Jan 15, 2014

Virtue or Masculinity?

Paul S Kemp, a writer who sounds familiar but who I haven’t read, posted this yesterday:

Why I write masculine stories

it’s sparked off a few posts by well known writers and there was some commentary before Paul closed off comments, lest the post become a time sink – interesting lack of foresight/prudence perhaps on his behalf.  It’s a post that has made me think.  I am not sure if I would call it a good post, because I think its certainly presumptive of its readers motives and comes off almost as Apologetics.

Of those writers who have commented Deb Howell has a look at masculine and feminine traits in Because we are…and concludes that we can do without ascribing gender to them. Chuck Wendig digs deep, talking about his own relationship with his father and the sort of Masculinity that existed in previous generations, but also presents the problems in defining some traits as masculine and desirable and by implication other traits as feminine and undesirable. Good post and comments in  MANLY MEN TALES, SWINGIN’ DICK STORIES, AND HAIRY-CHESTED HISTORIES.

Liz Bourke in, This, again? succinctly draws the problem of defining the positive virtues as masculine only and calls Paul on it.

For brevity’s sake I have snipped his argument sans the digs at his potential detractors:

As far as I can tell his argument breaks down into:

He writes

  • I write masculine stories. Characters whose behaviours and characteristics are what I consider traditionally masculine.  Further, those masculine behaviours and characteristics are shown (implicitly or explicitly) as virtuous.  Essentially what I’m often trying to show are characters who embody the Roman concept of virtus.
  • As a rule they’re men. They drink a lot. They sometimes womanize. They answer violence with violence.  They’re courageous in the face of danger. They’re stoic in the face of challenges/pain.  They have their emotions mostly in check. And they act in accordance with a code of honor of some kind. 

Why he writes

  • Like many of you, when I was young I read a lot.  Often what I read featured the kind of characters and storytelling I describe above — masculine stories, stories with characters who demonstrate virtus (I’m looking at you Le Morte d’Arthur, and you, Conan).  And what I read shaped how I viewed myself, how I viewed the world and my place in it, and indirectly (and along with a lot of other obvious things) helped shape and refine my moral code — Honor, courtesy, respect for self and others, even (a kind of modified) chivalry.  It’s served me well in life.
  • So I try in my own small way to carry that torch forward and provide the kind of exemplars of virtus that I found and find so compelling.  I don’t think there can ever be too many. 

He’s not anti-woman or anti-anything because:

  • By providing exemplars of certain behaviours and characteristics that I consider virtuous, I am not thereby asserting that other behaviors and characteristics are necessarily non-virtuous.  E.g., I think it’s great for a man to be empathetic and show his feelings or otherwise demonstrate sensitivity. 
  • Nor does it mean that I particularly value traditional feminine virtues in women.  In fact I appreciate strong women with strong opinions (as opposed to demure, quiet women).


What do I have an issue with? Well at first I was put off by his assumption, that should I disagree with him that its because I obviously think he is a right wing, gun toting Neanderthal.  I’d prefer to see his arguments do the talking instead of being told upfront not to prejudge him.

But lets move past that tactic.

I’m ok with the fact that he writes characters who extol, to differing degrees the Roman value of Virtus (is it the original concept of martial courage though or the more refined concepts of Prudence, Justice, Self Control, and Courage) .  Are the stories about Ancient Rome, is he limited to writing about men?  Not as far as I can tell. Add to this, how much do we understand as modern readers, of Roman culture and their approach to virtues?  I’d argue very little (unless you study Ancient history).  Most likely we see what we want to see through a lens of attitudes formulated in the last couple of hundred years.  None of these virtues though are exclusive to men, they might have been an ideal for men in Rome but …we’re not in Rome anymore Toto

Then looking at his characters as he describes them, they are oddly lacking in some of the virtues above.  That’s okay if you are presenting flawed characters and making them human, but is Paul doing this or is this concept of Virtus weighted towards the violent and the martial.

I’m also ok with why he writes.  Paul says its because the stories that he read growing up, the stories that he loved exhibited these virtues and they have become part of who he is and he feels it’s a good part.  I won’t disagree with him here - in that the application or interrogation of the Virtues that make up that concept of Virtus are good things to consider.

I’m ok with the idea that he’s carrying a torch for a more Virtuous life, although I am not confident that some of the harder virtues to master can be developed solely through reading fiction ie one doesn’t cultivate Stoic serenity by reading about it, but by practise and application. One can read “Anger leads to the Dark side” but that won’t help you unless you learn to deal with anger (strangely we never see Luke practising not getting angry).

I do object to the fact that he ties this concept to gender.  The ancient Greeks attached no gender to their concept of Virtue / Arete, (and they are similarities/ties with Roman philosophy ) if a traditional argument is required.

He claims that by promoting one thing as Virtuous does not mean that other things are not virtuous which is rubbish really if one claims Temperance is a Virtue then Intemperance is a vice but maybe what he should have said is that he values these Virtues above others like Compassion.  He’s not all that clear really.  His example of Empathy, or displaying one’s feelings as not as virtuous as those he promotes, demonstrates a luck of understanding common among most of us as to what was meant by the Virtue of Temperance or Self restraint.  Stoic resolve self control is, for example is not about suppressing the emotions, it’s about not letting them rule you, this goes for anger as much as it does for sadness.  So a truly virtuous woman or man can and should express their emotions in a controlled fashion.

He carries the torch for Virtues he sees as traditionally masculine, and uses men as exemplars.  He says he isn’t saying that women can’t exhibit these Virtues but that men should.  This is problematic because it exacerbates a gender division and gender concepts that are troublesome. 

If the virtue is the important thing then the gender doesn’t matter.  If he was really wanting to carry the torch then he’d have many genders displaying various aspects of the virtues.

If he likes writing guys, is comfortable doing so, well then fine it will attract a certain type of reader and will be unbalanced but  I'm cool with that. But if he thinks he is doing a good and virtuous thing by writing “Masculine Stories” I'd argue that maybe some contemplation is in order.

On a personal note, I live in one of the most Gender polarised countries in the OECD, traditional masculinity causes more problems than it’s worth and often is far removed even from what Paul alludes to in the Roman concept of Virtus. In Australia traditional masculinity often means:  standing up and fighting for yourself (with an emphasis on the fighting) not displaying emotion other than anger, drinking to excess,  not valuing women as anything other than wives or mothers.  It does not prepare men for setbacks or differences of opinion, nor does it grant men tools to deal with situations where fighting or f*cking won’t fix it. 


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