Tyranny of Labels

I am once again reminded how merely using labels to express a point of view or compilation of attributes inhibits dialogue and understanding.   While the labels -liberal, progressive, conservative – have distorted and abridged political discussion similarly toxic masculinity and misogyny name calling have distorted and abridged dialogue about gender issues.

I have previously attempted to highlight the misuse of misogyny by going to its literal definition which is a hatred of women.   Too often, a boorish or insensitive  remark to a women results in some guy being called a misogynist.  The misapplication of the label forestalls an exploration of the misbehavior and puts the alleged offender in the same basket as sexual predator.   The accused will react defensively and a analysis of what behavior caused someone’s distress will often be ignored.

Toxic masculinity describes an extreme form of patriarchy which places men as superior beings entitled to a position of power over women.   The Harvey Weinstein’s of the world are clearly participants in the practice of toxic masculinity.   However,  using toxic masculinity too liberally puts men on the defensive and impedes meaningful dialogue.

A recent article in a New Jersey newspaper highlights the problem with these labels.  The Princeton University all male a capella singing group was vilified in the campus newspaper for the way they performed the song “Kiss The Girl.”   Apparently in previous performances of the song a female member of the audience was invited onto the stage and given the choice to give a peck on the cheek or lips to a male member of the audience.  The Princeton newspaper columnist stated that the practice promotes toxic masculinity.  In addition, the article further labeled the message of the song as misogynistic.  In order to further her perspective the columnist ignored the fact that a woman could easily refuse to participate and that this song routine has been going on for years with no blowback until she wrote her column.  There is no question that misogyny and toxic masculinity exists and examples of these behaviors and attitudes should be exposed and confronted.  The problem is that the liberal and extreme uses of these labels inhibits a rational discussion about acceptable societal norms around gender issues.   A revisionist examination of song lyrics highlighting formerly acceptable but now viewed as sexist stereotyping adds little value to understanding changing gender roles.   In fact, it makes the issue of studying song lyrics for examples of misogynistic references as comical and diverts us from the dialogue needed to explore the gender narrative,

Men & Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence, referred to as EQ,  is defined as the ability to be aware of one’s emotions, to be able to sense the emotional climate in a situation and to be capable of empathy towards others.  A number of research studies have concluded that being truly successful in one’s personal and career life EQ is as important as IQ.  A good timely example can be found in the eulogies for former President George H.W. Bush.   So many individuals highlighted his decency as a human being and his ability to form positive relationships far more than his smarts.

Recent stories in the media bring additional attention to the question of men and EQ.  Anthony Bourdain, the star of his own CNN show and a well respected celebrity chef took his life in a Paris hotel.  Prince William, who one day will be the King of England, revealed in an interview that,  “The relation between the job and the personal life was what really took me over the edge. And I started feeling things that I’ve never felt before. And I got very sad and very down……,” he said. “You start to take away bits of the job and keep them in your body. And of course, you don’t want to share with your loved ones because you just don’t want to bring that sort of stuff home.”

Admiral Scott Stearney, 58, was found dead of an apparent suicide in his ‘residence’ in Bahrain on Saturday .  The decorated Navy admiral was in charge of the Fifth Fleet in the Middle East.  A family man with a history of achievement takes his own life for no apparent reason.

These stories reveal issues with EQ for these men and also for the alarming increase in suicide rates for middle aged American men.  Prince Harry spoke about the impact of stress in the workplace and how it manifested itself with depression like symptoms.   It might also be safe to assume that stressors, either personal or professional, led to Admiral Stearney and Bourdain taking their lives.   Three highly accomplished men with high intellectual intelligence might have been lacking in EQ.   Did their inability to be sufficiently aware of their emotional lives before the negative feelings became overwhelming contribute to the Prince’s depression and the hopelessness that led to the suicides?

We are all familiar with the cliché that real men don’t cry and the belief that men stuff their feelings which lead to depression and men not seeking mental health treatment.  This might be a simplistic view of EQ but achieving a high EQ means a lot more than being able to cry when you are feeling bad.  The ability to be attuned to one’s emotional health and to understand the meaning and appropriate way to deal with emotions is a core component of EQ.  It’s OK if  a man does not cry or whine when he is feeling bad as long as he acknowledges what he is  feeling is worthy of exploration and, when appropriate, sharing with trusted friends and significant others.

Recognizing the importance of EQ for one’s well being and seeking the relationships which foster self-awareness and empathy will go a long way in enhancing the lives of men. .



International Men’s Day

Surprised to find out that Monday, November 19th,  is “International Men’s Day.”  A worldwide event to promote the movement’s six pillars of masculinity.   They are:

  1. To promote positive male role models; not just movie stars and sports men but every day, working class men who are living decent, honest lives.
  2. To celebrate men’s positive contributions to society, community, family, marriage, child care, and to the environment.
  3. To focus on men’s health and well being; social, emotional, physical and spiritual.
  4. To highlight discrimination against men; in areas of social services, social attitudes and expectations, and law
  5. To improve gender relations and promote gender equality
  6. To create a safer, better world; where people can be safe and grow to reach their full potential.

Hard to quibble with any of the six, even for an ardent feminist.   However, as usual with broad objectives, the devil is in the details.   The first pillar, to promote positive male role models, is fine on the surface.  The question that comes to mind is,” do we have a consensus of who and what determines if a man is worthy of being a role model”?  Some might find traditional attributes such as providing, protecting and leading as sexist or that these traits also can generally apply to women.  The second pillar  seems to be fairly straight forward – celebrating men’s contributions to society.   We single out women who contribute, especially in the context of the “pink revolution” that brought so many women candidates to the midterm elections, so highlighting a man’s positive contributions is probably unobjectionable.   Focusing on men’s health and well being is a no brainer.   Men traditionally do not seek mental health services at the same rate as women and male suicide has reached epidemic proportions.  The fourth and fifth  pillars are probably the most contentious.  Are men being discriminated against?   Those who see male privilege as a huge barrier to gender equality would argue that discrimination against men is a trivial issue compared to rampant patriarchy.  But a more nuanced analysis reveals that there are areas, especially in divorce court, where men often get the short end of the stick.   In addition, the “Me To” movement has made many men defensive and wary of potential allegations of sexual abuse and harassment that they feel are unfounded or exaggerated.  When it comes to improving gender relations and promoting gender equality the emphasis should be on how we can have a rational fact based discourse on the subject without name calling and labeling.   So far this has not happened.

Hopefully, International Men’s Day and a toning down of the extreme rhetoric from both men and women can help us make the gender wars a gender dialogue.


Defensive & Confused Post Kavanaugh

The fallout from the Kavanaugh nomination has again brought into focus a number of issues raised by the “Me To” movement that impact on how men and boys behave and should behave in a gender equal world.   Men and boys are clearly on the defensive and confused.  Is it time for men to apologize for our Y chromosome and accept the notion that we are predisposed to sexual assault and abuse of women?  Instead, how about some practical advice:

Boys –  A recent article in the Washington Post entitled “What Boys Really Need To Hear” told about a mother who instructed her son, “Do not ever, ever  think that  because you’re both drinking and you both think that it’s consensual that it’s necessarily  okay.”  Her intent was to warn her son that when the girl woke up in the morning she could then declare that their encounter was non-consensual and that her son would face an accusation of sexual assault.  This is what we should be teaching and telling our boys about their sexual behavior:

Fact: teenage boys, especially between 14 to 17, and even young men until 25 do not have their brain based inhibition controls fully developed and are at most likely to engage in risky behavior

Fact: alcohol reduces inhibition for both boys and girls

Fact: inhibition makes decisions about consent even more imprecise

Fact: boys face the risk of false accusations while girls face the risk of not being believed

– bottom line if either of you are drunk sober up before you have sex

– no means no without exception

Men – Sweden, the country on top of the food chain for gender equality is facing some new realities about how far social engineering can change gender roles.   Yes, Swedish dads do get paid paternity leave and spend more time with their children then the typical American dad.  That’s great, but in Sweden women do more child care and tend to take more time on maternity leave even if it does have a negative impact on their careers.   A clear message that gender equality does not mean that men and women view their life’s journey in the same way.   Equality means equal opportunity not that we have to make equal choices.   Some practical advice:

Fact: you do not have to apologize for the actions of sexual abusers, they are the minority, most men treat women with respect

– be cool, we are in hypersensitive times so be extra mindful about your casual remarks and behavior towards women especially in the workplace

– when discussing gender issues with women validate what you hear as being real for that person, even when you disagree, before giving your point of view

– maintain your confidence as a man displaying the best of masculinity

Kavanaugh & Masculinity

I was attempting to resist commenting on the Kavanaugh/Ford Senate hearing because I try to keep the blog apolitical.   However, after much thought I realized that after putting politics aside what annoys me the most – understatement-  is my sense of Judge Kavanaugh’s  inadequacy as a man.  The question is whether or not his performance reflected the best of masculinity?   On one hand he attempted to appeal to stereotypical attributes of manliness – jock, beer drinker, weight lifter – while simultaneously trying  to demonstrate that he is a  highly evolved man not afraid to show strong emotion as he teared up  in front of a TV audience of millions.

My problem is that neither  approach felt terribly authentic.    I have no doubt that he was an athlete and did drink beer but his harping on the subject, especially his frequenting mention of his love for beer, was contrived and clearly a  blatant appeal to his perception of what “real men” think of manliness.  In addition, his display of emotion did not feel sincere.   Was he simply trying to appeal to female watchers by showing that he is a sensitive guy able to unashamedly choke up and cry in public?   What bothered me was not the fact that he got emotional but what prompted the display.   What great personal loss in his life was so powerful that he repeatedly lost his composure.   Yes, the need to defend oneself in public is stressful and does have an impact on family life.   However, remember the worst outcome of the process, if he really did not sexually assault Dr. Ford or lie about his past, would  be that he would become a Supreme Court Justice.   In other words his only loss was having to be questioned a second time by a Senate Committee that was determined to nominate him.  My takeaway is that his crying and sniveling were either crocodile tears or an overreaction to those who dared to question his self proclaimed destiny.   In either case, hardly the best of masculinity,.

Lonely Men

There is strong evidence that American masculinity is creating lonely men.  Rates of depression, suicide and drug abuse are soaring – especially among middle aged men.   Researchers point to loneliness as the culprit and attribute the loneliness to both institutional changes and the self imposed rules that men think they must follow.   Eighteen years ago Robert Putnam’s ” Bowling Alone” was published and focused on the decline of social capital in the United States.   He illustrated how the many community based organizations  – both formal and informal –  have lost membership over the previous 30 years.    Although both genders were affected the loss seems to have taken a greater toll on men.  Traditional male civic/social organizations like Elk’s, Kiwanis, and American Legion have seen a sharp decline in membership as older members pass away and few young men seem interested in joining.  Many volunteer fire companies, traditionally populated by men,  have been replaced by paid fire fighters.  The result has been an increase in male isolation.   Furthermore, role changes in family life have kept men closer to home and more involved in child rearing than in the past.  More women are working and the expectation is that their husbands will be sharing responsibilities at home rather than socializing with other men.

Another contributing factor to male loneliness is the perception by many adult men that they must always demonstrate strong independence and follow social rules that prevent them from forming the intimate friendships similar to the ones that they enjoyed growing up.  Organizational hierarchies at work do inhibit men from sharing their doubts and vulnerabilities which are necessary ingredients of intimacy.  Showing weakness in the workplace might give competing males an advantage in seeking power and promotions.

Intimacy among men seems to be viewed as contrary to manliness unless there is a social organization which brings men together and allows them, within that  group, to find close connections with other men.   In other words without the catalyst of a safe structured group men do not seem to have the tools or inclination to make friends.  Women, on the other hand,  seem to be unburdened by self imposed restrictions and  do a much better job of generating new friendships throughout their lifetimes.

What baffles me is how few men take advantage of existing men’s groups that are dedicated to exploring masculinity and their life’s journey in the company of other thoughtful men without fear of shame or judgment.   National groups such as the Mankind Project and local groups easily found on the internet and on the Meet Up website offer a setting where intimacy among men flourishes naturally and adult friendships develop.   Wives  and female partners rarely object to the men in their lives attending  a men’s group because thoughtful men who have  exposed their  vulnerabilities make better  partners.  Men need to seek out these groups to protect themselves from the ravages of loneliness.  On a personal note I have been part of what we like to call “Men’s Work” for over 20 years and it has sustained and enhanced my well being and connectedness.


Playboy Bunnies Redux

No wonder there is so much confusion about how men are navigating their interactions with the opposite gender.  On the one hand the call for gender neutrality and  the Me Too movement has focused on sexual abuse and bias in the workplace and has contributed to the empowerment of  women now running for political office.  Yet, a new Playboy club opening in progressive New York City advertised for women to work as bunnies in the traditional bunny suits and remarkably they received hundreds of applications for 54 positions.   I guess women can choose to be sex objects when they feel like but when they seek equality men must quickly adjust and be extra careful not to demonstrate any gender bias.  Following this logic women should be more tolerant of our man caves and locker room banter as long as we do not cross the line of abusive or biased behavior.   There is ambiguity on both sides of the gender battle and in these confusing times mutual respect will go a long way

Finding The Middle Ground

Two rather contradictory stories have heightened my sense that a constructive dialogue about gender issues is being damaged by extreme perspectives.    On one side there was an article by a clinical psychologist reporting that a number of his male patients are feeling shame for behaviors towards women that are a far cry from sexual abuse.  According to the therapist, the men, in response to the Me Too phenomenon,  are recalling sexual encounters where they might have persuaded women to have sex.   We are not talking about overt actions such as getting a women drunk or ignoring a clear “no” but rather more subtle forms of seduction that appears to be reflective of the typical man advocating sexual acts and waiting for the women to say no when a guy went too far.   Yes the man is being aggressive but it does not cross the line of ignoring a refusal.   This type of interaction has been normative for countless generations and should not be experienced as shameful by men.  I am fairly certain that norms have changed, especially for younger generations, but at the time these men in therapy behaved according to the norms of the time and they should absolve themselves of any guilt for what some might today be considered  as mildly coercive sexual conduct.

The other extreme was a story about the National Coalition for Men which has brought countless lawsuits against bars and clubs that advertise lady’s nights offering free or reduced drinks and admission prices.   Utilizing an anti-discrimination statute in California they have gotten settlements from a great number of commercial establishments.   In my opinion there are far more important  issues of gender discrimination that  should be litigated rather than a bar sponsoring a girl’s night out.   There are legitimate issues of discrimination against men that need to be challenged.  Many men going through divorce proceedings have seen judges favor their spouses when it comes to alimony, child support and visitation arrangements.  In many jurisdictions men who fall behind in child support payments, no matter the cause, lose their driver’s licenses often resulting in a loss of employment which ironically makes them even less able to pay child support.   The National Coalition for Men should spend more resources to these issues rather than worrying about free drinks for women on a Thursday night.

What then is the middle ground for men to be sensitive and introspective about their behavior towards women while at the same time still embrace their masculinity?   I believe that the vast majority of men and women would prefer to maintain gender identity as long as it does not impinge on opportunity and equality.   A female CEO can still put on makeup and wear a dress to work without diminishing her power.   Conversely, a man can still take pride in his masculinity  even though he might be a stay at home Dad with a wife being the primary bread winner.    We do not need to eliminate gender pronouns and ignore our biology in order to build a society that is not necessarily gender neutral to be gender equal.


The Locker Room

Several prominent men accused of abusive sexual behavior have defended themselves by saying  that their comments about what they claim didn’t actually occur was just locker room talk.   Meaning that the locker room is a place, both metaphorical and literal, where men can be men and say whatever comes to mind.  Vocalizations of manliness that value bragging about real or imagined conquests,  particularly in relation to women,  are at the forefront of locker room talk.   I am fairly certain that there are many interpretations of “locker room talk” depending upon  a man’s age and life experiences – including those (especially women) who see the underlying message that the talk is actually a precursor to male entitlement and bad behavior.

Based on my personal history and as a student of masculinity issues I view the locker room as a safe place for men to share their fantasies, aspirations and frustrations and at the same time  reassure men that they are not alone in their journey.   I understand that looking at this behavior from the outside one might see the hierarchical positioning, including the male tendency to “bust balls,” as somehow reinforcing male empowerment.   In reality it is a safety valve where men can share and receive the feedback from other men – often laced with profanity – that is not done to shame but rather to ground the individual in truth.   An examination of male behavior in tribal cultures provides ample evidence that men for thousands of years have created environments and practices that enabled men for varying periods to be exclusively in the company of other men.   For example, when a male Maasai is initiated into manhood he leaves his mother and along with other boys of similar age are circumcised and taught the ways of being a “warrior”  by the tribal elders.   For the rest of their lives the boys who were initiated together remain as tight knit group who share their most intimate thoughts and feelings and seek advice and support from each other.  In her book about Lincoln, “Team of Rivals,”  Doris Kearns Goodwin discussed how Lincoln and his fellow itinerant lawyers used to meet regularly around the stove in a general store to share their experiences and life stories and how much these men valued the time to be exclusively in the company of other men.

The desire for men to be able to be in the company of other men appears to be a natural rather than a cultural imperative and our modern society offers fewer opportunities for this to occur.  Traditional male organizations like Kiwanis, American Legion and volunteer fire companies have seen a sharp decrease in participation.   Therefore, the locker room and its iterations becomes  the place where men have the potential to be intimate with other men.   Intimacy among men is complicated and often includes behaviors that to women might seem insensitive and even cruel.   However, as long as it stays in the locker room and does not lead to unacceptable behavior, locker room talk can prove to be a needed release that prevents the instances of sexual misconduct highlighted by the “Me Too” movement.

Misplaced Misogyny

It seems that the latest overused word in the broadcast media and cyberspace is misogyny.   The problem is that by extending its literal definition we will lose sight of the what is really going on in the gender cultural war.   The dictionary definition of misogyny is “a hatred of women.”  However, so often the word is applied to any man who behaves badly around women.   It would be extremely helpful to break down these incidents of bad behavior and differentiate insensitivity or boorishness from behaviors which are intended to maliciously harm women.   For example, the allegations against former senator Franken for his actions towards women while campaigning is certainly, if true, unacceptable but not misogynistic.

By putting all male inappropriate behavior in the verbal basket of misogyny the defensive reaction by men can lead to true misogyny like the “incel” fringe responsible for the tragedy in Toronto and the toxic manosphere bloggers, or on the other extreme, a sense of gender isolation and confusion further contaminating the routine social interactions between men and women.

I recall that at the beginning of the modern feminist movement bad behavior by men that was insensitive or sexist without malice was labeled as male chauvinism.   The worst offenders were called “male chauvinist pigs.”   Chauvinism , defined as “an attitude of superiority toward members of the opposite sex,” is learned and therefore can be unlearned.  However, a true hatred of women is far more pathological and far more difficult to reverse.   If one lets a man know  that he has made a behavioral choice  or has an attitude that is perceived as chauvinistic he is more likely to engage in introspection and subsequent change than if he is simply called a women hater.   Most of us can respond non-defensively to feedback about a particular incidence of bad behavior but will react with complete denial to being accused of a major character flaw.  Calling a male chauvinist a misogynist will simple lead to a reply, “I don’t hate women,”  eliminating a honest appraisal of his biases and behaviors and preventing a change in attitude and behavior.

When we fail to differentiate between chauvinism and truly misogynistic behaviors we inhibit the power of bringing about the needed societal changes about gender equality.  If we focus on helping men and women renegotiate the gender social contract by focusing on biases, attitudes and behaviors instead of simple name calling there is hope for transforming the gender narrative from war to respectful dialogue.