The myth of the “good” man

The myth of the “good” man
Image: Reuters/Cheryl Ravelo
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Where are all the good men?

That’s the question for America after a week of truly horrifying news about Harvey Weinstein’s decades of sexually predatory behavior, a few months after Bill Cosby went to trial on charges of drugging and sexually assaulting one of the dozens of women who accused him, and almost exactly a year after the United States elected Donald Trump president even after hearing him brag to Billy Bush that he forced himself on women (and women came forward to substantiate his claim).

Maybe you heard that Brad Pitt allegedly threatened Weinstein with a “Missouri whooping” after the movie mogul accosted his then-girlfriend, Gwyneth Paltrow? Still, maybe you also felt like:

Pitt’s now-much-publicized moment of chivalry stands as a tepid response within the entertainment industry to what now appears to have been widespread knowledge about Weinstein’s behavior.  Actor Rose McGowan, who says that Weinstein raped her, has used Twitter to call out men from Ben Affleck to Jeff Bezos, saying they knew of Weinstein’s actions:

Since then, male Hollywood A-listers have very, very slowly spoken out about Weinstein, though most have denied knowledge of his behavior, danced around it or, in Seth McFarlane’s case, claimed to be actually standing up to him by making this joke at the Oscars in 2013:


If you’re left with this question, it’s understandable:

The question contains the problem

Maybe the problem is, in part, the hunt for “good men,” which encourages a moral distancing that lets the rest of us off the hook. “Good men” are raised in the same culture that enforces a cone of silence around around all sorts of nasty behavior. If legendary Penn State coach Joe Paterno’s knowledge of Jerry Sandusky’s sex crimes made him a “bad man,” who else knew and said nothing? Surely the Catholic Church’s truly incredible, worldwide cover-up of molestations by priest highlights that a simple division of “good” and “bad” individuals is an onerous, impossible, and frankly pointless exercise when it comes to widespread and systemic toxic behavior. “Bad” becomes, in the end, merely a matter of degree, when “good” men remain silent, or offer generic messages of support on social media, claiming wide-eyed outrage and surprise.

“As long as we continue to make it between bad guys and good guys, as long as we keep on doing that, we’re never going to get anywhere,” NYU psychology professor Niobe Way tells Quartz. Way, who wrote Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection, works with adolescent boys, who’ve educated her on exactly how masculinity (“something we’ve created as a culture”) is socialized and reenforced. 

“It’s not just about being a man, it’s about not not being ‘girly and gay,’” she says. “What I learned from the boys I work with is that what ‘girly and gay’ means is all the things we associate with being human: to be sensitive, to be attuned to emotions, to care about relationships, to express your sadness when you feel sad, to express your happiness when you feel happy, to get excited. It literally is  linked to everything we associate with humans. And then to be a man is to not be that. The consequence of that is our culture.”

When I first began injecting testosterone in my thigh six years ago, at age 30, I learned pretty quickly that, like Fight Club, the first rule of masculinity was: Don’t talk about being a man. The second rule? Don’t talk about being a man.

I’ve thought a lot about the ways I internalized this “rule” in the years since, how it worked on me, the moments it pressured me into silence, how it suggested my silence was what kept me safe from ridicule and from exposure. In the years I’ve been asking questions about things that make me uneasy, I’ve seen that to address any troubling aspect of manhood is to risk relationships, jobs, even one’s life (I receive death threats regularly for stories like this one). 

Ignorance is not a defense

I also learned that the only available models for men to respond to injustice or insults to integrity were consistent: “Guys are just like that,” and “I’m not that kind of guy.” Most men I know, men who would definitely identify as “good,” use some variation of the latter with regularity. It’s the members of the board of The Weinstein Company claiming ”utter surprise” and calling Weinstein’s behavior “antithetical to human decency.” It’s Affleck being “saddened and angry.” It’s George Clooney, perhaps the most honest among them, calling Weinstein’s behavior “indefensible” while simultaneously acknowledging, “I don’t think that people were looking the other way; I think that people weren’t looking, because in some ways, a lecherous guy with money picking up younger girls is unfortunately not a news story in our society.”

Because it’s part of Being a Man, and because men don’t talk about being a man. In fact, no one does.

That’s why we focus on Harvey Weinstein, but not how Harvey Weinstein (or Bill Cosby, or Jerry Sandusky, or Roger Ailes, or Donald Trump) became that way. It’s easier if there are “good” men, even if they’re harder and harder to find, than it is to ask the more meaningful question, about all of us: What is going on here?

“The way to keep the patriarchal structure intact is to basically make it about an individual problem, and to isolate the problem,” Way says. “Then it’s about blaming the person, and not understanding that at the root of all of these problems is a culture of toxic masculinity, about what it means to be a man.”

Most of the characteristics we reward in men, like dominance behaviors and individualism, are easily twisted when behaviors we reward in women, like compassion and collaboration, are eradicated. Most violence toward women globally is committed at the hands of men. In the United States, men (and especially white men) are more likely to kill ourselves and we are more likely to commit mass shootings. In British Columbia, we account for 80% of opioid deaths, and our shorter life expectancies may very well be because of characteristics associated with masculinity, like taking undue risks and refusing to ask for help.

“Toxic masculinity does not just make it difficult to be a man,” Way says. “It’s premised on an idea that says if you’re human, you’re not a man. That’s the premise of our entire society.”

With a single year’s time, Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump, though accountable for their individual actions, all have managed to highlight the extreme end of a continuum of behavior that is a cultural epidemic in how we train boys to be men. ”If everybody starts truth-telling, that power structure is in trouble, as Harvey Weinstein is finding out,” Ways says. “We hate truth-tellers actually. That’s why we make things, as a culture, only about the individual—because that saves the power structure. Everybody gets to stay comfortable.”

I am not interested in being comfortable

Long ago I quit letting the idea of “real men” have any power over me. Now, as colleagues and friends continue to reveal ever-worse stories of “shitty media men,” harassment, and rape; as I reflect on my own childhood sexual abuse, part of a legacy passed on through my family that stopped with me; as I think about my nephew and the world I want him to grow up in, I have grown tired of looking for “good men,” or even asking where they are.

Niobe Way suggests bigger, better questions: “What are you doing in your life that’s actually keeping the status quo?  “How are you keeping silent in terms of things you see?” 

I now see that there are no “good men,” as narcotic as the idea of a rarified type may be. I believe that there are plenty of us who are capable of standing up to guys like Weinstein, and not just on behalf of our girlfriends (or while referencing our daughters). There are men who stand up for the legitimate expectations of decency at work, and at school, and among groups of parents, and with our friends, fighting sexism and toxic masculinity for the sake of our collective humanity. 

Not because we are “good men,” but because no one gets to be “not that kind of guy.” We are, all of us, responsible for cosigning the culture we create.