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What it means to me to be a good man: A rephrasing of the question

<u were to read over a sample of this series’ past installments, you would notice that there seem to be two main approaches defining a good man.  The first is to dispute the question head on, wholly divorcing the notion of ‘good’ from any question of gender.  The second is to offer a few cardinal virtues in the same breath as lengthy qualifications about why said virtues are not exclusively masculine.  Both have led to some fascinating writing, but both, whether by attack or equivocation, render the question moot.

The reticence around this topic is understandable and, for that matter, appropriate.  After all, compounding the words ‘good’ and ‘man’ seems to cry out for traits that would not apply to a similarly virtuous woman.  Thankfully, most have been reluctant to engage the question on those terms, but that still leaves us spinning our rhetorical wheels.  And really, that’s a shame, since it requires but a little semantic tweaking to infuse the question with new purpose.

We need hardly jettison the notion of “good” to do so, either.  The traits that have been espoused, however equivocally, as masculine—responsibility, compassion, commitment, and integrity, to name a few—are as relevant as ever.  They are the values toward which we as individuals and as a society rightly aspire.  I submit, though, that universal virtues have unique contexts, and individuals—in this case, men—have varying paths to their attainment.  ‘Good’ is relative, not to other people but to the good that a person is capable of doing. To start, then, we should not pose this question as “what does it mean to be a good man?” but instead as “how can one achieve good from the ‘starting point’ of masculinity?” 

That starting point is no simple matter, but its understanding begins with honest reflection, and an openness to dialogue.  Just as all virtue begins with a moral inventory, men need to engage with conversations about privilege, gendered experiences, heterosexism, transphobia, and sexual violence.  We need to listen with an open, introspective mind to the chorus of voices saying that certain aspects of our culture of masculinity are destructive and hurtful, both to women and to other men.  This is hardly a new idea, but it bears repeating—for if the term ‘good’ has any meaning whatsoever, surely it includes taking responsibility for the culture that we create every day.

That’s not, to be clear, the same thing as guilt–a feeling of which several other authors have spoken. Guilt is never a particularly constructive emotion, if for no other reason than that it usually drives individuals to assuage their own consciences rather than meaningfully confront systemic inequality.  Any shortcomings identified in a moral inventory are not addressed through indulgent self-flagellation, but by actively challenging the behaviors and words that perpetuate them. 

In my view, there is no more prescient case of this than the rampant sexual violence that has taken hold in this country.  Nearly a quarter of women will be the target of a sexual assault by the age of twenty-five, and in almost 75% of those cases, the attacker will not be a stranger.  In short, when we talk about sexual violence, we are seldom talking about predators lurking in dark alleys.  We are, however, talking about our friends, peers, families and partners.  We are talking about ourselves. 

There’s plenty to be said for holding the feet of prosecutors and university administrators to the fire in dealing with this issue, and for working as deliberate allies of women’s groups combating sexual violence.  But it is essential to confront a masculine identity that affirms sex as a conquest and an entitlement. The culture of “scoring” must be ended, and to be most effective, that effort would come from men.  Men willing to collectively reject attitudes that condone violence and misogyny and challenge their peers to rethink their views of sexuality are a critical part of this puzzle. There is no substitute for this sort of engagement, for no one can take responsibility for defining masculinity but men.  

There’s certainly no shortage of issues requiring similar deliberate action, but this principle is a constant: A good man not only does the good he can, but looks at his own circumstances and does the good that he is uniquely positioned to do. He is responsible, honest, compassionate, and committed, yes, but he brings these virtues to bear on the trappings of his own identity, by shaping his own behavior or raising his voice in areas where it can be especially powerful.  In a sense, that’s the ultimate form of self-responsibility.  All that remains is for good men to determine what, exactly, it demands of them.

-Hal Edmonson is an alum, class of 2009

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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