Considered Harmful

On the APA Guidelines for the Psychological Practice with Boys and Men

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A still from Gillette’s Ad, “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be”

Earlier this year, Gillette made headlines with an advertisement that questioned if masculinity is really at its best. Some saw the advertisement as a challenge for men to take the stand and defend those who are weaker. Many more saw it as an attack on masculinity. (Currently, 2/3 of viewers on YouTube dislike the video, if that statistic has any meaning.) Though I have my own thoughts about the underlying motives of this advertisement, the APA released a far more explicit attack on masculinity.

Only weeks before Gillette, the American Psychological Association published new and controversial guidelines for dealing with boys and men. After a grueling thirteen years of research by the brightest minds of our generation, they came to the conclusion that “traditional masculinity — marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression — is, on the whole, harmful”.

Naturally, this drew the ire of many a conservative blogger. However, most of the discussion centers around the APA press release (the source of the aforementioned quote), instead of the guidelines themselves. If you’re interested, I found the guidelines here [PDF], and sat down to glance over them.

The core thesis of the APA’s paper is that masculinity has no concrete definition. Different societies and cultures have varying standards for masculinity, and therefore there is no definition but what culture declares. From the article,

No, APA, it is not “common” to pluralize masculinity. I understand you live in an ivory tower, and limit your interactions to an incestuous echo chamber of ideologues — but for the rest of us on the outside, masculinity is singular.

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Remember boys, sex is just important as breathing, eating, and sleeping! And certainly more important than health, family, and morality. (Aside, treating sex like this seems far more responsible for men’s problems than “traditional masculinity”.)

The central mistake the guidelines make is eradicating any common ground for masculinity. “You see, society and life circumstances dictate what masculinity is,” they boldly assert, as if psychology had a basis to make such a claim. If society declares masculinity to be a certain thing, then masculinity must be that thing!

For those who support this worldview, I have some questions. Who is to blame for society’s current definition of masculinity? Furthermore, if society has already defined masculinity incorrectly, what makes you think it will do a better job this time around? If masculinity can’t be defined, why even write a guideline for it?

Imagine I was was writing a manual for repairing trucks — except I start with the assertion that depending where you live, society’s concept of “truck” could include cars, motorcycles, airplanes, televisions, organic produce, and the color blue? A sane person would say that if I don’t have a concrete understanding of what a truck is, I have no business telling others how to repair them.

What then, is man?

Defining and classifying things is a difficult task, as I’ve written about in the past. What seems like a simple and straightforward definition often falls apart with the slightest bit of scrutiny. Look what happened after New York classified “hot dogs” as a sandwich for tax purposes.

As the Twitter debate raged on, someone tried to create a prescriptive system for classifying food based on how the food was “packaged”. For example, food with bread on three sides was a taco. On the face this seems reasonable, but does this mean hotdogs are not sandwiches, but tacos?

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In the same way, defining a man is difficult. Even the Greek philosophers of old struggled to define man. As legend goes, Plato once declared that man was a featherless biped (to much applause). Diogenes, finding this definition lacking, found a chicken. After plucking its feathers, he brought it into Plato’s lecture room and proclaimed, “Behold, Plato’s man!”

When trying to define something, it’s helpful to use examples that are representative of what you want to define. Knives come in many forms — like kitchen knives, pocket knives, and scalpels. However, the quintessential thing that makes a knife isn’t the size, shape, or usage — it’s the blade. Take that away, and you have little more than a handle left over. By studying a variety of different knives, we can discern what is the common and essential characteristic.

If you ask Google for a list of representative women, it will return an inspirational list as long as my arm. Rosa Parks, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Marie Curie, Princess Dianna, Amelia Earheart, Oprah Winfrey… the list goes on and on. A common thread between all these women is that they used their intellect, spoke with grace, overcame adversity, broke cultural norms, and risked their well being to improve society.

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However, searching for “famous men” comes up with a different sort of list. Here’s 28 men who are feminist. Or 50 men that are good looking. Further down the page, the search results get darker. A list of famous men whose careers were destroyed with sexual scandals, abuse, and infidelity. Both men and women need role models to inspire them, but it seems that society is wanting for male role models. Imagine trying to describe a knife to someone, but the only representative sample you have is a plastic spoon.

If you want further evidence of this problem, go ask a group of school boys who they think represents masculinity. Perhaps Chuck Norris and Arnold Schwarzenegger, famed for their over-the-top action movies? Maybe Batman, or Captain America? (Do fictional characters even count?) The one answer I got in common from the three students I asked was “PewDiePie” — a YouTube celebrity famous for playing video games.

If the only examples that we have of masculinity are Batman, Chuck Norris, Bill Cosby, and PewDiePie; it’s no wonder that the APA declares traditional masculinity “harmful”. Batman is known for being emotionally stunted, which inhibits his ability to socialize with others and overcome the death of his parents. Chuck Norris is known for round-house kicking everything that moves, and carrying rocket launchers in the back of his truck. PewDiePie, for isolating himself in virtual world. Perhaps worst of all, Bill Cosby, once hailed as America’s Dad, is known for being a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

If the only examples that we have of masculinity are Batman, Chuck Norris, Bill Cosby, and PewDiePie; it’s no wonder that the APA declares traditional masculinity “harmful”.

The New Man: Now With 100% Less Chest

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Look at these mindless Neandrathals, they’re all the same.

On the surface, Gillette’s approach to treating masculinity is commendable. “Respect women! Stand up for the oppressed!” they shout to thunderous applause. But if you listen carefully, beneath the roars of the crowd, you hear a silent whisper: “You men are all the same: mindless Neanderthals that need to be taught how to behave.”

This is almost straight out of CS Lewis’ “The Abolition of Man”:

In this way, the Gillette ad makes men without chests. “Teach our young to stand up to bullies and cat callers!” they cry. Meanwhile, the APA strips away very tools that make this possible — stoicism, aggression, competitiveness. Instead of advocating for the full character of a man, they reduce it to a set of desirable behaviors.

This passage seems specifically relevant, and spells out the dystopian future that lies ahead, should the APA succeed in redefining masculinity:

Who can argue against the scientific technique of the APA? It’s a bunch of people with PhD’s upon PhD’s. This is their masterpiece of thirteen years, an attempt to mold masculinity into something… less offensive. Their research has been backed with research since the dawn of the new millennium. This new idea of masculinity is obviously better, molded just the way we want it to be.

CS Lewis was right, the conditioners hate the conditioned. As CNN anchor Don Lemon once said, “We have to stop demonizing people and realize the biggest terror threat in this country is white men, […] and we have to start doing something about them”. It still astounds me that all this was said in the same breath.

Though the APA may imagine itself victorious in the fight against the primal parts of human nature, CS Lewis cautions us. By disconnecting humanity from concrete values, everything becomes relative. We try to make absolute statements, but we have no reference point. Though we vainly imagine we are transcending human nature, we are in fact, succumbing to it.

Take a look at this excerpt from the APA’s guidelines.

Paradoxically, while the APA seeks to redefine masculinity in a consistent manner, it also cautions against attempting to shape or mold masculinity in any consistent way. Instead, it encourages psychologists to “understand, respect, and affirm how masculinity is defined in different cultures”. Clearly, this approach doesn’t hold water. If America’s understanding of masculinity includes cat calling, why not understand, respect, and affirm that behavior? Isn’t Gillette’s attempt to police masculinity emotionally damaging?

If a gardener attempts to cultivate his garden by “understanding” the native plant life and “affirming” whatever grows there, he will soon find it overtaken with weeds. The only way for him to have a successful garden is by deciding what should grow there, and excising what does not. If “toxic masculinity” exists, it most certainly emerged from a lack of guidance and pruning, not from an excess of it. How can we develop young men in today’s culture unless we hold them to a common standard?

“Man Up” — Holding Men to a Standard

Common wisdom on the street is that phrases like “man up” are overtly harmful to developing men, especially if they are grieving. The rationale is that emotional expression is important for men, and telling them to “man up” cauterizes their soul, producing more “Bruce Wayne” type characters. However, this is not necessarily the case.

In the Bible, the book of Job tells the story of a man who loses everything. His wife, his children, his business, and all his possessions are destroyed in the span of a day. To make matters worse, Job’s friends relentlessly attack him for most of thirty some odd chapters, accusing him of some unknown sin. His friends berate him to the point of mental and physical exhaustion, and then leave him abandoned.

Finally, God responds:

Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. He said:

“Who is this that obscures my plans
with words without knowledge?

Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me. — Job 38:1–3

Today, in our enlightened age, we would certainly take God to task for his reprehensible behavior! Such “toxic” masculinity! Job is so horrifically emotionally damaged, and is likely experiencing PTSD! God should be validating Job’s emotions, not challenging his masculinity! Doesn’t God understand what Job has been through?

On the contrary, God understands Job more than we can ever know. In Isaiah, it describes Jesus as “a man of sorrows, familiar with pain and grief”. Though God has intimate knowledge of the pain Job feels, his expectation for Job’s character has not changed. If anything, God expects even more. Be accountable to me— not just for your actions, but your words. Stand up and face me like a man.

We can learn several things from this. First and foremost, the process of developing masculinity is not comfortable by any means. In Proverbs it says, “As iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend.” There’s no way around it. When sharpening a jagged rusty knife, you need to start with a coarse stone.

Perhaps today, people would jump to the conclusion that my idea of a “coarse stone” is like fraternity hazing: copious alcohol, physical abuse, and ritual humiliation. Quite the opposite. Just as much care needs to be taken in the early stages of sharpening to form the proper bevel on the blade, especially at the point of the knife. If the tip is blunted, the repair process becomes even more extensive.

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Photo by Manki Kim on Unsplash

On the surface, it may seem that God is being too harsh with Job. However, if you look at how God addresses Job, you will find how gently God treats him. In what can only be described as poetry, he reminds Job who is the creator, and who is the creation. God speaks to Job of the Leviathan, a sea monster, and details how he designed it to withstand spears and hooks with it’s armored scales. “If you lay a hand on it, you will remember the struggle and never do it again!”

As an engineer, something about this speaks to me. It’s as if a father is taking his son out to the garage to address an issue, but the old Ford Mustang they’ve been restoring momentarily distracts them. The father remembers his love for the son, and the issue is put on hold as they marvel at the design under the hood. Mysteriously, this brings Job to his senses, and he understands what he’s done wrong. Unprompted, in the stillness of the garage, he quietly admits: “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.”

All of this started with a blunt demand: “Man up!” This process may be uncomfortable at first, but eventually the sharpener moves to progressively finer stones. The harsh grating sound of the coarse stone fades into a rhythmic lapping. The final grade of stone is smooth as marble, and polishes the edge to razor sharpness. A tool barely useful for stabbing is transformed into something useful — perhaps cooking, or even surgery.

As iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend. — Prov 27:17

Second is that while society can certainly decide on certain behavior being “the norm”, this does not mean such behaviors are normative. Though no one can fault Job for his emotional reaction to the situation, at some point he crosses a line and begins down a path of arrogant self-justification. God gives Job his time to grieve, but finally steps in and puts a end to it with his challenge: “Man up!”

God explicitly calls on Job’s biology with an expectation, that Job would respond to his design and calling as a male. God could have called on many of Job’s attributes. Perhaps he could have said, “Act your age, Job!” Or maybe, “I expect my followers to behave like this.” But all of these attributes are malleable. People grow old, and sometimes abandon their faith. Instead, God calls on a deeper, immutable attribute of Job’s existence: his gender.

In Search of a Universal Model

Clearly, holding men to a standard isn’t damaging, it’s constructive. More than anything else, men need strong role models to pass on masculinity to the next generation. Growing up, I was a scrawny kid and was viciously bullied. The injustices I suffered as a child made me into a tempest in a teapot as a young man — though I never had the build for it. While I didn’t have many public figures to aspire to, there were several less public men in my life who stepped in to fill that role.

As a young boy, I often spent a few weeks of summer at a wilderness camp. Though this memory is fuzzy, I remember a chef from the kitchen pulling me aside after I attempted to extract revenge on a bully. I couldn’t have been older than ten. I don’t even remember the chef’s name — I just remember his dark skin, his foreign accent, and massive build. He was so unlike me! He cooked, that was a woman’s job — or so I thought. And he was strong! I bet he was never bullied a day in his life. He wasn’t even from my country. How could he understand what I was going through?

Even still, he called me to a higher standard. Men don’t seek revenge for themselves, men seek justice for others. His expectations seemed so far off, and at the time, unfair. Emotionally, this was wounding — but far from harmful. Though I didn’t understand, he reassured me that it was something attainable, and encouraged me to wrestle with this.

I also remember Ken, one of my former employers. Barely eighteen, I often fell short of his expectations. Never the less, he was patient with me. Like my father, he rarely spoke of himself. On a rare occasion, Ken told the story of how a parent tried to start a fist fight with him at his son’s baseball game. Naturally, I thought Ken leveled him. Though short in stature, the man had more to him than met the eye. Much to my surprise, Ken explained that he stepped down. Unlike me, Ken already knew who he was, and had nothing to prove. The only thing he needed to prove was that decking a father in front of a crowd of children was the opposite of being a man.

More than once, I remember venting to my father about some issue, and my radical solutions to the problem. Though I could tell he was worried by my brash behavior, he drew on his stoicism and maintained a calm demeanor. He reasoned with me and suggested a more moderate approach. Though I couldn’t bear to admit it at the time, I knew he was right. Men didn’t let anger control them, they harnessed their emotions with stoicism. Not that these emotions were repressed — rather, they became motivation to find rational solutions.

All of these men grew up in different times, places, and circumstances. One was an engineer, another washed dishes, and another was a jack-of-all-trades. They had different builds, different ages, different personalities, different races; and yet they all had the same concept of masculinity. They didn’t treat me like some chicken on a poultry farm, conditioning me with a steady diet of propaganda. They dusted me off, carried me up the tree, and set me back on the branch for round two.

The Elephant in the Room

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Illustrator Unknown. From “Golden Treasury Readers: Primer”, 1908

Hopefully, I’ve put up a reasonable defense against several of the APA’s talking points: that traditional masculinity is harmful, that there is no concrete definition of masculinity, and that masculinity needs comfort and validation for growth. Though I strongly disagree with the foundation for their guidelines, some of their talking points are still valid and important.

The APA notes that fraternal relationships have significant impact on a man’s growth, and can be immensely constructive. Even more consequential is the health of a boy’s paternal relationship. Sadly, the APA reports that many fathers feel inadequate and distant from their offspring. Many more divorce their wives, and leave their sons to be raised by their mothers. (Not that single mothers are incapable of doing a good job — rather to highlight the additional challenges they face.)

In general, boys fall behind girls academically, and are much more likely to be diagnosed and medicated for “learning disorders”. When all of this goes south, it can end in violence, substance abuse, and suicide in greater rates than women. While you were at work today, more than forty Americans committed suicide. Thirty of them were men. This sobering fact deserves a paragraph of it’s own.

Masculinity indeed is an ineffable topic, and in trying to understand it we run into a problem. An old Indian parable depicts several blind men trying to describe an elephant by touch. Since each man can only feel a portion of the elephant, they come to wildly differing (and incomplete) conclusions. Perhaps one APA psychologist touched masculinity, and observed “it is aggressive!” Another psychologist observed, “it represses emotions.”

Repeating the blind men’s mistake, the APA examined a single part of the elephant and decided it must be representative of the whole. However, the APA made more than a simple error of perception. Overconfident in their understanding, they decided to preform surgery to remove the parts of the elephant they didn’t like. It’s too tall. It’s too fat. It has TUSKS. These must be removed in order to domesticate the elephant. If whatever monstrosity they create survives the surgery, it certainly won’t be able to live in the wild. The last thing America needs right now, is domesticated elephants.

Written by

Tim builds circuit boards in Virginia Beach, and enjoys writing about current events, history, theology, and philosophy.

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