Brief interludes with hideous men (part 1)

Brief interludes with hideous men (part 1) May 11, 2023

I greatly admire those spiritual practices and traditions that are based on the idea of sacralizing the mundane — of seeking or rediscovering the sacred in every moment, every encounter, every interaction of our lives.

I’ve even tried — sporadically, occasionally — to practice some of these practices myself, usually without great success. But I still think there is great wisdom in this approach championed by people like Brother Lawrence and St. Therese and Frank Laubach, Thomas Merton, and Fred Rogers. It can be a reminder of the infinite value of every individual we ever meet, and thus a practice that makes us not just kinder and more loving, but also more grateful and, therefore, happier.

A series of recent items has got me thinking about a kind of opposite to this form of spiritual practice. This is a way of living that actively seeks to anxietize the mundane — to turn every moment, every encounter, every interaction of one’s life into an opportunity to drive oneself batty. This opposite approach winds up denying the infinite value of every individual one meets, diminishing their individuality and turning them, instead, into NPCs in one’s own internal drama. This does not serve to make you kinder or more loving. And it’s incompatible with ever being grateful or happy.

The first example that got me thinking about this is more than 30 years old, but when it circulated recently as a meme on social media I found it as bewildering, weird, and silly as it first seemed back when Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood first came out back in the ’90s.

The quote there reads: “A housewife in her backyard may be asked by a man how to get to the freeway. At that point she is giving a kind of leadership. She has superior knowledge that the man needs and he submits himself to her guidance. But we all know that there is a way for that housewife to direct the man in which neither of them feels their mature femininity or masculinity compromised.”

The first thing that needs to be said about this is how deeply, deeply weird it is. That last sentence about what “we all know” is not at all something that most of us “know” or would ever have imagined. Piper imbues this mundane, banal encounter with a host of anxieties about the potential compromise of his mature masculinity, making it fraught with dangers and mortifying horrors that would never occur to be worries to … well, let’s just say it, to normal people.

Needing to ask for directions is a less common occurrence than it was back in 1991, but even those too young to remember a time before cellphones and GPS have probably experienced this situation at some point. What were you worried about when you asked someone for directions? I’m guessing it was about whether or not this person would be able to supply those directions.

Ladling in this extreme tension about anything other than How To Get To The Freeway makes Piper’s anecdote read like the set-up to a “Traveling Salesman” joke from the ’50s, or like the first two minutes of a porno from the ’70s.

Piper’s weird anxiety here seems like an unintended confirmation of Margaret Atwood’s observation that men are afraid women will laugh at them while women are afraid that men will kill them.

That’s why the otherwise-banal encounter Piper describes may be — and often is — fraught with anxiety, tension, and legitimate fear, but only if the roles are reversed, if it’s a woman needing to ask a strange man (“house-husband?”) how to get to the freeway. That’s not the set up for a dirty joke or a porno, but for a horror movie. The woman in such a scenario needs to worry not that she might somehow “compromise” this man’s masculinity, but that he may turn out to be one of those weird dudes who are obsessed with an ever-constant fear that his masculinity may be compromised. Guys like that tend to have guns, guns that they have a lurid desire to use at the slightest opportunity.

Piper imagines that a gender-swapped version of his scenario would be simple and, in his view, normative. The man would be giving leadership, as God intended, and the woman, also as God intended, would be submitting herself to his guidance. So in his imagination, that form of this scenario would not induce the same extreme anxiety over the potential “compromising” of divinely ordained masculinity and femininity.

But that version of the scenario isn’t something that’s ever going to happen. If a woman traveling by herself needs directions to the freeway and the only person around to ask is some man in his backyard — meaning she’d have to get out of her car and walk across his property to approach him — then she’s gonna keep driving until she finds a gas station or some other safer, more public space to get directions.

That man in his backyard might be a decent person and a good neighbor capable of offering assistance without threatening her safety or dignity, but there’s also a good chance that he might be the kind of man who sees her approaching and begins to think in terms of ensuring that masculinity and femininity — and the hierarchy between them — not be compromised by this encounter. A man like that is not going to see her as a stranger in need of simple assistance but as a bit player in his own personal dirty joke, or porno, or horror movie, or treatise on divinely ordained gender roles — or even some combination of all of those.

Part of why so many men turn out to be like that — creepy and unsafe — is because the self-appointed and/or nominally God-ordained Moral Instructors spend more energy policing women for potential violations of their alleged ideal form of femininity than they spend teaching men forms of masculinity that don’t make them creepy and unsafe.

It’s not that these Moral Instructors don’t care about the latter, but the prior takes priority because policing women and policing femininity turns out to be an overwhelming and impossible task. Masculinity might be compromised by anything at any moment, by any woman at any time, and so ensuring that nothing women do will in any way threaten this fragile, delicate construct has taken up all of the time and energy that these Moral Instructors might otherwise have had to teach men to not be creepy predators.

I mean, who has time to teach men to be better when there are still women out there somewhere compromising their mature femininity by wearing yoga pants?

But even if that overwhelming task of perpetually policing proper femininity did allow any remaining time for teaching some safer, less creepy form of masculinity what could that possibly look like? Start telling men to stop treating women as bit players in their own imaginary dirty jokes, pornos, horror movies and doctrinal treatises and you will inevitably wind up threatening their masculinity instead of shielding it and protecting it as a precious, fragile, brittle treasure that must be spared from all potential contamination or compromise.

What fascinates me here is Piper’s choice to live in a fraught, stressful, anxiety-generating universe of his own imagination. It’s like a perverse, funhouse-mirror version of the kind of sacralizing spirituality pursued by saints like Lawrence and Therese and Rogers. Instead of making every encounter an opportunity to seek and welcome that which is holy it makes every encounter a threat to some imagined construct of masculinity — a construct that cannot survive in the real world without perpetual, infallible vigilance.

Why would anyone choose to live like that? Why would anyone want to complicate their life and obstruct their own happiness in this way? You can either just ask for directions to the freeway when you need to ask for directions or else you can choose to think, “Oh no! I need directions, and we all know that asking for directions is a perilous endeavor in which, at any moment, my mature masculinity might be compromised!” What could possibly make you prefer the latter?

And, again, choosing to pretend to live in such a world also seems to require, for these defenders of “biblical manhood,” denying that others have no choice about living in a world in which even something as mundane as asking directions to the freeway  carries the risk of getting perved on, preached at, assaulted, or killed — most likely with impunity for the attacker (“She had it coming, after all, she went into his backyard wearing yoga pants — her mature femininity was clearly compromised”).




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