Redefining Masculinity

By Seidler, Vic | Canadian Dimension, December 1991 | Go to article overview
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Redefining Masculinity

Seidler, Vic, Canadian Dimension

If socialist men cannot take responsibility for their own lives and relationships, asks VIC SEIDLER, what can they offer to others? He suggests that traditional masculinity -- which shuns intimacy, expressions of vulnerability and surrendering control -- must be understood, rejected and redefined.

I was brought up to denounce whatever fear I was feeling. That I learned to deny fear meant a refusal to recognize its continuing existence in my life.

As I was brought up in a Jewish family who had escaped from Europe only moment before Hitler's concentration camps were to become a cruel and barbarous reality, fear was never far from the surface of my life. I learned to avoid the horror so as not to be overwhelmed by it. I am only beginning to be able to think about some of this 38 years later, and still find it impossible to accept the reality of what happened to so many in my family.

At some level I felt deeply ashamed about what happened, as if I was somehow responsible. I learned not to show my fear to others as I learned to hide it from myself.

But also I discovered that in hiding my fear I hid my vulnerability. I learned to listen to others, but not to really share myself.

As boys, we learn constantly to prove our masculinity. We can never take it for granted. This builds enormous tension into contemporary conceptions of masculinity. Fear is defined as an unacceptable emotion. But in disowning our fear and learning to put a brave face on the world we learn to despise all forms of weakness. We learn systematically to discount any feelings of ear and not to show our feelings to ourselves.

A remark by Sue Cartledge, printed after her death, shows the way women are also deeply affected by this self-repression while also sharing a different vision and hope:

"I have always clung to a false idea of strength -- the suppress it all, stiff-upper-lip model. But real strength is recognizing your own weakness and allowing others to see it too."

It can be hard for men to accept that "real strength is recognizing your own weakness," since this threatens our very sense of masculinity. By estranging ourselves from our feelings we block whatever access we might otherwise develop to our inner lives. The dominant traditions of social theory maintain a silence over these issues; they are safely relegated to the |private sphere.' Serious consideration of people's relationships to themselves, an important theme in Marx's early conception of alienation, is blocked by the Marxist language of social relationships, which tends to treat these considerations as aspects of |bourgeois individualism.'

Not only does such language make us insensitive to ourselves, it blinds us to the hurt we do to others in our relationships. We can use our power in relationships to encourage others to deny their own feelings of vulnerability and weakness. We do not want to be reminded of the hurt and pain we carry ourselves; this can make it difficult for women and other men to show their pain to us. If they do so, we may treat this as an occasion to show our own strength as we offer shoulders for support, while we do not recognize the distance that is being created in the relationship. In this way we can keep our vulnerability in check.

Though it is strange to acknowledge it, as men we grow up without ever really learning to care for others. We expect women to care for us but we don't really know how to care for them. We are so concerned with defending our own position in the world of work and with sustaining our sense of individual achievement, that we desperately want our partners to identify themselves with our success. Women have traditionally been brought up to make this very identification. They have learned to put the interests of others before their own; they have thereby learned automatically to discount their own individual needs and wants. This means they have learned to expect little emotional support from men.

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