I offer a response to a recent article from the American Psychological Association which considers traditional masculinity — marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance, and aggression — to be, on the whole, harmful. Classical Stoicism, free from unhelpful feminist ideology, maintains that all are capable of virtue and provides a framework by which all can live better lives.
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You’re listening to the Stoic Solutions Podcast – practical wisdom for everyday life. I’m your host, Justin Vacula with episode 82 – Positive Masculinity. I offer a response to a recent article from the American Psychological Association which considers traditional masculinity — marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance, and aggression — to be, on the whole, harmful. Classical Stoicism, free from unhelpful feminist ideology, maintains that all are capable of virtue and provides a framework by which all can live better lives.
Starting the new year, the American Psychological Association issued its first-ever guidelines for practice with men and boys which, unfortunately, lacked a degree of factual basis and compassion for men and boys. Instead, the document is heavily ideologically driven – write from an unhelpful feminist lens using phrases like “power and privilege based on gender,” “male privilege,” “traditional masculinity ideology,” “male power,” “patriarchal society” and nonsense question-begging phrases like “sexism exists as a byproduct, reinforce, and justification of male privilege.”
The article has an auspicious start noting that men face many challenges in society like incarceration, shorter life expectancy compared to women, being victims of violent crime, engaging in violent crime, suicide completion, educational challenges, substance abuse, ADHD, and depression, but then goes off the rails asserting, out of thin air, that “males experience a greater degree of social and economic power than girls in women in a patriarchal society” chalking this up to sexism or male privilege noting “gender imbalances in female or male-dominated professions” ignoring simpler more fruitful explanations like personality and preference rather than sexism or male privilege.
The article also refers to the outdated feminist ideology present in the Power and Control Wheel of the 1980s Duluth Model based on shoddy statistics and misleading data which frames domestic violence as a gendered issue a la ‘violence against women’ – rather than tackling a problem which impacts all types of people and relationships also recognizing the common reciprocity of intimate partner violence and even violence in same-sex partnerships which has nothing to do with ‘male privilege.’ Anger, failed communication styles, substance abuse, and other factors lead men and women to engage in violence – a better way to look at this problem compared to male privilege. Later in the article, interestingly enough, the researchers note men are often stereotyped as aggressive and violent and “male victims of intimate partner violence experience significant barriers to finding help because the domestic violence system has historically focused on helping battered women.” Also, researchers note, “men can also be the victims of abusive relationships with women.” So much for male privilege and violence as a gendered issue.
More on the ignoring of personality and preference, the article over-focuses on what they believe is socialization leading to differences between men and women ignoring biological realities which contribute to differences; the article notes, “psychologists recognize and challenge socialization pressures on boys and men to be hyper-competitive and aggressive with one another” and “boys and men have been socialized to use aggression and violence as a means to resolve interpersonal conflict”
The article is supposed to offer specific advice tailored for men and boys, but a great deal of the information is applicable to all like, “Psychologists […] are encouraged to ask boys and men questions about mood and affect and to be willing to probe more extensively when faced with brief responses” and use of “goal-setting” and “straightforward cognitive interventions to reduce ambiguity and encourage engagement.”
On two occasions, the article mentions stoicism – although with a lowercase s – meaning something different than Stoic Philosophy, the life-affirming ancient tradition I speak of here in this podcast which prioritizes a virtue-based ethic to help us better attain self-mastery, contentment, and meaning in life through virtues like acceptance, gratitude, and humility. The article mentions “male stoicism” placed next to self-reliance casting this in a negative light and “emotional stoicism” as deterring men from close relationships with other men. Further, a continuing education document related to this article notes, “the masculine requirement to remain stoic and provide for loved ones can interact with systemic racism” – an odd phrase, what is the basis for this requirement and how about the benefits of having an outward undaunted disposition and being able to maintain an inner calm in the face of adversity? Another mention of stoicism in the continuing education piece talks to clinicians with more language of unhelpful feminist ideology, “Mental health professionals must also understand how power, privilege, and sexism work both by conferring benefits to men and by trapping them in narrow roles. They should consider how stoicism and a reluctance to admit vulnerability hamstring men in personal relationships, and they should combat these forces…” Finally, the continuing education piece notes, “traits like stoicism and self-sacrifice can be absolutely crucial […] but the same tough demeanor that might save a soldier’s life in a war zone can destroy it at home with a romantic partner or child.”
Much of what the American Psychological Association laments including risk-taking, competition, stoicism with a lowercase s, and the supporter and protector roles men often take – especially in romantic relationships – contributes to a great deal of good in society. Of course, at extremes, competition and lowercase s stoicism, for instance, can be adverse, but to cast it as overall a bad thing? That’s quite an extreme move. One can take a move from the American Psychological Association’s playbook and talk about negative aspects of traditional femininity focusing on some negative character traits women may have and this exercise, in today’s society, would likely be viewed as misogynistic. Personally, I wouldn’t find this to be helpful just like I don’t see lamenting what the American Psychological Association calls traditional masculinity as being helpful. Men and women, due to biology and, yes, some aspect of socialization, have salient character traits – some, on average, manifesting in different ways like the uncontroversial notion that men are more physically aggressive while women tend to express aggression in relational ways like spreading false rumors, social manipulation, bullying, and exclusion.
Stoicism, that with a capital s, affords all with a solid framework by which to live unrestricted by feminist leanings from the American Psychological Association. While the ancient authors talk about manliness and womanliness, sometimes in ways we’d find silly like sometimes talking about the importance of a specific beard, the ancients correctly identified characteristics which distinguish men from women without using phrases like male privilege or patriarchy.
Stoicism doesn’t teach us to suppress emotions or ignore our feelings, but rather calls us to be mindful of both thoughts and feelings to overcome intense negative emotions and lead a more content life. On the Stoic model, we’re to be humble, seek help when it’s needed, and communicate with others especially our trusted friends so that we can persevere and make sense of our struggles. We acknowledge that there is a great deal of suffering in life and can overcome this by exercising virtue, finding meaning, and having willingness to take on a healthy dose of adversity rather than shying away from conflict or troubles -we’re to be courageous not only in taking risks, but also in acknowledging that we don’t have all the answers, that there’s room for improvement, and that we can benefit from help.
We’re to engage in productive ways to cope with our struggles rather than procrastinating, secluding ourselves, drinking to excess, or falling victim to anger so much so that we harm ourselves for those who wish to burn down the world will not be immune from fire. On confronting, acknowledging our emotions, Seneca writes clearly advocating for mindfulness, acceptance, and moderation, “It is not the way of human nature that a man’s spirit should be exempt from sadness, or that the wise man is not overcome by grief but is merely touched by it […] they do not abolish the passions in this way, they only moderate them.”
Marcus Aurelius, in his Meditations, mentions a manly character he learned about through his father and in other men he learned about courage; labor and perseverance; moderation; and patience. He notes his mother instilling the virtues of goodness, piety, and a simple life absent from evil thoughts and ways of the rich. These manly characters and womanly characters, again, not limited to men or women, are things to be celebrated. The Stoics rightly lament vice and corrupt ways of living encouraging people to reflect upon their habits and reform themselves – to better participate in society and to help others we must also reform ourselves and live good lives lest we be hypocrites. Again, the Stoics aren’t limiting the scope of their investigation in unproductive ways through a lens of gender. The Stoic models are available to all, so much so that modern Stoics credit the ancients with being ahead of their time for advancing equality of opportunity and not casting women in a negative light or excluding them from the teachings of Philosophy.
Here’s one passage from Seneca about that theme, how all are capable of virtue, a right application of reason attained through training, study, and self-reflection, “There are indeed differences of age, one is older, another younger; of body, one is comely, one is ugly; of fortune – this man is rich, that man poor, this one is influential, powerful, and well-known to cities and peoples, that man is unknown to most, and is obscure. But all, in respect of that wherein they are good, are equal.” Seneca reflects on differences between people and notes that right actions, no matter the person, are right actions – and all can aspire to a good life especially to endure and accept whatever chance has burdened us with. Virtue, though, is not subject to chance, Seneca notes, the rich and powerful are not some elite group who are only capable of a good life while others of less prestige are wretched and incapable of contentment or progress. He writes, “For all those things over which chance holds sway are chattels, money, person, position; they are weak, shifting, prone to perish, and of uncertain tenure. On the other hand, the works of virtue are free and unsubdued, neither more worthy to be sought when fortune treats them kindly, nor less worthy when any adversity weighs upon them.”
In closing, I must again mention, like I did in episode 67 ‘Stoicism, not Feminism’ that feminism is, overall, not a force for good in society not only for men and boys, but also is an adverse force for women. #MeToo and feminist influence in law coupled with negative societal attitudes towards men are backfiring leading men in record numbers to disengage from romantic relationships with women; to walk away from marriage; and not risk being falsely accused and overwhelmed in the court of public opinion as feminists toss away liberal notions of innocent until proven guilty and fair trials in a court of law. For even more, listen to episode 57, men going their own way with SunriseHoddie to hear from a prominent YouTube content creator about why men are choosing to lead noble lives apart from traditional romantic relationships. Rather than looking to the American Psychological Association’s recent guidelines for men and boys, let’s instead look to Stoicism as a means for improving the lives of all.
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Podcast music, used with permission, is brought to you by Phil Giordana’s symphonic metal group Fairyland from their album ‘Score to a New Beginning.’ John Bartmann offered free consultation and audio edits for episodes 51-63. Thanks to generous patrons and fans of this podcast who help support my work. Have a great day.