Thursday, February 14, 2008

Another School Shooting, Book Review: Manliness

This one irritates me even more than usual because it happened at my alma mater. Every time we go through one of these geeks-gone-mad-with-guns events, I get thoroughly P.O.ed. This kid's story hasn't come out yet; all we know is that he was a "skinny white kid." As I matched that description once upon a time, I'll tell my story because it bears repeating.

Twenty-odd years ago, I could've been Derek Klebold or any of those other skinny kids who got pushed to far too often by bullies. My sophomore picture is a sight to behold: greasy hair, unhappy expression, bad complexion. I favored military-style clothing at the time and had a deep interest in the military and weapons of various sorts. Today, my teachers would've dragged me in for counseling. As it was, I just went to church and read and wrote science fiction stories to vent my frustrations. The point being: I survived and grew out of it.

This bears directly on a book I'm reading right now, Manliness by Harvey C. Mansfield. The book deals with the "gender-neutral" society and the attempts--mostly by feminists--to weed out "manly" or simply masculine behavior. Aside from heroes in movies and cops and soldiers in the field, all other men are expected to be docile, violence-free, and utterly equal to women, despite 10,000 or more years of evolution stating otherwise.

Here are the lessons one learns, as a guy, on the school yard:

  • Cowardice is not rewarded, it is considered contemptible.
  • Cowardice can take many forms, but the primary one is the unwillingness to stand up for yourself, verbally or physically.
  • If you make at least a valid attempt to fight back, you'll get more respect than asking someone politely to stop.
  • Not all guys need to beat the cr@p out of every other guy just to prove who's the toughest. However, those who do act that way will only respect an act of self-defense. All other behaviors will result in continued attacks.
  • Even egghead males have a ritualistic manner of testing the limits and strengths of others, be they potential friends, enemies, or strangers. Guys would call it "testing the other guy's manhood." My mother would call it teasing. Call it what you will, the male testing ritual is as old as Cain and Abel, and we know how that one turned out.

Now there is a difference between sheer aggressiveness and assertiveness, as the book points out. Assertiveness is aggressiveness with a purpose. Its purpose is to vigorously stand up for oneself, one's beliefs, or someone else. This willingness to fight for one's beliefs is what has kept women and children both protected and in peril for as long as human beings have been in existence. And this fighting spirit (aggressiveness, assertiveness) is the thing gender-neutral schools and human resource departments today are trying to tame, medicate, or get rid of. After all, physical biology still favors men over women in matters of violence, female bodybuilders and Xena notwithstanding. If society is to be gender-neutral, something must be done to overcome that unpleasant fact. Thus we have sensitivity training, "time outs," sexual harassment lawsuits, and ritalyn.

The ones who suffer most from this de-masculinization of the culture (not emasculation, that is a different issue) are the sensitive, brainy, hyper kids like me.They are the type B personalities who aren't particularly gifted in matters of physical prowess and who are often over-eager to please authority figures. So, when teacher/parent/preacher says, "Do unto others" or "Don't fight," they obey, and their peers tear them apart on the playground after school.

There was a time not so long ago when young boys were mentored by fathers, coaches, and male teachers on the proper applications of aggressiveness, violent and nonviolent sports, and even provided tips on how to fight properly. Young boys were brought up to respect discipline and restraint but also firmness and resolve in matters of honor, including the defense of women and children. Are any of those things taught now? Could they be without the PC police going nuts? I have not yet finished Mansfield's book, but my guess is that he's recommending that we do so anyway.

This brings me back to the kids who have gone nuts and shot people at Columbine, Virginia Tech, NIU, etc. It is my contention that these "quiet" kids are not just reacting with deadly force against bullies. They are having, in fact, a fundamental moral conflict between what their elders teach them in the classroom and what their peers teach them in the real world. They've obeyed and obeyed and obeyed, and not fought back. This has only earned them more ridicule and contempt from the peers, whom they simultaneously hate and crave respect from--and they see no way out. More importantly, they have been taught no other way out! And what ways they have been taught come from the media, and we see how well those lessons turn out.

Fortunately, I had a mother who respected the value of manliness. She backed me up when I decided to play baseball (badly, for one season, but still), play with guns, go to Cub Scouts, join karate--all activities that were considered normal for boys. If I started acting like a sissy (crying unnecessarily or for some minor reason, for example), she told me to grow up or even once, "Be a man." Amateur psychologist that she was, she also encouraged me to turn my energy elsewhere, to writing, to reading, to thinking about the future and the fact that adolescent pain is just that, and that it doesn't last forever.

And then, of course, I got to know my father after I graduated college, even lived with him for awhile. He introduced me to conservatism, masculine behaviors and ways of thinking in the office, more direct ways of thought. Through him I acquired more rectitude, stoicism, and maturity. By the time I left Orlando, he'd become my best friend. Hard to believe from a kid who smart- (and bad-)mouthed his divorced father for years. But it happened. And what I didn't learn from him, I learned from the conservatism he cultivated and the military and engineering role models I came to know in my professional life. No man is self-made; he is brought about through his contacts and, yes, his conflicts with others.

Earlier I reviewed The Dangerous Book for Boys, which I believe fills a need for boys growing up today. Equally important as teaching or allowing boys to do boyish things must come a renewed respect for manliness, and the maturity that comes with it. I hope those lessons are learned before another school becomes a damned statistic.

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