aim higher: how we think about men

“I know how to do it at school, but I don’t know how to do it at home.” Our four year old daughter loves to yell at me, perched atop the toilet near our kitchen. Yesterday, after telling her I could not leave the stove to watch her pee, she demanded I come wipe her. I reminded her she knows how to take care of herself, and does it at school all the time. That’s when she whine-yelled the sentence above on loop for several minutes.

Her reasoning was ridiculous, but I have a feeling she learned it from us. Many of us have standards for behaviors that vary based on our setting. For instance, I am more likely to yell at someone who angers me at home, but I have yet to do so at work. My kids’ behavior at home reminds me of wild elephants that are occasionally affectionate but always leave a wake of destruction in their path. I sincerely hope they do not behave that way in other people’s homes. My own mother has wished for years that I had different standards of clothing for home and public. Alas, I continue to baffle her, rarely looking in the mirror before I grab my keys.

Her hope that I will dress up for the outside world reflects a larger cultural acceptance that our behavior and habits change depending on where we are.

This is certainly true in many areas of my life, but at times it all seems rather absurd to me. Why do I use restraint or fully engage only in certain arenas? Why do our expectations of others fluctuate dependent on place? My favorite iteration of this type of thinking is when married women disparage their husbands, laughing as they complain that their partner is genetically incapable of picking up his shoes, returning his glass to the sink, lowering the seat, or remembering when the kids have choir. The deficits of males who live in interdependent households shared by others are widely mocked and accepted by women and men alike.

Often the party pooper, I loathe this type of thinking for at least two reasons.

First, these stereotypes totalize our gendered experiences in ways that I find unobservant. The basic construct that ALL MEN do any one thing strikes me as ridiculous. We know plenty of slobby, disorganized women, just as we know type A, neat freak men. Given this, why do we agree to pretend like there are no exceptions to the rule that men mostly function as needy, additional children?

I think the answer is imbedded in the question. We love to think we are exceptional, while often painting others with the broadest brush possible. I am more than a product of my gender or cultural norms or habits, but those other people are all the same! We offer ourselves the dignity of agency, choosing how we live and how our actions impact others, but we easily slide into assuming the people around us are just the way they are, and we might as well get used to it.

We might be less likely to dismiss others if we notice the unique individual standing before us rather than seeing them mostly as a product of the group to which they ‘belong.’

The second reason I think humorous stereotypes about men are unintelligent and maybe even dangerous is this: We expect and allow men to rule the world while treating them as incapable slobs around the house. The boldness of our society-wide cognitive dissonance is staggering. How do we simultaneously view men as natural leaders, effective visionaries who complete tasks while improving systems as they go, and—at the same time—as utterly incapable of getting their laundry to and from the washing machine? In my view, we mostly give them far too much credit in the public sphere, and far too little credit in the private one.

It is tempting to treat men like extra-large problem children. It is often all in good fun, and many men seem to enjoy the banter and revel in the labels placed upon them (Maybe they have discovered that such incongruent stereotypes work in their favor. These widely mocked behaviors pave the way for men to kick ass at work and do little at home. Sounds like a sweet deal, but I know better). Even if it is socially acceptable to belittle the function of men at home, it reduces us in toxic ways.

I need look no further than my partner and husband, who is a physician. He is, in fact, prone to leave his junk wherever it lands at home, he often forgets who goes where when, and his instincts for tidying up are lackluster. However, he has never, to my knowledge, forgotten about a surgery or left medical instruments inside a person’s body. He is, in fact, incredibly organized, decisive, dare I say tidy?, at work. He is a fabulous leader and detail oriented in all the right ways. Knowing this, why on earth would I treat him as an incapable slob at home, preventing him from engaging our family in all the helpful ways that only he can?

When we reduce folks to a stereotype, locking them into a tribe or a group rather than seeing them as individuals capable of growth, we limit our ability to hope for better. We choose to deal with the status quo rather than to challenge it in order to improve.  

Why do we act certain ways in some contexts, and abandon those standards in others? We know how to be compassionate in many spaces, but we thwart those instincts in others. We know how to speak up, using our voice to raise a different point of view or to protect a vulnerable person in some moments, but we remain silent in others. For the next few weeks, I’ll explore the ways our habits demonstrate my daughter’s thinking as she hollers incessantly from the bathroom. Let’s think about all the ways we “know how to do it at school, but don’t know how to do it at home,” and then dream together as we imagine how to remind ourselves that we already know how to care deeply about the growth of those around us, if only we will pay attention.

not political? get practical: 5 ways to stop being the problem

Last week’s essay made the case that the problem with our current national public devolution is not outrage or political involvement. Rather, our apparent inability to communicate with each other is a result of our obsession with ourselves, our restricted interaction with people whose life experience differs from ours, our clear commitment to prioritize that which furthers our agenda, and our discomfort with ambiguity. I heard from friends who read, nodding, grateful tears running down their faces, and from friends annoyed that I suggested “outrage” or “getting political” could ever be a valid option (and many people in between!). Here’s the thing: We all agree we are really, really bad at talking with each other about the state of America right now; we shake our heads, tisk our lips, and roll our eyes at the state of us, but we fail to recognize that we are both part of the problem and have infinite resources to change our behavior.

I’m a college professor, and I regularly tell my students that we adults have utterly failed them. That we are terrible at talking to each other. That we seem to have no ability to lean in to the lives of people whose experiences differ from ours. That we are actually not the kind of adults anyone should want to be. They laugh, but some of them agree with me. When I remind them that it takes difficult work to recognize our own bias, to admit that the problem in not “out there” but “in here”, that we are deeply lazy, selfish people who love to blame others instead of doing what we can do to make things better, a few of them get a panicked look in their eye, because they know they will turn into us if they don’t find a different way to be in the world.

In an effort to promote a different way to be in the world, this week I’d like to offer suggestions on how to stop screaming at your television/radio/neighbor and instead invest in your own environment, changing the way “normal” is done around you. There are many ways to respond to the Kavanaugh hearings. Decrying public engagement or passion as ridiculous, shallow outrage, is not helpful in my view. Here are a few practical suggestions that might serve the cause of justice and promote communal flourishing as we all learn to be better grown ups who share a country and a neighborhood.

 1)   Don’t undermine women in your life. Don’t use phrases like “middle school girl drama” to describe grudge-holding or silly bickering. Remove gendered insults from your vocabulary. Treat women as if their value and importance to society go far beyond their physical endowments. Teach them to speak up for themselves and then listen and respond when they do so. Don’t talk trash about your mom or mother-in-law, your boss or your waitress.

2)   Instead of raging about the inequality displayed in the Senate, take inventory of your own power. In your home, community or place of work, how are people respected and how is gender navigated? How do you show respect, and who do you silence? Who gets the benefit of the doubt and who is treated with skepticism? Clean up your side of the street, in the places you live and play and work. If you are privy to sexist or denigrating comments, whether sexual in nature or gender-based hyperbole, speak up! Let people know that you are neither safe for male locker room talk nor for females bashing males.

3)   Don’t confuse young men with conflicted and gendered teaching. In the South especially, young men are taught to protect women, to open their doors and to carry their things. Often, the same men who teach these lessons tell off-color jokes, clearly appraising women’s bodies with their eyes. They extend their “protection” of women to a patronizing withholding of information from women: ‘I don’t trust your ability to function in stress or to contribute to solutions’ gets phrased as, ‘I didn’t want you to worry.’ Don’t tell young men to treat women one way and then undermine that with your own behavior.

4)   Openly engage in the world around you. Refute the bullshit that paying attention or commenting on the political arena is somehow hysterical or an act of outrage. If men can grow up so insulated, with such privilege, that they regularly got blackout drunk and violatingly handsy with women in their paths, yet still demand the respect of others, we should be outraged! If a man spent a career respecting others, admitting mistakes, making amends, and applying the law to society in just ways, but was falsely accused of multiple counts of sexual assault, we should be outraged! If a woman’s understanding of her own body, safety and sexuality was badly impacted by an early assault from an entitled peer, we should be outraged! If our elected officials acted to further a conspiracy of damaging lies, or looked the other way when someone committed multiple counts of perjury, or acted to protect powerful unrepentant sexual assailants, we should be outraged! The presence of outrage does not presuppose an unhealthy person. Engage in the world around you, and consider what will make you speak up, or in whose defense you will stand. If there is no scenario that might make you speak, or gently disagree with a friend, or defend a person your circle has dismissed, then ask yourself what holds your love and loyalty.

5)   Know your history. Face the sexism and abuse and misogyny that has carried our country along. Explore the dark activities we have called normal. Educate yourself on the differences in patriotism and nationalism, between leadership and greed. Look into the divides between who we teach our kids to be and who we are when no one looks or no one cares. Many of our recent public moments could help us face a culture that excuses or even encourages behavior that destroys or handicaps lives. Don’t allow one person to be the anomaly; look for patterns and find your own places of compromise. Face the reality of our past, confront our present, and change the future.

 Our choosing of sides is problematic. Our love of finger pointing, blame, victimization and outrage are absurd. Our jump to accusation and defense are not helpful. But they aren’t the main problem. The answer is not to back away. Apathy is not a spiritual gift. Standing aloof will not bend us toward justice. Perhaps the answer is to get more involved, more engaged. What can you do, tomorrow, to be a part of the solution, rather than blindly being a part of the problem you complain about?

on the virtue of outrage

As Judge Kavanaugh’s Senate Judiciary hearings unfolded on a national stage, tensions climbed, accusations flew, defenses rose, and our discourse tanked. Given the chance to address our conflicted teachings on gendered behavior and how they wound all of us, we failed. I don’t mean to say we failed because Kavanaugh was confirmed, or because a woman was praised as “compelling” and “credible” but ultimately dismissed as neither, or even because of the nearly strict party lines which determined the outcome, although I admit my bias in thinking these things are true and terrible. I am most interested in the failure of our collective consciousness as we reflect on recent weeks. What was revealed, and what we must learn, according to many loud voices, is that we are too partisan and too angry. I have wept, sat stunned and paced angrily for many reasons in the last few weeks, but the thing I lament is much bigger than people addicted to picking sides.

After Judge Kavanaugh cleared the committee, Jeff Flake, from Arizona, took to the Senate floor to suggest the real danger in what just occurred was the elevation of a false binary: You either honor women and vote no on Kavanaugh, or hate women and vote yes. Flake is right that binaries take the nuance, the uncertainty, the confusion about what happened, out of the picture. I too, find binaries absurd, weak attempts to make easy choices of complicated matters; however, the danger here was not a false binary, but the exposure and endorsement of a culture that gives power to people who don’t value the experience of others.

Pastors and pundits alike echoed Flake by saying the real tragedy here was partisan people, addicted to outrage. They make a good point: we are angry and divided, and our problems are certainly exacerbated when we leap to outrage from our huddled corners. However, rather than outrage, I grieve the failure of empathetic listening, of engagement, of the willingness to get involved.

 I am bothered by the grandstanding, the side picking, the blaming anger. Our political habits are troubling, but the realities around which our political circus swirls is devastating:

  • Girls are assaulted at alarming rates, and they often hide this destructive secret in the center of their being, where it continually wounds them.

  • Boys are often raised to respect and even protect women, while simultaneously enjoying porn, celebrating sexual conquests, and noticing the mixed messages adults send them about (dis)respecting themselves and others.

  • We actively endorse the notion that behavioral standards fluctuate depending on one’s location (Vegas), wealth bracket (wealthy kids likely avoid jail), or age (if you are just a kid then a mistake shouldn’t ruin your life, even if your mistake haunts someone else’s).

  • We are more likely to believe devious conspiracy theories than the idea that entitled kids do entitled things, and have little reason to regret or confess them.

With or without Kavanaugh subtext, these revealed realities suggest devastating consequences for our shared future. To say that the primary problem exposed in these hearings is one of angry side picking is to miss the point entirely. First, such a view suggests that every testimony, every word uttered in the public sphere, has a clear agenda. It obscures the idea that truth telling comes from honest reflection, and that meaning making is a communal activity (to paraphrase David Dark). This view presupposes that since we cannot be certain about everything, it is better to stay aloof, uninvolved. Could we care enough about the communities we share to actually listen with respect, even when our stories are messy?

 Second, this point of view is founded on the idea that any meaningful engagement in the public sphere is too much engagement in the public sphere. It suggests that any interest or passion is too much and too far, that reasonable, grounded people abstain from getting involved. If this is actually true then we should not claim to be a democracy, right? How often do you hear a person accosted for thinking about how one’s choices or ideals might affect the people around them: “Stop getting political, I’m just talking about my personal faith/school choice/business habits/tax strategy.” Truth be told, I am not sure what “getting political” means, but if it means investing my time, thoughts and energy in public meaning making, in the creating of norms, in the exploration of potential leaders and their points of view, then “getting political” is the foundation of democratic participation. Could we care about the norms, laws and people who govern us enough to engage ourselves in our governance?

Third, the idea that all who were interested in the Senate procedures, anyone who diligently watched, forming opinions and expressing outrage, was a symptom of ‘the problem with society,’ is based on the notion that our country, courts and legislators are never wrong, and always worthy of our trust. To hold them accountable is a sign of hysteria. This perspective has been used to silence protest and to undercut those who would resist oppression. It suggests that the status quo is always just, so any person who robustly criticizes the system has gone overboard and is simply addicted to outrage, passionate about their passion. The reality is that we have often gotten it wrong in our country. The long arc bends toward justice because people are willing to change the trajectory of the arc. Inertia wins unless a new force is introduced in the pathway. If such a new force is always dismissed as too intense, or too involved, then inertia will win, and injustice will stand. Could we care enough to be outraged?

I understand the impulse to choose apathy instead of engaged dialogue. This is a complicated and high-stakes moment. There is much to learn, much to mourn, much to ponder about the last few weeks. If influential folks decide that our central problem is that people are “too political” or “too outraged,” then I’m afraid I need to announce that I am about to become a bigger problem than I have heretofore been. I care too much about the way our public sphere, courts, leaders, houses of worship and laws treat young women and men to pretend like apathy or divestment is a noble act of reason. It is cowardly to not care, and I invite you to be brave with me, to listen to different perspectives with empathy, and to engage in the process of making meaning out of our messy democracy.

Next week, practical ideas on how to respond to this moment.