Tough Guy

The recent siege and violence at the Capitol Building, perpetrated by mostly men, has again created a media storm about male dominance and the tough guy stereotype.  The question to consider: Is acting like a tough guy always a negative behavior?  It is a fact that a mob of male outlaws acted violently and made verbal threats against government officials and were encouraged to “be strong and get tough” by certain mostly male elected political figures and their media recognized supporters.  I suppose that these perpetrators think of themselves as “tough guys” and are reinforced in that perception by their compatriots who cheered from home while watching the assault of the Capitol on their  tv screens.  My concern is that the descriptor “tough guy” should not by itself be viewed as a negative aspect of masculinity.

The dictionary definition of tough is a good starting point – “strong enough to withstand adverse conditions” and “able to endure hardship or pain.”  Other descriptors of tough include resiliency and having grit which focus on bouncing back and learning from adversity.  It appears that the word tough is not associated with negative behavior.  What makes a tough guy a thug is not that he is tough but how he utilizes his toughness to achieve a particular goal.  Utilizing the framework of the four archetypes of masculinity the question to be asked is whether one’s warrior is acting in the light or the shadow as directed by the goals and plans of his king?  A warrior using his toughness in the shadow is a violent man or bully while a warrior acting in the light is often a hero.    

We often  associate toughness with firefighters, soldiers in combat and high performing athletes.   However, we should not fail to recognize the toughness of  health care workers who have been in the front lines dealing with the pandemic.  Many have worked extra shifts, been exposed to highly contagious environments and still show up for work each day.  How about the toughness of wounded veterans and others with a physical disability who despite their prosthetics compete in Paralympics and go to work every day.  Think of  the toughness of Dr. Ugur Sahin.  He co-founded BioNTech and worked day and night alongside his wife in developing a vaccine in record time utilizing research findings of their earlier work on RNA. 

My point is that you don’t need a bulletproof vest, camouflage clothing and a loud mouth to be a tough guy.   In fact this type of seemingly tough behavior is in the shadow of masculinity and only tarnishes the really tough guys who we admire and depend on in our everyday lives. 

Dads Under Attack

The changes in family life that have resulted from the pandemic have led to a renewed attack on Dad’s not doing their fair share of childcare, domestic work and emotional labor at home.

According to a recent media story, the pandemic has certainly made things much harder for working moms, but according to the reporter this is hardly a new problem. When American women who have male partners work outside the home, they also do 65% of the child care, while men take on 35% — and these numbers haven’t changed in 20 years, clinical psychologist Darcy Lockman notes in her 2019 book “All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers and the Myth of Equal Partnership.”  In addition, it was also reported that, “Women also tend to take on the largely invisible burden of what freelance journalist Gemma Hartley calls the emotional labor in our homes in her 2018 book “Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward.” Emotional labor is defined as tasks like arranging child care, scheduling doctors’ appointments and play dates, buying presents, upending our own schedules when things go wrong, and  reminding our male partners what they’ve promised to do..

 Are men really that selfish and indifferent to the efforts of our female partners when it comes to domestic responsibilities?   I am certain that we can find some men who truly are deaf to their partners needs and view a women’s role, regardless of whether or not she is working outside the home, as totally responsible for managing the kids and the needs of the household.   However, my life experiences and my many years facilitating men’s groups leads me to believe that chauvinistic behavior is more the exception rather than the rule especially for the current generation of males who are becoming fathers.  For example, during my years as a school principal in a middle class suburban community, there were just as many fathers as mothers who attended back to school night and teacher/parent conferences.

The other issue that is avoided by the quoted female journalists is choice.   As I have often blogged, gender roles are not shaped solely by current societal norms.  Females tend to have more nurturing energy than males which leads to the need to be intimately involved with young children.  I don’t think even the most liberated father has been able to breast feed his young child.  In my community, which has tons of organized youth sports there is no shortage of fathers attending games, practices and coaching.  Do the accusers of male neglect count these efforts from fathers?   In addition, does the data on doing domestic chores include the time men mow the lawn, do home repairs and maintain the family cars?

I certainly realize that gender roles -especially for women – have changed substantially and this requires both men and women to better communicate with each other in negotiating the responsibilities  of family life.   However, this must be done with respect for gender strengths and without the presumption that men are inherently indifferent to the needs of their partners and families.

Mixed Message

When I saw the advertisement on CNN for an episode of “This Is Life” hosted by Lisa Ling dealing with an intervention for adolescent boys I was eager to watch. I recorded the show and when I was ready to watch it I sat down with my note pad to hopefully learn and gain new insights into a question that has troubled me for some time – “Are we losing our boys?”  The program began with a recitation of the familiar statistics about the appalling increase in suicides among young men between 15 to 24, the alarming rate of school dropout for boys and the increase in poor grades and involvement with the criminal justice system for adolescent boys and young men. Lisa then interviewed a college counselor who talked about the growing number of male students coming forward seeking help for depression and anxiety. He rightly focused on  the fact that there is no template for how young men become men and their confusion about what it means to be a man.  Lisa and he also discussed the harmful impact of video gaming on the socialization and mental health of young men. Unfortunately,  when speaking about how to address the problems of young men the counselor offered the overly simplistic explanation that boys are taught not to cry and that the phrase, “man up” is toxic to healthy masculinity. As I have explored in previous blogs, the real men don’t cry mantra is largely a relic of a previous generation.  Today we see that male celebrities and  current and aspiring athletic superstars are quite comfortable crying in public.  As an example, I was watching a portion of the recent NBA draft and when a particular athlete was chosen and the camera flashed to his home and family the young men often shed tears.  As to the “man up” notion, I have frankly explored the virtues of manning up in certain circumstances.   Obviously it can be overdone and harmful to tell a young boy to ignore his feelings completely and just man up.   However,  we can certainly teach and model that one can be in touch with feelings but make a decision not to emote at a particular time for the good of the situation.

The next segment of the show focused on a program called “Weekend Wilderness Camp” where a group of grown men volunteers host a group of troubled adolescent boys for an intensive wilderness and male initiation weekend.  The boys are signed up by their parents and many are far from eager to attend.  During the 36 hour encounter the boys go through a combination of boot camp type physical challenges and group circles to talk about pain and how to deal with it in a less self destructive manner.  The boys are supervised and supported by the adult volunteers and at the end of the experience participate in an exercise to simulate their initiation into manhood.  In addition, and in my opinion the most significant part of the program, is the requirement for the parents of the boys to participate in a workshop stressing communication skills and ways to respond to the behaviors of their troubled teens.  Although I have no disagreement with the principles and good will of the volunteers I wonder about sustainability.   How much carryover is there after the weekend experience?   The show did not indicate that there is any follow up with the boys and their families as to what changes have occurred.   Based on my work with behavior and emotionally challenged boys one intervention is not sufficient.   These boys, and frankly all boys and young men, would benefit from participating in group work that emphasized what it means to live in the best of masculinity and to teach boys to trust and be vulnerable to each other.  Schools and existing volunteer men’s groups should prepare a best of masculinity curriculum and encourage boys – especially teens and preteens – to actively participate in on-going groups with trained  adult men as facilitators.  Let’s also not forget to continue to help parents best meet the challenges of parenting our boys and young men so that their sons can evolve to practicde the best of masculinity.

Gender Gap

A recent article in the New York Times asked the question, “Why do men and women, even some living under the same roof, have such divergent views on what people are fit to be our leaders?”  According to the article, research findings suggest that women tend to cast votes based on what they perceive as the overall benefit to the nation and their communities and men are more self interested.  Unfortunately, this research  leads to the conclusion that men are selfish and women are more altruistic.  This appears to be valid on the surface but looking closely at the definitions of community interest and self interest there is another way of drawing conclusions from the data.

For example, is a man’s vote being based solely on the state of the stock market acting selfishly?  Or is it because he is focused on how well his 401 K is performing  because his priority is to provide for his children’s education and their inheritance.  His masculine energy to provide and protect his family is a far cry from being merely selfish.   As far as benefit to the community, I would propose that men and women both care about the community but have gender based beliefs about the best ways of achieving the well being of a community.  Women tend to focus on empathy before looking for action to address a societal issue. Men on the other go quickly to fixes with less attention to the feelings of others.  Solutions do benefit the community by providing a pathway to recovery which relieves the stress of an uncertain future.   I know these are broad generalities but when we look as men as a group and women as a group these gender differences do hold up. The obvious conclusion is that instead of throwing men under the bus for being only self interested in their political views we need to look below the surface of the data and understand what is really going on.  In addition,  many men will put aside self-interest when a broader benefit to society is articulated in such a way that resonates with masculine energy.  For example,  if the message about mask wearing was more focused on its value for protecting one’s family and friends rather than simply good practice non-masking men might come more compliant and focus less on the supposed loss of personal freedom.

Protector or Vigilante

It appears that there is a growing imbalance in the validation of our biological gender differences.  It is great that girls are no longer stigmatized for being athletic and for their emerging assertiveness.  In addition, for the most part, women have gained the right to compete in the workplace based on merit. On the other hand, boys have not yet found their way in appreciating their masculinity. The consequences are manifest in the data that I have frequently blogged that demonstrate how we are losing our boys. It seems that boys and many men are either mired in gender role confusion or have adopted the toxic masculinity culture instead of embracing the best of their masculinity.

On point is a recent article in the Washington Post on the armed vigilante groups which have appeared at cities where Black Lives Matter protests are happening. The article attempts to explain the non-political part of the motivation of many of the men who are joining these groups.  Interviews of group members reveal that one of the reason these men are traveling considerable distances to appear at the protest marches wearing armor and brandishing long guns is their desire to protect property.  For them, the need to express their masculine energy to protect has been subverted to vigilantism.  The question is what is so lacking in their everyday personal lives that they need to protect property that is normally protected by local law enforcement?  Has the pandemic, the gender neutrality agenda and the perceived feminization of manhood led some men to act out in hyper masculine fashion?  Certainly the loss of control over one’s environment engendered by the loss of income and the inability to have any influence on the outcome of the pandemic  has resulted in a diminishing of personal power.  The loss of power can lead to anger and an attempt to regain masculinity by protective behavior that has no direct connection to their  personal lives.   

I would suggest that a more productive way to manage the perceived loss of power that men are experiencing is to engage in men’s work.  It is not difficult to find a men’s group in person or virtually in most areas of our country. Being in the company of men in a non-shaming environment where they can share their life’s journey is empowering and helps men live the best of masculinity.

Proud Boys!

It is unusual that a group chose a name that so clearly reflects who they are.   If they called themselves Proud Men they would have missed the mark.  Their behavior and style is definitively that of boys not men.   Dressing up with body armor emblazoned with stickers is something that you would expect pre-adolescent boys to wear when going out to trick or treat.  Boys who want the world to think they are tough guys dress up and adopt aggressive postures to bully and intimidate.   Most boys grow up and abandon external symbols, and power posturing and seek recognition through accomplishment and embracing the best of masculinity – thoughtfulness, compassion and a purposeful life.

Right Goal Wrong Approach

Time magazine (9/21) featured an essay by Kyl Myers, Ph.D. adapted from  her book, “Raising Them: Our Adventure in Gender Creative Parenting.”  The essay states, “the goal of gender-creative parenting is not to eliminate gender – the goal is to eliminate gender-based oppression, disparities and violence.”  No argument with the goal.  However, her (sorry Kyl for using a gender specific pronoun) approach is based on  her confusing gender equality with gender neutrality.  It appears that her concern for gender discrimination can only be eliminated by neutralizing inherent gender differences.  According to her philosophy as a parent she believes that we should wait for children to tell us if they are a boy or a girl.  I can just imagine a five year old boy telling his kindergarten teacher I have a penis but actually I am a girl.  Do I have to remind folks that boys are born with XY chromosomes and girls with XX chromosomes.  Genetics matter.  Besides the obvious anatomical differences men’s and women’s brains are different.   One big reason is that for much of their lifetimes women and men have different fuel additives running through their tanks: the sex-steroid hormones.  In female mammals, the primary additives are a few members of the set of molecules called estrogens, along with another molecule called progesterone; and in males, testosterone and a few look-alikes collectively deemed androgens. Importantly, males developing normally in utero get hit with a big mid-gestation surge of testosterone, permanently shaping not only their body parts and proportions but also their brains. The neuroscience literature shows that the human brain is a sex-typed organ with distinct anatomical differences in neural structures and accompanying physiological differences in function, says UC-Irvine professor of neurobiology and behavior Larry Cahill, PhD. Cahill who edited the 70-article January/February 2017 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience Research.

There continues to be considerable debate among researchers as to the role that biology has in shaping gender behavior.  The consensus is that social norms and biological factors both operate but the controversy lies in the degree that each factor shapes behavior.  Social norms are subject to change as the women’s rights movement and Title IX have aptly proven.   Biology is not fluid.  Yes, there are a small number of intersex individuals who are born with some degree of gender ambiguity and they should not be discriminated against.  However, the vast majority of children arrive as either distinctly male or female and that is not subject to choice.  

 For one thing, the animal-research findings resonates with sex-based differences ascribed to people. These findings continue to accrue. In a study of 34 rhesus monkeys, for example, males strongly preferred toys with wheels over plush toys, whereas females found plush toys likable. It would be tough to argue that the monkeys’ parents bought them sex-typed toys or that simian society encourages its male offspring to play more with trucks. A much more recent study established that boys and girls 9 to 17 months old — an age when children show few if any signs of recognizing either their own or other children’s sex — nonetheless show marked differences in their preference for stereotypically male versus stereotypically female toys.

Of course we should not tell children they can’t play with a particular toy because we ascribe a gender connotation to that object.  On the other hand I would strongly discourage my son who was born a non-ambiguous boy from wearing a dress to school.  Are we thwarting gender equality by telling a boy that certain types of clothing are gender specific in a particular culture?  The goal of gender equality is achieved when we appreciate the differences between males and females recognizing that both male and female characteristics are needed to ensure a healthy society.  

Are Men Afraid

Here we go again.   Distorting the findings of good research with a non data driven opinion.  A new study, due to be published in the Journal Organizational Dynamics, has found that, following the MeToo movement, men are significantly more reluctant to interact with their female colleagues. A few highlights from the research include:

• 27% of men avoid one-on-one meetings with female co-workers. Yep, that’s right, almost a third of men are terrified to be alone in a room with a woman.

• 21% of men said they would be reluctant to hire women for a job that would require close interaction (such as business travel).

• 19% of men would be reluctant to hire an attractive woman.

The data above was collected in early 2019 from workers across a wide range of industries. Researchers had asked the same questions (albeit to different people and with more of a focus on future expectations) in early 2018, just as MeToo was in full swing, and depressingly, things appear to have got worse. In 2018, for example, 15% of men said they would be more reluctant to hire women for jobs that require close interpersonal interactions with women, compared to 21% in 2019.

A reporter interpreting the research concludes, without any basis other than personal opinion,  “that a lot of men aren’t so much afraid of being accused of anything as they are they are angry that MeToo ever happened. They’re angry that they’ve been made to think about their behavior, made to interrogate power dynamics they always took for granted, and they are punishing women for it by refusing to interact with them.” She goes on to offer her  own opinion on a Harvard Business Review article previewing the study’s 2019 results is headlined The MeToo Backlash.  “You see that phrase a lot and that framing subtly implies that MeToo went too far, that a backlash is only natural. It’s yet another form of victim-blaming; another way to quietly put women back in their place.”

I would speculate that it’s not backlash or a fear of punishment by women but a fear of being accused of misconduct and an uncertainty of how to behave that will not cause them to be fired or labeled as sexists or misogynists.  All it takes to ruin a man’s career and reputation is an allegation that he made an inappropriate remark or gesture.  It is understood that investigating these accusations is difficult because there is often nor corroborating evidence and it boils down to he says vs. she says. However, simply the allegation  of misconduct alone can cost a man his career in the MeToo era.  The fear that a comment or benign physical contact might be either misconstrued or deliberately used against a man, jeopardizing his livelihood, is permeating the work environment.  With so much at stake one shouldn’t be surprised why men in the workplace are proceeding with caution in their interactions with female colleagues and subordinates. 

Instead of using the data from the Journal Organizational Dynamics as confirming a bias against men, it should be used as a springboard for a frank discussion about gender roles and formulating a consensus on appropriate behavior among workers in a particular organization.   One size does not fit all and depending on the industry and size of the company each entity should determine its unique code of conduct that brings sanity to the workplace.

Pervasive Culture

Representative Ayanna Pressley weighing in on the confrontationbetween her colleagues,Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) and Ted Yoho declared that what happened was an indication of a “pervasive culture of misogyny and sexism.”  Let me be clear, I am not defending Yoho’s calling AOC a “fucking bitch.”  He behaved like a jerk and what he said and where he said it was totally inappropriate.   Unfortunately,  Pressley could not resist the temptation to confirm her bias against men.  As I have blogged in the past, misogyny is now voiced every time a man acts inappropriately to a women.   Misogyny means a hatred of women and glibly labeling someone or something as misogynistic distorts the issue and creates a defensive response rather than understanding and constructive dialogue.   I have no idea whether or not Yoho hates women.   The issue is Pressley saying that hating women is pervasive among the culture of men.  I would have liked to ask her how she came to the conclusion that hating women was pervasive.  According to the dictionary pervasive means, “especially of an unwelcome influence or physical effect spreading widely throughout an area or a group of people.” There is no denying that there are some true male women haters in our society and they do have a presence on the internet.  However, there is little evidence that women haters are anything more than a small minority of men who are psychologically damaged.   Even theexperts in the Domestic Violence community do not automatically brand abusers as misogynists.  They speak of the abuser as a power and control freak not necessarily a hater of the female gender.

Calling sexism pervasive among men might be a tad easier to accept.   Sexism is a broad term which captures a spectrum of behaviors and attitudes that can be labeled as sexist.  It is defined as, “prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex.”  Several things to consider.   Is calling a women a bitch necessarily sexist and furthermore is sexism pervasive among men in the Me-Too era?  A tough question to answer because of the broad usage of the word bitch.  The literal meaning of bitch is not helpful.   It could mean, “a female dog, “a malicious, spiteful, or overbearing woman” or “something that is extremely difficult, objectionable, or unpleasant.”  Men call other men bitches.   Are they implying that a man who is acting like a bitch is acting like a women?  Possibly, but frankly unless you know what a person’s frame of mind is and what personal meaning he or she is attaching to a word it is not reasonable to ascribe a label to that utterance.   In other words calling someone a bitch or son of a bitch is not necessarily a sexist expletive.   The more important issue is the pervasiveness of sexism.  It is easy to point out examples of sexism and also to highlight gains for gender equality that have been made over time.  Neither is helpful in coming to terms with whether or not sexism is pervasive.   My final thought is to avoid labels and instead discuss specifics and mining data for understanding .   Labels engender defensiveness, position taking and the political high jacking of an issue.

PRIVILEGE

Lately, circumstances such as the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movements have pushed masculinity issues, appropriately, to my personal back burner.   Instead I have spent increasing time trying to understand the dilemma of how we can achieve greater racial justice in our society.  Extreme views on either end of the spectrum have not enhanced constructive dialogue.  I have written the following essay expressing my sense of what is missing in the racial justice debate. I understand it is not the typical blog post for this site, nevertheless I did want to share it with you.

Middle Class Privilege

Let me clear from the onset. I am not attempting to discount the notion of white privilege which has become a foundational principle of the Black Lives Matter movement. I know it exists but it is far too simplistic to attribute racial and economic inequality solely to white privilege.  The dictionary definition of privilege is, “a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor .”  Considering the trajectory of my life and that of my older sibling the peculiar benefit or advantage that we had was not about being white but being raised in a home with a value structure that is commonly referred to as middle class values.   

All four of our grandparents and our father were immigrants who arrived in the US with nothing but their ambition and the clothes on their backs.  Our grandparents got by, raised their children but did not pass on any wealth or property to their offspring. Their legacy was middle class values. Those values that were instilled and modeled included a two parent family. We had a mother and a father who were always present in our lives and basically got along with each other.  Mom was a stay at home mom until our teen years and Dad went to work every day trying to earn enough to support his family.  We lived modestly in rented apartments with my sister and I sharing a bedroom until she got married.  The first apartment I lived in until I was seven years old had one bedroom which I shared with my sister while my parents slept on a pull-out in the living room.  Getting a good education was the mantra that we constantly heard.  Despite the fact that neither of our parents attended college, going to college was instilled as a basic requirement to secure our future. We were made keenly aware that education was the springboard to success no matter what career we intended to pursue.  There were books in the house that our parents read and our school grades were carefully monitored.   Mom became active in the PTA and one year was elected  president of our elementary school PTA.  

Structure was an essential value for Mom.  We ate dinner at the same time every evening, often without Dad who worked later than Mom’s definition of when children should have their dinner.  TV time was limited and bedtimes were enforcedDad, who worked six days a week, insisted that Sunday was family day and up to our teen years we did something together as a family almost every Sunday. We were assigned household chores and did them with little complaint. We were expected to save money, a modest allowance and earnings when we were old enough to find jobs in the neighborhood.  When I wanted a new bike my father decided that I should pay for half the cost of the bike from my savings.  Religious studies for both of us was required up to the age of 13 and then it was left to our own choosing.  Discipline was rarely physical and we were permitted to at least plead our case before consequences were determined. I do not want to give the impression that I was a perfect child.  A few times I shoplifted toy soldiers from the local Woolworths, started smoking at 15, and I constantly stretched the boundaries my parents set in my desire for freedom and independence.   However, there was always that little voice that would keep me from doing anything really stupid.  The voice said don’t disappoint your parents or risk your future.  The voice and good luck in not getting caught got me through my adolescent rebellion without any long lasting damage.

Our parents did not have enough income to save for college tuition.  Therefore, the only choice we had was to live at home and attend a branch of the New York City University System where tuition was free.   High school grades combined with SAT scores determined which college you could attend.  If we did not choose to attend college full time we were told we could remain living at home as long as we had a job and attended night school.   

Eventually my sister and I both earned doctorate degrees and achieved some degree of professional success.  I attribute much of our resilience and achievement as a product of middle class values not white privilege.  We were not unique. In addition to friends with similar stories to our own Colin Powell’s story comes to mind.  Colin, an African -American, had an equivalent pathway to success. Powell’s parents were immigrants and he lived in an apartment in the south Bronx and attended public schools graduating from CCNY, my alma mater, before embarking on his military and political  career.  Powell’s upbringing was reflective of middle class values obviously not of white privilege.

Unfortunately, the black pride movement of the 60’s labeled middle class values as white values therefore disparaging some of the fundamental values that regardless of race or socio-economic status are essential to achieve a productive and fulfilling lifestyle.  We hear stories of Black students putting down high academic achieving peers ascribing their behavior  to acting white.  The message that taking education seriously is somehow a betrayal of Black culture.  Maybe if we rename middle class values and call them values for success it would gain less resistance.

It is not difficult to summarize values for success. They include a reasonably stable and supportive family life, an appreciation and reinforcement of the value of education, the ability to defer gratification and work hard toward long range goals, spiritual exploration, financial literacy and a belief in one’s ability to succeed. 

I am not naive.  I understand that poverty and discrimination breeds  hopelessness which kills ambition and the motivation to sacrifice, plan for a future and defer gratification.  Free tuition has gone and hopefully will make a comeback this election cycle, affording availability and success to those that persevere.  I also know that wealth alone is clearly not a unique path to practicing success values.  There are numerous examples of people of means not living success values.  The recent college admission scandal orchestrated by the super rich highlighted how people of considerable means feel they can cheat and model to their children immoral behavior.  However,  those individuals, other than elite athletes and celebrities, who do break the cycle of poverty do so by adopting success values.

The difficult message that needs to emerge from the Black Lives Matter movement is that much needed structural change in eliminating the scourge of racism is not sufficient.  The Black community must also look inward and foster and encourage the success values that will help create the just society that we desperately need.