This whole hazing scandal involving the
insecure, overcompensating douchebag mild-mannered Richie Incognito has been
garnering a ton of attention. Watching the Daily Show, I see that the typical
response, i.e., let's blame the person who reported the bullying because he
needs to "man up," has begun. Because of course it has.
Ever since I read Michael Kimmel's "The Guy Code," these recurring stories about hazing, fraternity idiocy, young men in rape culture — all of it makes so much more sense. Lines from the book keeps running through my mind. So to get out of my system the explanation I want to shout from the rooftops every time someone wonders "How could this happen?," I give you Michael Kimmel on the validation of masculinity.
In the United States, proving masculinity appears to be a lifelong project, endless and unrelenting. Daily, grown men call each other out, challenging one another's manhood. And it works most of the time. You can pretty much guarantee starting a fight virtually anywhere in America by questioning someone's manhood. But why must guys test and prove their masculinity so obsessively? Why are the stakes so high? Why so different here than elsewhere? In part, it's because the transitional moment itself is so ill-defined. We, as a culture, lack any coherent ritual that might demarcate the passage from childhood to adulthood for men or women. Not surprisingly, it also remains unclear who, exactly, has the authority to do the validating...
So 'man up' be fighting words? You don't say, LZ Granderson, CNN contributor?"Just mumbling those two words in a typical guy's direction delivers a psychological shock that discourages him from venturing outside the restrictions of our traditional view of what it means to be a man. But that's the beauty of "man up." Sometimes it's the punchline shared among friends. Sometimes a mandate from strangers. At no point is it uniformly defined."
Gotcha. So in a competitive world that hinges on an indefinable construct, where does initiation fit in?
But in Guyland, it is not men who are initiating boys into manhood. It is boys playing at initiating other boys into something they, themselves, do not even possess — that they cannot even possess. In America's fraternities, military boot camps, and military schools, and on athletic teams, it's always peers who are initiating peers. In fact, initiation and hazing are required to take place when adults are not there, because adults are not there — not the coaches, nor the professors, nor the administrators. In some cases, this is because adults (or people in positions of responsibility, in this case) want to have "plausible deniability." They want to be able to claim that they didn't know — couldn't have known — what was happening. But they do, of course; odds are that they went through it themselves, and feel powerless or unwilling to stop it. They may even believe in it.
Perhaps that is why initiations in Guyland are so perilous — and so pointless. Maybe it doesn't work because it can't work. Since peers cannot really initiate peers into a new status, the initiations must be made ever more arduous. And because they are trying to prove what cannot be proved, each generation raises the ante, indulges in more cruelty, and extracts greater pain.
The very mechanisms of initiation in Guyland are so distorted that they can never produce a real man — sensible, sober, responsible, a decent father, partner, husband. Initiations in Guyland have nothing to do with integrity, morality, doing the right thing, swimming against the tide, or standing up for what is right despite the odds. In fact, initiations in Guyland are about drifting with the tide, going along with peer pressure even though you know it's both stupid and cruel, enabling or performing sometimes sadistic assaults against those who have entrusted their novice/initiate status into your hands. The process makes initiation into fraternities or athletic teams or the military closer to a cult than a band of brothers.
In other words, the culture that demands that men prove their masculinity over and over and over again to other men creates a vicious, dangerous competition that no one can ever definitively judge. You keep competing, and proving, and trying, but because there is never one definitive voice who can proclaim you A Man, A Winner without question, silencing all questions to your masculinity thereafter, you keep trying harder to prove it. And in team environments, which are built around competition and keeping each other in line with an expected code of conduct, team members will keep trying to prove themselves to each other. So new players have to prove themselves to veteran players, but veteran players still have to keep proving themselves, so they use the novice players to do this. And it's acceptable, even expected, because every player faces the need to prove themselves at the expense of others. That need is never truly validated, and it never goes away, unless you are at the top of your game and the NFL with Superbowl rings to do your talking for you. Even that isn't a guarantee, but if you're an A-level player, you don't have as much to prove.
For everyone else, it's standard — players protect each other with the code of silence, and vilify those who don't go along with it with the lowest insult they can think of — you need to man up, you're not a grown man, grow a pair, you have failed the test — because to admit that there is something wrong with such behavior is to admit that the things you've been doing to prove your masculinity might be hollow.
Is it any wonder that when these actions are exposed to the public, the standard response is "They just don't get it, that's how things work in a locker room / fraternity house / military barracks, it's our culture, you have to be part of it to understand"? It is only defensible to those who are enmeshed in it. Welcome to "Guyland."