M. Foucault: Is Masculinity A Vulnerability?

Violence does not necessarily need to be physical violence, on the contrary playing psychological and emotional games that is manipulative and potentially cruel with the intent to control and hurt a person is indeed a form of violence. Subtle or passive-aggressive acts such as trying to make your partner jealous is a form of violence, as is insulting a person and then disqualifying the hurt by claiming some misunderstanding of intent, all the way to something directly aggressive such as publicly humiliating. Violence is a form of control that seeks to maintain power over someone else and this can be physically, emotionally or psychologically, as well as economically such as controlling money or finances. They can inflict the same amount of damage to a person as would physical violence.

While it is common to assume that since gender-based physical violence such as rape and physical abuse clearly show men and boys dominating the statistics, violence itself is certainly not a gender problem, on the contrary it is a social and cultural problem, where our identity is threatened leading us to doubt our own judgement and to ultimately conform. Women can also be very manipulative; they can use guilt and emotional abuse, pretend and be deceitful, and otherwise act in a manner that hurts others – other men and women – without appearing responsible or even remorseful of such behaviour. Socially constructed concepts of “femininity” resemble notions of women who are obedient, submissive, gentle, and kind and thus enable some women to embody that template for the purpose of hiding an underlying malice. Indeed, “masculinity” offers much the same given that if one physically appears to embody masculine attributes of physical strength, assertiveness, competitiveness, and even violence then they are enabled to act as though they were allowed to hurt people because they somehow bypass moral laws.

“We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.” ― C.S Lewis, The Abolition of Man

As a consequence, culturally defined standards of what a “man” is supposed to represent through the ideology of masculinity is perhaps one of the greatest problems we have today, not only enabling bad men to behave badly, but also the extreme pressure for good men to conform. In some aspects it is almost a necessity for social survival.  Having the physical traits that define one as ‘masculine’ – to be tall, big and brawny or otherwise having those physical characteristics – is also aligned with the conceptualisation of social traits that require adherence to defined ideological standards, such as being in a position of power, the breadwinner, to be cold and even violent. A man and the idea of masculinity suddenly becomes unquestionable, giving ‘masculine attributes’ enough power that everyone believes these traits as parallel to an ideal that is immovable, the way a man ‘must be’ without question or even thought. Just like a Sudanese man becomes attracted to a woman who has had her genitalia mutilated because society tells him that it is attractive, suddenly women are attracted to the tall, handsome and powerful man and she is convinced it is her own opinion and feelings. This power is afforded an autonomy and suddenly men must have these attributes in order to be considered a man.

When I say pressure, I do not mean it in a way that most would think as though they are under pressure to make a choice between good and evil. On the contrary, the choice appears to be between the lesser of two evils and I define this ‘pressure’ in a twofold manner. It is that the first pressure point is where men who fail to conform to ‘masculine characteristics’ – say they are short, not bulky or strong, in a terrible job – means a failure to be a ‘man’ and thus they endure poor self-esteem and feelings of rejection, at risk of being mocked and even potentially bullied. The other or second pressure here is that if they do conform and manage to adhere to masculine traits, that they work hard to embody this physical and social characters, they are left subjectively isolated and fail to make any genuine connections with people. Their identity is structured based on this superficial social model and so who they interact with, are in relationships with, everything that they do is just conformed or conditioned. The long-term effects is a socially accepted, but deeply unhappy person.

To the mind of men, this social ‘pressure’ is a negative-negative and the only way out is either accepting the daunting isolation the disconnection from this socially constructed model may have, or hedonism – such as taking drugs or drinking and having an otherwise double-life – that only ever leads to an existential nightmare. Isolation appears daunting because the pre-conditioned language that we use to interpret the external world is suddenly recognised as false and that he suddenly needs to think for himself, do for himself, live for himself and if he has never done this before, the risks of losing their place in this world that the think they are dependent on leaves them filled with angst. They cannot come to admit that their so-called ‘individuality’ had actually materialised while the real person within them remained imprisoned by this determined structure. They are only valued when the self has been quashed.

Power is exercised through networks, and individuals do not simply circulate in those networks; they are in a position to both submit to and exercise this power. They are never the inert or consenting targets of power; they are always its relays. In other words, power passes through individuals. It is not applied to them.” ― Michele Foucault, History of Sexuality Volume I

So, what happens when a man is raised in a patriarchal domestic and cultural environment, when they spatially witness gender-based violence that soon becomes normalised to them, where hegemonic masculinity that subordinates and mistreats women because of ideas that they must be ‘controlled’, or abuses and harasses homosexuals, or is otherwise physically violent and brutal? This evolves into more pathological forms of ‘power’ and thus ultimately serious violence, representative in ideologies such as Nazism or in political and cultural environments where excessive power normalises and rationalises extreme aggression. At individual level, it is indicative of the same pathology, a person who exercises an uncontrolled need for power that they rationalise and normalise.

Men are not innately or inherently bad – both men and women have the propensity for either good or evil – but I am certain that the will of both is prompted by the desire to be recognized or acknowledged. We all want to be loved. Money gives us power and power gives us acknowledgment. Fame gives us acknowledgment. Hierarchical structures, religious institutions, parents, friends, communities all give us this acknowledgement if we conform and we all act in a manner that manifests these narrowly defined measures of existence then we are doing good or right and we act because we want to avoid rejection, people disliking us or communities ostracising us. It is a social type of violence, but the power it holds is that society believes that it ‘must be’ without question and therefore it is not something coerced, but rather a choice that we no longer have.

“Prepare early for his enjoyment of liberty and the exercise of his natural abilities by leaving him in full possession of them unrestrained by artificial habits, and the exercise of his natural abilities” ― Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emilius, or a Treatise of Education

This leads people to measure happiness based on how well they conform to these generic characteristics, using it as an instrument to be recognised. It stems from a place of vulnerability and so the more obvious these dispositions are, perhaps the more sympathetic we should be since the internalisation of this ideology plays a wholly significant part in the identification with the external world despite it completely stripping away any sense of individuality and therefore authenticity in their actions, decisions and relationships. Or is it? Foucault showed the power is always relational and determined by a number of tactics and strategies that ultimately make behaviours predictable. It is a mode of action and therefore it exists with the intent of a functioning outcome, something that must be exercised. Why is it that many aggressors try to strip away recognition from their victims, to make them feel worthless, to take from them any sense of empowerment?

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Different types of violence include:

  • Indirectly Threatened

Unlike direct threats, being indirectly threatened can include an underlying agenda that makes one believe that something bad may happen. The indirect threats I received from a bully that I worked with include comments such he had a ‘secret bunker where he could do what he wanted and no one would ever know‘ or where he would be openly talk about how he was looking through websites to find out how to DIY making gunpowder for a gun he owned. Other things include the claim that women deserve to get beaten, where he asked me to watch a movie Irreversable where a woman is brutally raped among many more. He never directly threatened me, but the psychological harm of the continuous idea that he was going to had left me so afraid and caused terrifying dreams, sleeplessness and serious anxiety. I also found myself believing that I needed to lie in order to protect myself and stop his behaviour, and for someone who prides herself with honesty, I felt ashamed and lost. 

  • Insulting Your Appearance

I continue to have trouble being intimate with other men after he began to consistently and continuously insult my appearance, undermine my intelligence, tell me I was ugly, balding, and otherwise talking bad about me to other staff and management among so much more, I was deeply devastated. I stopped eating and after while I no longer wanted to live. I truly never felt so worthless. His violence has left me so afraid that another man would do what he done that I push people away.

  • Stalked

This can be physically and online. He may not have physically harmed me, but he harassed me like he was about to by creating different people online and trying to talk to me. He created a number of different accounts on Facebook under different alter egos, for instance, or emailed me pretending to be someone else; eventually, I became so paranoid that at one point I was suspicious of everyone and so in order to recover I made my social networking public, actually I kept my social networking accounts despite not caring about them just so he can think that he had no effect on me. He did, though.

  • Slandered 

It is a type of public humiliation that intentionally attempts to have more people ‘side’ with the perpetrator so that they can not only make you feel alone but also to justify his cruel behaviour. It is all about making you feel humiliated.

  • He never felt guilt or remorse

He never believed he did anything wrong, he never let me speak to him about my pain or get any answers, recover and find forgiveness. He never apologised, on the contrary he worked very hard to force you to silence by ignoring you. 

Culturally defined standards of what a “man” is supposed to represent through the ideology of masculinity does make a man vulnerable enough to be permitted to act with violence whether physically or not, because one is aware of the effects these behaviours can have however it is appropriated. Ignorance is no excuse. In addition to this, masculinity can be challenged by men, people have been able to distance themselves and happily do so and as such this non-existent choice can be negated, analysed and renounced even by those who were once proponents of them. This is satisfaction enough for me to believe that while it may be individual vulnerabilities that prompt us to conform and follow, conversely we can learn to understand what abuse actually is, to feel remorse, guilt, shame. To understand our conscience and the value of morality because it articulates the very truths that already exist within us that we simply need to learn to put into words. While we may be born with goodness, as Rousseau would say, it is society that creates this evil within.