The Man Box: The Link Between Emotional Suppression and Male Violence

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The repetitive policing and punishing of boys and men, which takes place in the Man Box, ultimately puts our entire culture at risk.

Humankind is in the throes of a savage epidemic. It is a blight on every continent and is at the heart of every bloody war and every catastrophic environmental disaster. It reigns over the bodies of Trevon Martin and Matthew Shepard alike.

We police, condemn and assault difference. It is an illness that has been with us since we came down out of the trees and its time to shake it off before it kills us all.

In America, we have many ways of isolating and attacking difference.

For American men, the social mechanism many have come to call the Man Box is the dominant frame for performing masculinity. Charlie Glickman writes eloquently about it in his article titled Escape the “Act Like a Man” Box.

According to Glickman and others, the Man Box is a set of rigid expectations that define what a “real man” is. A real man is strong and stoic. He doesn’t show emotions other than anger and excitement. He is a breadwinner. He is heterosexual. He is able-bodied. He plays or watches sports. He is the dominant participant in every exchange. He is a firefighter, a lawyer, a CEO. He is a man’s man. And whether or not we’d actually want to spend any time with him, we all know who he is.

This “real man,” as defined by the Man Box, represents what is supposedly normative and acceptable within the tightly controlled performance of American male masculinity. And if he happens to get aggressive, belligerent and violent some times, well, that’s just the price of real manhood.

And to be clear, women are as culpable as men in the policing and the enforcing the harsh rules of the Man Box. When men attempt to express masculinity in more diverse ways, it can often be their mothers, wives and daughters who force them back into the box. This economic and social risks this kind of change represents can be challenging. Women know what policing and punishment looks like and they fear their husbands or sons being targets. Better to play the game and keep safe.

If the Man Box was simply about performing its constrained version of masculinity it would not be so problematic.

The Man Box enforces aggressive policing of those who do not perform gender according to its rules, reinforcing homophobia, racism, sexism and religious bigotry. Policing is also applied on randomly subjective levels; being triggered by differences as minute as the color of a person’s shirt or how they might carry a book. In the Man Box, deviation from what is deemed normative, no matter how minute the deviation, is tracked and policed.

Why does the Man Box dictate attacking difference? Is the Man Box’s ultimate goal to create a completely uniform culture?

Actually, no. Insuring universal conformity is not the purpose of the Man Box, it is the need to police that defines the Man Box. The Man Box exists to accrue power upward in its internal hierarchy and it does so by isolating men emotionally and then channeling their resulting anger into the repetitious and addictive act of policing and punishing others.

Micro Aggression and the Man Box
The level of conformity needed in order to be fully accepted within the Man Box is not, in fact, possible to achieve. The more that men and women are herded toward conformity, the more slight the differences that are needed to trigger comment, harassment or attack. The purpose of the Man Box is to target difference and grant permission for acting out aggression both internal and external to the box.

Take five of these men in a group. Put them in a bar. Much of their dialogue will center around the question of who gets to define the local standards for conformity. It can play out as follows:

Frank enters and approaches his friends. He is wearing a Dallas Cowboys shirt. All turn and say hello. Dan, who is wearing a New York Giants shirt says, “Frank, what the fuck? The Cowboys suck, dude.” Dan is smiling, but the message is clear. I’m dominant here. I’m the alpha. This is central to how the Man Box functions as a hierarchical system. Someone is always on top. Power and influence flows to him.

The other men in the group do a quick calculation. Is supporting the Cowboys not normative? The issue may play out as regional or based on the team’s win-loss record. Or the men in the group may know that Dan is more aggressive and don’t want to challenge him. Within seconds they chime in.

“Dude, the cowboys suck.” There is laughter all around. Frank shrugs off the aggression. He remains in the group. This momentary marking of difference plays out as a reinforcement of the group integrity and an indication of Dan’s alpha status within the group. The one thing Frank is not allowed to do is to exhibit emotional distress. His feelings can not be seen to be hurt. He is allowed to show aggression or disinterest but nothing else. In passing this test, he remains in the group.

This dance plays out dozens of time each hour. As more alcohol is consumed, the group’s interactions may become more volatile. It is a closed loop of internal judgment and policing which, at any moment, can switch its focus to external judgment. This constant internal policing within the Man Box is stress-perpetuating for all except those at the top of the hierarchical pyramid. Which makes the moment that policing goes external to the Man Box a great relief for those at the bottom of the pecking order. As such, they are always on the hunt for an external target. This is the most powerful factor encouraging the marking and attacking of others.

Glickman writes:
The (Man) Box is one of main reasons why men harass women on the street and why catcalling and violence tends to escalate when men are in groups. Since the Box is hierarchical as well as performative, the guy at the bottom of the heap is at risk of being cast out. So each guy has to compete with the others in order to not be the one who’s outside the Box. And as each one’s performance becomes more vigorous, it forces the others to do the same.

The internal pressure to police others leaves men little choice but to attack what they are told to attack.

As their capacity to connect emotionally is suppressed and their need to shift policing to others outside the group is constantly reinforced, the stage is set for disastrous results in the social, political, religious and corporate cultures these men inhabit. We see this playing out in right now in our national politics.

Corporations and the Man Box
The capacity the Man Box provides to reinforce authoritarianism and obedience is particularly useful in rigid top down hierarchal command structures. The downside is the systemic suppression of creativity, individual initiative, and risk taking.

The illegal and unethical behavior by big banks like JP Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs in the lead up to the subprime mortgage collapse is the result of corporate cultures that have internalized the contempt for difference inherent in the Man Box. Put simply: those who do not reside within a corporate culture are different and therefore are not simply disposable sources of revenue. They are, in fact, worthy of deception and punishment.

A startling glimpse of this institutionalized punishment dynamic was revealed in 2004 when CBS News gained access to tapes of Enron energy traders who, after artificially spiking energy prices that had plunged California into rolling blackouts, then laughed at the results.

CBS reported:
During California’s rolling blackouts, when streets were lit only by head lights and families were trapped in elevators, Enron Energy traders laughed, reports CBS News Correspondent Vince Gonzales.

One trader is heard on tapes obtained by CBS News saying, “Just cut ’em off. They’re so f __ked. They should just bring back f __king horses and carriages, f__king lamps, f __king kerosene lamps.”

And when describing his reaction when a business owner complained about high energy prices, another trader is heard on tape saying, “I just looked at him. I said, ‘Move.’ (laughter) The guy was like horrified. I go, ‘Look, don’t take it the wrong way. Move. It isn’t getting fixed anytime soon.”

To hear sample audio of Enron employees blaming the victims of Enron’s morally corrupt policies, listen here.

The Man Box long ago came to underpin our entire culture of masculinity which, in turn, dehumanizes and preys on others on a vast scale, resulting in wide scale economic, environmental and military violence. Public institutions like the US Congress attack the safety nets meant to cushion populations from the vicious boom and bust cycles unregulated corporate malfeasance creates. When individual othering goes global: the poor on other countries are defined as different and deserving of their suffering. Entire continents are marginalized and the body counts runs into the millions.

The Collapse of the Devil’s Bargain
The Man Box told men in the last century that they were the king of their castles. At a time when women were economically powerless and vulnerable, the devil’s bargain men struck was to accept rigid hierarchical work lives in exchange for absolute authority at home. The Man Box granted legions of men permission to dish out whatever dictums they saw fit to their wives and children. Its not something men in the Man Box are willing to give up lightly. The raging backlash against equality for women is proof of how tightly men are clinging to this dying power disparity.

The devil’s bargain of the Man Box is directly tied to privilege, patriarchy and the good old boys club. But the implied agreements that sustain the Man Box are collapsing under their own belligerent weight; under the litany of broken promises from elites who have abandoned even the slightest illusion of responsibility toward American men and their families.

The collapse of the Man Box’s social contacts are resulting inepidemic levels of addiction, depression, suicide, divorce, violence and early mortality among American men. In large part, because the suppression of genuine emotional expression within the Man Box has cut men off from the kind of authentic relationships that resource us during times of economic or personal crisis.

No matter the declarations of politicians who would have us pine for a culture of manhood fifty years dead, we have little hope to return to what was. What we need now is a more purposeful acknowledgment of our exit from the Man Box and all its attendant costs. There is little left there of value for any of us.

A Vast Landscape of Opportunity
In a time of social and economic upheaval, what may seem like a raft of challenges for men and women also represents great opportunity. The Man Box’s promise of economic security in exchange for social conformity is crumbling. Job security is a thing of the past.

Out of the ruins of these broken social contracts, a new breed of men and women are emerging. Change is happening because a generation of men have stepped out of the narrow confines of traditional manhood and are seeking more personally meaningful lives, either by creating companies that take a progressive view of their responsibilities in the world, or by finding entirely alternative ways to earn and live.

The work of undoing the Man Box is ongoing. As men, we must model for our sons and daughters how to connect emotionally, how to encourage the entire diverse range of what it can mean to be a human being and how to enjoy caring for the world instead of seeking to dominate it.

We can support companies that value diversity and social justice. We can invest in more locally-based economies around how we buy food and services. While the halls of power continue to preach hate and policing, vast subterranean economic and cultural changes are in motion that will challenge and end the primacy of the Man Box once and all.

For men, we need simply make the conscious choice to live fuller and more emotionally rewarding lives. With that simple choice, change for the better follows.

“There’s nothin’ in the world so sad as talking to a man
Who never knew his life was his for making.”

Ray Lamontagne, Old Before Your Time (click here to listen)

Photo by: Jussi Ollila

Read more by Mark Greene:
Why Do We Murder the Beautiful Friendships of Boys?