A Journal of Sustainable Human Development
Vol. 8, No. 2, February 2012|
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
The Masculinity Conspiracy - Part 5: Fatherhood
Monash University, Melbourne, Australia
Originally published in
The Masculinity Conspiracy,
CreateSpace, 14 August 2011
REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION OF THE AUTHOR
What if the biggest conspiracy in human history had gone completely unnoticed? What if that conspiracy was responsible for some of the biggest problems the world faces today? Wouldn't you want to know? Wouldn't you want to do something about it? Well guess what: You can. The Masculinity Conspiracy argues that nearly every assumption about masculinity in contemporary society is wrong. The result is nothing short of exposing a worldwide conspiracy that has been preventing humanity from reaching its fullest potential.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This book breaks new ground. The subject matter is bound to elicit controversy, but one that must be faced with humble courage for the sake of fostering human solidarity and ecological sustainability. With the author's permission the book will be serialized in eight parts, one for each of the eight chapters. The overview that follows, and the list of references at the end, will be included with each part.
Chapter 1 - Conspiracy, Problem, Solution
Chapter 2 - History
Chapter 3 - Sexuality
Chapter 4 - Relationships
Chapter 5 - Fatherhood
Chapter 6 - Archetypes
Chapter 7 - Spirituality
Chapter 8 - Conclusion
Every person on the planet is affected by masculinity in some shape or form. This is why getting masculinity right is so important. If we get it wrong, everything falls apart. You might have noticed that everything seems to be falling apart... But the debate about masculinity rarely seems to progress.
On one side (I'll put my cards on the table here and say my side), progressive academic types mostly take a feminist position and talk about patriarchy and power, and how this marginalises women (and atypical men). Increasingly, these types also refer to queer theory, which is not solely about gay and lesbian people, rather resisting ways of pigeon-holing the identities of all people.
On the other side, are those who (often quite rightly) identify the many problems suffered by men in society, and simply do not see claims about patriarchy and power as valid any more, chiefly because they are looking at individual men who appear not to be enjoying the privileges of power, rather than the systemic and institutional nature of power. The very words 'systemic and institutional nature of power' will often make these types wince.
This debate has been going on for years: one side claiming they cannot state their watertight case about patriarchy any clearer, the other finding that case unrepresentative of the truth. We have to start finding different ways to frame this debate to make any progress. This is not about finding a middle ground; it as about finding a different ground. It is about finding a different lens through which to view the 'problem' of masculinity. Recently I have been using the lens of conspiracy logic.
The popular definition of conspiracy can be found in the idea of a cover-up, and to a large degree this is certainly the case. However, there are various aspects to conspiracy that are worth unpacking. In his book, A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America, political scientist Michael Barkun claims conspiracy is a method through which people explain the presence of evil in the world. They do this by viewing 'history as controlled by massive, demonic forces'. Conspiracies can therefore be seen as simultaneously frightening and reassuring: the demonic forces are at work, but at least they can be identified as the source of everything around us that is bad, as opposed to the true terror of random evil.
Barkun identifies three key aspects to conspiracy theories, which are worth spelling out. First, nothing happens by accident: there is always intent behind actions; the willed nature of reality is paramount. Second, nothing is as it seems: the source of a conspiracy tends to conceal its activities through the appearance of innocence or misinformation. Third, everything is connected: patterns abound in conspiracy; exposing conspiracy is about unveiling these hidden connections. Barkun sees this type of thinking as ultimately resulting in paranoia: a closed system of ideas that 'defeat any attempt at testing' due to the assumption that all the evidence countering the conspiracy must be part of the conspiracy, and therefore rejected.
To be fair, Barkun is highly critical of conspiracy belief, and when you look at the examples he provides such as the Illuminati and extraterrestrial reptilian masters, it is tempting to agree with him. But because conspiracy theories can often be a bit flaky, it doesn't mean that they are always flaky, or that at the very least there aren't some reasonable things that resemble conspiracies, inasmuch as there being a widespread assumption that needs to be exposed as false.
And this is what I'm getting at with The Masculinity Conspiracy. Gender theorists have been claiming for some time that there is no such thing as a singular 'masculinity'. Instead, there is a vast spectrum of different masculinities, some of which look familiar, some of which do not. The problem, in this worldview, is that those different masculinities (and women) are oppressed and denied by that chief masculinity. Further still, this type of masculinity is responsible for a lot of the problems the world faces today: this type of masculinity needs to be exposed as 'false', inasmuch as it is not the natural and only option available to men.
Instead of thinking about this chief masculinity solely in terms of power and identity, let's try conspiracy. Let's assume there are certain people who are being oppressed (men and women alike, for various reasons). It appears that the way we define masculinity has not happened by accident. It appears that nothing about masculinity is as it commonly seems. It appears that a number of key themes in society are connected to form a legitimising framework for The Masculinity Conspiracy. I'm not, however, suggesting that The Masculinity Conspiracy is 'controlled by massive, demonic forces'. I use the term 'conspiracy' fully aware of its limitations, and somewhat tongue-in-cheek. It is about acknowledging that there is something going on with masculinity beyond the awareness of most people.
Can those who find the language of patriarchy and power too problematic adopt the language of conspiracy? I think it's worth finding out. Perhaps the language of conspiracy is more familiar and less judgmental? Perhaps it is simply more compelling (heroic, even) to expose a conspiracy than overturn patriarchy? This isn't a cynical attempt to lure innocent men's rights advocates into a feminist trap, rather a genuine attempt to consider the problems of masculinity in a different way. Perhaps in doing so we all might discover different insights.
In The Masculinity Conspiracy there is a clear challenge on the table when statements about masculinity are made which appear counter-intuitive: is that your intuition talking, or is it the conspiracy? Following conspiracy logic, the fact that you don't believe me is proof itself that The Masculinity Conspiracy has you successfully conditioned. I say it only half-jokingly.
In the end, once the conspiracy and its method of misinformation have been revealed, it is the choice of the individual whether or not to be misinformed. Either be spoon-fed the lies, or not. It has become a cliché of conspiracy culture, but the 'red pill, blue pill' scenario of The Matrix movie holds true here: 'You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes'.
So, what's it going to be: red pill, or blue?
PART 5: FATHERHOOD
Fatherhood is inescapable, whether or not you have any children. If you are not a father yourself, you have likely been fathered. And if you have not been fathered, it is likely that people close to you have been. For men with children, fatherhood is a potent site of masculinity conspiracy activity for two main reasons. First, it is a primary mode of transmission for the conspiracy: from father to son and daughter. Second, for many men, fatherhood closes down a number of freedoms that seem to funnel them towards ever-greater manifestations of the conspiracy. For example, perhaps they have to start providing beyond their individual needs, or find their values shifting with the new responsibilities of fatherhood (and the new pressures of the conspiracy). There is nothing about these examples that necessitate greater alignment with the conspiracy, but it tends to happen, as we’ll explore in this chapter.
As with each chapter, I have chosen a particular focus or slant on the topic at hand that requires glossing over other aspects. In the following discussion of fatherhood I have focused largely on fathering boys, because I believe that the passing on of the masculinity conspiracy baton from father to son is most deserving of the time and space I have with you. That’s not to say that fathering daughters isn’t also a crucial part of the conspiracy. Just, as we shall see, conditioning boys perpetuates the conspiracy, so too with girls. As I’ve mentioned before, the conspiracy requires women to think and behave in certain ways towards men, and this conditioning starts EARLY (think about the myths to which you are alluding the next time you call your precious little daughter a “princess”). I don’t refer to gay fatherhood, single dads, the way fatherhood shifts social dynamics with one’s partner or other men, and a whole host of other important topics: but they’re all there to be further explored. We’ll see how fatherhood feeds into the conspiracy in two books. The first is Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys by Stephen James and David Thomas. The second is Better Dads, Stronger Sons: How Fathers Can Guide Boys to Become Men of Character by Rick Johnson.
One more thing before we get going. Possibly more than any other chapter in this book, you may want to know about my “experience” with fatherhood. To be honest, I don’t really think this is important in identifying the way the conspiracy works. However, I get this question A LOT, even when I’m just talking about masculinity in general: “have you got children?” It’s as if I am not qualified to speak about masculinity unless I have children, as if that is a qualifier for “authentic masculinity.” Of course, this is a shining example of how the conspiracy works and why fatherhood is one of its fundamental elements: if you have children, you “count” and get to hold the talking stick. As it happens, I have three children. If that means you give me the benefit of the doubt, great. But I’d much rather you questioned why that is an important thing for you to know. And now I am left with the uneasy tension of knowing that, like many times before, I have mobilized the conspiracy in my favor by telling you that I have children, and harnessing the small but noticeable amount of power this entails.
So let’s see what these books say on their own terms, before some analysis in the following section, The Problem. Stephen James and David Thomas, the authors of Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys are both counselors with an interest in boyhood. To demonstrate the above-mentioned significance that “being” a father has over “thinking” about fatherhood, after their counseling credentials James and Thomas state “more importantly, we both have skin in the game—with five sons among the seven children between our two families.” It is clear before even reading their book that James and Thomas have a clear idea about what fatherhood is about: enabling the “wild” in boys and facilitating a noble warrior-like masculinity, as demonstrated by the two boys playing as knights with swords on the cover. Also of note, both James and Thomas and Johnson’s books are written from a Christian perspective. I won’t make too much of this, as most of each book speaks equally to non-Christians, but it’s a point to consider as Christian writers tend to be more preoccupied than most about the nature of fatherhood, and there are still a surprising amount of people who are Christians and their values should be heard (and a tip of the hat to you if you’re one of them).
James and Thomas take a clear developmental approach to boyhood, suggesting there are five stages through which every boy must be guided:
The Explorer (ages 2-4). During which boys are active, aggressive, curious, and self-determined. They require boundaries, open space, consistency, and understanding.
The Lover (ages 5-8). During which boys display tenderness, obedience, attachment to dad, and competitiveness. They require reprieve (not being forced into school too early), relationships, routine, and regulation.
The Individual (ages 9-12). During which time boys are searching, evolving, experimenting, and criticizing. They require supervision, information, involvement, and outlets.
The Wanderer (ages 13-17). During which time boys are characterized by physiological chaos, arrogance, individuation, and argumentativeness. They require other voices in their lives, understanding, and boundaries.
The Warrior (ages 18-22). During which time boy issues are about finishing, being reflective, searching, being romantic, and ambivalent. They require a training ground, freedom, blessing, patience, and transitional parents (other mentors).
They state that these stages all have loose parameters and that boys will develop at different paces. Nevertheless, the message is this is what is “natural” for boys (and less so for girls), and that fathers should nurture these natural and particular characteristics. Specifically, James and Thomas routinely refer to biological differences between boys and girls and cite scientific studies that show boys’ brains work in unique ways (“hardwiring”) that fathers must address.
Each of these stages requires promoting certain types of values, points of inspiration or activities. During the Lover phase, for example, James and Thomas suggest watching films such as The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Stagecoach (1939), and Old Yeller (1957), which will presumably instill in boys the desire for adventure and the great outdoors. Also on the list are films such as It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) and The Princess Bride (1987), which offer a message about appropriate family values and saving maidens. During the Individual phase, for example, James and Thomas suggest fathers should encourage activities including flashlight tag, paintball, flag football, night golf, ultimate Frisbee, wiffle ball, white-water rafting, high-ropes challenge courses, rappelling or rock climbing, and horseback riding.
All of these elements suggest that fathering boys is about raising a particular type of individual who thinks and speaks in a certain kind of way. Alluding to our exploration in the previous chapter, for example, James and Thomas mobilize John Gray’s Mars and Venus metaphor to describe the “nature” of boys, which is distilled into three bullet points. “On the whole,” write James and Thomas, “boys tend to be:
spatial instead of relational (they understand the lay of the land instead of how things are interconnected)
aware of objects instead of faces (they’re more attracted to balls than they are to people)
action oriented, as opposed to process oriented (they’re oriented towards movement instead of toward emotions).”
Naturally enough, in order to nurture this essence of boyhood, James and Thomas articulate how men must be present as fathers, citing a number of statistics about how homes lacking fathers are more likely to: be thrust into poverty; diagnosed with asthma; suffer physical and emotional neglect; not excel at school; suffer suicide and behavioral disorders. Much like the mythopoetic men’s movement championed by Robert Bly and his popular book Iron John (which I’ll discuss in the Archetypes chapter), James and Thomas provide “a brief history of Daddydom” which shows how since the industrial revolution men have been progressively drawn away from their home and sons to ever more abstract forms of work, thus creating absent fathers even when families are ostensibly intact. This is what is known as the “father wound” that must be avoided, and recognized by fathers not just in respect to their sons, but also themselves, as identifying and reconciling with their own father wounds is an invaluable part of fathering.
Also akin to Bly’s vision of the men’s movement is James and Thomas’ appeal to the initiation of boys as part of responsible fathering. They state that for initiation to be valuable, it must be costly: “think of a young man joining the Marine Corps. Once he makes it through boot camp, he will always be a Marine.” They cite Richard Rohr’s essay entitled “Boys to Men: Rediscovering Rites of Passage for Our Time,” which claims that initiation must communicate to a young man that: life is hard; you are going to die; you are not that important; you are not in control; and your life is not about you. Such initiation, according to James and Thomas, “shows a boy what is wonderful and beautiful about life.”
Rick Johnson, author of Better Dads, Stronger Sons: How Fathers Can Guide Boys to Become Men of Character treads similar ground to James and Thomas, but employs a slightly different language, the like of which is found in numerous conspiracy texts. For example, the first two chapters are called “Authentic Manhood” and “Authentic Fatherhood”: the term “authentic” signposts a clear and definitive path for men to follow. While Johnson suggests that the primary point of (to him, divinely-ordained) authentic manhood and fatherhood is “living for a cause bigger than yourself,” his more functional definition is one who leads, specifically via the term “servant leadership.”
Servant leadership is a term popularized back in the early 1990s by Promise Keepers, a form of Christian men’s movement. At the time it was felt that, for a variety of reasons, men had abandoned their role as leaders of their families. However, at the same time there was an awareness that leading families in a domineering fashion was ethically suspect. The term “servant leadership” is therefore supposed to be about leading with compassion. Servant leadership is about guiding the family through values, faith, discipline and finances. And while it is primarily a term used within Christian contexts, the general idea resonates throughout many conspiracy texts. For example, David Deida, who we read about in the earlier sexuality chapter (and who one might think is far removed from Promise Keepers) essentially calls for servant leadership when he make statements such as, “If you want your woman to be able to relax into her feminine and shine her natural radiance, then you must relieve her of the necessity to be in charge. This doesn’t mean you need to boss her around. It means you need to know where you are heading and how you are going to get there, in every way, including financially and spiritually.”
For Johnson, “fathering is at the heart of masculinity, of what it means to be a man.” It is about protection: Johnson says that, “families are like flocks of sheep … fathers are like sheepdogs, guarding the flock from marauding wolves.” Indeed, the very presence of threats is often down to the absence of fathering on others: “young men, such as gang members, who are raised without the influence of older men often become marauding wolves themselves—predators preying on women and children for their own gratification.” Effective fathering is described by Johnson as “father power” which, in a similar fashion to James and Thomas is capable of mitigating a whole range of issues that can descend upon a family, the like of which can have ramifications for generations to come. For Johnson, it is God who has given men this power. And only men are in the position to hand this power over to other men, or as he puts it, “masculinity bestows masculinity. Femininity can never bestow masculinity.”
Johnson also reiterates the point about fathers being drawn away from their families by contemporary forms of work and living, and of the importance of fathers bonding with their sons, for which he recommends “camping, hunting, fishing, sports, scouting, rafting, hiking, biking, climbing, church camps, and other outdoor activities.” Indoor types might like sharing hobbies such as “collecting (stamps, coins, baseball cards, etc.), working on cars or small engines, wood or metal shop, attending sporting events, household maintenance,” and so on. Greatest detail about father–son bonding is left to a story about hunting deer, concluding with them gutting the animal: “blood up to our elbows, we basked in the glory.” Keen also to encourage reading, Johnson recommends books about founding fathers, pioneers, frontiersmen, cowboys, soldiers, and athletes.
In sum, there are very clear messages to be had about masculinity and fatherhood from James, Thomas and Johnson:
Fathers must nurture specific sets of behaviors at different times of a boy’s life.
Those behaviors are hardwired and are focused largely on outdoor activities and what might be described as stereotypical ways of doing masculinity.
Fathers should bond with their boys over such activities, perhaps even via some form of difficult initiation in order to turn boys into men.
Fathering is about leading and protecting the whole family, wives and children alike.
Boys without fathers suffer a father wound and are more likely to perform poorly in society.
The primary problem with these two books is the expectations they outline. For example, James and Thomas are developmentalists, which means they expect boys to develop through distinct phases on their journey to adulthood. Certainly, they at least pay lip service to the fact that not all boys will go through the same stages of development at the same time, and that the stages are fluid in nature. However, there remains a clear assumption that in general boys develop in certain ways. The problem here, of course, is that such assumptions establish a norm, and if boys do not adhere to it then they become, by default, abnormal.
The other thing to notice about these developmental stages is that they themselves are constructed via the lens of conspiracy assumptions about masculinity. We read of the Explorer, the Individual, the Wanderer and the Warrior. Note how all these are typical conspiracy-like signifiers for masculinity. Now, the logic of the conspiracy will tell us this is because that’s the way masculinity is. But even if we acknowledge that there are distinct stages in boys’ development, my feeling is that if you looked at the range of behaviors demonstrated in any one of those stages there would be other ways of describing them that did not employ such explicit “masculine” assumptions. For example, if instead of “Explorer,” we had “discovering connections between things” we have something that works along similar lines, but with a less mono-gendered nature (connections typically being considered a “feminine” trait). In a similar way, the “Individual” could be “discovering self,” the “Wanderer” and could be “developing intuition.” I’m just thinking on the fly with these examples, but no doubt there are a variety of different ways such stages could be described if we think creatively, and many of them would not feed into those assumptions about masculinity.
And, of course, those stages may just not exist with the certainty these authors suggest. Just like the problem with Venus and Mars, when we come to expect a certain thing, we tend to start seeing it, whether or not it’s really there. It is a useful exercise to consider this on a continual basis with all things: am I seeing things the way they really are, or am I seeing them the way I am being told to see them? Keep that in mind the next time you watch the news, have a meeting, go on a date or even shopping. You might be surprised how easy it is to scratch away the veneer of consensus reality and expose the “real” world beneath. This is where the great explorations of the 21st century will be: not in distant and extraordinary places, but in our immediate and everyday surrounds, but viewed minus the conspiratorial blinkers.
If these stages are problematic then so, of course, are the suggestions offered by these authors about how to best serve them. Certainly, if a stereotypically masculine stage is identified, then all those suggestions about outdoor activities and watching movies about cowboys and Indians seem appropriate. But if a stage is defined in altogether different ways, then equally different suggestions are required. You might need activities that engage emotional rather than spatial intelligence, and movies the feed aspirations to be a designer or priest rather than a forest ranger. Instead of following a prescriptive path about boyhood, it will be necessary to actually get to know the boy in question and respond to rather than shape his characteristics. The alternative, as suggested by the conspiracy, is a self-fulfilling prophecy: either typical masculine traits are mapped on to the boy to the point where he feels these are “natural” interests (thus perpetuating the conspiracy), or the boy is alienated by this process and becomes one of the less powerful men who are dominated in the conspiracy (and given the conspiracy requires such people over which to assert power, this also perpetuates the conspiracy).
The suggestions of what is appropriate fathering to boys also manifest in James and Thomson’s call for initiation, which is generally assumed to be a difficult and painful ritual that bestows identify upon a boy and enables his passage into maturity. Many men’s movement writers who appeal to initiation refer to traditional or tribal societies where such rituals exist to demonstrate how this is a natural process, the like of which averts the kinds of masculinity “crises” we experience today in the developed world.
There are three significant problems with such a call to initiation. First, it is absurd to say that because tribal societies do something a certain way that we should also do it: would the same people who claim this also suggest we revert to tribal forms of technology and medicine? I don’t think so. Even if such rituals work great in tribal societies, it does not mean they will work great for western urban societies: for initiation to work we would need rituals that are context-specific. Second, why must initiation be a hazardous and painful ritual? If ritual must exist, then there is no reason why it should adhere to typically masculine traits such as hazard and pain. Initiation rituals should be learning rituals, and there aren’t that many educationalists around these days who advocate learning through hazard and pain.
The third problem gets right to the heart of the conspiracy. We are told that the point of initiation is essentially about bestowing mature masculine identity on a boy, of securing his “self” and welcoming him into the society of authentic manhood. However, I would argue that paradoxically, initiation does exactly the opposite. Instead of bestowing some form of unique self upon a boy, initiation demands that a boy conform to the social codes of authentic manhood, abandoning the unique (and natural) self he already possesses as a boy. Initiation, then, is really a process in which a boy is co-opted into the values of the society in general and the conspiracy in particular. Initiation is nothing short of being sold into slavery, but it is done with such extraordinary finesse that those who have been enslaved believe they have been welcomed into some exclusive club. This sleight of hand is one of the key elements of the conspiracy and will be explored in greater depth in the concluding chapter.
Once a man has been co-opted into a peculiar set of values and made to feel as if he is very special as a result, it becomes easy to make all sorts of equally peculiar suggestions to him and for them to be accepted uncritically. One such example of this is the above-mentioned appeal to servant leadership, in which a man leads his family, but in a supposedly benign fashion. I find it a remarkable achievement on behalf of the conspiracy that in a society which has experienced a number of decades of women’s empowerment, men can still get away with asking for (and receiving) the leadership of a family, as if his partner is less capable of such leadership.
In the context of Johnson’s Christian worldview, this right to leadership is divinely-ordained, but of course it is far more likely that this “right” is simply a power play asserted by the conspiracy (I strongly believe this causality is easier to quantify than God’s will, even though I have a spiritual worldview myself!). I mentioned earlier that Deida makes a similar call from a secular perspective, for men to “relieve her of the necessity to be in charge.” For Deida, this is not divinely-ordained, rather the masculine “gift”: again, it seems easier to simply identify this as the conspiracy at work, rather than some mysterious “gift” that has been bestowed by nature upon men alone.
This line of thinking positions a specific form of masculinity in general, and fatherhood in particular, as being the most privileged form of agency in society. The authors referred to in this chapter continue this by outlining all the ills that descend upon children when fathers are absent, such as poorer health and education. However, with conspiracy claims it is always important to look beyond the supplied reasoning, For example, the claim about health and housing certainly sounds plausible, but is it down to the lack of a father in the home, or the lack of a father’s income (which has a habit of exiting the family home along with the father). If health and education were less tied by society to financial stability (or if financial stability were less tied to men), then perhaps the “father factor” would be less significant here.
This is not to say that fathers are unimportant. Of course, fathers are crucial, but the issue here is one of the loving, support and resources provided within the home rather than a “man” performing “fatherhood.” I would be willing to bet, for example, that the health and education of children brought up by loving and financially stable lesbian mothers is better than a loving single parent of either sex who is financially stretched and comparable to a loving family with both a mother and a father with equal access to resources. This is a classic example of the economic basis for the conspiracy, which we will get to later in the book. At the end of the day it is fully resourced parenting that is crucial (financially, emotionally, spiritually and culturally), not fathering (or for that matter, mothering). Again, do not hear me say here that fathers are not important. All fathers are important, but it is the parenting they provide that is important, not something specific to do with that parenting coming from a man (and again, this goes for mothering too: once childbirth and breastfeeding is over there is nothing uniquely “valuable” about mothering; the value is in the parenting).
So to recap, there are several initial problems with the way James, Thomas and Johnson present fatherhood:
The assumption that boys develop through particular stages is prescriptive and focused around stereotypically masculine themes: this either conditions boys to perpetuate those themes or suggests they are in some way abnormal.
Hazardous or painful initiation that is supposedly beneficial to boys has no real context in western society, and can be seen more as a way of making boys conform to social values than offering a mature masculine identity.
Servant leadership is simply another site where the conspiracy asserts power rather than being something “natural” or “divinely ordained.”
Lack of fathering does not necessarily cause the problems that many fathering advocates suggest, rather lack of parenting.
Clearly, the solutions to fathering in ways that counter the conspiracy are extraordinarily complex. The above sections barely expose the tip of the iceberg in terms of the issues involved. However, I want to identify two paths of exploration that I think are the most important, both within themselves, and also in an attempt to indicate the breadth of the solution. The first path frames fatherhood as being focused on the child and how we might resist conditioning the child into the conspiracy. The second path frames fatherhood as being focused on the father and how we might resist further conditioning the man into the conspiracy.
In his recent book Ethics in Light of Childhood, ethicist John Wall proposes the concept of “childism,” which prioritizes the experiences of the child. In just the same way that other isms such as feminism acknowledge the unique ways in which women have power asserted over them, so too childism acknowledges that children form a distinct (although not homogenous) social group that is subject to certain power plays. Wall notes that, “Children are a third of all humanity. Yet all too often children are considered merely undeveloped adults, passive recipients of care, occupying a separate innocence, or, perhaps, in need of being civilized.” I want to co-opt Wall’s argument as the basis for a counter-conspiratorial strategy (although not necessarily one that his sophisticated ethical framework would want to accommodate!).
The conspiracy views children, as Wall suggests, as undeveloped adults in need of civilization. Specifically, via a particular form of fatherhood, the conspiracy mobilizes men to condition children into the values of the conspiracy. Conspiratorial fatherhood uses aspirations to initiation, or activities and movies “appropriate” to a boy’s stage of development as a way of making children conform. Viewed via the lens of the conspiracy, a father unwittingly asks the question, “What do I need to do in order to serve the needs of the conspiracy?” Viewed via the lens of childism, a father proactively asks the question, “What do I need to do in order to serve the needs of the child?” The conspiracy would suggest these two questions are largely the same, but this is most certainly not the case; indeed, the two are largely at odds.
The real challenge of counter-conspiratorial fathering is that it cannot be successfully done without first owning how the conspiracy has already shaped fathers who seek to be counter-conspiratorial (through the kind of themes addressed in the History, Sexuality and Relationships chapters). This is a particularly daunting fact if you are only just waking up to your own conditioning by the conspiracy and also happen to be a father, as you are faced with the double challenge of unpicking both your own and your child’s conditioning (for which, unfortunately, you are largely responsible). The good news is that there is a mutually beneficial process at work here: a father initially identifies that he has been duped by the conspiracy and that in turn he has passed the conspiracy on to his child; however, by actively undoing the child’s conditioning, new layers of his own conditioning become apparent to him, which he can then reflect back to the child. Think of fatherhood as an accelerant: it speeds up and intensifies the potency of the conspiracy when it goes unchecked, but also has the potential to speed up and intensify its rejection.
As with other chapters, the solutions appear almost simplistic. There is nothing in the conspiracy or its rejection that is particularly complicated. The conspiracy is a power system that employs various themes to leverage that power: each chapter you are reading is looking at this exact same thing from a different angle (you have probably already noticed a certain predictable repetition in this text as a result). The solution is about waking up to the fact that the conspiracy has being going on for so long that it has become highly naturalized, and simply choosing not to be part of it. It’s not the first time that I’ve evoked the image of slavery in this chapter, but it continues to be apt. For a long time people thought it was natural to enslave people, but once the (really rather simple) ethical implications of this had been fully outlined and politicized, it became a difficult position to justify.
Counter-conspiratorial fathering is simply about choosing not to put the perpetuation of conspiratorial values first, and instead promoting the values of the child. And here’s the key point, in just the same way as the conspiracy tells us the supposed nature of the values that define masculinity, so too childhood. And just as countering the conspiracy is about realizing that there are no certain values that define masculinity, so too childhood. There are very few values that are “appropriate” to childhood, and those (such as love and support) work equally well for boys and girls.
There is no “way” to bring up “boys,” as if they are a single type of thing with a single set of needs. I always find the idea of “special needs” (usually applied to physical and mental “disabilities”) in respect to children truly bizarre, as if there was a child that did not have special needs. All children are “special needs” children. Further still, after that realization I would then reject the term “special needs” (including for those perceived to be disabled), and say all children have different needs, period. That is the key to counter-conspiratorial fathering: difference; that is the key to counter-conspiratorial masculinity. I am not talking about treating all children the same (the kind of “gender-neutral society” bemoaned by Harvey Mansfield in the History chapter), rather treating all children in a way that meets their different needs. There is nothing neutralizing about this: we return to the value of multiplicity, rather than the prescriptive nature of thinking about boys’ and girls’ needs in terms of binary gendered characteristics.
Focusing on the genuine needs of the child rather than projecting conspiratorial values onto them is one crucial part of the equation, but I want to conclude with a focus on fathers and their sense of self. Now there will no doubt be a lot of people out there (particularly women) who think that given the prevalence of absent fathers—both literally so, and those emotionally withdrawn within the home—that their sense of self is already well established and prioritized over all things. But hear me out.
I suspect that in the conspiracy fatherhood has the potential to function in a dissociative manner. In much the same way that initiation does not, as it is claimed, bestow a sense of identify upon a boy but instead erases it through conformity, so too fatherhood (at least a particular form of fatherhood as advocated by the conspiracy). It is a pattern I have identified amongst both those around me and myself: that the “responsibilities of fatherhood” (providing, and so forth) have an unnerving habit of not, as one would hope, developing the sense of self, rather eroding it. This process is identifiable in the conservative drift that appears to take place upon the values of many men as they spend more time as fathers, a drift in values that more often than not serves the conspiracy.
The clichéd example of this would be a young, relatively free-thinking man who settles down and has a family. Let’s call him, I dunno, Joseph Helfer. Now Joseph starts out with good intentions about resisting the conservative drift that seems to take place in the fathers he sees around him, however his resolve is soon tested. In order to pay the mortgage and support a wife and three children he has to ensure financial stability, and the only apparent way of achieving this is by doing what is expected of him and staying put in a sensible job (and behaving in it like a sensible man).
Now the sensible job is a challenge for Joseph in two ways. First, maintaining it requires perpetuating what he perceives to be unsavory values to such a degree that he no longer knows if he is secretly resisting or perpetuating them. Second, maintaining it requires abandoning certain dreams, the pursuit of which is deemed too risky. The net result is resentment, both of the system that is co-opting him, and the family that—through its need for financial support—requires him to be in the system in the first place. Both these challenges have a dissociative effect on Joseph, removing him from his original sense of self, from his ability to sufficiently critique the conspiracy, and thus his ability to see how the conspiracy is slowly claiming him for its own and perpetuating its values in any number of ways. Conspiracy by a thousand cuts.
I would argue that the absence of fathers—both literally so, and those emotionally withdrawn within the home—can be understood in some circumstances not as the result of selfishness on behalf of those men, rather their lack of self. It is the conspiracy that demands that fatherhood functions in a particular kind of way and which divorces men from themselves before their wives. It is the trauma of a man either consciously realizing (or, just as potently, unconsciously feeling) that he is not the person he used to be that puts him into self-imposed exile, or to act out in the kind of destructive ways that result in him being exiled by his partner. These are the hidden casualties of the conspiracy: not capable of being winners on the conspiracy’s terms, yet not capable of proactively resisting the conspiracy.
Do not hear me say this is a problem due to wives or families: it is a problem with the way the conspiracy demands men to function in society. It is crucial that the “blame” be correctly located, which is where a lot of men’s rights advocates go wrong: the problems men face have little to do with women, their advancements and characteristics; it has a lot to do with the conspiracy which traps men and women in different ways.
The solution, then, relies not just on focusing on the genuine needs of the child, but also the genuine needs of the father. Fathers must be true to who they are (mothers too, of course). If, as a result of fatherhood, men enter a new sense of self that is both more elevated and satisfying than their previous experience, everyone’s a winner: I know this happens a lot, and it’s great to see. If, on the other hand, fatherhood (or at least those expectations imposed by the conspiracy) proves a fatal blow to one’s sense of self, changes are necessary. Given there are only two likely outcomes from this (men are either fully engulfed or mercilessly rejected by the conspiracy), it is in everyone’s interest to ensure these men remain connected with what they perceive to be their true sense of self. This is not about privileging the self at the expense of all other people, as is often the implicit suggestion behind a lot of narcissistic personal development literature. Rather, it is about finding ways for families to co-exist in genuine mutuality that does not involve unsustainable sacrifice, rather fruitful exchange.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the Part 5 of the series on The Masculinity Conspiracy by Joseph Gelfer. Chapters 1 to 4 of the book were reprinted in the October 2011, November 2011, and December 2011 and January 2012 issues, respectively. Chapter 6 will be reprinted in the February issue. The list of references (below) will be included with each chapter. To visit the book's web site and access the original online version, click here.
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Joseph Gelfer is a masculinities researcher in the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University, Australia. He is author of Numen, Old Men: Contemporary Masculine Spiritualities and the Problem of Patriarchy, and editor of the Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality. His latest book is 2012: Decoding the Countercultural Apocalypse.
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