16 June, 2009

On Weakness

Western* men are not to be weak; we are expected to always be strong. A moment of public weakness is considered humiliating, and an inability to deeply cage one's less acceptable emotions (sadness, hurt, depression, fear, anxiety) is an inexorable mark of heavy shame. As noted in my previous post, we're allowed jocularity, enthusiasm (for sports, money, and women), and stoicism. Deviation from these acceptable expressions is socially punished by labeling an offending man as effeminate or weak and successively isolating him from the in group.

Consider the case of an uncontrollably sobbing man vs. that of an uncontrollably sobbing woman. In the woman's case most everyone's first instinct, regardless of whether it is expressed or not, is empathy and compassion. But if we see a man on the sidewalk sobbing uncontrollably with his head and shoulders bent to his chest in defeat, we first look away and walk by pretending not to notice, wondering if it would wound the man even more if we were to offer a word of kindness (because to recognize his pain is also to recognize his weakness).

It's a simple rule: those who play by the rules may continue playing while those who do not are cast aside and marked as other.

Some societal circles are substantially more insulated from the consequences of not exactly following that rule. Academia is considerably more tolerant of expressional deviation in men than, say, construction. Even so, in academia we are apt to write off a man who is expressing his emotions outside of prescribed means as either eccentric or poorly socialized. Over time, it seems that these men take those labels unto themselves and perpetuate themselves as cover for their (subconscious?) rebellion against the rule. Perhaps it eases their cognitive dissonance.

In order to follow the rule, Western men have to become accustomed to, or at least numb from, cognitive dissonance between what they actually feel and the means with which they are allowed to express it. This is most evident in father-son relationships, especially after the son has grown and struck out on his own. The son may desperately want his father's approval, to hear that his father is proud of him, but he isn't allowed to come right out and say so because it would expose him as insecure and seeking attention to fill that. Meanwhile, the father may very well be proud of his son, but he is discouraged from expressing that for fear that his son will see him, the role model, as weak.

Within popular culture, this tension is evident in the common, and somewhat true, trope of the a woman battling her boyfriend to open up more and share his feelings with her. Often we try to deflect these uncomfortable requests by claiming to not actually feel nearly so much as women**, and this may be partly true because we're socialized not to really examine our own feelings or consider what they may mean. Once again, the reason is because we have been taught that acknowledging weak emotions, admitting that we have been hurt or that we feel something more than our next goal, is itself weak. In effect, vulnerability itself is weakness, and this perpetuates entire populations of men who don't really know what they're feeling or why. And if we as men cannot understand our own emotional selves, how can we accurately consider those of women?

Here as well, advancement in considerate and respectful treatment of women is contingent upon men coming to better understand themselves. Only when we are able to be truthful with ourselves about what we are really feeling can we hope to begin to understand the casually oppressive world we have been taught to create for women. Only then can we begin to help effect change.

We can start by helping to remove the social stigma attached to perceptions of weakness.

*I qualify this with "Western" because I lack knowledge of male, or even female (although for what it's worth, female behaviors seem to be more universal), behavioral expectations in other cultural milieus and as such I don't claim that what I say here applies to them in any way at all.
**Admittedly, there are some women who seem to feel an amazingly large number of different things in astoundingly short periods of time, but perhaps these few are 1) compulsively emotive or 2) exceptions to prove the rule.

1 comment:

D. C. said...

Within popular culture, this tension is evident in the common, and somewhat true, trope of the a woman battling her boyfriend to open up more and share his feelings with her.

Toaster, you're writing (nicely, I might note) about what I long ago called the "Superman syndrome" -- the expectation that men be invulnerable.

However, in my observation the trap is built of a network of mutually-reinforcing expectations which make it extremely difficult to change or defy -- the network is self-repairing.

In your example above, the woman may push her lover to "open up" but be very uncomfortable when he does -- and he learns from this not to repeat the mistake. That kind of response isn't all that remarkable if you think about it, but the requirement that both of them set aside their habits at the same time doesn't improve the chances of success.