I address this article to a random person I met on a night two weeks ago. Because you remind me of someone called Gary whom I met earlier, I will call you the same. I’ll describe how we met.
I am leaving a party at a club. Before I reach my bike, I stop to say goodbye to a friend, who is standing with a boy she’s met earlier that night. I make idle chat, wish them both a good night, tell the guy I think he “seems like a cool dude!” which, regardless of the perhaps awkward phrasing, seemed like a nice enough sentiment to me. This, however, is not how he takes it.
Darkening his brow and readying his power-stance as well as he can, the dude faces me and kind of growls: “Well, I can also be very scary if I want to!”
Come on, Gary, is stuff like this really necessary? Have you been watching Jupiler ads again? Why are people like this? Why all the constant dick-measuring contests? Why all the silly, aggresively overdone handshakes, the one-upping, the inability to lose gracefully at sports? Where’s the need for all of this?
I try not to see my sex as the thing that determines most who I am: that is – when someone attempts to describe ‘David’, I sometimes like to think that, should you only be allowed to either mention what I enjoy on the one hand and my sex on the other, that the prior option would tell you more about who I am as a person. This does not mean that my sex does not play any role in who I am; merely that I don’t see it as the most important part of what makes me me.
Nevertheless, regardless of my self-perception, the world is not really going to care that much about what I think, and concepts of masculinity will still remain an incredibly important factor in how many boys, dudes, and men will form their self-perceptions. While it may be a good thing to take rigid and outdated ideas about masculinity with a grain of salt, it also remains necessary for me to recognize them as a real cultural force making large waves in the world, and to treat them accordingly.
So, taking the necessary yet temporary starting point that I am in the first place a dude: what can a dude like me do? For one, I could stick my head in the sand and stubbornly stay my own course, but this won’t really accomplish much besides me feeling real good about how right I think I am about the overblown level of importance we place on sex. On the other hand, I could have a good, more practical think as to what new generations of men can actually do to steer the tide of masculinity-thought in another direction.
Though writing and speaking out (like this) are of course one way to steer the tide, I think that living by example, in another way, probably has even more strength. There’s a lot of tired myths and tropes about men striving for dominance in interactions with others, or about men simply being bullish – many of which are still alive. I mean – what’s more powerful than living a counterexample, right? One of the things that I think we need, then, is to live counterexamples to these silly, bullish types of masculinity.
Another thing is that we can try to shift popular ideas of what ‘coolness’ looks like – meaning, right now, it is often considered cool to be ‘dominant’ when you are a man, regardless of the fact that ‘dominance’ most of the times means engaging in empty dick-measuring contests that don’t really help anyone: at best, choosing to participate in this kind of behaviour simply makes clear to everyone in the room what an ass you are. At worst, you are time and time again repressing all your emotions until you are fifty, when you buy a way too expensive car, switch your wife for a much younger girlfriend, and finally realise that you actually would like to have a good think now and then.
This is my counterexample. I believe in simple kindness, and in making an effort to take others into account; that is, recognizing that others are there, and making a regular personal effort to practice a sustained openness to their presence. While this may sound as though I am demanding that everyone becomes Mother Teresa, I am not; I most of all mean to say that it is nice to be nice.
On Fridays, a friend and I visit each other (we alternate houses each week), We go for a (short) run, make the other a nice breakfast, and spend about an hour or two shooting the shit. We share thoughts, feelings, experiences, stories and ideas – whatever has been on our mind. There is no competitiveness, only breakfast and talk. And it’s nice.
So when a dude like Gary decides to take what could have been a pretty pleasant farewell and attempts to turn it into some kind of dick-measuring contest, consider me a bit miffed, and more than a little saddened. Tired, also.
So Gary, please. Put your dick back. Let’s have a coffee, shoot the shit, watch a bad movie. None of this is necessary. All this confrontational nonsense is pretty stressful for me, it seems to me that it’s pretty stressful for you, and frankly, life is stressful as is already.
 First and foremost, I am a burrito-lover. All other descriptors are no more than footnotes.
 I feel uncomfortable using the word ‘men’ here, as it feels like a very heavy, connotation-laden word which could make any sentence quickly spiral into three or more different plausible meanings. Also, the word ‘male’ often feels to me as though we are talking about mice in a lab.
 I concede, I am a huge, soft, hippy.
 I am lazy
Unfortunately we live in a world where Hemingway’s novels are taught as lessons in how to be a man, about what masculinity means. In 2006, Yale University published a book by a Harvard professor (his name, befittingly, is Harvey Mansfield) which was called “Manliness”, in which the unfortunate professor takes a few lines of Hemingway to exemplify “masculine” prose. Even literature isn’t free from masculine posturing. Funnily enough Hemingway’s masculine pretensions, which were no more than self-publicizing, got to him in the end: as many have noted, he was essentially destroyed by his own persona.
It is unfortunate that you should use the word “cool”, a remarkably shallow term, as the history of it will attest to. A recent book by Joel Dinerstein, called The Origins of Cool in Postwar America, seeks to find how cool “became the supreme compliment of American culture”. While originally a politicized term, applied to black Jazz musicians who needed “coolness” to hide from racial cruelty, it has now been “commodified” and robbed of its original connotations. As Joseph Epstein concludes in his review of the book, “Undreamt of in the philosophy of those who have ardently strained after the appearance of cool, courage, kindness, generosity, and natural refinement are the things that are, and always have been, truly cool.”
Dinerstein eventually defines modern “cool” as a “method for negotiating identity in modernity through popular culture”. This is exactly the problem: “cool” is closely linked to popular culture, which deceives and lies. Elvis and Marlon Brandon were once icons of cool, but they grew fat and jaded and dated. James Dean is mentioned as “cool”, but was an unremarkable actor who would have embarrassed himself similarly later in life had he not died at 24 (always a great career move). Every supposedly “cool” writer, such as Jack Kerouac, was mediocre at best. Film characters considered cool are often ridiculous, and otherwise immoral: Clint Eastwood couldn’t wait to get away from his ludicrous tough guy roles, while hundreds of men watch Fight Club thinking Tyler Durden is a hero. I recommend not “negotiating identity” through cartoonish movies that have no relation to real life.
When I read this passage about Emerson, written by his travel companion, and I think “Here is someone who was far from cool, but also a great writer, and a great man”:
“There was never a more agreeable travelling companion: he was always accessible, cheerful, sympathetic, considerate, tolerant; and there was always that same respectful interest in those with whom he talked, even the humblest, which raised them in their own estimation.”
PS: I advise against using Mother Theresa as an example of a great, virtuous person.