Speech, Power, Masculinity

I recently read the piece “What Is It Like to Be A Man?” by Phil Christman, which I found to be insightful and, even if somewhat caught in a cul-de-sac of questions (not unusual for any piece trying to figure out these problems), thankfully shorter and less circular than many. One of the main points he makes that I found worth thinking on is the following:

‘Manhood resists straightforward discussion even as men stand accused—correctly, insofar as any accusation directed at such a broad target cannot fail to hit—of sucking the air from every other conversation. We do have plenty of talk about masculinity, but talk is all it is, aimless and nonconsecutive, never the sense of anything developing. Sophisticated opinion rarely gets beyond the elementary observation that masculinity is a social construct, or a set of many such constructs. As for unsophisticated opinion, it is a dank cellar most impressively represented by the Canadian academic Jordan Peterson, who bangs the table for logic and reason while basing much of his thought on the ideas of a discredited occultist. Peterson’s reliance on the work of Carl Jung is revealing: If you want to defend traditional masculinity as a kind of slaying-dragons-for-its-own-sake, but you can’t offer a rational analysis of why this behavior is necessary, or why it is good, or why you need a penis to do it, the archetype theory offers you a pretentious and grandiose way of saying “It is what it is.” It dignifies tautology.’

Certainly, it’s the case that many of the practices that are considered masculine have worth for individuals: the development of gender studies focusing on performance, as well as a more open discussion of trans issues and also gender and sexual fluidity, has complicated the simple dichotomy of feminine/masculine; empowered/disempowered identities on the whole. But what Christman lays bare is that the actual experience of being a man is often assumed as one of simple comfort or ignorance; or in its opposite it may perhaps be pathologized, I.e. “men are all just insecure.” I actually do think this later interpretation is largely true, but that insecurity isn’t necessarily addressed in a significant fashion that in-and-of-itself complicates assumptions of gendered expressions and norms. Christman’s point on the nature of male insecurity particularly shows how even expressions of care, nurture, and protection are wrapped-up in these problems:

Masculinity is an abstract rage to protect. By “protect” I don’t mean the actual useful things a man (or anyone else) may do for other people—holding down a hated but necessary job, cleaning the toilet, doing the taxes if he happens to be good at it, even jumping in front of a bullet if he is quick enough off the mark. All functioning adults are “protective” of others in this sense, to the best of their ability. Rather, I mean precisely the activities that stem from a fear that simple usefulness is not enough: that one must train and prepare for eventualities one has no reason to anticipate, must keep one’s dwelling and grooming spartan in case of emergencies, must undertake defensive projects that have no connection to the actual day-to-day flourishing of the people one loves.  

Certainly, on a sociological and theoretical level, a lot of this is outside of my paygrade, and what I mostly want to talk about is certain conceptions of speech and the process acknowledging power and power-relations, both what a focus on generalized power reveals, and what a notion of internalized power fails to accomplish concretely for liberation. This is all largely anecdotally based, speculative with a little bit of theory thrown in; but I try to work out these thought processes in a semi-public way both because I think it is good for myself, but also because I hope it helps others. 

One of the things about masculinity as this unclear ideal is that it actually produces this sense that a man, a “masculine” man, is not supposed to talk. Or, rather, they are not supposed to talk frivolously. One is supposed to speak like one knows what one is talking about all the time. Now there’s a kind of implicit idea that this means a man should always be certain when they’re speaking, but it has its own insecurity that just produces the tendency to speak as if one is confident and certain when you probably aren’t confident. And of course, this also props up individuals who might actually have a narcissistic or illegitimate confidence all the time that becomes difficult to address while also reducing space for others who aren’t men and don’t get to be heard. Now, I can’t say for certain just how specific these kinds of tendencies would be outside of white masculinity and how masculinity could be differentiated within different cultural expectations due to something like race, I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that there have been numerous times where a culturally dominant white masculinity underwent crisis due to the emergence of other cultural signifiers of masculinity that weren’t traditionally connected to the white male identity. Nevertheless, generalizing here because I think this issue of speech is one that’s often the most common, especially within closed institutional spaces (classrooms and workplaces being the most obvious). 

Thinking about this makes me wonder about some of the effectiveness of certain strategies for dismantling power that are often employed, both on a level of personal relationships, and on a more systemic level. I hope my discussion here doesn’t come across as saying men (again, usually white men) should just be given a pass to be defensive about anything leveled at them or to be let off the hook. Simply, I wonder: if it is the case that it is true that one of the causes of an intrusive and domineering male speech is an insecurity about speaking with confidence/knowledge, then is it ineffective to emphasize knowing before one speaks? Is it worth looking at social expressions of being unsure? Would expressing uncertainty more regularly (particularly in spaces that weren’t like workplaces or classrooms) actually reduce the amount of invasive speech overall? Admittedly, I certainly know that it’s easy to get in a feedback loop of “expression” where insecurity just becomes repetitive and unworkable. To throw in a bit of a cultural example: the juxtaposition of David Foster Wallace’s life and writing is a particularly poignant example of how neither worrying about being a good person all the time, nor expressing your worries about being a good person all the time, actually equates to taking responsibility or acting well. But, of course, this is an example of someone who lived in a position of actual immediate power as a professor and celebrity writer. I don’t mean to suggest, of course, that someone who enacts violence against others simply needed to just “talk it out,” but on a broader scale I wonder if there’s something to this. Thinking also about the addition of institutional power brings me to another point: namely how the power of masculinity is, for most men, expressed as a power of exception: men can get away with things. Men (again, particularly white men) will be more likely to escape punishment, reconciliation, any real form of justice because of the structure of society, culturally and institutionally. But a power of granted exception isn’t really a power that can be let go of, or even really redirected by an individual. To recognize one’s power (or what might be called “privilege”) doesn’t produce much so that one can wield that power beyond simply striving to be a better individual in ways that should already be expected: not talking over people, listening, being fair in evaluations, calling out other cases of behavior which shouldn’t be excused. But in the case of an institutional authority even this recognition of privilege is dependent on an authority granted by a larger structure. Your good professor who treats you well and calls out problematic behavior is still kind of able to do that because of their authority and position – an authority and position that could also let someone else get away with the very behavior being opposed in the first case. Even with the cases of some of the most privileged men, a benevolent male CEO, the notion of them giving away billions of dollars to charities, to school programs women or people of color, trying to diversify their workplace: in the big scheme, it doesn’t take much to realize how little that affects underlying problems or assumptions on a social level. Likewise, even if it is truly essential and beneficial for spaces of power to diversify, the actual positions of power in our society and what they exist to do, remain problematic and heavily reliant on the personal character of the person holding them – and even that is a questionable basis for trust. To quote a bit that stuck out to me in Susan Watkin’s recent review of Down Girl:

Women, like men, are also ‘policed’ by a skewed economics system which enforces its imperatives on daily life, and which shapes the operation of gender asymmetries. As social-reproduction theorists have argued, moral qualities of care and concern are routinely negated by the violence of everyday exploitation, by the ruthless functioning of a profits system and its military reinforcements, careless of life. On that question, the seventies’ socialist-feminists were right to argue that the gender division of labour will only be equalized if concern for life and limb is socialized; and the boardroom feminists – defending a system that privileges profit over human life, and fighting only to improve their place within it – may be an obstacle to it. 

Nor can new forms of misogyny, overwhelmingly found online, be understood outside their historical contexts. Reports by those who have fathomed the digitalized social id that Twitter has brought into being suggest that the violently misogynist voices to be found there – a tiny, if toxic, minority – are characterized not by a new resurgence of patriarchal power but rather by a sense of defeat in face of hegemonic liberal feminism. The sexist detraction of female public figures should of course be fought all along the line. But it’s worth recognizing that the use of virulently misogynist tropes usually results from political anger generated elsewhere, taking up the ’empty signifiers’ of gender prejudice. Thus hatred of Thatcher or Dilma Rousseff took crudely misogynist form, while mere dislike of May or Lagarde did not. Class hatred – of working-class men for upper-class women – can take poisonous gender forms, which should obviously be combated, on multiple grounds; but to eliminate it requires tackling the injustice of class inequality, a meta-ethical problem punctiliously ignored in Manne’s account.[1]

So, it does seem perhaps more honest to say that the real feminist step that would be taken by men would be a stepping away from power, an active gender-betrayal, but even that is hard to formulate: how does one step away from power that is a “getting-away-with” enforced well beyond oneself? This might require, perhaps, that we actually need to take a step back from focusing so much energy on public figures, celebrities, and positions of power proper. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t condemn public figures who are rapists, misogynists, or abusers, but to say that to really address these things means more that public opinion, it means it is necessary to actually organize together around real projects: to practice something like what Jodi Dean has called “comradeship.”[2] Now, clearly, this makes it all sound quite easy. Political organizations can actually be incredibly toxic, particularly small ones that develop social hierarchies quickly. I’m not here to speak about how we can actually concretely organize and model our social movements, hopefully more progress will be made in that area as mass social movements continue to grow and radicalize, but nonetheless I hope that what I’m talking about on an individual level lends itself to thinking about things that are also beyond paralyzing individualism. (For those interested in further discussions on these topics as they relate to actually-existing political groups and their problems, I would recommend the Regrettable Century Podcast. Particularly relevant to this writing would be Episode 15: The Uses and Abuses of Identity Politics and Episode 30: No One is Bored, Everything is Boring, Everyone is Anxious)

I suppose what I’m trying to express, particularly for other men, is that often times the best actions that are done as an individual – calling out misogynist behavior, taking time to step back and listen in conversation – can be much simpler than it seems, even if it’s also not wrong to admit that it will be insufficient for greater structural change. It is also worth recognizing that the power afforded men isn’t easily turned around into something politically useful, but in a way that can be a useful thing to recognize, particularly for men with little institutional power: what is socially afforded by masculinity is often nothing more than the capacity to get away with cruelty and violence. If that is what you defend, then I don’t have a defense for you. But it’s also, I think, okay to recognize that what is concretely achievable in recognizing that power will probably be somewhat limited. But those limitations are particularly evident when trying to change yourself through an internalized process without interacting with others, particularly interacting with others with an interest in changing things. Recognizing that structural benefits allow one to more easily be a harmful person, but not having much that supports being a good person can be traumatic, which can be further ingrained when change is further and further internalized without a real sense of social practice or engagement. When one becomes aware of tendencies beyond oneself that allow behavior and harm to be excused or unrecognized (even by the one inflicting it) then it necessarily means that it cannot be so simple as “changing one’s view,” or deciding for oneself what is positive behavior, or re-framing one’s own narrative. When Christman makes the point “to put it simply: Every social encounter between men is potentially a fistfight. You learn this in elementary school and never forget it. No wonder, as we age, that we ignore each other, let our friendships wither, cancel plans” it’s really less poignant to me as a reflection on male bonding, but more about his point concerning this impulse to be the protective one, the one that makes contingent plans for disasters: because society lets you be the disaster. Why should a man be ready to protect a woman they’re dating? Because, on some level, they’re aware that being a man is what lets you get away with it. If one recognizes that the power afforded masculinity is violence, surely the best thing one can do is at least try to defend? But if that’s still violence…?[3] One can realize that one doesn’t need to be on the defensive all the time, one can know that a woman is more than capable of taking care of themselves, but there’s a greater social reality that limits any sort of re-framing of masculinity to just make one feel better about oneself. I think, perhaps a bit jokingly, of the spectacle of something like Queer Eye (admittedly, a bit of a punching bag for left-wingers, but still) which emphasizes a kind of Utopian ideal: suddenly, there are people to talk to, to work things through with, to change practices of life. But, at the same time this is put on-screen for entertainment, the people that come in to change our practices and self-image are paid to do so, and the outcome will not necessarily address structural problems because, as the name implies, structural problems go beyond individual behavior. This isn’t to say that changing outlooks or examining our own narratives about others can’t be done, but it’s not a solution itself. Nor is this to say that the burden of fixing behavior and tendencies should fall on others, it is to say that working through things for oneself is social, and that’s even true for someone trying to change their behavior and dismantle power from an empowered identity. So, I think it’s worthwhile trying to find ways and places for men to speak uncertainly, which is, in a way, a way of speaking to invite others who aren’t men to speak confidently. But finding these spaces should also mean trying to find solidarity on issues, ways of actually addressing and discussing issues, and finding ways to be at-ease with not expressing oneself in all situations.

To try and consolidate some of what I’m saying, at least for men who share these concerns: Recognizing that the social power of masculinity is largely a violent power is good, it is also the case that masculinity cannot be wielded like a sword back at the institutions that form it. It is okay to acknowledge a feeling of helplessness that can come from this, particularly a feeling of helplessness that this isn’t a power that is particularly effective for showing solidarity or helping people who are harmed by this social structure. It is okay to find others to talk to, to work through things with, to find other viewpoints with. Talking is essential, but talking with the intent of learning requires one to not talk confidently all the time. Recognize that you do have the power to do things that are healthier, safer, that you can learn, and that this comes in part from learning and working with others – this doesn’t mean others are going to “save” you, just as the social power of being a man doesn’t mean that you inherently have the power to “save” others. And it is worthwhile to recognize that these kinds of personal changes and issues wont always map onto the greater social structure, and vice versa: working on oneself and working to change the world relate to each other, but they aren’t the same.

I know that what I’m writing sounds in some sense like just more self-help. Or perhaps like the “consciousness raising” that came out of Maoist-infused feminism in the 60s and 70s, which I have criticized as a political technique elsewhere. However, what I am trying to communicate is how these methods often end up internalizing these problems and turning them into an issue of “consciousness” which often runs aground. I wonder if discussion of these problems among friends or comrades works better when there isn’t a strict political line that’s being held: making the working-through of things about coming to possible actions rather that saying “are you living up to X non-concrete expectation? If not, self-critique.” This sounds, perhaps, a little too discursive without real action; in many ways it is extremely simplified, but (to risk throwing in some fancy philosophy talk) part of what I hope we can do better is to push through an abstract identity thinking towards a thinking of others we engage with as subjects in their own right.[4] It is perhaps worthwhile to remember that what is at stake is not merely representation and recognition, but a struggle for individual people to be able to actually fully take hold of their lives. This autonomy requires both a fight against oppression as well as the existence of a social body that is able to address the needs of individuals. Much of this likely reads as already obvious, perhaps frustratingly obvious to some. But I hope this is the kind of thing men can be more okay saying with some certainty while taking the next step of expressing uncertainty and actively asking and listening to try and find out where we can go from here.


[1] Print Citation: Susan Watkins, “Beating the Beadles,” New Left Review 119 Sept/Oct 2019, 153-159.

[2] Besides the linked article also see Dean’s new book Comrade: an Essay on Political Belonging; her essay “Not Us: Me”; and her interviews on This is Hell.

[3] The writings of Bell hooks on love and violence constitute some profound engagements with this issue that are definitely worth looking at. However, recently I think we’ve seen how a depoliticized culture like ours can still coopt these kinds of investigations and engagements into a rather lukewarm form of media criticism or a skepticism from mass party movements that seek structural change beyond symbolic activism.

[4] For a fancy philosophical essay that relates to some of these issues, and that inspired some of what I am thinking about here, consider Peter Dews, Adorno, Post structuralism and the Critique of Identity, NLR I 157, May June 1986 from New Left Review [attached as a PDF above]

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