0534 – becoming a man means accepting responsibility

(started 25 sept 2015)

When does a boy become a man? In some societies- tribal cultures in particular- there are very explicit initiation rituals and ceremony. You’re a boy, you go through the initiation, now you’re a man. And perhaps there’s a later initiation where a man becomes an elder.

Before there were widespread public schools, boys were apprentices- and you probably became a man when you finished your initation.

I get the sense that in some ways, masculinity and manhood, in the classical sense, is fundamentally economic. In tribes or nomadic bands, you become a man when you begin to hunt, begin to provide food, become able to provide for a family. A child is fragile (literally). It’s a dependent on its hosts, like a parasite. [1]

Modern civilization is interesting. It seems to have been so successful at providing for itself that it doesn’t need as many Men (in the economic sense) as before. And this can be a good thing- it allows for the care of the disabled, it allows for the development of art, poetry and so on. [2]

Aside- it’s interesting to think about the role of art in difficult times. Lee Kuan Yew was a man who appreciated literature, but when he became Prime Minister of Singapore he insisted that poetry was a luxury that we couldn’t afford. I suppose what he meant was that we couldn’t afford to spend tax money on it when there were more life-and-death concerns like housing and healthcare.

At the same time I think it’s quite well understood that art helps people cope with life. I’m thinking of how LKY read poetry to his wife when she was bedridden, and of that heart-rending rendition of Home by the visiting choir at LKY’s wake. And reports of how the first acts of healing following 9/11 were people singing in the streets. Karl Paulnack’s speech.


I spent some time asking people about their thoughts, mostly along the lines of, when does a boy become a man? There were some joke answers, and some questioning-the-question. I’m well aware that masculinity and manhood are social constructs- I’m not looking for some absolute answer, I’m looking to understand what people think about manhood themselves, whether it be ideas they inherited, reacted against or outright rejected. It’s still relevant, since we live amongst people. [3]

(continued 8 feb 2016)

I’ve come to think that manhood is largely about being able to take care of business. Being able to create a structure and a context for yourself, and for the people around you. I know that it’s 2016 and there are all these ideas about how “manhood is not about X”, “manhood is not about y”– for instance it’s supposed to be damaging that we perpetuate ideas like “boys don’t cry” or “a man must be physically strong”. But when I examine it myself I find myself asking, what is the spirit of those ideas, rather than the letter?

We have the luxury now of being very inclusive, so a lot of older ideas don’t seem to make sense anymore– seem needlessly harsh, cruel and so on. But I think those old ideas evolved out of a different time– times of scarcity and hardship. Physical strength absolutely mattered if you needed it in order to make a living, in order to put food on a table. Whatever your social justice politics or beliefs, you wouldn’t marry or advise someone you cared about to marry a physically weak person if that meant (as it must’ve been centuries or millenia ago) that you were probably going to starve. Even the very idea of love and romance is quite a luxury, in a sense.

It’s not too difficult to imagine how it might all go to hell really quickly. It just takes some devestating circumstances– war, disease, pestilence, floods. Once people don’t know where their next meal is going to come from, the resulting anarchy will almost definitely revert to more straightforward, conventional heirarchies of power.

But of course, that’s not why I asked this question. A modern collapse of civilization is an interesting thought experiment, but the selfish reason I explored that idea was to make sense of my own value as a person. People will say nice-sounding things like “everybody is valuable”– sure, each human life is a universe by itself, but that doesn’t make everyone valuable. There are economic realities that we live in. It’s a little frustrating when they don’t get properly acknowledged or discussed, but that itself is the reality of the meta-game to that question.

Ultimately, manhood involves knowing when to break the rules, how to look out for yourself, how to take care of yourself and of others– and that includes your own emotional state, and that in turn means crying when necessary.


[1] Only I guess parasites are unwelcome, while we’re wired to love and want children to pass our genes on to or something.

[2] Though that’s definitely reductive. Art predates agriculture and industrialization. And I believe in the earlier days artists were supported by wealthy patrons. It was also a way to make a living.

[3] Hell, even in the hard sciences– a thing might be objectively true in terms of science, yet not be recognized as valid until PEOPLE deem it so. So as long as we live amongst people, as people, social constructs are relevant and significant and worth understanding.

I don’t want to delve too deep into the meta-analysis- the objective of this whole pursuit is to better understand and appreciate the relationship I have with myself and my own self-identified. It is enough to realize that all of this is social construction, while also recognizing that as social beings we live within social constructs.

So a thing can be a social construct AND still be valid. In fact, you could go so far as to say that almost everything outside of hard sciences derives its validity from social constructs.

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