Today’s world once again demands strength and the ability to defend oneself. But these manly virtues have almost disappeared from the lives of boys and men. Modern men should be empathetic and caring – this has been required for fifty years. What are the implications of this “feminist trend” against the background of the war in Ukraine, asks an emeritus professor of political sociology in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, we bring you parts of his text.
For the first time since 1945, there is a major war in Europe. By attacking Ukraine, Putin wants to destroy the European balance. But other things are also being destroyed: perspectives, former certainties, values. These include a specific image of men: since the 1970s, the agenda has been to ‘disarm’ traditional masculinity and its roughness, poker face and competitiveness. ‘Soft masculinity’ – empathy, caring and non-violence – took over.
Today, this image of men is beginning to crumble. The war in Ukraine requires the ability to defend oneself. There is talk everywhere of the need for strength to defend one’s values. But where is the ability to defend to come from when its ethical and socialising foundations have been so easily abolished?
The basic qualities of traditional masculinity, such as manliness, strength, leadership, predation, the will to defend oneself or the willingness to take risks, have disappeared from most areas of education, school or educational work. They have been rather unreflectively placed in the historical context of patriarchy, hegemony and (male) violence. That they belong there too, and that they have caused much damage, is indisputable; but at the same time they have built civilisation, averted danger, secured progress.
This masculine role of efficiency and toughness has also demanded restraint from men themselves, such as the renunciation of feelings and recklessness towards their own health. In his novel The Plague, Albert Camus describes how in the 1940s a terrible epidemic broke out in the North African town of Oran. The novel’s several all-male main characters are thus faced with the existential alternative of flight or fight. Those who choose to defy the contagion-Dr. Rieux, Tarrou, or Rambert-risk their lives for the collective value of saving human order, culture, and community. The masculine principle in Pestilence is summed up in qualities such as courage, caring, willpower, responsibility, kindness, risk-taking, boundary-crossing, renunciation, altruism, chivalry, honesty, and modesty in the form of putting aside one’s own needs.
The break with this differentiated image can be seen in the early 1970s, when feminism – especially in its vulgar form – ruthlessly dismantled the male subject in the struggle against patriarchy. Suddenly, men were presented as criminals and rapists, “bad men” and “great women” everywhere. This profound change in the image of men in our culture has not yet been sufficiently perceived or explored. Misogyny has long been an acknowledged problem that is constantly brought to the public’s attention; this is not true of misandry, the dislike of men.
Contemporary pedagogy has uncritically embraced the feminist trend with its dichotomy of exclusively female victims and equally exclusively male perpetrators. Some time ago, a major German Sunday newspaper published a Berlin mother’s complaint about her six-year-old son’s school experiences. She described how the boys ‘read stories about bees in German, drew butterflies in art class and performed veil dances in gym class’. Then, because the boys showed their dissatisfaction in class, they were constantly terminated in the common room or sent home with a note.
Role models that are important for boys’ development and orientation are systematically discredited – they include heroes, pioneers, conquerors and adventurers. Areas of life and work that are labelled as masculine are progressively devalued, even though they are essential to society, such as technical professions in particular. Boys are re-educated discreetly or even quite openly. A kindergartener who brings a wooden sword to kindergarten is sent home because of his “dangerous” toy: this is also a real example of educational life in Switzerland. Anything to do with a boy’s display of strength is viewed with suspicion, forbidden or even punished by the female teaching staff. When girls go to “Daughters’ Day” dressed as “real” men in traditional male jobs, such as car repairmen, boys are taught to sort laundry or distinguish cleaning products. The fact that boys learn these skills is good, it helps them to cope with everyday life and is a good precondition for a gender democratic division of labour in later partner relationships. But these are exercises that take place in the context of the gradual demasculinisation of boys.
Scared and disoriented
When boys and men are presented with “only” feminine qualities and virtues as a clear contrast, there are consequences. Systematic one-sidedness creates insecurity, disorientation and anxiety. Men, for example, are moving out into the world later and later, half of 25-year-olds still live at home, and 14 per cent of those over 30 still live with their parents. A major 2007 Sinus study on life plans, role models and attitudes to equality among women and men in their twenties confirms young men’s fears about the future. The report states, “Men lack positive role models for navigating their own new gender identity.” And further: “Men suffer in their subjective frame of mind and feel defensive: the script is now being written by women.” As a result, they look to the future full of doubts, shy of commitment and unwilling to marry.
Thus, with the deconstruction of traditional masculinity, the very qualities that are essential for the maintenance and defence of our politics are in danger of being lost: the willingness to take risks, the will to fight, the ability to defend oneself and to put aside one’s own needs in favour of those of society. To recall these masculine virtues is not to call for a return to timid masculinity, to manhood as it was obligatory to live in the 19th century or as Vladimir Putin performs it today – in all the ridiculous awkwardness of bare-chested poses somewhere in a taiga.
But unfortunately, as part of today’s “disarmament” of masculinity, the baby is also being thrown out with the bathwater. Behind Putin’s embarrassment lies a masculinity that needs to be re-discovered. Aggressors cannot be converted by the love of peace; at the same time, they must stand up with strength for the freedom of their own community. And with determination – and therefore with the hard qualities of traditional masculinity. Otherwise, men à la Putin will soon gain the upper hand everywhere.
Walter Hollstein is professor emeritus of political sociology.
This article was translated from the Czech version published at časopis Přítomnost. The article was originally published at Neue Zürcher Zeitung.
published: 8. 8. 2022