Wednesday, 1 August 2012

What Does Masculinity Refer To?

"What should we gain by a definition, as it can only lead us to other undefined terms?"
Ludwig Wittgenstein

The Patriarchal system is based on this root idea. It is related to, and might even come directly from, Original Sin. It is the idea that to be a man - that is, to be a worthy and accepted man - one must live up to the ideals of what such an initiate is deemed to be.

I have already talked about the idea that masculinity itself represents a vague and unspecified set of values. In philosophy, this sort of thing is usually called Virtue Ethics – the notion that what is good is represented in a set of characteristics that a person should exhibit. Good examples of virtue ethics would be Confucianism, or  the Samurai Code of ancient Japan. In these ethical programs, the "Good" is defined as living according to a set of values, and manifesting those values in specified acts. Living virtuously.

I believe that our ideas of masculinity come from a confusion of this root ideal. That what is good is articulated in life through the living out of external characteristics. The only thing is, however, that most systems of Virtue Ethics are very clear. It tends to be the downfall of this kind of moral theory in fact. Most systems are too systematic, they don't represent the fickleness and spontaneity of human action. They implement philosophical ideas onto the world of the day-to-day. They are unrealistic.

Masculinity tends to take the form of a Virtue Ethics. First of all, being a man is considered a value in itself. The language of Patriarchal societies tends to supplement the word “good,” with words that donate “manliness.” Hispanic languages seem to be the most stark examples of this. If something is good it is equated with having “balls”, with being masculine. It has the cojones. If it is bad or crap, it is given a vaginal or feminine description.

Masculinity, then, is implicitly considered to be a virtue in itself. But masculinity as an ideal has associated with it a supposed set of virtues. Examples of these virtues are characteristics like “muscularity,” “physical power,” “solidity,” “consistency,” “emotional control,” “fearlessness.”

I don't list these arbitrarily. A good example of this consciousness of masculine values can be found in the literature of the classics. Achilles represents the most basic idea of masculinity ever represented in literature. Odysseus is perhaps a more sophisticated form of masculine virtue. I'll come back to these examples.

The trouble I think starts with this. We treat masculinity as if it were some set of clearly defined virtues that we refer to in moments when it is called for. In our day-to-day lives we use phrases like “be a man,” “man up,” or “she wears the trousers in this relationship.”

Even in this gloriously enlightened, post-feminist milieu, our language uses such phrases as shortcuts to refer to a social ideal. The only thing is, the function these phrases provide is not mirrored in the reality of what they refer to. To use the concept of masculinity itself as an umbrella term to refer to a supposedly clear set of values, betrays the very small-mindedness and primitiveness of this culture's whole notion of what it means to be a man.

Even if we take our starting point that masculinity should refer in some way to the collective “Good” of a society, that good itself changes according to the environment.

Now I can almost hear the alarm bells ringing. Those more academically inclined among you are chomping at the bit with your pernickety arguments. “So, are you a moral relativist, then? Well there are a lot of problems that come with your stance.” No I am not a moral relativist, if by that you mean that I hold to an  amoral picture of reality.

I am saying, however, that when we use language to refer to catch-all ideals of what we call good, that very language itself might refer to a reality that is fluid, even though the terminology is rigid.

Even in this Classical consciousness I talked about, it's evident. In Homeric times we see a schizophrenia of masculine ideals between the fearlessness and tempestuousness of Achilles and the wily strategic character of Odysseus. Already, the idea of masculinity is vague, and can refer to a set of virtues that are inconsistent with each other. To use an idea like masculinity as a an ideal, as a sort of collective term for social virtues, is a misuse of language itself.

To illustrate a point, here is an example of a similar misuse language. Doesn't it frustrate you when you hear some politician in the USA, usually of the Right, use a term like "un-American" to describe something they don't like, or which opposes their ideals? It happens all the time, as if the word "American" referred to a set of values so specific and so clear that there would be no argument about what is being referred to. Now, there is an American constitution, but as I understand it, that constitution was so designed that there could be no simplistic use of it in this way. It implicitly does not allow you to say “x, y, and z are un-American.”

The truth is a whole range of diverse cultures are free to call themselves “American.” Therein lies the elegance of the American constitution itself. Likewise, a whole range of humanity can viably refer to itself as masculine. There is simply too much variation in the kind of men in this world, for it to be a sound of use of language to employ masculine terms as if they represented a Virtue Ethics.

We treat the term Masculinity, as if it pointed to a list of clear rules of behaviour or a set of ideals. But it does not. Patriarchy encourages this misuse of the word and its associated terms, however the reality of masculinity is too diverse and nuanced.

Now, my starting point was simply to continue the thought that our socialised idea of masculinity has entrenched in it a guaranteed failure. It has the effect of rendering anyone who aspires to its supposed ideal, necessarily doomed. In a previous post, I argued that our ideas of being a man set us up for a life of insecurity, frustration and a perpetual battle with ourselves.

The bastardisation of language I have discussed here is what makes this happen. If we use a word like masculinity as if it is supposed to donate something simple and clear, when in fact it refers to a very fluid and undefinable quality of existence, then it is no wonder that the male experience is one of confusion and insecurity. We are constantly looking for that clear narrative of self, that ideal focus and rooted truth about ourselves as men, when our basic experience of ourselves is anything but that. A simple misapplication of the game of language, results in what is now fast becoming a cultural crisis.

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