Mind the Gap
Utne Reader Editor in Chief Christian Williams on finding common ground politically, spiritually and culturally.

The Trouble with Tough Guys

tough guys

When I was growing up the boys in my neighborhood relished every opportunity to prove how “manly” we were. We shot fireworks at one another for fun, raced (and crashed) our bikes with reckless abandon, and played football in rocky lots. It’s almost as if we invited injury and looked forward to the chance to show off to the girls in the neighborhood that we could take the pain. We knew “real men” didn’t cry, no matter how much it hurt. Man, were we stupid.

Fortunately, I outgrew that adolescent bloodlust, but I’m still not immune to the trappings of traditional manliness. Hubris is my adulthood Achilles’ heel; I don’t normally read instructions and often find it more appealing to get lost than ask for directions. Somewhere along the line, stubbornness became baked into my psyche. How did that happen?

Take a look at the male icons of Western culture and you’ll see a pattern: tough and rugged like Clint Eastwood, charming and fearless like James Bond, overconfident and womanizing like Don Draper. Consciously or not, boys in this culture identify these traits as “manly,” and the result is a continuous cycle of boys becoming men who strive to show no weakness, whether it be physical, mental, or emotional. You might assume that tendency is just a natural male characteristic, but the truth is men aren’t wired that way—it’s something we learn.

Take mental health among men, for instance. For a man who’s been taught by his father and the culture he lives in that burying your feelings is the manly thing to do, stress becomes something you ignore and depression something you just learn to live with. It goes without saying that the end result of this emotional neglect isn’t usually a good one for the man or the people around him. Everyone has a breaking point, and some are more violent than others. To make matters worse, if a man does summon the courage to ask for help, our current mental health system is woefully underfunded and understaffed to provide adequate treatment.

The good news, though, is that more people are starting to recognize and rectify these damaging and potentially dangerous myths about masculinity. The call for better male role models signals the emergence of a mentor/mentee approach that’s sorely needed in our society today. Equally valuable are the lessons about masculinity we can learn from those experiencing it from a transgender perspective. Altogether, there’s hope that we’re breaking down yet another wall of ignorance.

Speaking of curing ignorance, you may have noticed something different on the top of the website; specifically, the tagline right beneath the Utne Reader logo.

The purpose of the tagline as we see it is to pique a reader’s interest into what we’re really about. While the previous tagline “The Best of the Alternative Press” did a great job identifying where the articles within came from, it didn’t do much to explain why we think they’re important enough for you to read. In this age of climate change, income inequality, and corporate influence on every facet of our lives, we think it’s necessary to emphasize the active role all of us need to play if we hope to leave this world better than we found it.

We recognize our duty to that end is to provide readers with the most interesting, surprising, cutting-edge, and thought-provoking information we can find on the issues that matter to you most (and some you didn’t even know about yet). You may not always agree with what you read, but we’re confident we’ll at least get you thinking and formulating your own opinions. It’s our mission to cure ignorance, and we figured we may as well say it loud and proud. We hope you like it, but more importantly, we hope you’ll join us.

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The Mayan Warning We Should Heed

Mayan Warning 

If you read this before December 21, good luck to you. Rest assured my wife and I will be preparing for the catastrophe of epic proportions predicted to unfold on that fateful day. In other words, we’ll probably be jockeying for position at the bathroom sink getting ready for work.

I’ve never been one to take end-of-the-world predictions very seriously, mostly because, well, they’ve only been unequivocally wrong 100 percent of the time. One thing I’ve always wondered is what’s the point of trying to be the person who correctly predicts the end of the world? If you’re right, who’s left to give you any credit?

When it comes to the Mayans, scholars much more familiar with their culture than conspiracy theorists and Hollywood writers are have long ago dispelled the notion that the now infamous Long Count Calendar predicts a sudden global demise. Unfortunately, it’s yet another example of conjecture making the news while actual science waits to be considered sexy enough to pay attention to.

While everyone has been distracted by mystical messages hidden in an ancient calendar, we’ve neglected a different Mayan warning that’s actually very real. As environmental analyst and 1995 Utne Visionary Lester Brown reminds us in his new book Full Planet, Empty Plates (read an excerpt) the Mayans precipitated their demise by undermining their food supply, specifically through activities that created catastrophic soil erosion. As Brown puts it, “they moved onto an agricultural path that was environmentally unsustainable.” He goes on to connect the dots to contemporary humankind, and—you guessed it—clearly shows that we’re headed down the same environmentally unsustainable path as the Mayans.

So right now, considering that we’re damaging our soil through factory farming and overdevelopment, misusing our natural resources by turning nearly half of the corn we grow into inefficient fuel for our cars, and all the while continuing to contribute in countless ways to climate change, I think it’s good to be reminded of the Mayans. Of course, whether or not we heed the warning their demise represents remains to be seen.

Take the loaded question, “can we feed the world?” The knee-jerk response to this is “no,” but that’s the wrong answer. In a traveling lecture that directly addresses the question, farmer/author Joel Salatin offers some surprising statistics to illustrate just how inefficient we’ve become with food and land use. Aside from the fact that for the first time in human history we’re not eating 50 percent of the food we produce, Salatin points out that a staggering 40 million acres in the United States are tied up in lawn turf, while another 36 million acres are devoted to recreational horses.

My takeaway is that we have the space and capacity to feed the world, but we simply choose not to. We’d rather consume, waste, and consume some more. The culprit, I believe, is a flat-out inhumane obsession with development and progress no matter what the cost. We continue to tolerate and encourage policies and practices that reward greed and neglect human decency. From paving over our world’s most fertile soil to the commoditization of food we’re simply not taking care of the planet, which ultimately means we’re not taking care of each other. 

While we’ll never know exactly what the details were regarding the ancient Mayan civilization’s collapse, the indication is that they weren’t responsible stewards of their natural resources, and the earth stopped giving them what they needed. Maybe they didn’t understand the limits of this planet and humankind’s role in maintaining it, but we do. Here’s hoping the real Mayan warning doesn’t fall on deaf ears.

Follow Utne Reader Editor in Chief Christian Williams on Twitter: @cwwilliams  

Image by cjuneau, licensed under Creative Commons.