Wednesday, 17 December 2014

On Belief and Masculinity

By Tony Barone

As funny as it may sound, people believe what they believe because they are assuming that it is the truth.

To borrow from Socrates, ideas about gender differences, philosophy, religion, the nature of society, one’s own values, are all things worth revisiting and examining. Only by comparing her own ideas with those of others can a person be certain that at any given time she is making choices and decisions based on a true set of personal values.

A person can, of course, believe whatever he wants. It is, however, crucial to understand that there’s a difference between beliefs built on a foundation of truth, and beliefs based on the tenuous and fallible foundation of popular consensus or socialization. The idea that each of us could have been acting on faulty information for our entire lives is a difficult one to swallow.

In your life look around and notice how many of your friends and family still hold on to ideas about the world, about life, about themselves, which they learned or developed as children.  From there, recognize that you may have ideas that are similarly incorrect or incomplete, and that there’s no easy way to tell whether your ‘story’ is missing something.

It is incredibly difficult to picture a world in which these beliefs are incorrect. It would be like growing up implicitly trusting the morality of your oldest friend only to find out later in life that he had been engaging in gender-based violence for years. This would be an exceptionally difficult mental jump to make.

So, what does all this have to do with masculinity and gender-based violence? Why am I meditating on the nature of belief for the Men’s Team blog?

Well, belief has everything to do with masculinity. Christopher Ford has written that there is nothing natural about masculinity. Rather, it is a set of ideas – beliefs – about what it means to be a man. These beliefs must be taken very seriously because at times they have had and continue to have abhorrent consequences.

25 years ago, a gunman entered a school in Montreal and massacred 14 female students.  Why? He was enraged because he believed those women were involved in studies meant for men. 

Now, not all beliefs about the nature of masculinity have negative consequences. For example, some traditional ideas about courage and devotion to family are difficult to see as anything but honorable. Still, these more positive characteristics cannot be separated from a broader system of belief that men are taught to act and identify with. These beliefs have everything to do with placing value on strength and violence and emotional detachment at the expense of care, vulnerability, and affect, and the consequences are experienced by both women and men.

Men have adopted these traditional beliefs as truths, and those who diverge from them are ridiculed by their peers. From a young age, children, boys and girls, are socialized into an understanding of their gender by the adults who shape their lives. Let’s use the question of emotional vulnerability as an example. In most cases, boys learn that they shouldn’t discuss issues about emotional problems, as to do so is deemed to be “like a woman,” or “not manly.”

A boy who experiences this conditioning will then be discouraged from seeking emotional support and will become increasingly emotionally-distant in his dealings with other peers. In the long-term, the result is that men are more likely than women to have a greater difficulty in identifying and expressing their true emotions, their true beliefs.

This is just one example of the way in which a belief in the inherent value of masculinity learned in childhood informs the ways in which men live their lives.

Given the incredible harm men have caused to women (and other men) based on such collective beliefs in masculinity,  it is time we started to do the difficult work of looking within and reevaluating whether those beliefs serve the interests of others and ourselves.

We have the responsibility of socializing future generations of men. We need a new set of beliefs to teach them.

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