Guy Talk: The Will to Change 2: Patriarchy and Growing Up with Anger

Hello and welcome to the second of a bit of an experimental series.  Here, we’ll be going through Bell Hooks’ book “The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity and Love” as a way of prompting conversations about maleness.  I don’t want to call this a book club because I’m going to be writing for people who haven’t read the book.  But if you want to read along, you are certainly welcome to do so. As always, this is a trans-inclusive space and EVERYONE is welcome to comment.

Chapter 2 begins with a short introduction to patriarchy.  Simply put, patriarchy is what tells children what their roles are and then convinces them these roles are inherent and not made up.  Hooks especially talks about how patriarchy teaches boys that their life WILL be about violence.  Their ability to twist things and people to their will would be what determines their worth, and the difference between a good man and a bad man is in which direction you twist — while the difference between being a man and not a man is the power to twist.  

Hooks points out that women are just as likely as men to further this dogma.  The term “patriarchy” replaced “male chauvinism” in feminist texts because while patriarchy benefits men, it is not a system perpetuated only by men.  Men perpetuate violence on women and must be held accountable.  But “feminist advocates collude in the pain of men wounded by patriarchy when they falsely represent men as always and only powerful, as always and only gaining privileges from their blind obedience to patriarchy.” Patriarchy tells men to remain unaware of the depths of their inner life and to deny the psychological harm that causes.  

“It has been hard,” says Hooks in Chapter 3 “for many male thinkers . . . to see feminism as a helpful theory because to a grave extent antimale sentiments among some feminists have led the movement to focus very little attention on the development of boys.”  Hooks thinks that too often feminists have thought of boys as merely enemies in training rather than hostages worthy of rescue.  These feminists unwittingly collude with anti-feminist perspectives by ceding the territory of male development to tradition instead of revolution.  According to Hooks, there’s been much said about what is wrong with boys and very little about HOW to do better.  

The way boys are taught to deal with emotion is to “act out” — meaning external action that temporarily relieves emotional pressure but doesn’t address the cause.  Temper tantrums, rants, and aggressive games.  While boys may get disciplined for this, it is still a form of expression that the culture understands and accepts as natural for males.  It does not defy expectations or cause people to question the male’s masculinity.  Studies reveal that it is psychologically damaging for young males to be emotionally withdrawn and isolated, and yet that is exactly what we expect of male teenagers.  “All boys are being raised to be killers” Hooks shockingly declares.  Sensitivity is scorned.  All other internal emotions transform themselves into anger simply because it is the only open door.  And even that door is carefully guarded, as boys are taught that being angry is “good” but that they must never direct that anger toward targets that authorities or society would notice.  Hooks argues that “no one really cares about this anger unless it leads to violent behavior. If boys take their rage and sit in front of a computer all day, never speaking, never relating, no one cares.” 

When Hooks says boys are taught to be killers, she means we think it is right and proper that they have the capability to inflict violence when needed.  We raise them to be reserve tanks of aggression, and call morality the ability to know when to turn on and off that spigot of rage.  That said, there is a place for anger in this world, and it seems just as dangerous to assume we can never be angry.  Bell Hooks certainly gets angry.  I think she would say that the patriarchy doesn’t encourage expression and resolution of anger but instead repression and “banking” of anger for when it benefits the hegemony.  

My personal history with how I handled anger growing up hit a lot of these notes. I was punished when my anger got me noticed. But if I poured my anger into chores or other non-confrontative physical activities, my anger was ignored. How I was feeling was less important than if I was bothering anyone.

Once I got a little older, I realized that the trick was to find socially acceptable targets of anger. Whoever was the enemy of your group, that’s where you pour your anger. Often they deserve it anyways — no one is a saint — but they weren’t the root cause. Looking at the root cause was never “useful” to anyone. This form of channeling rage onto a group’s enemies works really well on the internet, where you can get all kind of positive reinforcement for your anger. But even if I pick deserving targets, it’s still acting out in a way . . . it’s relieving the pressure but not fixing the root anger.

That’s where I am with my anger right now and if it’s not a clean resolution to the story that’s because hopefully it’s not over yet.  What about you, though?  If you were to write a history of your anger, would there be changes and developments with how you’ve dealt with it? How were you taught to deal with anger as a child?  Was it allowed?  Was it ignored?  How did you express or channel it? Are you appreciative of the way your parents dealt with you when you were angry?  How has that affected how you deal with anger as a grown man?