IN my TCW article yesterday, I suggested a man was a person who would make a good father, broadly understood. Being a father means to protect and provide. This requires having the skills to obtain resources to provide for the family and understanding the rhythms of nature and world beyond the home.
Therefore, to become men, boys need to move away from the security of the family and be integrated into wider society with its different set of norms.
For boys, the process of separation starts early, but there are different interpretations of how this comes about. Feminists such as Nancy Chowderow posit that parents encourage the son to disconnect from the mother because dependency is incompatible with masculinity. This results in ‘psychic wounds’ which provide a convenient explanation for ‘toxic masculinity’.
However, as a predictable human pattern, Chowderow’s explanation is incompatible with all those women who argue daughters get less attention than sons.
While it is accepted that boys do at some stage learn to differentiate themselves from their mothers, psychoanalysts would argue that it is identification with the father that plays a crucial role. But what is also incredibly important is a boy’s innate tendency, which does not appear in girls, to move away from adults and gravitate towards their peers.
Joyce Benenson, a Professor of Psychology at Emanuel College, Boston, has been studying children’s interactions since she was 19. In her wonderful book Warriors and Worriers: the Survival of the Sexes,she shows through a wide range of experiments, how even as babies, boys are attracted toward groups, whereas girls will home in on the individual.
This tendency develops into a pattern whereby girls form dyadic relationships – relationships between two individuals – whereas boys form increasingly complex patterns of social relationship, and groups which merge into enlarging groups. Whether the organisation of an army, a band of disciples, or a group of boys left to their own devices, the format is much the same.
The controversial anthropologist Lionel Tiger suggested in his book The Decline of Males that this group-oriented behaviour evolved out of the needs of the hunting party.
But Benenson’s more convincing explanation is that men banded together to defeat the enemy. The survival of the fittest meant that our forefathers were those of the men who were most successful at defeating the other group. To support her thesis, she brings together a wonderful array of evidence from boys’ liking of ‘rough and tumble’ play and hitting.
From the earliest ages, boys are fantasising about enemies and creating games which involve strategies of attack and defence.
Through this banding together, men develop an extraordinary level of social skill. Not only are they able to form deep dyadic relationships, but they are able to live for extended periods of time in close physical proximity and maintain love and loyalty for each other as well.
However, what is perhaps most remarkable about male behaviour is their liking of competition. But this is not the competition for personal advantage which one finds among women fighting for resources to shore up their family. The point of male competitiveness is to maximise the functionality of the group.
Through this intense competitiveness, boys weak in one area will develop a strength or specialisation in another, so that they can make a valuable contribution to the group. Benenson also shows how boys, but not girls, recognise and value this expertise.
Through the competitive process, groups are organised in a way which gets highly competitive individuals to acknowledge others have more skills in some specific areas than they do and happily defer to someone more skilled than themselves.
This competitive behaviour invariably involves fighting and conflict, but another striking aspect of male behaviour is the ease with which males reconcile (unless it seems, they are brothers!)
Benenson explains: ‘After a serious fight, former allies find some way to signal that the hostilities are over; they reconcile. Chimpanzees actually kiss, embrace, squeeze one another’s genitals, and then it is back to business as usual.’
This fighting serves to recalibrate the social order in a way which facilitates its functionality. Girls by contrast don’t want any conflict. They try to be equal and actually forget who won or lost.
Another feature of boys’ behaviour is an incredible aptitude for inventing games and their rules. Given the same resources, boys would play significantly longer than girls. This included spending a great deal of time quarrelling about the rules.
The researchers also observed that the boys had very much more fun. Rules hold a deep attraction for males; they abide by them even when they kill.
At a certain point, this rambunctious male behaviour needs to be tamed. As they get older, increases in testosterone become a threat to the social order because they are accompanied by a decrease in fear. Unrestrained young men practised in group competition can wreak havoc without a real enemy.
Problems are worsened where the ratio of young men to old increases; this is known as a ‘youth bulge’. Where these exist, it is well recognised that the risks of serious social conflict are likely to grow.
The pre-industrial societies that anthropologists studied have wonderful ways of dealing with this.
Boys are typically taken off to the men’s house, where they are instructed in rites and rituals and secrets, which form an elaborate and symbolic imitation of female processes of reproduction. The most elaborate of rituals often involve the letting of blood and this final initiation occurs once the men have learnt to provide.
Such rituals are conducted in an exclusively male environment. As Margaret Mead observed: Women make children, but only men can make men.
Through this process, young men are inserted into a social order which transcends the particularistic concerns of their individual families. They are subordinated to the rules of their elders while their elders are the servants of a divinity which is representative of, and greater than, the whole.
And yes, this is a patriarchy. But it is not a patriarchy which subordinates women. Rather, it is a patriarchy which tames and subordinates men.
Once they have become part of this male-headed society, the men are ready to become fathers. This is because they have been schooled in how to protect and provide and care for their families.
This is the whole point of the gruelling, painful process of male initiation; to turn raw untamed youth into men who could be good fathers.
This is what patriarchy does to men.
* Thank you to Vincent Nezianya for the insight that a man is a person who would make a good father.