Tuesday, March 20, 2018

On Masculinity

Pankaj Mishra, author of Age of Anger: A History of the Present, wrote an interesting article in The Guardian last Saturday on the rise of a new idea of masculinity as linked in part to industry:
The moral prestige of Gandhi’s murderer is only one sign among many of what seems to be a global crisis of masculinity. Luridly retro ideas of what it means to be a strong man have gone mainstream even in so-called advanced nations. In January Jordan B Peterson, a Canadian self-help writer who laments that “the west has lost faith in masculinity” and denounces the “murderous equity doctrine” espoused by women, was hailed in the New York Times as “the most influential public intellectual in the western world right now”. . . . 
As manly virtues arose, attacks on women, and feminists in particular, in the west became nearly as fierce as the wars waged abroad to rescue Muslim damsels in distress. In Manliness (2006) Harvey Mansfield, a political philosopher at Harvard, denounced working women for undermining the protective role of men. The historian Niall Ferguson, a self-declared neo-imperialist, bemoaned that “girls no longer play with dolls” and that feminists have forced Europe into demographic decline. More revealingly, the few women publicly critical of the bellicosity, such as Katha Pollitt, Susan Sontag and Arundhati Roy, were “mounted on poles for public whipping” and flogged, Barbara Kingsolver wrote, with “words like bitch and airhead and moron and silly”. At the same time, Vanity Fair’s photo essay on the Bush administration at war commended the president for his masculine sangfroid and hailed his deputy, Dick Cheney, as “The Rock”. . . . It is also true that historically privileged men tend to be profoundly disturbed by perceived competition from women, gay people and diverse ethnic and religious groups. In Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siecle (1990) Elaine Showalter described the great terror induced among many men by the very modest gains of feminists in the late 19th century: “fears of regression and degeneration, the longing for strict border controls around the definition of gender, as well as race, class and nationality”. . . . These majestically male makers of the modern west are being forced to think twice about a lot today. Gay men and women are freer than before to love whom they love, and to marry them. Women expect greater self-fulfilment in the workplace, at home and in bed. Trump may have the biggest nuclear button, but China leads in artificial intelligence as well as old-style mass manufacturing. And technology and automation threaten to render obsolete the men who push and pull things – most damagingly in the west. . . . 
It is as though the fantasy of male strength measures itself most gratifyingly against the fantasy of female weakness. Equating women with impotence and seized by panic about becoming cucks, these rancorously angry men are symptoms of an endemic and seemingly unresolvable crisis of masculinity. . . . Pop psychologists periodically insist that men are from Mars and women from Venus, lamenting the loss of what Peterson calls “traditional” divisions of labour, without acknowledging that capitalist, industrial and expansionist societies required a fresh division of labour, or that the straight white men who supervised them deemed women unfit, due to their physical or intellectual inferiority, to undertake territorial aggrandisement, nation-building, industrial production, international trade, and scientific innovation. . . . Upper-class parents in America and Britain had begun to send their sons to boarding schools in the hope that their bodies and moral characters would be suitably toughened up in the absence of corrupting feminine influences. Competitive sports, which were first organised in the second half of the 19th century, became a much-favoured means of pre-empting sissiness – and of mass-producing virile imperialists. It was widely believed that putative empire-builders would be too exhausted by their exertions on the playing fields of Eton and Harrow to masturbate. . . . 
The first victims of the quest for a mythical male potency are arguably men themselves, whether in school playgrounds, offices, prisons or battlefields. This everyday experience of fear and trauma binds them to women in more ways than most men, trapped by myths of resolute manhood, tend to acknowledge. Certainly, men would waste this latest crisis of masculinity if they deny or underplay the experience of vulnerability they share with women on a planet that is itself endangered."

Sunday, March 18, 2018

On the Necessity for a Public Takedown

When, a couple months back, I read Katie Way's depiction of a date between "Grace" and Aziz Ansari, at first I felt badly for him to be outed as such a crappy date. How embarrassing. Then in the New York TimesBari Weiss responded that Ansari was being asked to be a mindreader. My rejection of that idea led me to a more nuanced understanding of the issue. I commented there,

But then, as is so often the case, a discussion with students in my class clarified the issue even further.

This is an important issue to be raised. It's still seems, based on this conversation with a room full of teenagers, a common problem on dates. Guys will ignore body language and use subtle leaning, pushing, guiding, and grinding as a way to progress an event that isn't explicitly desired by the pushed and leaned upon party. By using movement rather than words, it feels easier to act as if they merely misconstrued the situation. By taking it out of the realm of verbal communication, they can better claim a problem with interpretation instead of straight up consent.

On UW's Mental Health Recommendations

After another suicide on the campus of the University of Waterloo, the university compiled 36 recommendations to try to alleviate the mental health crisis and held (and taped) a forum as well. It really says something about our lives that one of the recommendations is about the process of communicating suicides to students. At my school board, when I was a union rep, we had long conversations on this same topic. Suicide is now common enough to elicit developing a standard operating procedure for WHEN it happens.

We are clearly in the midst of a profound mental health crisis everywhere, not just in the universities. But because we're still on shaky ground trying to determine the cause of the problem, it's so hard to find the best solution. I had a good discussion with my class about Johann Hari's Lost Connections, and they were quite defensive at the suggestion that anxiety and depression are anything but biological conditions. People with these conditions are "actually sick," they insisted. Of course they are. But we can be sick without the cause of the illness being an inborn chemical imbalance. Clearly we can get lung cancer from living in a city where we swim though polluted air on our daily commute. So, like particulates physically affect our lungs, loneliness, trauma, ongoing stress, a lack of control over our environment, losing hope for the future, and perfectionism physically affect our brains. The effects can be seen in an MRI. It's no less real and no less an externally imposed condition in our brains than pollution is in our bodies.