Holding a Fork and a Knife
One of the key points made in Richard V. Reeves’ excellently researched book, Of Boys and Men, is that neither end of the political continuum is approaching the current, very real crisis of men and boys in a useful way.
To paraphrase Reeves’ observations, the political left is either in denial, or fearful that addressing the crisis represents a threat to the hard-won gains of decades of the women’s movement, or both.
The conservative right interprets the crisis as proof that stepping out of the 1950’s was the beginning of the end. Biology being destiny, society, boys and men included, can only be saved by a return to traditional gender roles prevalent when “Ozzie and Harriet” was the hottest thing on black and white TV.
In other words, at both ends of our already wide political rift, the views are myopic, the game zero-sum.
If you’ve been with me for a while, you’ll know that, while hardly an extremist, I tend to be ever-so-slightly left-of-center in my politics. If you’re new to my writing, now you know, too.
I’ve written about my discomfort with the phrase “toxic masculinity.” On a good day, it lacks subtlety. On a bad day it discourages the very conversation necessary to address the issues the phrase is trying to solve. At the same time, I have not been shy about pointing out the grossly simplistic, often ridiculous rantings of the Tucker Carlsons and Josh Hawleys of the world. (Along with other hyper-conservative mouthpieces, they share an uncanny ability to transform factual data into blunt-force, culture war weaponry, also earning low scores on compelling constructive dialog…)
Dogmatic arguments on both ends of the political and ideological continuum arrive at predictably simplistic, fundamentally useless conclusions.
As far as the current male crisis, it makes no sense to even entertain striping decades of gains from girls and women. Nor is it useful to imagine that strict adherence to girls-wear-pink and boys-wear-blue gender norms is going to solve much of anything. Quite the opposite in both cases…
Nor will denial help. After all, pretending a hurricane isn’t real won’t stop flooding or keep the winds from blowing.
Coming back to Reeves’ work, we can look at the clear data that says we have serious work to do elevating today’s boys and men. We can’t get there by denial, nor by turning back the clock or playing the “Red Pill” game of blaming feminism for how we got here. (“Red Pill” had great data… and to me, it arrived at a simplistic, ultimately hollow conclusion.)
As more than a few scholars and many of my colleagues in the men’s work world point out, distorted patriarchy hasn’t exactly been healthy for anyone.
Like any other cultural crisis or social ill, when it comes to what’s happening now with men and boys, the root causes are deep and complex. The responsibilities, including those for finding and implementing sustainable solutions, must be shared.
Here’s the thing: conscious adult human beings are capable of holding two different ideas at the same time, just as they are able to hold a fork in one hand and knife in the other.
One can be a committed feminist and recognize (and share concern) that an unacceptable percentage of males young and old are in dark, painful waters right now.
Likewise, I can celebrate Title IX, wish for girls to gain even more traction and momentum whilst noticing, with clear eyes and an open heart, that our systems, educational and otherwise, are failing our boys, and they urgently need our attention.
There is no need – nor use – to play zero-sum trade-off games with this stuff. False dichotomies are the stuff of ideological click-bait and fearful and/or lazy minds. Holding two ideas at once, consciously taking the “yes, and” path, can be a rigorous practice.
Look no farther than our own hands. Our thumbs might be anatomically opposable, but they happily coexist and work together with the digits they share a hand with.
And while my mentors often remind me that the ability to hold paradox is a conscious adult function, paradox isn’t what I’m seeing here. Rather, it’s holding two ideas at once.
This is, in fact, something that young children do quite easily. They can, for instance, love both dinosaurs and penguins. They can even imagine them playing together…
It’s the annoying, supposedly sophisticated, grown-up brain that wants to create either/or separations.
I don’t know that holding a fork and a knife at the same time is cause for wonder, but if it helps plant seeds of inclusive thinking, I’ll take it.
So yes, the solution to the current crisis of men and boys might just begin by paying attention to how we hold silverware. From that common ground, we can call on the wisdom of folks like Richard Reeves, bell hooks and others.
People, I think we can do this…