05: Fatherhood cont’d

with 4 comments

The suggestions of what is appropriate fathering to boys also manifest in James and Thomson’s call for initiation, which is generally assumed to be a difficult and painful ritual that bestows identify upon a boy and enables his passage into maturity. Many men’s movement writers who appeal to initiation refer to traditional or tribal societies where such rituals exist to demonstrate how this is a natural process, the like of which averts the kinds of masculinity “crises” we experience today in the developed world.

There are three significant problems with such a call to initiation. First, it is absurd to say that because tribal societies do something a certain way that we should also do it: would the same people who claim this also suggest we revert to tribal forms of technology and medicine? I don’t think so. Even if such rituals work great in tribal societies, it does not mean they will work great for western urban societies: for initiation to work we would need rituals that are context-specific. Second, why must initiation be a hazardous and painful ritual? If ritual must exist, then there is no reason why it should adhere to typically masculine traits such as hazard and pain. Initiation rituals should be learning rituals, and there aren’t that many educationalists around these days who advocate learning through hazard and pain.

The third problem gets right to the heart of the conspiracy. We are told that the point of initiation is essentially about bestowing mature masculine identity on a boy, of securing his “self” and welcoming him into the society of authentic manhood. However, I would argue that paradoxically, initiation does exactly the opposite. Instead of bestowing some form of unique self upon a boy, initiation demands that a boy conform to the social codes of authentic manhood, abandoning the unique (and natural) self he already possesses as a boy. Initiation, then, is really a process in which a boy is co-opted into the values of the society in general and the conspiracy in particular. Initiation is nothing short of being sold into slavery, but it is done with such extraordinary finesse that those who have been enslaved believe they have been welcomed into some exclusive club. This sleight of hand is one of the key elements of the conspiracy and will be explored in greater depth in the concluding chapter.



Written by Joseph Gelfer

June 14, 2011 at 1:39 pm

4 Responses

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  1. The reference to tribal cultures can certainly be a red herring in some cases, but in other cases it’s painfully relevant. In ‘Ishmael’, Daniel Quinn points out one thing common to what he calls ‘leaver’ cultures – that they have measures to avoid uncontrolled population growth. Industrial societies lack this, and will eventually drown in their own sewage if they don’t work it out. My point is that the wisdom of indigenous cultures (any cultures that differ from the one we grew up in) is a valid source of ideas, especially when we are fish trying to understand the nature or water.

    That said, there are many forms of population control I wouldn’t support (involuntary euthanasia for example), and no amount of references to pre-industrial tribal wisdom would change my mind. Similarly, I wouldn’t give a blanket endorsement to the practice of initiation, for many of the reasons you give here, but I do know of at least one initiation movement that introduces boys/ young men to ideas about masculinity beyond false dichotomy of domination/ self-hatred:

    Danyl Strype

    October 3, 2011 at 10:16 pm

    • Certainly, there is a lot of great wisdom in tribal cultures: the trick is to contextualize rather than uncritically repeat it (and, in terms of appropriation, sometimes to avoid outright theft). I’ll check out the link.


      October 4, 2011 at 6:21 am

  2. “Initiation is nothing short of being sold into slavery, but it is done with such extraordinary finesse that those who have been enslaved believe they have been welcomed into some exclusive club.”

    That’s always been a bit of a puzzler to me. I believe there are somewhere in the region of 3 billion or more men on the planet right now. How can that be an exclusive club? And yet there are plenty of men who act as if belonging to this club is the most important thing in their lives. Witness how easy it is to manipulate them into “proving” that they’re men.

    Apel Mjausson

    July 5, 2011 at 4:03 pm

    • I guess it comes down to the exclusive club being about the desire for power: both systemic and personal power over women and atypical/counter-conspiratorial men.

      When we let go of the desire for power (whether physical, financial or even cultural or artistic reputation), there is little left to prove.


      July 5, 2011 at 4:31 pm

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