Monday, June 16, 2014

Violence And The Modern Man

A few weeks ago I mentioned that according to the current cultural narrative, a man is measured along two axes. One was his ability to get sexual partners, and the other was his capacity for violence. I want to explore the relationship between masculinity and violence, why that relationship is so toxic right now, and how we can work to dismantle it.

In Defense of Violence

Before we dive into the problems with violence, I want to take a moment to talk about situations where it's not a bad thing. Like anything else in this world, violence has a time and a place where it's appropriate. Merriam-Webster defines violence as "the use of physical force to harm someone, to damage property, etc. Great destructive force or energy." However, our cultural concept of violence is even more broad than that, and is often interpreted as "The use of physical force, or expression of violent action or intention." This way, you can include actions like punching walls, pushing someone out of the way, or even pretending to shoot someone with a pop-tart as being violent behaviors.​​ As a result, violence has garnered some pretty negative connotations. A lot of people would even go so far as to say that violence is inherently evil, and any kind of violence is unacceptable. But there are cases where violence is not the evil it's so often portrayed as.

It wasn't that long ago in our history that we relied on the inherent violence of hunting to provide sustenance for ourselves and our families. Without it, mankind would have died out in its infancy for a lack of nutrition, as it's only in recent years that we've reached a point where we have enough access to a necessary variety of agriculturally-produced foodstuffs that a vegetarian or vegan diet is a viable option for some1 of us. However, even with the agricultural advances we've made, if everyone on the planet were to shun meat and turn to plants to provide all of their nutrients, we would still face a host of issues in meeting the demand for and sustaining the supply of food.

Plus, bacon.
photo credit: Sam Breach via photopin cc

In addition to hunting, there are violent aspects inherent to a great many of the sports we celebrate. Take American Football, for example. The sport is built around two groups of people acting as teams, with each person fulfilling their roles. It's a test of individual skills, but also a test of each individual's ability to work with and support other people. And yes, there are violent aspects to the game. To stop a person running with the ball, he must be tackled. The offensive and defensive lines are in a constant state of fighting one another. Physical strength and agility are as much a part of the contest as strategy and teamwork. Hockey, with all of its checking and hitting, is another great example of a sport where violence is a theme. The ultimate example of a violent sport, rugby, is also one of the most revered in certain cultures. These sports require violence because of the nature of the physical competition, but with the exception of actual fighting sports like MMA, the violence is a component rather than the focus of it.

Violence is such an important part of the human experience that it's prominent throughout history in art and stories. Some of our greatest tales detail battles and warfare. Some of our most profound writings and inspiring art depict violent actions and the cascade of emotions surrounding it. Even today, with our newest medium for storytelling, videogames, violence is a common aspect. We see stories and games and art that wrestles with the morality and ethics of when violence is acceptable. We wrestle with the concepts of grief and loss and power through violence and the many forms it can take in these stories. We allow people to experience the kinds of violence that teach valuable lessons about strength and responsibility without causing actual harm by giving them a controller and letting themselves fight through virtual enemies and work through great stories. Violence is a tool, and a teacher, and it's not something we can just remove entirely without losing something incredibly valuable in the process.

The Dark Side of Violence

While violence can be a valuable teacher in our stories and art, it has become so prevalent that our culture has destigmatized it. Despite violent gun crime rates decreasing over the past couple decades, we see reports of shootings and bombings and fights almost constantly in our news media. Our videogames are saturated with it, and our movies explore more and more graphic depictions of violence to keep us interested. Our cultural criteria for determining what is acceptable subject matter for minors has become increasingly lax, violence included. So if violence has become so commonplace, what effects has it had on our cultural identities?

One of the most common effects of the destigmatization of violence is how it's been incorporated into our lexicon. Students no longer say they passed or "aced" a test, they kicked its ass. In sports, it's not enough to say that a team won the game, but rather say things in the context of violent aggression and warfare. "We beat them" or "We destroyed the other team" are common phrases, but even those are some of the tamer exclamations. We've become so attached to violent imagery that we've actually sexualized it. Competitive videogamers online can often be heard making threats to rape the other team or people close to them. In fact, the word "rape" is used to describe a lopsided victory quite often, with crude jokes and insensitive remarks all around. We've become so desensitized to the concept of sexual assault that it's referenced offhandedly as a descriptor of the outcome of a game.

Gamer yelling into headset.
photo credit: Pahz via photopin cc

Violence and aggression have even become central themes in the bonding process between men. In most modern male friendships, casual jokes about killing, raping, or otherwise causing harm to one another are commonplace. We've even adopted more aggressive expressions of kinship with our move from the cooperative handshake to slapping each other via high-fives or punching via the bro-fist "pound." When a teammate on a sports team does something well, we often congratulate them by slapping their helmets and/or beating on their pads.

And all of this becomes a part of the cultural idea of masculinity. We praise and value a man's physical strength and willingness to use it. We obsess over a man's musculature as a display of their potential to exert physical force. When two men confront one another, the one that backs down gets demeaned, while the one that would throw the first punch gets applauded. One of the standard responses when somebody remarks about an injury we've received is to reply "You should see the other guy" because it's only acceptable to get hurt if you deal more damage than you take. And when a man doesn't have the physical prowess to compete? He gets a knife or a gun to establish himself as a worthwhile threat. In our society, it's more socially acceptable to carry a lethal weapon and present yourself as a threat than it is to allow yourself to be dismissed as harmless. It's in this way that a man's capacity for violence is a measurement of that man's masculinity, and an inability or unwillingness to display strength and power reduces him to a status as a lesser or "beta" man.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Violence is a tool. It's effective for encouraging or discouraging behavior, both as a threat and in execution, and because of this effectiveness it is often used as a motivator when other methods fail. Spankings are a common disciplinary tool with young children who don't heed their parents' instructions, for example, and a police officer's authority is reinforced by the gun he carries. But violence is so effective that oftentimes people default to it in various ways before exploring other avenues of persuasion. If we want to decouple the concepts of violence and manhood, we need to make a conscious effort to reduce our use of and reliance on violence in our interactions.

One great way to start is to reduce violent phrasing in our speech. When someone wins in sports or videogames, talk about the win in terms of victory and achievement, but not in terms of destruction. Especially in the case of lopsided scores, it's important to acknowledge that discrepancy in more neutral terms like "Wow, we really did well!" rather than in aggressive ones like "We raped the other team!" or "We annihilated them!" For that matter, reducing aggressive tones in our voices and making an effort to cut back on cursing2 is another way to temper our speech to be less violent. "Fuck you" has become such a common phrase that it's practically lost all meaning. In fact, that word in particular has become so ubiquitously used that it's almost completely valueless.

Another way to divorce violence from the masculine identity is to adopt less aggressive body language. When addressing a person, don't face them head-on, but stand slightly turned to the side. This reads as being more open (and coincidentally, confident) and is less likely to cause the other person to feel threatened. In fact, a lot of the advice for appearing confident also translates to being less aggressive. Spreading out, taking your time, slowing your speech, smiling, all of these are behaviors that are both non-threatening and exude an air of confidence.

Man smiling
"I'm secretly raging inside, but you'd never guess it!"
photo credit: t6mdm via photopin cc

We also need to discourage violent themes in the interactions we tolerate from others. Now, I'm not calling for us to all be behavior police writing up tickets every time someone gets irritated and flips someone off, but simple steps to enforce our own boundaries are going to be an effective way to encourage a less hostile environment. "Please don't joke about rape around me" is a pretty reasonable request, and most people are going to respect that.3 If you see your friend getting riled up by someone else at the bar, saying quietly to him "Hey man, it's not worth it. Let's just go over here and drink our beer" can be an effective way to nip trouble in the bud. For that matter, changing the subject when the conversation starts to get into aggressive or uncomfortable topics is an easy way to discourage those topics from being more prevalent. When all else fails, a simple "Not cool" can be remarkably effective. We naturally seek approval from those around us, so exerting social/peer pressure to encourage positive behavior can make a drastic difference.

As men, we have a responsibility to challenge the cultural narrative that defines us by our capacity for violence. We have so much more to offer to the world than just our brute strength and force of will, and it falls on us to open the door for those other qualities to be appreciated for what they are by scaling back the attention we give to our potential for violent action.

1 You still have to have a certain amount of wealth to even be able to consider a vegan diet.
2 Not that cursing is necessarily bad, but it's not a great reflection on the user's character when it's overly used.
3 And those who don't are generally going to be people you don't want to associate with anyway.

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