Telling All

The phenomenon of the male public apology hides the truth about men, shame, and silence

Miao Xiaochun The Martyrdom 2007

Global wardming may rank as this decade’s hot topic, but the spectacle of public men making public apologies has grabbed almost as much media attention. From comedian Michael Richards’s racist out-burst to Isaiah Washington’s slur on gays to clutches of surprisingly randy Republicans caught pants down, each year outstrips the last in the “Year of the Apology” sweepstakes. The chill of male silence has apparently thawed, and full masculine disclosure is set to join naked self-portraits on MySpace and no-holds-barred reality shows as prime exhibits in this new era of confession. We seem to be entering a time many women have longed for — that golden age when men finally “talk about their feelings.”

But so much self-exposure also reminds us that when little is concealed, little of substance can be revealed — a solid argument, maybe, for holding your tongue. And for most men, what could be easier than silence? Although I pride myself on being a man who can express what he feels, in fact I often don’t. My sons and daughters can’t guess what dad’s thinking but they know for sure he’s thinking something: feelings trail over my face like a news crawl, punctuated by raised eyebrows and furrowed forehead.

Sending mixed messages like these, stewing in silence, or apologizing in public isn’t a wide range of options for communication. But obscured by the media coverage of kiss-and-tell is a flurry of more thoughtful offerings on what it feels like to be a man. At first men seemed more comfortable talking to a woman, as journalist Susan Faludi found when she interviewed a wide cross-section of men about their failed dreams for her classic portrait, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man. And last year columnist Norah Vincent ventured deep into the hearts of American men when she disguised herself as one, a gender-bending experiment that Vincent, a lesbian, describes in her provocative book, Self-Made Man.

Faludi and Vincent empathetically channelled the feelings of their correspondents, but male writers themselves are now taking the plunge and appropriating the personal memoir to write intimately. Typical is the recently published essay collection What I Meant to Say, edited by Globe and Mail feature writer Ian Brown and alluringly subtitled “The Private Lives of Men.” Brown had already blazed a trail through the North American male interior in his own book Man Overboard, but this time he decided to use Dropped Threads, the hugely popular anthologies of personal essays by Canadian women, as his model.

The personal memoir is a literary genre traditionally dominated by women, and indeed the writers in Dropped Threads seem completely comfortable unzipping their psyches in print. But Brown was worried that memoirs (especially male) don’t top men’s must-read lists. Female readers, on the other hand, might be more receptive, so he asked his contributors to imagine they were writing for women. This made marketing sense since women buy most of the books anyway: the game plan was to pitch the book to them and hope it bounced to the other side of the bed.

A subway ad for What I Meant to Say played on the stereotype of male silence and addressed women directly, cheekily posing the question “Men: Isn’t it Time They Explained Themselves?” On my way to work one morning I found myself staring at this ad and getting pissed off at the assumption that I had untold guilty secrets, and at the implied message to all men: “Shape up, assholes!” But the ads were in sync with the book’s apologetic title and its ambiguous meanings — “What I really meant to say when I said what I said” or “What I wanted to say if I’d said something but I didn’t.”

Marketing aside, what did the writers end up revealing? Of the twenty-nine essays in the collection, most are about love and various aspects of sexuality. If I omit love and limit the topic to sex, the number drops to ten. But when I open the three anthologies in the Dropped Threads series, out of more than a hundred essays only eight by my count tackle sex head-on. Unlike their female counterparts, who cover topics ranging from sock-darning to glass ceilings, many of Brown’s contributors seem compelled to drive one last stake through the strangely resilient mindset that sex is shameful.

Brown prefaces his own chapter on forays to strip clubs with the battle cry “I wanted to be an enemy of shame.” His intentions are honourable and his candour admirable, but shame in its various elusive guises — sexual, familial, marital, paternal — still haunts many of the essays in What I Meant to Say. Unpacking this is a challenge because it seems there’s an inherent contradiction in trying to overcome shame by talking or writing about it: shameless soul-baring is at best embarrassing to all concerned and at worst self-serving. As the English cultural critic Steven Connor wrote in his essay “The Shame of Being a Man,” “Shame is never so shameful as when it owns itself.” Shame is a sham, Connor implies, and should properly be considered “the secret name of pride.”

Viewed in this light, traditional male silence appears to be less a matter of manly resolve than a shamefaced cover-up for something they’d rather not admit to — and sex is the most likely culprit. Maybe it’s that male thing about always having sex on the mind and always looking for it but not getting it the way you want it. If so, I can relate: a husband and father of four, deep into middle age, with an active superego and Shame as my middle name, I’m the kind of guy who takes ten years screwing up the courage to enter an adult video store, only to pick the least explicit disc on the rack.

Even admitting that much makes me shudder. It’s surprising that in this supposedly enlightened age sexual shame is so hard to eradicate, but the theme is nothing new. In Les Confessions, a tell-all classic from the libertine eighteenth century, Rousseau describes the erotic joy he felt as a young boy when he was beaten by his female guardian. In his later love affairs, he longed for a repeat performance but couldn’t bring himself to express that desire to a woman: “I have never, during the whole course of my life, been able to force myself, even in moments of extreme intimacy, to confess my peculiarities and implore her to grant the one favour which was lacking.” Elsewhere he reflects, “It is the ridiculous and the shameful, not one’s criminal actions, that it is hardest to confess.”

Rousseau was bound in chains of sexual shame forged by the Christian tradition that sex is acceptable only for procreation. The authority for this warping of Western culture goes back to the iconic moment in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. The myth then says that “the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons.” In falling from innocence into knowledge, the first thing Adam and Eve knew was their nakedness: suddenly they were vulnerable and felt the need to hide what most evidently made them different. The Bible doesn’t actually say that Adam and Eve felt shame about being naked or sexually exposed, or that humanity should be tarred with original sin. But myths are what we make of them: later Christian commentaries focused on Adam and Eve’s shameful disobedience, a shame so all-embracing it tinged their nakedness and sexuality as well.

If Adam and Eve did feel shame, most likely they blushed, which would have been only human — in fact, Darwin and Nietzsche (among others) have claimed that of all the animals, only humans blush. But the physiological changes that accompany all shamed responses, sexual or social, reveal more ancient evolutionary origins. Humans have a primal, gut reaction to shameful exposure. We freeze, our heartbeats slow then rapidly accelerate, we blush — all physiological reactions that point to shame as a survival mechanism like the fight-or-flight reflex. Many creatures, pinned by the gaze of another species and recognizing that their lives may be at stake, halt in their tracks and go on high-sensory alert.

Humans participate in this abrupt reframing as well, but they add an extra dimension of self-consciousness to it: “Shame is by nature recognition,” Sartre writes in Being and Nothingness. “I recognize that I am as the Other sees me.” Suddenly seeing yourself through someone else’s eyes and not liking what you see, sometimes to the point of self-loathing, is the essence of shame. And the fact that shame is intricately entwined with looking may make men, so influenced by the visual, more prone to the emotion.

The human self is fragile, so the trigger of shame doesn’t have to be dramatic or overtly hostile — just talking to adolescents can make them blush, and an offhand comment can redden an adult’s face. Thirty years ago, I entered an out-of-town restaurant owned by an acquaintance. He welcomed me and offered an ice-cold beer, evidently proud of being able to slake my thirst on a hot summer day. I don’t like beer that cold and, as I waited for it to warm, I told him how in Munich they sometimes serve cold beer with a thin glass tube of hot water, which you leave in until it’s exactly the temperature you want. “That’s interesting,” he murmured, and looked away.

I was mortified and blushed deeply: I saw myself as I imagined he saw me — insensitive and self-important. Although he may have dismissed my comment as a momentary faux pas, I still shudder at this memory — and that lingering self-disgust is also a sign of shame. Each recollection, even of such glancing exchanges, revives the original feeling, sometimes more intensely.

But once the shameful moment has passed, I want to be a better person — cleaner, purer, not stained by original sin. I want to work harder at building up a solid wall of good deeds to imprison and hide the worthless self. So there’s another side to those fig leaves — they don’t just hide genitals, they modestly divide the world into private and public. Keeping the private(s) hidden frees the public self to enter the world and work in it. The mortal curse of banishment from Eden was, after all, hard labour — Adam toiling to raise thorns and thistles while Eve must “labour” painfully to bring forth her offspring.

According to anthropologist David D. Gilmore in Manhood in the Making, a cross-cultural study of masculinity, making the world a better place — in effect, for Western cultures, making ourselves worthy of paradise, the heavenly Eden — is a crucial and almost universal aspect of being a “real man.” In most of the societies he studied, Gilmore found that manhood requires not only procreation and providing for and protecting one’s family, but also nurturing society. “Sacrifice and service to others” as a defining characteristic of manhood is “a fact most men acknowledge, privately,” notes Brown, citing Gilmore’s work, “but it is also a fact about which men have been shamed into silence.”

And no wonder. The shame of men is visible everywhere — real shame, not celebrity meltdown. Across North America, jobs — and male employment — are disappearing from what Faludi terms a “masculine” manufacturing-based economy, while job creation surges in the new “feminine” service economy. Dropout and failure rates for males in university are rising sharply, and graduates from medical and law schools are more likely to be female by a significant margin. Popular culture is saturated with negative male images that range from stupid and incompetent (Homer Simpson, Peter Griffin from Family Guy) to violent and misogynist (most slasher flicks and male rappers). Hard-boiled yet sympathetic men like the eponymous doctor on television’s House are a rare commodity. As for public service, forget the noble ideals that Gilmore documented — the manhood script for the average Western dude calls for bringing home the bacon (or part of it) followed by beer and the digital box.

In his essay on shame, Connor summarizes this trend by noting a wide-spread belief that “to be a man is in and of itself to fall short.” Connor himself says he’s “ashamed of the advantage of having been a man, and of its arrogant privilege and prospects,” not to mention masculine “stupidity and selfishness and certitude and pettiness.” Most of all, he’s ashamed of “the violence that is inseparable from being a man,” reflecting the common view that if only men would stop fighting, raping, and pillaging, we’d all be better off.

To plead that you’re not one of the rapers and pillagers doesn’t cut it either. Dropped Threads includes a horrific account of an extremely violent rape and, as I read it, I find part of me identifying with the rapist. Don’t get me wrong: I can’t imagine raping, but as a man I can’t divorce myself from the rapist entirely. I can’t make him not me and self-righteously condemn him as a raging pervert. The evidence of the man’s anger against women is undeniable, but the rapist’s desire is also a reflection, however distorted, of men’s blind desire to fuck their brains out whenever they can.

How did it come to this? Even when my daily life hardly justifies the feeling, why is it that I’m ready to accept “the shame of being a man” while others carry on, oblivious? In posing the question I can see the error, if not the outright folly, of assuming that individuals like myself and Steven Connor — privileged, class-defined, of a certain age, and with access to a public forum — can speak for anyone except ourselves. But I do believe that many men who would never admit to shame might, with a little prodding, recognize it in themselves. A short luge-run through two centuries of gender relations, starting with the Enlightenment, may explain why.

At the start of the eighteenth century in Western culture, man — the biological male, not mankind — was the measure of all things. Women and children were considered to be diminished or eccentric versions of a man. Women’s legal status and even the common understanding of their biology reflected this world view: some medical texts treated the female genital and reproductive organs as if they were the same as the male, only upside-down. Gender as we know it didn’t exist in law and politics: when Rousseau wrote that “Man is born free but is everywhere in chains,” he meant man, period.

By envisioning man liberated from his chains (both sexual and political), and by sanctifying the rights of the individual, Rousseau and other Enlightenment thinkers created a dilemma — if all men should be treated equally under the law, what about those “lesser” men, i.e., women? Picturing Liberty as a half-naked woman storming the barricades during the French Revolution of 1830, as Delacroix did in his famous painting, wasn’t enough. But the early Victorians weren’t ready for a complete equality of the sexes as championed by early feminists like Mary Wollstonecraft. Instead, there evolved the concept of “separate but equal” spheres of influence: women would rule the private hearth and home (or as much as men would let them) while men ruled in public. Legal parity, of course, was another matter.

As Jean Bethke Elshtain notes in her cogent history Public Man, Private Woman, the consequences of this shift in male-female relations were profound. Until then, even though men were the actual perpetrators of murder, rape, and pillaging (as they still are), women as lesser men were implicated in the complex causes of violence: the Devil was the source of evil, but men and women were equally original sinners. Once the line between public and private was drawn according to gender, the private world of women, apparently void of violent acts, became morally superior to the black deeds men had to commit in the realm of politics and commerce. In the words of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a leading figure of the nineteenth-century women’s rights movement, “The male element is a destructive force, stern, selfish, aggrandizing, loving war, violence, conquest, acquisition, breeding in the material and moral world alike discord, disorder, disease and death.” With minor rhetorical adjustments, Steven Connor has internalized Stanton’s view of men.

But the remedy of the suffrage movement was not to have women enter the public world themselves and set matters right. Instead, they wanted the vote as a form of moral leverage on the men in power. Rather than denying this, or acknowledging a feeling of shame as a result of their indictment by women, Victorian men, in public life at least, tacitly accepted it as a reflection of their true nature. Let men be amoral curs; as long as they retained the legal and political upper hand, the more enlightened among them could support the suffrage movement without having to confirm or deny its damning portrayal of their gender. Some were not so sanguine. The philosopher Thomas Carlyle mused, “The old ideal of manhood has grown obsolete and the new is still invisible to us, and we grope after it in darkness, one clutching this phantom, another that.”

The nineteenth-century idea that the role of women was to inspire men in power to noble deeds evolved into the twentieth-century post-feminist wisdom that men should clean up their act by becoming “more like women” — valuing relationships, nurturing, openly expressing feelings, and acting communally rather than individually. By encouraging these traits in the raising and education of male children, we assume that Western society will end up with men who commit fewer sins than their fathers and forefathers.

The verdict is still out on the experiment in feminizing men — as might be expected, since the goal requires nothing less than a male paradigm shift. A father can nurture a baby boy from birth, feeding him and focusing loving attention on him in ways we associate with caring mothers. He can also raise a boy to reject traditional stereotyped values without alienating him entirely from his culture. And even without the benefit of a more enlightened childhood, some men are willing, albeit reluctantly, to give it a shot: consider television’s Red Green and his men’s group with their mantra “I’m a man. But I can change. If I have to. I guess.”

One difficulty with this shift is the assumption that men are the problem and that only by becoming more like women can they become part of the solution. This perspective pushes the gender issue to a deeper level in the male psyche — if nothing about being a man can redeem him, what’s left? The fact remains that for every man willing to change in this way, another finds it shameful to cultivate “feminine” virtues.

Redefining men the masculine way was the hallmark of the short-lived men’s groups late in the last century, which never quite became a movement. The most successful of the lot was led by the American poet Robert Bly with his redemptive vision of the “wild man.” Bly tried to avoid knee-jerk responses to feminism and was careful not to blame men’s predicament on their shaming by women. Instead, he urged support for traditional fathering and the male mentoring of young men in an attempt to reintegrate traditional qualities of manhood that had become conspicuously absent in modern society. A decade later, what seemed like a good idea on paper hasn’t played out in the real world.

These groups accurately identified what Bly described as the “wounding,” and at times crippling, effects of Western culture on male self-esteem. But they didn’t tackle the central, enduring myth that men still grip the levers of power and rule the world. It’s undeniable that legislatures, boardrooms, and billionaire lists are predominantly male, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Men have played these leading roles longer than women, so more rehearsal time gets them the star turn, but women will soon catch up and start replacing them, for better or worse. Increasingly power resides not with individuals, male or female, but with corporate and political entities whose strategies make gender irrelevant.

The perception that every man has a share in this worldly power doubles our burden of shame. Not only are we shamed by our own sense of wrongdoing or absence of doing good, we are shamed by the reality that the power we apparently wield, and are expected to wield, is a travesty. In Stiffed, Faludi compares this impotence to the power that the women’s movement gained, rightly or wrongly, by confronting men as the enemy. The same tactic of confrontation, she writes, “is peculiarly unsuited to mounting a challenge to men’s predicament. Men have no clearly defined enemy who is oppressing them. How can men be oppressed when the culture has already identified them as the oppressors, and when they see themselves that way?

“Far from holding the reins of power or letting them slip from their fingers, millions of men in Western culture never hold them at all. Perfectly double-bound, they yearn for a meaningful life, wrestle with the definition of masculinity, and don’t have a clue where to look for the answer. Ultimately, unlike women, whose historically disadvantaged legal status fuels activism on their behalf, nobody speaks for these men — except, perhaps, divorce and custody settlement lawyers.

Freud famously wrote, “What do women want? ” He never wrote, “What do men want? ” presumably because he thought we all knew. But do we? Whatever private satisfactions an individual man or woman desires, in the public world of society, law, and politics, there’s no reason to think men and women would speak out differently. We all want, or at least say we want, justice, equal opportunity, and equal rewards for equivalent labour. Marx forged his utopian vision when confronted with the horror wreaked upon family life by the Industrial Revolution; he believed the vision was achievable but, for most of the world, little has changed since.

So what is to be done? The transformative energy of the sixties has virtually disappeared, and the project for social change is at ebb tide, pooling only in the heroic individual efforts of a June Callwood, a Roméo Dallaire, or a Stephen Lewis. The Kyoto Protocol aside, we’re left with oddities like the controversial 2005 Spanish legislation that took a quirky step toward a better world by requiring men and women to share household chores, as well as the care of children and elderly family members. Unfortunately, with media commentary focused on the 50-percent-male contribution rather than on the equal contributions of both sexes, the law appears to shame men by assuming they don’t generally do their share (undoubtedly true), then adds injury to insult by threatening them with legal sanction if they don’t comply.

Lost in the ensuing furor has been the fact that the law does address one of the most fundamental issues between men and women today: who does what domestic work (and how much, if anything, they get paid for it). By redefining traditional masculine and feminine roles and articulating those roles as jobs to be done and recompensed, potentially volatile debates can be defused.

The legislation also raised interesting questions about how to pay women for the inequity of pregnancy and the unique labour of childbirth. Once our runaway reproductive technology delivers the inevitable baby farms, liberating those women who choose to have children but who do not want to get pregnant and give birth, Spain won’t be the only country looking for answers. And then there’s cloning . . .