On Privileged Bodies: Men, the Weight of the World, and Their Stories

When Hannah Rosin writes about the “end of men,” she does not, of course, mean that men are in the process of going extinct (though there are some who argue that it would be better for no one to exist at all);  rather, she means that the existence of the kind of man around whom the (Western) world has revolved from its inception is coming to an end. We are all intimately familiar with This Man; his language, culture, dreams, fears, prejudices, enemies, friends, politics, sexual preferences are not merely his own but universalized and projected over the whole of society. They are the Standard against which everything else is measured and valued. That is why he is This Man and not simply an individual biological male. And This Man isn’t going gentle into that good night. The 2016 Presidential Election, for example, was like a mass corporeal manifestation of the last violent resurgence of This Man. Not that This Man would ever disappear completely, but it can no longer be denied that the balance of power is shifting ever further away from This Man, that the Point of No Return has been passed, and the world isn’t reversing course. Power structures that prioritize This Man’s voice are still largely intact, but they’re weakening, and where that isn’t happening, alternative structures are being built to replace them. 

Understandably, there are many men who feel threatened and exposed by this re-making of the world. If, like me, you happen to be (and you do happen to be–you’re thrown into your body, your family, and your opportunities or lack thereof) male, white, heterosexual, educated, English-speaking, and not particularly poor (the wealthy live in their own world, which is also threatened, but their resources allow them to stave off the re-ordering far longer than others), then you especially have to figure out how to live in this brave new world. You may feel–as I often have–like no one cares how you, in your tower of privilege, do that, or even the bare fact that you have to, but in fact there are those who are adversely affected simply by not being thrown into bodies and families and opportunities similar to yours, and together with you they are invested (knowingly or not) in figuring out how you should navigate this increasingly crowded space of intermingling powers, personalities, perspectives, and differences. This is a task you cannot avoid for yourself. We are certain men of a certain time and there is no changing that. Of what else, then, in the end, could we most truly concern ourselves than in figuring this out–how to be new men?

There are 3 ways I’ve seen men most unproductively respond to this discursive re-distribution of androcentric power in the public square (I’ve been complicit in all three to one extent or another, at one time or other, and most men have as well). I’ll name these the Hulk; The Helpful Progressive; and the Mute Martyr.

The Hulk is the most obvious response/transformation. When threatened by deconstructive analyses of male power and discourse,  assaulted by social media call-outs, or even merely exposed to the growing presence of diverse voices, these men respond hyper-aggressively and defensively (witness #GamerGate, Reddit, 4chan, Trump fanboys, etc). They hulk out, becoming disproportionately enraged. They summon philosophy, social criticism, and de-contextualized statistics to aid them in their otherwise sexist/racist/homophobic tirades. They join men’s rights forums and lament and mourn the passing of the time when men were really men and women wanted “real” men. They resemble a wounded animal, hurt and alone, lashing out in fear.

Or, they attempt to capitalize on and re-distribute the discourses of women, people of color, and non-heterosexuals. This is the “Helpful Progressive” who seemingly only wants to assist the marginalized in achieving equality. They vigorously, even gleefully, desecrate any notions of maleness and whiteness and are quick to agree that the patriarchy has poisoned everything. But they do all this on their own terms–they insist on being seen as teachers and facilitators, leaders of the revolution that will spark love’s victory. They’ll immediately applaud anything and everything said by those in the minority, but will often harbor resentment that they will eventually be unable to keep quiet about. The Helpful Progressive will insist on explaining to you how it all got this way and what should be done to fix it. He wants to bask in the love and admiration of the Other, of whom he tells himself he is only trying to help, rather than genuinely listen to one whom he supposedly sees as his equal.

Going dark is the third, most subtle response. This is the Mute Martyr. Mute Martyrs initially believe that this is a move of expansive charity for others. They believe that their voices are no longer valid in a pluralized and otherized world. They see the damage done by patriarchy and do not want to be associated with it, but also think they are too complicit in its destructiveness and too self-aware to engage in the more explicit narcissism of the Helpful Progressive. They self-righteously eschew the Hulk and the Helpful Progressive as two sides of the same self-serving coin, but they feel an acute sense of guilt for being part of the problem, and increasing frustration and alienation in not knowing how to respond. Typically they feel a large measure of self-pity that their voices have been seemingly silenced (or should be silenced), not because these other voices have forcefully quieted them, but because they feel their time has come and gone, and their voices can now only be the voices of ghosts, tied to a past where the marginalized lived in fear and loathing of such oppressors. “Heroically,” they will sacrifice themselves and their voices for the “greater good” of the marginalized being able to speak in their place.

If you inhabit a privileged body,  think about the burden that it is to be one of these Vessels of All Knowledge. Because historically, that is what you are. That is what it was given to you to become. This is the mantle you were expected to shoulder all your life, the ultimate duty you were taught to fulfill. You were supposed to know everything, have the answer to any question. You were supposed to be the most educated, the most articulate, the final word, the keeper of history and the master of logic and reason. Quiet your thoughts and reach into the deepest recesses of your being and you can feel this inside you, this constant, overwhelming pressure to speak and know and create and correct and solve and be the center of the universe. And the worst part of it, of course, is that all of this is absurdly impossible. You were asked to do an impossible task, and if you have punished yourself without mercy for not being able to do it, you are far from alone.

But you didn’t choose this. This is what you were given. You were told that it was up to you to save the world, that the Hero’s Journey was your journey and no one else’s, that with great power comes great responsibility, that this task was appointed to you, and if you do not find a way, no one will.

Stop wounding yourself over this burden placed in your helpless infant body the day you were born, the weight of families, the fate of nations, the responsibility of worlds. Let it all go, friend. Welcome a new day of freedom from having to be everyone’s savior, from having to know everything, from having to be the speaker for the living and the dead. It will be a relief to remove this heavy load you’ve been carrying around all your life.

Ironically or not, I don’t know exactly how this is done. I suspect that it’s different for each man. I do know that while becoming the Hulk, the Helpful Progressive, or the Mute Martyr is initially understandable, it’s not a place you can dwell for long. These are reactionary, fearful responses, not sustainable or healthy identities. But if you shouldn’t fight back, adopt marginalized modes of speaking, or silence yourself completely, what can you do?

Consider that one of the most common ways for men to speak is in the language of logic and reason. This search for some kind of universal mode of discourse is ultimately a fantasy. Yes, logic and reason exist, but only within contexts and specific applications. There is no abstract all-encompassing way of speaking truth and adjudicating difference. Whose logic? Whose reason? For what purpose? In whose interests? Against whom? There are a number of reasons for why this mode of discourse promises false dreams of perfect communication and resolution of conflict, but for my purposes here I want to point out that defaulting to universal logic and reason in order to speak is the ultimate distraction from the place where truth resonates most deeply within us: the human story.

Men often insist on more universal rational explanation–explanation that is impossibly genderless and raceless–over and against more emotional or narratological modes of discourse. This isn’t universal of course, but it’s also a false dichotomy: there is a logic to narrative and a narrative that can be derived from a logic. If men and women, for example, really do think differently, it’s not because one is primarily rational and the other primarily emotional (to cite the usual stereotypes); there are different logics and ways of reasoning at play. Once the rules of the discourse are understood, communication–or at least understanding–becomes possible. But we apply our own rules to other ways of speaking, thinking, and feeling, and conclude that they are nonsensical, insignificant, or even dangerous.

We need to learn as men in privileged bodies to speak in the only way that was ever really, authentically available to us: we need to tell our stories. For too long we have been trained to tell others’ stories, according to our own knowledge and understanding, our own logic and reasoning (the One True Logic and Reasoning). When we are actually willing to hear others’ stories, at best we feel we need to add something of our own; at worst, we dismiss them as illegitimate, exceptions to the rule, non-representative of a sufficiently large portion of humanity. Even when we have told our own stories the old familiar universality creeps in, and they become the stories of the Everyman, lessons by which to guide all people toward similar destinies and realizations of common dreams. We stay away from the intense intimacy of vulnerability and openness, the particularity and singularity of who we are in our individual throwness. We don’t honestly discuss our fears and weaknesses. We can’t help but insist on some kind of redeeming telos that tells us that even though happened or we did y, we are ultimately not without honor and admiration.

To inhabit a privileged body means being distant from oneself. Distance is the medium of transmission, the way the self relates to the earth and the earth communicates with the self. It’s an ethereal, abstract, lighter than air medium that keeps the self removed from its body, and therefore from the earth. Bodies are earthy, warm, moist, degenerate, full of life and death, connected to the earth and to others. But privileged bodies are above, the foremost distant starpoint in the Chain of Being. They’re as close as one can get to immortality, yet are largely disconnected from the messy and chaotic processes of actual life.

We have to collapse the distance between ourselves and others. We have to stop hurting ourselves for what we cannot and should not change and stop avoiding and distracting ourselves from what we can change. Yes, we should listen to others’ stories, and without stamping them with our own epilogues. But we also need to collapse the distance between ourselves and our own fleshly bodies, in all their sickness and impurity. Our stories matter, but not because of what they could ultimately mean for everyone and how they should live or relate to us. Our stories connect us to our actual lived bodies and the lived bodies of others. Our stories have the capacity to make the world flat again, without hierarchy, and they have the potential to help us relate to others in ways that do no not have to default in violence (Hulk), exploitation (Helpful Progressive), or self-destruction (Mute Martyr). We must let go of the burden given to us that ordains us to be Masters. It is an impossibly heavy weight. It is drudgery and despair, because none of us, even all of us together, can bear what it requires. It hurts others, and it impedes our ability to love and know ourselves in and through our own bodies. It steals our bodies from us by insisting we are incorporeal gods.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that men in privileged bodies could or should somehow be convinced to just speak and write autobiographically (as if that’s possible). But such a mode of speaking and writing is much more foreign for us than it is for those on the margins, who almost have nothing but their personal experiences to marshal in service of themselves and against those in power. This is a jumping off point–learning to be small enough to hear one’s own voice out of one’s own body, instead of trying to project a Voice onto the entire world as an Expert or Teacher. If we could learn to make such engagement a habit then that could inflect other modes of discourse in potentially more peaceful and less dominating ways, ways which not only do not wound others, but also relieve us of the responsibility to carry the fates of our family, culture, language, religion, and values solely on our shoulders.
Others projecting their voices and performing their truths are an opportunity for genuine, expansive love and freedom, not a sign of impending doom and destruction. Becoming smaller and lower and embracing our common earthiness is a move in the direction of the genuine joy of sharing one’s truest self with other true selves, in all their personal sufferings and triumphs. It will likely not happen without a staggeringly steep learning curve, but there is goodness here if there is goodness anywhere.

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One thought on “On Privileged Bodies: Men, the Weight of the World, and Their Stories

  1. This articulates very well some things I’ve been thinking about lately: in particular, the contingency of identity and the need to become smaller without succumbing to the wish to vanish. The last paragraph makes me think of Wendell Berry’s “A Native Hill,” which captures for me the kind of smallness you’re talking about.

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