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 to “climbing up the corporate ladder” by mistreating the competition are forms of violence, as is insulting a person and then disqualifying the hurt by claiming they have the problem. Sometimes, this violence can be 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. 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.  

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 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 it 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. This power is afforded an autonomy and suddenly men must have these attributes in order to be considered a “man”.

When 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. On the flip-side is that if they do conform and manage to adhere to these masculine traits, by working hard to embody this physical and social characteristics, they are left subjectively isolated because they are trying to live up to a social ideal rather than be themselves and thus fail to make any genuine connections with people.

Their identity is formed on this superficial social model and so who they interact with, are in relationships with, everything that they do is just conformed or conditioned to suit this image of masculinity. The long-term effects is a socially accepted, but deeply unhappy person.

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 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 may not be 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 act in a manner that manifests these narrowly defined measures of existence.

“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?

There are many forms of violence, such as being indirectly threatened, continuous or repetitive insults and the worst indeed is when these behaviours are hidden that can leave one feeling humiliated and afraid. 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. While we may be born with goodness, as Rousseau would say, it is society that creates this evil within.