Patrick Ness has written an astounding piece of science-fiction called The Knife of Never Letting Go, which explores what it means to be a man. It is profound and powerful and you should read it. Here I want to take just one idea out of that book and discuss how real it is and how it affects me (and maybe other men like me).
The main character Todd grows up in a harsh dystopian culture that has a rule: in order to become a man (at the young age of 13) a boy has to kill another man. Only blood, only violence can make you a real man. Todd struggles hard with this. He finds he has some emotional block which he interprets as weakness which prevents him from killing, even when he is fighting for survival. In Todd’s mind this makes him weak and contemptible.
We don’t live in that precise dystopia (though elements of our society are pretty damn dystopic), but masculinity in our culture really is based on violence. There is a continuum running from less masculine to more masculine and if you line up behaviors on that continuum you will find that it correlates almost perfectly with the degree of violence.
Sports are more masculine than intellectual pursuits. Football is more masculine than less violent sports. MMA is even more masculine. Jobs and past-times that lead to a muscular physique increasing your capacity for violence are more masculine than jobs that are sedentary. Even among sedentary jobs, a job which puts you in control over other people enabling monetary and verbal violence is more masculine than a job that puts you in a vulnerable position. Perhaps the most masculine thing of all is being in the military and the most masculine military roles are the most specialized toward violence: special forces and the Marines.
With this underlying our definition of masculinity men who are less violent by nature, or who have less capacity for violence, deal with an identity crisis. As a child I was a target of bullying. I never had a movie moment of triumph over my bullies. I never worked up the courage to fight. I just ran for years and years and dealt with a lot of abuse from my peers. I never have been, and never will be athletic. Get any average group of men my age together and I will be in the bottom 15% of ability at any sport. As a father I see similar traits in my boys and I worry about the struggle that is ahead of them.
As a weak man my relationship with masculinity is complicated. I have dealt with feeling inferior. Most of the time I rebel directly against what is supposedly masculine. I hate masculinity, find it oppressive, a source of evil and suffering – and then I hate myself for not having transcended the desire to have six-pack abs and big biceps and be skilled at martial arts. I hate that when choosing activities for my boys I feel like I have to encourage them to do things I have no interest in, but I also know the social cost they’ll pay if they don’t play sports and is it my right to force that toll on them?
Every boy may not be forced to commit murder at 13, but every man in our society will be judged in a million ways on their capacity for violence. Tragically, even the church these days, who supposedly reveres a non-violent savior, lusts after masculine men, while weak men like me wonder what is wrong that we just can’t be killers.
Edit: Submitted for the synchroblog on pacifism at Political Jesus.