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What it means to me to be a good man: Ethics and masculinity

< begin, I will pose two related questions. First, why must this discussion of “what it means to be a good man” be different for anyone else? Second, is there something essential about any masculinity that requires it to be connected to a person’s ethics? Upon examining myself, I acknowledge that I explicitly and implicitly identify as a wealthy, white, heterosexual man. Do I need any of these four attributes to be a good person? No, they are not essential. Moreover, they are detrimental. Any discussion of identity should include at least these four points, but here I will, perhaps absurdly, limit myself merely to gender.

Before I continue, however, I will explain my diction. When I say gender I speak of something constructed by society, something ephemeral. I understand that this definition has its limits, but I will use it here for the sake of simplicity and coherence. That said, I have a male body with its accompanying anatomy and chemistry, but these things have no inherent meaning. Gender, therefore, is part of the meaning we have created for our bodies. But what is this meaning, this knowledge? Who uses this knowledge and to what ends? This is where masculinity enters.

I am not concerned with contemporary definitions of masculinity in terms of race, class, ethnicity, and locale. I will not discuss their makeup or their history in search of redeeming qualities. What I will say, and what is unequivocally clear to me is their connection with power and violence. Of course, certain understandings of masculinity, or masculinities, are more benign than others. But I challenge you to bring forth an example that does not either endorse violence, broadly speaking, or seek to establish hegemony through silencing and surveillance. I say this with confidence because masculinity is a means of control, a way to limit and homogenize humanity. Quite literally, masculinity is a direct affront to personal and collective liberation and self-expression. If the question “what does it mean to be a good man?” must be tied to masculinity, it is the same as asking “what does it mean to be a good oppressor?”

But what are the implications of this line of reasoning? At the very least, in terms of establishing ethical behavior, masculinity is irrelevant, moot. The definitions of gender need not limit what it means to be good. To take things a step further, as I stated above, masculinities are detrimental to establishing a morality liberated from relationships of oppression and hierarchy. Consequently, for individuals to create an ethic free from violence and power they must find space within themselves detached from, but also conscious of their gender identity. To clarify, there is no need to separate the question “what does it mean to be good?” by gender. The question only needs to be “what does it mean to be a good person?” Again, anyone, irrespective of gender, can be a good person; for men specifically it is a matter of acknowledging and then distancing masculinity from morality.

Several previous articles have discussed father-son relationships. To further clarify my thoughts I will use an experience from my own youth. As was typical of eight-year-old boys in my elementary school, “gay” was used as an insult and a descriptor for all things taboo, in part because of the exotification of sexuality and the super-exotification of any sexuality not heterosexual. While my father drove me home one night, I called someone or something “gay.” My father turned, looked at me and asked simply “why is that bad?” Taken aback, I muttered something about how because being gay is “weird” it must, of course, be bad. My father then asked “why is that weird?” All the more surprised, I sat in silence for thirty seconds, my mind spinning on strange new axes, finally replying “I don’t know.” “Well, that’s because it isn’t weird and it isn’t bad,” he answered. With an odd clarity, I remember my immediate acquiescence to this new understanding.

Something else I took away from this intervention was an appreciation of what it means to be ethical. My father could have taken three other courses of action. He could have punished me for my ignorance, ignored me, or, probably worst, affirmed my word choice. Instead he was patient and empathetic in his explanations, characteristics that I wholeheartedly associate with goodness and that need not be part and parcel to my father’s or to anyone’s gender identity.

That brings me back to this question: what does it mean to be a good person? I will not pretend to know how to describe a complete answer, or even if there is or should be one. As I said before, empathy and patience are important, but also a willingness to listen and to love, to feel compassion, to speak honestly, and to respect the sanctity of individual autonomy. These, I believe, are good starting points.

If what I say offends or intrigues you I encourage you to discuss it with friends or with me. Specifically for the male-identifying, I would also encourage you to come to Men talking about Masculinities to ask questions and to start dialogue. The group will meet Tuesday, November 3rd from 12-1, Common Time, in Leighton 301.

With Peace and Love,
James Devereux

-James Devereux is a fourth-year student

This essay is part of an ongoing series established by Chase Kimball. If you would like to have your own reflections published, please respond to the question “What does it mean to you to be a good man?”in an essay of 400-800 words and e-mail it to [email protected].

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