One idea that is common among many different stories about masculinity is an association between masculinity and violence.
Some would say that masculinity is a social construction that arose as a way to justify maintaining patriarchy through violence.
Others would tell a story about cavemen in which men evolved to be more violence-prone because they had to hunt and kill animals or fight each other for mating privileges like some other mammals do.
Still others would say that the ability to protect others from the threat of violence is a particularly masculine virtue, part of a larger group of masculine virtues.
Each of these stories may have some slice of the truth. Each of these maps may reveal some aspect of the territory. In any case, there does seem to be some relationship between masculinity and violence, historically, culturally, or biologically.
Let’s explore this relationship between masculinity and violence.
It’s a fact that most of the violence that happens in the world is done by men. This could be a result of the way men are taught to behave and see ourselves. It could be a result of the statistically higher amount of testosterone that men have on average, or other similar physiological traits.
But, is there a reason why it has to be one or the other?
As we’ve already explored, our experience of gender relates to our bodies, our cultures, and our internal spiritual senses of ourselves in relationship with existence.
All three of these dimensions play into how we relate to violence.
I’ll start with the social.
The threat of violence is an irreducible fact of social life. There’s always the possibility that someone can threaten to use physical force to get what they want. Different social groups have different ways of dealing with this.
One way is ethics. If a group can get all of its members to adopt and follow a code of ethics that prohibits using force to get what you want, violence can be eliminated. But this requires that either everyone agree out of the goodness of their heart, that everyone in the society is so closely bonded that they don’t WANT to hurt each other, or that the consequences of violating the ethical code are greater than the gains. These circumstances are more likely in smaller social groups where exile means likely death. But then, in that case, ethics aren’t really the sole driving factor anymore. Which brings us to the other main strategy:
Another way of countering the threat of force is with a greater threat of force. This is what the criminal justice system of most modern states does. It says, if you kill someone and steal their stuff, we’ll lock you up in a cage for the rest of your life, where you don’t get to use any of your stuff anyway.
In practice, in most societies there is some combination of these two methods. There is an ethical code, backed up by the threat of force.
Now, in our society, only duly appointed police, judges, juries, and prisons have the right to detain, condemn, and imprison people. But not all societies have, or have had, police, judges, courts, and prisons, and these institutions don’t always work the way we’d want them to when they do exist.
So, when there aren’t institutions that have a complete monopoly on the threat of force, it falls on individuals to have some way of deterring others from using force on them.
In most societies, this responsibility tends to fall on men.
There are many possible reasons for this.
Men are, on average, physically stronger than women. There are definitely women who are physically stronger than me, but if a culture wants to create simple social categories that tell everyone what they’re supposed to do, it’s just easier to say “men are protectors.” Part of the gender liberation movement happening now is saying that we don’t need to have such simple social categories, and we’re better off letting strong, aggressive women be protectors, and physically weaker, less aggressive men be caregivers. But the historical people who gave us our ideas of masculinity and femininity may not have had the wisdom or the luxury for this basic level of nuance.
Another, perhaps more compelling reason, is that, where the survival of a smallish social group is concerned, men are expendable. A population can replenish itself with one man and 20 women far more easily than with 1 woman and 20 men. It works out that if men protect women and children, things work out better for the society in the world of large averages that evolution deals in.
Now, I know, some people might be yelling at their computers right now because I’m using evolutionary psychology to talk about gender. But relax. I’m not saying that these evolutionary pressures determine what men and women are actually, essentially like.
Sure, if the evolutionary pressures I just talked about are actually real (and I don’t have good, verifiable evidence either way), they will probably have had some effect on the anatomy and physiology of the sexes in a broad, statistical kind of way. But broad, statistical generalizations about the sexes have ZERO significance for individual identities, ethics, or values. Even if men have more testosterone on average than women, that says nothing about whether it’s okay for you to punch someone who insults your mom, or whether it’s ok to wear pink shirts and tight jeans, or whether you as an individual are more aggressive than the girl who sits next to you in Math class.
But physiology isn’t my main point, anyway.
What I’m really saying is that our ideas about masculinity may have arisen in circumstances where their large-scale survival benefits for the group outweighed their very serious drawbacks for some of the individuals in the group. A masculinity that is very closely tied to the ability to do more effective violence than the next guy is costly for everyone. Women have to live with men who’ve learned to solve problems with violence, and that is likely to spill over some percentage of the time into home life.
Men have to live under constant fear of having to prove their ability to do violence, and either hurting someone else or getting hurt. Men also can’t show weakness, which means cutting off a huge portion of the most meaningful and fulfilling human potentials.
But the next generation gets to live. So it’s worth it.
This is all a nice fable, but how true is it? I don’t know. It makes sense to me, but I haven’t exactly supported it with a ton of facts from reputable sources. So you definitely shouldn’t take it as gospel. But let’s see if we can use it to help us make better masculinities right now.
One thing we need to realize is that this threat of force problem hasn’t been solved.
Those of us who live in places that have a functioning criminal justice system that tends to work in the favor of people of our own race, class, religion, and political views, can just decide we’ll call the police if the threat of violence comes up. But even in this best-case scenario, police don’t magically appear as soon as we need them. A violent situation can be over and people dead or injured before the police ever get there.
So we need to decide what our individual relationship with violence is going to be. Do we buy into the protector role? You don’t have to. As long as you have someone around who can protect everyone else if violence happens, you’ll be fine. There’s no shame in saying, “Hey, that’s not me. I’m not a protector, and people around me are probably better off if I don’t pretend to be.” After all, we don’t generally insult or look down on women who can’t or won’t protect others from violence, so why should we do so for biological men, just because of which chromosomes they have?
Or you could decide that the chances that a protector will be needed in a situation you’ll actually be in are so small that it’s not worth devoting a ton of time and energy to cultivating that capacity.
For example, I practice martial arts. I’ve been doing it for about 20 years, on and off. I’ve never once had to use it. If the only benefit I got from martial arts practice was the ability to defend myself and others from violence, I might not put in the hours of hard practice that it takes to get good. I might decide I’m better off putting that effort into learning Chinese, which I would arguably be able to use to create more benefit for other people over the course of my life. It turns out that my martial arts practice also benefits me by keeping my body in good working order, making me feel good, and keeping my emotions in better balance. And it gives me the added benefit of being better prepared to respond to the threat of violence, and protect people around me.
On the other hand, you might decide that being a protector is very important to you. After all, someone needs to do it. There’s always the possibility of the threat of force, and someone needs to respond to that threat. If you find that role fulfilling, if you enjoy preparing yourself physically and mentally for the possibility of needing to deter violence, then that may be a significant part of your identity as a man.
The dimension of this question we haven’t explored fully enough yet is the ethical one.
Ethics is what ties all of the above considerations together and determines what you decide to do with them.
The most obvious ethical question is, when (if ever) is it ethical to use violence?
In self-defense? In defense of others? Never? There are good arguments to be made for and against each of these positions. What do you think?
But there’s more. If you do decide that protecting people from violence is part of who you are, there’s a long ethical tradition of learning how to do so virtuously. There are virtues that have been specifically developed to help people be protectors in the most beneficial and least harmful ways. Courage, while definitely also applicable to situations that have nothing to do with violence, is a virtue that’s been required of warriors for as long as there have been warriors. Courage also happens to be one of the four cardinal virtues in Plato’s Republic, so you can find discussions of it in many works of Greek and Roman philosophy.
Taoist works like the Art of War have dealt with how to resolve conflict with the least violence possible.
If the protector archetype forms a part of your identity, you have a responsibility to be the best, most ethical example of it that you can, so that you’d be proud for others to follow it.
You can use the examples of other protectors, whether living, historical, or fictional. Who are the people or characters who best embody this human potential for you? Superman comes to mind. In the stories I’ve read, he always tries to talk to his opponent first and work things out nonviolently, but when he can’t, he always uses the least force necessary and never kills his enemies. He always holds out faith that they could change, some day, even if they’re clearly not ready to do it today.
And the protector archetype, like the virtue of courage, isn’t just applicable to violent situations. This is good, because I expect a lot of the people reading this won’t encounter many violent situations in their lives. The nice thing about virtues and archetypes is that they’re flexible.
So what are other situations in which courage or the protector archetype is useful?
Political activism is one. Martin Luther King and Ghandi, two of the most celebrated heroes of the 20th century, both put their own lives on the line to protect and defend others, but without physically hurting anyone.
How about in everyday social situations at school? Or with your teachers? When could you use courage, or stick up for someone else, even if there’s no threat of physical force?
Do you see other kids getting teased? Do teachers treat you or any of your classmates unfairly? Do you ever see friends trying to convince other friends to do something they don’t want to? These are all situations where courage or the protector archetype can come in handy.
The point is, if this is a potential that you choose to cultivate, cultivate it in every situation in your life.
Plus, that way if you ever REALLY need it, it won’t be a stretch. It will be part of who you are.