Essence



Is this the essence of masculinity?

The story was always the same: a drifter comes into town, on the run from something, he doesn't want to say what. In fact, he'd rather not say anything about himself. At first he's successful, but then something happens: he finds himself getting close to someone vulnerable, he encounters an injustice, he becomes aware of a need that his particular skill set can address, and he can't help himself. He steps in. The situation escalates until he has no choice: the monster within him emerges, vindication ensues, and when things have calmed down again, he has to flee once more.

Issue after issue, episode after episode, this was the story of the Hulk. I never read Hulk comics, but I did partake of the television drama based on them, until I tired of the procedural formula that gave the series its sameness from week to week. I longed for season story arcs, for characters and situations to change. I knew that wasn't how TV worked, but I wanted it nonetheless: I wanted David Banner (his first name inexplicably changed from Bruce) to grow in some way, for him to develop control of the green rage monster, for his pursuers to come to understand that, despite his green fury, the Hulk was essentially a force for good. Most of all, I wanted Banner to experience integration: to come to grips with the source of his rage (Childhood abuse? Abandonment issues?), heal from it, and be able to channel its power into less destructive ways of changing the world.

56 years since the Hulk first appeared in print, 40 since his TV incarnation went off the air, and with half a dozen movie appearances behind him, he has yet to find any kind of peace from his torment. The most cynical reason for this is that without his fury, he's not the Hulk; and if he's not the Hulk, he's not going to sell anymore toys, comic books, green Slurpees, or movie tickets.

At a deeper level, though, the plight of Bruce Banner and his green alter ego is that of every modern man--or at least, so conventional wisdom in the guise of biological essentialism would have it. You know what biological essentialism is, whether or not you've ever heard the term. Most simply put, it's the idea that boys will be boys and girls will be girls, because we're genetically hard-wired to be that way. Little boys play with trucks and shoot each other with pretend guns. Little girls play cooperative parenting games. Boys are rough-and-tumble, spontaneously wrestling each other; girls create elaborate clapping games that require working with a partner for extended periods of time. When boys get angry, they lash out physically, throwing, hitting, kicking. Girls' anger is channeled into social games that, while often cruel, rarely lead to anyone being physically harmed.

Essentialism attaches an evolutionary source to these perceived tendencies: in pre-agrarian cultures, men went out into the wilderness to hunt and kill game animals to sustain their families. Meanwhile, women remained close to home, raising children. Women nurtured, men quested. In confrontations, men fought, women supported. It makes sense up to a point that men and women would continue to evolve on these parallel tracks, with men channeling their violence into hunting and fighting, women setting aside such things to focus instead on nurture and cooperation.

That may, in fact, be how things were in human prehistory, and I'm not going to dispute it. What I will dispute is whether these ancient antecedents should in any way determine the futures of boys and girls today. While I can anecdotally vouch for the propensity of boys to play in more physically aggressive ways than girls do, I can also point to countless boys who simply make other choices, following school-wide behavioral expectations without apparently having to think about it. The boys letting their testosterone flag fly are hard to ignore, and may suck up all the disciplinary attention I've got to offer, but they're hardly a majority.

Looking now at the case of the male I know best, whose development and maturation I've held under a microscope for 57 years: even in the throes of puberty, I was never inclined to play rough with anyone. It's just never been my nature. I do have a competitive edge which, in road races, always led me to add a kick in the last half mile or so, even when a marathon on a warm day had sapped me of all my energy reserves; but when I did, the runner I was most competing with was myself.

Cultural formulations of the essential biology of males don't stop at competitive aggression, though. If they did, there'd be no reason for the Hulk to exist. Men, the stereotype goes, have deep wells of anger. Take something precious from a man, frustrate his drive to achieve a goal, wound his ego, question his honor, and you are asking for it--or, if he's not given to demonstrations of darker feelings, you're encouraging him to internalize them, potentially hurting himself as the repressed emotions become depression or contribute to heart disease.

I am no rageaholic. I'm very uncomfortable around people who express anger freely, and even when I'm furious, I keep it tamped down, channeling as much of it as I can into calmly stating a problem and demanding a solution. It's very likely I learned this from my father who, the son of a Swedish intellectual, rarely raised his voice, no matter how justified his anger might be. He also had several heart attacks and strokes once he retired, a fate I hope very much to avoid. I think the culture he was raised on, following on from his parents' culture, was one of using words to express needs and concerns, rather than lashing out with shouts and blows, and he chose to structure his own household culture along the same lines.

But let's stop a moment and look at the ancestors of that culture. Today's Swedes and Germans are thoughtful, methodical, emotionally undemonstrative people whose childrearing practices fall solidly along permissive, nonpunitive lines. And yet, one doesn't have to go back to prehistory to know that they haven't always been that way. Medieval Swedes were Viking raiders; the Germans of the Roman era were the Goths who sacked the Holy See. If any historical men fit the Hulk model of masculinity, it was my paternal ancestors.

That we no longer think of men from those cultures as impulsively violent is an indicator of how little this has to do with hardwiring. In fact, Germany may be the most powerful disproof of the essential biology argument. How could a country responsible for two world wars and incomprehensible genocidal impulses so completely repudiate its violent heritage in such a short time?

It's really very simple: they made a different choice. Their legacy was an abomination, something many a nation would pretend never happened. Japan, Turkey, Armenia, Russia, Great Britain, the United States--these countries and more have sought to downplay, rationalize, even deny that these acts ever took place, let alone take any steps to make amends, pay reparations, or do anything to right the wrongs once committed and, in some cases, continuing to percolate through their culture. Germany, on the other hand, has memorialized its past abuses with monuments called stumbling blocks, records of lives taken in the name of racial purity. There is no effort to minimize the evils of the Third Reich, no talk of lost causes or states' rights; and any promotion of Nazi symbolism or ideas is prohibited by law. That hasn't kept the 15% of Germans who remain white supremacists from gaining representation in the nation's parliamentary government, but their ideas remain a reactionary fringe, far from the mainstream.

Contrast this conscious choice to turn away from violence with the direction American culture has headed in the last decade. It continues to be controversial whenever African-Americans protest their continued unfair treatment; and calling out racist statements by members of the Trump regime and their supporters for what they are is far more likely to trigger not an apology, but a demand that the accuser apologize for speaking the truth. Americans want to believe we have cured racism, that all are judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin, that law enforcement officials are color-blind, and that the Southern rebellion was about anything other than defending the institution of slavery. Americans have simply chosen not to come to grips with their genocidal past.

As Germany has demonstrated, we could choose differently. We could choose to acknowledge that our ancestors were kidnappers, abusers, rapists, and murderers. We could admit that African-Americans have far more reason to be fearful than comforted in the presence of law enforcement. We could promote the truth about immigrants, that they are, by and large, far more law-abiding and hard-working than the white Americans who fear their arrival. We could honor the treaties made with our nation by native peoples forced repeatedly to relocate as those treaties became inconvenient to white expansion and prosperity. But we choose otherwise.

Coming off this tangent: at school, our approach to male aggression is all about choices. When the impulse to hit, kick, shove comes on, choose otherwise. When a classmate suggests acting out physically, or models violent behavior, choose not to react. When anger stirs within, however righteous it may be, choose not to lash out. Make better choices.

The root of this approach--and there's nothing new about it, it's been a part of basic educational philosophy since the founding of public schools--is the belief that essential biology is a lie. Our chromosomes, our hormones, our gender, none of this determines what kind of men we will be. They may tempt us to go from time to time to give in to our inner Viking, but they are not our fate. Who we are and how we live is a choice.

In his most recent screen appearances, Bruce Banner has faced two dilemmas. First, in Thor: Ragnarok, he was trapped in his Hulk form for over a year, long enough for the Hulk to gain the power of speech. Once he finally reverted to his more reasonable self, he feared that again making the transformation would trap him there permanently. That turned out not to be the case. And in Avengers: Infinity War, he found himself in a very different place, unable to transform into the green behemoth at a time when he was most needed. Now that he knew he could choose not to be the Hulk, he seemed incapable of choosing to be him.

As biological beings, humans are, in fact, hard-wired with instincts and impulses. What separates us from dogs, cats, birds, fish, worms, microbes, and every other living creature is our power to choose. We don't have to give in to our feelings. We don't have to deny that they exist, either. Choosing to have them, but not to aggressively act on them, is what makes us human beings, free to decide our own fate. In fact, if there is one thing that typifies the biological essence of human beings, it is the power to choose.

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