Rebecca Solnit wrote a very interesting little article here, a sharp little critique of Esquire magazine’s regular, and (to me) tiresome, tradition of regularly trotting out their “80 Books Every Man Should Read” book list. Though a man myself, I’m in agreement with Solnit’s critique. Some of the authors on Esquire‘s list are authors whose works I’ve read and appreciated, and some not. But it’s the “should read” that bothers me the most, as it does Solnit. The idea that it ought to be necessary to tell men what to read in order to learn how to be men is pernicious.

The issue of why the Esquire editors would think it necessary to keep running their “80 Books” list every year or so is a miniature version of the more general issue of why as a society it should be necessary, at least according to tradition, to keep reinforcing fake ideals of masculinity. Of course women have for centuries been expected to conform to fake ideals of femininity, but I think that the fake ideals of masculinity have for the most part been more fake than the fake ideals of femininity. And among men there is generally a great deal of anxiety (although most men keep it well hidden) about whether one is being sufficiently masculine, i.e. whether one is performing the prescribed masculine role up to expectations. This implicit social pressure to conform to an unnatural role leads to all kinds of psychological problems, sometimes quite severe ones. I have often wondered how it is that we as a society have come to be like this.

The reason I’ve often wondered about this is because for me, as far back as I can remember, it’s always been an issue of very personal significance, an ongoing inner debate extending from my early childhood all the way to the present day, that is deeply embedded in my personality and my way of thinking. My father had a very rigid view of gender roles and was especially concerned that his two sons would grow up to be sufficiently manly, and so he did his best to control and try to force the two of us to conform, in every detail, to his ideal of masculinity, which even to my very young mind seemed unnatural. I instinctively rebelled, at least inwardly, and sought to find a place of refuge within myself in which I could be my own person, free from these pressures. And even at a very early age I felt instinctively that there was something false about the very “manly” role my father wanted me to play. Mainly because it ignored me, it ignored the actual person that I was, in favor of playing a role. I resented being treated as if I myself as a real person was worth nothing, but was only valued and respected for how well I could play a fake role.

This inner rebellion never really went away, but as I grew up and grew slowly into a larger life it gradually expanded and evolved into something of much greater scope. I came to see eventually that I was rebelling, not just against my father, but against an entire culture that promotes values that I saw as being fundamentally inhumane, i.e. a culture that worships status and celebrity, that glorifies competition, that discourages individuality, and that for the most part refuses to acknowledge the real needs of human beings. My father died twenty years ago, but this inner rebellion is still very much alive in me. It is expressed in an ongoing determination to try to assert more humane values in whatever ways I am able, and in a lifelong inquiry into what it really means to live the life of a true human being, freed from false ideas of oneself.

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