Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Men, Crying, and Capitalism

Thanks to Katie over at the excellent blog Kloncke for pointing this article out. Consider this:

The male reluctance to shed tears is relatively new, says Tom Lutz, a University of California, Riverside professor. He traces this to the late 19th century, when factory workers—mostly men—were discouraged from indulging in emotion lest it interfere with their productivity.

Iconic historical and cultural depictions of men crying—in the Bible, Jesus wept at the death of Lazarus, for instance—have been overcome by more recent dictates discouraging men from crying. Biologically, and in the context of centuries and millennia, "male tears are the norm and males not crying is recent historical aberration," he says.

As a man who has rediscovered crying in recent years after a hell of a lot of stuffing it, I found this article compelling. Although it's probably the case that socialization at school and other places put it into my head that crying isn't ok for men, the day that solidified it for me was my grandfather's funeral.

I was 13 years old. As one of the pallbearers, I stood at the end of the line, watching the casket coming out of the hearse. Suddenly, I felt weak in the legs and turned away, just at the time when I should have been reaching up. My uncle screamed something nasty at me, jolting me back into place, to do my "job." I think I didn't forgive him for years for that.

Later that day, my grandmother came around and told all of us "Don't cry. You're grandfather wouldn't want you to cry." She was trying to support us, but this is often how grandma's support has been - kind of off. Anyway, her words that day, as well as my uncle's, stuck with me, leading the charge of all the other comments and views I'd heard saying that men don't cry, that we best be "tough," no matter what.

That's my micro-level story. Consider, though, the quote above, pointing to the fairly recent cultural origins of the suppression of male tears. Katie pointed out the ties to capitalism, and I'd make it more specific: the suppression of tears is directly tied to the rise of industrialized capitalism. And why might this be? Well, the way I see it, the worst aspects of capitalism turn humans into machines. Sometimes it's blunt, like forcing people to suppress emotional experiences around their work, and sometimes it's more subtle, like making people work a certain block of time every day, regardless of what their body rhythms are, how healthy they are, or what other needs they might have.

It's really telling how, given the suppression of male tears, there is so much trouble with men around issues of grief and loss. Think of some of the male alcoholics and drug addicts you've known or seen. Consider some of the men who end up behind bars for murders of spouses, partners, former partners, or family members. And what about those over calculating, uber-rational on the surface business leaders who die of heart attacks at age 55 or 60? I'd argue that some of these issues are related to the struggles many men have with crying, expressing grief, and working through grief.

So, I find it kind of promising that one of the beacons of capitalism, the Wall Street Journal, published an article like this. Not that I think it will suddenly help make a cultural shift around men and crying, but perhaps it will give some of those high powered business dudes permission to let go. And that's something at least.


Jack Daw said...

Men are taught to externalize in some cultures. Not so much in my own Greek/American/Italian fusion. Tears were a sign of happiness, sadness, anger...anything. They were indicative of the strength of your emotion rather than a weakness in your ability to withhold it.

My mother broke down at every wedding she did a reading at. When asked to do my own for my sister's wedding, I barely got two stanzas in before I was choking up.

Man up and cry.

Nathan said...

Yes, this is certainly not a universal feature of human cultures. It would be interesting for me to know how commonplace this stuff is, and also groups that have completely different views on it. I know even in the U.S., there are plenty of variations - but do think the majority theme here is pretty unfriendly towards men crying.

Thanks for sharing.

Algernon said...

"Man up and cry." Enjoyed that.