According to Ishmael: Rooting out Toxic Masculinity from Within our Cultural Stories


A TIPPING POINT

We are living in a stunningly paradoxical time. First, consider the sparking of the #MeToo movement and the subsequent calling out of men in places and positions of power—movie directors, politicians, news anchors, actors, and likely more to come. For perhaps the first time in their lives, men who have abused their power to stalk, harass, abuse, intimidate, manipulate, rape, or shut down women (and men, too) are being held accountable in the public eye. Women are speaking out in droves in support of one another. Whether each woman chooses to add her own #MeToo story or not, a newfound sense of solidarity, relief, hope, and healing has swept the nation.

This might seem like good news, and on the face, it is. We might be tempted to say we’re at a watershed moment in the culture. But to this, I can only say “maybe.”

If we had given the electoral college win to Hillary Clinton last year, it might be easy to argue that we are truly moving “onward together” as a society. We might be tempted to believe that misogynistic behavior will no longer be tolerated in political offices, workspaces, social settings, or even at home. We might have suggested that equal rights and opportunities for women, as well as all minority groups, had finally arrived, and the hierarchal pay-for-play pyramid that puts the white man on top by default had been replaced by a more circular, inclusive vision of society. Instead, we voted in Donald Trump.

Far from a man who had made some regrettable mistakes in his younger life and has since turned his life around, Donald Trump showed up on the national stage roaring with bluster, bullying his opponents, and physically stalking Clinton. He gave society a close-up look at an unapologetic representation of male entitlement and toxic masculinity. How did we react? We dismissed his actions and admissions in a collective “boys will be boys” wave of our hands. We decided, in the weighing of the evidence, that it didn’t matter enough to pull him out of contention.

Standing where we are now, at the apex of polar opposite societal pulls—the “no” to sexual misconduct on one hand, and the “yes” to it on the other—the phrase “tipping point” has never seemed more appropriate. A tipping point, from the book of the same name by Malcolm Gladwell, indicates a point at which an idea, concept, or truth reaches a critical mass and goes on to affect the whole globe, regardless of distance or boundary. The tipping point is the moment at which our collective consciousness shifts/expands/rises to accommodate the new, higher vibration the minority has been working for. This is when the entire culture takes a giant step forward. This is how things go global, or viral, or become common knowledge across continents. This is how we tip paradigms.

The festering wound of toxic masculinity has been cut into and sits open in front of us. We have before us an incredible opportunity to heal the power dynamics in our human relationships once and for all. But we must move mindfully, so that we do not experience a temporary cleansing wave after which everything resets back to the status quo. We must think about how we tip a hierarchy in such a way that gender equality remains our lasting truth from here on out and for all future generations.

Let’s start by naming the problem.

PATRIARCHY & TOXIC MASCULINITY

Patriarchy is a system of tiered power. It establishes beliefs about the skills, capabilities, tendencies, and qualities of men and women and assigns roles to them based on these qualities. It establishes rules, norms, and structures in which, for our own good and happiness, we are to fit inside. Patriarchy writes books like Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, because it truly believes that separate is how you make equal.

Patriarchy has been ruling human thought and behavior since at least the hunter-gatherer times. It is most often represented by a white, middle-to-late-aged, heterosexual male, though it can be embodied by anyone who displays the desired traits of ambition, aggression, and dominance. It is a consciousness that parses, divides, and organizes all the things of the world—including men and women—into their “ideal” place in society.

This vision of an ideal and structured world is baked into our consciousness from the time we are born. It is first enforced at home, later at school and in places of worship, and finally in our workplaces and institutions. Patriarchy applauds the picture of a family with a hardworking father, a stay-at-home mother, two beautiful children, a dog, and a minivan as proper and right, while degrading any deviation from this as morally questionable at best, evil at worst. The man in the patriarchal picture is a Charles Ingalls’ type—strong, wise, and all-knowing. He is never soft. Never weak. His wife sometimes displays moments of weakness, his children sometimes err, but he corrects their mistakes, he sets them right.

He is the master of his domain and of all he owns. As long as everyone follows the rules, this man is confident, pleasant, and often charismatic. When everyone does as they should, he is pleased. He sits back, smokes his cigar, and surveys his domain with pride. This is the patriarchal man.

Democracy, feminism, equality, LGBTQ rights, societal progress, automation, women in the workplace, women taking initiative over their own reproductive rights—these things all threaten to collapse the pyramid upon which the patriarchal male stands. Perry Grayson writes in his book The Descent of Man: “For many men, progressive feminist arguments can feel like a defeat, a slippery slope to redundancy and humiliation. You are no longer fit for purpose, we don’t need lumbering, warmongering, animal chasers any more.”

How do these patriarchal men adapt to this increasingly diverse and independently-minded world? Oftentimes, they don’t. Compromise, adaptation, change—these are not words that sit well with his vision of a dominant masculinity. The world seems to be moving on without him and there’s apparently little he can do about it. He fears losing relevancy and purpose. Faced with change and progress, patriarchy doesn’t see opportunity and growth. He sees only loss in his power and stature.

When patriarchy is disturbed, angry, or frightened, it begets toxic masculinity. This in turn begets sexism and misogyny. This in turn can beget all kinds of emotional and physical violence, including sexual misconduct ranging from harassment to rape.

So we see that behind patriarchal man’s acts of aggression and entitlement, there is a deep but unspoken fear. What if, as part of our movement, we show him what he stands to gain in a more equal society? Perry also argues in his book that in developing only one side of their nature—the masculine—men hold themselves back from a richer, deeper life: “In their drive for domination, men may have neglected to prioritize vital aspects of being wholly human…preventing their greater self from being successfully happy.” In other words, patriarchy doesn’t only hurt women. It hurts men, too.

We must tip the hierarchy in such a way that people understand it is not about cutting down men, but about rebuilding and reshaping our society for the betterment of everyone. We need to convince people that it is in our best interest as a society to rethink who we are, where we fit in, and what we are here to do. Where should we look to find the wisdom to take this next collective step? Books, of course.

A PAPERBACK ROAD MAP

Those of us who appreciate great literature know that books not only provide entertainment and comfort, but often offer clear and unparalleled wisdom about the human condition. In many ways, great books open a portal to our collective inner lives and human journey, where we can see more clearly the perils and traps of human life. For their foresight, warnings, and even bitter recognition of some modern-day truths, books like 1984, by George Orwell; It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis; The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood and Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley, received a renaissance and a re-read in the aftermath of the election.

Also notable for their keen societal eye are books like The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli, Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and the Divergent series by Veronica Roth, which reveal the often ugly manner in which the powerful might govern, rule over, and interact with people below them. From the great classic novels to modern day fantasy and dystopian novels, this relationship between the powerful and the rest of society—a clearly patriarchal design—is a topic of great examination and intrigue. It ought to be. Because one thing seems certain: when boys grow up hearing from their culture that they are entitled to the ownership of commodities and opportunities due to their sex, sometimes, dangerously, their male entitlement grows up and extends its reach to people.

But as revealing as these books are on some aspects of our current condition, none of them show us the work we must do now if we are ready to upturn this structure and rebuild one in which toxic masculinity, and the sexual misconduct that comes with it, is rooted out for good. We need a book that can get right to the crux of the problem. For this, I propose we need Daniel Quinn’s 1992 book Ishmael.

ISHMAEL

Just as it is often said that we are what we eat, when it comes to a culture, we humans are the stories we tell ourselves. Not the children’s tales that we shelve at the end of the day. Not the holiday tales meant to brighten up our lives for a day or so. I’m talking about the stories that shape who and what we become, the ones that pulse in the very fabric of our culture, the ones we believe to be true without ever questioning where they came from or what purpose they serve. These are known as our creation stories.

Creation stories tell us so much more than how we came into existence and where we are going in the after life. Creation stories give us place, purpose, and meaning in society. They offer direction and reason for our lives. They write the rules and parameters that a culture builds itself upon and around. Within these stories, power structures are established to keep them firmly in place. In our American society, patriarchy is that power structure. Our culture will not naturally or easily shift in favor of evolution and progress, because our creation stories and its patriarchal system work in tandem to withstand even the most powerful uprising, like the one we are seeing today.

In Ishmael, the teacher responsible for imparting wisdom is a gorilla named, aptly, Ishmael. His student, the narrator, is a man in search of truth. The bulk of the book depicts the conversations between teacher and student. Together, they dig up and delve into these very creation stories.

I wouldn’t even attempt to try and summarize the slow and masterful revealing and dismantling of these stories that Quinn does in this novel. I can only say that I, like the narrator, was shocked to see just how interwoven they are. As Ishmael puts it, “The mythology of your culture hums in your ears so constantly that no one pays the slightest bit of attention to it.” And so, rather than challenging or questioning them, we enact them and support them every day. We do it, often without our conscious awareness. We do it, whether or not the story matches our personal beliefs and desires. We do it, through the simple ways we go about living our lives. It’s like an open secret that everyone is in on but no one dares to talk about.

While explaining to his student why it is so difficult to recognize the stories for what they are and the power they hold, Ishmael notes that we easily recognize as fable or mythology the stories that other cultures tell themselves and pass down (gods/goddesses/deities). But when it comes to our own fables and myths, they are so indistinguishable from culture that they fade into the background where they remain largely unquestioned, unchallenged, and resistant to change.

So how do we go about challenging such an invisible, interwoven foe? We need to start looking and listening for it, and then watch how it shapes our behavior in everyday situations. Ishmael promises, “Once you learn to discern the voice of Mother Culture humming in the background, telling her story over and over again to the people of your culture, you’ll never stop being conscious of it. Wherever you go for the rest of your life, you’ll be tempted to say to the people around you, ‘how can you listen to this stuff and not recognize it for what it is?’”

Imagine pulling a rotten carrot out of the ground. We might place the carrot under a microscope and see if we could find the source of the rot. We might chop it up into tiny pieces to try and find the cause. We might get angry with the carrot for its lack of perfection, and demand that it be better. Obviously, this would not help us solve the mystery of the rotting carrot. Chances are, the next time we pull a carrot from the garden, it too will be rotten. As long as we continue to ignore the soil that the carrots are grown in, that is, our collective consciousness, we will lose our grasp on opportunity before us.

Instead of studying the carrot—or for our purposes, the individuals who embody this toxic masculinity—we need to investigate and ask questions of the soil in which it’s been fertilized and grown. What poison is in the garden that permits this rot to exist—and persist—in the first place? Who is making the decisions about who is entitled to what, how do they communicate that information, and how is this information then passed down to the generation? What, in the soil of our culture, is feeding male entitlement and sprouting toxic masculinity again and again?

We won’t know the answers to these questions until we get our hands deep inside the soil. There are many places in society where we could set up shop to begin our study. For the purposes of this essay, we’ll look at two of them: family and religion.

FAMILY

Surprisingly or not, toxic masculinity is often protected and justified by women just as vehemently as by men in power. Even while the #MeToo movement continued to grow and inspire, it also received plenty of pushback, and much of it was from women. Their argument went something like, “My boys (husband/boyfriend) are innocent of this, and I will not be a part of anything that demonizes or blames an entire gender for the bad behavior of a few.”

Rather than seeing a ripe opportunity for increasing the awareness in these young boys and men so they can become important allies in this movement, these women saw #MeToo as a personal attack against the men they love and trust. Feeling threatened and insulted on behalf of the men in their lives, these women tried to shame us all into diminishing or shutting down the moment. We can’t evolve as human beings if our first reaction to feeling uncomfortable is to criticize the movement as a whole as offensive, incomplete, or imperfect. The pushback well serves and preserves the patriarchy, but it does little to move the needle for honestly assessing and changing our culture. One could argue that movements and protests will always have imperfections; it doesn’t mean we should dismantle them entirely.

As parents, teachers, and role models, we should not be blind to the possibility that without proper education and regular reminders, even cute little boys, even middle-aged men, can suddenly succumb to the intoxicating entitlement of strength, power, wealth, or control if given the opportunity. Even if we feel we have given proper guidance, our cultural stories are so powerful they can bypass our guidance and whisper directly in the ears of boys and men though movies, video games, magazines, commercials, and other examples of men that they see when we’re not looking. Mothers who deny that their little boys can do any wrong are the ones who later enable toxic masculinity by declaring that the woman their son abused/harassed shouldn’t have gotten drunk, shouldn’t have worn a short skirt, or whatever other flung accusation. These women are part of the problem, not the solution.

Parents (and teachers and other role models) of both genders must teach children to respect their own bodies and the bodies of others. We must teach them about consent. We must teach them that every single human being is deserving of respect and dignity. We must share our wisdom and expectations so constantly that this wisdom supersedes the pull of the most toxic parts of our culture in the most permeable and vulnerable times of their lives. We must not squander this opportunity because we can’t bear the thought that our own loved ones could fall prey to the whispers. We must love them enough to do everything in our power to prevent it.

RELIGION

The picture of the perfect family comes direct from our cultural stories and specifically, our religious stories. Man, we learn from Genesis, was created in God’s image. To give man a companion, God made woman from a single rib of the completed Man. What else can one infer from this story than that Woman belongs to Man, is sub-human to Man? What does it say about which gender is superior?

In the Bible, men receive messages from God, missions from God, directives from God, not women. Young girls quickly learn their place in the church hierarchy by the simple fact that throughout the entire Bible, God never once speaks directly to a woman. How are women supposed to become leaders in the church when all the leaders in the Bible are men? Our worth, our validity, our opinions, our leadership abilities—if they weren’t important then, how do we make them matter now? We don’t know that we believe these things about women, and yet we do. Because when 2, 4, 5, 16 women’s detailed and corroborated stories cannot overcome one white man’s generic and sweeping denial, it’s time to acknowledge that patriarchy is one powerful and enormously persuasive reality.

From the Garden of Eden, we learn that Woman, left to her own devices, listens to evil instead of God. To this day, we think of women as the gender who lives closer to the body, closer to earth, closer to snakes, closer to sin. Woman is the seductress, encouraging Adam to bite into sin against his own will. To this day, we question whether Adam would’ve bit into that apple if Eve hadn’t put it right in front of him like a shiny bra strap. Woman was ultimately responsible for our being banned from the Garden. And to this day, women are still paying the price and carrying the blame. Rebecca Solnit spoke to this when she said, “Remember that every time a man commits a violent act it only takes one or two steps to figure out how it’s a woman’s fault, and that these dance steps are widely known and practiced and quite a bit of fun.”

Women, prone to curiosity and naivety—or, on the other end of the spectrum, whoring—must be tamed into domestication and regular childbearing. If women maintain their role as companion first and then as mother, like Mary did, they can be assured comfort and safety (but not power) for life. Women who remain childless or worse, remain unmarried, rank much lower on society’s ladder of importance. These truths have withstood the test of time.

Throughout our history, religion’s stories have been used to justify all kinds of human behavior—even the most despicable kind. Recently, this defense was driven to new lows when Alabama State Auditor Jim Ziegler used the Bible to smooth over the worst example of toxic masculinity—pedophilia. When defending Roy Moore’s sexual misconduct with a 14-year-old, he said, “Take the Bible. Zachariah and Elizabeth for instance. Zachariah was extremely old to marry Elizabeth and they become the parents of John the Baptist. Also take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus.” Somehow, large swaths of people were not horrified, but nodded along in agreement, after which they returned to the work of finding fault with the female accusers.

Using scripture to justify sex crimes, hate, and even murder, disgusts us when we see it occur in other religions, such as Islam. But in our own culture, too many of us find a way to convince ourselves that, in the words of Ziegler, “There’s just nothing immoral or illegal here. Maybe just a little bit unusual.” This is because our stories are not merely stories to us. They are indivisible, unbreakable, indisputable truths. And one doesn’t question truth.

For many people, religion provides comfort and community. There is also much good work done around the planet in the name of religion, and I don’t intend to diminish that facet. But we must also recognize how religion’s stories send regular, steady, subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) messages that keep women from attaining true equality.

SUMMARY

I am encouraged watching women finding the courage to speak out against their perpetrators. I am pleased to see good men realize how they, as often silent bystanders, have allowed this to continue, and vow to speak up in the future. We need all the help we can get. Legislation, while helpful, will never be enough. Neither will shaming, nor better-quipped human resource departments. Not even jailing individual perpetrators. Not for the long term. These solutions serve as bandaids to this open wound of toxic masculinity when what we need is a true and deep cleansing.

With help from Ishmael, we can finally go much deeper, down deep into the collective consciousness of human beings to see the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what we can be. We can now see how these stories act like bars on a cage that keep us from a reaching a greater collective human freedom.

Ismael would suggest, and I concur, that we start telling each other new stories. Stories that honor the whole human within each of us, our masculine and feminine sides equally. Stories that show how to honor our bodies, our career paths, our sexuality, our individual expression. Stories that enable everyone to become who they are without undue or invisible influence.

Instead of entitlement for a few, let’s write and tell stories that offer freedom for all.

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