As a forewarning, this post is actually more prescriptive than it is argumentative. There is little argument within this post, and instead it’s a suggestion on a method of social change. Of course, as always, it’s open for debate. That’s the whole point. So pick apart as you will and discuss. But the goal of the post is to define a method for pulling apart how society dictates men should act, and what it means to be a man. Incidentally, it’s also about pulling apart patriarchy, which is the force that places demands and constraints on what it means to “be a man.”
It’s surprisingly simple a project for the individual. It just requires monitoring of your giving and withholding the one thing patriarchy holds most dear: Respect.
By respect, I don’t mean the kind way your grandmother told you that you ought to behave towards strangers. Respect in this context doesn’t mean merely showing politeness towards the people you interact with. It’s not the sock-it-to-me sock-it-to-me just-a-little-bit just-a-little-bit kind of respect we usually think of when we hear the word.
This heartier, more robust sense of the word respect is something we need and use to interact as social creatures. We all naturally crave it and seek it, and loathe when it’s taken from us. It’s the fabric that holds together social convention and norms. It’s how we express our approval and disapproval of certain behaviors, actions, attitudes, and dispositions.
Respect is what you give to the people who impress you when you’re not afraid to show it. Respect is what you withhold from people who disappoint or offend you and you want them to know it.
You don’t “owe” this kind of respect to anyone, it’s yours to giveth and taketh awayeth as you please. And you already do it all the time, according to certain values you hold about what kind of behaviors, actions, attitudes, and dispositions you think are admirable, and which ones you find distasteful.
And you express this giving and taking of respect according to those laws all the time. The people you give and take it form usually know you’re doing it. It can be as simple as a glare to communicate disapproval, applause after a rousing speech, a nod of agreement, or folded arms and furrowed brows of disappointment.
Now the best thing about hegemonic masculinity is that it is predicated upon earning the most respect from the most people. A successful machismo hegemonic male will do the best to impress the most, “women want to be with him, and men want to be him,” as the saying goes. While all (or almost all) human beings are creatures driven by the need and desire for this kind of respect and approval, hegemonic masculinity stresses respect’s importance far further than just about anywhere else in society. A “Man” is someone who sleeps with lots of women, because this reinforces to him that lots of women desire him, and thus, respect him. A “Man” is someone who is physically intimidating and not afraid to show it, because physical prowess can mean the threat of violence which means keeping dissenters in line by intimidation. A “Man” is someone who controls the room and the room’s conversation when he’s in it, because everyone wants to hear what he has to say because his voice is the one that matters the most, because his voice mattering the most means everyone respects him.
This makes it remarkably easy to train men who have bought into the system, much the same way you train a puppy dog that just wants you to pet it and give it treats. You scold it and withhold pets and treats when it does things you don’t like, and you give it a little pat on the head when it comes when it’s called. Whoever said men weren’t dogs? At least, the ones who’ve bought into the power structures of patriarchy, and are desperate to earn affection and respect through demonstrating power and dominance via the prescribed social definitions of masculinity.
But that’s the brilliant bit. Those definitions of masculinity, the things we reward men for doing and admonish them for doing, are up for debate. They can be changed over time. While thuggish dominance, sexual conquest, and are what we currently reward men for (thus training them to act as such), we can bend “what it means to be a man” to resemble just about anything.
Chivalry is dead at the moment, because to be chivalrous is to be a ‘white knight,’ and thus, a ‘beta male,’ a meek submissive man said to be hoping to garner affection from women via his ‘feminine’ and ‘girlishly weak’ support for her. But it need not be. We can show respect for chivalry (really just common decency in general) and thus incentivize it, thus pressuring the ‘alpha’ puppy-dog-men to sit-stay-and-play-dead. By which I simply mean that incentivizing common decency will pressure men desperate for those incentives to act decently.
(As a side-note, this does not need to entail broadening the mythic “friend-zone”. Patriarchy has men believing that when they do something good, they’ll be rewarded with romantic affection or sex. Often times this attitude is what people rightly mock white-knights for. Some of them genuinely believe that sticking up for a woman, being a ‘nice guy’ instead of the alternative, means they’re owed sex by society. These attitudes can be admonished just the same as any others. These genuine white knights complain about being friend-zoned and say things like: “I’m a nice guy, but all my female friends do is complain about how they just want to date a nice guy, and none of them want me!”. These kinds of sentiments can be dismissed just the same way as machismo alpha-shit is. You tell the complainer that he’s not owed anything, and that his expecting a reward is pathetic and repulsive. You tell him that he’s not really a ‘nice guy’ if he’s acting in a certain way just for the promise of sex, and that doing so actually makes him just as bad, if not worse, as any other agent of patriarchy.)
Just the same as we can incentivize good behavior, we can admonish bad behavior. Rather than celebrating men who womanize, we can dismiss them. When a friend brags about sexual conquests we can roll our eyes, walk away, or openly mock him. When a man tries to assert physical authority and dominance over another, we can look him in the eye and tell him he’s pathetic, weak, and desperate.
Even when the crowd disagrees, and even when the target individual doesn’t seem to care what you think, those small or large gestures can go a long way. The hegemonic male desperate for respect is watching everyone to ensure he’s earning the maximum amount of it, and when some of it is being withheld, he’ll take notice. And even if he doesn’t the rest of the crowd may. Your individual withholding or offering of respect may force others to question why you’re doing it differently from them.
At first they may mock you for your difference of perspective. You may be a white knight, a beta, a ‘fag’, but some people will hear you. And overtime your values may take root in others, which will inspire more to change. It’s really a grass-roots kind of thing. You just have to be willing to express your approval and disapproval. And you have to remember that when you’re the one doing the distributing or withholding of respect, you’re not the one on trial.