The Culture of Cruelty
Boys’ lagging word skills, combined with the “boy code’s” prohibition against the expression of vulnerable emotions, helps to incubate what MICHAEL THOMPSON calls a culture of cruelty among American boys. Boys, says Thompson, will attack one another for anything that they think is not masculine. But because it is not clear exactly what masculine means for adolescent boys, they often target in each other anything that is tender, compassionate, caring and vulnerable. In a filmed conversation with high school students, we see just what Thompson is talking about.
A girl in the group tells of seeing a boy mercilessly teased. She asks the boys in the group why they do this. The responses vary. Everyone understands that it is hurtful to participate in such bullying, yet the boys feel somehow powerless to alter their responses. Some even believe that bullying is “a natural action.” This belief is reinforced by parents and teachers, who frequently define bullying as natural, inevitable or a good part of what turns boys into men. In so doing, they tacitly endorse the culture of cruelty.
The problems of emotional illiteracy, isolation and the culture of cruelty are not just a phase that boys go through. The actions of those most deeply wounded by misplaced male role modeling are the school shootings and battering and other forms of violence committed by adult men. But a far greater number of men in society struggle silently with depression, loneliness and an inability to form nurturing intimate relationships. What can we do for boys to make sure this legacy is not passed on to them? How can we challenge boys to accept the responsibilities of adulthood without cruelty and without a rigid definition of what it takes to be a man?