Unhealthy masculinities

EUSEBIUS MCKAISER | The chokehold of shame and rage

This is the second in a series of three essays on unhealthy masculinities: the sins of our parents, their connection to our adult selves and pathways to recovery

21 December 2021 - 09:08
By Eusebius McKaiser
The kind of anger and rage that are at the heart of unhealthy masculinities have led to needless heartache, bruised egos, broken bones, and even wars. Stock image.
Image: 123RF The kind of anger and rage that are at the heart of unhealthy masculinities have led to needless heartache, bruised egos, broken bones, and even wars. Stock image.

The capacity to feel shame, and to be successfully shamed by others, is important for any well-adjusted person to live well within a community of people.

Imagine just how differently our politics would have been if all politicians were capable of being shamed. Alas, way too many of them are shameless (quite literally) and the consequence is a dearth of ethical leadership.

To feel shame is to be self-conscious, in a very awkward and even distressful way, of having done something wrong or evaluating yourself in a negative way or judging yourself as implicated in wrongdoing. You feel ethically stained — and responsible for being stained — and busted. That is not necessarily a bad thing.

If I bust you with your hand in the cookie jar that you should not be dipping into, then you damn well should be feeling ashamed.

This matters because your experience of shame at least signals to us that you have some recognition of what is right and wrong and can be embarrassed for falling short of the minimal standards of ethical decency. So, though shame does not always get a positive reputation, its place in our overall landscape of moral emotions is important to understand and to preserve.

Rage is the cumulative effect of one’s life. But it is almost luck of the draw whether you channel your rage in productive ways or not.

If no-one felt shame, society would crack.

What bothers me, however, are instances when shame does not serve us in productive ways but sets us on a path of self-destruction or leading us to diminished lives.

In the first of this current series of three essays on unhealthy masculinities, I had teased out the wounding effects that the sins of our parents have on us deep into adulthood.

With the best of intentions, we set out to not repeat mom and dad’s mistakes, and to role-model better ways of being healthy moms, dads, lovers, colleagues, friends. And yet, despite these noble intentions, we often end up repeating the best and the worst of what remains lodged deep inside our cellular memories.

Shame and rage, in particular, are emotions that can run rampant in us men in ways we might be unaware of, which does not stop the destructive effects on others around us. It is important to get a grip on the chokehold of shame and rage.

We shame boys — children — from a very early age into accepting unhealthy masculinities. I wrote previously about Will Smith recounting in his autobiography how, at the tender age of nine, he felt like a coward for witnessing his dad beating up his mother, and not protecting her from the body blows in that moment.

He kept that feeling of cowardice to himself for his entire life and only a couple of months ago told his mom about that memory and the accompanying self-judgment he had been carrying in him all his life. His dad went to his grave not knowing what Will had felt since he was nine.

That is how deeply we scar children, even when we think we are doing our imperfect best.

Oprah, in conversation with him about this brilliant book, reflected on how insane, of course, it is that the young Will should feel like a coward when it is the two adults in that room that ought to have protected the innocent child from the brutalising effect of being a witness to domestic violence.

Our social memes about masculinity are so unhealthy, however, that even as a kid, little Will would have felt shame, would have felt that he had fallen short of the minimal ethical standard of “protecting women”, never mind the fact that a parent-child dynamic ought to override — and quash — any such (unhealthy) masculinist fantasy.

There are countless ways in which our daily lives are filled with feelings of shame that shape us into the dangerous adults we become, adults that go on to break others as an expression of our own fragility.

School, and not just home, provides many opportunities for lifelong shaming. Yet school doesn’t get the critical attention it deserves because school can also be so joyous and momentous in terms of the opportunities we get to realise our potential under the care of some excellent educators.

We have incredibly shocking ideas that we have normalised as acceptable ways of socialising boys into becoming 'men'.

I used to both love and hate school summers. On the one hand, physical education during the summer months meant being on the athletics field and down at the school swimming pool, away from the classroom, enjoying the fresh air, whereas normally we would be in the school hall for phys ed. On the other hand, the nightmare of Wollie (our phys ed teacher) forcing all of us — by which I mean including those of us who cannot swim — into the swimming pool was a horror you anticipated when you packed your swimming costume before you had even left home that morning.

To this day, I cannot understand why former whites-only schools were so useless as to not reflect on the implications in the early 1990s of having a more diverse student population. Why not teach us to swim?

Graeme College Boys’ High was no different. Teachers went about their business as if every black kid who now attended surely learned how to swim when we were young, and probably imagined we too had spent holidays at fancy places like Kenton-On-Sea and other coastal escapes. But that was not so.

The result of this failure to interrogate the pedagogical responsibilities of “multicultural education” is that those of us who had been the guinea pigs were to experience many shaming moments.

That said, at least in my cohort, almost all of the black boys could not really swim, so the shame was a group shame. That made it easier to bear, silently.

The thought of a white boy not being able to swim, however, was simply beyond anyone’s comprehension. Which is why, to this day, the image of a burly white boy, Kevin, hanging from the edge of the diving board above the diving pool, every single boy laughing while staring at him shitting himself, is etched on my mind. You could see and feel his shame, not just in that moment, but for the rest of our school days. In any post-school reunion or reminiscing about our school days, when Kevin’s name comes up it is solely in relation to that day down at the swimming pool.

We have incredibly shocking ideas that we have normalised as acceptable ways of socialising boys into becoming “men” — like ordering them to walk up a ladder and to then dangle from a diving board. It is a short step (pardon the pun) from that kind of scarring to what would normally have happened to Kevin in the army. Little wonder many white SA men have undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder from their army days, unleashing it on family, friends, lovers and colleagues.

Thank goodness conscription for young white men ended while we were in high school. High school cadets were bad enough, and that was just a curtain raiser for the main event.

Several decades later, a scene could easily be playing out in which Kevin or Kevin’s doppelgänger is either violent towards his children or a helicopter parent who never leaves their side. It wouldn’t take a psychology genius to trace the connections to the many opportunities for unnecessary shaming at school, and how those shapes who we become later in life, and how we go on to relate to others, permanently.

And, of course, the boundaries between home and school are not all that neat. In a painfully incisive response to my first article in this series, a brilliant young teacher shared with me the patterns he had already observed in many boys at a township school where he teaches in Makhanda.

Many of the older boys in grades 11 and matric, in particular, are aggressive and filled with rage. They bully the younger boys, and many are already sexually assaulting girls, especially the younger girls in grades 8 and 9. When he investigated what is going on in the lives of these rage-filled teenage boys, it was unsurprising to discover that a large number of the boys are being raised in single-parent households with an absent dad.

Tragically, even when there was a dad physically present, that dad was — is — often abusive towards both the mother and the children. As with the young Will Smith, the children at his school come to school with shame and cowardice, not having managed to stave off dad’s violence. Except, the Will Smith story looks worse in this poor Makhanda neighbourhood. These boys at Mary Waters Secondary School do not have comedy or hip-hop careers as outlets for the pain, neglect and violence. But for a handful of the boys, the rest are at constant risk of shame and cowardice quickly becoming anger and rage, and in turn expressed as bullying and even sexual assault.

No teenager is born with rage. Rage is a response to the facts of one’s life. Rage is the cumulative effect of one’s life. And when you act out that rage, anything can happen. Some kids happen to escape into books or into a musical instrument. But it is almost luck of the draw whether you channel your rage in productive ways or not.

Can you blame the scarred youngster who cannot cope with parental abuse and becomes abusive themselves? That is what they see. That is what they were role-modelled. Of course, they do not know better.

It takes a minor miracle to be the exception to the self-destructive norm you see all around you.

When we talk about a crisis of many masculinities, we really just are picking out a world in which boys and men are filled with uncontrolled rage in a myriad of ways. The #NotAllMen brigade will want to resist such a bald generalisation, but I have observed the naturalisation of anger and rage, experienced it, performed it myself and certainly benefited from it, most of my life. Just because I am male.

The only reason I even say “most of my life” rather than “all of my life” is because I was a very effeminate child until the end of primary school and boys who are seen as colouring outside the boundaries of rage are both punished for inverting the natural order of things, and do not benefit from the participation in the networks of anger.

I started participating once my voice broke, and testosterone flooded my body in high school. The verbal bullying stopped immediately, and I took up my place within the patriarchy, simultaneously burying my same-sex teenage desire very deeply.

The kind of anger and rage that are at the heart of unhealthy masculinities, however, have led to needless heartache, bruised egos, broken bones, and even wars. We need to seriously get a healthier grip on both shame and rage.

Sometimes male-centric rage does not announce itself as such. I recounted in my last book the story of a law firm in Sandton that had asked me to coach a staff member who was on their way to becoming a partner.

The firm’s leadership felt that her communication skill set was not quite up to scratch, even though her core analytical ability and subject expertise were comfortably above the requirements for partner promotion. Yet when I assessed her, so that I could work out what the right exercises would be to improve her communication abilities, I discovered that there was absolutely nothing wrong with her speaking manner, or general communication skills.

What the men in the firm really meant to say was, “She is not shouty and aggressive, Eusebius! She is way too feminine. She LISTENS for a very long time! PLEASE help her to sound like you did in a university debate tournament.”

In other words, the template of the angry male was the one deemed to be the objective standard of leadership including a compelling speaking style. I declined any money from the firm, and recommended they let me help them rethink the firm’s standards of “good communication”.

I never heard from them again. That was many years ago.

So, rage is not only about intimate partner violence. It is not only about “corrective” rape. It is not only about two men stabbing each other.

It is about the ways we speak, shout at other drivers in the traffic, believe in HR templates of leadership that reward anger and rage as the hallmarks of certainty and of taking charge, it is about “making fun” of those who lack power to speak back to us in the workplace or in the locker room, it is about thinking the world owes me something just because I was born with a penis.

Not only is much of the rage we perform itself the result of being wounded by our parents, but it is also often simply shame and cowardice that has transposed into that anger and rage.

Like all emotions, anger and rage have a place. It is appropriate, for example, to get angry when you see or experience oppression. Anger tells me that something is wrong with the world, and I am moved to help fix it.

The kind of anger and rage that are at the heart of unhealthy masculinities, however, have led to needless heartache, bruised egos, broken bones, and even wars. We need to seriously get a healthier grip on both shame and rage. Nothing less than the recovery of our full humanity is at stake.

— This article is the second in a series of three. McKaiser is a contributor and analyst to Sunday Times Daily and TimesLIVE