The release of the American Psychological Association (APA) guidelines on masculinity and coincidentally an internet advertisement by Gillette that has gone viral has kindled a much needed debate on modern masculinity. I will not attempt to regurgitate the main issues raised in these two missives but simply give my feedback on several key issues that are in the forefront of the debate. I do, however, suggest going to the article in the NY Times for the full discourse. (Right click on the below picture.)
Nature or Nurture -The scientific community is in disagreement of how much gender identity is innate and how much is culturally driven. There is clear evidence that there are differences between the male brain and the female brain but the issue is how these differences, coupled with hormonal variation between the sexes, translates into behavior. Further complicating the issue is the evidence that the social environment can trigger the expression of genes/hormones that impact gender differences. My take is that we should leave this debate to the research community and focus instead on the value of gender differences regardless of their origin.
Men & Emotion – Much of the discussion about traditional masculinity is how men deal with their emotions. The APA guidelines strongly stresses the point of view that the emotional handcuffs men place on themselves because of cultural stereotypes about masculinity has led to a series of destructive outcomes for men. However, I believe the guidelines misses the distinction between emotional awareness and expression of emotions. The guidelines suggest that male stoicism is at the root of self-destructive emotional denial. Stoicism does not mean a lack of acknowledgement of one’s emotions. The ancient Stoics are often misunderstood because the terms they used pertained to different concepts in the past than they do today. The word “stoic” has come to mean unemotional or indifferent to pain because Stoic ethics taught freedom from passion by following reason. The Stoics did not seek to extinguish emotions; rather, they sought to transform them by a resolute that enables a person to develop clear judgment and inner calm. Logic, reflection, and concentration were the methods of such self-discipline. In addition, Stoic philosophy is founded on four principles which are at the heart of the best of masculinity – wisdom, courage, justice, temperance.
A man’s emotional health, which is his barometer of making good choices and decisions, is not based on how a man publicly expresses those emotions but how he uses wisdom to understand and choose the appropriate courageous, and just way to act. Simply put, real men can choose when to cry and not cry. Withholding tears does not mean not feeling.
Both the APA guidelines and the Gillette advertisement offer prescriptions for young men and boys on their emotional health that miss the mark when they measure emotional health by how a man outwardly expresses his emotions. A man can have intense feelings, understand those feelings with wisdom and choose to appear calm and controlled without being accused of emotional insensitivity
Toxic Masculinity – An overly applied label used whenever a man acts inappropriately. Yes, there are a small minority of toxic men who believe that being a man imbues them with the right to overpower and dominate women. However, most men seek to express their masculinity in the light not the shadow and are willing to examine their own biases and behaviors towards women. The Gillette advertisement in particular heavy handedly illustrates men acting badly and closes with how men should have acted in those situations as a lesson to men and boys on how they should behave. This non nuanced approach and the guidelines by the APA on how men should behave to avoid being toxic fuels controversy not the subtlety needed for a constructive dialogue on gender roles.