Editor Cameron Dixon recently wrote an articulate and well-thought-out essay for CHEST in which he examined the distinction I made in The Way of Men between “being a good man” and “being good at being a man.”
Dixon concluded that “any definition of being a good man (even in the strictly moral sense) must include being good at being a man.”
But, before I explain why, I want to establish the larger and more important point on which Dixon and I actually agree.
We both agree that the ideal man is a good man who is also good at being a man.
Where that agreement breaks down for me is in the limitations Dixon is creating on who can be good and also be a man.
In the circus of the current year, there are millions of cowardly clowns shrugging their shoulders because they’re afraid to say what a man or a woman is.
So, let’s not overcomplicate things.
I’m not a biologist, but let us speak in the broadest terms and say that a man is an adult human who was born with an XY combination of chromosomes — a condition that, to date, remains fixed and unchangeable.
You cannot “feel” like you are biologically male at a genetic level. You either are, or you aren’t.
The chimerical true-Scotsman argument about who is and is not a “real” man is always based in a desire to shame and manipulate the behavior of men to serve the ends of the individual or institution making that argument — whether they “mean well” or not.
We could have the same kind of discussion about whom we consider an “adult,” and why, but that merely further muddies waters that ought to be clear.
So, in accordance with late Western tradition, let’s say that an “adult” is a human who has reached what is called the “age of majority.” In the United States, that age is currently eighteen.
Being eighteen provides absolutely no guarantees about the emotional or intellectual maturity or the behavior of that individual — but it’s one of those generalizations we have to make in order for society to function.
So, a man is a human born with XY chromosomes who has surpassed the age of eighteen.
Beyond that, these adult males have a wide range of talents and aptitudes. That very broad group includes the shortest men and the tallest, the strongest and the weakest, the smartest and the dumbest. It includes men who are naturally very aggressive and men who tend to be substantially more passive. Men are artists and engineers and fry cooks and ditch diggers and that has more or less always been the case.
Some men — some adult males — are simply not going to be very good at certain kinds of tasks. They can try to do better, and they should — we should all try to do better at all kinds of things. But I’m going to contradict a generation of insufferable influencers, life coaches, and motivational speakers by admitting that we all do, in fact, have some limitations.
My IQ isn’t getting any higher — despite my daily affirmations — and Bobby, the 140-pound ectomorph with the frail frame is just never going to bench 405.
Life isn’t fair and we’re not all dealt the same hand.
Recognizing that life isn’t fair, and that it never has been and never will be, is fundamental to a mature and realistic understanding of life and human nature.
Just as there are a handful of men who could outperform ninety percent of us in any metric related to hunting and fighting or establishing and maintaining a perimeter, there are also men who are just not very good at those things at all. They may be good at other things, but they’re never going to be in, say, the top 80% of men when it comes to “being good at being men.” And we’ve all met those guys.
When we say that men who are not very good at being men are not men, we move the definition of “man” away from the biological and open up a door for the clown parade.
To say that men who are not very good at being men are not even capable of being good essentially guarantees that they will become subversive to masculinity, goodness, and order.
If you tell a man that there is no way for him to be good, then he is going to assume that he can only be ungood and take the only path you have given him.
You have to give people an opportunity for a win. You have to give them an opportunity to contribute and demonstrate value in whatever way they are able to do so.
If you don’t, you create monsters — Gollums of ressentiment and corrosive hatred.
And we are dealing with a lot of those monsters in the world right now.
Should a man who has never been very athletic try to challenge himself to improve? Absolutely. And we should encourage him to do so, for his own sake more than ours.
There are few greater joys than watching a man who thought he couldn’t do something at all push himself to do it. And here are few greater joys than having that experience — than being that guy who surprised himself and everyone else.
Encourage men to try, and try hard, and reward them for trying, but recognize that some of us are just going to really fucking suck at some things. There is always going to be a bottom ten percent.
Give that guy in the bottom ten percent a way to be a good man — give him a way to contribute.
Earlier this year, I received a heartbreaking email from a man who had been paralyzed in an accident, while working in the trades. He wrote that he was a single father, and was asking me how he could possibly be a good father or a good man — because he couldn’t do any of the things that make a man good at being a man.
Think about that for a second.
Fuck you — not you, Cameron — but fuck you, generally, if you say would say that man is not a man and cannot even TRY to be a good man.
He IS a man, in an unfathomably bad situation that would break any of us, and he was just looking for a way to be good. To do the best that he could.
I didn’t know what to tell him, so I told him he should try to avoid becoming bitter and hateful and psychologically burdensome. I told him he should try to be there for his son in whatever way he could, and be a source of emotional support, positivity, and inspiration.
To be good, that was really all he had left to be or to do.
I’m not going to be the guy who tries to take that away from him, too.
We can agree that the masculine ideal is to be a good man who is good at being a man.
But I’m not willing to say that a man can’t be a good man simply because he isn’t or can’t be very good at being a man.
I believe that to do so would do more harm than good
I have more to say on why I made the distinction between being a good man and being a good man and why it is so crucial to understanding masculinity as a universal phenomenon, but this was the natural end to one train of thought, so I’ll save that for another day. The 10th Anniversary edition of The Way of Men is now available in hardcover, with a new afterword and supplementary material.