As a school football player, I was given a “Head-hunter Award” for being “the most blood-thirsty player on the field.” I wasn’t blood-thirsty, but the fact that adults would encourage that level of violence makes me shake my head. Forty years later, not much has changed. One of my son’s basketball coaches told the boys not to help up opponents who fall, because empathy would dull their competitive edge. A local sports talk radio host recently ranted against sportsmanship, because it made kids “soft.” A national sports talker said games are more fun to watch when the players hate each other.
We have a sickness and it goes far beyond sports, infecting families, business and politics. It’s called American masculinity. The central themes of our masculinity are aggression, dominance and emotional incompetence. From infancy, we enculturate males to ignore and suppress their emotions, to shun close relationships in favor of rugged individualism, and to measure their manliness by how well they can dominate others. We’ve long known it’s deadly to men, but it’s also deadly to others.
Violence, statistically, is a male thing. In the U.S., males commit 90.5% of murders, 98% of forcible rapes, and 89% of robberies. Males are 80% of those arrested for offenses against family and children, and 78% of those arrested for aggravated assault.
Oddly, violence arises both from living up to and failing to live up to the macho man icon. Guys who are stressed because they think they are seen as less masculine often try to “prove” themselves, and too often it’s through violence. Research has also shown “threatened” men are more supportive of war, show more prejudice toward gay men and lesbians, are more likely to say they believe in the natural superiority of males.
Because our male culture says feelings are a weakness and weakness is unmanly, too many of our boys grow up lacking empathy, and lacking empathy makes it too easy to see other people as mere objects. Seeing others as objects makes it much easier to use, hurt, rape, and kill them.
At Family Service Madison, we have some of the nation’s most successful anti-domestic violence and anti-aggression therapy programs, and a large part of that therapy is helping men see and move beyond the unhealthy masculinity our culture has taught them. But our work at FSM happens after the crimes have been committed, and if we are serious about addressing violence, we’re obligated to change male culture, to redefine manhood, so we set our boys on a healthy path early in life.
Changing a culture will take courage and commitment, but it’s something you and I can start today.