Manhood Isn’t Toxic, but It Also Isn’t Static
Traditional masculinity. Is it toxic? Sexy? Necessary? Natural? It certainly must be useful, or else that quiet assassin we call evolution would have wiped it out long ago. Then again, empathy, mercy and compassion are also useful in the right contexts. So perhaps balance should be the goal, a happy middle ground between pride and humility; between emotional repression and emotional expression; between the inclination to wage war and the inclination to make peace; between the desire to lead and the desire to follow; between the yearning to destroy and the yearning to create.
Yes, a balance. Balance is almost always good, right? Of course! As much as it may pain some to admit it, balance is what makes democracy work. How foolish would it be to trust a single political party with all the powers provided by governmental authority? Liberals need conservatives. Socialists need libertarians. Most people lack the necessary self-awareness to consistently and accurately diagnose their own flaws, especially in the realm of politics. More often than not, only a dependable friend or relative—or, in politics, a loyal opposition—is capable of performing that particular task. Checks and balances. A wonderful concept, indeed.
But what about the men who struggle to achieve that balance within themselves? What about those who prove better suited for the rigidly defined gender roles that have been brought under scrutiny by progressive-minded skeptics and critics? There are some who would argue that such men don’t exist, that traditional gender roles are purely social constructs. I find that difficult to believe. Social conditioning may have slowed the evolution of gender roles in Western society, but the origins of those roles are almost entirely natural. For instance, the average man is bigger, stronger and faster than the average woman; therefore, it’s only natural that he would assume the role of protector and defender in most situations.
Does this imply that those of us who do not fit that role have no value as men? Does it mean we must reserve the most prestigious stratum of the male hierarchy for the so-called “alphas” among us? Surely not. After all, how remarkably idiotic would it be to deny the intelligent and talented “beta” the accolades he is due when he contributes something of enormous importance to his community?
I’ve encountered several self-described “alphas” over the course of my life. Like all other human beings, they exhibited their fair share of shortcomings. I’ve noticed that when it comes to sex and violence, for instance, some of them seem to mistake their physical and psychological urges for directives. Failure to fulfill those directives results in a social demotion. If you desire sex but can’t find a partner, you’re something less than a real man. If you consistently fail to intimidate those around you and bring them to heel when they challenge and frustrate you, you’re something less than a real man. If during a violent confrontation you ignore the urge to inflict as much pain and misery on your opponent as possible, choosing instead to pursue a peaceful resolution to the situation you find yourself in, you’re most definitely something less than a real man.
Fortunately, we as people have the unique capacity to deconstruct our most primitive urges and evolve beyond them. But what does it mean to “evolve beyond them”? Some would argue, quite wrongly, that to evolve beyond many of those urges, men must abandon them altogether. This would be unwise, and perhaps even impossible. The average man is likely no more able to shed himself of his most natural urges than he is to shed himself of his skin, lungs or spine. He can, however, develop the ability to both call upon those urges when it is necessary to do so and suppress those urges when they threaten to cloud his judgment.
Every man ought to devote himself to the cultivation of that skill, if for no other reason than it’s the right thing to do. Few things in this world are more destructive than the impulsive man. When a person’s actions are dictated exclusively by their passions rather than reason and ethics, the consequences are often harmful, if not downright tragic.
Still, traditional masculinity, no matter how you define it, has been an undeniably productive force in the world. In tandem with femininity, it has carried humanity into a future that holds boundless potential for our intellectual, physical, psychological and spiritual development. We are the brightest, most advanced, and most durable creatures this planet has ever seen. Masculinity deserves its fair share of the credit for that.
That being said, traditional conceptions of manhood have become outdated, grounded as they are in a bygone era when societies lived and died not just by the sword, but by a man’s tendency to love, appreciate, and even bond with that sword. And just so we’re all clear, we absolutely do still need men like that. These days, though, societies depend just as much, if not more, on the intellectual and emotional talents of its citizens. This has opened up space for atypical men to spread their wings and show the world what they can do. It’s provided opportunities for the oft-mocked yet highly intelligent geeks and nerds to find a home in Silicon Valley; for empathetic, sensitive men to enjoy careers in nursing, social work and other related fields; for loving fathers to stay at home and raise their children despite the long-standing stigma attached to that role.
This is an undeniably positive development. Masculinity may be a rigidly defined thing, but manhood doesn’t have to be. To the contrary, one must wonder how many bright and talented young men have seen their potential needlessly wasted on endeavors that didn’t align with their natural abilities because of society’s stubborn insistence that manhood can’t be something more than what it once was. I know I’m not the only man who grew up with boys who were coerced into playing sports they didn’t enjoy or were compelled to exchange their artistic pursuits for more “manly” hobbies. How many such boys might have grown up to excel in the professions of their choosing had they not been pressured into chasing after more masculine lives?
Women, too, suffer from similarly inane expectations. It wasn’t all that long ago when the life of the stay-at-home mom was considered the only life any young girl should hope for. And to be perfectly clear, the women who seek and ultimately attain that life should be respected for that choice and congratulated on their success. But if the life of the stay-at-home mom held such universal appeal that no woman ever strove to be anything different, anything less feminine than what society could stomach, just how stale and stagnant would humanity have become? No Elizabeth Blackwell. No Mae Jemison. No Amelia Earhart. No Arabella Mansfield. No Marie Curie. Had the suffocating grasp of traditionalism snuffed out these women’s aspirations, how much worse off would the world be?
Civilization requires a diverse array of people who exhibit a diverse array of interests, talents, traits and motivations. Without such diversity, humanity would never have made it this far in the first place. Whether you are a fighter, lover, thinker or number cruncher, fate is summoning you and insisting on your participation. You have a role to fulfill. Don’t try to hide from it or run away from it. Seek it out and embrace it. And if anyone tries to shame you into exchanging that role for something more “manly”—or, conversely, something less “toxic”—resist them. There’s plenty of room in this world for every type of man out there. In fact, there’s room for just about every type of person out there, so long as they have something positive to contribute to the world and are willing to abide by the moral standards of the day.