In a time where the plight of Bill Cosby is mourned just as it is celebrated, yet not his victims. When Donald Trump supporters forget the evils such patriarchy and bullying has done in America, we pause as one details their own relationship to hetero-patriarchal masculinity and the ways it always equals violence.
Bullying has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Violence, whether physical, emotional, or verbal, manifests with variance of degree and velocity, but the dehumanizing aftershocks remain steadfastly familiar. They are imprinted on the psyche, the skin, the ego. Heart. Coiled and sleeping in the nervous system. Reflecting, I am overwhelmed to acknowledge this common thread seemingly stitching my impressions of life together.
The why of bullying matters, as do our capacities to alchemize aggression into more nuanced understandings of who and why we are. Viewing bullying and violence through the lenses of both my own experiences as well as the hetero-patriarchal structure, what might we come to understand regarding the nature of male violence? How do I understand it in terms of my own embodiment?
Beginning with a clear definition of patriarchy, we may come to understand the axis mundi of hetero-patriarchal masculinity, and thus the origin of male violence, itself an incredibly diverse force subjugating the world through complex webs of incarnations both direct and banal.
In The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, bell hooks names patriarchy:
Patriarchy is a political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence.
Hetero-patriarchy’s effects on the world are omnipresent, evidenced in the state’s domineering maintenance of bodies and their potentialities for becoming (the subjugation of woman, queer identified peoples, men of color, environmental destruction, the exploitation of non-human animals, warfare, religious extremism, and the upholding of binaries are a few examples).
Such pathological behaviors are ingrained, maintained, and enforced in boys through exposure to pain and consistent denial of emotional and nurturing interconnectivity. Our hearts: all broken, and yet we continue to receive and pass this brutal gift generation after generation after generation, handing it off to one another down the straight line.
“ Patriarchy,” hooks writes, “ demands of men that they become and remain emotional cripples” and bullying emanates from precisely this space of traumatized detachment.
In order to dominate an/ and other, one must learn to become emotionally unresponsive, unaccountable, possessing a power deemed god given, central, maintained through any and all costs. We experience, as men in the world, an immediately narrow framework within which to define ourselves: straight, quiet, serious, firm, noble, strong, unrelenting, austere, beholden of a protestant work (and pleasure) ethic to boot. We men are stifled, have stifled our imaginative potentials, apparently at a loss concerning how to best embrace the creative aspects of our own reproductive—or generative—potentials.
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Much as the concept of “ whiteness” within our current cultural matrix of white supremacy positions itself as the central, defining location for perfect experience in and of the world, so does masculinity within hetero-patriarchy. It is a subjectivity sacrificing knowledge and cultivation of self/ community for total dominance at the expense of all life and contextual, evolutionary becomings – the male’s own and that of everyone else’s. Violence and frustration are the logical manifestations of this framework, impossible to maintain and as inherently destructive as attempting to become one with/ in such contexts necessarily is. What a violent, mad world we make.
I’ve always felt, through equal measures intuition and confusion in flux, to exist as a human being on and beyond the margins of masculinity.
Typing this word, staring at it, slowly enunciating the syllables several times over, my mind is overtaken by the image of another word, one that breaks my heart:
Throughout my life it has both seemed—on a physical level—and appeared—intellectually and intuitively—as though there cannot be (has never been) a separation between these concepts. All of this and I am, at least according to my anatomy, a “ man.” Moreover, I am, or have been, a patriarchal man. This has been my socialization, my location in the discourses of society, geography, history.
Masculinity = Violence. Inasmuch as this fact is apparent to most women, queerfolk, and so many men striving either to resist or transform. It should be clear to all of us: masculinity = violence. My body, situated as it is, often seems to mourn masculinity the most. I don’t understand it, but can’t know myself without staring it down.
Perhaps, I should amend my statement: Hetero-patriarchal masculinity always equals violence.
Again, I don’t believe that the sort of hetero-masculine violence I’ve been discussing is inevitable outside our current cultural matrix. Doing so would imply a sort of linear, evolutionary determinism I see no evidence for and, moreover, would simply serve to bolster patriarchal masculinity’s claims to the innateness of male dominance.
My own life and those of so many men identifying across a plethora of spectrums as queer or hetero, trans, cis, gender non-conforming, and/or entirely new ways and words relating to being in a body are living examples of other dreams and visions.
Not in the sense that we’ve escaped the lacerating claws of socialization, but that we’re listening, learning from women, from queers, from sissies and fags, gender non-conformists, and our elders who have struggled along similar paths.
We’re learning to shine our own light of love on ourselves, chiseling away at our fears; receiving the melodies of our intuitions, harnessing creativity while daring to treat both ourselves and others with compassion, rather than the violence our society has taught us to embody and embrace since the moment of our birth into this, this “ man’s world.”
A “ man’s world?” Look around. It is apparent that as men, our lives are on the line; as is the lives of everyone and everything else on the planet.
Bullying has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Returning to this thought, my body and soul must reckon with the fact that I’ve lived, continue to live, with and through the realities of male violence. Marking me as it has so many others, my memories accumulate, snowball with fears of future violence and follow me as does shadow. Our collective shadow. Everyday, my brother first handed me the gift of male trauma; a more banal though still brutal vision of Cain, wielding power over my psyche through 18 years of unending bullying.
Sometimes, it was physical—elbows or holds, pushes, hits, holding me down in scared humiliation, though most often psychological. Unable to protect myself or recognize violence as abnormal or separate it from excuses commonplace in nuclear families across our society: “he doesn’t have the words; it’s just how he expresses love.” My teenage years at school seem a blur of fear and anxiety, the seeds of a debilitating darkness planted years earlier in my very core, unexplored. The story of so many teenage boys and the tired ingredients divvyed out year after year with easy predictability to our youth, scarring and training us always to react, fight fear with more fear, to simply fight.
There are moments of my brother’s vicious words and actions that remain clear in my memory, alongside instances of bullying at school, the countless times I’ve been shouted at from passing cars for the way I look. The moments when I’ve fought to be taken seriously by bigger, older, more “ alpha” males taking their place in the pantheon of my fears, my self-loathing, developed predictably and fed over the years.
This is male authenticity: our collective, ritualized experience. I’ve no idea how a sensitive gender blur such as myself has survived, given that the fact of my existence seems to present such a great affront to masculinity.
More so, I wonder what I’ve given up, hidden just beyond sight, what manners of violence I’ve doled out in my own way simply to survive in this world.
Here in New York City, my adopted home, things often seem different until I am put back in my “ place.” The one in which hetero-patriarchy demands I remain within, ever fearful. And, if not outwardly violent, inwardly so. My frustrations blossom to self hate at my inability to man up. I’ve been spit at, asked “ what the f**k” I am by drunken, aggressive guys on subway platforms surrounded by on lookers busy looking away.
I have encountered right hooks slung in my face as I walked down the sidewalk (always ending, luckily, in the inches of tense, vacant air before my unbroken nose). The list goes on and on. I hardly experience the worst of it all. It seems that everyday a trans person is murdered, disappears, commits suicide. Though every experience frightens me so, triggers all the heckles, dirty looks, traumatic memories, the pain that doubles, in a sense, as a deep and prolonged mourning for our society. The possibilities for existence it squanders daily, and for my childhood: that boy who couldn’t or didn’t know what he was up against.
Maybe, I don’t know the right places to be in this world, or perhaps there are no safe spaces. Dysphoria is difficult for me to live within, so perhaps it’s too much to ask of other men to even turn their gaze on my body.
How do we become better men?
This question used to follow me as assuredly as male privilege, convoluted as the degrees to which I can or could or cannot access said privilege. The more I have embraced myself as gender non-conforming/ gender queer, allowing for different lines of flight and welcoming the spectrum of speculative realities my body might dream for itself, the less I phrase the question with those particular words.
I’ve no desire to smooth over the striations of male experience(s) within our cultural structures, and there is no single source or means of reproducing patriarchy’s repetitious violence that might summarize or reduce the experience of masculinity across continuums of race, class, age, ability, sexual orientation, and so forth. That being said, I do believe there is a bounty of experiences shared by most men in American society, from the cradle to the ball field, the locker room to the street, the stage or office, waiting line, places of worship, the home and the bed that we all at some point commonly endure. We might allow ourselves to travel deeply together into the pasts and presents of hetero-masculine experience, critiquing such formative moments/ sites along the way. That would be as start.
Do men become “ better” by sharing with one another our pain? Can masculinity, inasmuch as it is an inherently oppressive structural implication shackled onto bodies and developed, relative and in relation to other forms of structural oppression, be changed?
Personally, I’ll leave such positive thinking to the capitalists, and say that we should indeed talk to one another, though probably just admit the violent and volatile failure of the entire enterprise and become queer. Open our hearts to that which has been shut out, turned off, cultivating instead empathy, compassion, gentleness. Nurturing new forms of desire, we might begin to ascertain what it looks like to heal, and what comes after healing. The why of bullying matters, as do our capacities to alchemize violence into deeper understandings of who and why we are.
My life and well-being depends on this, and I think yours does, too.
“What the f**k are you?”, my inquisitor on the platform asked.
Posing that question to one another and ourselves, whatever our associations with maleness and masculinity might be, will enable us to confront and claim accountability for male violence and hetero-patriarchy, important steps in this equation of healing transformation.
We know it in our bodies. We kiss the truth through our souls. This will hurt. A lot. It will also allow us to grieve for ourselves and the victims, for all of us, beginning the process of understanding and nurturing the generative potentials for radical becoming paradoxically seeded within a violent core: empathy and self love, which give birth to community—and to justice.
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[Feature Image: The photograph shows a close-up of a person with short dark hair, light skin, and facial hair. They are leaning against a mirror and looking into it, with both the person and the mirror image visible. The person appears to be upset.]