As men move forward towards change, just what determines the definition of a good man?
Since becoming involved with this marvellous magazine I have been contemplating men’s issues with renewed intensity. One question I keep coming back to is ‘What is a good man, or a real man or a civilised man?’ I think in this community we can agree on some basics: he is only violent in self-defence, treats women as equals, respects life and the environment. But these are of course my values based on my socialisation, which I am trying to promote. The sad reality is that in many cultures rape, violence and abuse are acceptable within cultural guidelines. We do not have to go too far back in our history to see much the same thing.
No matter how I look at it, ‘good’ seems to be culturally determined. So I will bite the bullet and stand up for my own cultural heritage and make a few arguments in its favour. What heritage is that? Well, I cautiously offer up democracy. According to the World Health Organisation there has not been a famine in a democratic country! I think starvation, torture and political imprisonment are bad things and they’re all less common in democratic countries. So I argue that being a ‘good’ man means standing for democratic ideals (at least as a starting point). Sound weird? Democracy is not about majority rules – it’s about a process of participation in power, ideally with equal representation.
In the average home this should not be too hard – the ‘good’ man standing for democracy will ensure that the process of ‘hearing the voice of the people’ will occur – from the smallest child to the oldest adult. Experience or strength may mean that sometimes one person may have to act on behalf of another or make a decision for them (‘No, son, you may not stick that fork into the power point’). The good man will of course act in this way (even against his own interest) for the other’s good (i.e. I may not be able to get the new car I want but health insurance for my ageing parents matters more). However, the good man does not assume that he knows best and where he is uncertain he will allow others to take their own risks, learn their own lessons. He will try, whenever he can, to ensure that everyone is involved in making the household decisions and of course he will attempt to ensure that everyone has all the information they need to do so.
When I think about Steve Kermode’s article, ‘The Problem of Being Male’ and its ideas about other cultures’ ideals of masculinity I start to get a vision of a modern democratic renaissance man; this vision is added to by the men I work with at Uncle Byron Bay. Such a man’s warrior energy is in service, not to any particular person, party or set goal, but to a process. Like all warriors he is willing to sacrifice his own interests, in this case to fight for the right of others to have their say, to have their voices not only heard but represented and acted upon.
Such a line of reasoning leads inexorably to condemnation of our government’s treatment of refugees, to condemnation of anti whistle blower legislation and of secrecy in government in general. It leads to subtle and complex meanings for ideas like honourable and ‘right action’ because there are so many grey areas, so many different points of view to consider. And for my last point in this complex set of ideas I believe that the modern renaissance warrior must be committed to education.
Without an educated populace a democracy is terribly vulnerable to manipulation by those who are not committed to democratic process. Egalitarian societies demand everlasting vigilance from their people. As committed modern warriors we will join committees, write letters to papers and politicians, get involved with parents groups and vote for the party that promises most to our schools. Most warrior work is negotiation and preparation. In a very real sense the descent to violence is a sign of failure, not just of the individuals involved, but also of every man in our society. Every time someone is belittled, abused, assaulted or in any other way disempowered it indicates that we as a community of men have somehow failed to hold and maintain the rules of our social universe. We have failed to be the pillars of stability on which our loved ones and strangers can rely. We have failed to maintain that commitment to the never-ending process of democracy, the process of keeping things fair, of ensuring equity, of looking after the interests of the weak.
Such concepts of manhood (and indeed womanhood) are of course common. We see them all the time in the movies. But the style is different to what I describe, as the hero is usually an action man. In the perspective of manhood that I derive from – a commitment to egalitarian democratic principles –– the hero is more a man committed to process, to encouraging others, to staying in the background, to study, to humour, to joy, to education and to fun.
I deeply believe that one of the most urgent tasks confronting us is to redefine the ‘good man’.
Published in byronchild/Kindred, Issue 3, September 02