Violence and the masculine ideal

In the previous post I linked to a column on violence and gender at the New Statesman by a columnist named Glosswitch – “a feminist mother of two who works in publishing.”

I’m not qualified to comment on the intricacies of feminist theory, but as a father and a man I hope I’m not remiss in taking issue with Glosswitch’s claim that:

Rarely is it argued that since men are particularly vulnerable, they should not go out alone at night or drink above a certain limit. Since men are, potentially, both victim and perpetrator, it seems we’ve resolved to let them fight it out amongst themselves.

As a parent of boys, I find this disturbing. While those raising girls might be faced with the awful yet relatively straightforward paradigm of vulnerable girl/evil world, for those of us with sons it’s more complex. If I attempt to protect my son from his own aggression and that of others, aren’t I pushing him towards “girl” status – the status of a victim? But if I toughen him up and prepare him to fight, am I not just creating another aggressor in a world where over 90 per cent of them are male? As long as masculinity remains powerful, it seems there will never be an in-between.

As a powerfully masculine man myself, it appears the author has fallen into a false dichotomy. It is not the case that men must either be a victim or a perpetrator of violence, because we also have the option of self-defense.

Self-defense is a perfectly legitimate and well established use of force with both legal and moral precedent. Furthermore, defense of self and others is traditionally regarded as an ennobling and virtuous application of masculine power.

The author is right to worry that promoting non-violence will leave her sons vulnerable in a ‘dog-eat-dog’ world. But her false dichotomy of victim/perpetrator pushes her towards a gender-based critique of violence that pins individual security on the hope of an ideologically transformed society.

Do you want your son to kick or be kicked? As long as we maintain our obsession with gender, the choice has to be between aggression or victimhood, masculinity and femininity stripped bare.

Anyone familiar with the theory and practice of self-defense will know that there are alternatives to ‘kick or be kicked’ – alternatives that begin with making informed choices about one’s environment. People interested in self-defense will indeed point out the dangers of being overly intoxicated in the wrong venues at the wrong time. A cursory inspection of violence statistics will demonstrate the increased risk of assault that comes from being out drinking in the early hours of the morning.

For people interested in self-defense, violence is genuinely an unwanted escalation, yet something we ought to be prepared for. I’ve met a number of men involved in martial arts over the years, and their unanimous opinion after years of ‘toughening up’ and learning how to hurt people, is that we should avoid it as far as possible: run away, apologise, humble ourselves, call for help, in order to avoid a fight.

None of these people wish to become victims, and many of them are well prepared and capable of using force to defend themselves. But nor are they remotely inclined to become aggressors, using violence to victimise others.

It is a concern when people promote a view of ‘violence’ that ignores the moral distinction between aggression and self-defense. A man can be tough without being callous, powerful without being violent. Perhaps there are ideological reasons for ignoring such options, but I for one will have no qualms in teaching my son the how’s and why’s of the legitimate use of force. And if I had a daughter I would teach her exactly the same thing.

Critiquing masculinity

A friend sent me an article on male violence from a feminist perspective, and I’ll return to the issue of male violence soon; but in the meantime, this got me thinking:

Recently my younger son, a huge Frozen fan, asked to go to a school fancy dress disco dressed as Queen Elsa of Arendelle. We’d spotted an outfit in Sainsbury’s – a long, sparkly blue dress, complete with a silver wig. Despite the well-intentioned warnings of grandparents, I let him wear it. A dress is a dress. So he arrived and there was a lot of fascination – and some mockery – of this “boy dressed like a girl”. He didn’t care and went and got his nails painted blue to match his dress. I felt proud of him. His disregard for social norms makes him strong, not weak. And yet there was a part of me that still feared the consequences of this “like a girl/not like a boy” definition imposed upon him by his peers.

http://www.newstatesman.com/lifestyle/2014/10/male-violence-greater-threat-our-sons-so-why-are-we-so-over-protective-daughters

While I agree that it would take strength for a boy to wear a dress to a school function, I’m skeptical of the claim that this indicates his disregard for social norms.

Adopting the social norms of the opposite sex is not the same as disregarding social norms. If her son made the choice naively, he still did so in the context of a family with particular values, and a particular attitude to social norms. There is no ‘view from nowhere’, whether we blindly follow the crowd or try to stand apart from it.

A mother who writes “a feminist take on parenting and politics” and who feels proud of her son for wearing a dress is not a value-neutral background for childhood development. Family is the beginning of society, not a hermetically sealed environment or laboratory in which human minds are formed free of external influences.

Feminists (in general) have their own ideological aims, and it makes sense that the columnist would feel proud of her son for making a choice that affirms her political theory.

But ultimately the “disregard for social norms” is better expressed as an affirmation of one set of norms against another more predominant set. True disregard for social norms would be indicative of psychopathy. In fact, the columnist’s broader and more interesting point is that the gender-gap cannot be overcome by giving women increased access to male domains, or by “celebrating femininity“, but must instead come about through a more thorough critique and deconstruction of masculinity. Plenty of women wear pants, but hardly any men wear dresses.

I have to admit I have some sympathy with this idea. As a part-time stay-at-home dad who has always done more the majority of the cooking and cleaning, I’ve come to realise that it’s not enough to get women into the workforce: getting men into childcare is the other half of the equation. The first day of looking after my 18 month old son convinced me that a generation of stay-at-home dads would utterly destroy the foolish notion that caring for children doesn’t constitute real work.

At the same time, I’m not inclined to wear a skirt or dress for a number of reasons beginning with what I thought would have been a fairly obvious point: skirts and dresses are not made for male bodies. But beyond that, it’s also somewhat inappropriate for a woman to be spearheading a critique of masculinity, as evidenced by the discussion of violence, with a false dichotomy of ‘kill or be killed’. Nonetheless, it’s great to have these issues raised because there is so much dysfunction in the culture of masculinity. I’ll never encourage my son to wear women’s clothing, but I will do my best to instil in him virtues and ideals that give noble expression to masculinity.