Joe Rogan, Donald T***p, Jason Aldean, Josh Hawley, Andrew Tate, Jordan Peterson, Bronze Age Pervert, Tucker Carlson, Mark Driscoll, White Evangelicals, Republicans, and their ilk say that they have the answers to being a real man in America. Watch UFC, buy big guns, buy bigger trucks, learn self-defense, wave big flags, treat women like property, and treat anyone not white and male like shit. Back the blue unless they keep you from destroying the enemy (i.e., the US Capitol and democracy). Real men are racist, violent, homophobic, and masculinity is predicated on nihilism, barbarism, and the subjugation of others.
The ISD (Institute for Strategic Dialogue) describes the ‘manosphere’ as an umbrella term for several interconnected misogynistic communities. It encompasses multiple types and severities of misogyny–from broader male supremacist discourse to men’s rights activism (MRA) and “involuntary celibates” (incels). The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) research shows significant cross-pollination between the ‘manosphere’ and right-wing extremism. In short, right-wing extremism has dominated the discourse about what a man in America should be.
Many of us in the center or on the left have championed gender equality to the detriment of open conversation about manhood. We are afraid of being labled patriarchal or narrow-minded. And we have let those mentioned above capture and control the narrative (and the hearts, desires, and imagination) about masculinity.
In 2018, the American Psychological Association released its “Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men,” which declared that “traditional masculinity—marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance, and aggression—is, on the whole, harmful.” The guidelines suggest that “there is a particular constellation of standards that have held sway over large segments of the population, including anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence” and that these standards are damaging to mental and physical health.
I am one of the lucky ones. No, I don’t mean because I am a white cisgender heterosexual male (although that is true). I am fortunate because I have a father with whom I have had a good relationship for all 65 years of my life. A father who taught me important values and, most importantly, the general parameters of being a man. Was he perfect? Far from it. Who of us is? Yet he instilled in me invaluable lessons about character and masculinity.
When I talk to my male friends, I can count on one hand the number of friends I have who enjoy a good relationship with their dad and have learned things from him. How many do you know?
What does “nontoxic” masculinity look like? Does anyone not affiliated with extremist thought dare posit an answer? Is there a positive vision of what masculinity entails that is particular—that is, neither neutral nor interchangeable with femininity? Is there a normative standard of masculinity?
People need guidelines for being human. And indeed, men need guidelines for being men. That is why self-anointed geniuses like Jordan Peterson make a fortune by writing rules. When there are no guidelines, men will grasp at anything. We don’t need rules; we need guidelines. We don’t need pat answers; we need the right questions. Unfortunately, they are not easy to find in today’s messy world.
However, we can find ways to work with the distinctive traits and powerful stories that already exist—risk-taking, strength, self-mastery, protecting, providing, and procreating. We can recognize how real and vital they are. And we can attempt to make them pro-social—to help men AND women and support the common good.
Author Scott Galloway says, “There are certain attributes around masculinity that we should embrace. Men think about sex more than women. Use that as motivation to be successful and meet women. Men are more impulsive. Men will run out into a field and get shot up to think they’re saving their buddies.”
He was careful to point out that he doesn’t believe that women wouldn’t do as much but that the distributions are different. “Where I think this conversation has come off the tracks is where being a man essentially tries to ignore all masculinity and act more like a woman. And even some women who say that—they don’t want to have sex with those guys. They may believe they’re right and think it’s a good narrative, but they don’t want to partner with them.” What say you ladies?
And then he makes a powerful statement. “And men should think, ‘I want to take advantage of my maleness. I want to be aggressive, I want to set goals, go hard at it. I want to be physically really strong. I want to take care of myself. My view is that, for masculinity, a decent place to start is garnering the skills and strength you can advocate for and protect others with. If you’re strong and smart, you will garner enough power, influence, and kindness to protect others. That is it. Full stop. REAL MEN PROTECT OTHER PEOPLE.”
Author Richard Reeves puts it more subtly. “I try to raise my boys”—he has three—“to have the confidence to ask a girl out, if that’s their inclination; the grace to accept no for an answer; and the responsibility to make sure that, either way, she gets home safely.” His recipe for masculine success echoes Galloway’s: proactiveness, agency, risk-taking, and courage, but with a pro-social cast.
When talking to young men, Christine Emba writes in an influential Washington Post article that physical strength comes up frequently, as does a desire for personal mastery. They cite adventurousness, leadership, problem-solving, dignity, and sexual drive. None of these are negative traits, but many men feel that these archetypes are unfairly stigmatized: Men are too assertive, too boisterous, and too horny.
She continues, but most of these features are scaffolded by biology—all are associated with testosterone, the male sex hormone. It’s not an excuse for “boys will be boys”-style bad behavior, but, realistically, these traits would be better acknowledged and harnessed for pro-social aims than stifled or downplayed. Ignoring obvious truths about human nature, even general ones, fosters the idea that many progressives are out of touch with reality.
The old script for masculinity might be on its way out. It’s time we replaced it with something better. Ideally, the mainstream could embrace a model that acknowledges male particularity and difference but doesn’t denigrate women to do so. It’s a vision of gender that’s not androgynous but still equal and relies on character, not just biology. And it acknowledges that specific themes—protector, provider, even procreator—still resonate with many men and should be worked with, not against.
It is harder to be a man today, and in many ways, that is a good thing: Finally, the freer sex is being held to a higher standard. Even so, not all changes that have led us to this moment are positive. And if left unaddressed, the current confusion of men and boys will have destructive social outcomes in the form of resentment and radicalization.
In the end, the sexes rise and fall together. The truth is that most women still want to have intimate relationships with good men. They want them to be emotionally available, communicate well, and share their values. And even those who don’t still want their sons, brothers, fathers, and friends to live good lives.
In 1852, John Henry Newman penned an essay called “A Definition of a Gentleman.” He writes that a definition of a gentleman is to say he is one who never inflicts pain. He is mainly occupied with removing the obstacles which hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those about him, and he concurs with their movements rather than taking the initiative himself. The true gentleman carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast;–all clashing of opinion, or collision of feeling, all restraint, or suspicion, or gloom, or resentment; his great concern being to make everyone at their ease and at home.
He has his eyes on all his company; he is tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, and merciful towards the absurd; he can recollect to whom he is speaking; he guards against unseasonable allusions or topics which may irritate; he is seldom prominent in conversation, and never wearisome.
From a long-sighted prudence, he observes the maxim of the ancient sage, that we should ever conduct ourselves towards our enemy as if he were one day to be our friend. He has too much good sense to be affronted at insults, he is too well employed to remember injuries and too indolent to bear malice. He is patient, forbearing, and resigned on philosophical principles; he submits to pain because it is inevitable, to bereavement because it is irreparable, and to death because it is his destiny.
He may be right or wrong in his opinion, but he is too clear-headed to be unjust; he is as simple as he is forcible, and as brief as he is decisive. Nowhere shall we find greater candor, consideration, indulgence: he throws himself into the minds of his opponents, he accounts for their mistakes.
Now those are masculine guidelines to which I aspire. What about you?