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Book notes: The Will to Change (2/2)

This is the second half of my notes for the book “The Will to Change” by bell hooks. You can read my summary of the most important ideas, and the first half of my raw notes.

Feminist manhood

It was mostly white women with class privilege that pushed the idea that all men were powerful in the first place. These were the women for whom feminist liberation was more about getting their piece of the power pie and less about freeing masses of women or less powerful men from sexist oppression. They were not mad at their powerful daddies and husbands who kept poor men exploited and oppressed; they were mad that they were not being giving equal access to power.

There is little done from a feminist standpoint concentrating on boyhood. No significant body of feminist writing addresses boys directly, letting them know how they can construct an identity that is not rooted in sexism. Teachers of children see gender equality mostly in terms of ensuring that girls get to have the same privileges and rights as boys within the existing social structure; they do not see it in terms of granting boys the same rights as girls (right to not engage in aggressive/violent play, to play with dolls or dress up, to wear costumes of any gender).

Men were expected to hold on to the ideas about strength and providing for others that were a part of patriarchal thought, while dropping their investment in domination and adding an investment in emotional growth. This vision of feminist masculinity was so fraught with contradictions, it was impossible to realise. No wonder that men who cared and were open to change often just gave up.

Many of the New Age models created by men reconfigure old sexist paradigms while making it seem as though they are offering a different script for gender relations. They often resisted macho patriarchal models while upholding a vision of a benevolent patriarchy, one in which the father rules with tenderness and kindness, but he is still in control. Clearly, men need new models for self-assertion that do not require the construction of an enemy “other”, be it a women or the symbolic feminine, for them to define themselves against.

Patriarchal culture continues to control the hearts of men precisely because it socialises males to believe that without their role as patriarchs they will have no reason for being.

Power struggles are not an effective model for human relations. In The Heart of the soul, Gary Zukav and Linda Francis make it clear that while humans may have needed to create external power to keep the species alive at one time, this is no longer the case.

Patriarchal masculinity teaches men that their selfhood has meaning only in relation to the pursuit of external power, and to be narcissistic, infantile, and psychologically dependent for self-definition on the privileges that they receive from being male. Hence many males feel that their very existence is threatened if these privileges are taken away.

Feminist masculinity presupposes that it is enough for males to be to have value, that they do not have to “do”, to “perform”, to be affirmed and loved. Rather than defining strength as “power over”, feminist masculinity defines strength as one’s capacity to be responsible for self and others.

Norms and stereotypes for patriarchal masculinity identified by Robert Levant: avoiding femininity, restrictive emotionality, seeking achievement and status, self-reliance, aggression, homophobia, and nonrelational attitudes toward sexuality. In contrast, feminist masculinity would be integrity, self-love, emotional awareness, assertiveness, and relational skill, including the capacity to be empathic, autonomous, and connected.

Patriarchy makes maleness feared, and convinces men that it is better to be feared than loved. This fear estranges men from every female in their lives to greater or less degrees, and men feel the loss. Ultimately, one of the emotional costs of allegiance to patriarchy is to be seen as unworthy of trust.

Patriarchal masculinity insists that real men must prove their manhood by idealising aloneness and disconnection. Feminist masculinity tells men that they become more real through the act of connecting with others, through building community.

Love cannot exist in any relationship that is based on domination and coercion. Males cannot love themselves in patriarchal culture if their very self-definition relies on submission to patriarchal rules.

Healing from manhood by John Stoltenberg says “loving justice more than manhood, is not only a worthy pursuit, it is the future”.

Popular culture: media masculinity

The hero of The Incredible Hulk is the perfect candidate for inclusion in Barbara Ehrenreich’s book The hearts of men: American dreams and the flight from commitment. He is a man always on the run, unable to develop lasting ties or intimacy. A scientist by training (the ultimate personification of rational man), when he experiences anger, he turns into a creature of colour and commits violent acts. After committing violence, he changes back to his normal white-male rational self. He has no memory of his actions and therefore cannot assume responsibility for them.

One of the ways patriarchal while males used mass media to wage war against feminism was to consistently portray the violent woman-hating man as aberrant and abnormal.

Contemporary books and movies offer clear portraits of the evils of patriarchy without offering any direction for change. Ultimately they send the message that male survival demands holding on to some vestige of patriarchy.

The vast majority of contemporary films send the message that males cannot escape the beast within. They can pretend. They can dissimulate, but they can never break patriarchy’s hold on their consciousness.

Mass media are a powerful vehicle for teaching the art of the possible. Enlightened men must claim it as the space of their public voice and create a progressive popular culture that will teach men how to connect with others, how to communicate, how to love.

Healing male spirit

Men cannot speak their pain in patriarchal culture. Boys learn this in early childhood.

Psychologist David Winter found that women living in countries or periods of extreme male dominance tend to be very controlling of their sons. Many mothers in patriarchal culture fear their sons will be weak.

To always wear a mask as a way of asserting masculine presence is to always live the lie, to be perpetually deprived of an authentic sense of identity and well-being. This falseness causes males to experience intense emotional pain. Rituals of domination help mediate the pain.

When feminist women insist that all men are powerful oppressors who victimise from the location of power, they obscure the reality that many victimise from the location of victimisation. Failure to examine the victimisation of men keeps us from understanding maleness.

I am always disturbed when male students request references to literature that will serve as a guide as they struggle to interrogate patriarchy and create progressive identities, because there is so little literature to offer them.

As advocates of feminism who seek to end sexism and sexist oppression, we must be willing to hear men speak their pain. Only when we courageously face male pain without turning away will we model for men the emotional awareness healing requires.

Men of all ages who want to talk about feelings usually learn not to go to other men. And if they are heterosexual, they are far more likely to try sharing with women they have been sexually intimate with. Women talk about the fact that intimate conversation with males often takes place in the brief moments before and after sex. And of course our mass media provide the image again and again of the man who goes to a sex workers to share his feelings because there is no intimacy in that relationship and therefore no real emotional risk.

The Dalai Lama said that compassion is one of the principal things that make our lives meaningful. It is the source of all lasting happiness and joy. And it is the foundation of a good heart. There is no denying that our happiness is inextricably bound up with the happiness of others. There is no denying that if our society suffers, we ourselves suffer. When the hearts of men are full of compassion and open to love, then, as the Dalai Lama states, “there is no need for temple or church, for mosque or synagogue, no need for complicated philosophy, doctrine or dogma, for our own heart, our own mind, is the temple and the doctrine is compassion.

Separate patriarchal ideology from the powerful images of nurturing and loving kindness embodied in male religious figures. This image of loving fatherhood embodies feminist masculinity in its most divine form.

Reclaiming male integrity

Sexist roles restrict the identity formation of male and female children, but the process is far more damaging to boys because not only are the roles required of them more rigid and confining, but they are much more likely to receive severe punishment when they deviate from these roles.

Contemporary feminist movement created a socially sanctioned space where girls can create a sense of self that is distinct from sexist definitions; the same freedom has not been extended to boys.

As victims of child abuse via socialization in the direction of the patriarchal ideal, boys learn that they are unlovable. According to Bradshaw they learn that “relationships are based on power, control, secrecy, fear, shame, isolation, and distance”. These are the traits often admired in the patriarchal adult man.

Emotionally wounding boys is socially acceptable and even demanded in patriarchal culture. Denying them their right to be whole, to have integrity, is not only encouraged, it is seen as the right way to do things. Terrence Real says that we encourage boys to bury their deepest selves, to stop speaking, or attending to the truth, to hold in mistrust, or even in disdain, the state of closeness. We live in an antirelational, vulnerability-despising culture, one that not only fails to nurture the skills of connection but actively fears them. Teaching boys to despise their vulnerability is one way to socialise them to engage in self-inflicted soul murder.

Patriarchy encourages men to surrender their integrity and to live lives of denial. By learning the arts of compartmentalisation, dissimulation, and dissociation, men are able to see themselves as acting with integrity in cases where they are not.

M. Scott Peck argues in Further along the road less traveled that compartmentalisation is a way to avoid feeling pain: “We’re all familiar with the man who goes to church on Sunday morning […], but who, on Monday morning, has no trouble with his company’s policy of dumping toxic wastes in the local stream. He can do this because he has religion in one compartment and his business in another.” Since most men have been socialised to believe that compartmentalisation is a positive practice, it feels right, it feels comfortable. “Integrity is painful. But without it there can be no wholeness.”

Integrity is needed for healthy self-esteem. Most males have low self-esteem because they are constantly lying and dissimulating in order to perform the sexist male role.

One dimension of feminist movement that did have a profound impact on men was its insistence that women had the right to critique men both collectively and individually.

Like many women, [mom] has wanted him to be interested in personal growth. For years patriarchal culture has taught men that their selfhood, their manhood, is affirmed by a lack of interest in personal growth.

Wounded men are not often able to say anything positive. They are the grump-and-groan guys; cloaked in cynicism, they stand at an emotional distance from themselves and others.

Loving men

If we are to create a culture in which all males can learn to love, we must first reimagine family in all its diverse forms as a place of resistance. We must be willing to see boyhood differently, as a time when boys learn to glory in the connection with others, in the revelry and joy of intimacy that is the essential human longing.

In such a world boys may think of games that do not centre around the causing of pain, the creation of death, but will indeed be forms of play that celebrate life and wholeness. And the individual differences that arise between boys, and between boys and girls, will become occasions for exploration, for the sharing of knowledge and the invention of new ways of being.

Steve Bearman, in Why men are so obsessed with sex, makes the point that after being taught to be obsessed with sex via patriarchal conditioning, males are “then subjected to continuous conditioning to repress sensuality, numb feelings, ignore our bodies, and separate from our natural closeness with human beings”.

There is a war between the sexes, between those who believe they are destined to be predators and those they deem prey. More than ever before, females are encouraged to assume the patriarchal mask and bury their emotional selves as deeply as their male counterparts do. Females embrace this paradigm because they feel it is better to be a dominator than to be dominated. However, this is a perverse vision of gender equality that offers women equal access to the house of the dead. In that house there will be no love.