Friday, April 27, 2012

Fr. Barron on Bullying and the Transition from Boy to Man

Drawing on the work of Leonard Sax in discussing the documentary film Bully, Father Robert Barron makes some suggestive connections between male bullying and other current social phenomena:  the slacker dude or unmotivated, underachieving young man; the loss of traditional ways of managing the transition from boy to man through initiation rituals and ordeals; the key importance for healthy male development of mentoring by mature men.  You can only say so much in a video clip, but there seems to be a clear connection between all this and the general disappearance of a socially approved life-script for young men, involving settling down through marriage and fatherhood, the acceptance of the adult male responsibility to protect that comes with it.  The contraceptive culture, the separation of sex from marriage and both from children, the erosion - in many communities amounting to collapse - of marriage, all this amounts to a Fatherless America, as David Blankenhorn called it, the intergenerational blight resulting from the abandonment of fatherhood as a social role - a role that marriage, traditionally and universally, had defined.

Fr. Barron posts this clip on the Word on Fire site - notice his jacket with the logo, soon to appear in the site's store?  (I'll buy one.)  The video raises two questions.  First, how do we know there is a causal link between the ancient phenomenon of bullying and the modern loss of initiation/transition rites and adult male mentoring for young men?  Has bullying become worse since the collapse of traditional patterns of transition to adulthood?  Or is it a matter of increased sensitivity to an age-old problem?  I suspect there is a link, even though I would not expect it to be demonstrated in a short video clip.

One learns to be manly in part by having it taught and modeled by real older men with manly virtues.  The word virtue, after all, is linked etymologically to manhood.  But naming unmanly actions must everywhere be one way boys learn to be manly.  Developing the virtue of courage must involve learning to distinguish the many ways of acting not with courage but with either cowardice or recklessness.  It is no accident that the vocabulary of vice is infinitely more rich and varied than that of virtue.  One of the difficulties is that teasing, like gossip, is an easily abused but probably universal method of establishing and enforcing social norms, in this case, of manliness.  This is what makes it so easy to minimize the problem of bullying as just a part of growing up.

Teasing,  like gossip, is a method of establishing and enforcing social norms, in this case, of manliness.  One learns to be manly in part by having it taught and modeled by older and wiser men with manly virtues.  The word virtue, after all, is linked etymologically to manhood and the universally honored virtue of courage has its greatest example in valor in war - though accountants need the same virtue to maintain their integrity in face of demands to go along with a fraudulent accounting treatment, as Pakaluk and Cheffers point out in their excellent Aristotelian text on Accounting Ethics.  

The great advantage of traditional and responsible initiation rituals - as opposed to hazing in fraternities - is that they provide a challenging but not gratuitously cruel way of managing the social transition from boy to man.

A second point is raised by a contributor to the Word on Fire combox, Connie O., who asks,
"What about the other 50% of bullies? The Mean Girls? What advice do you have regarding them? Or does the movie dismiss them too? Its every bit as bad as what the boys do."

I don't know if there are reliable comparative statistics, but certainly there are examples of girls being driven to despair and suicide by cyber-bullying.   To the extent that this kind of bullying is new in scale and scope, one might point to the breakdown of the traditions and customs that guided girls from adolescence to womanhood.

Contraception and the sexual revolution have changed the nature of the sexual marketplace for the young, to the great disadvantage of young women.  With the demise of the shotgun wedding, girls can no longer hold out for marriage or at least its promise as the condition of sexual intimacy.  They have become more sexually aggressive in competing with each other for male attention, especially in college where men have become a relatively scarce commodity and with the rise of the slacker dude, a good man is harder than ever to find.

In sexual behavior as in career path and so much else, the 'gender neutrality' celebrated and promoted by sexual revolutionists has everywhere promoted male patterns of behavior - and the defeat of biological and social obstacles to them - as the norm for girls.  (For an interesting discussion of this phenomenon in social policy terms, see Neil Gilbert's A Mother's Work: How Feminism, the Market, and Policy Shape Family Life and my review of it on this blog and on

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