He sidles up to you in your facebook feed and explains how there is no gender pay gap.
He bribes you with a beer at the picnic and then dives into an article he’s read about how colonialism helped Africa.
He waddles over and bear hugs you, hot dog in hand, then explains how the gay lobby is ruining the world.
Some of them are nice guys. You can get along with them, so long as you don’t mention the war. Or the muslims. Others have blonde Third Reich propaganda jugend photoshopped over national flags on their profiles. You can just quietly block them and walk away.
Every time I’d run into one of them, I was perplexed.
At first, I would ask, “Why do you care? Why does this matter to you?”
And I would get long-winded answers. They would bark slogans, wag fingers and thump fists, point to civilization and meaning and purpose and tradition and science. Their eyes would roll, their skin would ripple red, their spittle would fly. In aggrieved and angry voices, they explained not just why they cared, but why everyone should care, why I should care, why I should convert.
Sometimes, I admit, they convinced. A passionate speaker with a modicum of intelligence can be persuasive.
But the later it got, the less the answers made sense. And the more they seemed to be the same answers to different questions. Like the answers were a thin scum of beer foam over a deep reservoir of pungent citrine fluid.
Soon I stopped asking, but I kept talking with them. I’d try to reason with them, and it never worked.
Every time I came away feeling dirty. Feeling dirtied.
I stopped engaging. Mostly.
But I was still perplexed.
Just today, again, I ran into one. Seems like a successful adult. Has a car. Has a house. Has a wife. Has a kid. Has a job. And has the time to go sharing his views on how women’s rights are going too far, that gender equality is a bad idea, that there is no pay gap, and that feminism is hurting women.
In a world full of serious issues to address, why is this nice tax-paying guy taking the time to argue and fight for an issue that is, honestly, none of his damned business?
Like I said: perplexed.
And then it hit me.
He doesn’t see his family and his career and his friends in his head. He sees his dreams and his fantasies in his head. He sees his inadequacy and his mortality. He sees his fears.
The fears of every man, driven into his head day after day throughout his childhood and his adulthood.
That he is not a real man.
I remember my high school years, twenty years ago. They were not the worst, but they were also brutal and harsh and cruel, just like anyone’s school years. The cruelest taunt hung in the air, “faggot” (“peder” in Slovenian). A taunt to avoid, and to mete out. And mete it out, and others, we did. We were cruel and we were terrified. We viciously and stupidly tried to prove how manly we were by harassing girls, by measuring dicks, by tossing slurs, by fighting and drinking.
Everything to prove to ourselves, and a little to each other, that we were not “warm water plumbers” (“toplovodar” in Slovenian).
I don’t even know what that last slur is exactly supposed to mean, but it was certainly constructed as an incorrect sexual orientation. I am quite certain that every schoolyard in every country has words and slurs and bullying close enough to those we used to socialize ourselves.
There was one way to be a man, and that involved being a rough and tough, emotionally insensitive, woman-harassing clod. Preferably poorly groomed.
And inside every ‘real’ man’s head is the wheedling voice of terrible inadequacy.
A voice that cruelly mocks them and points at their small, sad, limp penis.
“This is all that’s left of your dreams,” it smirks, “Don’t try to deny it. You might accidentally lose it altogether.”
“No, it’s not true! I’m a man, I’m a man!” cries the boy-man back at the voice in his head.
“You’d say that,” it replies, “but you’re not a real man.”
And what is that guy going to do? That stunted boy-man? That successful man, with his car and his wife, his kids and his house? He’s going to show that voice what’s what! He’s going to prove he’s no short-limp-dick warm water plumber! He’s going to win!
And he punches down.
Because when he punches down, it’s harder to lose. And he needs to win. The more he wins, the more he can show that little voice who’s boss.
But it’s never enough, is it? The voice never shuts up, does it?
I stopped. What was there to add? What could I say to that guy? I’ve been him, too. I could give advice, but I knew that guy. He wouldn’t listen. He’s too scared of that voice.
There’s no point in engaging with the frightened boy-man, because he’s not actually talking to me. I’m not a part of his conversation. He’s talking to the voice in his head, the voice that un-mans him day in, day out.
But I could tell my story.
I could explain how I put down the metaphorical hot dog and beer, how I sat down and listened to that wheedling voice.
And listened some more. And talked with the voice. And then I went and got some therapy, so that I realized I wasn’t nuts. And then, finally, I realized I was talking with myself, and that there was more to me than just puffery and being a ‘real’ man.
I learned to enjoy my own things on my own terms, my drawing and my boardgames, my rocks and my rock music, my writers and my podcasts on historical esoterica. Whatever, right?
I accepted that what other people do isn’t a measure of me, and I am not a measure of them. Now I have good friends of all sorts. Some have come out, some are married, some are polyamorous, some are asexual, some shoot dead pigs with lasers for a living, and others work in factories. And interacting with them doesn’t make me uncomfortable or less my own man.
Maybe the boy-man would listen and take heart. It is possible to grow up.
But I do confess, knowing that I was that slur-slinging high school boy is still a needle of guilt. I know I am not that boy anymore, but I also know that a world of clod-men is not a world I could ever want to preserve.