Masculinity made the news again. We see it in the standoff between a self-described militia and the Federal Government in Rose, Oregon. It is in the raging debate over gun policy and in the candidacy of Donald Trump, who is men’s last hope “to get their masculinity back,” according to Andrea Tantaros of Fox News. Masculinity is also behind ISIS’ Western volunteers and behind the gunman who shot twelve, killing three, at a Planned Parenthood Clinic in Colorado Springs. It is in the deadly shootings of African Americans by police officers and in the militarization of police forces. These are all stories about men, but they reveal more than just that men are prone to violence.
Instead, they tell us a great deal about contemporary masculinity, something we’ve explored as we’ve tried to understand how men make sense of themselves today. We’ve interviewed men about where they learn about masculinity and maleness and how media and religion make a difference.* Observers have said that there is a contemporary “crisis of masculinity,” that men struggle to know what their roles are or should be. Some critics blame contemporary culture, including video games, sport celebrity culture, and other media. Others, like Don Eberly, say that men need centering values such as those found in religion. Then again, religion lurks behind many recent cases of male violence.The men we spoke with were conscious of the social gains achieved by the feminist movement, and most were supportive of those gains, if not of feminism itself. At the same time, though, they lamented the lack of a public conversation about masculinity that might provide them insights into what men should be or do in light of changed gender roles. Religion was important, but it was not an important source of masculinity for them. Instead, they tended to see religion as yet another “feminized” space where men’s ideas and meanings are not valued.
“…it doesn’t matter what the cause is. What matters is that there is a cause—a cause worth fighting for, worth dying for, worth killing for.”
So, what did they think defines maleness or masculinity? For nearly all of them, it boiled down to various proportions of what we have called “provision, protection, and purpose.” It is a commonplace of traditional domestic life that men are, or should be, breadwinners. Men also see themselves as protectors of their families. For most of them, though, a third element transcends the other two: a sense of masculine purpose.
Masculine purpose was the most difficult for them to describe, particularly because it is today the most diffuse. The idea of purpose linked our men to voices such as Glenn Beck but also to the cultural historian Harvey Mansfield, whose neo-traditionalist exploration of the effects of the feminist movement, Manliness, turned to the classical Greek and Roman ideas of masculinity and found purpose at their center.
The way we think of masculine provision, protection, and purpose have certainly undergone some deep transformations. Men don’t need to hunt to feed their families. Men are encouraged to trust civil society to provide physical protection. Men are asked to find purpose in social cooperation and civic engagement instead of in individual, lone-wolf action. The contradictions between these three classes of masculine impulses and the forces of modern life that seek to domesticate these impulses is powerfully evident, to mention just one example, in the debate over gun rights. There are many who still consider guns as holding symbolic value—as the tool of provision, protection and purpose, no matter the implications for public safety.
“…there is a surplus of masculine purpose. Purposive energy exceeds the capacity to imagine what good purposes to put it to.”
Of these impulses, purpose is the least defined because older expressions of masculine purpose (often celebrated in popular fiction, film and television) are no longer tenable or acceptable. What does masculine purpose mean, exactly? What is surprising is that, for many of the men we interviewed, it doesn’t matter. Agreeing with Glenn Beck and Harvey Mansfield, they say it doesn’t matter what the cause is. What matters is that there is a cause—a cause worth fighting for, worth dying for, worth killing for. This doesn’t apply to all or even most men, of course, but it could be that certain men—disaffected immigrants or working-class white Americans, who’ve seen their possibilities for concrete provision and protection shrink because of impersonal economic forces—might be particularly drawn to a cause that seems in some fundamental way purposive, regardless of what it is.
One way to describe what’s happening is that today there is a surplus of masculine purpose. Purposive energy exceeds the capacity to imagine what good purposes to put it to. This might help explain how men today might be drawn to causes that promise opportunities to express purpose. That is what ISIS offers. It is what vigilante occupation of government property offers. It is what “stand your ground” laws offer. It is what might motivate loners and other disaffected men to participate violently in causes that will put them on the global media map. That such purposes might also claim a religious cause would only add to their attraction.
If, as some men see it, men today feel that they lack concrete ways to express their responsibilities to provide, protect, and act with purpose, where is action possible? Some of the old, tried-and-true approaches include improved employment and other opportunities for young men. We also seem to need invigorated spaces where men might express purpose in ways that lead to service and civic engagement instead of to hostility and violence. But the first step is to understand that in an age defined by sensational expressions of purpose in an outrage-focused media sphere, changing the subject will be quite a challenge.
* We interviewed 55 Protestant men for the study—24 Evangelical men and 31 Ecumenical men. Since we did a round of family interviews as well, 16 women were also interviewed as part of the study.