Like being hit in the head after one is already concussed, Trump’s ascent is a painful reminder of something we already knew: mainstream American masculinity can bring out the worst aspects of human nature. It is easy to list the wrongs that have been associated with various forms of American masculinity — from the role discourses of manliness played in slavery and the slaughter of native Americans through Teddy Roosevelt’s “manly” colonial conquests to contemporary and historical misogyny. Various conceptions of masculinity have been part of some of the most vile aspects of the history of the United States.
It can therefore be tempting for progressive male-identified people to chuck out masculinity altogether or to try to rebuild masculinity from the ground up. While these radical steps work for some, many progressive men, including myself, want to identify as men in ways that are rooted in mainstream masculinity. This is because conventional maleness is a fundamental part of our identities; it is an integral part of who we are and who we want to be.
But beyond progressive male-identified people, men in the United States of all backgrounds are searching for ways to live as men while traditional modes of masculinity have crumbled. Not only has there been an awakening to the aforementioned vices that masculinity has so often brought with it, but cultural changes in the past half century have hobbled traditional conceptions of masculinity. Wars that society generally saw as morally virtuous no longer play a significant role in shaping masculinity, fewer men work in manufacturing or agricultural jobs, gender roles within families have changed as women have joined the workforce, and the stoic, emotionless affect of mainstream 1950s masculinity is out of place in a culture in which people openly talk about their emotions.
There can be little doubt that the present-day crisis of masculinity helped Trump win last year — if we had popular alternatives to the aging archetypes of American masculinity, Trump’s boorishness would have been a deal breaker for the millions who voted for him. Instead, I believe Trump’s cartoonish masculinity helped him by furthering his image as a bull in the China shop of the Washington status quo.
Within this context, the need for updating masculinity is greater than it ever has been. This is certainly a massive project — and an undertaking that men across the country succeed at everyday outside of the limelight of mainstream culture. In thinking about how to recast masculinity, I would like to offer two frameworks for thinking through this — one drawn from the thought of the Jewish thinker Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan and another from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ approach to history.
In his writing on Judaism in the twentieth century, Kaplan, a founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, presented the idea of “revaluation” as an approach for Judaism in the modern era. In his book The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion, Kaplan describes revaluation in the following manner:
Revaluation consists in disengaging from the traditional content those elements in it which answer permanent postulates of human nature, and in integrating them in our own ideology. When we revaluate we analyze or break up the traditional values into their implications and single out for acceptance those implications which can help us meet our own moral and spiritual needs; the rest may be regulated to archaeology.
This framework of revaluation is valuable to the project of updating masculinity because it acknowledges that there is wisdom in tradition, while also acknowledging that there are aspects of tradition that should indeed be chucked out. Admittedly, it is easier for me to apply this framework of revaluation to religion than to masculinity; with Judaism, for example, this time of year presents a litany of examples of the wisdom in the thought and practice of the High Holy Days.
Still, there must be knowledge we can glean from the centuries of discourses around masculinity, even if much of that discourse is vile. For example, there is surely a lot we can learn about bravery from traditional thought about manliness.
This concept of revaluation is certainly heady, and I don’t expect many men to pick up World War I literature on courage, for example, although I think that is certainly valuable work. Instead, I think revaluation could be useful for men in an everyday way — it means adopting a posture that says that I, a man, reject certain aspects of traditional masculinity, while I want to hold to certain parts of traditional maleness.
How to read history
A few years ago, Ta-Nehisi Coates explored a thought on his blog that really stuck with me. In thinking about the darkest parts of history — particularly the Holocaust and slavery in the United States — Coates argues that instead of simply vilifying historical actors who did abhorrent things, it is more fruitful to think about how one is similar to those people. He writes:
We can approach history denouncing the craziness of others, or we can approach it trying to understand how we might possibly have done the same thing.
By using this way of looking at history, we can conclude that throughout history, men who did abhorrent or virtuous or banal things were generally acting within the realms of the pressures put on them. (To be clear, I do also believe that people can defy and have defied the pressures placed on them by societal conditions.) This perspective allows us to approach men — even those who did horrible things — not just as villains, but as people acting in response to social pressures. (Again, this doesn’t absolve these men of responsibility.)
By looking at men this way, the depth of forces that created masculinity also becomes apparent; this approach allows us to see both the extent of the work we need to undertake if we want to recast masculinity and also the ways in which masculinity can evolve significantly now that men are subject to different pressures.
Finally, the fact that this approach to masculinity asks us to empathize with these men offers a useful warning; it shows us that humans have the propensity to do horrible things if they are placed under certain conditions. In an era in which society is preoccupied with people self actualizing or “becoming their true selves,” looking at the history of masculinity offers a useful reminder that, as Reinhold Niebuhr might say, humans have the propensity for real evil. We can learn from the past as we reconstruct masculinity, but it is also important to keep in mind just how damaging masculinity has been.