From Proud Boys to Mature Men

A reinvention of masculinity is needed to steer us away from a violent, dark future to a caring, hopeful one.

This article is co-authored by Dr. Ed Adams, my coauthor on our forthcoming book Reinventing Masculinity: The Liberating Power of Compassion and Connection.

Proud Boys demonstrator. Photo by Adam Cohn.

A 17-year old male accused of killing two people in Kenosha. The “Proud Boys” — a group of combative men confronting protesters. And young men on the other side, expressing rage through rioting.

This national moment of strife is fueled by expressions of masculinity that are fundamentally harmful and immature.

Men on both sides of this conflict are showing up with a cramped, dangerous version of manhood that is about aggression, anger and a limited sense of community. They identify as protectors determined to dominate, when America sorely needs peacemakers focused on reconciliation.

A reinvention of masculinity is needed to steer us away from a violent, dark future to a caring, hopeful one.

***

The adolescent manhood seen now in America is understandable. We’re in a period of gender role confusion. The traditional definition of how to be a man — constrained to a limited interpretation of the provider and protector roles, to stoicism, to aggression and independence — is outdated. What we call “confined masculinity” in a forthcoming book often triggers toxic behaviors and is poorly suited for a world now calling for fairness, emotional intelligence and awareness of our interdependence.

Many men are heeding this call. They are embracing a “liberating” masculinity that expands on the provider and protector identities, freeing men to embrace additional dimensions such as caregiver, to develop greater compassion, and to practice critical self-reflection. That introspection requires men — especially white men — to reckon with privilege and power they have enjoyed.

Taking a hard look in the mirror isn’t easy. And because the confined masculine ethos raises alarms at any notion of weakness, many men are digging in their heels. They are refusing, in effect, to grow up.

***

Vandalism and physical violence may be understandable acts of fury in response to George Floyd’s killing and continued racial injustice. We co-authors — white, middle-aged, middle-class men — can only imagine the pain and anger felt by Black people and their allies on the front lines of recent protests. But the men in history who’ve made the greatest positive social impact have been devoted to peaceful protest. Men like Gandhi, King and Mandela learned to channel their rage.

When protest became violent in the 1960s, American society reverted to the “Law and Order” promise of the Republican Party. The same dynamic is a risk today, with potentially disastrous results. Donald Trump’s divisiveness, autocratic tendencies and denial of climate change pose grave threats to racial equity, to American democracy and to our species’ very survival.

Those Trump traits, embraced by many men today, amount to a twisted, teenage version of masculinity. Trump and his followers have distorted legitimate grievances about economic inequality, political dysfunction and the costs of globalization into a me-first, mean-spirited masculine mindset. It’s the ethos of a surly adolescent who refuses to listen to wiser heads, becomes a self-centered victim, and ignores genuine unfairness.

That’s why the allegations against 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse are both tragic and telling. The teenager helped injured protestors during the fateful night in Kenosha, his lawyers said. But later he allegedly shot and killed two people. And his very reason for being there dovetails with a masculinity defined by a limited idea of “the protector” role. His attorneys say Rittenhouse went armed to Kenosha to defend a business against rioters.

***

Where was his sense of injustice at the shooting of Jacob Blake and other unarmed Black people? Where was his desire to understand the frustration of marginalized folks, or his sense of connection with them?

Where are those things among the “Proud Boys”? These men with a history of violence were part of a crowd in Portland chanting “USA! USA!” in a recent confrontation. Theirs is a juvenile pride unable to accept criticism. It’s a smugness stemming from a stunted masculinity that refuses to recognize the fundamental equality of all human beings.

How might men across the political spectrum move toward a more mature masculinity in this fraught moment?

Could it start with curiosity? With leaders and everyday men asking whether there might be more to manhood than anger — however righteous — and aggressiveness?

What if we asked, “what would an adult man of peace do?” Answering honestly, we might see less shouting and more listening. We might see brawling replaced by a commitment to brotherly love.

We might realize that what’s needed today isn’t proud boys. It’s mature men.

Dr. Ed Adams, a resident of Lambertville, NJ, is a psychologist and former President of Division 51 of the American Psychological Association — the division focused on the treatment of men and boys. Ed Frauenheim is a writer and senior director of content at research and consulting firm Great Place to Work. They are the co-authors of the forthcoming book, Reinventing Masculinity: The Liberating Power of Compassion and Connection (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, fall 2020).

I write about work, culture and masculinity. Concerned about the present but hopeful about the future.

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