Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Permission to Forgive Ourselves - Releasing Guilt

One of the things that often happens as men come to awareness of their lives - the social structures in which men have oppressed women(1), and even the subtle ways they may have objectified or sexualized women, for both good an bad - is a sense of guilt for the ways women have sometimes been denied their full humanity. Even men who have generally treated the women in their lives quite well (and maybe especially these men) tend to feel guilt and/or shame for the legacy of dehumanization so many women have suffered (and still suffer in mnay parts of the world).

In some ways, and for a short time, guilt can be healthy. It can motivate us to change behaviors, to change perspectives. Guilt is the sense that I have done something wrong (or that we as men have done something wrong) and that I feel bad for having done it.

Shame, on the other hand, is not at all useful because shame tends to be the sense that there is something inherently wrong with me, something that makes me (or men) bad, evil, or flawed in essence.

Radical feminism has tended to shame men, to argue that history makes all men evil, irredeemable, and inherently flawed. This is not only mean-spirited and wrong, but it attempts to do unto men what some men have done unto women - it's equivalent to the kid who gets bullied and then bullies someone else, passing along the torment.

Guilt, however, can be healthy - unless we get caught up in that feeling as an identity. Many male feminists have become so attached to guilt that they cannot see the value in working toward a healthy model of masculinity - it seems better to adopt a feminist view of men as flawed.

John Stoltenberg, one of the "leaders" in men's studies (more appropriately "feminist studies of men"), wrote a book called The End of Manhood in which he equates masculinity with toxicity and sees feminism as the answer (he was married to Andrea Dworkin, although he now considers himself gay). He is also author of Refusing to Be a Man, and this article (Why I Stopped Trying to Be a Real Man - published in Feminista!) plays some of the same chords:
If everyone trying to be a "real man" thinks there's someone else out there who has more manhood, then either some guy has more manhood than anybody--and he's got so much manhood he never has to prove it and it's never ever in doubt--or else manhood doesn't exist. It's just a sham and a delusion.

As I watched guys trying to prove their fantasy of manhood--by doing dirt to women, making fun of queers, putting down people of other religions and races--I realized they were doing something really negative to me too, because their fear and hatred of everything "nonmanly" was killing off something in me that I valued.

That's why I feel a connection to feminism. I want a humanity that is not measured against the cult of masculinity. I want a selfhood that does not reject fine parts of myself just because they are not "manly." I want courage to confront the things men have done in the world that are damaging to women and that are also leaving no safe space for the self I hope to be.

This is, in my opinion, a shame-based perspective. "Refusing to be a man" is not a viable response - Why not be a mature man, why not model and teach a healthy masculinity that honors all non-harming forms of masculine identity, that honors women, that does not seek dominance but rather community?

Yet even guilt is not productive - it's a way out. We feel guilty rather than act to change things. This Daily Om offers a perspective on this that I think can be helpful for men who are experiencing the guilt that often comes with waking up to our power and responsibility as men:
Permission to Forgive Ourselves
Releasing Guilt

Guilt is temporary and unproductive, it is all too ironic that being hard on ourselves is the easy way out.

Learning to accept the things that we perceive as wrong can be a difficult task for many of us. Often we have been brought up to accept that it is normal to feel guilty about our actions and that by doing so we will make everything seem alright within ourselves. Even though we might feel that we have a reason to make up for the choices we have made, it is much more important for us to learn how to deal with them in a healthy and positive way, such as through forgiveness and understanding.

When we can look back at our past and really assess what has happened, we begin to realize that there are many dimensions to our actions. While feeling guilty might assuage our feelings at first, it is really only a short-term solution. It is all too ironic that being hard on ourselves is the easy way out. If we truly are able to gaze upon our lives through the lens of compassion, however, we will be able to see that there is much more to what we do and have done than we realize. Perhaps we were simply trying to protect ourselves or others and did the best we could at the time, or maybe we thought we had no other recourse and chose a solution in the heat of the moment. Once we can understand that dwelling in our negative feelings will only make us feel worse, we will come to recognize that it is really only through forgiving ourselves that we can transform our feelings and truly heal any resentment we have about our past.

Giving ourselves permission to feel at peace with our past actions is one of the most positive steps we can take toward living a life free from regrets, disappointments, and guilt. The more we are able to remind ourselves that the true path to a peaceful mind and heart is through acceptance of every part of our lives and actions, the more harmony and inner joy we will experience in all aspects of our lives.

[Emphasis added.]

Compassion is the nearly always the missing ingredient - compassion for others, compassion for ourselves. Through compassion we can learn to practice forgiveness - for the past, for ourselves, and for others.

(1) This is a huge generalization and I am NOT saying that men are evil and women are victims, but historically it is undeniable that male social structures have at various times regarded women as possessions and/or denied them full status as members of society.


Anonymous said...

Interesting, it seems that (from the Christian standpoint) that women are moving the shame of original sin onto Adam. Eve ate of the apple and so all women are temptresses. Men acted violently towards women and so all men are evil. Shame gets passed around and when shame isn't ours it is much more difficult to heal. The healthy version of shame is humility and that is necessary. When we don't recognize our shame we act out. I haven't though of feminism (or gender studies in general) from a shame standpoint, but I think it is quite interesting and useful to do so.


anti-capitalist/anti-feminist said...

You clearly haven't the first clue of history, and are evincing your misandry for everyone to see.

Those long-suffering womenfolk from long ago! You would have made the perfect Victorian; men are evil, women are good. Men are perpetrators, women are victims, etc. Which essentially makes you a right-wing reactionary, sexist misandrist, anti-male bigot.

If you actually desire to test yourself (bigots such as yourself of course have no use for the truth) why don't you read 'The Legal Subjection of Men' by Ernest Belfort Bax.

Female privilege is quite old, but your denial of it is typical of traditionalists who deny male suffering, and see it as their sole duty in life to sacrifice themselves for women's benefit; as I stated earlier this is a typical Victorian mindset.

Just how those women suffered from their white feather campaigns and the draft, which obviously forced women to put themselves through psychological torture and risk of death. Clearly to promoters of hate-speech such as yourself that obviously must be true. You probably really do think women were the real victims of men being FORCED to die in foreign countries (for women's benefit). You probably really would espouse the opinion that chivalry benefited men!

You might not want to read any older literature from socialist/anti-capitalist authors though. I mean, they actually display working men's lives as innately valuable-like as valuable as a woman's life! Blatant misogyny!

Stick to the mawkish and sentimentalism; where we can hear the bemoaning cries of the long-oppressed upper-middle class woman.

Anonymous said...

John Stolberg was merely saying that he beleived there wasn't such a thing as 'manliness', and no such thing as a 'real man' and believes people should not be labled as 'masculine' 'feminine'

A man is a man, simple, that is what he's saying, it isn't the same of being ashamed of his sex.