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The Men's Movement Revisited
by Dick Gilkeson

When the Men's Movement most closely associated with Robert Bly was beginning to have an impact, one of the leaders warned that once the "spirit" motivating the activities began to wear off, it was likely to be a movement more identified by Men's Studies courses and political activist groups than by men inspired to deepen their understanding of and authentic relationships with other men. The rationale for that prediction twelve year ago was that every movement from organized religions to the Boy Scouts was started with spiritual fervor, and that each had been overtaken by a deadening bureaucracy. That, it was explained to me, was the way of the world.

The argument made sense to me, and I made a mental note to do what I could to keep the men's activities in which I was involved as free of bureaucracy as possible. Looking back, I don't believe that it was bureaucracy that caused the precipitous drop in public Men's Movement activities. Bert Hoff, editor of Men's Voices, one of the few surviving publications linked to the Mythopoetic Movement, suggests that the decline was due to a gender thing: namely, that men are prone to depositing our prolific seed and moving on; whereas, women are more prone to nurturing their limited eggs through pregnancy and beyond.

It's been the women in mixed groups I have been in that have had more energy around keeping the group together and moving forward. The pop writers who write about gender differences seem pretty well united in pushing the notion that women are more interested in building relationships, whereas men are more interested in getting a task done and then moving on. This seems to support Bert's ideas.

I've read in management texts that men are good starters and entrepreneurs, but we're not very good at the maintenance side of keeping businesses going. We like to start things and then just leave them after a short period of time and move on to start something else. That argument too certainly seems to be in line with Hoff's observations. His argument likely does have merit, although I'm sure he'd be the first to admit that his theory is not the whole story behind the rise and near-disappearance of a movement with enough visibility to make the pages of nearly all the leading news magazines.

In a recent conversation with Robert Bly, I asked him what he thought of Hoff's hypothesis. He stated quite simply that he thought that the decline in the Men's Movement occurred because "Men are lazy. Too many men just don't want to take the responsibility to guide their own development." That seemed just too pat an answer. Too easy to lay on other men. Over-worn as an ethnic slur. I couldn't refute it, but had trouble buying it. Such a pronouncement in gender conversations would generally be expected to mean: "Men are lazy. Women are industrious." I simply haven't observed that kind of difference between the genders.

I have previously reported that there is still a great amount of energy going into what was termed a movement by the press, but what is in reality a movement of men into small, private men's groups. Many of the groups that used the impetus of the activities in the 80's to form and begin meeting regularly are continuing to get together. Some report a significant deepening of their groups and the intimacy with which they are able to address significant issues. I don't need to be convinced that men's groups are alive and well and contributing more to social issues than ever before.

What I am still trying to understand is why the public activities that served as "gateways" for men into smaller groups have almost disappeared locally and on a national scale. Hoff and Bly may have part of the answer. I'm certain there is more, so I'll throw a few more thoughts into the pot.

First-off, many movements become identified with an individual, and lose momentum when the charasmatic leader moves on. The Mythopoetic Men's Movement became over-identified with Bly, and seemed to move into decline when he decided to spend more time writing poetry than participating in Men's weekends.

In addition, the men I worked with were dealing with a multitude of issues from grieving about their mostly absentee non-relationships with their fathers, to learning that we could trust other men (and women), to better serving environmental issues. The activities in which we engaged tended to deal with some issues very well, and not so well with others. I constantly felt more energy to have smaller groups split off to deal with their specific issues than energy to try to stay together. It was easier to be critical of what was missing than to be tolerant of making the needed mistakes to build the road we were all traveling on.

I also saw an increasing focus on turning a buck. It seemed to me that a primary motivator, i.e., "how to help each other," shifted toward "how to make some money doing what I can do for other men." I don't suppose I can fault the second motivator. It's built into the fabric of how we are raised in this society. I can only report that it was a turnoff for me watching men publish their books and then dramatically raise their fees to conduct weekend activities. It was hard not to be suspicious of the motives of The Promise Keepers, when they came along charging 60,000 men $60 apiece to attend events in large stadiums.

In a more positive light, I also think that the large public front also declined in part because those of us who had been involved in the mask-making, myth-interpretation, talking circle, and drum-beating types of activities came to understand that they were simply 100 level activities, to use a college studies analogy. They only went so far. I believe at some level we knew that what we were looking for could only be found in smaller, more private groupings. There was no planned, continuous path through 400 level or even 200 level activities.

To move beyond continually sharing opinions to developing true intimacy and long-lasting community undoubtedly takes work, as seekers of these goals will likely attest. If Bly is right, we simply weren't willing to put the energy, vulnerability, and self-revelatory work needed into continuing the process he helped to initiate. Or, maybe, as I suggested, we simply didn't have the right forum -- too big and too public. Or likely both and a lot more.

Or maybe our lives are so full that too many of us are looking for a quick fix. Women in the Women's Movement surely held no expectations that their goals could be achieved overnight. Is it possible that too many men said to themselves, "I'll give this a shot, but if I don't see immediate results I'll try something else?" Our "take a pill and it will go away" society also works against patience with longer-term processes. I do not doubt for a minute that most of us are caught up in the quick fix web."

One other thought comes to mind. I believe that social change often must go through a predictable cycle, namely: 1) a change (or more likely pseudo-change) is introduced and gains momentum; 2) the change produces some positive gains which threaten the status quo; 3) those protecting the status quo (including the media) bring about a backlash; 4) the backlash has an effect, and the change loses momentum; 5) following a period of time, real change in a somewhat different form, backed by convictions stronger than those that supported the backlash, reemerge, and the change begins to become truly institutionalized.

I suspect that we're somewhere in between 4) and 5) with small groups meeting regularly and consistently for a long period of time providing evidence of some of the elements needed to realize our true evolvement.

What do you think? I know that many men simply don't care about the men's movement and see it as mostly irrelevant. I don't have a whole lot of energy on the topic, per sť, myself, despite this article. I am, on the other hand very interested in what men are doing to bring about evolvement, particularly as we work in small groups. As the Mentor Page Editor, I welcome information about what you've got going, and how it's going for you. Is real change and growth occurring? How can other men get involved?

Send your information to Dick Gilkeson, Mentor Page Editor, 16448 NW McNamee Road, Portland, OR 97231.

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