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Toxic Masculinity Challenged by Men - Meet Joe

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Toxic Masculinity and Racism Challenged by Men

Chapter 2

© 2017 Sherryl N Weston MA, MSW, LCSW (pending in CA)


This is the second in a series entitled, “Toxic Masculinity and Racism Challenged by Men,” an effort to give voice to the process of Progressive men who are in various stages of the developmental process of becoming a better social justice advocate and/or ally. The focus will mostly be on White men, however men of color and queer men will be represented as well. I picked the White men based on my assessment of them as good racial allies and those who understand intersectionality very well.

The overall intention is to provide a well-rounded perspective. The purpose of this series is to give human form to the suppositions about the legitimacy of certain opinion in matters of race, class and gender, and therefore see where evolution might actually occur for those of privilege. There is a parallel process for men of color, which involves self-reflection as it relates to internalized racism and the resulting relational binds with other people of color and with White men. This secondary area will be addressed some in these other essays.

In this chapter, we get to know a well-read man who consistently has been directly involved in the political process. He is a multi-faceted person, a musician at-heart and a storm chaser who sometimes hops into a car to observe tornados. He is deeply spiritual, from a less-than-conventional standpoint and engages Mother Nature as a very proficient gardener.

Meet Joe Zemek

SW: In what years were you born/raised? Where are you from and what/who were the strongest influences on your male identity? Ethnicity?

Born in 1973 and raised in Phoenix AZ to parents who were both white and Catholic. My father was a Czech immigrant from peasant stock and who possessed academic brilliance. My mother was born in Chicago to two first generation Americans, one Irish and one German. My father and grandfather were by default my strongest male role models, although neither was as deliberately involved in instructive role modeling from a social perspective.

SW: Can you identify when you began to realize what was considered “too girly” or “weak?” Give one personal example.

I remember a friend, who early in grade school--at age 6 or 7--called my red socks gay. Well I had no idea what that meant, and when I told Mom, she just dodged it and said no more red socks. I figured out that it was girly, but still didn’t really know what gay meant other than weak until later.

SW: What do you think would be the best strategy for a father to influence his son to NOT follow the gender double standards and “notch on the belt/ conquer, then brag” sexual games that boys & men play?

That wasn’t my father at all, and to be honest, I think I needed a father with more traditional maleness: not so much the bragging and swagger, but certainly confidence and someone who taught and modeled respectful ways of interested engagement with women, especially his wife, with whom he was becoming distant and disinterested. It was sad, really, after about age 10, and very hard for a child to navigate. When my classmates engaged in this behavior, I just avoided it as much as possible, but at times, being part of the pack requires the choice of participation or else ostracization. I would venture that a father must first embody these desired values and behavior, and then consistently nurture his son through years of cultural navigation of these experiences and exposures. Fathers should talk their sons through the various mazes, including the ostensibly uncomfortable topics like the nature of pornography and sex workers, after which normal dating should be easy to talk about. :-)

SW: How comfortable are you with the way our society currently handles sexuality and expectations of cis-gender boys to men?

I think we have massive patriarchal hang-ups in the USA; same as everywhere else, way better than some cultures, way worse than others. Our culture centers male agency, control, and violence in ways that fail to ask us to do better, than allowing ourselves to be run by our testosteronic urges.

But I doubt that my perception of the enduring nature of cultural legacy is widely shared. I recognize that it takes a lot of work over a long time to erode that, let alone create big changes. So, we have a lot of work to do, but we should allow ourselves a little peace to help maintain perspective and keep sight of the long arc of cultural progress generally.

SW: As the numerous accusers of sexual misconduct against male entertainment industry and political leaders come forward, how do you feel as a man? Do you feel any personal connection to what caused this environment and therefore somehow shamed? How common has such male attitude been in circles you have had experience in?

I have been fortunate to be wise in choosing friends who are more ...enlightened, I guess? Nerdier/geekier, for sure; more focused on knowledge, learning, spirituality, morality, less athletic/not jocks, less tribal, and more deliberately inclusive of outsiders, being more outsiders themselves. Of course, problematic male behavior was still present, but less brutally so, and in ways that aren’t about determining some sort of Alpha-hierarchy, and not about going out as packs to experience nightlife and attempt to pick up girls & women for casual sex. That dominator-conquesting-primitive urges-focused lifestyle has never been mine (tho see my previous wish that it had been, to a smaller, respectful & reasonable degree).

Nice guys with high standards who aren’t “dick-driven” but hear [sic]-focused can struggle to meet enough women to manage to date at all, because when falling “in Like” with someone is so uncommon, the basic odds that she will reciprocate are already poor, so we are pretty much the camels of having sex, who will at times get desperate despite our great intentions and high standards. Then we make mistakes, and try too hard with someone who isn’t interested and we make her uncomfortable, at which point we intersect #MeToo with #ItWasMe. And we are usually sorry and almost always hate ourselves for screwing up.

And I know I speak for millions of decent men when I say we DESPISE SHITTY MALES.

They are SUCH a problem; primarily for women, so absolutely center that, but for us good guys, too. They damage women, who must then view us with the same requisite self-defense lenses that survival demands. However, social structures pose some major obstacles for us to deal with these shitty men in cultural and professional settings when it comes to holding them accountable. I hope we try harder than we have, but… the effective action depends on cooperation with women, and that requires trust, and sometimes that is hard to build, for all the reasons we already know and are discussing.

SW: If you were “the power in charge” and resources were no object, what will be the most effective action at this juncture, in terms of prevention and in holding other men accountable?

Well… I’d want to pass an equal rights Amendment, which would be the basis of MUCH more effective law across the nation for women to take legal recourse across the board/spectrum. It could protect existing measures/projects, and potentially provide for dramatic expansions. It would make reproductive rights sacrosanct and fully funded.

If I had even more power, I’d establish an educational, progressive propaganda messaging media complex to talk about the feminism of Jesus in order to drag millions of men out of ancient patriarchal thinking, but not even the “power in charge” can alter the pace of cultural development and evolution. It takes a mysterious tipping point among the interactions of generations.

SW: What is your personal strategy in presenting yourself as a feminist man? (Toward women and men) What are any disadvantages? How acceptable do you perceive yourself to be as an ally to women?

I do pretty ok, as a political operative. I am naturally less stereotypically masculine and my behavior and priorities speak for themselves in my circles. I don’t have a strategy other than remaining aware in the moment so that I am a better listener, because I see Listening-First as ultra-critical to male interaction with women (and frankly anyone who isn’t white or straight). If I find myself in a discussion with a woman and it’s veering into argument territory, I try to ease off and listen some more and be deliberately gentler. I think I am ok at this but there is always room for improvement. I don’t perceive any clear disadvantages, but I do feel some lingering insecurity at times about the quality of my social masculinity.

SW: What specific issues do you feel the most pressure to improve on in your own self-development, relative to these questions? Where are your discomforts?

I think I have mentioned them already. My most pressing issue with regard to self-development and general happiness is romantic success, but at the same time I am not actively pursuing it, instead attempting to come to a peaceful rest in a comfort with being alone, coextend with that still-strong desire that someday I’ll be fortunate enough to find myself in the magnificent company of a great woman.

Mee SW: What’s your personal strategy going forward?

I dunno that I have ever identified a personal strategy as such, but I do have some commitments:

  • Stand firm with women who have been harassed, hurt, or abused.

  • Continue personal development generally to be at peace with urges and desires; improve as a conscious listener.

  • Cultivate trust, guard it with everything, and improve friendships with women

  • Help recruit progressive women as political candidates, and support them, while remaining respectful of women with whom I have political (or other) disagreements.

  • Continue speaking up about patriarchy and the numerous ways it holds women down, so that I present opportunities to other men to become aware of the negative impacts of subtle and subconscious behaviors that our culture reinforces.

General Issues Raised

When a person is comfortable in the political realm, understands its flaws and capabilities, it might be possible to see the cracks in the sidewalk. That is to say, there are many who are completely disappointed in and discouraged by the actions in the U.S.’s two-party system and have abandoned it. There are others who have figured out, at least for now, how to participate in it and remain aligned with Progressive values.

Hope for better days is made of up of, in part, the ability to see a way through the mire. It is the opposite of “the most important changes are too far outside the reach of the common person.” Joe is one of those who has figured out more of a personal strategy by embedding himself in his values at multiple levels. His thoughts made several issues arise that are a bit tangential and don’t all apply to him, but may be useful in thinking about the broader issue of how we continue to move toward a more just world in general terms. Intersectionality makes it impossible to consider one factor without the others holding a place.

The “People are People” World View

In my considering Joe’s thoughts, the “people are people” saying kept coming to mind. One of the common factors I’ve noticed is that many White allies may have had parents who taught them generally stated values like, “be respectful to women,” “people are people” and “racism (or sexism is wrong),” but often got no tools for confronting what they may encounter outside of familiar circumstances.

The toxic masculinity culture has put a lot of pressure on those who do not fit the strongly adhered to standards of behavior for men and women.

There have been cultural standards that have made identifying race in an individual as rude or cruel, as if acknowledging differences is tainted with insensitivity or worse. What’s wrong with the “we are all human beings” philosophy is that it forces us to rubber stamp a supposedly acceptable human form. Creativity and diversity are smashed or silenced by the lack of flexibility for difference, then can lead to things like isolation, which, for example, may lead to depression or a number of unhealthy coping mechanisms for victims. Gendered norms create a version of the same thing.

This conflict-avoiding philosophy also may lead people of privilege- in this case, men-to believe that things are fine when they’re not. This, then leads to women who go along with behavior they are uncomfortable with, girls who grow into women who are complicit in the abuse toward other women-even their own children or family members- or those groomed to accept double standards as the normal state of being. It leads to a variety of allies and a variety of activists who are considered acceptable, but also serve the double standards as gatekeepers and protectors of the privilege that is being addressed. This conflict-avoiding philosophy also leads to men who want to do the right thing, but are not sure how to find an alternative set of behaviors to replace the overt racism or sexism. Social skill-sets are important. How do we build a system that supports the difficult change? Men need to support each other as they navigate this important journey.

What Now?

What to do differently than we have been, as we raise children to create a safer and more equitable world, will be a test of will and patience. Fitting in is a normal and very highly valued factor in the developmental process of becoming an adult and for seeing oneself as normal, valuable and desirable. Recent buddy programs in high schools and phone apps available to decrease isolation in the lunchroom are examples of approaches that appear to be having some success.

Boys CAN become men more like Joe, continuing their community and personal work without undue stress IF the “locker room camaraderie” is replaced by brotherhood. Real-Inclusive-Brotherhood.

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