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Genuine compassion starts with oneself, says sociologist Kathleen Barry in her book Unmaking War / Remaking Men (Phoenix Rising Press, Santa Rosa, 2011). Subtitled, “How empathy can reshape our politics, our soldiers and ourselves,” the book explores the indoctrination of boys and men into the gender identity that she calls core masculinity. This aggressive-violent expression of masculinity, Dr. Barry asserts, is no more natural than the submissive-nurturing expression of femininity with which girls are conditioned.

I have written a lot about women’s historic relegation to “weaker sex” status, but this book made me think about the role imposed on men in the same scenario. How would it feel to put one’s life on the line for family or nation, to be expected to do so, and to risk rejection, punishment and even death at the hands of one’s own community for failure to perform, if only ritually, that role? Dr. Barry deconstructs the heroic-sounding word “protector” to reveal the terrible truth at its heart. The expectation that a man will protect others with his life implicitly devalues his own worth. (More troubling, young men too often give their lives not for other lives, but for treasure or ideology.) Barry explores the psychological impact of teaching young men that they are expendable.

First, men are instilled with a sense of obligation to surrender themselves to the common good or a higher purpose. They are not to spare themselves. They must be strong, meaning they must suppress or overcome the natural emotions of crisis, like fear – and compassion. They are urged to root out inner weakness. In demanding so much of themselves, is it any surprise that our protectors will be scornful of others, including if not especially those they are supposed to protect? The weakness of others is responsible for their predicament. And in the process of becoming tough enough to personally endure punishment, angry enough to mete it out, and steely enough to do either on command, empathy becomes an impediment.

The irony here is that we do not need to be stripped of our own self-esteem to serve others. We are inclined to do so naturally, because of our ability to recognize our similarities with other humans, and to imagine how it would feel to be them or to be in their shoes. By definition, empathy leaps across bounds of tribal loyalty to encompass the entire “family of man”: I know what pain is, I know what love is, I know what fear is – so I can feel for you, and it makes me want to help. But if I have been persuaded that my own pain doesn’t matter, that everything other people fear is my lot to face, that would make it harder to value the feelings of others. Not to mention that a diminished sense of self-worth leaves one more vulnerable to dictatorial, sometimes sociopathic, leaders.

Barry writes: “Core masculinity contains both men’s expendability and their contempt for women. It requires women’s complicity in accepting men’s protection, which justifies the aggression and violence expected of them. It is universal not because it is in male biology, but because states and movements require men’s lives for combat…. Nothing is “natural” about this type of fighting or this type of masculinity in any culture…. If the masculinity of war were natural, male aggression would just happen on its own. Society would not have to mount the powerful social pressure of core masculinity it imposes on boys and expects of men.”

Aside from the obvious disadvantages that the macho-femme gender model creates for women, such as loss of status and threat of sexual violence, there are deeper ramifications to each of us personally. Once we reject our own assigned gender stereotype, we find we must reject the “opposite sex” stereotype as well. This can leave us at a loss when it comes to rebuilding self-image and identity. How do I create my own authentic style, and a comfortable way of expressing gender, sexual preference and relationship status, on a continuum with so few stations between one cartoonish extreme and the other? Where do I pause for a reality check? No wonder we are seeing a movement among young people to reject gender (as in, circle one, M or F) in favor of self-respect and personal preference. They get it. The battle is not between “men” and “women” but between free people and the institutions that want to regiment us.

Every generation comes up against societal expectations to conform and perform according to the standards of the day. Throughout our lives we’re told we need to “go along to get along” – we’ll get more of what we want in the long run if we are willing to fall into line right now. But who is setting the standard? Who is drawing the lines? Patriarchy does not mean that while women have been subjugated, men have gotten a pass. The term refers to a hierarchical system that vests power in males, but it by no means grants power to all men equally. Indeed, it is men themselves who have been perennially tasked with girding up the authority of their leaders, at risk of their lives and for little reward. Where has all of their self-sacrifice gotten us? Or the sacrifices of the women who waited at home, or fought beside them, or fought with them?

What the women’s movement is fighting for, after all, is the right for women to speak and be heard, to be taken seriously when we say, for instance (as Dr. Barry is saying), “Enough guns, enough war, enough struggle and competition. Let’s try something else.” The patriarchal system reflexively suppresses our voices because such messages undermine the elitist framework on which it is built. This is why we still see so much resistance to feminism and LGBTQ rights – our struggle amounts to a real revolution. It is being waged not by ranks of uniformed soldiers marching in lock-step, but by a colorful amalgam of mortals making every effort to become our best, truest selves, the better to love and take care of one another and the planet.