Guy Talk: The Will to Change 3: Working against How We Were Indoctrinated

No man who does not actively choose to work to change and challenge patriarchy escapes its impact. The most passive, kind, quiet man can come to violence if the seeds of patriarchal thinking have been embedded in his psyche. Much of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde behavior women describe in men who are alternately caring, then abusive has its root in this fundamental allegiance to patriarchal thinking. Indoctrination into the mind-set begun in childhood includes a psychological initiation that requires boys to accept that their willingness to do violent acts makes them patriarchal men.

hooks, bell. The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love (p. 59). Atria Books. Kindle Edition.

Hello and welcome to the third 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.

How do we change a culture that promotes and rewards male dominance?  How do we fight against the power imbalances that the culture promotes and expects men to give into?  Hooks argues in chapter 4 that many men who were raised in a context of neglect and abuse begin adulthood determined to break the cycle of patriarchy, but as they get older find that being distant and dominant is safer and more natural.  Unless they consciously continually examine themselves, the lessons they were taught overcome their own intentions to be different.  This is something I know I’ve seen again and again and I think helps explain why we see progressive men become so much more conservative as they age.  It is simply exhausting to work against indoctrination, even if it does have rewards.  Because nothing else is taught, it’s not a matter of picking between two different roads.  It’s a matter of taking a well-worn downward sloping road or striking out uphill into rough untrodden lands.  

R.W. Connell puts it this way  “Men who try to develop a politics in support of feminism, whether gay or straight, are not in for an easy ride. They are likely to be met with derision from many other men, and from some women. It is almost a journalistic cliché that women despise Sensitive New Age Guys. They will not necessarily get warm support.”

A major roadblock of breaking beyond patriarchy is the domination model of parenting, a model where both father AND mother shame and manipulate the son into being what they want which in turn teaches the son to repeat the same tactics on anyone he considers “under” him.  This sadism toward boys is an under-studied and under-discussed form of emotional abuse that leads the son to believe that the only way to be safe is to spend the rest of his life making sure he is the one in charge.  Intimacy is vulnerability.  

Because weakness is unallowable in real men, so is blame.  Patriarchy teaches men to blame their weaknesses on others, most often the women (mother, wife) whose “job” it is to keep them happy — just as both the man and woman were blamed as children for not keeping their own parents happy.  

There are things boys are taught to expect from the world, and especially from women. They are to be an emotional support, the receiver and giver of physical affection, the one who meets our needs. When they fail such things, it is not manly to simply change our expectations. We must go after what we expected. And as we get older and the world changes, we see society also no longer centered around us and how we see the world. We feel insignificant because we expected to always be seen as important and central. When we are wrong about societal roles and expectations, we can bend and learn to change but that’s not what many of us were taught to do. We were taught that are some things just ARE — dammit! — and if the world doesn’t bow to our perception of it, that’s because everyone else is wrong.

I think everyone as they get older faces a moment where the progressive edge no longer “feels” natural. Its at that point that people have to decide whether they really believe in diversity beyond “gut feeling” or rather it just never touched their comfort zone before.

Things come up that people would never have questioned. Like trans rights, people who think of themselves as progressive suddenly or gradually revealed themselves to be gender essentialists. Everyone has assumptions they have not yet investigated, and when those pop up unexepectedly is the crucible. There is something, as yet unknown, which you will have trouble wrapping your head around. Such is the nature of existence. The real difference is people who say “I don’t get it but I trust you to know yourself” and the people who give into the animal comfort of trusting their own biases. it gets harder as you get older.

Modern society is generally ok with men, especially older men, being obnoxious and dominating the conversation. Everyone else might roll their eyes at it and talk about it in whispers behind his back, but there is a lot of space given to men to be rude and to demand that they get to be the final say. They will tell women to their face that they, a man, know more about a woman’s experience than the woman does. They will demand an eternal well of “proof” when something doesn’t fit their own experience and then to that proof say “that’s only your experience, you’re not all people” while simultaneously treating his own personal experience as universal and obvious.

Because men have the power in society, we are often not going to be called out on this. Which means that no matter our best intentions, there is no external force keeping us from sliding into our worst selves. The world tells the man, especially the white man, “go ahead and give into your worst instincts. There is little anyone can do about it.”

We all like to believe in an egalitarian world.  But we were all raised in an hierarchical environment.  The family unit is traditionally hierarchical, and men are usually trained to expect to one day be at the top. Do you find yourself slipping into the way your parents did things as you get older?  Does it become harder to continually question assumptions?  Especially since the world continues to accept and even reward men for “taking charge,” do you find yourself tempted to just run with it?  Do we take our privilege for granted, and how can we fight against that as we get older?