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How Everyday People Can Change the World and Love Doing It

Three ways anyone can do good and feel good

You’re committed. You are going to break the man box, that unwritten code that dictates the narrow criteria of manliness. You’re going to challenge every sexist and homophobic comment you hear. The gender police got nothing on you. You’re hanging out with your group of guy friends, and someone says, “Why don’t you hit me with your purse next time?” Now’s your moment. Cutting through the chuckles, you say, “Hey, man. That’s not funny. That’s sexist.”

The group turns to you and grows quiet. Eyes are squinting — studying — and smiles are sinking in slow motion. Then, your friend says, “Looks like it’s someone’s time of the month,” and everyone erupts into laughter. Everyone but you.

Confronting expressions of masculine superiority is common on social media, but it’s often terrifying in person. While that is not a good excuse to support harmful patriarchy in silence, it’s a reality. It’s also not all that productive to hurl internet shame as motivation for change. Here’s an anonymous comment I received after writing The Belonging Paradox for Men (about the fundamental human need to belong and men being lost in their search for it):

Boohoo men 😢 No surprise men have problems with relationships when they set up systems where they exploit others and compete against everyone all the time. Real trust + intimacy killer there guys. You have created [and] enforced [the] very system that [is] hurting you. Drop [the] patriarchal bravado and build one based on true equality. It will be hard to feel any compassion for your plight until you make a good faith to do so. So far, you only seem to be protecting your privilege and resisting change. Until you exert some effort to change things systemically, you deserve to be lonely and jerking off by yourself. Everyone is DONE reinforcing you and the crappy system you created! 🤮

Fair points, but I don’t believe this flavor is the recipe for change — especially for boys. Boys inherit this frustration without understanding the history behind it, and most don’t learn the skills to navigate the competing forces that surround them. They are called on to be better men, but they are also pressured to emulate their peers and role models. They hear that boys can be anything, but they also hear that boys will be boys. They should be good guys, but girls like bad guys. These contradictions are confusing.

Boys ought to learn the history of gender inequality. People ought to stand for justice and against bigotry. There are lots of techniques and tips to interrupt and challenge harmful behavior — many of them unrealistic, patronizing, or ineffective. There is no universal approach to having difficult conversations, but there are three strategies that anyone can use to change the world.

Prioritize Relationships

Imagine there’s a bridge that crosses a raging river, swarming with flesh-eating salmon. You’re on one side, and your friend is on the other. Your friend calls out, “Hey, come over here. We need to talk.” Your brain questions if you want to walk over there. It’s a long way. Your friend lights a bundle of dynamite and tosses it onto the bridge. Is this a joke? It looks real enough — the bundle explodes, leaving the bridge crippled, flames licking in the gaping divide. Whatever your friend has to tell you, you sure aren’t going to hear it now. Not ever.

And the moral of the story is: don’t burn down your relationship bridge.

People are motivated to learn from people they love, and by love itself. Not intellectualism or jargon. Not shame or exclusion. Relationships are at the center of learning. When people engage in difficult conversations, the need to be “right” often supersedes the relationship. This is a mistake that leads to division. Even family members grow so attached to ideas that they are willing to sacrifice their relationships to protect their beliefs.

In the summer, I work at a boys camp, and we regularly have conversations with the staff about masculinity and belonging. A young cabin leader shared with me how he confronted beliefs that conflicted with his own during his recent travels. I was impressed. He and a friend were living and working in North Carolina. The people they met there were kind, hardworking, and very welcoming, and they had grown up in a culture that normalized racist behavior. Their use of racial and homophobic slurs was shocking and unsettling. At first, he and his friend did not know how to deal. Ultimately, they chose to build relationships.

After a while, they had meaningful conversations about language and their differing perspectives. They found common ground, and their hosts were receptive to their concerns about the slurs. Not only did the hosts apologize and stop using hurtful language around them, but they called out their friends as well.

Change occurs from the inside out. Building relationships is a way in.

Get Off Your High Horse

Self-righteousness is a turnoff. People don’t relish being treated like an imbecile or a degenerate. Their natural reaction is to go on the defensive. People who think they are smarter or better than others — though they may be the last to see it — are often non-critical thinkers. I regularly refer back to Richard Paul’s interpretation of strong sense versus weak sense critical thinking. Everyone would benefit from considering the following questions (and being honest about the answers):

Do you generally believe the same things as your peers? What do you believe about politics, religion, abortion, and other controversial issues? If you find that you are squarely among the majority of your peers, you may be a non-critical thinker. Why do you believe the things you believe? Can you give a reasoned defense of those positions? Are the reasons actual reasons, or do you find yourself simply repeating things that you’ve heard other people say? If your “reasons” sound like a tape-recording of someone else, then you are probably a non-critical thinker. How do you respond to people who disagree with you? Do they irritate you? Do they make you angry? Do you consider them to be “radicals,” “bigoted,” “hateful,” or “ignorant”? If you answer yes to any of these, you are probably a non-critical thinker. What do you know about views that oppose your own? Pick a topic and try to give sensible reasons that would support your opposition. If you can only think of silly “reasons,” then you are probably a non-critical thinker.

When we listen to others and have a dialogue instead of a diatribe, we can think critically. Unfortunately, the world is becoming alarmingly fanatical — and increasingly blind to it. We condemn oppression while oppressing opposition. We fight for freedom while attacking free thought. Some who read this may think, “Well, some ideas are just wrong. If we don’t attack sexist thoughts, how will we ever achieve gender equality?” It’s not that simple.

In The Five Levels of Attachment, don Miguel Ruiz Jr. explains the danger of fanaticism:

The most obvious examples of fanaticism can be found in news reports that describe killings in the name of some cause, belief, or way of life — where one’s love for their fellow man is entirely conditional upon the others’ willingness to do or be exactly what is expected and acceptable within that belief system.

Not everyone is running around committing atrocities, but a major reason why those who ride high horses fail is because their love and acceptance of others are conditional. They flaunt their enlightenment, slapping hands with any enlightened pals who share their beliefs while shaming the unenlightened. Naturally, the “unenlightened” resent this. The result: two stubborn camps set on disowning, persecuting, subjugating, or annihilating their opponent.

It’s the destructive world-changers who try to bend others to their will. People who change the world for the better don’t require conformity. The most influential ideas are the ones that light a fire inside the soul, the ones that spread from a spark. Many people make the mistake of forcing change with a flamethrower:

Sometimes we think that the only way to make someone a better person, and, by extension, make the world a better place, is to convince them that they should see things our way. But there are plenty of people around us who don’t behave the way we think they should, and we waste energy trying to convince them to be something they are not, instead of allowing them to be who they are. When we think that we know more or better than someone else, we are setting ourselves up for a clash of beliefs…. Without respect for the freedom of choice, peace is not possible. (don Miguel Ruiz Jr.)

Question sexism. Challenge racism and homophobia. But do it with respect and with the expectation that not everyone will or should or needs to think the same. The odds of uniform thought are approaching one to 8 billion. For now, put your money on unconditional love, and you should do just fine.

Let People Know What You’re About

If you prioritize relationships — which does not include manipulating others to support your beliefs and desires — people are more likely to respect you and adjust their behavior to honor the relationship. The young leader who got to know his hosts is a great example of this. Rather than staying silent, he let people know what he stood for, and they chose how to respond. He did not shame them or create conditions for their ongoing relationship. People choose to change — if they want to and if they can.

When I began GoodMenders to foster moral masculinity and realize and sustain its critical mass, my friends asked a lot of questions about what I was doing. They also asked questions about what they were doing. Was that “toxic masculinity”? Is this “schlock”? Sometimes, these questions were in jest, and some friends were still more comfortable maintaining the box of stereotypical masculine norms, rather than breaking it. But, over time, I noticed a change in their behavior, at least around me. They knew what I stood for, and whether it was out of respect for the relationship or the ideas, more often than not, they chose to break the box.

You don’t have to be up in someone’s face to change the world. Humans do things that they like doing. Most don’t like others getting in their face, so that kind of approach will push them away. On the other hand, when people see in others a reflection of the life they want to live, that draws them closer.

Think of what might go through someone’s head with the most popular clothing brands. If I wear Nike, I’ll be a better athlete. If I wear Victoria’s Secret, I’ll be sexy. If I wear Patagonia, I’ll be environmentally responsible — and super cool. We are walking billboards. And whether we like it or not, people judge us by the logos we choose to represent. I’m not trying to say you are what you wear. I’m just saying.

Or think of simple words that have called millions of people to act. Black Lives Matter. Make America Great Again. Occupy. Love it or leave it. Me too. Give me liberty or give me death! Agree or disagree with the beliefs, these are powerful messages. Holding a sign with one of these phrases is enough to make half the population think you’re a good person — or hate your guts. But it’s the synergy that is important. When lots of people rally behind the same flag, more follow, and the roar grows louder.

Humans are conformists by nature, hardwired to achieve belonging. To belong, people learn to do what is socially acceptable. Most people follow the rules because they otherwise risk rejection if they are caught not conforming. Let’s circle back to gender equality. When the majority stands for gender equality and behavior that promotes inequality leads to negative consequences — socially and financially — people will conform to behaviors that support equality because it will be in their best interests. That’s not necessarily how things should be in an ideal world, but this is not an ideal world. In reality, we’re all selfish.

For the reasons above, I make gear for GoodMenders. If each hat leads to someone asking a friend, “Hey, what’s GoodMenders?” And that friend explains that it’s about fostering moral masculinity, developing principled leaders, and building cultures of empowerment, and then all of that friend’s friends know what that friend stands for — that’s a lot of friends. Imagine if people rocked a logo that stood for gender equality as often as the Nike swoosh.

Dads, let your kids know what you’re about. Athletes, hang up a banner in the locker room that says what kind of team you play for. Camp counselors, tell your cabin what they can expect from you as their leader. Teachers, explain to your students why you teach. A body, a voice, and unconditional love are all you need to change the world.


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