Our enculturation as soldiers and warriors is one of the main contributors to the violence that we men perpetuate. Since the tribal times of our earliest societies, men were trained to hunt, fight, and kill other men in warring tribes. We can still see echoes of this mindset in our modern-day conflicts, from local gang skirmishes to international wars fought in the name of our nation-state, our tribe. Indeed, men are seven times as likely as women to commit murder. And their violence is most often directed at other men, as in the US in 2020, eighty percent of murder victims were men, while twenty percent were women.
This enculturation of men into violence requires that we “man up,”—that we become “tough" and disconnect from our emotions, feelings, and natural sensitivity. Research shows that at a young age, boys and girls cry in similar frequency, but by age eleven, boys are much less likely to cry. By age sixteen, they are much less empathic than girls their age.(4) This reduced sensitivity to feelings, closing off of hearts, and limited capacity for empathy result in greater isolation. Unwilling to express their emotions, men will more often release built-up tension by resorting to rage, and when craving human connection will more often turn to sex as their only go-to outlet.
In the right context, this might be necessary for survival. We needed to distance ourselves from our feelings in order to wage war, fighting and killing our fellow humans. In the old days, it was fighting over wells of water, nowadays it might be over oil. But any person deeply connected to their heart and feelings would never agree to do such a thing—for killing or violating another human, be it a man or a woman, wounds and scars our soul. When we sever ourselves from our heart and our spirit, we sever ourselves from our true sources of lasting power, love, and fulfillment.
Such enculturation into violence happens through many channels, including media, teachers, fathers, and mothers. It is baked into our social norms. It is worth noting that this gender-role enculturation of boys and men is initiated as much by women, be they teachers or the primary care givers at home. Terry Real, a best-selling author, has done excellent work bringing men's covert shame into the spotlight. He argues that the parents' shame and pain gets passed down to the children, saying, “The shame a parent does not consciously feel will be absorbed, along with other unconscious feelings, by the child…The legacy of pain is passed from father to son, mother to son, across generations.”(5)
The point is not to assign blame and or compare who suffers more under our societal gender stereotypes. What we need now is to have compassion and passion, compassion for all suffering—our own and all genders’—and passion for transforming the source of this suffering: our current gender stereotype conditioning. Furthermore, as we all contribute to perpetuating these stereotypes, we are also all responsible for this effort. In the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
As a teen, my favorite onscreen hero was James Bond. Bond, James Bond, was licensed to kill, and we as young men were in awe. To us, "license to kill” was the highest privilege, not a burden. The plot of his movies was always the same. Our loner hero, Bond, would risk his life to fight the enemy, most often a man. Even if the women Bond encountered were involved in the scheme, the “evil empire” was always led by a man. What message does that leave with young men? What imprint does that have on a boy’s soul?
An image I always associate with Bond is that of him defeating his nemesis and walking away from whatever explosion ensued with a hint of smile on his face, emotionally unaffected and undisturbed. And his reward? To find himself in bed having sex with yet another woman. Bond doesn’t get emotionally attached, never risks opening his heart to experience the joy and vulnerability of falling in love. This is our cultural hero, the macho man, whom I and many others grew up hoping to imitate. Indeed, James Bond and my generation’s ideal(6) of a masculine man is independent and unattached to others, has callous attitudes towards sex, and perceives violence as manly and danger as exciting. It would be ridiculous, of course, to imagine Bond crying or displaying any signs of emotional vulnerability, wouldn't it?
Now, as a clinical psychologist and CEO leadership coach, I work with many successful and confident men. But no matter how confident they appear, no matter how aware they are of the inner workings of their soul, there is shame locked in the basement of their psyche. And, whether we like it or not, whether our shame is overt or covert, it is clear that shame is inevitable for most of us, men and women alike. But what to do with it is not as obvious.
Continue reading: 6: THE WAY OUT IS THROUGH: THE CASE OF DAN
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4. Crying During Adolescence: The Role of Gender, Menarche, and Empathy by Van Tilburg, M.A.L., Unterberg, M.L., & Vingerhoets, J.M. (2010). The British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 20(1): 77-87.
5. I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression by Terrance Real (1997). New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
6. Scripting the Macho Man: Hypermasculine Socialization and Enculturation by Mosher, D.L., & Tomkins, S.S. (1988). The Journal of Sex Research, 25:1, 60-84.