Saturday, March 15, 2014

Strength, Violence, and Boys

In a previous piece for Acculturated, I wrote about an Upworthy video produced by The Representation Project, which aims to “expose injustices created by gender stereotypes.” It asserts that gender stereotyping begins with the joyful announcement of the baby’s gender and goes downhill from there, condemning boys to violent machismo and girls to sexual objectification. Last time I wrote about its perspective on girls; this time let’s deal with its take on boys.

The video claims that a male child is burdened from birth by expectations that he must be strong and athletic, and can’t “act like a girl” or cry. I don’t see a problem with promoting athleticism for boys or girls, but certainly boys should be encouraged to access, understand, and express their emotions (when appropriate) rather than deny them; no quarrel there.

But then the video specifically targets the notion of physical strength, framing it as violence and rage. It shows pop culture images that it suggests wreak a damaging influence on boys: Marvel superheroes Hulk and Thor, pro wrestling, violent video games, action flick stars Vin Diesel and Jason Statham, muscular men (athletes?) snarling, and – inexplicably – Leonardo DiCaprio as the Wolf of Wall Street. These are “the limiting narratives we feed our children,” the video proclaims.

One speaker in the video says that boys are “led to believe that power is associated with domination”; another argues that “we need to redefine strength in men not as the power over other people but as forces for justice.” Beware when people on a mission insist that we need to redefine words or concepts to align with their agenda. A memorable passage from Orwell’s 1984 is enough to warn where that leads: “War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.” We don’t need to redefine anything; properly chosen, the words we have now already do a great job of signifying meaning, so let’s stick with those.

Strength already is, or can be, a “force for justice.” The video itself ironically proves my point: it shows Statham and Thor wielding a shotgun and hammer, respectively, against movie bad guys. These fictional characters are using strength, dominating power, and violence as forces for justice – a valuable lesson for boys to absorb. In the real world, cops and our military assert these characteristics in the service of justice every day.

That same speaker goes on to say that “justice means equality and fairness and working against poverty and working against inequality and violence – that’s strength.” His earnest delivery can’t obscure the fact that: 1) equality is not always justice; 2) working against poverty and working against inequality are not the same thing; 3) fairness is in the eye of the beholder; and 4) violence is not always a bad thing. Let’s stay on topic and address item #4, the only one relevant to the video’s message about boys.

It’s easy for insulated celebrities like Sting to sing that “nothing comes from violence, and nothing ever could,” but in fact violence is sometimes the only or the best way to end conflict, from confronting a schoolyard bully to ending Nazism, and in such instances overwhelming strength is pretty damn valuable. In the real world, violent evil has always been an everyday reality and always will be. Men – yes, men –must be prepared to counter that with dominating power, because the violently evil don’t respect dialogue.

Teaching our boys that violence is always wrong leads to such ludicrous, zero-tolerance extremes as suspending them from school for pointing index fingers like gun barrels (at the same time, in the politically correct name of “fairness” and “equality,” we are putting women into combat positions in the military, which will have horrible consequences). It does no good to teach our boys that strength means social justice (it doesn’t) and that power and violence are wrong, if evil men aren’t teaching their sons the same (and they’re not). Our boys will simply grow up to be beaten or enslaved or killed by those who define strength the old-fashioned way and who are perfectly happy to dominate others with it. If you want peace, as the ancient Roman saying goes, prepare for war.

Boys don’t need to be discouraged from seeing physical strength as a virtue. They simply need the moral guidance to understand when and where to direct it.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 3/14/14)