The traditional cultural roles for men have been identified as the three “p’s:” to procreate, provide and protect. Among the many rapid shifts in contemporary societal structure those primary roles for men are changing, even radically, as gender identification has scrambled and has even in some cases (some would say, thankfully) eliminated the assumed primary place for men in the cultural hierarchy. Men no longer need to be intimately involved in procreation as women can become pregnant without a male partner. Men are no long assumed to be the primary provider for the family as both partners now often work and women increasingly move into leadership and well-paying jobs. And it is no longer assumed that the male is able or willing to protect the family and his community under the old roles of competition and physical might.
Because these roles were associated with power they were the foundation for male privilege and entitlements. Men are now realizing that the loss of these traditional roles has not only undermined assumptions of power, they also have eroded their societal stature and respect. Adapting to these changes, with likely resistance to the loss of male privilege and entitlements, will continue to be a conscious or unconscious dynamic that defines the role of manhood as contemporary society evolves.
Because June has been designated as gun violence awareness month, I want to devote the rest of the SEP to reflections specifically on the traditional male role as societal protector, specifically as it applies to the relationship between men and guns.
Deep inside our historic male psyche men experience a compelling and honorable responsibility to protect. But the traditional means of physical combat that seeks revenge and domination is being replaced by a greater awareness of the use of nonviolence practice and the rule of law. And the need to protect from tangible threats has evolved more into defending ideological divisions and animosities rather than personal threats. Spurred on by social media and demagogic leadership, many men particularly have been stoked with conspiracy theories that lead to festering resentments and fears without appropriate means of discharging them through the traditional means of physical confrontations . (With the exception, of course, of the January 6, 2021, insurrection that provided for many the pent up opportunity to discharge all those frustrations and engage in a hand to hand physical assault.)
Threats now are increasingly defined as conspiracies rather than actual, validated life threatening realities. A significant number of white males especially are convinced they can’t protect themselves and their loved ones from these conspiracies and the looming intrusion of government controlling their lives - or perhaps worse, perceived societal and government indifference and demeaning policies against them. If a man can’t directly confront these diffused, perceived life threatening menaces, the least he can do is prepare himself to confront the threats if they get personal. It thus makes sense to own a gun as the only means available to protect from the amorphous fears of precariousness and vulnerability. If a man can’t “fight it out like a man” he can understandably resort to gun ownership to at least provide a means of dealing with insecurity and societal powerlessness. The assumption that a gun will actually protect during some form of personal threat of mob violence is quite questionable, of course.
Assuming my assessment above has merit I am left to ask if I can offer some possible way out of this tragic dependency on a gun culture as a default position for many men to feel they are fulfilling their responsibility to protect. Because of the pervasiveness of the gun culture, any suggestion, of course, will seem naive and idealistic, but I need to try.
Our male responsibility to protect emerges from deep in the heart of the evolutionary arc of our male psyche. We needed to protect to survive. Unfortunately the noble origins of the responsibility to protect have not been allowed to evolve and expand to include not only protecting oneself and loved ones, but to also to include the actual contemporary existential threats of the degradation of Mother Earth and related ecological threats, among others. Can we find ways to encourage this evolution, especially among men?
I would love to believe that the same impulse that leads men to join the armed services as a matter of duty to protect their country could be renewed enough for men to be willing to make similar sacrifices to protect the earth. Although I don’t believe that a compelling call to protect the earth has yet significantly evolved in the male psyche, I want to believe it is, indeed, a seed that has now been well established through movements like “Earth Day” and Pope Francis’ Laudate Si' encyclical on climate and the younger generation’s commitment to address the need for new perspectives and practices.
We saw evidence of this capacity for mass mobilization to protect the earth when people across the nation supported the indigenous led opposition to a proposed oil pipeline at Standing Rock, North Dakota. That event was so incredibly heartening because it represented an inspirational demonstration of the very real potential for a mass movement to build the capacity to protect the earth. Standing Rock provided compelling evidence that people can and will embody a new found, profound love of the earth that will then support a willingness to nonviolently sacrifice to protect it. Instead of relying on guns to protect us, we will continue to encourage the evolution of male identity, among other factors, to foster a compelling commitment to protect the earth through nonviolence and sacrifice.
I close with the recognition that I have largely excluded mention of the equally compelling commitment of women to protect what they love, including the earth and all that is life affirming. There is no greater example of a passionate effort to protect than a woman's fierce “she bear” response when a child is threatened. My dream, of course, is that all people across this beautiful earth will embrace a profound love for it that leads to a similar fierce commitment to protect it.