, purpose or sense of place, then we need to do anything, and everything, to line up with our higher potentials so that we can co-create a life worth living. It’s our job to do the work so we can thrive, instead of merely surviving, in our lives. That may mean joining a men’s group, going to some self-actualization workshops or, at the very least, listening to some Audible books on ways to achieve a sense of harmonized manhood.
Our only job – and the one our women are watching for us to take up – is to be the best version of ourselves that we can be, given what we know at any given time. Time to put in the work that you already know needs to be done, brother.
The bad news is: middle-aged men in the 45 to 60 range experienced a 43 percent increase in suicide deaths from 1997 to 2014, and the rise has been even sharper since 2005. In 2011, middle-aged adults accounted for the largest proportion of suicides (56%)1, and from 1999-2010, the suicide rate among this group increased by nearly 30%.
While there are many factors that have contributed to this rise, one of the most common factors that is cited in studies is that most of the men who chose the take their own lives were in a word, unaffiliated.
They didn’t belong to a church or community group, they didn’t take part in support groups nor did they have any affiliation with a professional or some type of networking group. These men thought it proper to carry their own burden even when it threatened their very existence.
It’s impossible to say with any certainty that joining any of the groups or associations listed above would have mitigated these statistics. Given our current understanding of human nature and our hardwired drive to be part of a community, it’s conceivable that if these men had a place in which they could speak their truth, and be heard with total acceptance, then chances are a good proportion of these casualties of stoic silence could have found a different answer to their malaise.
When I was going through my shit, my dark night of the soul, I didn’t even consider that there were groups I could have joined that would have given me the opportunity to work on my stuff in a supportive environment. I suffered under the delusion that shouldering the weight of my problems by myself was somehow more honorable, more befitting a proper man – like my father who died quietly, and alone, under the burden of his problems when I was thirty-one – than speaking my darkness to other men.
The good news is that with the advent of the internet, the allure and promise of healing through community are now closer than ever, and a real option to those who are sick of their own bullshit.
Groups like Wellmen.org, The Mankind Project, The Center for Resilient Leadership, Epic Men, The Remarkable Man Project and blogs such as this one, Menprovement, The Good Man Project, The Art of Manliness and The Order of Man are all excellent resources for any man seeking a community of like-minded individuals with which to grow and learn. There is no good reason left to suffer in silence except for your own ego gratification.
The simple message is this: get off your ass and get affiliated. Can’t find a local group that fits your taste? Then start one on MeetUp.com. Sometimes the quickest way to shift your shit is to be in service to someone else. Your mess is your message; get started.
Learn to Nurture Yourself, and Others
This has been the hardest lesson for me to learn; one that I am still struggling to bring full circle even now. How can one love and nurture another while ignoring the same imperative for themselves? Gone are the days in which a man could be a good soldier and provider in the hopes that their sacrifice would get them a seat a little closer to God.
Our bodies are perfect bellwethers for our mental and emotional wellbeing. When hips, backs, and knees give way to the pressure and stress of living these false identities, it’s usually Consciousness’ last warning to us to wake the fuck up before something really bad takes hold in our bodies.
Is the chaos around us merely a reflection of the chaos inside us? If we hurt ourselves explicitly or implicitly is not the surrounding environment and community damaged as well?
If only we had been taught as young boys to listen to our bodies’ wisdom and to use that guidance to our best advantage to chart a life worth living. Yet, it’s never too late to start; you are not too old, too heavy or too set in your ways to begin to nurture and take care of the best friend you’ve ever had: your body.
Your practice may look like a morning meditation or a regular mani-pedi, a monthly massage or an artistic endeavor for no other reason than it makes you happy to do so.
In doing so, putting yourself – like no shit – at the top of your totem pole, you’ll see how to properly nurture and support others without carrying or worrying about whether you did a ‘good enough job.’ Finally, you’ll be able to honor another’s journey while properly honoring your own.
Call Out Those that Would Sully our Good Name
There were plenty of times when I overheard boyish men brag about their conquests or how they confirmed their superiority by demeaning or shaming others. Early in my career, I had been a bully too. It took a shocking circumstance with a subordinate to hit me upside the head with a cosmic 2X4 for me to realize what a dick I had been. I was ashamed to be a man and an authority figure.
After bringing a grown man to tears, I vowed to him – and to everyone I would ever manage – that I would never again abuse my position and power to degrade or subjugate anyone else, ever. I would find a better way; which I did. But I didn’t go far enough, at least not in the beginning.
I held true, at least for a while, to the Bro Code; turning away or ignoring other’s bad behavior while the carnage they wrought by their actions spilled over into my sphere of influence. I cleaned up operation after operation following in the wake of other’s that had gone before me; trying to heal the emotional damage done to others but never addressing the root cause of the cancer that invaded these businesses.
It shouldn’t have taken this to expose what we all knew was happening. It shouldn’t have taken a few brave women to finally expose some exceedingly bad men.
It should’ve been us men calling them out all along.
We are the guardians of enlightened manhood. If men and the concept of masculinity itself is to survive this moment in history with any semblance of dignity, then it must be us that exposes anyone who is willing to use their position and influence to take advantage of anyone else. Patriarchy takes power away from both women and men equally, and if justice is to be served, then it must be us, men of good conscience, who will act for the good of the community at large.
Don’t dismiss bad behavior with failed colloquiums, such as ‘boys will be boys.’ Now is the time for men, initiated elders in the race of man, to school and mentor these boyish men, these ‘tyrants in the high chair’ so that they turn away from uninitiated behavior and take their rightful place among us.
Or suffer the consequences. Nothing else will suffice.
“In the face of patriarchy, it is a brave act indeed for both men and women to embrace, rather than shame or attempt to eradicate, the feminine.” – Alanis Morissette
In the end, I chose a middle way, one which would have me honor the strengths of the feminine while enabling me to stand strongly in a balanced masculine way. I grew to understand that within me I had both facets of light and dark, Masculinity and Femininity. Only by accepting and incorporating them all could I be a fully realized, sovereign human being. I don’t remember there being a conscious decision about my choices; it certainly wasn’t altruistic. I just know that at some point my desire for harmony within my heart became the driving desire to find peace between these sometimes-conflicting archetypes.
Hopefully, you have come to that same conclusion too, my brother.
If so, then the only question that remains is: what are you going to do about it?
Also published on Medium.