Shame: I feel it every time I hear about a mass shooting and then learn, almost invariably, that the murders were perpetrated by a man. I feel it when I read about football players gang-raping an incapacitated girl and then bragging about it afterward. And I felt it when I read Amanda Hess' deeply disturbing essay about the violent, highly sexualized verbal abuse — including threats of rape, mutilation, and murder — that she and many other female journalists regularly endure for daring to venture an opinion online.
I felt not only shame, but also disgust. It's the same shame and disgust that I felt at frat parties in college, and that I still feel when I overhear locker room or barroom banter among men in the process of what we euphemistically describe as "bonding." Amounting to little more than sub-literate grunts, it's usually shot through with misogyny, and often laced with fantasies of violence, sexual and otherwise. And now, thanks to technology that provides every man with a megaphone and a cloak of anonymity, those grunts have become both public and personal.
I know, I must sound like a precious flower, so delicate and feminized in my sensibilities that I've betrayed my gender to join the War on Men that now threatens to destroy even an "old-fashioned guy's guy" like Chris Christie. (Hell, I wouldn't be surprised if some readers imagine I resemble Pajama Boy, that vision of dystopian counter-masculinity that haunts the fever dreams of right-wingers everywhere.)
But as you'd expect, I look at it a little differently.
From the philosophical musings of Harvard professors through think-tank provocations all the way down to the hate-spewing vulgarians who generate profits by encouraging the basest prejudices of their talk-radio listeners, the message directed at men is the same: Manliness is under assault by phalanxes of feminists. The solution? The PC police need to back off and once again allow boys to be boys.
Strange, I would have thought our problem was exactly the opposite — too many men acting like adolescent boys for far too long, refusing to grow up, accept responsibilities, control their animal impulses, and above all stop whining about all those feminist meanies.
The last point is perhaps the most pathetic of all. Surely if manliness means anything at all, it entails a refusal to whine and complain constantly about the need to live up to the most elementary expectations of civilized life and the most rudimentary challenges of adulthood. One of those rudimentary challenges, incidentally, is realizing that the proper response to a journalist's ideas is offering intelligent criticism and ideas of one's own — not hurling sexist insults and sociopathic threats. Sometimes manning up means shutting up.
Our problem, then, isn't that manliness is under assault in our time. It's that too many of us expect too little of men. On average, men tend toward aggression. They often valorize strength and courage. They are keenly concerned with social status. They frequently feel overwhelmed by powerful sexual urges. None of this is new. What is new is that American society over the past few decades has stopped holding men to traditional standards of honor, restraint, and civilized decency — standards that, whatever their defects, tended to channel and elevate masculinity.
Ross Douthat of the New York Times is therefore right to conclude a column about Hess’s article by asserting that we need to do more than pursue the legal and technological remedies that she explores in her piece. What we need, Douthat claims, is "a more compelling vision of masculine goals, obligations, and aspirations." Quite right. I only wish he’d said more about how a society lacking consensus about comprehensive moral questions might foster, uphold, and enforce a nobler ideal of masculinity.
Here’s my own modest proposal: Let’s pledge to hold men to a higher standard. No, boys are not just being boys when they indulge in violent, misogynistic fantasies. And no, men don’t benefit from being flattered by ratings-chasing rabblerousers who tell them that they’re expressing their true masculine selves when they catalogue grievances, spew invective, and generally act like Neanderthals.
Want to be a "real man"? Master your own most primitive, sordid instincts! That is the message we need to convey to American men.
Consider: When I was growing up in the 1980s, playground taunts of “faggot” were common among boys to the point of ubiquity. Today one hears them far less frequently — which goes to show just how much can be accomplished through the soft power of social and cultural pressure when large numbers of people unite around standards of laudable and shameful behavior.
So by all means, let’s pursue Hess’s legal and technological suggestions — some of which might do some real good in protecting women from violent threats. But let’s not forget about the importance of good, old-fashioned moral praise and blame when it comes to educating men away from abusive behavior in the first place.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- After Ferguson: Stop deferring to the cops
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- Ferguson riots were terrible — but this racist reaction was worse
- The hilarious hypocrisy of Republicans complaining about the imperial presidency
- Is it now OK to have sex with animals?
- 7 grammar rules you really should pay attention to
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- Don't argue about politics this Thanksgiving. Just don't.
- In Ferguson, Michael Brown lost his life — and America's police lost the benefit of the doubt
- Head to head: Wild vs. supermarket turkeys
Subscribe to the Week