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What It Means to Be a Man

Redefining the masculine principle at the
leading edge of cultural evolution

Andrew Cohen & Ken Wilber in dialogue

Andrew Cohen: This issue is focused on men, following our recent issue on women, which, as you know, stirred up quite a lot of response—particularly the dialogue you and I had together. So this is now a chance for us to talk about ourselves, about men.

The context for this conversation, as in all of our discussions, is the leading edge of cultural development: the point where the current postmodern stage of development is poised to take an evolutionary leap to the post-postmodern, or integral, stage. All of our dialogues are really, in different ways, trying to shed light on what it means to take that leap and endeavoring to define the contours of that next stage. So when we talk about the masculine principle, I’d particularly like to focus on what the next evolutionary incarnation of that principle is going to be, at this post-postmodern stage.

Ken Wilber: Oh, absolutely.

redefining the masculine principle

Cohen: I think this really is an open question. Generally speaking, we can say that in the traditional worldview, there were notions of the male as the protector, the explorer, the dominator, the savior, and the hero. And in the modern worldview, the masculine role has generally been about bringing a new, rational interpretation of reality at all levels, trying to use the light of liberated cognition to understand what life is all about—although I think in the modern period, many of the traditional notions of what it meant to be a man were still carried forward. But when there was a shift from modern to postmodern, there was the liberation of the feminine principle through the women’s movement, and a lot of traditional structures and ideas were called into question. I think many men at this postmodern stage were carried along on the feminist wave, often for good reasons, but also maybe for reasons that weren’t so clear. So generally speaking, in postmodern culture, the questions of what it actually means to be a man and what a man’s role is are very much up in the air.

So I’m very interested in beginning to define what the healthiest form and expression of what it means to be a man would actually be. I have found, for example, among men of my own generation—I’m a baby boomer like you are—and also from Gen-X and Gen-Y, that this is not really something that’s discussed. Unless one’s family is more modernist or traditional, the question of what it means to be a man, or what the role of the masculine principle is, in terms of how we’re supposed to relate to life and other men and women, is just generally not spoken about. Most of the men I meet don’t seem to have thought really deeply about this. But when the subject is opened up, often what is revealed are a lot of unexamined ideas that haven’t yet been brought into the light of awareness. Many men haven’t yet begun to consciously grapple with the whole notion of their gender and how that relates to spiritual development and to the evolution of consciousness and culture.

I feel that, as important as it is for women to clarify a new and more evolved sense of their own identity, as we take that step from postmodern to post-postmodern, it’s equally important for men to do the same. So what I’m trying to do—and I know I’m not the only one—is to get this discussion going because it’s really, really important. As a starting point, maybe we can look at some of the ways to define the masculine principle.

Wilber: Well, if we’re going to look at men’s spirituality, one of the first things I would say is that we run into the same difficulties as in discussing women’s spirituality. So we should start with what is by now a standard “buyer beware” warning, which is to make clear that we’re not saying that any of the general qualities we might discuss are true for all men or all women. We understand that anybody who is, for example, a biological man still embodies a whole spectrum of masculine and feminine qualities. And everybody is a particular mixture of these qualities.

Cohen: Yes, certainly. Your caveat, of course, is appropriate. But at the same time, we don’t want to deny that there might be some general truths or general structural tendencies that come to the surface in certain circumstances. For example, over the years, as a result of my own interest in helping people to develop, I have noticed particular general tendencies that men and women seem to have when faced with the possibility of actually taking a leap to a higher level of development, which might be very relevant to people who are interested in the subject.

That all being said, let’s talk about men and some of the ways we could define the masculine principle. For example, qualities like autonomy, judgment, and courage are often associated with the masculine.

Wilber: Yes, but first we have to ask the question: Which of these aspects of masculinity are cross-cultural? Let’s take autonomy, for example. We could say that this is essentially something that comes with the equipment of being a human male organism, having a male brain, male genitalia, and so on. But that gets problematic very fast.

Cohen: Right, because it completely flies in the face of postmodern values. Postmodernity has basically brought forth the ideas that there are no universal givens and that everything is created through culture.

Wilber: Well, yes; that’s the issue. Most people interested in these matters are part of the boomer generation, the cultural creatives, the pluralistic, relativistic, postmodern stage of development. That’s a stage that flat out says that gender and sexuality are nothing but cultural constructs. This idea is exemplified by first-wave feminism, liberal feminism, which essentially believed that “all men are created equal, and that applies to women too.” First-wave feminism basically denied that there are any fundamental or inherent differences between male and female and held that any differences ascribed to masculine and feminine are nothing but cultural constructs.

The more that idea was pursued, the less tenable it became. For lots of reasons, it didn’t hold up. Particularly through research in biology it became clear that on average there really are a fair amount of universal differences between male and female.

So the point is that biological differences are one dimension of the picture and cultural differences are another. These both have to be taken into account if you are going to take a comprehensive or integral look at the situation. The basic idea of an integral framework is that all human beings have at least four dimensions, or, as I have called them, quadrants [see diagram and a more detailed explanation below]. The simplest way to think of them is the biological (upper right), the social (lower right), the cultural (lower left), and the psycho-spiritual (upper left). So we need to look at the various types of qualities that could be called masculine or feminine as they relate to each of these four major dimensions, or quadrants, and then decide how many of those qualities you can say are generally applicable to the male or the female.

Another problem, and this came out of second-wave feminism, is that while it allows for inherent differences between the masculine and the feminine modes, essentially it says all of the feminine-mode differences are positive and all of the masculine-mode differences are negative. The masculine mode includes hierarchical ranking and behaviors that are authoritarian, aggressive, analytical, divisive, etc., while all the feminine-mode qualities are healing, positive, and looked upon as constructive. In this view, all of humankind’s problems are seen as a result of men’s oppression of women.

Cohen: Among the many other terrible things men have done!

Wilber:  That is a version of feminist thought that still has a lot of cachet today. Of course, there are cases of victimhood, but the vast majority of cultural structures have been cocreated by men and women. That’s a much more adequate way of looking at it and, frankly, a much more truthful way, which also fits the evidence better and allows us to look at data more effectively. That’s not to stay that there aren’t cases of oppression and victimization. But in overemphasizing those and in making victimhood the essential definition of the feminine, feminism went too far. Unless we come up with a different view of how the relationships between the sexes historically have been cocreated by men and women and not merely imposed on women, we are basically looking at women as sheep and men as pigs. We need more creative, more integrative, and more accurate views of why men and women have the relationships that they do have to each other, and how they contribute in their own ways to creating societies in all four quadrants.

[ continue ]


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This article is from
Constructing the New Man