What does it mean to be a good man? The election of US president Donald Trump, and his subsequent inauguration, has led many of us to worry about the example that he is setting for boys and young men now coming of age in America. Trump’s style of leadership—bullying, narcissistic, violent, and indifferent to the natural world—is a caricature of the basest traits of conventional masculinity. So too is his definition of success, which involves objectifying women and equating people’s worth with their pocketbooks.
As wilderness guides and mentors who work closely with young men and teenage boys, we’re especially alarmed by the fact that, to some voters, these traits weren’t just flaws to be overlooked—they were Trump’s selling points. And it seems that Trump’s behavior may offer other Americans permission to indulge in the worst behaviors associated with masculinity. “The Trump Effect,” as a report from the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2016 explains, means that “students have been emboldened by the divisive, often juvenile rhetoric in the campaign,” and that “Teachers have noted an increase in bullying, harassment and intimidation.”
And yet, as the incredible mobilization of protestors over the past two weeks has shown, there is also reason to believe that Trump’s presidency can galvanize a new level of organized opposition and new horizons of personal growth. From the millions of people—including men—who joined the Women’s March, to those that showed up at airports across the country in support of Muslim refugees, a clear resistance is brewing. Now is the time for men, young men, and teenage boys to align their personal journeys towards manhood with this groundswell. It’s time for us to rethink masculinity—starting with a willingness on the part of men to understand that they don’t have all the answers, and to listen more than they speak.
In the wake of the 2016 Us presidential election, intense feelings of dismay and fear may tempt us to mimic some of the same behaviors we oppose in Trump. We might call people names, make unkind generalizations, nurse feelings of superiority and disdain for imagined “others,” or contemplate violence as a solution. And yet it has never been more important to embody the alternative. True and courageous leadership has always depended upon acting in the service of others, especially those who are more vulnerable than us.
In some cultures, the primacy of service is even incorporated into the governance structure itself. In the traditions of Iroquois or Haudenosaunee culture, for example, clan mothers responsible for selecting a new member of the governing council looked for a man who had never voiced a desire to lead. In making that a criteria for the job, the culture communicated to men that to be a leader was to be called into service, rather than motivated by one’s own ambition.
And so we urge young men to look around and identify role models—men, women and gender non-conforming people in public life—who are confronting this historical moment with courage and integrity. Then, they must figure out how to be of service to the many causes that already exist. This approach is not about furthering your personal ambitions; it is about learning to put others before yourself.
This is also a time when it’s important to eschew another trap of traditional masculinity: the impulse to confront those we disagree with, and match angry rhetoric with more angry rhetoric. There’s an old bumper sticker making a comeback these days. “If you’re not outraged,” it reads, “you’re not paying attention.”
We can empathize with the feeling. There’s plenty to feel outraged about. But when we pay attention exclusively to our own outrage and anxiety, as seen through the lens of our sense of superiority—well, we start to look a lot like Trump himself.
So while we’re learning to be of service to others, and to listen more than we speak, let’s remember to be beacons of a powerful, courageous, and unwavering compassion. This can be the historical moment when antiquated, aggressive ideas of masculinity are finally laid to rest, and boys in America grow up knowing that kindness is the greatest possible demonstration of strength.
Eli Marienthal is a PhD Candidate in Geography at UC-Berkeley and co-director of Back to Earth. Patrick Cook-Deegan is a lecturer at Stanford University and co-founder of Project Wayfinder.