When I Push You, Push Back At Me

When I push another man during a philosophical conversation, I want him to push back at me. In the rest of his life, he has gotten used (a) to being overly sensitive, (b) to giving in at the mere mention of conflict, (c) to apologizing. If he is prone to upset, then he has gotten used instead (d) to reacting mean-spiritedly or (e) to sulking. Most of the time, I converse with those who fall into the first camp, those summarily giving in. That’s not a good thing; it’s not good to be a soggy noodle.

Stop being a soggy noodle; it’s neither admirable nor attractive.

What I’m looking for is someone willing to meet my claims head-on. I’m looking for opposition. I can be wrong; show me that. Show me too that you won’t roll over or take what I said lying down. Maybe there’s more to you than I had thought. Good. Or maybe there’s more to you than you knew. Better. Quit being a softy and playing patty cake.

Ours is a culture of patty cake. Enough of that.

We need to learn a form of mutual struggle in which we’re not turning against each other but are in struggling, fighting support of what is more than we’ve been. We men should demand of each other: show me more. When I push, push back. Don’t take what I say as true; don’t take it lying down. Suppose it’s untrue; tell me so. And don’t take my provocations as you would a stern admonition. I’m saying things that can sting, can be heard for you to hear. Well, stand up for yourself. Defend what you believe not out of pettiness but proper pride.

Take pride in your ability to fend for yourself and to fend off this surprise attack. Stop dodging everything in life, overlooking it, neglecting it, brushing it off, avoiding conflict. Don’t go around thinking you’re gonna hurt everyone else. Quit it. That’s arrogance talking, an overblown case of your own powers. Please, you’re not strong enough, not by a long shot, to hurt everyone in your midst. It’s also weak to believe that as though everyone around you were subject to immediate harm.

We’ve made heaps of mistakes about the nature of gentleness. Jesus Christ and Laozi were both tough guys, neither seeking to give in but to rechannel their forces. “Turn the other cheek” is a sign of composure, forcefulness, the capacity to stand there amid the pressure and meet dangerous force with an alternative force. Christ is not suggesting that you recoil or that you retaliate. Neither. Nor is Laozi who would have us give up self-importance, Confucian morality, false ideas of ourselves, concern with reputation. Both urge us to renounce our “reactivenesses” in the hope of being powerfully present with what is arising. Both would have us go into that opposing force, grappling dexterously, anonymously with it. Not backing down, gentleness of the kind I’m describing wisely pushes through. 

The paradox of gentleness is that it’s stronger than strength.

Stop seeking consolation, which is crap. Seek the truth, which is hard and wondrous.

My pushing is meant to elicit you pushing back and the hope of our pushing through. Should you fall back, then nothing can happen to you, nothing for your own good because you stubbornly persist in being where you are. When you and I are on the same side and I provoke you, step up, man. Talk back to me out of heart, heartiness, proper pride, and the desire to discover the truth. The truth is never discovered by the faint of heart.

Masculinity and the Case of Justified Anger

I speak with a lot of men about the loss of their masculinity in a feminized culture. I speak with them about wildness without recklessness, powerfulness without aggression, considerate manliness without brutishness, and, most notably, about toughness.

One of my male friends correctly believes that William James’s “The Moral Equivalent of War” spells out well our predicament: how to exercise the masculine virtues (such as bravery, trustworthiness, honor, and vitality) in the context of brotherhood or fraternity at a time when war has become de-legitimized as “a theater” in which to manifest such virtues. In our time, men have mostly failed: they have (i) diminished their powers of acting, (ii) succumbed to the search for pleasure, or (iii) poured themselves into brutish activities such as cage fighting or acts of aggression.

Masculinity mete for our time is too large of a topic to discuss in its entirety today, but one issue I would like to bring to the fore is that of justified anger. For quite a while, I believed that anger was never justified. My midwestern upbringing made me think that conflict was to be avoided at all costs, and I found backing for this belief in Stoical philosophy (see Seneca’s De Ira). I was wrong, and Aristotle is right. As Richard Kraut puts it,

It should be evident that Aristotle’s treatment of virtues as mean states endorses the idea that we should sometimes have strong feelings—when such feelings are called for by our situation. Sometimes only a small degree of anger is appropriate; but at other times, circumstances call for great anger. The right amount is not some quantity between zero and the highest possible level, but rather the amount, whatever it happens to be, that is proportionate to the seriousness of the situation. Of course, Aristotle is committed to saying that anger should never reach the point at which it undermines reason; and this means that our passion should always fall short of the extreme point at which we would lose control. But it is possible to be very angry without going to this extreme, and Aristotle does not intend to deny this.

I note, time and again, that men have come to believe that anger is always unjustified on the grounds that (a) it is uncontrollable and (b) it will necessarily harm someone else. But (a) just isn’t true: anger, to the appropriate degree provided it accords with right perception and reason, is in fact controllable; we can learn to control it. And (b) isn’t necessarily true: anger can be a way of helping someone or of standing up for some cause or some third party in the face of blatant injustice. In fact, justified anger can enable us to achieve what reason on its own cannot. More than this, anger is a sign of our proper pride in ourselves. We show that we won’t be trampled on or walked over any longer. We have a true, living, palpable presence.

One of my acquaintances once spoke of “owning the center line.” You own the center line when you walk into a room in a way that, without saying a word, sets the terms for what can happen there. In The Art of War, we learn that the greatest strategists are those who have such a presence that the other party would not think to fight them. I want to say that our capacity for being appropriately, justifiably angry reveals to those present that we are capable of owning the center line, that we have a commanding, though not unkind, presence.

Justified anger is a manifestation of toughness and right conviction. Men need to look at themselves and to push this insight through their lives.