I’m sorry, I don’t agree that exploring masculinity means undoing it

In this month’s Therapy Today, the trade mag for counsellors and psychotherapists, there were three letters referring to November’s cover piece by Manu Bazzano. One in support, two not. This polarisation seems characteristic of where we’re at as a profession and a culture. I felt uncomfortable with Bazzano’s piece. So I wanted to spell out why in a way that I hope encourages productive debate, rather than try to squeeze it into a short letter.

Read Bazzano’s article here. He is an accomplished therapist who facilitates menswork and publishes books. I am not calling into question his sincerity or desire to help men, but I do feel that some of the ideas he expresses here could be counterproductive in that project. The standfirst underneath the headline “Sons of our fathers” goes: “Exploring masculinity in counselling means undoing masculinity”. I couldn’t disagree more with the judgement inherent in that.

Despite Bazzano suggesting that children might be better off with absent dads, Therapy Today went with a cover image of a boy with his father

He begins by suggesting that a photo exhibition of graffiti showing swastikas and penises taken in the US after the election of Donald Trump “confirms the link between powerlessness in men and their embrace of neo-fascist ideologies”. Since my school days I’ve seen swastika and penis graffiti in public spaces like toilets and derelict buildings, where the photographer Richard Misrach captured his images. Using Trump perjoratively in the first paragraph seems designed to show us that Bazzano is on the right side of history. What’s his intention? To tell men off (forgetting about female voters for a moment) for voting for Trump? And if so, are we comfortable about branding those who resist postmodern values through the ballot box “fascist”?

Even if this were true, will labelling people negatively help them? Or do we only want to help people who agree with us? Is our work as therapists about re-educating and chastening our client base? Could the tone of this article discredit our profession in a democratic country where a majority of voters have chosen what Bazzano might call “fascist” phenomena like Brexit and Boris? Applying the label “fascist” can be used to shut down a healthy intra-psychic process and inter-personal debate. Combined with the increasing influence of political correctness and progressivism (a political philosophy that advocates radical social reform), one could argue it created the conditions for the advent of Trump, Brexit and Boris in the first place.

Bazzano writes: “A different version of powerlessness is found in privileged men whose nastiness against women is the justified target of feminist fury. Their views are unreconstructed, their understanding of intimacy non-existent, and their involvement in politics presents a threat to democracy.” He doesn’t explain how these men threaten democracy or how, on the contrary, they might represent the value systems and preferred policies of their supporters. Collins Dictionary defines unreconstructed as “unwilling to accept social and economic change”. The implication is that holding traditional or conservative values should bar them from participating in politics. That doesn’t sound too democratic.

He goes on: “Coarse masculine narratives still dominate.” Where? Course masculine narratives are de facto outlawed. People who voice anything close to them (such as the Google engineer James Damore and Nobel laureate Sir Tim Hunt, employed by University College London) don’t just lose their jobs, they become untouchable. “The posturing of strongmen across the globe is pathetic; their characteristics are so noxious as to resemble caricatures.” Here Bazzano might be said to be referring to characteristics of the warrior archetype. He may, in part, be right, but the trouble is he would prefer us to deconstruct and abandon masculinity rather than deepen our understanding of how and why it goes wrong in order to help more effectively in our clients’ healing.

Research suggests that between one and four per cent of the population have psychopathic traits. That includes women, who display the traits in different ways to men. It’s a small minority of men in any case. Even if we wanted to, it’s unlikely that we could abandon the deepest structures of the psyche; on the contrary, seeing leaders who embrace their masculinity, and who fight and win for their families, communities, constituencies and countries can arouse feelings of inspiration, pride and optimism about the future. It all depends on your perspective. One could argue that vilifying others is itself a projective shadow warrior behaviour.

In King Warrior Magician Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine (1992), Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette suggest there are four mature masculine archtypes: the king (energy of creative ordering), the warrior (energy of non-violent aggressive action), the magician (energy of initiation and transformation) and the lover (energy to connect men to others and the world). Mature masculinity is not abusive or domineering but generative, creative, and empowering of the self and others. The archetypes can be integrated and balanced against each other as part of a healthy individuated psyche, but trouble starts when they are repressed. A shadow warrior can emerge, operating on a bi-polar sado-masochist axis (actively punishing others and passively punishing self) instead of a more integrated responsibility-discipline axis (best articulated in contemporary life by the author, podcaster and former Navy Seal Lieutenant Commander Jocko Willink, whose motto is “discipline equals freedom”).

Perhaps it’s worth asking again: what are we, as therapists, trying to do? Are we trying to help people acknowledge their shadows and integrate them, become more whole and spacious, and thereby support wholesome communities and societies? That could be important work, especially now, given that identity politics seems to be working in the opposite direction. This kind of work has been understood for more than a century. Moore and Gillette write: “Jung believed withdrawing a projection of the Shadow and owning it as a part of ourselves requires enormous moral courage. He also believed that what we will not face within our psyche we will be forced to confront in the outer world. So, if we can claim our Shadow’s qualities, and learn from them, we defuse much of the interpersonal conflict we would otherwise encounter. People who have served as the screens for our Shadow’s projection become less odious, and more human. At the same time, we experience ourselves as richer, more complex, and more powerful individuals.”

Bazzano says that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg facilitates a corporate technostructure that’s “built on rigid binary identity, chauvinism and defensiveness”. Quite apart from the diversity policies of Google et al, there’s evidence to the contrary. In 2015 Zuckerberg was overheard promising the German leader Angela Merkel that he was working on censoring content amid complaints from her government about anti-immigrant posts during a year when Merkel admitted a million immigrants. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Patreon and other platforms have been following his example, banning people they deem to have unnacceptable views such as the British anti-Islam campaigner and journalist Tommy Robinson, who had more than a million Facebook followers and 413,000 Twitter followers. He still has 373,000 subscribers on YouTube, which has acknowledged that Robinson’s videos don’t break the law, although it has demonetised them and barred him from search results. His videos now come with a content warning and users can’t comment on or like the videos.

The American public intellectual Sam Harris, whose podcast has 422,000 subscribers, deleted his own Patreon account, accusing the crowdfunding membership platform of “political bias”. Others began leaving the platform after it barred the conservative YouTuber known as Sargon of Akkad. Google, the world’s largest search engine, has been shown to curate a cyber reality that seems aligned to Bazzano’s political sensibilities — in The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race, Identity (2019) Douglas Murray demonstrates this (just try a Google images search for “white couple”). Zuckerberg himself has admitted that Silicon Valley is an “extremely left-leaning place” but says he tries to make sure his firm doesn’t “have bias in the work that we do”.

Bazzano says he has located the archetype for Zuckerberg-style “misplaced male innocence” in the ancient myth Jason and Medea. In it Jason is sent by his king on a quest for the golden fleece and achieves his objective. Bazzano suggests that in doing so “he is a fraudster, practised in decieving others and himself”. Bazzano weighs Jason’s “cool rationality” against Medea’s passion and loyalty and concludes that “Medea is so much greater than him”. Having had a look at Medea’s behaviour one might wonder. She promises to help Jason only if he takes her with him and marries her, rather transactional for true love. In the escapade she murders and dismembers her own brother, but relieves herself of blame through a ‘cleansing’. Jason honours his promise and marries her, but when he leaves her she takes vengeance by murdering her own children (the pain their loss causes her does not outweigh the satisfaction she feels in making Jason suffer). And she kills his new wife. Jason dies lonely and unhappy. Medea marries again, but when her husband’s long lost son returns she tries to kill him too.

A possible interpretation of the myth is that in achieving his objective Jason demonstrates the warrior archetype qualities of discipline and responsibility, staying focused yet detached in a combat situation (another familiar Jocko Willink trope). However Bazzano frames the story as a typical example of men’s subjugation of women and of reason’s subjugation of passion. Yet the story equally shows the spiteful shadow side of women to the detriment of children, men and other women. In fact the myth begins with Athamas taking the goddess Nephele as his first wife. They have two children, the boy Phrixus and the girl Helle. Later Athamas leaves Nephele and marries Ino. Ino jealously plots her stepchildren’s deaths. Nephele appears to the children with a winged ram with a golden fleece and they escape on the ram over the sea, but Helle falls off and drowns in the strait that’s named after her, the Hellespont. Phrixus makes it to Colchis where the golden fleece remains.

Is Jason’s story a typical example of the theme of reason’s subjugation over passion? Perhaps. Although it is worth noting that the Greeks were not committed to such a project, in fact, quite the reverse. In The Snake in the Clinic: Psychotherapy’s Role in Medicine and Healing (2016) Guy Dargert emphasises their concern about maintaining a balance between subterranean, intuitive feminine wisdom (symbolising the psyche or the unconscious) and the “cool rationality” which Bazzano views negatively. Dargert teaches medical students about the blind spot in modern medicine — the psyche — which is what we might say Medea represents in the myth. He argues that modern medicine often frustrates the ability of messages from the psyche to be heard because it values the removal of symptoms over a holistic framework that accepts pain, disease and death as part of a wholesome life. If we have lost this balance in medicine and male-female relations, it wasn’t always thus. In the Jason and Medea myth, just as in the ancient temples to Asklepios, the Greek god of healing, which were the first hospitals, both were needed. Today masculine and feminine energies do seem out of balance, which we can see playing out in the rise of single parent families and the discordant atmosphere in the public space between women and men, stoked by misunderstanding masculinity.

Bazzano tells us “paying lip service to ‘feelings’ goes hand in hand with paying lip service to feminism.” I wonder whether, in a feminised therapy word, we are saying there is a correct and an incorrect way for men to feel. Could it be that not all human beings process emotions or heal in the same way? He says the men’s movement has “expired”, its message having been “incorporated, producing a new breed of men whose nuanced versions of masculinity are wholly complicit with the status quo”. I’m not sure whether the new breed of men know much, if anything, about their inheritance. Many believe that masculinity is an affliction that must be purged. Many feel embarrassed by the idea that masculinity is a gift, just as femininity is, and that the two work beautifully together when we remember our ancient wisdom of how to live in balance, mutually supporting and honouring each other.

Bazzano states: “We need to learn from queer theory, from transgender and non-binary stances that have mounted formidable challenges to static notions of identity over the past few decades.” There is no evidence that these stances have generated happiness, on the contrary it could be argued that the rise of intersectional, identitarian politics has bred dischord. These theories have not so far successfully explained how their different interest groups can live in mutually supportive and balanced ways beside each other. He goes on: “My identity as a man is bound up with manhood, but greater strength comes from accepting fluidity rather than from defending male identity.” I realise Bazzano is sincere and I would want to facilitate this process where appropriate in my clients whatever sex they are. But I’m not sure why we have to defend or attack male identity, can’t we simply support and explore it?

He ventures: “We need to decide, as therapists or/and menswork facilitators, whether our response to a man’s identity crisis is to bolster gender stereotypes or to nurture the ‘male crisis’ until it reaches the threshold of transformation.” I don’t want to bolster stereotypes, but I do want to bolster understanding of our biological inheritance, with an evolutionary understanding of masculine archetypes as set out by Martin Seager in his chapter in the Palgrave Handbook on Male Psychology (reviewed by me here).

I struggled to understand what point Bazzano was making here: “While the ‘absent fathers’ explanation may be statistically true, it tends to shift responsibility towards individuals, overlooking, among other things, the impact of class and ethnicity that is evident, for instance, in the mass incarceration of Black men in the US. Moreover, it assumes that ‘a father in attendance’ within a conventional family unit is the best thing for a son’s wellbeing. This view universalises the Oedipal family, overlooking the fact that even though, as Judith Butler explains, ‘the dependency of the child is not political subordination in any usual sense’, it does make the child ‘vulnerable to subordination and exploitation’.”

He goes on: “The ideological backdrop to the absent-father argument is the tenacious belief that the conventional family safeguards civil society, and that ‘culture itself requires that a man and a woman produce a child, and that the child have this dual point of reference for its own initiation into the symbolic order’. This belief is hard to shake; it is canonical in modern anthropology, a discipline revered in psychotherapy circles.” Is it hard to shake because it is the most basic building block of our existence? It is unclear why anyone should want to dismantle the family. Is there any evidence it would be in the best interests of children or adults?

Bazzano states: “A more fluid sense of self in a man in crisis makes space for listening to the concerns of others, for opening up to the hurt expressed by women and the struggles of transgender, gay and non-binary people.” The implication being that men with a traditional masculine identity cannot listen to the concerns of others or acknowlegde hurt expressed by women and the struggles of people who are not heterosexual. This appears to me to be unfounded and sexist. Bazzano does not cite evidence to support these assumptions. He continues: “Queer theory teaches us that fixed notions of heterosexual masculinity around which the conventional family is constructed imply the mourning of homosexual desire.” Is this really how we want to work with families in the therapy room, by introducing complicated ideas like this that don’t serve any obvious goal and, on the contrary, add confusion?

He goes on: “To become emancipated (from emancipare – to be sent out) is to be freed from the control of parents/guardians.” There is a mountain of evidence showing that all children benefit across a wide range of life chances if they are supported by both parents. He continues: “We need to ask: ‘Can the phenomenon of absent (or prodigal) fathers ever be a blessing in the life of their sons, rather than the curse it is conventionally purported to be?’” Bazzano doesn’t say how old he was when his mother died, but he does say that communication was difficult with his father after her death. Would he have preferred to have no father in his life? That seems to be what he is proposing for other people. I wondered, would a completely absent father be better than a father who is grieving and isn’t great at communicating with you, but who still provides for and protects you?

About his client, Bazzano writes: “Adam’s reflections reminded me of James Joyce, who, in his writing, transubstantiated his father’s drunken incoherence into wit, gregariousness and fundamental goodness of heart. I am reminded too of two other Irish writers, Oscar Wilde and WB Yeats. As Colm Tóibín has written, all three had fathers who were absent; all three sons found ways to recreate their fathers in their work, but they needed solitude and distance from them to do so.” This is an interesting idea, certainly worth exploring more. He continues: “This [the above idea] is counterintuitive in a therapy world currently smitten with attachment theory and, at times, disturbingly uncritical of the traditional family.” A lot of scientific evidence shows that secure attachment optimises life outcomes. The therapy world, like mainstream culture, is disturbingly uncritical of the consequences of broken families and schools run by predominantly female teachers. That is to say a lack of meaningful engagement with boys and young men to develop and harness their masculine instincts for the health of themselves and their communities is now considered ‘normal’.

I agree with Bazzano that “our task in therapy is, partly, to help clients create themselves – to find their autonomous voice.” I disagree that “in a man, this must mean emancipation from the strictures of stereotypical masculine narratives learned in the family”. This second sentence is full of assumptions: what if we can help a man understand and nurture his masculine instincts in a healthy way? So rather than judging the client negatively for perceived stereotypical attributes, we nourish him with a way of working that supports and engages his masculine archetypes? And the final part about family: too often boys aren’t learning anything at all about masculinity in the family because their dads are absent, which is a large part of this problem. For boys, growing up with an absent father has a particularly deleterious physical and emotional effect, as demonstrated by Warren Farrell in The Boy Crisis (2018), right down to a cellular level (boys’ telomeres, which are responsible for replicating cells, are frayed and shortened to a greater extent than their sisters’, which over time contributes to shorter life and greater health problems).

I want to end on a more positive note. I am interested in engaging with therapists with different views and values in a respectful way in the interests of furthering the profession and better serving the public. I believe that discussions like these are an important way to bring the public in on the debate. I’d like to finish with these lines from Bazzano, which I wholeheartedly agree with: “Rather than power over others (a sign of weakness), genuine power is the cultivation of vulnerability – the ability to sustain the intensity of the world, its beauty and its pain, without falling apart or resorting to conceit. True power is the power to be affected.”