Five months ago, at a memorial for my grandmother two days after her death, I spoke about her in front of a room full of people and found myself fighting to hold back tears. I fought them back very hard. Crying, after all, is not what men are supposed to do, even when they just buried their “Safta.” After a few minutes, however, I failed and the tears just came. And though I knew intellectually that this behavior was totally fine and understandable, I still felt deeply embarrassed, like less of a man.
I’ve been thinking about that moment as I read the #YesAllWomen hashtag that has exploded on Twitter in the wake of a misogynist terrorist going on a rampage in Isla Vista. For those who haven’t checked it out yet, it’s an open-source cataloging of the myriad ways in which women -- all women -- must routinely confront dehumanization and the threat (or more than threat) of violence from men. It is something that everyone, male or female, should take the time to look at and reflect on.
I’ll be honest: There’s nothing in the #YesAllWomen thread that really shocked me, because, well, I tend to hang out with a lot of smart, well-spoken women who make Jezebel look like Tucker Max. That said, the #YesAllWomen thread raises an important question: Why do so many men behave so poorly? No, not all men, of course, but enough that virtually every woman in America (and elsewhere) can tell numerous stories about being threatened, and 1 in 6 have been victims of sexual violence.
Many writers have pointed to what is known as “rape culture,” a culture that implicitly and explicitly devalues women, objectifies them, makes men act entitled to their bodies and blames the victim when an assault occurs. That’s certainly part of the problem, but there’s another major contributing factor that I’ve barely seen addressed in this conversation: Men are acculturated to suppress and ignore their emotions and consequently often have absolutely no idea what to do with them.
To be emphatically clear: I am categorically, unequivocally not condoning bad or criminal behavior. Each of us must ultimately be accountable for our actions, and it is never a woman’s fault when she is assaulted; it is the fault of the assailant, and we must do everything possible to eliminate cultural cues that make some men think that it is acceptable to act out their own issues by attacking women.
But just because behavior is inexcusable doesn’t make it inexplicable, and it is therefore not excusing bad behavior to acknowledge the root of that behavior -- which is not autism or some vaguely defined “mental illness.” The overwhelming majority of mentally ill people are dangerous only to themselves. Violence, by contrast, is a result of anger, which is often the extroversion of sadness.
Men are surging with far more aggression-stoking testosterone than women, but they are brought up in a way that makes them uniquely ill-suited to manage anger, sadness or any emotion at all. Consequently, and contrary to popular stereotypes, women are more likely to have constructive ways to deal with difficult emotions and men’s emotions are often out of control. It is therefore not surprising that men are much more likely to be involved in violent crime, including but not limited to sexual crime. It is also not surprising that men are four times more likely to commit suicide than women.
And so the rape problem, the gun violence problem and the suicide problem are all in many respects different facets of the same problem, different symptoms of the same disease: Men are never taught how to deal with difficult emotions, and so they take it out on other people or themselves.
Of course, treating a disease often requires treating symptoms, which is why it is crucial to continue taking steps such as raising male awareness about sexual violence and dealing with firearms. But if we want to address the underlying causes of these issues, then part of the solution must be to construct a healthier form of masculinity that empowers men to deal with complex emotions in positive ways.
Social and emotional intelligence can be learned, after all, but only if we teach it -- to children and adults alike, and especially to men. And considering that it is mostly men who engage in violent or otherwise harmful social behavior, it is only fair that men take responsibility and lead the charge in helping ourselves and our fellow men learn to manage emotions. Women can help, but it’s not fair to put the onus for change on them when they’re already often dealing with our gender’s bad behavior.
In that vein, I’m reminded of something my aunt’s boyfriend said after I spoke through sobs at my grandmother’s memorial. Keep in mind that he’s what I’d call an old-school white guy: Catholic, gray beard, burly in a way that suggests he could kick your butt (but wouldn’t) even though he’s in his 60s. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I never trust a man who doesn’t show how he feels.”
I don’t know exactly how we teach emotional intelligence to generations of men, but I’m pretty sure that “never trust a man who doesn’t show how he feels” is where we start. So let’s make that a Thing.
Guys, who’s with me?