A Letter to Men, Part One. To Strive And Not to Yield: Moral Lassitude, Collective Responsibility, and Respecting the Shadow of Corruption

We have intimacy problems. Perhaps like we have never had before. Those problems are not only a feature of our gross failures as men since the beginning of civilization but a result of incremental strides forward as women have empowered themselves and pursued both equality and equity. Not all men resent progress though the majority or near-majority of all races right now support Trump or find him tolerable. That fact points to deeper moral failure; it is a symptom of more serious shortcomings. But even those in the minority who wish to further a progressive understanding of masculinity and relationships that take gender and identity seriously need to make greater commitment. Let’s begin with the difference between equality and equity, important enough to give us a first pause.

A useful definition:

“Equality alludes to the identical apportionment where dealings, values or qualities are concerned. Equity represents fairness, or what may be termed as the equality of outcomes. This involves factoring in aspects of the system that have put particular groups at a disadvantage.” 

(Read more: Difference Between Equity and Equality | Difference Between http://www.differencebetween.net/language/difference-between-equity-and-equality/#ixzz54RcGFxKt)

We are not equal by certain measures of gender distinction since we are not identically apportioned. When it comes to matters, say, of birthing or perhaps even child nurturing those apportionments are facts of nature that turn to complex questions of human evolution. Our woeful ignorance of natural selection, cognitive science, and social theory is inexcusable, like the rest of our woeful ignorance. That we should be equal under the law and in matters of economics, political franchise, and other basic human rights and social facts seems to me beyond dispute. That we are nowhere near those benchmarks is outrageous and unacceptable. “The Census Bureau calculates that the median woman in the United States makes 79 cents for every buck paid to the median man. The gap widens by race, with black women earning 60 cents and Hispanic earning 55 cents to every white man’s dollar.” (Cited from Wiki, dated Mar 8, 2016).

These social facts could be remedied by law in ways that would not even require men to evolve personally, or even espouse different attitudes and views. We could force these changes upon society and may well have to. Conservative men have never willfully agreed to relinquishing any of their privilege, power, or ideological claims to superiority. We have had to force upon conservatives the changes that bring greater justice, both in terms of equality and equity. American men elect men who refuse to act on even these basic matters of inequality and inequity. Alas, we cannot ignore values when they inform actions. We need majorities to change the law even if that causes deeper division and further polarization by gender: the majority of men in America are going to be required to be forced to change. And when has that not been the case? Matters of equality clearly cannot be separated from matters of equity. Our values have not evolved and this points to certain elemental failures I mean to address here first.

Insofar as equity marks fairness, it is in this respect particularly that we need to come to further reckoning of our intimacy values and our self-reckoning. We are failing as human beings and it is reflected plainly in political facts.

I rarely have a moment of patience for conservative columnist Ross Douthat whose prudish backward religiousity makes my skin crawl. Just how men can maintain a moral stance that dictates to women is beyond me, except that it is not: the history of patriarchy and efforts to control and impose our will can never be overlooked. Who willingly gives up power? Who ever wants their authority diminished over their personal preferences? More qualified persons than myself have written about patriarchy and particularly the ways religions have devised their own insidious coercions and rationales. I am reminded that the myths, literature, and poetry can be better than the people who use them for their own purposes but that too diverges from our current discussion. How men believe they can make choices about and over women’s bodies and lives is not utterly beyond me and that is what is so deeply disconcerting. How any person can decide for another in such deeply personal and painful situations is a fundamental violation of autonomy and freedom.

We are not perfectly free. Never as human beings are we beyond the paradoxes and impossibilities that stake out our best ideals. We cannot be free without boundaries and constraints. We want to be both safe and unbound and that involves mutual contradictions that require sophisticated choices. All human decisions happen under circumstances and constraints that are natural, social, and personal. Americans cherish the individual over the group or the State and yet we cannot live any kind of moral life without choosing to govern and be governed by terms that limit our individuality. We live in relationships that place our every choice in contexts of power and authority.

Until we address the relationship between power and authority more directly we’ll lack the tools to understand ourselves more deeply —and this is no small topic in either form or gravitas. Again, a subject to which we must return. But men are particularly culpable here because we have had the power and what we fear is losing it. “Fear is a mind killer,” Herbert wrote, but it is not merely controlling fear that is crucial to our integration but bringing it into a deeper conversation as the shadow form of courage. We will not have the courage to change and evolve ourselves until we bring fear more resolutely into our conversations as a companion and ally, not merely an adversary. Shadow comes with light but we men, we love to deny the shadow and so burn rather an illumine the soul.

I reference Douthat however to make another point. In today’s New York Times (17 January, 2018) he references extensive surveys and an article by Ron Brownstein for The Atlantic. Douthat observes, “Relative to where American politics stood before his rise, Trump’s campaign polarized America more by class and gender than it did by race. And then, by jettisoning much of the populist economic agenda he campaigned on, Trump’s actual presidency has made class less important and gender more essential to understanding how Americans divide.” He goes on, “But if you’re looking at what Trump has directly changed…it’s with the large female backlash that may be poised to swamp the male backlash that helped make him president.”

And here is where I find myself in reluctant agreement with Douthat —reluctant not because I take issue with his claim but because despite his reductionism, I think he is correct: “But there is strong evidence that our problems with sex and gender and male-female relations are worsening — which is why it’s understandable that they’re at the heart of how the country has reacted to the Trump presidency, and fitting that this year of public protests and intimate revelations have thrown them into sharp relief.” The current women’s movement is far more complex and nuanced than Douthat contends and that fact demands more equitable and thorough responses. But let us, for the moment, agree that Americans and particularly American men —no, let us say, just men are in a worsening state regarding their identity and relationships with women.

I would regard myself a man of many foibles and faults, complexities and failures with respect to life and human intimacies. I would also, without attempting apology or excuse, suggest that being a student of literature and criticism, religions and philosophies has brought special attention to certain issues of masculine intimacy. To wit, I have a few opinions about our problems and a few suggestions about what we need to do. Say what we might about the puerile mockery that comes with drumming circles and tearful confessionals, I think Robert Bly has over these past decades done us a serious solid. Every American man should, I think, make a careful study of his Iron John, The Sibling Society, and his Small Book on the Human Shadow. And more importantly, we should not undertake that task without first understanding that the content and concepts of these works highlight more fundamental problems. Let me make this a twofold issue. First, one of individual moral responsibility and choice, and second, one of our collective failure and need.

Men have not learned how to evolve much inner conversation, the real and deeper conversation they need to have with themselves. This conversation must not only look at personal history but it must also take history and sociology seriously, it must take matters of psychology and mythos to heart, it must evolve in ways that dedicate life to a kind of serious personal literacy, enquiry, and self-education. We are ignorant of ourselves, ill informed about nearly every serious subject, and unwilling to do the necessary work of auto-didacticism. We don’t read, don’t take time to contemplate and think, and we estrange our feelings and emotions because we have not created the required resources to develop any serious inner conversation. We cannot hope to become better human beings unless we commit to the content of our humanity as individuals with histories and needs. The constraints of modern life —time, capitalism, and our willful anti-intellectualism— are all part of the rationale we make not to work on ourselves. Garbage in, garbage out. We will not have much to work with if we don’t do any work. (Truth to tell, I think I can help with this. I’m not much for carpentry but I know a thing or two about books, ideas, and learning to learn.)

So our first major issue, I submit, is our individual moral lassitude. We will have to go to real lengths in this age of distractions and endless labor to make these efforts to learn more about what history, literature, and art can teach us. We are going to have to make time to think and feel, to register these ideas and our learning by integrating into our own personal stories. We are going to have to learn to write our own story and live with that. When we fail the humanities, we are sure to fail as human beings.

Most of us have never been taught to learn or to think; most of us have had debilitating, enfeebled education, and that means we don’t even know what we are missing because we never acquired much skill or pleasure from “book learning.” It’s not just a matter of poor schooling. Lincoln became himself by little more than his own temerity and without any encouragements from men in his childhood. He was depressed, beleaguered, and suffered but he made the effort to consider who he wanted to be by sheer dedication to self. And more pointedly, he took seriously words and ideas when others rejected his interests. In this age in which nearly all the resources of learning are available for free (it requires little in the way of privilege to access), our inaction and weakness reflects personal commitment that has never been properly kindled or inspired. We don’t do the work for ourselves because we have not been taught by those who have, and too few are willing to teach.

Somewhere between apathy and exhaustion we find every reason not to do for ourselves what would make us better. Better for ourselves and in the vital relationships that are demanded of us as human beings. Scolding like this may not help but it sure can’t hurt. The failure lies not only individuals but in groups, in our collective and how we act collectively. I call this enervation and ineptitude a “moral” failure for at least two reasons.

First, we will require extraordinary efforts. By this I mean extra, more than we are easily willing to admit or to do. We are going to have to make time and make commitments to ourselves. In Sanskrit we call this vrata and I’ll have more to say about that another time. Suffice it is rich and helpful but the core of it is that we are failing at a self-obligation because we are failing others by failing ourselves.

Second, the work is not going to be easy or necessarily fun, and in fact will likely be painful, tedious, and require industry that we’d rather forsake. There is not likely going to be a monetary payoff anymore than there is going to be less ardor as the work goes forward. It’s going to be hard and get harder. And— you’re not going to like this either— our proclivity to be doers over thinkers and feelers is going to also get in the way. My second point is that learning to learn and doing the work is going to feel a lot like an unwanted, sometimes hopeless task that’s going to make us feel stupid even as it threatens to bore us to death.

Tough luck, that’s part of the reason it’s a moral sensibility: it requires doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do, not because the bottom line might bring some pleasure or success. Now it’s not all just walking barefoot on Legos ™ for forty-one days in a jungle that is trying to kill you— though I’d be happy to do that with you too. I’m not even kidding. It’s that as it goes faster and becomes more do-able, the work needs to go deeper and gets harder still. The reason why men have done so little work doesn’t reduce to this point but these disincentives are surely an important moral obstacle. We must face our moral obstacles and decide who we want to be. But to do even a little of that we must see our first level of obstacle as moral. We have to want to do good by becoming better. That’s a lot to ask and what you want may not be what you become but without that desire, well, you’re nothing.

Given these facts, we can’t count on much progress because most will not sign up for the work, much less do it. It’s unsafe and un-fun because we would have to change (a lot) and we’d have to think and feel with the same ardor that we seem to willing to do when things are easy and pleasurable. Katha Upanishad admonishes us not to mistake the good for the pleasurable and however we know that to be true, we have to commit to the deeds that make the difference and the distinction real. What we lack in mentors and leadership, which we so desperately need, we could possibly compensate some with if we were willing to make, as Bly suggested, a collective effort. Nothing quite motivates men to act like the competitions and coercions of other men. How to learn to learn from one another without allowing those challenges to devolve into anger, jealousy, and greed is another matter for our serious consideration.

There is nothing inherently wrong with competition —there is nothing more natural about nature— and when it is coupled to the paradox of cooperation we come closer to how we can both survive and flourish. We need a moral commitment to both so that we can act in collectives. Men need to check in on and check other men. Leadership needs to guide with competence and compassion but our strength will at last depend on our willingness to participate in ways that create more permeable and willing boundaries. We need more giving up to get, not loss of autonomy or personal choice as we manipulate ourselves to believe, but with a greater sense of compromise to advace the better angels of corruption. Let me explain that idea a bit further.

Men lock themselves up in certainty, conviction, and habituation. The older we get the harder it is to listen, to doubt, and to change. But to learn we must develop these resources and that means that we will have to move off our marks, sometimes compromise our most cherished or guarded convictions. 

Lincoln gives a good example here of what I mean. We can say honestly that he corrupted his personal convictions when he refused to side unequivocally with the cause and actions of the Abolitionists. He knew he was doing as much; he knew this was a serious moral failing on his part.  He accepted that failing and took to heart the shadow that came with his choice.  He suffered for it and will be ridiculed for it.  But what he did was important: he chose his shadow by reflecting seriously on power, authority, and moral failure.  He burned and he was illumined by this shadow, which entailed a reckoning with corruption.  He did it because, as McPherson and others have demonstrated, he made a political calculation that were he not more incremental and willing to corrupt his personal views then the politics around him would have left us far worse off. To wit, the end of slavery might never have happened had he lost the election on the basis of his uncompromised convictions, or it may have gone on another hundred years. But the argument is that he knew he corrupted himself but did it for a purpose deemed worthy, a more calculated but less justifiable morality. The same can be said of the story of Yudhisthira the Prince and Arjuna on the battlefield that is the Bhagavadgita. But the point is the same: To change we must admit some form of moral corruption but not fail the tests of moral lassitude or lose our moral conviction. We will need real learning and contemplation to know the differences here that can make all the difference.

So let me summarize this, our initial missive:
First, men must commit to themselves as individuals, as persons by recognizing their own desperate need for self-education and improvement. We are failures of personal character and this is moral failure because there are no amoral choices in life. Not to choose or to commit is to lapse. When those failures manifest in power then we get the likes of Cheney, Weinstein, and Trump. We torture, we abuse, and we fail in every way to create decency, integrity, and clarity of purpose. The process of change is going to be hard and that can’t be said too infrequently.

Truth is, I am not sanguine that our necessary project will trickle down or become in any way “popular.” If that were the case then the hard lessons of Mahabharata, Iliad, the poets and critics like Bly, Hitchens, and McCarthy would be our true guides. Instead the majority of men are deciding for Trump. We need to understand why that is true. To be reductive, it is true because are failing ourselves, we are not doing the work either as individuals or in the necessary collectives of conversation

What else would we be doing? We would be listening and reading women’s works to understand better our need to learn; we’d take these matters to heart and, honestly, that seems unlikely. Most would rather watch the game, ignore the issues, or vent their complaints by electing the worst manifestation of their shameless ID in the form of Trump. What it will take to evolve is going to be up to you because you’re not going to get much help from the majority of other men. Remember Thomas Lincoln had no use for Abe’s idle reading and talk. Who do you want to be will require courage because that is the prerequisite to virtue. We will not become good or better without that courage to engage. We will be few but that can make a difference even if it fails to make all the difference.

Second, we need to do this work fwith leadership and in collectives. It’s time to look each other in the eye and work on the material we need to learn together. We need a vast canon of conversation and we’re going to need more emotional intelligence to deal with one another. Bly long ago now lamented the lack of leadership and our unwillingness to act in collectives. We need ways to engage the shadow of our corruption and become better for it.  We cannot do this without acting together to understand these choices and experiences of success and failure.  No matter what you do for yourself and by yourself, that will not be enough. We need each other to compel the better angels.  

The poets are critical, so let’s for now end with one. Take this bit to heart and see what happens. This is not a process that brings immediate results nor can we expect enlightenment or breakthrough as much as the slow, often painful recognition of little by little, again and again. Tennyson is underestimated and while he may suffer from all sorts of shortcoming, the message here should not be forgotten:

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

—Ulysses, lines 65-70

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