What It Means to Be a Real Man

On the Federalist, Jesse Kelly has an editorial arguing that it’s a man’s responsibility to “prepare his sons for war” – by which he means teaching his sons how to commit violence, whether it’s throwing a punch or shooting a gun. Since I have a son, I thought I’d offer some comments.

Kelly begins by saying that men were “made for violence”:

Do you know why men like football? Why they watch boxing? Why Romans watched the gladiators slaughter each other? Because part of men was made for violence and their instincts draw them to it. We cannot suppress human nature. We cannot half-embrace who and what we are — how God made us, and how we are built.

Excuse me, but who gives you the right to speak for “men” as a whole? I don’t like football or boxing, and I don’t have an “instinct” for watching or appreciating violence. I find it distasteful and lazy and I don’t watch TV shows or movies that glory in it. What makes Kelly think this sweeping generalization applies to an entire gender, rather than something that just happens to be true about him?

You may notice how he slips in a religious justification at the end. Does he have any actual evidence that “God made us” to appreciate violence or that this is an immutable part of human nature? No, but he thinks that by name-dropping a reference to God, he doesn’t need to. That’s the function religion always serves – to prop up otherwise unprovable assertions. God serves as a ventriloquist’s dummy who can be carted in to vouch for the speaker’s worldview, whatever it may be, with no evidence necessary.

If you find that distasteful, you need to get over it. You are wrong. One can no more suppress human nature than one can stop a firehose. If you do, eventually it is going to break out somewhere, and when it does, it’s going to be ugly.

This is the false “hydraulic” view that aggression is like a slow drip, steadily accumulating inside us until it reaches full capacity, and then has to be discharged by committing some act of violence. Under this view, men “just can’t help” being violent if they’re provoked – which, for the record, is a demeaning and insulting thing to say about anyone, let alone about yourself.

The reality is that violence isn’t hydraulic, it’s strategic. From hunter-gatherer tribes to rural frontiers to urban gangs, people turn to violence when there’s a perception that no higher authority will defend them against those who would do them harm, and so they have to be ready to act violently, sometimes preemptively, to protect themselves, their property and their reputations.

The widely varying rates of violent crime in different societies across the world and throughout history show that violence isn’t intrinsic to human nature. If it were, you’d expect these rates to remain stubbornly the same no matter how society changes. The fact that we see wide variation shows that violence is cultural. It’s a knob that can be turned up or down by the environment. By changing society so that violence is punished and discouraged, rather than permitted or celebrated, we can expect human behavior to follow in step.

Incidentally, it works the other way too. When gun-clinging conservatives argue that there should be no restrictions on gun sales, that everyone should be armed at all times and that “stand your ground” laws should be broad and expansive, what they’re advocating is a more violent society, where there’s more murder and mayhem of all kinds. That’s the inevitable result of putting deadly weapons into as many hands as possible.

We are not enlightening young men when we tell them to run from violence. We are setting them up for a listless, uneasy existence as they back away from bullies tormenting the weak. They’ll know deep down they should be doing something about the bully, but they won’t, because they have never been given the tools. Their dads threw those tools away.

…Do not fool yourself into believing the feel-good lies society tells you about how to stop a bully. From now until forever, the best way is a punch in the nose.

Notice the false dilemma: Kelly claims you can either teach your kids to stop bullies with an outburst of violence, or else do nothing. Everything else (like telling a teacher or a parent so they can intervene) is “feel-good lies”.

This toxic, paranoid worldview shows how violence is self-perpetuating. If you hit your children to make them obey you, that teaches them that violence is the proper way to solve problems. Similarly, if you teach your son to punch out a bully instead of going to a teacher, what you’re teaching him is that authorities are useless and violence is the right way of imposing your will on others. But that’s the kind of thinking that causes bullying in the first place. It can never break the cycle.

A man’s nature cannot be repressed. Men were made for the intentional use of force and power. Throughout history, societies have understood this. Here in America, we have coddled and weakened our boys by refusing to embrace the very nature they are born with, then told ourselves this is progress. It is not.

There’s a kind of unacknowledged dread lurking around the fringes of Kelly’s essay, and you can see it best here. If men were made for “the intentional use of force and power”, what becomes of men in a peaceful society? What purpose is there for us if there aren’t any conflicts that need to be settled with violence?

I’m convinced that this need – the craving to be useful, to be necessary, coupled with a belief in the rightness of violence – is fundamental to the conservative mindset. It fuels their medieval fantasy that the world is a wild and dangerous place and innocent people are constantly under threat. Witness their all-consuming fixation on terrorism, or their certainty that thuggish criminals are always waiting to strike (like the fictitious “knockout game”), or the belief that your home should be a fortress to defend against gangs of murderers who might besiege you at any time for no reason (it’s not for nothing that the self-defense law allowing you to kill a home intruder is called the “castle doctrine”).

Aside from a few unusual and isolated areas, the world isn’t like that and hasn’t been for a long time. In fact, despite our media-abetted fixation on rare and headline-grabbing acts of violence, the world in general is safer and more peaceful than it’s ever been, and that’s a good thing. We should acknowledge that and reap the bounty of progress. We don’t need to teach our sons to always be on edge for the next threat.

The founding father John Adams said it best:

I must study Politics and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematics and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematics and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Music, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelain.

Jesse Kelly’s brand of masculinity teaches men that they need to “prove” themselves through inflicting pain on others – and by implication, that they’re nothing if they’re not violent. It’s the sole measure of their worth.

This idea that being comfortable with violence is the only way to prove you’re a man is actually a deeply fragile view. It means that your manhood is always in question, that anyone can force you to “prove you’re a man” at any time, and that whenever your sense of self is threatened, it’s incumbent on you to respond with aggression to reset the status quo. (Just look at how gun makers market their products, appealing to the same mindset of insecure masculinity.)

This is the kind of toxic sexism that leads to bullying, domestic violence and school shootings. And even when it doesn’t produce one of those extreme outcomes, it also leads to miserable, emotionally closed-off men who can’t form healthy relationships because they don’t know how to express what they feel.

As a father, I want more for my son than this fearful insecurity. I’m going to teach him that a “real man” isn’t defined by his capacity for violence or cruelty. I’m not going to say force is never necessary – in extreme cases of self-defense, sometimes it can be – but as I said, those are rare and unlikely, and it doesn’t justify organizing a child’s entire upbringing around the possibility. I consider it far more important to raise my son with an eye to all the rest of his life, and this is what I want to tell him:

A real man sticks up for the downtrodden, but knows how to be gentle as well as strong. A real man doesn’t hide his feelings; he can talk about them because he knows it won’t diminish him. A real man doesn’t care whether his interests are traditionally masculine or feminine. Most of all, a real man feels secure and confident in his own skin, to the extent that he doesn’t think his masculinity is constantly in question or that he needs to prove it all over again in response to any challenge from a stranger. That’s the kind of courage and self-confidence I want my son to cultivate in his own life.

Image: Not the sole measure of a man’s value. Via Shutterstock.

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