Male initiation in post-modern culture

Who Teaches Us to Be MenTo our peril, it often seems like men have two speeds—neutral and pissed. This circumstance is consequent to the simple fact that men are no longer taught to access their emotions. The empowered, mature masculine has given way to what we might think of as a passive adolescence. The larger context of this is men no longer have an experience of initiation from boyhood into manhood. Plainly put, boys will be boys and men will be boys. There are few to teach boys to be the kind of men who live out the mature masculine in their daily lives.

Women in our culture have unavoidable, biologically-based rites of passage acknowledged by—and blended with—their overall socialization. The momentum created by this allows women to be socialized in a manner that points them toward a clear path of womanhood, defining them even as they define themselves.

Men, since the Industrial Revolution, have lost the elements of socialization that spoke to similar, socially-based rites of passage. With the father, or father-figure, working outside the home and the tradition of apprenticeship all but lost, boys have coincidently lost the path to their own manhood.

There is, for males, no sense of place, and so, no point of reference for an authentic sense-of-self, other than that sense-of-self attached to the roles laid out as socially appropriate. Fold into this the mixed messages of gender socialization fostered by the feminist movement, and men find themselves not only not knowing where they belong, but also not knowing who they are, or even whom they are supposed to be.

This consequently feeds into the sensibility of covert male depression that is so prevalent in post-modern society. Since depression in men often presents as anger and irritability, the sullen, cave-dwelling stage of male middle adolescence becomes a way of life, hindering the movement toward the mature masculine. This stuckness in passive adolescence becomes a way of being in the world—and the template for the neutral-or-pissed-boy/man.

The global continuity of female social development and socialization presents us with an, at least, perceived sense of group momentum. Observation of adolescent males and females often reveals that, while a “clique culture” undoubtedly exists within both genders, there is something of a homogeneous subtext across female groups that does not necessarily exist within male groups.

When boys individuate, they tend to split in a dramatic way. This can lead to a sense of social isolation not necessarily felt by females. No matter the extremity of the differences between female groups there is a shared bio-social experience that is unavoidable. Here, again, we have fodder to feed the covert male depression/no sense of grounded social identity motif that drives the underlying passive adolescent in later life.

How do we foster a sense of progressive social development into manhood that also promotes emotional intelligence in a culture where apprenticeship is dead, confirmation is a gesture, the bar mitzvah is about the money, and organized sports teach us more about winning and not losing than about leadership and teamwork?

Given the strictures imposed by cultural momentum, it would seem that, just as re-parenting is sometimes necessary to divest ourselves of the motifs engendered in childhood, a program of male self-initiation is in order. It suggests that, as there are few or no points of reference to define us, we must—a la Erik Erikson, who took his nom de guerre referencing the idea that he was his own creation—in order to find ourselves, define ourselves and not allow ourselves to be defined.

So, what kind of man do you want to be? It’s your choice…

© Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved