In this series of posts entitled Unanswered Letters, I’m sharing commentary on unpublished Letters to the Editor I’ve written that speak to pressing psychological and cultural issues. In this week’s segment, I’ll focus on the crisis of masculinity and responses on both sides of the aisle that exacerbate the problem rather than help us find our way out. By critically examining these, it’s my hope that we’ll have a better map for finding our way back on both sides of the divide! Even if you disagree with my statements, please read on, and share your comments!
First principles. In order to have a healthy society, there needs to be a proper and conscious balance of yin and yang (in the individual and the collective), the archetypal masculine and feminine that integrates the seemingly contradictory yet complementary facets of nature. When either of these forces are out of alignment or are being represented unconsciously, psychologically, we are in trouble!
This trouble has been brewing for a while, yet it has found its most unhealthy expression in the unconscious yang of the current president, an individual who is so unabashedly pugnacious, insulting, egotistical, and unrelated–hallmarks of toxic masculinity–that he relishes his own divine right to power, stops at nothing to stamp out critics, and regularly denigrates, objectifies, and dehumanizes other actors.
Exercising unconsciuos yang will not resolve the masculinity crisis, but instead will mask the problem and prolong the underlying pain. This form of masculinity originates in the phallic stage where naked power, domination, and control–if mediated and tempered properly–get transformed into healthy assertiveness, discriminating authority, and constructive competition. Without this crucial process, masculinity stays in a primitive, volatile, and poorly differentiated form, and coalesces into a dangerously unconscious yang.
Think here of a samurai without training in using his sword swinging indiscriminately as compared to the one who has forged his own blade and knows how and when to use that sword.
Freud noted long ago that it is the through the internalization of the father principle (resolution of the oedipal complex) that boys are able to learn how to become healthy stewards of masculine power and to develop the beginnings of a new and constructive relationship to the feminine. This is also where an important part of relatedness and morality develop in the form of the superego.
The superego is the psychological function that tempers the greed and selfishness that go along with our grandiose and omnipotent impulses to possess and dominate. The relationships that emerge alongside our superego humanize us and helps us to forge create mutual, respectful, and egalitarian connections. Without these, we would feel entitled to take and grab whatever we wanted, with concern only for our own desires. I am thinking directly here of the model of our incumbent president, and his highly regressive overcompensation for threats to masculine possession and omnipotence.
Absent this empathic connection, it is easy to see how we arrive at the devaluation of the feminine. At the micro level, this translates into objectification and abuse at one end of the spectrum and poorly tuned, insensitive relating at the other. On a macro scale, it translates into abuse and mistreatment of the environment itself (Mother Earth).
I wrote the following Letter to the Editor in response to Adam Nossiter’s 5/30/17 article “Macron Quickly Assumes a Presidential Attitude.”(https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/30/world/europe/emmanuel-macron-france.html
It was a way of showcasing the how America is going backwards in its attempts to reconcile the challenge and strains on modern masculinity-reverting to an immature and underdeveloped form of masculinity that defensively problematizes the creative growth of men.
The Handshake Felt Round The World
In the simple gesture of the white-knuckled handshake between Messieurs Macron and Trump reported in Adam Nossiter’s recent article, we see the beginnings of a new masculinity wrestling with the old–a declaration of a 21st century masculinity willing to be more complex, more contradictory, more measured, and ultimately, more human.
Psychologically speaking, Mr. Macron has embraced his phallic masculinity and tempered it with a genital masculinity that is related, receptive, and creative. Using yang energy in a discriminating and conscious way–we are told Macron deliberately planned for this symbolic handshake-he knows how to balance his strength, like a good Jedi Master, with the yin, a reasoned and emotionally intelligent framework, ready both for discussion and if necessary, possible battle.
Poised to open the way for a more conscious, discriminating, and mindful approach to both his political friends and adversaries, Macron seems to answer the quandary of men struggling to balance their relationship to healthy authority and relatedness, and hopefully provides a necessary counterpoint to Trump’s facile solutions to our current crisis of masculinity.
2. Throwing Out The Patriarchs With the Patriarchy
Another concerning, but more subtle trend over the past 10-20 years has been an escalation in the rhetoric of mistrust, suspicion, and neglect regarding the value of patriarchs (and men more generally) and an all-too-simplistic conflation of them with negative elements of the patriarchy. While I agree that feminists have done a major societal good by questioning the abuses, oppression, and problems of authoritarian patriarchal structures, and that on a number of fronts this has helped wide swaths of people–women and men alike, those with privilege and those who are marginalized–it has also had some problematic and likely unintended consequences.
Metaphorically speaking, the chemotherapy has sometimes failed to be properly targeted and instead has undermined healthy aspects of the yang that are crucial for the proper balancing of the culture. Moreover, there has been an all too simplistic credo among some feminists that men don’t really need any more support or power than they already had. ‘Beside it’s our turn’ now is another rationalization for the neglect of this vital issue.
Put simply, feminism has at times neglected to be able to view men from their own perspective and in their own language and has not provided enough of a constructive and a compelling framework for them to be valued and appreciated in their own unique ways–as patriarchs, for example. Ironically, it has led to some of the conditions that are setting the course of men backwards further and faster.
It is essential to bring back a healthy appreciation for the patriarch in the patriarchy just as the world over is celebrating and empowering girls and women in their multifaceted splendor.
Here’s my letter in response to Jessica Valenti”s 7/25 “What Feminists Can Do For Boys” Opinion Piece (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/25/opinion/feminists-misogyny-patriarchy.html
As a psychologist in college counseling, I’ve noticed a trend of throwing out the good and valuable aspects of patriarchs in our culture in favor of a one-dimensional ‘uber-oppressor’: the patriarchy. In countless sessions, I’ve seen firsthand the detrimental and confusing impact this has had on young men, trying to make sense of the complicated and contradictory messages about their worth, power, and value.
While I appreciate and applaud Jessica Valenti’s call to arms to help our boys, it’s crucial to acknowledge feminism’s unfortunate and ironic contribution to this lack of consideration for them and the overcompensations in response that have led to the current president’s success.
Men have always had and still have more dimensions than any ‘ism’ deems it guilty of and it’s high time for their humanity to be embraced and supported despite any history of privilege or power. That would be a good thing for all of us!