When you are familiar with the concept of male disposability, three words immediately come to mind: Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs).
This is the unfortunate reality.
Unfortunate because I believe male disposability to be a crucial missing piece of the gender conversation. Yet, as the MRAs are one of the only groups to have put light on this issue, it has become a fringe subject matter; an extremist point of view.
For context, Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs) are part of the The men’s rights movement. The movement is “made up of a variety of groups and individuals who focus on general social issues and specific government services, which men’s rights advocates claim adversely impact, or in some cases even structurally discriminate, against men. (…) Men’s rights activists have rejected feminist principles and focused on areas in which they believe men are disadvantaged, oppressed, or discriminated against.
Claims and activities associated with the men’s rights movement have been criticized and labeled hateful and violent. In 2018, while noting “some corners of the men’s rights movement focused on legitimate grievances,” the Southern Poverty Law Center categorized some men’s rights groups as being part of a hate ideology under the umbrella of “male supremacy”. The movement and sectors of the movement have been described as misogynistic. (Wikipedia)
As much as I wholeheartedly disagree with Men’s Rights Activists, I do want to address the morbid reality of male disposability and how we are collectively desensitized to it.
What is male disposability?
In a nutshell, it is the idea that the lives of men are of less value.
Unlike MRAs, I do not believe that men are oppressed; or that women and / or feminists are responsible for men’s misery. However, there’s a something to be said about how, as a society we are desensitized to the pain of men.
Let me tell you a story.
A few weeks ago, I witnessed a disturbing scene on the street. It was around lunch time on a sunny day in downtown Manhattan. As I was taking a walk I could sense a form of agitation ahead of me.
As I looked up, further down the opposite side of the street from where I was walking, I could see a couple arguing. The content of their argument made it clear that they were involved in a romantic relationship.
Given the intensity of the shouting and the difference of size between the two individuals, I decided to stick around. I could sense that the situation could get physical. The man was about 6’1 and physical strong; the female was fit but no taller than 5’2. As the screaming and the insults of the women intensified, I started to make my way to them: I was convinced that the man was going to lose control.
But something unexpected happened.
The female started to punch him.
When I say punching, I don’t mean a simple slap in the face. She started to punch him with clinched fists. Multiple times. Including punches in the face.
When I saw that, I completely froze. I was prepared to intervene but I was completely caught off guard; not only by my bias but by the violence of the assault. The man while in obvious physical capacity to defend himself did not lay a finger on her.
After the beat down, the women continued to shout degrading insults at him until they ultimately stepped inside their car and left.
Many people witnessed the incident. Not one soul intervened.
I did not either.
I stayed “stuck” in the middle of the sidewalk completely drowned in my bias, feeling like a coward.
This incident did not sit well with me at all.
I felt a great deal of injustice and discomfort: why did she get to go free without consequences, while the men went home all-bruised up? I felt so much compassion for this gentleman. I felt so sorry for him. Sorry for not being brave enough to breaking social conventions and intervening in his favor. So sorry that nobody cared enough to check on him.
I started to re-experience the scene in my mind over and over again.
I wanted to understand my bias beyond what seemed to be two obvious misleading pointers:
- The man was “clearly” in physical ability to fight back
- Statistically, men are overwhelmingly the aggressor when it comes to violent crimes.
Then I started to wonder.
What would happen if both show up at a police station bruised up? Who would the officers believe?
My mind continued to spiral down and make up scenarios in which, the man is either stuck with his pain or victim of suspicion. Imagine for a second a 6’1 tall man reporting domestic abuse to a police station. How would he be welcomed? With love and compassion? Isn’t the stigma about male vulnerability too heavy for a man to carry for to ask for help in this situation? Especially if he is the victim of a “petite” female partner?
That would probably explain why there’s only one “shelter” that takes care of men victims of domestic abuse in the United States.
Yes, only one.
Yet, according to a CDC report “Severe physical violence by an intimate partner (including acts such as being hit with something hard, being kicked or beaten, or being burned on purpose) was experienced by an estimated 22.3% of women and 14.0% of men during their lifetimes.”
Domestic abuse exists for both men and women in comparable proportion. Yet the safe spaces to ask for help and to heal are not available for everyone. This is heartbreaking and this is the sad reality.
The day of the incident, I described the scene on my Facebook page. I shared my inability to intervene, my bias and my discomfort about the entire situation. Many commented, both men and women. All agreed that they would not have known how to react.
Interestingly nobody cared to ask me if the man was in distress or in physical danger.
Nobody blamed me either for being a bystander.
What would have happened if I would have told the same story but with the man being the abuser? Would have people been so “accepting” of my inaction?
Of course not.
I would have been called out, and rightfully so. Yet, how fascinating that my non-action to prevent the assault against the man was equally obvious.
What does that story tell us?
One of my initial takeaway was highly emotional.
After running all these scenarios in my head, I was like: “Oh my god, there is no compassion for men.” I was so disturbed by the episode that I shared it with my dear friend Mark Greene, one of the leading voices in the healthy masculinity movement.
While texting back and forth with Mark, I wrote the sentence: “there is no compassion for us.”
He thankfully brought me back immediately, and said: “That’s a hard line to take, there is compassion for men.” And then added: “Don’t internalize that message: this is how MRAs spread.”
And this was my ah ah moment.
The MRAs brings up legitimate issues, namely male disposability, but instead of encouraging introspection and personal responsibility, they blame them on women and / or feminists.
But are women and / or feminists really the ones to blame as it comes to the pain of men?
The short answer is no.
As an example, one of the key argument of MRAs in addressing male disposability is the fact that men hold dangerous jobs. For instance, the vast majority of soldiers are men, the vast majority of police officers are men, and yes they consequently die disproportionally more than women.
But who are these brave soldiers fighting? For the vast majority, they are fighting other men, not women.
Who are the police officers mainly apprehending? Overwhelmingly men, who represent 80% of arrests for violent crimes.
The expendability of men do not benefit women: make no mistake about that.
The Cultural Heritage of Male Disposability
While the falling into the binary trap is easy and attractive in this post #MeToo era, how can we ignore the cultural heritage of male disposability?
Do you remember the scene of The Titanic, when the captain, while facing the dilemma of not being able to save all the passengers, is suggested to prioritize and women and children?
This scene is a great symbol of male disposability. The sense of duty of men which includes protection, sacrifice and courage (all positive masculine attributes) are rooted in the idea that women (and children) are more vulnerable.
The vulnerability of children is self-evident.
The idea of the vulnerability of women comes with their “sacred” ability to carry life in opposition to the physical superiority of men. These two elements led the segmentation of gender roles between two distinct categories: there is one that nurtures and is looked after and the other one that fights and that should be resilient. In a nutshell, women were primarily valued for who they were as “mothers” and men for what they did as “providers”. The role and expression of both genders were strictly dictated by nature.
While the courage and the sacrifice of men are expected by society, their lives is not valued as much. A recent study shows that we’re more likely to sacrifice a man than a woman when it comes to both saving the lives of others and in pursuing our self-interests. “Our study indicates that we think women’s welfare should be preserved over men’s,” observes Oriel FeldmanHall, a post-doctoral researcher at New York University and the study’s lead author.
As hunters, providers and protectors, men were not taught to care about themselves or for other men. At the factory or on the battlefield, the disposability of men was rooted in their sense of self. This is still the case today. Especially as they become fathers, men still tend treat their bodies as tools to do a job.
Technological advancement and the creation of birth control accelerated the independence of women, which turned traditional gender roles on their heads.
Times are changing rapidly and so are the expectations of men.
While we can all agree that this is a step forward, we can also recognize that those expectations are conflicting with long-held values and beliefs.
We expect men to open-up, to share their feelings and to be vulnerable. Yet, is society emotionally and psychologically equipped to deal with the pain of men?
Male Disposability And Man Box Culture
For centuries, men have been at the forefront of creating and perpetuating what can is called man box culture; a rigid and restrictive version of masculinity rooted in domination, bullying, economical success and emotional stoicism.
A Call to Men defines the Man Box as the “limitations on what a man is supposed to be and what he believes. These expectations are taught to men – sometimes unconsciously – and reinforced by society. In the man box, men are supposed to be: powerful and dominating, fearless and in control, strong and emotionless, and successful.”
Many of us were not given the choice of another masculinity scenario: we were overwhelmingly bullied into it. While one could argue that women played a role in the perpetuation of this culture, the reality is that men are overwhelmingly responsible. Consciously for some, unconsciously for most. Yet, the fact of the matter is that we have been living in a largely male dominated society for centuries. Men still disproportionally holds leadership roles in major corporations and government.
How can we, as men, complain about a situation we are creating? As men, we are collectively responsible of our own pain and our own sense of disposability. Again, the expendability of men do not benefit women. If they are any beneficiaries, they are a smaller group of men at the expense of everyone else.
And this is the center of the problem.
As we all remain captive of the Man-box culture, all the pain we are causing to ourselves, and to each other seems self induced. And it is. Mark Greene explains it perfectly in piece called How the Man-Box Poisons Our Sons:
“For generations, men have been conditioned to compete for status, forever struggling to rise to the top of a vast Darwinian pyramid framed by a simple but ruthless set of rules. But the men who compete to win in our dominant culture of manhood are collectively doomed to fail, because the game itself is rigged against us. We’re wasting our lives chasing a fake rabbit around a track, all the while convinced there’s meat to be had. There is no meat. We are the meat.”
By unconsciously serving a destructive culture of masculinity that we mistakenly consider the “only” way to perform our gender, we kill ourselves and each other as a result. According to the most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data on suicide, men are 77% of the 45,000 people who kill themselves every year in the United States, wrote Gary Barker in an article for Slate.
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Ending Male Disposability
How do we end male disposability? The short answer is by creating a healthier culture of masculinity. While this is a daunting task that will most likely take multiple generations, I would like to unpack what I believe to be the most critical, yet most critical step that men must take.
Men need to learn how to be vulnerable, especially with one another.
If we don’t value ourselves and each other or can we expect society to do so? If we want empathy and compassion from the world, we need to have empathy and compassion for ourselves and for each other. Society knows how to shame men, society knows how to punish men but society is currently unequipped to deal with the emotional wounds of men: it should not be surprising since men have been making the rules for so long.
The implications of being vulnerable are great. Here is a non-exhaustive list of the steps we must take:
- We need to break out of the man box and have the courage to live our lives authentically.
- We need to introspective and critical about what the dominant culture of masculinity requires of us.
- We need to stop enforcing emotional stoicism as the norm for “performing masculinity.”
- We need to break the lethal cycle of isolation and silence that leaves us disconnected and unfulfilled.
- We need to let little boys know it is ok to feel, and to express emotions outside of anger. We need to let them cry if they need.
- We need to openly talk about our mental health issues, our struggles, our doubts.
- We need to prioritize our health: physical, mental and emotional.
- We need to create meaningful relationships with other men, that do not imply mundane and / or toxic activities.
- We need to make the conscious effort to honor the full spectrum of how we feel and to learn how to process our emotions in healthy ways.
- We need to take an interest in the experience of women and girls which demands accountability and personal responsibility for our own past and present actions, beliefs and biases.
- We need to have the courage to face our male peers: our friends, our colleagues, our business associates. Other men. Standing up to them and challenging their views from a place of compassion and love is the hardest step to take; yet one of the most critical one.
Vulnerability, mutual empathy and compassion is how we make our way back to each other.
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