Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Masculinity, Chivalry, and Caring

I don't have any solid support for what I'm about to say - consider it the musings of someone who has been gathering some very anecdotal evidence. I'm sure this has been studied in greater depth, and maybe I've been shown to be wrong, but it's been on my mind, so here it is.

Most of the service organizations I see are run by women. In my high school, the environmentalist club, the two youth chapters of the local service clubs, both the Christian and the Muslim clubs, and basically everything that was community-oriented was run by girls. This pattern has followed me through life - of every club, project, program, and service organization I know of, the majority are either run by girls, or their operations are vastly more dependent on their female membership than their male membership. Males seem generally unlikely to run an organization that they won't personally benefit from.

Men don't seem to care, in the broadest sense of the term - we (the reader may have already determined that I am, myself, of the not-so-fair sex) don't take leadership positions in matters of community service, we aren't passionate about issues. Those are vast generalizations, but from personal experience, the number of girls who will speak passionately to me about some social problem or another vastly outnumbers the men I know who would do the same thing. Political office seems to be the exception, but, I suspect, for the wrong reasons.

Has it always been that way? I don't know. Maybe men have always been more self-interested creatures. Maybe we are more interested in power as an end in itself than we are in morality, in altruism, in effecting change. Maybe that's why we write such great histories about one another, and let the heroines of history go unsung.

I think though, that there have been subtle changes in the way we in Canada view gender, and the way in which gender roles are presented. To care seems synonymous with empathy, with an emotional attachment to the cause or to the subject. People who care don't seem to be people who are characterized by aggression, ego, power, competition, detachment, and insensitivity. I don't say that those are all desirable qualities, and yet if you asked people to rate each of those qualities as being masculine or feminine, they would probably each come out as being masculine.

Now, this is going to seem very old-fashioned, but stand on the porch with me and don't let my rocking-chair distract you: I believe that men and women have, in the aggregate, different ways of looking at the world, and that these differences are so entrenched in any civilization that we can conceive of that they may as well be biological. Those bad qualities I just mentioned, the ones that are masculine, for most adult males they are probably hardwired. That's not to say that all men are inherently overbearing, aggressive, detached, self-interested animals, or that there are no women who exhibit all those traits. I am talking about the averages, in relation to one another.

So when we are asked to care about an issue, we are presented with what seems like a feminine proposition. To most men, it seems almost like a homosexual tendency. I don't mean that in a necessarily pejorative sense - I just mean that "caring" doesn't seem to fit in with their perception of themselves, doesn't interest them, and doesn't seem sustainable in the long term.

Yet male heroes who strove for the sake of the community are not hard to find in history. As a Muslim, I am charged with understanding and emulating the immense legacy of several such men. In both the West and the East, however, we have invented this idea of chivalry - a historical concept that we have, in the age of feminism and women's equality, relegated to the mists of time. Maybe it never really existed. Maybe we really did invent it, just to paper over the faults of barbaric eras gone past.

Even if that is the case, though, chivalry did represent caring as a masculine quality. The knight, the mujahid, the Confucian Noble Man each expressed an understanding that his interests were subordinate to that of the collective, and a uniquely masculine sense of responsibility for those more vulnerable than him. Chivalry is not incompatible with ego, power, aggression, detachment, and insensitivity - it just forces their application into different spheres of life.

Men today do not value chivalry. In the Muslim world, what was once chivalry has been, in the darker corners, twisted into a self-interested excuse for misogyny, a way to blame women for failings that belong entirely to men. In the West, chivalry seems quaint, predicated on the notion that women are fragile and vulnerable, when everyone is supposed to believe that men and women are absolutely equal in all spheres of life, and that "femininity" and "masculinity" are outdated, harmful, unfairly prejudicial concepts.

This is all so much hand-waving, based on nothing more than my own biased perception of the world. Maybe more women are self-absorbed hedonists, and more men are devoted to altruistic causes than I give credit for. The reverse has, unfortunately, been my experience. I think if we truly want to mobilize young men to be involved in issues facing their communities, and facing our species as a whole, we need to rekindle a uniquely masculine ethic that will motivate them.

We need to rediscover a masculine way to care.

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