I suspect there are plenty of men out there who feel what I do, writes Scott Atkinson. We know that fighting is dumb, but we still have the instinctive desire to do itMain image: You want to fight? Photograph: Rob Dobi
About a year ago, I was merging lanes on the highway during an hour-long trek to a job interview when, in my rearview mirror, I saw a middle finger waving furiously at me. Cutting the other driver off had been my fault, and so when he changed lanes to zoom up beside me I turned in my seat to wave and mouth an exaggerated and lip-readable “I’m sorry”.
I could read his lips, too.
“Pull over!” he was shouting. He had also switched fingers, and was now pointing at the shoulder of the expressway beside me.
This was where we were to fight.
And so I did what you do when you’re a liberal guy who teaches college writing and writes stories for a living. I shook my head and squinted at him like he was a lower, more barbarian life-form, and I meant it. One of three outcomes was possible:
1) He beats me up
2) I beat him up
3) We square off until one of us backs down
In any scenario, the fact that I cut him off doesn’t change, and I’m late for a chance to pick up some freelance work. If my kids had been in the car, it might have been an opportunity for a good lesson: this is how you ignore an idiot.
All good reasons, and yet there was something else at work: a consuming, spine-level electric hum I like to call The Fear. And with it, my subconscious was calling me out.
“You have never been in a fight,” it said.
I have never been in a real one, anyway – and by that I mean a streetfight with no rules, no refs, no squishy surface under our feet. This shouldn’t bother me but at times, I feel like I’ve missed a necessary rite of passage to become a man.
I’m not supposed to feel this way. I am a suburban dad, a mower of lawns and packer of lunches. I want my son and daughter to grow up feminists, and in an era when our presidential candidate openly talked about about the size of his penis, indulging in thinking about the pitfalls of masculinity only deepens my shame.
Istarted learning Brazilian jiu-jitsu at 17, about half a lifetime ago. My ears are now slightly misshapen and I have a small collection of medals won after twisting the joints of other men until they have “tapped out” – that is, signaled they can take no more. I have bounced in three bars and done the kinds of things one does in that job. I have sparred with MMA fighters, been tossed by wrestlers and punched by boxers, and as a result have a pretty good idea of what I am and am not capable of.Advertisement
But then, maybe I don’t. And sometimes, I can’t help it: I want to know what I would be made of.
Modern men, especially liberal ones, are not supposed to feel this way, and so we experience a double shame. The first comes from a small voice deep in our caveman brains, the one questioning our manhood if we back down from physical confrontation. We feelthe second shame immediately after because manhood (and its arbitrary markers) is something we’re not supposed to be worried about any more – certainly not the more base aspects of it, like violence.
“We have a weird, weird, cultural attitude toward violence. We want to be above it very badly, and yet we’re absolutely obsessed with it,” John Gottschall told me a few weeks ago on the phone. He’s the author of The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch and once I started reading his book, I couldn’t stop. When I emailed him to tell him about my secret shame, he wrote back: “Wow. We are apparently the same guy.”
So we were.
Now a professor with distinction, when Gottschall started the research for his book, he was in his 10th year of adjuncting and feeling generally unpleasant about a lot of things. Across the street from his office was a mixed martial arts gym, which he joined, starting a two-year journey into book writing while preparing for his one and only MMA fight: his chance to finally see if anything fundamental would ever change for him after indulging in violence.
My interview with Gottschall was supposed to be serious, but it quickly turned into a cathartic therapy session. The most serious question I asked might have been, “What the hell is wrong with me?”
If there was anything I took away from our talk, it was that I wasn’t alone – and not just because Gottschall and I had so much in common. In his book, he details how “a diverse array of species – from beetles to birds to bears to mantis shrimp” all share strikingly similar “dueling” behaviors. In other words, for every two guys you’ve seen at the bar puffing their chests at one another before returning to their tables to tell their onlookers what they would have done if, there are species all over the planet doing the same thing (I only wish we could ask the beetle how it felt after it backed down).
If you believe some strands of evolutionary psychology, there are lots of reasons we’ve evolved this way. Sex is supposed to be a big part of it: the lingering notion that a strong man capable of winning a fight is often seen as more desirable.
Maybe, but in my own home and others, evolution seems to have moved on. My wife is always more impressed with me when she comes home to our favorite beef stew made from scratch (I like to cook), or when I happily go to the theater (I was raised by musicians) than when I tell her stories from the jiu-jitsu gym.
Growing up, a strict version of manliness was never instilled in me, either. My family owns a construction company, but I never heard my dad or my uncles ever talk about fighting when we were on a job site, and they seemed to have opinions about those who would (idiots). My dad didn’t go to the bar after work, didn’t engage in tough-guy talk, and in the few moments I saw him have to stand his ground he always did it in the way that I now do: with words.
I was lucky to have a dad who would come home some days in coveralls, take a shower, and leave in a tuxedo, trumpet case in hand, to play a gig with the symphony. In retrospect, it’s probably from him that I learned the lesson that has driven much of my life: that it’s always possible to remain calm, and calm means you’re in control.
Tribalism is another reason Gottschall cites – the need to protect your property, people and pride. It’s also another area where I struck out. Even in high school, I could never muster the necessary school spirit to work on the homecoming floats. Didn’t my classmates understand that had they been born even five miles away they’d be at another school, claiming to hate the very people they were now with, based on arbitrary boundary lines drawn by others? (I wasn’t much fun at parties.)
But for my buddy Mark, it was all about reputation. We recently went to a local hockey game at a rink where we’d both played growing up. Back then, Mark was the team fighter. He pointed to the far corner of the rink and told me that was where he’d gotten in his biggest fight – not biggest in terms of blood spilled (although there was that) but the one where he’d had to fight the toughest guy on the rival school’s team. His reputation, which he’d earned through his fights, was on the line.
“I never craved developing a reputation,” he told me. “But once I had one, I clung to it desperately. You just don’t eschew it. It’s like a golden cape. It’s a power, whether falsely created or not.”
I must not have wanted one badly enough. I played hockey too, and once I almost got in a fight by pushing a guy in the back when he turned away from me. I do remember that I wasn’t really mad when I did it, either. Rather, it felt like I should have been mad. And so, with the same kind of curiosity with which someone might take their first puff of a cigarette at that age, I shoved him, and the refs stepped in.
Later, in the car, I remember my mom asking me what that had been all about before telling me that she understood, that it was so hard sometimes to walk away.
But the thing was, it hadn’t been hard, and so the only lesson I could draw from it was that my mom, elementary music teacher, singer, and master of hugs, had more fight in her than me.
When I told my wife I was writing about this, I was embarrassed – not because I’d never fought, but to admit that I sometimes thought about it. We were in the kitchen, and she leaned across the island counter and said she had no doubt that I would fight if I needed to. No doubt, she repeated. And there it was, my golden cape.
She had no doubt, but I still do. I called one of my first jiu-jitsu coaches, Matt Thornton, to help me figure out why. When he’s not teaching, he’s traveling the world, teaching and lecturing about martial arts and violence. He’s also been at work on a book that explores what he calls “a healthy relationship with violence”.
So I asked him what that meant.
“Just like with procreation and sex, if you talk to someone who doesn’t have a healthy relationship with the topic, they’re going to end up on one of two extremes,” he said. “They turn it into a fetish where it’s something they’re attracted to in an unhealthy way, or they can demonize or repress it … My argument would be that neither of those is healthy.”
What is healthy, he said, is acknowledging it.
We talked about why someone like me would think about these things, but (this is how Matt teaches) he put the question back to me.
“Why wouldn’t you think about that?” he asked me. “I totally get it, that’s the cultural norm you’re taught, but why wouldn’t you think about that?”
Matt argues that we’ve evolved this way. We still carry around DNA of our more murderous ancestors, he says, and it’s instilled in us a natural tendency toward violence. He’s not the only one to make that argument: evolutionary psychology pins a lot of our worst behaviors on more barbaric ancestors. But this analysis – the entire field of studies, really – has also been harshly criticized as a cop-out for those behaviors.
The thing is, whether it’s from ancestors or not, violence is in me. It’s in a lot of us. And what matters, Matt said – and this is what stuck with me – is how we choose to deal with it.
It’s about the kind of men we choose to be.
The man in the car followed me for about 15 miles that day, past plenty of exits. Really, he gave me plenty of opportunities if fighting was what I wanted, but I passed them all until his car finally slowed down and disappeared in my rearview mirror.Advertisement
I knew I made the right choice, but I still fought him in hundreds of imaginary battles in my mind afterwards – equal parts heroic and pathetic.
Watch with me. Watch as he throws a right cross that I am, due to all my years of training, able to slip as I drop my center of gravity to set up the double-leg takedown, shooting my shoulder into his waist and driving him to the ground. Maybe I’ll finish with fists, or maybe jiu-jitsu, taking his arms between my legs and wrenching until I hear the gristly pop of a hyperextended elbow.
Can you see him?
Can you see me, victorious?
I’ve seen it too, but it doesn’t last long. It’s quickly replaced by embarrassment and I force myself to think of other things. Things that matter: my kids’ education, the lawnmower that needs its oil changed, my wife’s birthday – or the interview that I will soon go to, and crush, before I make the long trip home and tell my wife of my success.
I might even tell her the story of an idiot I saw on the road who wanted to fight me, and her eyes will widen at the barbarity that still exists in this world before we move on to other topics. And beneath all our talk, somewhere deep in a place I’m not proud of, I’m still back there on the road, chin down, fists up, itching for a fight I know I’ll never choose.
Article source: https://www.theguardian.com/international
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