men, masculinities and gender politics

Authors

Ever wonder why there are so many self-absorbed men in the world? Let’s look at how we raise our boys…

Do you ever encounter people who seem to think that the rules of normal, respectful human interaction simply do not apply to them? Who think that the customs and practices of civilized society are only meant for other people to follow, and that the people who actually do adhere to those rules are just suckers?

Me too. I am noticing that I am encountering a lot of these folks these days. And you know what else I have noticed? For the most part they are pretty much all men.

Certainly there are a lot of women who do not seem to think that they need to play by the rules that typically guide normal human interaction. But in in my experience it is far more often we guys who overwhelmingly qualify for that old elementary school report card entry that would read: “Does not play well with others.”

When accountability feels like persecution. The other day I was having to deal with a rather unpleasant 30-something year-old man who is causing problems for everyone in his life because he simply does not seem to think that the rules of society should apply to him. I discussed this situation with an acquaintance of mine who asked: “What do you think is going on with him? What do you think is at the root of his behavior?”

Without missing a beat, I replied: “I believe that until now this guy has never met a situation that he could not either bully or manipulate his way out of. And he has probably been doing this his entire life. He does not think that the rules apply to him because they never really have!”

This guy simply has never internalized the reality that the world cannot be expected to bend to his every whim. And my guess is that until now, the people in his life (not least of all his parents) probably have in fact bent to his every whim.

And in always giving him his way they did him no favors.

Dealing with this guy feels like dealing with someone who is just entering into adolescence. Someone who is about 12 years old. Someone who has yet to understand that sometimes the world simply tells you “No.”

And now that the world is telling him “No”, he cannot deal with it. He cannot deal with being held accountable because, to him, being held accountable feels just like persecution. Like the world is just being mean to him. And in response to this perceived injustice, he throws temper tantrums.

In their book Why Is It Always About You? The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism, the authors Hotchkiss and Masterson write that self-absorbed people hold an unreasonable expectation of favorable treatment because they consider themselves to be special. And when you fail to give them that special treatment – when you treat them fairly, just like you would anyone else – this can trigger a narcissistic rage. A temper tantrum. When you hold these people to the rules, they take it personally. Very personally.

While I don’t think that every self-absorbed guy necessarily fits the diagnostic criteria for narcissistic personality disorder, enough of us are in fact so egotistical (and demanding of special treatment) that our behavior quickly does become a problem for everyone around us.

Dire implications for women. Self-absorbed guys are tough enough to deal with in everyday life. But just imagine being romantically involved with one! The internet is absolutely full of dire warnings to women about the dangers of getting involved with such self-centered men. (Just search “dating a narcissist.”) Narcissistic men are almost unfailingly seductive. But their level of self-absorption and their tendency toward interpersonal exploitation quickly become problematic issues in the relationship. Unfortunately, by that point the woman is typically trapped in the man’s web of lies, emotional manipulation, and, sometimes, his physical and psychological abuse as well. The stories you find on the net are simply chilling, and you will discover that breaking up with one of these guys is often a truly excruciating process.

It turns out that these wrenching stories are also backed up by empirical research. Psychologist Scott Keiller has studied what male narcissists think about women, and he concludes that “heterosexual men's narcissism is linked to an adversarial and angry stance toward heterosexual women… [N]arcissistic heterosexual men are particularly invested in subordinating heterosexual women.” http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/196133.php

Keiller has found that while these men expect special treatment from everyone else, they especially expect it from women. And woe unto the woman who fails to bend over backward to meet these men’s unique (and exaggerated) needs! Exaggerated needs for admiration. For adoration. For affection. For sex. And when it comes to sex, you will have to let him know that he is the most amazing lover you have ever had. That every single time is the best sex ever. And if you don’t regularly declare these things with great enthusiasm, he will probably punish you.

But in an exquisite trap that only a narcissistic man could design, while he demands your praise, he will demean you for it at the same time. Because, after all, not every time can possibly be “the best sex ever,” now can it? So as you comply with his excessive demands for flattery and admiration, in the back of his mind he is likely thinking: What are you, an idiot?

Women who date narcissists are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t. Fail to praise him every time and you will face retaliation. But if you do praise him every time you will be mocked. In short, these guys are a nightmare to interact with. And even worse to be involved with romantically.

Where do these guys come from? The clinical literature suggests that males are hugely overrepresented as narcissists. Why would this be? A quick look at the way that we raise our boys might help to explain it.

When it comes to boys, we are busily raising little “me-me-me-machines” who see themselves as masters of all they survey. And here is how we are doing it:

By excusing boys’ bad behavior. Over and over and over again when boys are caught doing something unacceptable, we just say that boys will be boys. The implication is that we cannot (and should not) expect them to be responsible, respectful, conscientious human beings. We let boys get away with things that we roundly punish girls for doing. We are raising boys with the message that the rules simply do not apply to them. And some of these guys, unfortunately, will take that message to heart.

This is an excellent way to create a narcissist: simply tell him that the rules do not apply to him.

By giving boys too much authority too early. Boys are not “little men.” And yet we constantly use that term when referring to them.

(Interestingly, we do not use the term “little woman” when referring to girls. Probably this is because society does not much like the word woman – or even much like women themselves – and so we do not see “little woman” as a term of endearment.)

But even in utero our baby boys get referred to as “little man.” And when parents split up, a boy who remains in his mother’s care is often told that he is now “the man of the house.” As if his mom somehow suddenly needs to have another man in her life, and as if she needs her son to be the one to fulfill that role. And as if he were even capable of such a thing. It is both a ridiculous and an unfair expectation to place upon him.

When I was in the seventh grade, the head of the school I attended loved to say to the male students: “You are men now, boys!” What he meant by this was that we were now expected to act responsibly at all times. But behind his back, we mocked him for saying it because he said it so damn often. And because we didn’t quite know what to make of this idea – that as 12 year olds we were now “men.” But I do know that some of us still took this murky message to heart even so, and we began to add a little strut to our step. We were only beginning our adolescence. Just entering puberty. But, in our minds, we were now men.

This too is an excellent way to create a narcissist: simply give him an exaggerated sense of his importance in the world.

By over-honoring maleness. As a society we remain hugely “androcentric” (male centered). The activities that boys do are celebrated and positively reinforced at every step. We have The Dangerous Book for Boys, complete with entries on building a tree house, on dinosaurs, and on timers and tripwires. (That last chapter is for the boy who wants to build lethal booby traps – perhaps for his tree house? After all, what could possibly be a more appropriate activity for young boys to do than to design things that kill others? It does indeed sound pretty dangerous.)

The would-be parallel work, The Daring Book for Girls, on the other hand, includes truly mundane entries on things like “palm reading,” “hopscotch,” and “princesses today.” Fun? Perhaps. But hardly daring.

But it is not just through books that we betray our preference for boys. According to the BBC, studies show that parents interrupt girl children much more frequently than they do boy children. Boys, it turns out, are allowed to have their say in a way that girls are not. And, in school, teachers make more eye contact with the boys than they do with the girls, and when teachers want an answer to a question, they are more likely to look at the boys first. When boys and girls are paired as lab partners in science classes, boys do the vast majority of the active experimenting, while girls do the majority of the cleaning up. (Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/voices/yourvoice/classroom_talk.shtml)

World-wide, our preference for boys can also be seen in the hugely disproportionate number of baby boys who are born – and in the huge numbers of “missing” girls: the girls who should be there but were either terminated in utero or subjected to infanticide. And even in societies where birth rates are roughly equal, boys still receive greater resources than girls. Boys’ sports are celebrated while girls’ sports are largely ignored, and here in North America we lavish great attention (and resources) on a supposed “boy crisis” in education that simply does not exist.

All of this too is an excellent way to create a narcissist: simply give him an exaggerated sense of his uniqueness.

By cowering in the face of male rage. Finally, we all know the horror that men are capable of inflicting upon others when we are enraged. So when a male gets angry, a lot of us tend to get pretty scared. And this is true even when it comes to our boy children. When our boys rage, many of us, instead of standing firm and holding them accountable, allow ourselves to be intimidated by their loud displays, and we give in to their terroristic tantrums.

This too is an excellent way to create a narcissist: simply allow him to bully his way out of any consequences.

So what to do? The narcissistic male is a very difficult person to deal with – and a horrific person to become romantically involved with. And the way we are raising our boys just contributes to the mess. We need to stop creating guys who are over-entitled and who are unrealistic in their expectations of just what society owes them.

To deal with this issue, I believe that we need to do the following:

Enforce the rules! Do not protect boys from the consequences of their actions. Tell them – and show them – that the same rules apply to them as they would to anyone else.

While they are still boys, let them still be boys! Do not place unrealistic and inappropriate expectations upon male children. Do not make them think that at age 8, or at age 12, or at age 16 that they are responsible for running things. They are not yet wise enough or mature enough to do so. These youngsters still need our guidance in order to grow into truly responsible men.

Let them know that they are totally loved and cherished even when they are not necessarily “the best” or the “only”! Each one of us is special in our own way. And we can celebrate our specialness in communion with others – without always having to compete with them or dominate them.

Stand your ground in the storm! We do our sons a terrible disservice when we let them bully us into submission or manipulate us into giving in. Giving in just turns them into demanding tyrants who will be all too eager to bully and exploit others. Our boys need to learn that they will not always get their way. They need to learn how to deal with hearing the word “No.” We owe it to them to teach them how to behave appropriately -- even when things do not go the way they want.

More than ever before, on an increasingly-crowded planet, we need individuals who can cooperate, collaborate, and interact respectfully with others. Individuals who value connection and community.

We need good people.

We need good women.

And we need good men... who can play well with others.