Monday, March 21, 2011

On manliness: a response ( Part 1 of 2)

Last Wednesday I linked to an article on North's blog, titled 'The Passionate Carnivore'. Basically, it was a defense of 'old-fashioned' masculinity, with reference to the classical code of the gentleman, all-round competence, and a refusal to surrender the traditional masculine role in society, relationships, etc. I heartily approved.

Labrat, of the Atomic Nerds, took issue with some of North's and my comments, and penned a very thought-provoking response. I'm going to try to respond to some of her points, and also put into words what have been long-held attitudes of mine. I'm going to try to express them as accurately as possible, which might be difficult, because some have been implicit in my upbringing and life experience, rather than explicitly argued and reasoned approaches. Anyway, here goes!

Please note that this article will not make much sense if you haven't read the preceding articles to which it refers. It's a response to other perspectives, rather than a stand-alone post in its own right. It'll also be the first part of a two-part article, as what I'm struggling to find words to express is going to be too long for a single blog post. (EDITED TO ADD: The second part of this article may be found here.)

Labrat notes (bold print is my emphasis):

... there is nothing whatsoever about cigars, steak, poker, oil changes, or spider slaying that actually relates to having testicles and producing small gametes with them. It’s entirely a cultural construction of masculinity, or a culture of manhood if you prefer. It doesn’t rest on any one thing, but many things are included in the idea and culture of manhood being discussed, including physical courage, stoicism, a sometimes confused blend of assertiveness and aggression, and all sorts of pastimes and arcana of man-ness, which (most) American men want to defend and reclaim and (some) feminists would rather see dialed back if not destroyed altogether.

She's absolutely correct about the 'cultural construction of masculinity', of course. I was raised by British parents who'd emigrated to South Africa; so I grew up with an interesting mixture of a British cultural background in an African environment. I lived and worked in South Africa (with periodic excursions to many other African nations) for the first 37 years of my life, and experienced many things that led me to my present understanding of what it means to be a man. Some of those experiences I'd much rather have missed . . . but that wasn't possible, I'm afraid.

Labrat points out:

... just as a regrettable amount of misandry is bound up in feminist culture as a whole and can’t be completely separated out in an honest discussion, an equally regrettable amount of misogyny is bound up in the culture of manliness. The unreconstructed caveman’s major flaw isn’t that he’s rude, it’s that his idea of manliness often includes a lot of internalized notions that part of being manly is controlling and using women. The greatest harm and indignity to Wifey wasn’t that she was expected to damn well serve him a steak, it’s that he was given tacit cultural permission and even a certain degree of expectation to force her back into line if she didn’t- by beating if necessary. African machismo is actually a perfect example of what feminists have a problem with- it may be the land where a man’s a man and slays the lions/rebels/other danger, but it’s also the land of a grotesquely high rate of rape and abuse.

I partly agree, but with some serious reservations. African machismo can, indeed, be a frighteningly chauvinistic thing sometimes. In most of that continent, a woman has traditionally been considered the property of the male for centuries. She was 'owned', first by her father, then by her husband - the latter paying lobola to her father as a sign that 'ownership' had been transferred. This is still a very common practice, although the 'bride price' is more likely to be modern clothing, appliances, electronics, or even a car, instead of the more traditional cattle, skins and beads.

However, it's worth noting that few African man would be likely to mistreat their wives to any great extent in traditional tribal society. (I'm not saying that it didn't or doesn't happen, but it's a lot rarer than many Westerners assume.) A number of factors operate here.

  • Tribal culture puts the group - the tribe - ahead of the individual in importance; so if a member of the tribe abuses other members, irrespective of their sex, it creates a social burden (as well as an individual burden for the victims), in that they're less able to contribute their share to the group. This means that excessive oppression of spouses is likely to be dealt with by the tribal leadership out of pragmatic group interest.
  • Women can (and do) band together to protect their own interests. A woman experiencing any form of oppression from her husband might have a word with the other women during their daily walks to get water, work in the fields, etc. That would 'filter up the line' until the wife of a senior member of the tribe had a quiet word with her husband, who would in turn have a quiet word with the erring male. This happens surprisingly frequently, and usually works. If it doesn't, the next word to the erring male is likely to be less quiet and more . . . er . . . physical. It's certainly going to be attention-getting! There's also the fact that, while a woman may have been bought from her father by her husband, this doesn't mean that her birth family will then ignore her. If they find out about her problem, they may make a fuss about it, depending on their status and influence in the tribe. That might also lead to a difficult situation for the errant husband.
  • The 'henpecked husband' is a stereotype that seems to occur in every culture, and African women can henpeck with the best of them when their ire is roused! An African man might want to throw his weight around, but if he presses things too far, he's likely to have a very uncomfortable life until he 'sees the light'. This applies particularly when he has multiple wives.
  • Finally, note that women occupy some extremely powerful positions in the culture of many African tribes. The sangoma, or witch-doctor, in Nguni culture (which includes many Southern African tribes) is far more likely to be a woman than a man (although both may be 'chosen' or 'called' by the 'ancestral spirits'). A man crosses a sangoma at his mortal peril! There are also some tribes whose leadership is female and matrilineal - the Modjadji or Rain Queen of the Lobedu is an excellent example. (I had the very rare privilege of meeting Mokope Modjadji, the then-current Rain Queen, in the late 1980's. She was a most impressive person.) For generations the Modjadji has been highly respected by male chieftains of tribes all over Southern Africa. Even Shaka, the greatest Zulu leader (1787-1828), is said to have sent emissaries to ask for her blessing.

Sadly, the advent of a more urbanized lifestyle, and the breaking down of the traditional tribal culture, appears to have contributed more to aggressive, domineering male behavior in Africa than is widely credited. Tribal culture often acted as a brake to such conduct, setting limits beyond which the wise man trespassed at his peril. With the removal of those limits, trespasses have become far more widespread. The mind-boggling increase in rape in Africa, for example, can be directly correlated over time with increased urbanization and systems of contract labor (which took men away from their families, tribes, etc.). As one increased, so did the other. Furthermore, increased urbanization and a breakdown in the dominance of the tribe have eroded the influence of women such as sangomas or the Modjadji over men who have fallen away from their cultural roots.

Finally, endemic conflict throughout Africa in modern times (internal and external) has not so much broken down as shattered many African cultures. Tens of millions of people have been killed or displaced. Many tribespeople are dead, or have been reduced to life in refugee camps, where many tribes mingle and the influence of a dominant culture is lost. In particular, many tribal elders (whose task it has always been to hand down the culture to the young) have died (sometimes deliberately slaughtered by those wishing to 'modernize' their people). Their restraining and leavening influence on the younger survivors of their tribes has been forever lost. I fear that many tribal cultures - particularly the better parts of those cultures - will never recover from this loss.

Nevertheless, open 'in-your-face' rejection of the tribe and its culture is still a deeply-felt taboo across most of Africa. Labrat referenced a South African music video (the link is NOT SAFE FOR WORK!!!) as evidence of what she called "a notion of manhood that accepts the idea that women are there for the use of men". She found it "a rather hilarious distillation"; but I find that video disgusting in its blatant contempt for symbols and customs that are sacred to others. The closest comparison I can think of is 'Piss Christ' by photographer Andres Serrano, which mocks and denigrates the deeply-held religious beliefs of many (including myself) in the name of 'freedom of expression'. That 'freedom' might be Mr. Serrano's right, but it won't stop me making my very great displeasure extremely clear to him if we should ever meet!

The performers in that video are, of course, absolutely entitled to their own opinions, and to live life as they choose: but they could have done so without 'getting in the faces' of those who value the traditions they've abandoned. To deliberately repudiate, 'trash' and mock the deeply-cherished beliefs and traditions of their people is not only unkind, but profoundly dangerous. They've chosen to violate every tribal taboo they can think of, from the fear and loathing of albinos, to the fear of the tokoloshe (evil spirits), to the necessity for circumcision as a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. They're like someone seeing a truck speeding on an icy road, who steps in front of it, holds up his hand, and says "Stop!" After he's run down and killed, all those who saw it will say "He asked for it!" In the same way, if the performers in that video are found dead and dismembered one day, I'll be saying (along with many others who know African culture), "They asked for it!" They'll have outraged many traditionalists by making that video . . . and in Africa, people have long memories.

I hope this response to Labrat's comments about African male culture, and their treatment of females, has cleared up a few misunderstandings. I must confess, I'm not fully satisfied with this post . . . I feel I'm 'flailing' a little, if I can put it like that, in trying to express concepts which I understand instinctively, but am not doing a very good job of putting into logical, rational, coherent words. Please let me know in Comments if there are any points that need further elaboration, and I'll do my best to tackle them in tomorrow's second part (as well as go into Labrat's other comments).

Since this post has concentrated on a 'primitive' culture and its approach to male-female relationships, let's close with a lighter, more humorous look at them. This is the B.C. comic strip from September 9th, 2009.

(Click the image for a larger view. Used with the kind permission of John Hart Studios.)


EDITED TO ADD: The second part of this article may be found here.


Old NFO said...

Good post Peter, and definitely a DIFFERENT perspective from that of any American... Thanks.

Peter W. said...


I disagree that masculinity and femininity are cultural constructs. Technically, you'll find that the two are the distinguishing traits or tendencies - those things that make us different.

For instance, whether in humans or livestock, a male tends to be more massive, both in bone structure and musculature, all other things (genetics, fitness, training etc) being equal. This is not cultural, but genetic. This applied to physical, emotional and intellectual characteristics.... yet livestock do not invent cultural constructs.

In the mapping of the human genome, genetecists discovered that identical genes will express themselves differently in a male, than they will in a female. Even at that level, we are different. A man is not a woman with different accessories, and vice-versa.

Non-distinguishing traits and tendencies are not "both" masculine of feminine, but neither.

It is what we DO with our masculinity of femininity that is often the result of culture.

Regards.... Peter

Anonymous said...

I like to believe that in most places men (the real ones, I mean) would behave as they do where I grew up.
A real man has little patience with a "man" who would beat a woman or a child, or a dog or other animal for that matter. If a male persists in talking down to "his woman" in public, he'll usually find that he is ignored by other men, and not treated as an equal.
A real man is a sheep dog, not a sheep or a wolf. And, like sheep dogs, rarely finds it necessary to howl or bite. But if you find it necessary to mess with a sheep dog, at least in this neck of the woods, pack a lunch. You'll be at it for a while.

Kristophr said...


That is still a cultural def.

I've had to explain to a drunk Aussie abroad that if he didn't stop slapping his wife, that every American at that tourist spot is going to descend on him and beat him senseless, with me at the head of the beatdown line.

Apparently Oz culture had a somewhat harder definition of what constitutes abuse.

He apologized to me for his behavior once he was sober ( someone explained to him that if he did that in public in the US, he would, at the very least get beaten up by witnesses ) ... but it was telling that he was more worried about what I thought of him than what his wife thought.