By Lee Van Ham
Healthy masculinity eluded me for most of my life. I embraced feminism, except in extreme hate-men versions. I supported women’s rights in the struggle against repression by patriarchy. Equal pay for equal work seemed only fair. In these ways I considered myself to be conscious and unselfish in my manhood.
But a book by bell hooks has revealed to me my compromised masculine self. She explains why I’ve often been unable to feel, am stunted in expressing compassion, and far too often have preferred being right to expressing love. That’s how I learned to “be a man.” But hooks calls it patriarchal masculinity and shows how different it is from feminist masculinity. Patriarchal culture, which is pervasive globally, shapes boys and men in a kind of masculinity that dominates and holds onto domination by violence and shaming. Many girls and women, living in patriarchal cultures, learn to believe that men should rule, hopefully benevolently and without violence.
Born Gloria Jean Watkins (1952-2021), bell hooks took her pen name to honor her maternal great-grandmother. Author of over 30 books, a social activist, and a Distinguished Professor in Residence at Berea College, she is best known for her writings on race, feminism, and class. (See bell hooks in Wikipedia)
Even before completing her book, The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, I was connecting patriarchal rule, not only to myself but to why Earth and thousands of species continue to be pushed aside by the decisions of people in power. Men and women, acting according to the values of patriarchal culture, dismissively pursue profit, expansion of powers, and greater wealth by exploiting and dominating Earth as well as destroying habitat that species depend on. How can human behavior be so callous? Because dominators rule without feeling. They fear that not being dominant makes them weak. They further fear the loss of who they are and that the rules that hold civilization together are unraveling. Patriarchal masculinity considers itself to be the protector, but in truth it is the destroyer.
Life on Earth is straining under the weight of patriarchal culture. Though people acting with this culture can be benevolent, more often Homo sapiens are ruthless. Men who can abuse the mother of their children readily abuse Mother Earth and all her offspring. To emphasize the interlocking reality of patriarchal power throughout structures of societies, hooks uses the phrase “imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy.” She considers it the “foundation of our nation’s politics.”
So how can we stop this music and change the song to feminist masculinity? The fate of the planet depends on intervention of this pervasive addiction. Boys, girls, men, and women can embody feminist masculinity, but none can do it effectively alone. We need a group in which everyone has a desire to change. bell hooks recognizes the effectiveness of 12 Step groups to break addictions. She emphasizes that when change happens there its effectiveness is because it happens in the presence of the group.
The addiction to patriarchal power can change when men and women with the will to change gather. New actions can emerge from the solidarity of a group seeking to pursue feminine masculinity amid the obstacles of patriarchal culture that come at us aggressively daily and everywhere in life. The power of a small group devoted to healing change was well noted by cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead when she famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
To be part of this kind of change group that simultaneously works on personal change and world change is the most eloquent way we can reduce violence to Mother Earth and teach one another to love.
Photo credit: Cmongirl, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons