Reply to ‘nostalgic manhood’.

I had been working on a new post when I read a quite reactionary article from an academic at La Trobe university, decrying the evils of modern feminism and longing for a return to the good old days. I felt obliged to respond, and decided to post my response below.  Nostalgia is a seductive liar, and I do not believe there’s anything manly about enjoying any kind of ‘advantage’ at the expense of others. 

Dear Sir

I would like to respond to the article provided to the Australian by Dr Dimitri Gonis, and published by your paper on Thursday, November 1, 2018.

As a school psychologist I am particularly concerned about the messages boys receive about masculinity in their community.  It seems to me for every positive message we provide them in the school environment they need only open the newspaper to read articles like that provided by Dr Gonis, telling them they have a ‘natural right’ not to be nurturing, that empathy and relationship building is contrary to their ‘essential nature’.  That their ‘advantage’ of testosterone and physical strength is their birthright and therefore may be employed more or less as they see fit.  I admit the article was filled with such a number of clichéd fallacies that for a moment I was under the impression the author’s intent was satirical.

Having arrived at the uncomfortable conclusion the author is serious, I felt obliged to reply to some of the inaccurate premises and non-sequitur that bedevil his argument.  Or maybe I just can’t bear to read another piece about how hard it is to be a heterosexual, professionally educated, male in Australia (I mean, really?). Dr Gonis argues there is a conspiracy to psychologically and developmentally emasculate boys using language and cultural surveillance, producing physiological and social results similar to those produced by the literal castration of choirboys (castrati) and eunuchs.  Moreover, he contends the world has never been equal and therefore it is a crime against men to make any attempt toward equality of opportunity (in doing so he casually conflates the concept of ‘equal’ with ‘different’, arguing those who desire equality are essentially demanding that we should all be the same).  But these aren’t even the most astonishing planks of his argument. Dr Gonis is quite specific in pointing out that men aren’t good at nurturing and should not be expected to be, men are meant to be warriors, hunters and virile lovers.  According to Dr Gonis, men aren’t good with children, and women do not aspire to leadership. Men are strong and women are weak (which makes me wonder if he’s ever been present during childbirth). This is nature and therefore we shouldn’t mess around with it.  Well, it’s in our nature to go to the toilet in our trousers, but (in a fit of political correctness gone mad) somehow we manage to resist the urge, to everybody’s betterment, but I’ll get back to nature shortly. According to Dr Gonis, attempting to re-direct ‘nature’, has caused testosterone levels to plummet around the world, and men to suicide in record numbers.

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I’ll get back to these, but I’ll go for the low hanging fruit first. Specifically, Dr Gonis’ claim that the ‘venemous contempt’ directed at men by ‘man haters’ in our community ‘far exceeds the misogyny’ they are meant to combat (I wonder if he read his own article?).  It isn’t clear to me how an educated man convinces himself of a position so entirely divorced from any quantitative observation.  In Australia in October 2018, we hit our nadir when it comes to domestic violence.  Nine women killed by men and in most cases by current or ex-partners. On average, at least one woman loses her life to one of Dr Gonis’ ‘virile lovers’ each week. Here’s the really worrying bit (if that wasn’t worrying enough).  It seems other nations are talking more about this ‘national shame’ (referring to Australia) than we are, where it seems more popular to publish articles like Dr Gonis’. Well, God forbid 60 men a year should die at the hands of current or ex-wives, or one in four men should be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. I hope men don’t ever have to live in a country where the bulk of the parenting/cooking/cleaning work becomes mandatory for men, while an equitable contribution from women is cause for an application to sainthood. I’m pretty sure Dr Gonis wouldn’t want to live under such conditions either, but until men do, Dr Gonis doesn’t have any real basis for his argument that androgyny exceeds misogyny in our community, and should not expect to be taken seriously on this.

I would like next to turn to Dr Gonis’ naturalistic argument that nurturance is an exclusively feminine quality and it is therefore deleterious for men to be asked take part in this. While I am not persuaded by arguments that humans have an essential nature and should not deviate from it (refer to my toileting example above), let’s for the sake of argument examine the ‘essential nature’ of our closest genetic match – Bonobo Chimpanzees. Franz de Waal is perhaps the world’s foremost researcher into the pro-social behaviours of animals, Bonobos in particular. His work showed slight differences between the sexes when it comes to empathising with and consoling others in the group, with the exception of the alpha male, who does more consoling, and has more contact with youngsters that any other male in the group. Moreover, the ‘alpha’ is not always the biggest testosterone-soaked brute in the group, but often the male who can best forge relationships and coalitions. Sure the ‘boss’ could fight when he had to, but it was his relationships that got his gene pool distributed.  When it comes to succeeding as a male anything, it seems there’s more to a ‘man’ than testosterone. ‘Natural’ maleness seems to take a lot more empathising and nurturing than Dr Gonis would have us believe.

Finally, Dr Gonis suggests that ‘man haters’ (code apparently for women who don’t want to be leered at, talked over, worked to death, or live in terror of being raped and strangled while walking home) are responsible for worldwide falls in average testosterone levels and male suicide. Let’s start with testosterone, which seems to be on the decline in developed countries. Not all developed countries have the same levels of women’s emancipation (and Australia is well behind Europe, the US and UK on that score), yet falls in testosterone are observed across all of them. According to Dr Gonis’ argument they should be more closely aligned than that. What IS common to developed nations is exposure to hormone disrupting insecticides, reduced physical exercise, and lifestyle diseases such as obesity – all factors well known to reduce serum testosterone.  So, before us boys start beating our chests and hurling vitriol at the women-folk in a last-ditch effort to save our ailing manhood, perhaps we could lay off the red wine and pizza, go for a run and lift a few things hey? Yes, we men could help ourselves here a bit.

But here’s the claim that really got my testosterone up and my gloves off.  As a mental health professional, Dr Gonis’ claim that encouraging young men to treat women as if they had equal human rights, be vulnerable and open when they need to be, ask for help and nurture their relationships was somehow responsible for skyrocketing suicide rates among our young men is frankly, sickening. It’s also demonstrably false, and another attempt make women responsible for a problem that men can and should address themselves.  The cult of hyper-masculinity in sports, advertising, and popular culture is selling our young men a uni-dimensional version of manhood that is every bit as damaging as the impossible physical ideals presented to young women. Rather than being told that their lives are worthwhile to the extent they enjoy quiet dedication to simply doing what they do as well as possible, contribute to their community and enjoy loving relationships, young boys are told they need to be ‘winners’, ‘dominate’ the competition, put ‘bros before hos’, ‘man up’ and don’t do anything ‘like a girl’. That includes showing emotions, or admitting fault, vulnerability or tenderness.  Ridicule, contempt or anger are fine though, and before long those are the only emotions many men I have worked with can feel.  Bonobo chimps have another lesson for us though; not everyone can be the ‘alpha’ male, and it’s not that great a job anyway. When our young men find out not everyone can be a winner, they are left to conclude they are ‘losers’, they feel betrayed, lied to, and lost. But because of the way they are being conditioned, they can’t talk to anyone about it lest they admit weakness. So they get angry.

It is true that we have lost many of their rites of passage, our communities and relationships with other men. Young men – via various ritualised means – used to be introduced into male fraternities that venerated the wisdom of their elders, mentored their youth and guided one another to become protectors, preservers and guardians.  Whatever their accomplishments or faults, they knew they were men, warts and all.  Whatever advantages of strength or power they found themselves in possession of were treated as obligations to serve and support.  Sadly, these communities have been eroded because competition is more commercially lucrative than sharing. There’s a great deal of money to be made in making sure people feel inadequate. Feminism has nothing to do with it.  That our culture tells boys they must dominate, control, and be the ‘winner’, and to do anything else is to fail to enter into ‘real manhood’ is (in my experience) doing more to drive suicide rates than vulnerability and asking for help ever will. To put it plainly, the hypermasculine vision Dr Gonis is so nostalgic for was never ‘natural’ and was never a force for good in the community or even in men’s lives. Whatever they gained by their forcible dominion over the women and children around them, they lost much more.

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‘Boys being boys should be a celebration, it should never be an excuse’

Western civilisation has for much of history been a force for good, even while we have got it terribly wrong at times. But it has not been driven primarily by women’s nurturing and male virility (to quote Dr Gonis), it has been driven by progress towards the ideals of universal suffrage and equality so that all may make their contributions as they are able. This has meant that the world is ever changing, and to some extent men may (correctly) lose their ability to forcibly dominate others.  The benefits of this should be so obvious they needn’t be described here, but it does mean men need to progress, reconnect with one another, their culture and their rites of passage in ways that allow for warriors, hunters and lovers that have no need to dominate over others.  But this is a job for men, we can’t ask women to do it for us, or demand they return to an entirely unacceptable status quo so that we won’t have to.

I don’t want to live in a community where anyone feels unsafe, exploited or marginalised. Progress doesn’t demand that we realise these ideals, only that we don’t settle for less, and I don’t plan to. Not this man.

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