I've been putting off writing about this for decades.
In 1986 and 1987 I helped to run a discussion group at Haverford College called A Dialog About Men. Part of our mission was to try to get to the root of male sexual violence through exploring the conditions in ourselves that may or may not exist in all men. It was awkward and fascinating. We started as an open group, but most of the people who showed up were women. The men clammed up. Then we made it a men-only group. That did not go over well, but we stuck with it because the point was to provide a space for men to feel free to open up. In that cocoon, the men started talking. Someone took notes, but I can't remember who now. I'm not sure they would be informative. The conversations were difficult and eye-opening. For some things, you just have to be there.
We did stuff around campus like an event called Walk A Mile in Your Sister's Shoes, which did not involve footwear. Rather it encouraged all men on campus to ask for a woman escort when walking around campus after dark. We were trying to build awareness of the sense of danger that was invisible to men but we were told was a nightly reality for women, even in our Arboretum Utopia of a campus.
We got a lot of pushback from both men and women. The men generally laughed at us and implied that our livers were not unlike the lily. Women accused us of acting sensitive in order to get laid.
We talked a lot about a particular type of male rage that rises up out of fear. We got pretty deep into some uncomfortable feelings and saw the hazards that occur within us around consent and the lack thereof. We were all pretty civilized young men, but we could feel that we had the kernel of something potentially violent within us and that violence could be triggered by the need to protect a very tender, vulnerable wound which we could not quite identify. We did not assume that only men have this particular vulnerability. We only knew that there was a primal need within us to protect this wound and a will to lash out when this one place in our psyche was threatened. Luckily, our will to not lash out was stronger than our will to lash out, which is why we can continue to exist in society.
The Fisher King
One of my professors, V.Y Mudimbe, sat in on or heard about some of these conversations and recommended I read about the origins of the Fisher King story. In that fable, which became the seed of the Arthurian Legends, a young boy goes fishing and gets a wound. That wound eventually makes him a man. It's really ancient and vague, but at least we were not the first guys to talk about these ideas.
We did not solve any major problems in our brief gatherings, but it started me thinking about what it means to be male or at least to identify as male. So, of course, being male, I formed a theory.
By theory, I mean a model. With me, it's all models. I wrote a bit about models in a previous blog and you can read that to understand what I mean by it. Models are not science, but science employs models. It has roots in philosphy. In short, identifying a model is becoming aware of an internal habit of thought that determines our behavior. We model people, places, things, and ourselves in order to interact with what appears to be a world. The world is also a model.
Here's my model of the nature of maleness:
A man is not-mom.
The easy line to draw is to the counter-Freudian model of Womb Envy originally posited by the psychologist Karen Horney back in the early 1900s. She asserted that men were envious of women's reproductive organs, rather than women being envious of men's. It's a cool idea, and anything that takes Freud down a peg is worthy, but that's not it. Ask any guy, and he will tell you, he enjoys having a penis.
If maleness was all about physiology, the issue would be simpler. The problem with being male is that we are external to the cycle of life. We are the branches of the tree, and women are the trunk. That is not a problem that can be solved. Women have an unbroken physical connection to the first woman. They can choose to continue that connection to future girls who can continue it on and on so long as there are people. Men have that connection too, but only backward through time, and only through mom. Men are not mom. We are out on a limb.
Boys understand this really early on via differentiation. All children can identify the mother as soon as they can differentiate between people. They know mom's face. They know mom's body and they want to be close to it. In the first year, if mom is present, babies want to be with mom. At some point between 2 and 5, it invariably comes up that a toddler is either like mom or not like mom. As recent studies have shown, this is not determined by one's chromosomes, but by a narrative communicated by the parents.
"Can I nurse the baby?" "Yes, someday."
"Can I nurse the baby?" "No, you are a boy."
- or some variation thereof. All of this sounds like I'm talking about womb-envy still, and that makes sense only with regards the toddlers sense of gender differentiation, but for them, reproductive organs are not the main thing. They are trying to figure out their significance. At that age, mom is a monolith. Mom is self-evidently significant. A toddler determines their significance by their relative similarity to mom.
Dad is also significant, but not in so obvious a way. His significance is complex. Toddlers often know that dad has something to do with their birth, but understandably, it's a bit vague. They form a narrative in which mom is the creator and dad is the helper. It's is important to note here, that this will occur regardless of whether the primary caregiver is male or female. The question is "how did I get here?" and the answer is mom.
Differentiation & significance
So far, I am speaking of male/female cis-gender parenting. Non-binary parenting and same cis-gender parenting is something someone might address here, but I don't have any personal experience with it, and so, I think it would be wrong for me to form a model that includes those types of families. My only assumption is that some narrative is formed for and with toddlers in those families that answers the question of birth origin and begins the process of gender differentiation.
So when a boy toddler determines that they are not-mom, they have to begin the process of asserting their significance. They do not know that they will have to continue this process for the rest of their lives. At this point, the womb-envy, if it could ever be called such, ends. A not-mom toddler turns from the process of life creation, from which they are blocked, to one of life helping or optimally, life-saving. They choose their toys and role models.
- and maybe Doctors
There is a picture of me when my brother was born. I was wearing a fireman's helmet. I wore it constantly at that time, I am told. I was almost 3. My mother was bringing about a new life, and I was asserting my significance. That is maleness.
Girls play with these toys too. There is no reason to think that girls will not want to assert their significance outside knowing their being as like-mom. This model does not limit choices or limit roles. This model points to the importance of existential significance. It is about our relationship to the tree of life. Girls have a place in the continuity, boys have a place outside of that continuity. This is existential because it cannot be corrected. The only factor is whether and when we as toddlers understand this relationship.
Patriarchy & nature/nurture
Most, if not all modern cultures value maleness over non-maleness. There are many many reinforcements of male models of significance over all non-male models. That awareness comes later though after the awareness of like-mom or not-mom takes place. I assert that cultural and religious modes of signifying male importance are in response to the original awareness of the existential relationship to the continuum of life creation. They are a reaction to the fact. That which men cannot supersede, we try to control and subvert to regain the significance we feel we lack. That subversion is always incomplete and so it continues indefinitely. Some may be generated by inverted-empathy but the root cause is insecurity. This reaction is violent and oppressive to all human beings, but especially to women, non-cis-gendered people, and non-heterosexual males.
I am not trying to conjure up sympathy for men here. Men get plenty of sympathy. As much as we might want to fix this model so that men are less fundamentally insecure in their significance, it would be a fool's errand to try. Men are a fact. We exist, and we are primordially messed up, not only by our parents but by the fact of what we are. We are fundamentally expendable in a way women are not. This is a fact of nature, not nurture. Men will continue to try to correct their original flaw in positive ways as well as negative. Someday, perhaps men and women will find a way to create life outside of nature. Will that be corrective? One would have to ask the product of that endeavor. For now, we exist within the natural cycle of creation and death, half of us as part of the continuity and half of us at a solitary terminus of it.
Some reactions I've had to this model:
- Moms are not always wonderful examples of nurturing. Some are dreadful parents.
- This reduces women's significance solely to their reproductive organs.
- Men have an important role in the creation of life.
- Women have to struggle to assert their significance far more than men do.
These reactions are why I have waited so long to write about this. I want to address them one at a time.
Regarding objection number 1: This model applies regardless of whether the mother was a drug addict, or absent, or even alive. Observing my children, my own childhood and my friend's children have reinforced the notion that the reality of the mother is not the important factor in this model but the child's perception of what "mother" is. Gender differentiation begins early and is comparative. The question of origin is an unavoidable element in this differentiation and is viscerally tied to smell and touch. The absence of a mother does not preclude the question but may delay it. The concept of life giver might be mythological for a time, but role-playing regarding birth and nurturing begins early. Some children will be drawn to it because they feel included in it, and some will shun it because they do not. That is where the battle for primal significance starts.
Regarding objection number 2: This model does not depict a process that continues throughout life, but happens early on and is reacted to over and over. To employ this model in such a way as to assert that women who choose to have children or not have children are better or worse would be perverse and misconstrued. We get a sense we are like-mom or not-mom early and what we do afterward is purely up to us. There is no imperative implied in that knowledge. Using this as a way to get to a model of half-baked social Darwinism is idiotic.
Regarding objection number 3: This is only true from a standpoint of intellectual understanding of the biological creation of life. Men's contribution to the process is essential (for now) and ensures diversification. However, this is not evident at the time of differentiation. Our physical closeness to our origins is undeniable, and that origin is mom. Beyond that, the connection of father to child has always been an open question. Some of the most brutal sexual restrictions are those that ensure the male bloodline. The convention of surnames (SirNames) reinforces the male connection to his offspring, but until recently, those connections could not be contested. A man can go through life never knowing about the existence of his offspring. A woman cannot. She must be present at the birth. He can be absent.
Regarding objection number 4: Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely. That is ultimately what this is about. Why do we live in a culture that so denigrates mothers and praises fathers? Why have men so violently asserted control over the bodies, lives, and thoughts of women? I believe it begins with men's awareness of the need to continually assert their significance, not only in general but in relation to the women around them.
Out on a limb
So, there it is. I have decided to jot this all down so that it may not be lost and so that it may be helpful. I don't think that men can work to be better members of society merely by being nice. We must feel that original wound and live with it. We need to know when it takes hold and takes charge. Recent examples of "toxic" male rage such as the childish complaints of not being granted sexual contact, brutal subjugation of women, the ignorant rise of men's rights groups, or frustrated reactions to women taking leadership positions spring from the terror that as men, we will become fully insignificant. Like all fear, this arises not from our intelligence, but from a place of pain and insecurity. To react intelligently to the fear of being not-mom is our reality if we want to be anything like civilized and significant members of the human race.