What does it take to be a man, Part 3: How many masculinities is too many?

In a previous post, I discussed the idea of masculinities. In it I mentioned that masculinity should really be masculinities because there is not one standardized way to be a man. A followup post focussed on masculinities in the Philippines, an area of significance in my own life. In the comments, Mike Swalm and I chatted about the extent of these masculinities looking at the question of how many masculinities is too many? Mike pointed out a key issue with an infinite amount of masculinities and wisely says, “we move toward negation of corporate meaning. Why even talk about masculinity if it has such malleable and infinite meaning? Doesn’t that remove the very nature of the concept as something that is definable as a category, giving us no real ability to say it is “this” and not “that”?”

I thought I would take the opportunity of Mike’s question to discuss where masculinity studies is in this seemingly infinite continuum. As usual I will take a Bakhtinian approach.

Monologue. Revisiting Connell’s concept of hegemonic masculinity, we realise that even though there may be any number of variations on the masculinity theme within a given context, there is one that predominates the discussion so much that it drowns out the others. Interestingly enough the predominant theme doesn’t necessarily have the most supporters — it just predominates. Bakhtin called this “monologue.” Even though Connell’s insights have opened the door to other masculinities as being acceptable, masculinities more closely associated with patriarchy continue to predominate.

Dialogue. Obviously dialogue is better than monologue because it allows another voice to provide balance. We actually prefer a dialogic point of view because we enjoy dividing things up into to opposing parties. It is this recognition that leads from singular masculinity to plural mascuinities. In reality, however, things are rarely as black and white as we might like. In fact, they are often greyscale.

Heteroglossia. But there aren’t just two voices in dialogue — there are a multitude of voices, each seemingly clamouring for attention, each contributing to what it means to be a man. This moves us beyond greyscale into millions of colours. It’s actually this final idea that creates the question Mike asks because it seems to leave open the possibility of an infinite number of potential masculinities.

At the risk of oversimplification, on a practical level, there aren’t an infinite number of men in the world; the world is at least divided into males and females. That means that give or take 50% of the worlds population isn’t male. That means that the first line of demarcation is the male-female.[1]

A second line of demarcation is society itself. Society creates a framework for the conversations surrounding masculinity. Sometimes these societies are monologic in nature but quite often they provide limitations on the range of acceptable meanings within that society. For example, in a study I did in my community, where men had a variety of religious experiences and influences, I was surprised to discover that the conversation centred around only a couple of common themes. There is no limit to the horizons of epistemology in Bakhtin but the conversations still revolved around a few key clusters, including the importance of the wants, needs, and input of wives and families and seeing Christianity as central to their faith. Perhaps this means that cultures as a whole exert influence on the boundaries of dialogue that make it difficult for conversation to move beyond those points.

A final aspect of Bakhtin’s idea provides another level of demarcation. Bakhtin wasn’t really looking for that one unifying, universal answer to life. His purposes in developing his framework were not so that we could necessarily make sense of this crazy world we live in. Rather he seems to be giving us a way to recognise and embrace the messiness of this world we live in.

How does all of this work? Let me try an illustration from sports. For me, there is only one hockey team. When I refer to this team I will use the word “dynasty.” I will refer to their preponderance of Stanley Cup wins. I will refer to their aggressive style of play. Yup, you guessed it. My team is the Montreal Canadiens (How ’bout them Habs?). In many ways my allegiance to the Montreal Canadians is monologic. When we were kids we would argue about who we liked best. But through thick and thin it was Montreal for me. I know that other teams exist but what’s interesting is that I am not sure what you could do to convince me to cheer for another team.

But I do have to admit that Montreal is not the only team that exists. After all, they do need teams to beat 😉 The National Hockey League provides the fodder for the Montreal machine. It started with the Original Six (who some believe are the only real teams), then expanded to twelve in 1968, then to eighteen in 1974, twenty-two in 1992, and finally to the current thirty-two teams that take to the ice each week.

What also happened during these years is that hockey expanded internationally. What begun as an almost exclusively Canadian sport now has teams and players from all around the world. I remember watching a recreational team playing in the Philippines’ only ice rink a number of years ago. A friend was a part of a team in the United Arab Emirates around that time as well. Hockey has indeed become a heteroglossia.

What is interesting is that regardless of the level of the sport — from the NHL all the way down to shinny on the street in front of your house — the sport is still hockey. The nuance hasn’t changed that. What this has done for the sport is to make hockey better. I recall as a child reading about how Team Canada defeated some hapless international opponent 50-0. That wouldn’t happen today. In fact, international hockey is incredibly competitive, at both professional and amateur levels. The result is the reality that a team like the Montreal Canadiens cannot dominate the sport any more because other teams are able to join the conversation. Rather than a single dominant team, what we see is an entire sport that is played on an almost infinite number of levels. And the sport is better for it.

In a similar way, a deeper understanding of masculinities can only make those masculinities better. We need to move beyond the idea of a singular approved masculinity into a better set of masculinities.

What contribution are you making to the masculinity conversation? How are you making your voice heard? Please feel free to leave a note in the comments below to let us know.

Remember sharing is what friends do.

Missed the previous posts on this subject? You can read them here: Part 1 and Part 2.


Notes:

[1] The 2SLGBTQ+ conversation is still going strong, and is still undergoing development. What started out as simply “straight” or “gay” has exploded into a seemingly infinite number of options as heteroglossia in that area develops. The male-female demarcation that I use here is not intended as a rejection of those voices but merely a recognition of the fact that, one, the voices are still sorting themselves out and, two, that I don’t understand them enough to place them into an easily-explained framework.

Image by Andrew Wulf on Unsplash.

Adam Savage & Mikhail Bakhtin on why sharing matters to us.

I just finished reading Adam Savage’s Every tool’s a hammer: Life is what you make it. In the book, Savage, one of the stars of Mythbusters, talks about his life as a maker. One chapter is devoted to sharing and it struck me as particularly powerful.

Savage says, “I’ve run into many people who don’t believe in sharing their work, or more specifically that sharing their work, their methodologies, their custom processes, even their enthusiasm, incurs a direct cost to them…. Why would you not want to share the things you love? Why would you not want to share the cool things you’ve made? Or the triumph of a challenging project you’ve overcome with your friends? Why would you hide the knowledge you’ve acquired over the years or pretend that your hopes and dreams aren’t worth shouting from the rooftops? In my experience the more you give away the richer you will be.”

The same can be said for theologising. Rather than trying to protect the truth and putting it in a box — as if the truth needs protecting and as if I have a corner on that truth — it might be better to share the truths that I have come to know so that I can learn from the truths that others have come to know and that together we can journey towards the Truth!

This is because the opposite of sharing is selfishness.

Mikhail Bakhtin likened this kind of selfishness to monologue. For Bakhtin, monologue isn’t the carefully created comedic routine of the standup comedian. Rather monologue is the predominance of one voice over and above all other voices. It’s when, for example, one group, one church, one person, or one coalition claims to have a corner on the truth and subsequently rejects, silences, or bids farewell to any other voices. In many ways it sees other voices as opposing voices rather than voices to chat with. These are “It’s my way or the highway” kinds of voices.

Bakhtin saw truth as being discovered through dialogue. As he says in his Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, “Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction.” This solution was what he called dialogic and heteroglossia, or the recognition of other voices in the conversation.

It’s only through dialogue that I can see the Other’s perspective. Usually in theology we come into a situation with a pre-defined perspective — of darkness and light, good and evil, insiders and outsiders, sheep and goats, etc. These are certainly biblical concepts that describe the world. However, where it all falls apart is when I begin placing people into these various categories without actually finding out if in fact they should be placed there! It also falls apart when I miss whether I myself need to be placed into the negative category. What I mean is that the tendency we have when reading scripture is to place ourselves in the role of the hero when in fact we may be the villain.

Case in point is the story of the prodigal son. We all like to identify with the prodigal son, who goes away and lives a wasteful, sinful life before repenting and returning to his father. While the father is the true hero of the story, it’s the prodigal who does the right thing. What I have yet to hear preached (nor have I myself preached) is a sermon where I identify with the older brother, who starts out inside his father’s home but ends the story outside the home. The son who is the bad guy. The fact that, even though both sons are given equal time in the parable, we identify the parable as being about the prodigal son proves my point.

When I engage in dialogue with others, when I share with them and when they share with me, I discover things about them that I didn’t know and about myself that I also didn’t know. Because we have now shared our stories, we can begin a journey together towards a proper relationship with God.

But I do have a confession. Even though I enjoy discovering truth together with someone else, I am not really that good at doing it. I prefer to be right. I prefer to be the one that people listen to. I prefer to already have the answer figured out. It’s hard for me to sit and listen rather than sit and think about what I will say next. I need to continue to work on listening rather than answering.

I’m curious as to your take on this, which is why comments have been enabled on this blog post. Is it easy for you to engage in dialogue? Please share your thoughts below.

Sharing is what friends do.

Image by Brett Jordan on Unsplash.