What’s wrong with modern men?

The brute within and the future of masculinity

What’s wrong with modern men? Depending on whom you ask, this is a question that can yield wildly different answers. On one side is a crisis in masculinity marked by the sexual impropriety of the kinds highlighted by the #MeToo movement; by campaigns of harassment against women such as Gamergate’s—for daring to exist in spaces some men consider their sole domain; by the emergence of ever more troubling internet subcultures such as incels or “involuntary celibates” (whose expressions of frustration with their lack of sexual success take the form of extreme misogyny), brought to light for much of the world through Alek Minassian, the alleged perpetrator of the Toronto van attack. On another side is a crisis in what constitutes acceptable male identity, a crisis that encompasses men who squirm at a model defined by public figures such as Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, and Milo Yiannopoulos, but also those with more conservative or traditional views on gender, who lament what they perceive as the feminization of men in an era of gender fluidity and waning divisions between the sexes.

In the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, the Waffle House attack, or whatever mass killing inevitably supersedes these in the rolling news cycle by the time this piece has gone to print, it has become increasingly difficult to ignore the virulence of male violence—largely white male violence. Nowhere does this ring true more than in America—where an ongoing study by Mother Jones of mass shootings from 1982 to 2018 found that only three involved female perpetrators—but, as last month’s incident in Toronto showed, the senseless harm wrought by men is a global issue.

The multitude of issues facing modern men, but male aggression in particular, is something three recent Canadian books aim to address. In Mad Blood Stirring, Daemon Fairless—a science journalist and former CBC producer—explores the connection between men and violence in its various forms. Several of Mad Blood Stirring’s subjects are currently in prison or have spent much of their lives incarcerated: a rapist who targeted women who were strangers to him; a serial killer and, remarkably, a woman who escaped from him and lived to tell the tale; a victim of childhood sexual abuse who has gone on to do extraordinary work with at-risk young men. At times, the style veers a little close toward edgy detective thriller, detailing at great length the fantasies and actions of awful men—and while there’s an argument to be made that doing so reveals the horror of their acts and gives us an understanding as to the way violent minds work, it can be gratuitous at times.

Fairless’s work serves to deconstruct the nature-versus-nurture binary. Although there are connections to be made between male biology and male behaviour, they’re complex: Fairless cites one study by American sociologist Ronald Simons showing that while men with the low-MAOA allele, a variant of the so-called warrior gene, are indeed overrepresented in the prison system, boys who carry low-MAOA and who are raised in stable, caring environments are actually less likely to be involved in criminal activities later in life than those without the gene who are brought up in equally healthy homes. Often, Fairless writes,

the boys who are the hardest are those who are most sensitive and adaptable; counterintuitively, hardness sometimes is an expression of a boy’s sensitivity and adaptability. If you are extraordinarily sensitive to your surrounds, and your surroundings are extraordinarily frightening, after you have crouched and twitched for a spell, you will eventually send out the serpent.

Fairless isn’t an outside observer of male violence who merely happened to think the subject might make an interesting read: He says he has long grappled with what he identifies as his own undesirable traits, finding himself fist-fighting muggers and belligerent drunks on the TTC. As an educated, sensitive guy, he thinks he ought to know better, and he sees this behaviour in many of his friends, despite the range in their age, race, class, and chosen careers. Fairless makes no claim that this tendency toward violence is hard-wired. In another pairing of biology and socialization, he refers to a study by social psychologists Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen investigating the relationship between testosterone and environment among undergraduates. “They found that when young American men from the southern states were physically provoked (for the purposes of the experiment, they were shoved), their testosterone shot up higher than it did in men from northern states in the same situation. Southern men also got angrier than northern men and were more willing to fight.” He adds that this was true only of white subjects. Nisbett and Cohen argued that this stems from a culture of self-defence among settlers in the West and the frontier South, and, to an extent, vigilantism due to a lack of law enforcement—an early iteration of what, thanks to the National Rifle Association, would, several hundred years later, worm its way into policy in several states as stand-your-ground laws. This same fundamental mistrust of police, Fairless writes, remains ubiquitous today, and has long been cause for violence in ghettoized areas and impoverished regions of the United States. What this boils down to is an identity rooted in pride, independence, and strength: three characteristics inextricably linked to traditional masculinity.

Jamil Jivani’s Why Young Men adds another facet to the question of male aggression; the book is an almost painfully relevant exploration of the intersection of masculinity and racial identity. When Jivani was eight years old, he witnessed the demeaning treatment of his Muslim father, Ismat, at the hands of police officers following a minor traffic collision. One officer, Jivani writes, “clearly wasn’t happy with the answers my father had given and asked me questions to see if my memory of the accident was the same. Although I was just a child, he was in my face, being aggressive. He told me that my father might go to jail.” It was his first conscious experience of racism, but something Jivani would later encounter on a regular basis. He was often followed by security guards or stopped by police with little explanation, and treated like a criminal because of his rapper-inspired wardrobe and, of course, his skin colour. His treatment by authority figures almost proved a self-fulfilling prophecy. For a long time, Jivani saw little future for himself outside of the world of organized crime. At one point, he attempted to get hold of a gun; when a friend asked Jivani to confirm he was serious, he writes in the book, “I told him that I’d get back to him. That day, I went home from school and cried.” The gun question never came up again.

There was a second formative incident in Jivani’s youth: Not long after his incident with the police, Ismat walked out on his wife and children. The strain of providing for a family had become too much, and one night shortly before leaving he came home from work, sat on the edge of Jamil’s bed, and cried. Ismat told his son he couldn’t do “this” much longer. “He was living a life of such emotional suppression that one of the few people he felt he could open up to was his son, who wouldn’t judge or criticize him,” Jivani writes in a particularly poignant moment in the book.

Fatherlessness is a strange thing. Jivani writes that it gives young men “the gift and curse of choosing who shows them how to be men.” That is an experience I know firsthand; my own interest in the subject of masculinity was largely piqued by my father’s fatal heart attack when I was nine. In the weeks that followed his death, we found over-the-counter angina medication in one of his jacket pockets, and the coroner reported finding scar tissue from a previous heart attack. At no point did my father tell any of us he was in pain, or seek medical help, and it’s my belief that his inability to admit what he was feeling—whether that was physical or mental—was a major factor in his death at fifty-one. For my part, I struggled with my father’s death in silence, too, before realizing, eventually, that this mindset was what had killed my dad. “This is the cyclical nature of broken families,” Jivani writes. “I’ve inherited his struggle in my own efforts to learn about masculinity and manhood without role models at home.”

One of the odder things for me about many of the online groups claiming to speak for men—Red Pillers, the incel community, so-called men’s rights activists—is that they suggest few fixes for the problems of masculinity that seem to arise irrefutably from its oppressive past, instead blaming women, and particularly feminists, for them. Statistics such as the gender disparity in suicide rates (men in most Western countries are two or three times more likely than women to take their own lives) ought to serve as a reminder that men are victims of their gender too: but rather than being seen as problems of patriarchy, they are trotted out as evidence of a crisis in masculinity caused by feminism. The internet, which has also arguably helped change people’s viewpoints on gender and sexuality and brought about significant societal changes, has facilitated this mode of thought as well as the most vicious backlash against progress. Minassian, the man charged in the aftermath of the Toronto van attack, appears to have been inspired by Elliot Rodger, who killed six people before taking his own life in Isla Vista, California, four years ago in an attack motivated by a hatred of women for rejecting him.

Jivani’s book offers a useful framework for considering these radicalized communities. Men who find themselves embedded within them seek them out, he suggests, for many of the same reasons that young men become radicalized by ISIS, or by peers chanting Nazi slogans. Why Young Men encourages us to consider radicalization, of the religious fundamentalist variety or in the secular world of domestic organized crime, as it relates to manhood and male identity. A common theme, from the Muslims Jivani meets at youth groups in Belgium, to the white working-class Americans whose stories are told by his friend, Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance, is their skepticism about news media. “ISIS distinguished itself from other criminal organizations by expertly exploiting the media’s eroding credibility and using social media platforms to spread conspiracy theories and propaganda,” Jivani writes. “Thus, it’s not surprising that ISIS would find success recruiting young men in communities where distrust of traditional news outlets is particularly high.” Intriguingly, the same might be said of the Red Pill crew or enclaves of nationalist and neo-Nazi groups populated largely by young white men.

Jivani, a relatively young man himself, speaks of his subjects with a refreshing lack of judgement. He has first-hand experience, after all, of getting lured into such enclaves. Not only did he come dangerously close in his youth to a life in organized crime, for a while he was caught up in an atheist Nation of Islam spinoff group called the Five Percenters, which drew from the Nation of Islam’s black nationalism as well as its broadly anti-Western sentiment. “Caught in this whirlwind of information and misinformation, I found it impossible to distinguish a conspiracy theory from an accurate and well-researched report. I just didn’t have the tools or the ability to vet information, so I believed everything that resonated with me.” After his failed attempt to buy a gun, Jivani was so embarrassed that he abruptly stopped talking to most of his friends and instead put all of his energy into school. That allowed him, eventually, to forge a different path. He became a lawyer, an activist, and a professor, championing social causes such as improving the policing system and advocating for immigrants and low-income families.

Our best hope of preventing young men from falling into these traps, however, is to reach them while they’re still children. Raising boys in this somewhat enlightened, somewhat regressive, and all round confusing era is no easy feat. It’s an entirely different ballgame altogether when the boy in question is an Anishinaabe child adopted by two white women, as is the situation for Rachel Giese. In Boys, Giese looks at the challenges she, her wife, and their son face, exploring (most satisfyingly, of the three books) big questions like what it means to be a man and how we raise boys to conform or reject these ideals. She explores the importance and influence on boys of friends, education, sports, and popular culture, and delves into wider issues such as sexuality and gender non-conforming kids.

Much of Boys comes from a place of trying to understand her son and that which lies ahead: not having experienced the male psyche via romantic relationships, Giese looks at masculinity with a surprisingly heartfelt curiosity and objectivity. We’re introduced to the concept of the “Man Box,” a metaphorical box that contains traditional ideals of masculinity (strength, stoicism, emotionlessness, heterosexuality). A 2017 study by the non-profit group Promundo drew from this concept, looking at how men in the U.S., U.K., and Mexico differ in their masculine identities. Mexican men were significantly more progressive in many of their beliefs regarding gender, a fact one of the study’s authors attributed to closer family ties.

Giese also writes about groups set up to counter the problems associated with hegemonic masculinity, such as a Calgary-based program called WiseGuyz. Established with the aim of curbing the social deficit brought about by toxic expressions of masculinity, WiseGuyz was developed by the Calgary Sexual Health Centre after they realized that not a single program in the centre’s thirty-year history targeted young men. Over the course of their Grade 9 school year, boys meet weekly “to discuss everything from anatomy to ethics to self-awareness. Along the way, they learn to question what they’ve been told about what it means to be a man, and then figure out how to become a good one.” Sometimes, they get into philosophical discussions or tackle issues from the news or the boys’ lives. “Some of the boys in WiseGuyz are susceptible to [Milo] Yiannopoulos’s style of angry, anti-woman posturing,” Giese notes. “Conversations about male power and male privilege can be bewildering or frustrating to them, since many don’t feel very powerful at all.” Rather than shut down the boys or belittle them for these beliefs, WiseGuyz offers something of a safe space where boys can speak freely about their opinions and engage in robust discussion and debate, with promising results. One boy, who constantly challenged WiseGuyz leader Blake Spence about his “feminist agenda” later came to Spence with a concern about a sexual assault that had happened between two of his classmates. “With Spence’s encouragement, the boy went to the principal and helped push for more school supports for [the victim].”

Like Jivani, Giese’s son is fatherless. She recalls the time she asked him if he ever wished he had a dad or missed out by not having one, to which he replied: “ ‘I think if I had a dad, I’d get to go to McDonald’s more often’…I told him we knew a lot of dads who didn’t go to McDonald’s, like a neighbour who was a vegetarian and a foodie friend who only bought meat from the organic butcher. My son shrugged, already bored and regretting this conversation. ‘Okay, fine,’ he said. ‘All I know is that you two lesbians never take me to McDonald’s.’ ” Giese’s good humour surely serves her well as a parent, too. She goes on to note: “We figured he could call on his uncles when it was time to learn to shave. Pretty much everything else a kid needs to be taught, qualities like decency, resilience, empathy, honesty and tenacity, are genderless.”

I’ve said in the past, only half-joking, that the fact I was permitted to write a book on masculinity in my early twenties was an indictment of how desperately we need these conversations. These books succeed in building on that conversation and though there’s despair and pessimism to be found in each, there’s also a great deal of hope. Fairless learned to walk away from confrontation for the sake of his family; Jivani, who was once believed by his school to be practically illiterate, has gone on to write an important book and cemented himself as a key advocate for young men of colour.

The kindest of all three books, though, is Giese’s. She recalls how, a few years ago, on an overnight hockey trip, her son—to her initial fear—proudly introduced the hotel room full of pubescent boys to his teddy, Blue Bear. “Immediately the other boys relaxed and began comparing notes: one had brought a stuffed dog, another kid had a toy elephant. One boy said that he had wanted to bring a few of his own stuffed animals but worried no one else would have them.” “This roomful of goofy, burping, rowdy boys had just schooled me on what it means to embrace the full range of humanity, where a person, whatever their gender, could be tough and soft, brave and vulnerable, competitive and compassionate.” If only we gave them the chance.