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toxic masculinity

Social Issues

Man Enough by Nate Pyle — Review

I first heard about Nate Pyle a while ago, when I read his post “Seeing a Woman” after a colleague posted it on Facebook. I appreciated what he had to say there, and over the last two years he’s become someone with whom I don’t always see eye-to-eye, but I still appreciate. I’ve shared his work a few times, and his voice has proven to be extremely effective at reaching an audience I usually can’t.

So when Sarah Bessey (another person I don’t always see eye-to-eye with) posted a blurb on her page about Man Enough: How Jesus Redefines Manhood, I was curious, and after looking into it I decided this was a book I needed to review (and thanks to my Patrons, I was able to buy it).

There was only one thing I didn’t like about Man Enough. There is a general feel of “the exceptions prove the rule” approach to gender essentialism. While he acknowledges that some women and some men won’t conform to whatever concept he’s discussing at the time, he is comfortable with saying “all women” and “all men” or things like this:

When I play with my young nieces, we never play this game [breaking things like lego towers]; rather, we play house. The imaginative games are always relational in nature … They are always face-to-face and involve a lot of talking.

While extremely simplistic, these examples highlight a general difference between men and women. Men love to be agents of change in the world. … Even in these differences [some men value strength, others value creativity, etc], there is commonality– changing and influencing the world according to our will. (160)

Personally, I think that the wide acceptance of gender essentialism hurts church and ministry effectiveness. If you believe that there is something(s) inherent to being a man or a woman, that will always be a part of how you view them; in my opinion, that view prevents you from seeing a person, in big or small ways, as a unique individual with their own gifts, priorities, and weaknesses. In this case– “men like to be agents of change”– it made me think, well what the hell does he think women like me are doing? If you ask most of the people who know me, they’d tell you “being an agent of change” is my #1 desire, every other priority pales in comparison, and I don’t think I’m an “exception.” I can think of a lot of men who couldn’t give a rat’s ass about this, while nearly every woman I know does.

A book that’s 194 pages long will, by necessity, have some generalities, but I think Nate needs to step back and evaluate this gender essentialist question some more. Is it that men and women have inherent differences, or that the harsh gender binary in America has given men and women, generally speaking, a similar set of experiences and expectations that are divided along strictly regulated lines? That he doesn’t seem to have wrestled with this is a significant weakness in his argument.

But that’s my only real problem, and even I can admit that a lot of his “I’m not trying to erase gender differences” bits are probably intended to make a conservative evangelical comfortable in a book that shouts about a lot of feminist and social justice issues. I highlighted a lot of things I loved, like these:

The inherent danger of equating some Christlike characteristics with masculinity but not with femininity is that we fail to engage women in discipleship that calls them and sanctifies them into the image of Christ. (49)

The problem with militant portrayals of Jesus is that they can quickly and easily be co-opted to endorse the subjugation of those deemed less than masculine– whether that is expressed through racism, sexism, or homophobia. (66)

Using the gospel to reinforce gender roles and ideals redirects our attention away from its central goal: that men and woman will become like Jesus. (157)

I think the strength of this book is that it addresses a lot of the systemic problems present in modern, and extremely gendered, evangelicalism. Nate explains the history and cultural movements that brought us here, and points out that parts of “Christian culture” may not be Christian at all– and he does it all without using feminist or social justice buzzwords that could be off-putting to the very people who desperately need to read this.

One of my favorite themes that he weaves through the second half of the book is that modern “masculinity” is anti-vulnerability in pretty much every conceivable way, but that choosing to be vulnerable is how we develop intimacy in our relationships; it’s how we can make the truest, deepest connections. I encountered that lesson– again– last week when my pro-choice article went up on xoJane. I was taking a beating in the comment section until I was vulnerable. I would have had every right to be defensive, but I chose to be vulnerable with people who were attacking me, to be honest about the grief and remorse I feel. That decision changed some people’s minds and affected others who might have been on the fence about me. I was able to make connections with people– however fleeting they might have been.

Vulnerability is hard. Most of the time it sucks because it requires a level of introspection and self-awareness that can be painful. Vulnerability frequently means risking pain, because truly exposing ourselves is almost always a risk. Nate blends in his own story of coming to terms with vulnerability, honesty, and authenticity in his life, and how embracing those principles enabled him to love others the way he feels called by Christ to do– and it was interesting seeing him trace his steps in his journey toward understanding who he actually is, and not living up to what culture– Christian or secular– says he must be.

In short, I very much recommend this book. I think it is successful for its intended audience, and I’ve known a lot of men who could have used the encouragement in this book. I spend a lot of time on this blog going through the books that put Christian women into a cage, but Man Enough reminded me that it’s not just women who are affected by gender roles. I could never have embraced my true identity in complementarianism, but neither can a lot of men. As long as we’re all being forcefully shoved into a box we don’t fit in, no one is going to be free, or whole.

Social Issues

mass shootings are a feminist issue

If you haven’t heard about the mass shooting that took place at Umpqua Community College yesterday, the New York Times gives a decent summary of the facts we know at this point– which, honestly, isn’t much. There’s been a lot of speculation about what drove this particular attack. I followed the #UCCShooting tag for a few hours last night, and the dominant consensus was that the police weren’t releasing the shooter’s identity because they were a bunch of “libtards” who didn’t want to admit that it was a “radical Muslim” who’d “targeted Christians.”

That theory came about because one witness has said that the shooter was asking if any of his targets were Christians, and others who are the friends and family of victims have made similar statements. While I don’t believe that these people are lying, I’m doubtful that this person intended to target specifically Christians because he hated Christianity just that much.

I feel that this man wanted nothing more than attention, and one of the best and guaranteed ways for a mass shooter to garner as much attention as possible in this country is to invoke Columbine and Cassie Bernall. Making Christians think that they’re being persecuted is a surefire way to make sure your story makes it into — and stays in— the popular consciousness. The only reason why I heard of Columbine, back before social media and “going viral” was a thing, was because of Cassie.

I think he “targeted Christians” for the attention because of two reasons. The first reason is that the experts say that mass shooters exist because of the attention we give them.

We’ve had twenty years of mass murders, throughout which I’ve repeatedly told CNN and our other media that if you don’t want to propagate more mass murders, don’t start the story with sirens blaring, don’t have photographs of the killer, don’t make this 24/7 coverage, do everything you can not to make the body count the lead story, don’t to make the killer some kind of anti-hero. Do localize this story to the affected community and make it as boring as possible to every other market. Because every time we have intense saturation of coverage of a mass murder, we expect to have two more within the week.

Dr. Park Dietz

The second reason is that he said he was doing this for the attention on 4chan’s /r9k (one of the places where #GamerGate was spawned, and is a board dedicated to “relationship advice”). He posted his intentions, added that “This is the only time I’ll ever be in the news I’m so insignificant,” and was encouraged by the community and given advice on how to kill as many people as possible.

I’ve read through that particular thread multiple times, and it’s clear from that thread as well as breakdowns like this one (only go there if you can stomach it) that the /r9k community is filled with self-described “betas,” who are pretty obsessed with how wronged they are by women not having sex with them. Even though the shooter didn’t state that he was doing this because women had wronged him like the Isla Vista shooter, the instantaneous reaction in the thread was to call this “The Beta Uprising.”

And then this happened:

4chan 1

“If only he had been consoled or had a [girlfriend] then maybe he wouldn’t have went off the deep end like this and many lives would have been saved.”

4 chan 2

“A [girlfriend] could have prevented this … state mandated [girlfriends] when?”

4 chan 3

“If only he had a girlfriend this wouldn’t have happened. We need to save the troubled souls not make fun of them. You all make me sick.”

4 chan 4

“If only he had a girlfriend he wouldn’t have resorted to this. #betalivesmatter”

4 chan 5

“Also it’s because all the girls date douchebags rather than the [Original Poster] or moi.”

That last one especially made me sick because it’s apparently possible for “willing to commit mass murder” not to appear on someone’s “this makes you a douchebag” list. The whole thread made me sick because it was essentially a bunch of people either praising the shooter, calling him “legendary,” or saying that it’s women’s fault that this happened. We’re not willing to date mass murderers and that makes it our fault.

The feminist critique of that should be obvious, so I’m not going to spend much time on it.

We know that these mass killings usually happen because men want attention. Women do similar things, too, but much more rarely, and for different reasons. There’s been a lot of conversation happening recently on toxic masculinity, like with the #masculinitysofragile tag on Twitter, and it seems intuitive to me that actions like mass shootings are an outgrowth of this reality in our culture. Boys are taught from a very early age that violence and aggression are two of the principle methods to gain respect– when you combine that with how men aren’t allowed to respond to their emotions in natural, healthy ways, the result is that men frequently respond destructively. Often that includes suicide, but it often makes it possible for men to be violent in ways like mass shootings.

However, I think this is bigger than just toxic masculinity. I think it’s our entire patriarchal culture. Toxic masculinity tells men that they need to be dominant and aggressive, but patriarchy tells men that they have a whole plethora of rights. Among these “rights” are things like “I deserve to have women sleep with me.” Most relevant among the messages that patriarchy screams at men is that they deserve to be at the top of everything– to be in control of the money, of government, of companies, of universities, of departments … Patriarchy tells men that if they are not the center of things, if they do not have total control of their environment, that they have to do something to assert their masculinity and superiority.

Sometimes this means abusing their partners.

Sometimes this means neglecting their families in favor of overtime.

Sometimes this means mass shootings.

As a friend put it: “entitlement is a hell of a thing.”

Gun violence in America is a real concern, and I think something fundamental must change in our gun laws in order to avert these kinds of situations in the future. But, I don’t think that largely unregulated firearms and ammunition is the only problem. Some would like to use the red herring of “mental illness,” but more and more often these people are telling us exactly why they’re willing to commit these acts. In Charleston it was blatantly racism. In Isla Vista it couldn’t have been more clear that it was misogyny. And now, in Oregon, this shooter felt robbed of the attention he felt he naturally deserved– from women and society– and he was willing to murder people in order to get it.

Feminism is an answer to this problem. We know that when gender parity and egalitarianism becomes common, violence declines. It is not a given that society must be this violent, must be this wracked with terror and grief. Feminism has taught me to prioritize empathy and understanding, and I believe that if those were to become the virtues of our society– instead of power and wealth, the virtues of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy— our world would be a much better place.

And maybe, just maybe, mass shootings would become a thing of the past instead of a daily reality.

Photo by John Spade