Tuesday, 24 July 2012

A Castle Built on Sand: The Roots of the Male Ego

The male ego is a social construct. No mystery there. But my feeling is that we all have an investment in this society, in keeping the dynamic of the male ego going. Whether you are an alpha male, a feminist or sensitive new age guy, whatever you make claim to, the fact is you define yourself against the male ego.

Now the male ego as I understand it is a very specific, very tangible historical entity. Having said that, the idea of manhood that encapsulates it is itself deeply ambiguous, and that is part of its cultural power.

It's something I've touched on before. The idea of manhood is a pitch on which the goal posts are always shifting. No one ever says what a man actually is, but we are all of us quick to point out what it is not. It's not manly to be too feminine, it's not manly to show your emotions (feeling emotions is fine these days, we've made that much progress, just don't show them). It's not manly to depend on someone else, to need love, to want to be mothered, to display helplessness in the face of a challenge.

There are any number of qualities that can exemplify the opposite of masculinity. But just what a man is in this culture is never clearly defined. Having said that, it is a notion that's appealed to with great labour in the psychological development of a young boy.

I remember a teacher of mine taking me into his office and reducing me to tears over something I was supposed to have done wrong. I was thirteen. It wasn't sightly to have a teenage boy cry so openly.

“C'mon,” he said, “stop crying for God's sake. Be a man.”

Be a man. Take it like a man. These are things you hear explicitly often in your development. But it's never really clear what it means. It's just a way of stopping you acting in a specific way. This ideal of manhood is never really given a positive definition.

Masculinity as a social ideal, is a negative concept. It has no positive values associated with it. That's why so many smart-arses are able to argue with me, trying to dismiss this blog without examining their own prejudices. There just is no positive definition of what a man is, and rather than be a point against me and the existence of this blog, I feel that is the very basis for everything I write here.

I am not trying to delineate a set of clear values around what defines a man. I am trying to show that the very idea of masculinity is so unclear, so vague and amorphous, that its effect on young men, especially post-feminism is critically damaging.

I do believe that there are physical boundaries related to gender identity. But what I am concerned with here is the culture of masculinity. The socially constructed ideals, or lack of them, more specifically.

So what is this effect that I feel is so damaging? Well, it has to do with the sense of identity. Identity, the sense that one has a clear idea of who one is, and that the person we are has an intrinsic value. It is a psychological necessity for a healthy human being.

I believe that the very culture of masculinity in our society is a conspiracy that prevents men from ever feeling that sense of completeness and that sense natural value within themselves.\

The radical Scottish psychologist RD Laing called this state, ontological insecurity.

Without a sense of intrinsic value in the self, the individual is always grasping for self-esteem, always seeking a validation of their realness. Without a sense of realness and solidity in the self, the realness and solidity of others, and therefore the value of others, is all but non-existent. Ethical action becomes at best a battle with the self.

It is my opinion that our culture assaults the sense of validity of the self in young men. It leaves them grasping at externals for ways to validate themselves. Hence, the phenomenon we call the male ego. That is why it is so delicate, so easy to manipulate, and so prone to pathological tendencies. It is a castle built on sand. 

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