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The Vanishing American Male - April 25, 2001

By James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.
contributor to

Be careful what you wish for. You just may get it.

For years now, a segment of society has been searching for a way to alter the male psyche in hopes of eliminating, or at least mollifying, traditionally masculine behavior. Egalitarians of all stripes banded together in long-term pursuit of a goal. Institutions from across the cultural spectrum were enlisted to bolster the effort. The ultimate objective - to reshape the very essence and notion of what it means to be a man.

Expressions of what a man is and what a man does in society can be seen when examining some of the common characteristics of cultures throughout the world and across time. From the onset of recorded history, the presence of male traits has been essential to the cohesion and perpetuation of the family, and by extension, the community. Changes in science, industry and technology have not diminished the relevance and importance of many conventional male components.

But something happened on the road to societal enlightenment. Behavior that was typically associated with young males in their formative years began to be classified as unacceptable. A world that grew increasingly prone to reject absolutes and tout openness was now ready to squelch any and all male tendencies with an unyielding fist.

The king of all authoritarian rules has emerged in the form of the "zero tolerance" program. Male speech and behavior, in both child and adult interaction, have been curtailed by broad and politically correct definitions of sexual harassment. The proverbial strong, silent Gary Cooper archetype has been supplanted with the supple, sensitive, teary-eyed lummox.

Males of the Cooper model have always exhibited certain key characteristics. They were respected for their physical strength, dexterity, courage, emotional balance and acumen and, as a result, were relied upon in times of need. Though not unique to the male gender, the virtues of courage, honor, commitment, fortitude and loyalty were ably modeled by traditional men.

On the contrary, emotional weakness has historically been perceived as incompatible with the leadership mantle, and rightfully so. Decisions rooted in feelings tend to cultivate a spirit of frailty, whose constitution will inherently lack self-control, discipline and restraint. With such a dearth of substance, an individual will lack the force needed to inspire, motivate and direct others.

Some feminist have realized society's growing reluctance to embrace the stalwart male image poses a serious problem and have actually indicated that our culture is in the midst of a "crisis in masculinity." Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Susan Faludi, in a book entitled Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, opined that broad social and cultural forces were destroying the very sense of what it means to be a man. She spoke in terms of an empty "ornamental" masculinity that discards once esteemed male virtues. Even as a feminist, Faludi saw that men were being burdened by the same kinds of cultural stereotypes that once encumbered women.

And so it is, in the present climate, refreshing and encouraging that the United States Supreme Court recently ruled that a single statement by a school district supervisor did not constitute sexual harassment. Tyranny by lawsuit, particularly in the form of sexual harassment, has sanitized the workplace to such an extent that ill-defined "off-color language" has been completely banished. Unfortunately, colorful communications of all sorts have been chilled as well.

In its policy manual for employees, a major corporation warns against the use of "elevator eyes." Minus a video, the words themselves are but a small example of the difficulty in defining sexual harassment. Now men and women are reluctant to offer complements if they relate to appearance or clothing or even attitude. In its recent unanimous, unsigned decision, the United States Supreme Court restricted sexual harassment to an incident that is "so severe or pervasive so as to alter the condition of the victim's employment and create an abusive working environment." This is consistent with the common law notion that one cannot sue for emotional distress unless the conduct qualifies as "outrageous."

Sensitivity is an admirable trait, and empathy is neither inconsistent nor at odds with traditional masculine qualities. But remember the goal? It seems that men relinquished more easily than expected. Many changes are already in place. When the reordering of the male disposition is complete and a pale vestige of the former self is all that remains, our culture will not only miss him. Virtuous society will be lost without him.

Reproduced with the permission of . All rights reserved

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James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.

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