Fatherhood and manliness have always been closely connected, not only because fathering a child is a palpable proof of manhood, but also because fathers are supposed to provide their sons with a model of what to become. And yet, as a culture, we have never been more conflicted about what we mean by manhood.
In the recent Gen-X novel by Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club, a group of men in their twenties, stuck in jobs as office temps and couriers, relieve their boredom by meeting in the basement of a bar after hours and beating one another senseless. Sometimes they show up for work with black eyes and stitches as a warrior's badge of honor. Aside from their jobs -- white-collar, but holding out no clear career prospects -- what these young men have in common is that they are under-fathered, the product of divorce and of fathers who had no time for them. "I'm a 30 year old boy," says the novel's protagonist. "I knew my dad for about six years, but I don't remember anything. . . . What you see at fight club is a generation of men raised by women."
In the absence of a clear idea from their distant, distracted fathers of what it means to be a man, these frustrated youths react against their antiseptic jobs by reverting to the crudest "macho" violence. The club's founder, Tyler, progresses from consenting violence among buddies to murder, a slacker Raskolnikov. The novel is chillingly insightful about the unmapped psyche of young males in the nineties.
Given these signals from the culture, confirmed every day by real acts of mayhem, some hold that we should try to get rid of manliness altogether and make more rigorous efforts to create a genderless personality free of male violence. The recent horrific shooting in the Arkansas schoolyard, with little-boy killers waiting in their army fatigues to ambush their classmates and teachers, might suggest that they are right. Add to this the fact that the majority of violent crimes are committed by young men between the ages of 15 and 25, and there seems good reason for discouraging male children from embracing any notion of manly pride.
But it is not so simple. The last 30 years have witnessed a prolonged effort at social engineering throughout our public and educational institutions. Its purpose is to eradicate any psychological and emotional differences between men and women, on the grounds that any concept of manliness inevitably leads to arrogance and violence towards women and to rigid hierarchies that exclude the marginalized and powerless. This experiment was meant to reduce violence and tensions between the sexes. And yet, during this same period, "macho" violence and stress between men and women may well have increased. Recent crime statistics suggest as much in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom -- the countries where the feminist social experiment stigmatizing manliness has had the greatest latitude to prove itself.
As the recent book by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead confirmed, absent fathers are one of the strongest predictors of violence among young men in the United States, at least as important as poverty, lack of education, or minority status. The ease with which men of my baby-boomer generation have abdicated our roles as fathers is undoubtedly connected with feminism and the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Boomers were told that we shouldn't be hung up about providing masculine role models for children and should do whatever made us happiest, including escape an unsatisfying marriage. After all, to hold things together for the sake of the children would restrict both men and women to old-fashioned "patriarchal" responsibilities. The results of this hard, bright credo of selfishness are today's under-fathered young men, many of them from broken homes, prone to identify their maleness with aggression because they have no better model to go by.
This generation's experience is summed up in a brilliant, pathetic scene from Atom Egoyan's film Family Viewing. The central character, a teenaged boy, drifts in and out of his divorced father's house. The father is totally preoccupied with his relationship with a younger woman. The boy's only solid human contact is with his dying grandmother, shunted to a nursing home lest she spoil the father's swinging lifestyle. One day the boy digs out some family videos. At first, he sees a backyard barbecue with happy children and his parents when they were still together. Suddenly, the film jumps to the father and his new girlfriend having sex. The father simply taped over the family movies, literally erasing his son's connection with the only secure part of his childhood.
It seems plain enough that we are missing the boat about manliness; for there are forms of pride and honor that would be good to impart to young males. Indeed, manly honor, and shame at failing to live up to it, are the surest means of promoting respect for women. Equally, manly anger and combativeness can provide energy for a just cause. Horrified as we are by the cult of warrior violence in the Balkans or Rwanda, we may have gone too far toward the opposite extreme in the Western democracies. As Michael Kelly recently observed, "There are fewer and fewer people, and they are older and older people, who accept what every 12-year-old in Bihac knows: that there are some things worth dying and killing for." Abolitionism in the ante-bellum United States, the Allies' defeat of Nazi Germany, and the civil-rights movement of the '60s would never have succeeded without the legitimate expression of anger against injustice. The point is not to eradicate honor and pride from the male character, but to re-channel those energies from the nihilistic violence of Fight Club or the Arkansas schoolyard to some constructive moral purpose.
To do this, we must recover a sense of what it means to be manly -- honorable, brave, self-restrained, zealous in behalf of a good cause, with feelings of delicacy and respect toward loved ones. For if young men are cut off from this positive tradition of manly pride, their manliness will reemerge in crude and retrograde forms. Some 30 years ago, the Rolling Stones recorded a misogynist rant called "Under My Thumb." Today, it is one of the songs that fans most frequently request of these aging shamans of adolescent attitudinizing. In three decades, tension between men and women not only has not disappeared but may actually have intensified, and we must wonder whether the experiment in social engineering itself is one reason why.
For hostility towards women is an aberration of male behavior. If, as the prevailing orthodoxy contends, the male gender were intrinsically aggressive, hegemonic, and intolerant, then by definition male behavior could never improve. The message young males receive from feminist reasoning is not, You should be ashamed of liking "Under My Thumb," but, That's the way your gender thinks about women.
So the first step toward a sensible debate about manly pride is to rescue the positive tradition of manliness from three decades of stereotyping that conflates masculinity with violence, hegemony, and aggression. We have to recognize that men and women are moral equals, that decent and worthy men have always known this, and that, while men and women share the most important human virtues, vices, and aptitudes, they also have psychological traits that incline them toward some different activities.
According to the regnant orthodoxy, men and women should have exactly the same kinds of capacities and ambitions. They should be equally interested in becoming tycoons, winning battles, driving tractors, and nurturing children. But this is not reality. In general, men don't want to work in day-care centers or teach kindergarten, and women don't want to be truck drivers or join the military. Moreover, women are far more likely than men to leave successful jobs to devote time to families, and women under 30 are more eager for lasting marriages and numerous children than women of their parents' generation (doubtless yearning for what their parents denied them). We should recognize at last that, as long as women are guaranteed an equal opportunity to pursue whatever occupation they want, it does not matter that men and women on the whole still choose different vocations. Remaining injustices should be addressed by procedural liberalism, which has always brought the most solid progress. We should stop trying to reengineer the human soul to prevent boys from being boyish, while encouraging all forms of self-expression in girls.
All that 30 years of behavioral conditioning has done is drive maleness underground and distort it by severing it from traditional sources of masculine restraint and civility. The gurus of sensitivity have tried to convince men to become open, fluid, nonhegemonic, and genderless beings who are unafraid to cry. But little boys still want to play war and shoot up the living room with plastic howitzers, and we can't give them all Ritalin. Psychologists have begun to express concern about our educational institutions' readiness to pathologize what once would have been regarded as boyish high spirits -- rough-housing, "hating" girls, locker-room language -- and to treat ordinary immaturity with powerful drugs.
Again, the point is to channel these energies into the development of character. Boys and young men still want to be heroes, and the way to educate them to treat girls and women with respect is to appeal to their heroism, not to try to blot it out. Look at those kids performing daring flips on their skateboards, or sailing on their Rollerblades into the heaviest downtown traffic like warriors contemptuous of danger. They are almost always males. Look at that squeegee kid with his shaved head and horsehair plume, decked out like some road-warrior Achilles. Walk into one of those high-voltage computer emporiums, selling our century's most potent icon for the extension of human mastery over the cosmos. Who are the salesmen? Almost always cocky young men, celebrities-in-waiting in dark suits and moussed hair, hooked on the sheer power of it all.
Channel surf on your television late at night and sample the rock videos. Nearly all the bands in those rock videos are male, snarling or plaintive over the world's confusions and their erotic frustrations, oozing belligerence alternating with Byronic alienation and a puppyish longing for attention. Their names (Goo Goo Dolls) and attitudes (the lead singer of Radiohead is wheeled around a supermarket in a giant shopping cart curled up like an overgrown 5-year-old) combine an infantile longing to return to childhood with in-your-face suspicion and distrust.
And what else would one expect, since so many of the families into which they were born ended in divorce? By denying and repressing their natural inclination to manliness, we run the risk of abandoning them to such infantile posturing. When they pierce their bodies, it is because they want to experience moral and erotic constraint. Having failed to find an authority they can respect, someone to guide them from boyish impetuosity to a mature and manly vigor of judgment, they confuse authority with oppression. Still, cast adrift in a world without any limitations, they want there to be a price to pay for their hedonism. Since no one will lead them back to the great ethical and religious traditions that set these limits on the highest intellectual and spiritual level, they pierce their bodies in a crude simulacrum of traditional restraint. And, in that, they reveal not only the wondrous capacity of spirited young people to see through the aridity of the governing orthodoxies but also the potential for an ennobling transformation.
It is precisely in a traditional understanding of manly pride and honor that we will find the only sure basis for respect between men and women. The best way of convincing young men to treat women with respect is to educate them in the traditional virtues, which make it a disgrace to treat anyone basely, dishonestly, or exploitatively. Moreover, the surest way of raising young men to treat young women as friends rather than as objects for sexual exploitation is to appeal to their natural longing to be honored and esteemed by the young women to whom they are attracted. When our erotic attraction to another is properly directed, it leads us to cultivate the virtues of moderation, honesty, gratitude, and compassion that make us worthy of love in the eyes of the beloved. We try to be virtuous because we want to be worthy of being loved.
One thing is sure: Given our current confusion over the meaning of manliness, we have nothing to lose by re-opening the issue. If academic feminism is correct that violence toward women stems from traditional patriarchal attitudes, our grandparents' lives must have been a hell of aggression and fear. Yet, if anything impresses us about our forebears, judging from their lives, letters, and diaries, it is the refinement of their affections for one another -- and of men's esteem for women in particular. Perhaps we cannot return to that world. But boys and young men today need re-introducing to this tradition of manly civility.
Despite recent caricatures of the Western tradition as one long justification for the oppression of women, our greatest poets and thinkers from Homer to Rousseau have explored the delicate interplay of love and self-perfection. In Homer's Odyssey, Telemachus, son of the great war hero Odysseus, embarks on a journey to find his missing father and thereby save his mother from the oppressive noblemen who want her to give up her husband for dead and marry one of them. As he searches for his father in an adventure parallel to Odysseus' own search for a way home to his long-lost wife and child, Telemachus is educated by his adventures and grows from a boy into a man, guided by the wise goddess Athena, who is also his father's best friend among the gods. Telemachus' search for his missing father, guided by the goddess, in effect provides him with the upbringing that Odysseus was not able to give him, although he still inspires it from afar because the boy learns during his travels of his father's exploits and wants to prove himself the hero's worthy son.
When I depict Telemachus as a boy from a broken home, forced at a too-early age to be his mother's protector from oppressive men, who has to bring himself up in a way that he hopes his absent father would be proud of, the young men in my undergraduate classes tend to become very quiet and reflective. They are Telemachus.