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Looking at ‘Man’ through the wrong prism?

April 24, 2014

Author’s Note: I’m tackling a more controversial subject today, and one that – despite the title – I would wish both genders to read. I want to say at the outset that the main point of this post is to get around the idea of looking at man vs. woman when considering the concept of ‘a man’. The way to look at the concept of manliness is in how a man differs from a boy, not how a man differs from a woman. But to get to that point, we’re going to have to discuss the status quo – that a man is defined in how he does or doesn’t differ from a woman. And going through that discussion – though I don’t endorse any of the views put forth – may be misconstrued as sexist. I wish to reiterate that the point of this article is to get past that false dichotomy. So, please, take a moment before finalising your thoughts on the article!  

How do you view the concept ‘man’ ? Is it a meaningless construct? Does it exist to separate men and women?

When I started this blog I made the point that you can choose to view a given situation through multiple lenses, and that changing your lens can give you new insights. So, when I look at the concept ‘man’ through the two lenses mentioned above, I think of another way to view the construct given my unease at using the lenses mentioned (for reasons I’ll detail below) . I think that the insights gathered from the lenses above are limited and have been beaten to death.

But what’s the alternative? You’ll have to wait awhile for that – keep reading!

I spend a lot of time looking into the idea of a ‘the English Gentleman’ as an ideal, but I don’t have a penchant for analysing manliness, the different versions of feminism, or differences between the sexes. It’s a dead end to view man as ‘not woman’ or anything similar. When you’re looking for differences between the two genders, you’re going to reach one of the following conclusions:

a)      Unnaturally restrict what a “gender” can do, think etc.

If we’re trying to find differences between genders, we’ll naturally first turn to what many men do, and then begin to see if women do the same. But, we’re going to struggle to find categorical differences. That is, things that no man or woman does that the other gender does. Try making a list. You’ll struggle. Immensely. And if you do come up with a list, well, there’s likely a problem with that list (see point c).

But, we might wish to argue that there are categorical differences, its just that some people in the other gender are aberrations, or acting ‘abnormally’. If we say something like “men don’t cry” , but women do, somebody will respond and say ‘but men do cry…’ . That’s when some people will jump in and say “but real men…”

Going down that line simply leads to artificial constructs of what a gender is like, and is utterly unsatisfactory. Its a repressive, overly simplistic conception that has rightly been fought against these past decades.

b)      Find absolutely no differences between genders and say ‘man’ is a useless construct

So, we don’t decide to try and create artificial categorical differences. We look back at our list and find no categorical differences. Do we then decide that the genders are hardly different and one and the same?

I think not. Saying the genders are one and the same ignores the propensity of various genders to prefer one activity or mode of response to another, among other things.

Now, I know some people are going to claim that last sentence was utterly sexist (endorsing this view b) and false. Well, I’d possibly, possibly grant that. But if we endorse this view b we’re really going nowhere. “There’s no differences. We’re all the same. Let’s just live with it…” is in a way true, but in endorsing this view we’re saying the construct of ‘man’ should just disappear. Which is to discard the benefits of a more traditional view of men – how does a man differ from a boy?

But first, the third solution:

c)       Define genders by trivial things

I asked you to make a list of categorical differences. Now, we’ve just gone through the ideas that you falsely created a categorical difference, or that there are no differences. I mean, maybe there was some tiny difference you thought up, but it wasn’t enough to counter view b…

But many of you probably came up with what you thought was a very obvious categorical difference. Biology. Surely, there are biological differences we can’t deny that differentiate man and woman?

Yes, there are differences, and I don’t deny that. Men and women are biologically different. But do we want to define them based on this difference? Perhaps you went for option B because you didn’t think biology was a ‘real difference’?

Well, I disagree with option B, but I most certainly say that the idea of a ‘man’ is more than just a biological byword. To say someone is a man because of his biology is trivial, dehumanising, and meaningless. We should care about other things and want to differentiate on other matters. Virtues, ideals, actions, deeds… not a biological difference.

So how then should we view the concept of ‘a man’?

We talk of boys turning into young men, and young men growing up to be men because we view a man as different from a boy. A man is a grown-up. A boy is a child.

When we think of a man we ascribe certain qualities to him that aren’t unique to his gender. We talk of the Renaissance man though nobody denies that a woman can have many talents. We talk of a gentleman’s manners despite the fact that a lady has manners. We talk of Rennaissance men and gentlemen not in terms of their biology, but their qualities. So…

When we talk of ‘men’ let us talk about it through the prism of how a man differs from a boy, and draw on these rich legacies.

A boy does something because he told to do something. A man does it because he respects others and recognises his need to contribute to a household. A boy is not self-sufficient and able to pull his own weight. A man is. A boy consumes. A man creates and provides. A boy may not know what to do in many a situation – what to say when a loved one dies, how to act at a formal event… The well-heeled man should be better equipped.

In this way, a man is a person who has grown up from being a boy. He has mastered all that we wish a boy to learn. He knows what he needs to know. He acts as he should. He is the embodiment of all that is noble in a male. Or, at least, that is the ideal.

Very few boys are going to become the embodiment of everything that is noble. Perhaps we shall call them ‘men’ for embodying many of the noble traits. Perhaps when societies used to hold rites of passage, they were testing whether certain virtues were met. Meet those virtues, and you were noble in many ways.

When we view men as different from boys we assess males on their ability. We encourage them match up to noble standards. We drive them on to nobility. When we view men as merely biologically different from women we drive them to nothing… When we invent differences between men and women we regress and drive men backwards.

I know what outcome I consider best. Do you stand with me?

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