It’s easy to see why many people today are fed up with old-fashioned views of masculinity. But I don’t think that means we can or should give up on it.
I agree with both sides of the argument. I agree with those who say there is not, in principle, any reason why traditional masculinity should be a bad thing. I also agree with those who observe that it’s hard to find examples in real life of unapologetic masculinity that doesn’t come bundled together with lots of undesirable qualities. I think we should be honest about that.
During Covid, for instance, there has been a shameful level of overlap (in my experience) between people who want to affirm a more traditional view of masculinity and people who feel a need to be obstinately, belligerently ignorant and selfish about the pandemic. And in this case I don’t think it’s a matter of confounding variables — I strongly believe there is some sort of cause-and-effect relationship. Many such men were frightened of being made to appear unmanly by acting even minimally scientifically literate and minimally law-abiding or respectful, as incredible as that may seem.
Because of this sort of thing, it seems to me that we normally encounter two primary versions of masculinity (or perhaps I should say one and a half) instantiated in real life. There are those on the one hand who think manliness isn’t a bad thing, and yet who are also willing to bite the bullet and accept whatever conspiracy theories and unhealthy habits are supposedly necessary to prove that you’re one of the manly ones. And then there are those on the other extreme who think that manliness is unredeemable, that it must be thrown out root and branch, replaced with a sheer absence of any sort of standards or stereotypes. Those are the two ditches in which we’re all falling and getting stuck.
It does grieve me somewhat that those are the two dominant options available to the social imagination of our moment. It can be hard to fight those sorts of powerful societal currents in seeking to pursue a life of wisdom and virtue. Each side has its half of the truth, but each also stands as a significant obstacle to the attainment of what is (in my estimation) the whole truth.
What’s the whole truth, then? The whole truth is that manliness, as traditionally conceived, does not have to be opposed to wisdom or knowledge or truth or virtue or compassion. It is entirely compatible with all those things, and is even their protector — or it can be, when properly formed. Manliness is strength in the service of virtue. Manliness is not identical with cowardice, with being scared of others judging you unmanly; such is the very opposite of a true and just and virtuous manliness, which is willing to bear pains and insults for the sake of defending what is good. Manliness is available to the uneducated, but it is not identical with acting as if ignorant. Manliness is willing to cause offence when it must, but does not idolize offensiveness. Manliness accepts the necessity of violence and suffering in some situations, but it never trivializes them. Manliness is perfected by thoughtfulness and gentleness and grace, by justice and moderation, not by fragile defensiveness or sneering sarcasm or impotent rage.
Manliness is not going away anytime soon, and it is certainly in need of rescue in our day. It has been co-opted and corrupted almost beyond recognition. I hope many will stand to face the challenge that confronts us.