Friday, July 20, 2012

Responding to "Why Men Have Trouble With Intimacy"

As proposed in an earlier post and enacted once so far in a more recent one, as I complete school I've taken on doing weekly-ish, timed, one-hour written responses to pieces found at a seemingly somewhat progressive (and perhaps pro-feminist, sometimes, I hope?) site focused on men and masculinity that I do not know very well but am intrigued by, called The Good Men Project.

As I observed in my first real post of this mini-project of mine, now that I've actually taken the time to look at the GMP site and see what kinds of things they regularly publish, I'm a bit surprised that a much smaller proportion than I expected make masculinity an explicit object of conversation and rather more than that deal with it obliquely by talking about something "lifestyle"-related in a way that is focused towards men. I remain a bit concerned that this will make it harder for me to write the kinds of things that I want to write, but am willing to persevere for now.

The article I have chosen to respond to this week is "Why Men Have Trouble With Intimacy" by Bill Cloke. It covers some quite familiar ground for anyone who has read or thought much about masculinity. That is, the dominant ways in which masculinity is done in North America, and the dominant ways in which it is regulated and enforced on those socially expected to do it, tend to include significant pressure to hide vulnerability, to not talk about emotions, to resist the perception or reality of being influenced by women, and often to not be terribly emotionally functional at all. Many men enact these things. Many who don't, in specific contexts or in general, face various kinds of socially regulatory responses that make their life difficult in other ways. These are not good things and they need to change -- which is not to say that there should only be one model of doing masculinity, but pressures that punish men for admitting vulnerability, for being functional and open when it comes to emotion, and for listening to women, need to be opposed.

To use a phrase that I think will become quite common in my pieces responding to GMP articles, this is good as far as it goes, but. It is something many men need to talk about and work on, but. But: The careful but probably to many people offputting or even inaccessible language in the paragraph just above is mine, not the language the article itself uses. The way the article itself talks about it is much, much less cautious. In the article, the clear majority of sentences are structured along the lines of "Men do..." and "Men are...". That is, the subject "men" is written as monolithic, as being only one thing. Variation among men is not completely ignored in the article, but almost completely.

This monolithic construction of men is a huge problem. Without explicitly owning up to the fact that it is doing this, the article is really only speaking to and about some men and, because of how it does this, it makes that subgroup of men stand in for all men.

There are lots of problems with this, and lots of paths to recognizing that it is a problem. For me, one is a cursory examination of my own experience. There are certainly no shortage of things that this article says that apply to me, but there are lots that just don't. I am someone who craves emotional intimacy and who is (I think -- maybe I'm deceiving myself) quite good at it once I've established it with a particular person, and who is also reasonably attuned to the emotional environment around himself. However, I am also someone who is very, very cautious and closed and hide-y before that point of comfortable connection, and who often rues the way that this results in a self-imposed relative lack of opportunities for the very emotional intimacy I crave. So I can see plenty of ways in which dominant regulation into (white, middle-class) masculinity have damaged me along the lines described in the article, but I also see other tendencies that I think are still bound up with masculinity but that just don't fit with what it says. In particular, that caution and closedness is put together for me rather differently than the boilerplate description in the article.

Such a simplistic, monolithic deployment of "men" also leads to saying ridiculous things, I think probably inevitably because you are always trying to turn a multiplicitous reality into a singular ideological category. One sentence that really struck me as off-base was, "Men usually avoid conflict and make every effort to make peace," referring specifically to intimate partnerships. Certainly that's one pattern. But some men shout and yell, or even hit. That is, regretfully, a pretty common pattern too. (Tied into that is a very important proviso in the 'men hide emotions' trope so common in discussions of masculinity. I saw a feminist piece, oh, probably six months ago -- too long ago to be able to remember where and link to it -- that made the point that many men are quite good at expressing certain emotions, like anger and frustration. It's particular emotions that are more of a challenge for many men. This feminist writer went on to note that a better way to think about the issue is as problems in how many men are taught to relate to other people, particularly women and other gender-oppressed people -- both the difficulty in expressing some emotions and the easy but often problematic expression of other emotions are related to the same general lack of interpersonal and emotional skills and the concerted training towards overt or subtle domination.)

But there are many men who struggle with various ways in which their gender is regulated (or they are complicit in regulating the genders of other people) which just don't look like this article, or they only kind of resemble it. Much of what the article says is culturally specific. Much of it would vary with experiences of class or of racialization. The landscape is also much different in queer and trans contexts. All of the men in those categories are still men, but they are written out, a lot or a little, of this author's use of the term.

I admit, it's not easy to find ways to talk about these things so you don't erase complexity and you don't erase experiences but you still produce something that can be read. As well, talking about practices and experiences that are gendered can be difficult because it can be hard to communicate that X, Y, or Z does happen in a gendered way, but not always, not everyone, and it doesn't have to happen because it's socially produced, but it's not clear how to change it, and so on and so forth. But we need to find ways to talk about that kind of thing. Articles which erase the diversity of experiences of masculinity deprive us of access to diversity of strategies for resisting, strategies for enacting ourselves differently, strategies for challenging the gender oppression in which we are complicit differently. They also deprive of us different angles for understanding the problem. In North America, the different enactments of masculinity by differently situated men, and the different forms of social regulation they face, may look and feel very different, and it may not be immediately obvious how they are related, but I think they are. Exploring that can only help. I mean, even just acknowledging specificity can help -- if this article owned the specificity of the men whom it is about and for, it would open the possibility of explicitly looking across difference at differently situated men (and of women who do masculinity too) as sources of inspiration and ideas.

And that's actually my final criticism of this article: it outlines a problem and closes with a paragraph saying that we can and must change things, but it has nothing to say about how to do that. That is a discussion I would like to have.

My hour is up and more than up, so I'm signing off, as unpolished and partial as this response is!

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