It’s been my position for many years we are a culture that eats it’s own. I hesitate to use the phrase toxic masculinity because I feel it is already overused, however, I can’t think of a better term. We are encouraged from the youngest ages to form groups for no other reason than to be in opposition to others. It’s not so much we need to be in a group for protection, because sometimes that is absolutely true. It is more that we form the groups in the first place simply to be in opposition to other groups, whether we are threatened or not.
How am I supposed to engage in conflict with them if I don’t have a group? What am I supposed to do, hang around and watch? I have opinions I must lord over others as “the truth” otherwise why am I here? How can I have an identity without identifying with a group and having other groups to be in opposition to? Unity for the sake of compounding our existing separateness is the name of the game, no? Otherness is what it’s about, right? Oh, and fuck those guys. Which guys, you ask? Doesn’t matter.
Without some sort of opposition, we have no purpose apparently. I am walking, talking proof of this. I was conditioned to prepare for things to go wrong. If I could reasonably ascertain that it was not my fault, then let the blaming begin! “Prepare for the worst, hope for the best” is a common saying most of us have heard. But what if that worst thing we are preparing for is another person? The conflict is built in and expected. We often find a way for others to embody our difficulties. The bane of your existence becomes “easier” to focus on if it has a face and walks and talks. I believe this conditions us to expect conflict and find others to fight with. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? No? Then why do we teach it to our male children before they can speak?
If this is our baseline, our standard state of being during regular times, what happens when we factor in stress to this toxic mix? As males in our culture, we are taught to court stress and responsibility. I’m reminded of a training I attended years ago regarding stress in the work place. The speaker said after our stress levels pass a certain point we are nothing more than talking monkeys. Do you know what species can be territorial, temperamental, and likes to fight as a matter of course? Primates. Monkeys. Us. Stress can turn us from reasonably well- adjusted adults to poo-flinging, chest beating gorillas. This can make for a volatile mixture.
I think “us vs them” is where most of us are comfortable. It has become our default. Most of us are seemingly rudderless without a target to attack. As mentioned above, that target can quickly become embodied by another person who has chosen to play the role of “he who exists to fuck my project up.” This also keeps us blind to what we may be doing in opposition to our own goals. It is much easier to hang that on another person. We compare ourselves against other men and may feel inadequate. If we don’t compare ourselves unfavorably to others, many of us will bully others to create that illusion of superiority.
Where is the top? Is there really a King of the Mountain? The answer is “yes, until the next one. And the next one. And the one after that. Seems rather pointless. What could we create if we weren’t so focused on beating each other? There are many historical and evolutionary reasons why mankind has been in opposition to each other. But it makes me wonder if we just got caught up in violence and conflict so early in our history that we never stopped to wonder if there was another way. What is our excuse now? We are not truly lacking in food or clothing anymore, but we selectively distribute it. This also contributes to us vs. them. Again, we are programmed from an early age to be in conflict with each other.
How do all these cultural underpinnings impact 21st century American males? At the age of 51 I feel I have enough life experience to make salient observations. On the one hand, the United States is comprised and influenced by a combination of cultures. This has worked in our favor many times, but we have also let it feed the us vs them paradigm in the forms of racism, sexism, homophobia, and socioeconomic disparities.
Much has been written about the “me first” mindset in the U.S. How big is the difference between that and “Us first?” I would say very little. We are climbing over bodies as a team rather than individually. This reinforces us vs them because now we are in opposition to others collectively, in a team, which implies the act is more acceptable because we are doing it with others. If we are not fighting other nations, we are fighting each other. Is there nothing else to occupy our time with? Does this meet criteria for toxicity or not?
I am all for healthy competition as a form of self-development. I think we have taken this concept far beyond “healthy competition.” Quite often our mindset takes us to a place where the lives and livelihoods of others are forfeit because of conflict for the sake of conflict. Opposition for the sake of opposition tends to be our cultural default. There are more evolutionary reasons for this than I could possibly cover within the scope of this post.
What I want to make clear is that this behavior is a choice. As soon as we are aware of it, it becomes a choice and the continued fallout from this choice has to be recognized as a deliberate course of action.
I am proposing we choose differently. Work with others, rather than against. Forget about teams for a bit and just work with everyone you can within your immediate sphere. Examine your results and see if they are different. Opening ourselves up like this feels risky and maybe even foolish, which is why most will not even attempt it. What are the rewards for this change in behavior? Are they worth it? Once you suspend “us vs them” you will likely find it easier to get along with others. Since you are no longer affiliated with any team, workplace, or group you no longer have a reason for opposition. By the same reasoning, your former opponents no longer have any reason to target you.
Some probable results are you will accomplish more in your chosen area of endeavor, whatever that is. Collaboration typically gets us bigger and better results than conflict or even “healthy competition.” Suspend the need for opposition. I say need specifically because I felt like a rowboat with one oar going in circles the first few times I went into the world like this. It is very likely you will feel extremely vulnerable when you suspend the need for opposition, simply because we are indoctrinated in the culture of conflict. But if you are brave enough to try something new, you may find yourself achieving your personal goals and the goals you share with others far more easily. Quite often the opposition doesn’t exist unless we place it there.
This does not mean conflict and crime will disappear overnight. If you work after dark, continue walking with your coworkers to that dark empty parking lot at the end of the night. This is, in fact, a collaborative exercise. My point is if we stop expecting conflict and seeking it, it won’t be there any longer and our lives will become far easier, both individually and collectively.
Let me be 100% clear that I am a proponent of self-development through competition and adversity. But this form of self-development should be left in its respective place. Me being my best self should not take away from anyone else being their best self. We tend to personalize it if someone is just a little better than us at a given task. If we lose out on a promotion because the other person was just a tiny bit better, we blame them. Let’s break this reaction down further. In essence we are hating someone because they have done something better than we have. While there could be many variables to this, I’m going to keep this simple so as to not lose the point. Hating someone because they are doing the same thing we are (i.e. becoming their best selves in a given activity) is rather hypocritical and nonsensical. It is ingrained in us to take the achievements of others personally, particularly if their doing well costs us something we are seeking (the big promotion for example.)
It was brought to my attention years ago that everyone has just as much right to excel as I do. Me working hard to be good at something does not mean the other guy has to go elsewhere because he is working at being the best he can at the same task. While this can be a bitter pill to swallow, this is part of the game we have bought into. Change the game. We are all competing against each other for things we have been told we must strive for. Yet we are living in a time where resources are routinely wasted more than they are used for their intended purposes. What exactly are we competing so hard for? Is there something else you would rather focus your energy on? I repeat, change the game.