Jon Farmer

Jon Farmer is the Supervisor of the Men’s Program Grey Bruce.

by Jon Farmer

When a guy is told to ‘man up’ the implication is usually that he needs to be tougher or have more courage. That sentiment pushes men into professions and pass times that are dangerous, decrease our ability to ask for help, and discourages us from paying attention to vulnerability and emotion in others. That idea of manhood teaches us that we always have to win. It also increases men’s violence toward women as well as other boys and men.

As we mark the 16 Days of Activism against gender based violence, I suggest that we abandon the idea of ‘manning up’ and encourage men instead to be humble.

No person is born arrogant or humble. We learn to be this way from encouragement and example. These values are passed down and cultivated from one generation to the next. Through this teaching, they set the culture within their small groups.

Imagine two different coaches. The first is aggressive and arrogant. When a player makes a mistake he yells insults at him. As the highest authority on the team he has the best ideas. He praises the players who agree with him and uses shame to let the others know when they are wrong. The players learn from his example and work secretly to improve because their areas for improvement are weaknesses and sources of shame. The arrogant coach is the head of a hierarchy.

The second coach is humble. He knows that players are human and must learn and grow. When his players make mistakes he works with them to identify what went wrong and develop strategies for improvement. Instead of calling them weak, he lets his players know that he believes they can strengthen their skills with time and effort. The humble coach is open to his players’ suggestions and teaches them how to listen to each other regardless of their rank on the team. The humble coach is a leader within a community. Think Ted Lasso, for fans of the AppleTV show.

To be humble is to accept that you are no more important or special than any other person. To be humble is to accept that we can all make mistakes and learn from them. It is the opposite of the arrogance and presumption that men are pushed to develop in our society.

An arrogant man believes that he knows best. He dismisses the opinions of others or tells them what they should know, regardless of their level of expertise. This phenomenon is so common that it has earned the name of mansplaining. In the workplace, ‘manning up’ and ‘taking charge’ leads to men speaking over women, taking credit for the ideas of others, and believing that the loudest is right.

The arrogant man needs to defend his rightness and views weakness as something to be exploited. He uses derision and jokes to belittle others or ignores and undermines them when they threaten his own superiority. In short, arrogant men are bullies and their behaviour makes openness and collaboration both difficult and dangerous for people who disagree with them.

A humble man has learned that he doesn’t need to be right all the time. He recognizes that other people may have feedback or opinions that he can learn from and that will make him better. His sense of self worth is not built on being the ultimate authority or being tough enough to show others ‘who is the boss’.

Because the humble man is open to the input and perspectives of other people, he also learns to see when his behaviour or approach is harmful. He has learned to value the well being of others and not to view their feedback as a threat. By learning how to collaborate and communicate without violence, he becomes a safer and more equal partner at work, in friendship, and in love. He doesn’t cross other people’s boundaries to prove he has more power.

The term ‘toxic masculinity’ refers to the collections of beliefs, values, and expectations of boys and men that create unhealthy behaviours. These are the unspoken expectations behind the command to ‘man up’ and to seek power over others; to fear weakness, deny emotion, and cultivate secret shame. In practice, those beliefs make men less likely to reach out for mental and physical health care, interfere with our ability to connect emotionally, and encourage us to cross the sexual, emotional, and physical boundaries of others to be in control. Those toxic beliefs are also used to justify everything from emotional abuse, to revenge porn, and domestic murder.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Instead, we can encourage boys and men to be humble, to open themselves up to vulnerability and accept feedback from other people, and to seek win-win situations instead of trying to win personally. As men we can stop believing that our ability to tolerate this male toxicity is an asset and instead work to create a healthier culture for everyone.

Paradoxically, this change is only possible if we accept that it is necessary. To cultivate the greater humility that will change our world for the better we first need the humility to accept that we have been a part of something harmful. This is men’s work and I believe that we can accomplish it if only we can find the courage and strength to be humble.

Jon Farmer,
Men's Program Grey Bruce