Male Stoicism, Traditionalism & Progressivism

Stoicism’s core idea is straightforward: you can’t control anything except yourself, so don’t sweat the rest of it. Stoicism appealed to Roman soldiers who had little control over their lives but faced great danger. And some took Stoicism to the extreme of subjecting themselves to great pain without flinching. That’s Stoicism’s dark side.

Problem is, emotions happen. Repressing our emotions only causes them to rear their heads elsewhere, and in unexpected ways. It’s better to accept our lack of control over experiencing emotions and instead focus on controlling our reactions to these emotions.

But the world over, men are honored for their ability to endure physical and emotional pain without flinching. Men who show their vulnerability or who cannot endure pain are mocked and despised by women and men alike.

One perspective is that society teaches male pain endurance while disallowing expression of vulnerability as a way of training boys to become men capable of fighting in a war. A boy’s training may consist of enduring sports injuries; being bullied; learning never to cry; and hazing in the military, fraternities, and the workplace.

Male Stoicism has been challenged in recent years, however. Feminism rejected the narrow traditional female role and fought to make it more expansive and less rigid. And this changed the traditional male role by proxy: women need men to accommodate and support a less rigid gender role for women. Feminism also connected male insensitivity toward pain to men’s violence toward women. Further, second and third wave feminism have mostly been anti-war, thus opposing the push to socialize men as warriors.

Flexibility for the male role in ways that are not needed to accommodate an expanded female role, however, hasn’t been pursued to the same degree. But this creates a double bind. A man must know (without being told) when to adhere to the traditional male role, and when to step outside of the traditional male role to accommodate women.

This ethos has been integrated into progressive politics and ideology. For example, men must support women with greater emotional openness. But emotional openness that doesn’t reflect positively on women (such as a man talking about a woman’s controlling or abusive behavior) is taboo. This also applies to discussion of issues that don’t directly affect women, such as dads being treated like they’re disposable, boys falling behind in school, or male suicide being three to four times more common than female suicide.

As such, both traditionalism and progressivism promote male Stoicism to varying degrees. Feminists and progressives quickly put the kibosh on men who are emotionally open in the wrong way, sarcastically asking, “what about the menz?”, declaring that they “bathe in male tears,” or smuggly lamenting “masculinity so fragile.”

Traditionalists will tell a man to stop acting like a girl. Progressives don’t say that because it’s misogynist, but the intent of saying “don’t act like a girl” and “I bathe in male tears” is the same: they silence men’s emotional expression.

At least traditionalists are straightforward about it. But progressives are often passive-aggressive. They deny they’re promoting male Stoicism or being insensitive to men’s feelings. They claim that bathing in male tears is ironic. And it is ironic because it represents feminism and patriarchy being on the same page, though they fail to see that irony.

Considering this insensitivity toward men, how can we expect men to be more sensitive toward women? More to the point, if we only value men insofar as their actions affect women then how can we expect men to value themselves for who they are?

Yet, the advice that men simply need to open up is simplistic. To change society so that men feel more comfortable opening up we must:

  • First must recognize early 21st century expectations for male Stoicism, how both traditionalism and progressivism contribute to it, and how progressivism has worked to partially dismantle it.
  • Articulate the problem in order to challenge it.
  • Increase societal support for open male communication, even when it means looking male vulnerability in the eye and not putting women on a pedestal.

At the individual level, I’m trying to set the unhelpful aspects of Stoicism aside by:

  • Being honest about what I’m feeling even if I wish I didn’t feel that way, and even if someone else doesn’t want to hear it.
  • Articulating the emotion in a calm, matter of fact way. Though it’s a cliche, stating things in the first person (“I feel…”) is important for personal responsibility. Saying, “You made me feel…,” blames the other person.
  • Following up with a statement of my needs or wants in a way that respects other people’s boundaries, and without the expectation that others will respect my needs (because at some point my needs will be mocked).
  • Refusing to be treated like a doormat. Others might not respect my needs, but I can still set boundaries.
  • Recognizing the value of Stoicism’s message of chilling out when I lack of control over external things, even if the aspect of detaching from my emotional experiences or silently enduring pain as a path to self-discipline is not valuable.

A Response to a Podcast from Boys Cry Too Blogger

Christine Walker, who blogs at Boys Cry Too, recently did a podcast that I really enjoyed listening to. There’s a lot to say in response because this is the sort of thing that creates important discussions. I suggest that readers visit her blog and listen to the podcast to better understand my comments.

My comments are selective, but what I have to add is that:

Conflict avoidance is a big issue for men. It’s commonly thought that men think emotions are unimportant. And some men do think that, but most don’t (not really). Rather, emotions show vulnerability, as you mentioned at several points. But men frequently see vulnerability as an “in” for someone to take advantage. A defensive stance is usually preferable to outright conflict.

“Yes, dear” is conflict avoidance. When I got married my father told me to learn those words. And I did. It was both bad advice and good advice.

Ultimately, a man needs a woman who can hear the word no and accept it. But in longterm relationships I’ve not wanted to be hammered into position. I know I’ll lose the battle. That is, I don’t feel like I’ll be listened to. So to avoid conflict, I surrender before the battle begins. And conflict avoidance is a large part of why I got divorced five years ago, and why the thought of marrying again scares the living hell out of me.

You brought up the question, “Am I safe?” That’s an important question. Women seem to worry about it more than men. Yet, a man walking alone down a street at night is more likely than a woman to be attacked (though it’s not likely a sexual assault). Crime stats dispute feminist memes. Emotional safety is just as important.

I think men worry about safety more than people think. Anger is the mask it wears. It’s preemptive self-defense. Yes, anger is the acceptable male emotion. But knowing the role of preemptive self-defense is key. Yet, “It’s scary for the person on the other side of it [anger].” Yes, it is. And that’s the point. They won’t cross you. It’s defensive. And it creates barriers, walls. Maybe that’s why Pink Floyd’s album The Wall, and Roger Waters’ pleading, “Mother, did it have to be so high?” resonates with teenage boys even today.

Humor is a big way to defuse it. That’s why men are often quick with a joke (verbal or practical, though this too can get out of hand if it becomes passive-aggressive or just plain aggressive).

And it’s absolutely true that this “keeps men from forming close relationships with other men.” And so “women become the one and only support system” for men. Which goes a long way to explaining why men’s suicide risk (which is already four times greater than women’s) increases more after divorce.

Your observation that “Men would rather do nothing than do something wrong” deserves special attention. I think of young men, indoors all day, unengaged, unmotivated. Society blames them. What’s wrong with you? Be a real man! But an anorexic woman deserves our compassion, support, and understanding.

These young men are depressed, and society struggles to acknowledge this. The mixed messages create such a fear of doing something wrong (I think of the microaggression fad), that they just withdraw.

And finally, the importance of naming the emotion. Absolutely essential. But as I wrote about Mad Men‘s Don Draper (Men’s Silence), people communicate when they feel safe doing so. A man won’t name the emotion if he doesn’t feel safe, and an emotionally confrontational approach produces the opposite effect.

You stated that men are still confronting traditional gender roles, and that was spot on. And it’s not just from other men – it’s just as often from women. (You gave the example of a man going to confront the noise in the night while his wife waits safely in bed.) Finances play a role as well. But today’s economy doesn’t permit a traditional male role for the average man, yet expectations from both women and men lag behind.

The weight of expectations can make a man feel like his back could break, but he doesn’t feel safe saying this, and so he slowly fades away.