Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Responding to "The Male Straitjacket"

This is my latest post in a series responding to pieces on the site The Good Men Project. Each post I do in this series is written in only an hour or so, and so is not necessarily super polished, but I still invite both critical and supportive responses. For a rationale as to why I'm doing this, see the first few paragraphs of this post.

The article I'm responding to today is "The Male Straitjacket" by Mark Radcliffe. It points out that men are taught we must "be fiercely independent, bravely self-sufficient," and not admit we are invariably going to need help and to work with others. It argues that we would be happier and more successful if we got better at seeing our needs for help and for co-operation, and then seeking those out.

As seems to be the pattern in GMP posts related to masculinity, this one says some useful things but leaves a lot out. The basic message is sound: Dominant masculinities in North America do indeed train us through what gets socially valued into seeing our own value as dependent on a particular kind of self-sufficiency and independence. This denies the reality that all of us are inevitably and utterly dependent on others in a broad sense in that we are part of a complicated social world in which our little bits of making and doing could never happen without the making and doing of other people. It also results in pressures on people who enact dominant masculinities to respond to the challenges of life in ways that are often harmful to us. The article could be clearer on this point, but those same pressures push towards responses to the challenges of life that are harmful to those around us too.

Again as seems to be common in GMP pieces, what gets left out is actually pretty important.

For instance, much as I observed regarding an earlier post, it assumes fairly homogeneous understanding of "men" as both subjects of its deliberations and audience for its insights. This is a problem.

Another omission: This is an area where I think it makes sense to make explicit the connection between dominant North American masculinities and both the social organization of capitalism and the dominant liberal-democratic commonsense that accompanies it. The combined obscuration and deformation of the social flow of doing under capitalism (e.g. see John Holloway's work) is part of what pushes us to see ourselves as self-sufficient and independent in a way that pretends we can detach ourselves from the social world. I think successfully challenging this aspect of masculinity means understanding this connection to capital.

But even setting both of those concerns aside, I think the journey from problem to ways of addressing it would be clearer if the article was more explicit about the fact that there are actually a few different aspects of dominant masculinities at play here. The one that the article is clearest about is the socially produced reluctance to admit that we are not and cannot be self-sufficient, and to act on it. That's important and worth thinking about.

However, part of the reluctance of people who do dominant masculinities to ask for help has to do with an attachment to dominance, or at least a particular understanding of dominance. Many informal (and formal) social hierarchies that are wrapped up in masculinity are played out around questions of competence. Dominant masculinities also pressure us to aspire to such dominance -- they teach us to desire it and they also punish us when we fail to achieve it (with the details dependent on context and on how we are placed in social relations in other ways). And I want to be clear, here, that even though this is often tied to a more neutral-sounding desire to excel, which is not intrinsically a problem, that desire gets welded to a desire to be better-than. Both the urge for dominance and the joining of competency to hierarchies of power-over are real social problem that we can't just wish away by changing our own attitudes but rather that we must consistently and collectively work against.

Equally important is a much more personal aspect of the self-deceptive character of this drive to see ourselves as self-sufficient and independent. The article implies that that this is about pressure towards a universal competency that we can't achieve. What it leaves out is the fact that dominant masculinities are not about pressure towards universal competencies. Rather, they are about pressure towards competencies in certain areas but incompetencies and dependencies in others, and then a refusal to see or admit those incompetencies and dependencies. It goes much beyond this -- there are lots of ways that our utter dependence on those people we are trained to think we are superior to gets hidden by how the social world is organized and how our knowledge about the world is socially produced -- but a big arena for this is intimate partnerships between men and women, where it is hugely common even in the early 21st century for men to lack competencies particularly related to affective and domestic labour, to have no idea that they lack those competencies, to be significantly dependent on their female partner for that labour, and to still feel no hesitancy at all about clinging to illusions of self-sufficiency and independence. This gendered inability to see dependence and lack of competence is built in to the training to see ourselves as self-sufficient and independent that is at the centre of the article. It is also an imposition on women and an enactment of gender injustice.

So. Given that insight, Radcliffe's borrowing of a diamond commercial's urging to men to "Make a declaration of dependence" to illustrate his own move away from the drive to be self-sufficient and independent is actually a bit troubling. The goal, I think, should be interdependence, not dependence. And I concede that in other ways that the article talks about it, that also seems to be his goal. I just think the point needs to be made more clearly.

Doing so would make it clearer that this is not just a question of individual preference and self-improvement that might lead to a happier life for the men being addressed, but a question of gender justice. It's not just about admitting a need for help and then asking for it. Rather, it is also about men needing to build certain kinds of competencies. We need to do more as well as less. And we need to do both in particular ways -- we need to learn how to do relationships in ways that don't depend on a do-it-all or do-none binary, but on a much more dynamic kind of negotiation and co-operation and compromise. Again, there isn't just one way to realize this, and there is room for difference and preference and taste, but questions of gender justice do underlie and inform how we need to approach it.

Those of us who have been trained into dominant masculinities of one form or another need to learn to attach our valuations of self to respect and justice rather than to hierarchies of particular kinds of gendered competencies and to gendered enactments of denial of need and detachment from interdependence. As well, because these are not just individual attitudes but socially produced and enforced valuations, we need to challenge how such valuations are produced and enacted. Part of this is asking for help. Part is learning new skills. Part is learning to relate to other people in more intersubjective and holistic ways. Part is learning to work against the very visceral, embodied feeling we get when our dominant masculine norm detectors start tingling and telling us that if we do such-and-such, we will be making ourselves inferior to other men, or to gender oppressed people and all the other people of all genders whom we are constantly told we are supposed to be better than.

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