Like many (possibly too many) straight cis-male writers, I bring up my father fairly frequently. Although I think he’s a fairly interesting individual in his own right, I don’t write about him simply because of who he is. When I write about socio-political subjects, my perspective is inherently tied to my experience as a male, which is itself tied to my upbringing by the most influential male figure in my life.
My father, whether he admits it or not, puts a lot of stock in the machismo aspect of the Latin American culture in which he was raised. He played multiple sports in his youth. He casually uses homophobic slurs much more often than anyone with as liberal a voting record as his should deem acceptable. There is always a right way to do everything, and it is always his way. When opening a container of butter, you leave the protective wrapper attached and only pull it back as far as necessary because, otherwise, it (somehow) won’t last as long. When you get out of the car, you turn off the AC and radio before taking out the keys because, otherwise, they’ll (somehow) drain the battery. You’re welcome to ask questions about his logic because he’d absolutely love to explain it to you, but be prepared if you actually disagree. No matter the subject, he always, always has an opinion to voice and an argument to win.
Arguing was the first way that we ever truly bonded. As a child, I clung to my mother’s skirts and preferred books and pretend-play more than I did the physical life that occupied my father’s youth. We never tossed a ball around because we were both pretty sure that, after my third or fourth failure to catch, the ball would end up leaving a bruise somewhere on my body.
But holy hell, I could argue.
At nine years old, I was debating the flawed battle strategies of the Axis Powers in World War II. At 11, I was following election coverage with him and could articulate the exact circumventions of procedure that led to the election of George W. Bush. By high school, I was writing actual treatises on the superiority of Black Sabbath as a band over Led Zeppelin. In my house, you were allowed to disagree with my father, but you were never allowed to say something as sacrilegious as “I don’t have an opinion.”
More subconscious were the tactics to be employed when logic alone was not enough to win. If an opponent did not fall under the weight of your awesome knowledge, you spoke more loudly and intimidated them. Get in their face. If you knew they were self-conscious about their weight or haircut, or you knew they sometimes drank a little more than was good for them, feel free to subtly dig at that particular vulnerability and gain a psychological edge. I’d later learn the official term for this strategy is “negging,” and it’s a common tactic of the Pick-Up Artist movement. Of course, my father never knew that, nor did he sit me down and lay all of this out. I learned it through example, through watching him employ these tactics on car mechanics and neighbors — and even family if we got a little too close to victory.
Even when argument and the quest to prove oneself right became the focal point of our relationship, I understood intrinsically that his drive to always be correct was linked to masculinity. To be wrong is to be emasculated. To have one’s wife or children correct you is to admit that you are less than the solid patriarchal figure that you have been conditioned from birth to be.
A lot has been said and written concerning the cis-male preoccupation with aggression. For many, this preoccupation manifests in displays of physical dominance — fighting, athleticism, push-up contests, and Stallone-esque arm-wrestling battles. In my family, this preoccupation more often appears in competitive play. The men in my life tend to be sore losers, whether the game is chess, football, or Office Olympics. Arguing and being right are part of that game mentality.
When a traditionally conditioned male is challenged in any way, the dictum of our society is that we must aggressively struggle back or be exposed as weak and lesser than the person we are up against. In a lot of ways, it’s just another version of that old “You got beat up by a girl/sissy/kid-who’s-three-grades-behind-you” shame left over from the playground days.
For older men interacting with their adult children, I imagine that losing an argument is akin to that first moment that the younger of the pair is now winning basketball games that the older once dominated with ease; Dad-centric episodes of both Boy Meets World and Family Guy deal with the subject using exactly that sort of scene. Losing means a confrontation with one’s own vulnerability — in this case, age and a learned sense of inferiority because of it.
When I stepped outside of my parents’ home and took these attitudes and tactics into my own life, it was all I could do to keep from destroying my relationships. I still recall the bullying manner in which I’d argue with friends and significant others — and the sense of despair and panic when forced into a situation in which I had to admit I was wrong. It would take years of introspection and self-study before I allowed myself to see the damage I was doing.
Patriarchy places the cis-male identity as the ideal, the alpha to which all others are to look. Being wrong is a threat because, if those outside of the patriarchal realm can prove themselves superior in any capacity, they undermine authority. It is difficult for someone benefiting from male privilege to be so aware that they can recognize it, so what happens is a subconscious (and, at times, vicious) assertion of one’s innate correctness. We have to be right, or else we are nothing. Such is every signal and subtle piece of training we’ve received.
Without excusing my father or his actions, I’ve chosen not to hold them against him. His job is simply to live in the light of his own understanding and conditioning, and in the best manner possible. It’s my job, as his son, to try and do a little better than he has to the best of my own ability — and that job includes fighting back against the more problematic aspects of what he taught me. I can recognize the patriarchal attitudes that have colored my experience and be better for doing so. I can present them as an evil to be addressed in the Western cis-male experience and try to do a little good that way.
Best of all, I can argue with all of the passion I’ve been taught to have, and do so from a genuine place of respect and intellect rather than ego or pride. That makes losing a humbling educational experience, and winning that much sweeter.[Headline image: The photograph features an adult arm-wrestling with a child. The child is a light-skinned person with short brown hair and a blue and white striped short-sleeved shirt. The adult is a light-skinned person with short black hair and a black tank top.]