Lately I’ve been thinking about the news and what it does to us—and what we’re supposed to do with it. And I’ve been thinking about all atrocities in the world that have one commonality: they've been committed by men. The Boston Bombings. The sickening rapes in India, often of young girls. The Oklahoma City Bombing. 9/11. The 2011 Norway Attacks. The Newton kindergarten massacre. Virtually every serial murder spree you’ve ever heard of. The list goes on. Not a woman present except among the victims.
I have a son. I think of him mostly as a human being, but sometimes he really is—to be simple and un-PC—such a boy. At five, Oliver’s favourite activities include:
- Practising to be a ninja;
- Whacking things with sticks;
- Watching superhero or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle (TMNT) shows;
- Lifting household furniture items to show how strong he is;
- Beating his fists on his chest while hollering, all Tarzan-styles;
- Leaping, jumping, flying through the air;
- Wrestling his dad or friends.
We have to restrict the quantity of superhero and TMNT content he gets. If it’s been a slight day on that front, he’ll protest, “But I haven’t watched any violence today!”—funny only because he is getting that phrase from our admonishments that such shows can be too violent (i.e., he is not a psychopath).
Here’s the other side of the coin:
- He has never hit me, or Georgia (and we can be bossy and annoying)—his dad has drilled that into him from day one;
- He is incredibly sensitive and sweet—tactile in the extreme, he is on us for hugs and cuddles throughout the day, and he loves giving compliments and making people feel cared for;
- He is an absorbed and careful drawer, and loves to craft;
- He reads about five books a day, on everything from dragons to princesses who tell princes to hit the road when they’ve been jerks;
- He is fascinated by bugs, and giving them new homes or saving them.
Oliver is small now, but one day he will be a man. He will enter more fully into a world where men commit the vast majority of violent acts upon other people, as well as lesser-grade acts of intimidation. So I’m naturally interested in these questions:
- Why are men so much more likely to hurt other people?
- How much is genetic and hormonal, and how much is culture-based?
- How much is based on the balance of power in the world—gendered and other—and the threats to this balance some men perceive?
- How do we parent boys to help them buck the trend, without forcing effeminacy on them?
There are so many theories about the answers to these questions, and they’re generally quite interesting. Jesse J. Prinz summarizes some of them in Psychology Today, and rebuts the notion that men’s more violent tendencies are inherently biological and/or based on a male warrior hypothesis wherein “men are biologically programmed to form coalitions that aggress against neighbors, and they do so in order to get women, either through force or by procuring resources that would make them more desirable.” Prinz instead believes that the combination of biology (male upper-body strength) and economic development (the advent of intensive agriculture and herding) created an advantage men did not have in the allegedly more balanced hunter-gatherer arrangement (where women’s gathering function gave them power). He writes:
“Strength gives men an advantage over women once heavy ploughs and large animals become central aspects of food production. With this, men become the sole providers, and women start to depend on men economically. The economic dependency allows men to mistreat women, to philander, and to take over labor markets and political institutions. Once men have absolute power, they are reluctant to give it up. It took two world wars and a post-industrial economy for women to obtain basic opportunities and rights.”
Prinz associates violence with power in the sense that those who have power are more likely to be violent, saying:
“Of course, men still hold most of the power in the world, and it is no surprise, then, that they perpetrate most of the violence.”
To this I would say, but what about all the violence in the world that is perpetrated by men who do not have power? Men who feel stripped of power or unable to access power to “right” the world the way they see fit (e.g., Timothy McVeigh, every violent fundamentalist or otherwise violent loony)? Those are the ones who are turning to mass (and micro) destruction.
Good Versus Evil, and All That Trouble
And this is when I go smaller, when I look at my own household and my son’s love of superheroes and fighting turtles. What are these narratives about? They’re about fixing the world. About having the power to fix the world exactly as it should become: one shade of good, no grey, completely, totally, always. Now, I love me some Spidey and even Superman sometimes (though he can be a little bland), but this power stuff gets me a little jangled in the context of what we’re talking about here.
Apparently I’m not alone in my worry. This blogger did a bunch of research on the topic, and found a good article on of all sites, ComicsAlliance, called “Superheroes Are Bad for Boys. Or Possibly Good for Boys.” In this article one psychologist takes the view that superhero play among boys creates conditions where boys “wouldn't want to depend on others, or … deviate from heroic masculinity,” saying they “trap young boys in impossible versions of cartoonish machismo.” Another psychologist counters by saying, “playtime and actual aggression are firmly separated in the minds of children, [that] mock fights are perfectly healthy so long as they don't devolve into real fights.”
Right now, watching Oliver, I think he is entirely capable of distinguishing between playtime and fantasy. I’m also aware that everything that surrounds him—and his parents and role models’ interpretations of and reactions to them—is busily contributing to the value system that he is forming. So—back to an earlier point—what I’m interested in is this idea of power, and how our relationship to it and the value we ascribe to it determines our path through the world.
What is power? To Oliver at this formative pre-schooler phase, in the entertainment he prefers, power is physical, and it is black and white. It is about control. It is about being a good guy, and there are definitely only good guys and bad guys, nothing in between. And there are mostly men who wield the power—who can alter the fate of the world. Sure, Wonder Woman is an exception—but look at her. She is a black-haired Barbie doll who packs a punch, and she is no way as kick-ass as Wolverine, Spidey, Superman, or Batman—not in that outfit.
So while the real experts debate what it is that makes men more violent than women, I’m going to think about power, and how to explain it to Oliver in a little more nuanced fashion than some of what our boys are watching and reading. Things like:
- Power is not absolute;
- It comes and goes;
- It comes from making good choices, and we always have choices;
- “With great power comes great responsibility,” as Spidey’s Uncle Ben and originally, Voltaire, would have us know;
- Being powerful is about more than being physically strong;
- We all want power, and that can be a problem;
- We can't always “fix” something to be exactly as we think it should be;
- Sometimes we have to let go and rely on other character strengths like kindness, compassion, confidence, or intelligence;
- Most of all, don’t ever hit a girl. Just never do.
Obviously I have a lot more thinking to do when it comes to my role in trying to help Oliver be a good man—including how much to try to help and how much to let him figure it out. But it’s my first go at attempting to do more than react in horror or sadness—but more realistically, to do nothing at all other than feel—to the grimmer news stories surrounding us today. It’s that or look away altogether, which is tempting.
Next up: something light! A comprehensive examination of what goes into a perfect coffee shop.