According to Michael Ian Black, “boys are broken,” and he has the urge to do something about it.
He is reacting in part to the Parkland shooting, but is also participating in a discussion that has been going on for decades, the question of what being a man means in an egalitarian society.
It is worth asking what being a man meant in days gone by. The popular impression is that those times were a man’s world, but the reality is that for most people, life was hard. While there were declarations of superiority in Hellenic philosophy and monotheistic theology, among other systems of thought, for nine or more out of ten human beings during our time since adopting the belief in if not the practice of civilization, there was an effective equality of toil.
The idea that existence might mean more than a daily grind and that everyone deserves a fair chance at the good life is something that could only be given serious consideration as the benefits of surplus of resources became available. As said above, the theoretical assertion of masculine superiority existed. This, however, was only something that could be forced into practice when people had more than enough to eat and enough physical security to enjoy the eating. We can debate at length the degree to which hunter-gatherer societies were matriarchies, but when both men and women are in constant motion to provide themselves with sustenance for that day, there is not much energy left over to insist on one group being better than the other.
With surplus comes the anxiety that what we have put aside for tomorrow will be consumed by rust and moths and barbarians. Herein lies the origin of the perceived need to assert dominance and to claim an ordained role of protector. And as the world has become safer over time — despite the headlines, we are in the least violent period in human history, as Steven Pinker demonstrated in extensive detail in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature — the urgency to use violence to settle disputes has gone down. Just as knights saw themselves become ever more superfluous as the Middle Ages passed, the job of a physically powerful defender is one that looks a lot like the Maytag repairman’s from the commercial — not gone, but also not something that is called for daily.
And yet, popular culture continues the narrative of the powerful male, often to be mocked, but still a reliable character to exploit in telling stories. Action films — good guy, with many flaws, has to fight a swarm of evildoers — trade on this as a stereotype. But other movies play into the concern that Black has raised.
One common plot presents the successful man who has no time for the people in his life — the woman he loves or seeks to win or his children, as the trailer for the upcoming Christopher Robin illustrates — but will be reformed by the end credits. The problem here is that if he had not devoted his time to his work, would he have won over the love interest in the first place? Success takes time and effort, and it is that success that makes the hero attractive.
In a sense, then, Black has a point. We have the luxury of contemplating what being a man means, which gives us time to mock what is claimed as the traditional answer. But this does not mean that boys are broken. As he admits, “most men will never turn violent. Most men will turn out fine. Most will learn to navigate the deep waters of their feelings without ever engaging in any form of destruction.” He would have done a better job to say that a small number of boys are broken, a tiny part of the totality of American manhood has a problem. But nuance does not make good headlines. And humorists often need caricatures.
Reality is more complex. Spend time around teenaged girls, and you will see that they can be as aggressive as boys. In my occasional tours of duty teaching in high schools, I found that when boys are working themselves up to a fight, they engage in a ritual of posing and mouthing off first, and if an adult gets in between before the real action starts, the conflict is diffused. When girls fight, they go at each other with no preliminaries, and it is best to call in the heavy cavalry to separate them.
Which is to say, I have anecdotal evidence, too, for what that is worth. To get at the main point, however, do we need to repair boys?
My answer is no. Apply whatever label you like to the supposed impulses — aggression, competitiveness, energy. As a species, we need those. We can argue at length about the relative merits of competition and cooperation, but progress depends on at least some of the former, and our efforts to medicate and mediate away that aspect of human — not exclusively masculine — nature do not augur well for us.
A better answer is to teach children — boys, if we must be particular — to channel their aggressions into productive employment, building, winning, discovering. More importantly, though, we should discard the notion that being male obliges a person to act in stereotypical ways. A society that allows us time to speculate on sex roles is a society that has the resources to make individuality practical. And a society that can benefit from individuality.
Teach boys that they are not expected to fit our preconceived notions of what they are, but are instead free to be who they are. We will require them not to harm innocents, and we should ask them to add to the store of human achievement, and these things do not require conformity to established norms.
Of course, doing that would help everyone, not just boys. But it would also help boys, and that is what Black says he wants to do.🔷
(This piece was first published on The Blog!)