VIU Student Press

Masculinities and mental health

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When we start to think about masculinity, what are some ideas that come to mind? Are they qualities we like? Qualities we’ve chosen? Qualities we feel are unattainable, unpleasant, or even alienating? If internal definitions of masculinities are something that we don’t even like, well, then who the hell is making the playbook anyway? Feminism is asking men to look critically at the ideas we hold about masculinities. If for nothing but the sake of our love lives, it behooves us that we might listen to the growing body of social advocates. As the wheels of our progressive society continue to turn, we move closer to a world of more social, economic, racial, and environmental justice. Within this sea-change of human expression comes many challenging and nuanced philosophical questions. And, we are duty-bound by our peers to consider these significant ideological shifts as we move away from the social expectations of past generations.  Even though this can be emotionally uncomfortable, in time we will learn about their beauty and significance.  

From the Indigenous Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to learning about Lateral Violence, men have an obligation to self-assess their philosophies of gender and culture, and look profoundly inward. The idea of Lateral Violence is this concept that folks who are more-or-less in similar social stratas can be jerks to their own neighbors. We can see how this works with the idea of masculinity and competition. From athletic to capitalist ideas of competition, we can see a paradigm emerge in how we evaluate another person’s worth. What we see in the virtue of competition is a pattern of making others feel less than. This is not to say we should abolish competition or sports, but it suggests that we look at the social pattern competition creates and its impact on us. The naivety that a man can always be winning is foolish and unsustainable. If our sense of belonging and connectivity is rooted in being superior to others, we are on a fast track to isolating ourselves, hiding our flaws in shame, and hurting other people’s feelings—all of which will have a negative impact on our mental health.

When we encounter these social conflicts or get called out for our dickishness (or internalized racism, homophobia, and misogyny) what is our emotional response?

How masculinity became defined by a loathing of weakness was long in the making. In today’s political climate, where we see much aspiring social upward mobility (particularly from non-white non-male populations) we are wise to consider the emotional implications of witnessing other’s empowerment. White men, like myself, might unfortunately interpret this, not as the emancipation of others, but as a threat to our competitive edge. But, gentlemen, in our lifetimes we will watch women of color surpass us. We will see programs developed to support people whose histories are unfamiliar to us. And we’ll be working alongside and communicating with a whole rainbow of diversity. This is inevitable, and us white dudes will come up short.  How we cope with the existential crisis of relinquishing white-supremacist patriarchal ideologies will largely determine our sense of well-being and belonging in a diverse, progressive society. Save yourselves the cognitive dissonance and get on board with this spectacular social evolution.

There are all sorts of good rationale to be politically outraged: housing affordability, stagnant wages, the impact of automation, endless war, and socially isolating technology. But your neighbor’s achievement is not one of them. There are top-down oppressive factors which are exacerbating these symptoms of social unrest for all of us, and yes, some more than others. Homosexuality, multi-faith communities, and women of color are not the enemy of national prosperity. When we encounter these social conflicts or get called out for our dickishness (or internalized racism, homophobia, and misogyny) what is our emotional response? We’re going to get called out, we’re going to be made to feel bad for our actions. It’s uncomfortable, but it is a bearable and worthwhile effort. At its most basic, looking inward has profoundly improved my sexual relationships.

This social justice business is a deeply emotional problem with a long road ahead. There is no simple answer, so get accustomed to not knowing. Get accustomed to recognizing our emotional stuntedness. Unlearning our prejudices is a big part of that. We’ll get caught being dickish. Obviously try to be less dickish, but also when you get called out, look at the call-out from the other person’s perspective. That person who appears to disapprove of you, well, they’re using their voice, their emotional energy, and time to try and make their world a better place for themselves. Aren’t we all entitled to the pursuit of happiness? It’s so easy to fall into the trap of emasculating people that care about social issues—don’t do that. Care is a quality belonging to masculinities, it shouldn’t take fatherhood to come to grips with this. Calling someone a wimp or a snowflake ostracizes us from huge populations and entrenches mutually hostile ideas rather than building mutual understanding.  This inclusivity stuff involves white men and it’s okay to be uncertain and to have spaces where we’re not welcome. Give up trying to lead and learn to listen. These hang-ups of dominant masculinities can inhibit our interconnectivity, stifle our personal growth, and make us emotionally isolated. Part of overcoming that emotional inhibition is questioning our masculinities.

By determining the definitions of masculinity for ourselves, by acknowledging gentler needs and by courageously softening our masculinities, we open ourselves up to the immense beauty and cathartic pain of existence.

If you happen to be at VIU on September 29 and 30, there is a show being performed at the Malaspina Theatre called “Be A Man.” I’ll be attending on Sept. 30 to write a review and will be holding a beer-night afterwards to talk about my favorite subject: Dicks.