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What Makes a Man?

May 10, 2014

2 weeks ago I wrote an article on the faults of viewing men as different from women. I then tried to adapt that article into a speech for a public speaking competition. The feedback I got from that process led to this very different sounding article. Below is the speech I gave at the competition.

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Ladies and gentleman,

What makes a man? Is it, for example, his facial hair? This is the matter exercising some of the finest minds of our time. A matter of high sociological import. Let me tell you of their research- the dozens of studies that exist to tell men what matters…. You will be astonished.

In our own local hotbed of research – the University of New South Wales – professors Barnaby J. Dixson and Rob C. Brooks recently wrote an article in theEvolution & Human Behaviour journal titled “The role of facial hair in women’s perceptions of men’s attractiveness, health, masculinity and parenting abilities”. The focus of the brightest minds of our time… is on how we’re perceived by others…instead of how we men conduct ourselves – how show traditional virtues. Oh and another study by Australian researchers looked into whether light or heavy stubble was more attractive to the ladies.

Meanwhile our honourable treasurer Joe Hockey is talking about how we all must do our bit to end ‘the age of entitlement’ and that the age of ‘personal responsibility has begun’. And no wonder there’s room to cut the education budget. There’s room to trim the growth in facial hair costs.

Now, maybe Joe’s on the right track… but wrong to say that the age of personal responsibility has begun. Because it hasn’t. One doesn’t become responsible overnight. You don’t just wake up and say “I’m responsible now, dear. Last night I had a dream that showed me how to cook, clean, iron and told me the phone number of a prospective employer…” It doesn’t happen. You acquire personal responsibility over a long time. Years. So too do you acquire other virtues as you grow up.

It is this process that we, as a society must stress to men. Growing up. Becoming better. That you are a man only if you are virtuous.

Now, this is a foreign concept today. You might say “Why does virtue make a man… women have virtues! How does virtue define a man when it also defines a woman?” The idea being that you can’t define something except by how it differs from other things, and that means looking at the only difference we can find – biology. You don’t need 2 words for the same thing, right? Whoever made inflammable and flammable mean exactly the same thing ought to set on fire! So you define men and women by biology, right?

As of last month, that’s not the case in Australia. A person called Norrie won a case proving otherwise. Norrie, born a man, changed gender and became female. Norrie, however, did not associate with the female gender either. She wanted a third category of gender to be registered on her birth certificate. The case made its way to the High Court of Australia. And the judges concluded on April 2nd this year that “a person may be other than male or female and therefore may be taken to permit the registration sought, as ‘non-specific’ .Now stop and think for a moment. The High Court of Australia is saying that Norrie’s female biology does not make Norrie female. That is, there is something else besides biology that makes a man or woman be a man or woman. Of course, the High Court didn’t say what this was… ‘non-specific’ probably they’ve been reading too many indecipherable, jargon laden research papers by the universities…

But there is another definition we haven’t discussed. Virtue. Virtue derives from the Latin word Virtus, which in turn derives from Vir. Vir was the Roman word for man, but it was strongly associated with martial courage and the honour associated with that. But, as the Roman empire expanded it began to include other qualities – industry, fortitude, dutifulness.  But Vir in Latin still translates as manliness. And that’s how we got the modern word ‘virtue’.

And that’s why most young men want to be seen as men, by their peers. To be a man is associated with honour, respect, capability. Young men will go to great lengths to conform to the norms their culture and society set for earning the honourable title of ‘man’. So when we set norms like virtues for boys to achieve, they will try hard to attain those virtues. They will become virtuous.

For 2000 years we knew this. Aristotle said for the Magnanimous Man “Virtues of characters result from following the right habits and the virtues of thinking need teaching, experience and time.” Boys can only become men through work. Then came a different man – the Renaissance Man. His title also derived from hard work – he was not born with all those talent. Note that we do not speak of Renaissance Boys; for they did not exist. They grew into men. Then came the Victorian Gentleman. He was not a gentleman by birth, but by virtue. His self-control, discipline, modesty, industry… his virtues. And this persisted into the early 20th century. We see articles like Robert Littell’s “What Should the Young Man Know” from Harper Magazine in 1933. His question is simply “What are those abilities, skills, or accomplishments… that every man should have to be well rounded and self sufficient… and how can he acquire them?” His answer, as a father was, ‘It is up to me’ to make him grow up well.

But today we see articles like ‘The End of Men’ by Hanna Rosin predicting the development of matriarchal society. “Its the end because men are failing in the workplace” Rosin thunders. And that’s because they are not told to cultivate industry and resolution. They are told to cultivate facial hair instead. As Rosin says “Its the end of men because men are now obsessed with their body hair”. Think of all the waxed movie stars… men aren’t inspired by honour anymore; they’re inspired by appearance. Think of the term ‘male’. He’s a male. He’s a man. Not the same. That’s because male is a strictly biological term. The Oxford Dictionary gives the definition of male as ‘of the sex that reproduces by fertilising egg cells produced by the female.’ Not quite as inspiring as being the hero on the battlefield, eh?

Man. It may seem like such a simple word. But it is more than a word. It is a title of honour that spurred men onto higher virtues for 2000 years. It is a title that has the potential to spur men on to greater heights today. Heights that will benefit society as a whole. But only if we start thinking of how men differ from boys and make them earn the title of ‘man’.

Ladies and gentleman, make man different from male. Make ‘man’ a title of honour. Make society strive to be virtuous.

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A much better article than the previous one, wouldn’t you say? That’s where work, editing and research gets you. But it wasn’t enough to get through to the 3rd round of finals in this public speaking challenge. Aside from trailing one or 2 sentences while speaking, the adjudicator said there wasn’t quite enough relevance and impact. That is, what would having virtuous men mean?

I thought it was too obvious to mention, but… It means kindness in the streets, a friendliness among strangers, a reduction in corruption (ICAC anyone?) and so on. For instance, the Abbott government is foolishly treating the ‘budget emergency’ (a manufactured spectre) as a spending problem, not a revenue problem. And that is because self-interest makes people particularly averse to tax rises and such. Now, the budget and its history can be an article for a week’s time,  but the point is that if ‘duty’ and ‘self-sacrifice’ were to be strived for over ‘self-interest’ we might see an increase in political will and reform. And that’s just one example.

One other point the adjudicator mentioned was that the speech was perhaps a little useless for the female audience. This was a conundrum I fought over. Did I have enough time to prove the history of females and virtue as well in 8 minutes? No. I also did not have the historical knowledge to back up my case as I did here. BUT, we ought to be judging women on virtues as well. We talk of the ‘objectification of women’ and ‘hyper-sexualisation’ as problems because it treats women based on biology. And I agree. Just as we should treat men in how they should differ from boys, let us treat ladies in how they differ from girls.

I want to close this (long) article with a quote from this article, which was a source for some of the ideas in my speech: (Note that the bolded emphasis is mine.)

“Many of you might think it’s stupidly archaic that men care about whether they’re manly or not, and they just shouldn’t give a rip. But I’m a pragmatist. Men have always cared about their status as men and probably always will. Even when men say they don’t care about manliness, they usually couch it in a way that shows that they’re actually more manly because they don’t care about being manly! They try to defeat gender normativity with… gender normativity. Hubba-wha?

I’d argue that instead of trying to convince men not to care (which is a losing battle), we’d be better served reviving the classical meaning of these manly descriptors to help inspire men to strive for virtue and excellence. If we want men to be morally courageous and honorable and compassionate, talk about these virtues as being manly courage, manly honor, and manly compassion. You get the idea.”

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