Tuesday, March 22, 2011

On manliness: a response ( Part 2 of 2)

This is the second part of a two-part article in response to a response by Labrat over at the Atomic Nerds. The first part of this article, with more background information, may be found here. (This part won't make much sense unless you've read the first part, I'm afraid.)

Before proceeding with more responses to Labrat's comments, I'd like to expand on something I said last night:

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.

This deserves further attention, because the essence of masculinity - what it means to be a man - is inextricably bound up with the cultural context within which one's manhood is 'exercised', if I may put it like that. In Africa, this means that manhood is a cultural construct with a very specific social dimension. That dimension is best described in the ancient African term ubuntu. It applies to every dimension of life; political, social, economic, etc. I'm going to talk about it at some length, because it's fundamental to understanding not only how African culture views masculinity, but as a mirror to help us reflect on how we understand masculinity.

In his book "Ubuntu: I in You and You in Me", Michael Battle looks at the relationship between ubuntu and spirituality. I'm going to quote him at some length (from pp. 85-88), because what he has to say about spirituality applies equally well to the African understanding of masculinity in a cultural and social context. Bold print is my emphasis.

Ubuntu does not presuppose that individuals lose their particularity, but it never loses sight of their place in the whole. [Archbishop Desmond] Tutu encourages us to consider a symphony orchestra:

"They are all dolled up and beautiful with their magnificent instruments, cellos, violins, etc. Sometimes dolled up as the rest, is a chap at the back carrying a triangle. Now and again the conductor will point to him and he will play 'ting'. That might seem so insignificant but in the conception of the composer something irreplaceable would be lost to the total beauty of the symphony if that 'ting' did not happen."

. . .

... in many respects, the concept of Ubuntu as interpersonality sums up the way African individuality and freedom are always balanced by the destiny of the community.

. . .

In African traditional religions, formal distinctions between the sacred and the secular, the spiritual and the material dimensions of life, do not exist. Life and religious expression are one, since the invisible world of the sacred is so intimately linked with ordinary life. The universe is basically a religious universe. African spirituality is thus a daily affair, permeating every aspect of life: rising, getting water; cooking food; going to the farm, office, or school; attending a funeral or wedding; drinking beer with friends. Religious rituals surround specific life events such as birth and death, but the African spiritual worldview is broader, since it encompasses all that is human and part of life.

. . .

Christian spirituality and Ubuntu search for independent identity between the individual and community that continues beyond death. This dynamic identity creates a peculiar destiny in which an individual and community cannot be understood apart from one another.

Admittedly, Battle's comments are an idealized interpretation of ubuntu. They're probably honored more in the breach than in the observance in many parts of Africa today; yet, they remain at the heart of traditional African culture. Here's Nelson Mandela speaking about ubuntu.

I hope the information I've provided, plus the Wikipedia article on ubuntu linked above, demonstrate that in traditional African culture, manhood - like any other social or anthropological construct - had a corporate or social dimension that was inextricably linked to individual masculinity in African culture. The boy became a man through a social ritual, the circumcision school.

The ritual was about preparing youngsters for the challenges of manhood in the rural and pastoral world in which they lived. Furthermore, it was performed by experienced operators and overseen by traditional sages who served as teachers and sources of wisdom to the youths. The traditional practice was much like modern military training: hard, but intended to nurture. Importantly, the community, through its traditional leaders and healers - not individual entrepreneurs - set up and supervised the circumcision schools.

In other words, the transition ritual - from childhood to manhood - made explicit the corporate or social dimension of the male's life, and his consent was required to assume his place in that society. So seriously is this taken by many in Africa, even today, that uncircumcised young men are still sometimes kidnapped and forcibly circumcised.

I've talked at some length about how traditional African culture views manhood or masculinity, in a cultural and social context. How does this relate to how we see manhood in our culture?

Labrat said this:

"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. South Africa in particular is maybe the world's capital for rape, and that's rooted partially in general social chaos, but also in a notion of manhood that accepts the idea that women are there for the use of men.

If you think this strain of thought and feeling is absent in modern American manhood, it’s not. It’s what makes the strong majority of stalkers men stalking former girlfriends or women who they feel SHOULD be their girlfriend, it’s what underlies the problems this pastor is talking about in getting clergy to respond usefully to domestic violence, it’s what makes otherwise ordinary and rational people question what an eleven-year-old girl could have done to cause her gang rape, it’s what led people to listen to Mel Gibson threatening to kill his girlfriend and conclude Mel was the wounded party most deserving of sympathy. It’s not gone. It’s not even far away from Google; it’s a very short trip when searching for men’s-rights and masculinist material to find ravingly misogynist writing."

I hope I've demonstrated, in the first part of this article and again above, that the problem in Africa is more to do with the breakdown of traditional African culture, and the void that this breakdown has left behind. In the absence of ubuntu, the social or communal dimension of individual life, caused by the breakdown of tribal society (which has not been replaced by anything nearly as overarching or culturally normative), African men have, indeed, become more and more predatory in sexual terms.

Now, apply that understanding to what Labrat complains about in the behavior of men in US society. Are the problems she identifies not caused by precisely the same thing - the breakdown of a cultural, normative understanding of manhood and masculinity, the loss of gender identity? That identity is conferred by society. It's a framework within which children are raised to become adults. There used to be certain rites of passage that marked the transition from childhood to adulthood in our society, just as surely as the circumcision school did so in Africa. In the First World, for men, this might be military service, or starting to earn a wage or salary (i.e. being responsible for supporting oneself), or getting married and starting a family of one's own (which happened far earlier in past generations than it seems to do at present).

For many men in the First World today, those 'rites of passage' no longer exist. I'm informed that less than 5% of US men even consider military service, much less actually enlist. I daresay the proportion of Western European men who do likewise is even lower, given the much smaller armed forces prevalent on that continent. Starting to earn a wage or salary is now something one does as a teen, to earn spending money, and frequently continues with part-time work during higher education. There's no longer a clearly-defined dividing line between 'pre-employment' and 'employment'. As for marriage and starting a family, today family life faces many threats from all sides. It's no longer considered the nucleus of society; indeed, many of our laws and regulations and policies downplay or ignore the importance of the family. The destruction of the nuclear family has been widely blamed for social breakdown in some sectors of society (for just one example, see the Moynihan Report of 1965, which, despite vitriolic criticism from left-wing and progressive sources, has proved prescient in its predictions).

Labrat continues:

The second thing bound up within the culture of manhood we’re discussing is the idea that the worst thing in the world is femininity. Oh, it’s fine for girls and women, who simply can’t help it and have some other stuff going in their favor like being sexy, but the worst possible thing a boy or man can do is be girly. Sissy, pussy (female genitals), girly-man, even the various gay-related slurs all have to do with being somehow womanlike. For reasons that should be obvious but perhaps are not, feminists are somewhat perturbed by the notion that being like a woman is an absolutely horrible thing that any right-thinking man must do his best to avoid.

Let me play devil's advocate here for a moment. I submit that femininity isn't the problem - it's the absence of a clearly-defined and -understood masculinity. Because of this absence, this cultural void, this lack of understanding of what it means (in the context of our society and culture) to be a man, all sorts of weird and wonderful 'fads' have come and gone; but nothing has replaced the historical understanding that's today almost vanished. However, most men instinctively know that, while they may not have a good handle on what it means to be masculine, they do understand that they're not feminine! The notion of femininity as "the worst thing in the world", as Labrat puts it, is foreign to me, and I have no time for it: but I'd agree that the notion of men as feminine is, indeed, one of the worst things in the world! If men don't know how to be masculine, how can they possibly be successfully feminine? They're on the outside of femininity, looking in.

A large part of this, I think, is the presence (or absence) of worthy role models. In days past, our fathers fulfilled this duty without even thinking about it. After World War II, returning veterans tried hard to do as their fathers had done after World War I, but found it more difficult in the changing environment of the 1950's and 1960's. I'm still not altogether sure what caused the sudden switch from 'duty, honor, country' to 'if it feels good, do it!', but I can't believe it was a positive development. (One has only to look at the consequences in society, over the past half-century, to figure that out!) There were some good points, to be sure, and civil rights and liberties certainly needed to be re-emphasized and improved. However, in the process, I submit that many good things were discarded along with old impedimenta. The baby was thrown out with the bathwater.

Let me give the clearest possible contrast between 'old-fashioned' masculinity and modern concerns. Labrat concludes:

I don’t think it’s such a terrible thing if men are being sensitive or less than the manliest stoic because that’s actually who they are and they now have greater cultural permission to be that way. I know my tastes in men definitely run to the traditionally masculine, but a lot of my female friends really do like more sensitive, less rough-edged, and even pretty men- that are actually that way and not adopting a cultural pose to please anyone, including other men. And that’s okay- there’s plenty of middle ground in between the stoic provider and a useless weeper. Forced to choose between a manly soldier that treated my emotions as being akin to my period in being a messy woman thing to be dealt with as little as possible and a poet who was afraid of spiders, I think I’d probably go with the poet.

Compare what she says to the definition of a gentleman penned by General Robert E. Lee (1807-1870):

The forbearing use of power does not only form a touchstone, but the manner in which an individual enjoys certain advantages over others is a test of a true gentleman.

The power which the strong have over the weak, the employer over the employed, the educated over the unlettered, the experienced over the confiding, even the clever over the silly--the forbearing or inoffensive use of all this power or authority, or a total abstinence from it when the case admits it, will show the gentleman in a plain light

The gentleman does not needlessly and unnecessarily remind an offender of a wrong he may have committed against him. He cannot only forgive, he can forget; and he strives for that nobleness of self and mildness of character which impart sufficient strength to let the past be but the past. A true man of honor feels humbled himself when he cannot help humbling others.

If General Lee could somehow be magically transported from the mid-19th century to our time, how could he even begin to understand Labrat's concerns? She might understand where he's coming from, through her knowledge of history, but he'd be utterly bewildered to read her words. From his perspective, they might as well be written by an alien from another world. (This isn't a criticism of Labrat or her argument at all - merely trying to illustrate how the understanding of a [masculine] gentleman has changed.)

I submit that the problem with modern 'manhood' or 'masculinity' is that the old understanding of it has been abrogated, without being replaced by any equivalent. Many men appear to be culturally, socially, anthropologically 'rootless' in modern First World society. They're trying to redefine themselves in terms of a constantly shifting framework or target. As soon as they think they've got a handle on where they stand in relation to it, and begin to define themselves and their role accordingly, the target moves again!

The question now becomes, how can a man function as a man within a relationship with a woman? That deals with more than 'manliness' as such, because it involves a social and anthropological dimension that goes far beyond 'manhood'. I'll tackle that in another article, tomorrow night.

Again, let me say that I've struggled in this article (and the previous part) to express concepts and insights that I feel and/or understand intuitively, but have not (previously) had to put into words. I'm not sure that I've done a good job. If you have any questions or queries about what I've said, please feel free to ask me about it in Comments: and please feel free to give your own views as well. I'm not claiming to have had some sort of Divine revelation, confirming that every word I've said here is the Last Word On The Subject. I have a lot to learn too!



LabRat said...

D'you want me to wait until you're done before I reply? I had intended to get on that today, but I very much understand how annoying it can be to have someone respond to part one of whatever and bring up an objection you intended to spend an entire essay addressing, or spinning off entirely new trains of thought..

Peter said...

Up to you, Labrat: but you might want to wait until tomorrow. I'll be putting up a final article on the subject tonight - not a Part III of 'manliness', but a look at how one needs to analyze one's own approach to masculinity in the context of a relationship, and work it out.

LabRat said...

Mkay, I'll go ahead and wait. I think my response is going to be, if not three actual parts, than at least two if not three primary points, so it just makes sense.