Culture

Understanding the Inescapable Reality of Masculinity

(Gary Cameron/Reuters)
The Poway synagogue shooter and the Poway synagogue hero show the two sides of aggression and violence.

Yesterday I had the privilege of appearing as the lone conservative on a panel at the Milken Global Institute Conference called “What Happened to American Masculinity.” The conversation was excellent, my co-panelists were interesting and gracious, and I left the event more convinced than ever that the great American dispute about masculinity is rooted in differences in starting presumptions and first principles.

First, do you believe “masculinity” as we currently understand it is largely a social construct or rather a culturally influenced response to the very real and profound biological differences between men and women? Second, do you believe that the characteristics of masculinity that are most contentious — characteristics such as “achievement . . . adventure, risk, and violence” — are positive, negative, or neutral?

In my opening remarks, I defined my position rather simply — due to the self-reinforcing and inevitable biological and cultural distinctions between men and women, there are general differences between men and women, and the fact that some men and some women don’t conform to these generalities does not render the generalities invalid.

Thus, in general, boys and young men are more physical than girls, more aggressive than girls, and more violent than girls, and they take greater risks than girls. This is neither good nor bad; it just is. Aggression isn’t a vice or a virtue. It’s simply a characteristic, one to be molded to virtuous ends by a healthy family and a healthy culture. Even violence isn’t inherently and always wrong, and molding a young man to be effective in the lawful application of force can be of immense value to society.

Yet, increasingly boys and young men are being taught that there is something wrong with their essential nature. That it is their task to deny it and suppress it. That their nature is incompatible with modern life, and that it’s dangerous, especially to women and girls. And that, since not everyone is the same, arguing that there’s even such a thing as a male norm is inherently oppressive. It creates a “man box.”

Combine this ideology (which is often prevalent in progressive-dominated schools and colleges) with the sad fact of widespread fatherlessness, and tens of millions of young men are raised without effective male mentors in an environment that fails to accommodate or even denigrates their very nature. Is it any wonder that boys are flailing in school? Is it any wonder that so many young men are in crisis? Is it any wonder that boys turn to male peers as their models? But boys were not intended to be raised by peers, but by dads.

In some quarters, this frustration with the denial of inherent masculinity has led to an opposite error — indulgence. Aggression, for example, isn’t an inherent vice, but neither is it an inherent virtue. Channeled improperly it leads to abuse and exploitation. It leads to the grotesque behavior we’ve seen time and again in the Me Too era. Powerful men who indulge in their aggression and appetites can become truly monstrous, and the fact that some of those aggressive, powerful men also happen to oppose feminists or “own the libs” does not make them any more acceptable.

The proper response to the reality of general masculine characteristics isn’t denial or indulgence. It’s development. Last Friday, a lone gunman walked into a synagogue in Poway, Calif., and attempted to massacre the congregants. He opened fire when he entered, and a courageous woman named Lori Kaye lost her life shielding the rabbi from the incoming bullets. As the congregation fled, a man named Oscar Stewart (we should report and remember the names of heroes) ran directly towards the gunfire. He yelled at the shooter, threatening to kill him.

The shooter was so startled that he fled, and Stewart pursued him to his car and pounded on his window until an off-duty Border Patrol officer named Jonathan Morales fired into the car.

Think about that moment. Both Stewart and the shooter were aggressive. Both Stewart and the shooter were violent. But one man’s aggression was courageous. One man’s violence was necessary.

We speak often of instilling men and women with purpose. We know that a sense of purpose can be a firewall against despair and hopelessness. But with young men, our task is more specific. It’s to instill him with a sense of virtuous masculine purpose. How does he cultivate his essential nature to virtuous ends — especially in the face of the twin challenges of ideologies that will say that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the pursuit itself and with a developing, high-tech economy that deprives many millions of men of the opportunity to cultivate and use their inherent physical strength and sense of adventure of their work.

Let’s face it. It’s hard to feel like there’s a distinctive masculine way to inhabit a cubicle.

But what used to happen more naturally must now happen more intentionally. Men need to cultivate physical strength even if physical strength isn’t necessary to their daily lives. They should identify as protectors even when immediate threats aren’t evident. Did Oscar Stewart believe he was in immediate danger when he went to his synagogue last Friday? And our culture and our people need to stop mocking and belittling men when they pursue stereotypically “manly” hobbies and activities. Male friendships are vital, and male friendships flow organically from male pursuits.

The bottom line is this: Masculinity exists as a biological and cultural reality. It shouldn’t be denied. It shouldn’t be indulged. It must be cultivated into virtue. Any other approach creates more pain and oppression than it cures.

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David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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