Boys are being bad, again. They’re displaying “a stunted masculinity,” says the cover story in the current issue of The Atlantic magazine. The article, titled “The Miseducation of the American Boy,” bemoans “the brutal language” of teenagers and young men whose primary values, the article claims, involve dominance, aggression, stoicism, rugged good looks, athleticism, and sexual prowess.
Indeed, their immaturity is a concern, but let’s not limit the discussion to the miseducation of the American boy. Americans and people throughout the world are being miseducated. We’re not being informed about our psychological nature. We aren’t learning the most pertinent facts about inner conflict in our psyche and how this conflict generates suffering and self-defeat.
This disservice, I believe, is tied to the rapid decline in American’s mental health and the alarming increases in depression and mental health experienced by young Americans. Psychiatry and academic psychology, having undervalued depth psychology, are much to blame for this educational malpractice.
The author of The Atlantic article, Peggy Orenstein, interviewed more than 100 boys and young men, aged 16 to 21, about masculinity, sex, and love. She writes that their sense of masculinity “seems to be contracting,” even “harking back to 1955.” She says the boys express a “stunted masculinity” that overlooks honesty, morality, and leadership skills in favor of an adolescent culture that “fuses hyperrationality with domination, sexual conquest, and a glorification of male violence …”
Before I discuss the deeper aspects of this juvenile mentality, here’s more from Orenstein. She does observe that the boys and young men she interviewed, all in college or college-bound, were informed and open-minded. They held “relatively egalitarian” views about girls, had gay and female friends, considered girls to be smart, and were aware of “excesses of masculinity” such as domestic abusers, sexual harassment, and campus rape. Yet the boys, she writes, still considered they had “just one narrow route to successful masculinity.” This “narrow route” required adherence to stoic toughness, combativeness, sexual conquest, and the suppression of feelings.
At one point in her article, Orenstein wonders about the origins of “the brutal language” that young men use to describe sexual contact:
… but why was their language so weaponized. The answer, I came to believe, was that locker-room talk isn’t about sex at all, which is why guys were ashamed to discuss it openly with me. The (often clearly exaggerated) stories boys tell are really about power; using aggression toward women to connect and to validate one another as heterosexual, or to claim top spots in the adolescent sexual hierarchy.
True, their coarse language is not directly about sex. But the language is not directly about power, either. The boys’ “brutal language” is really compensation for the lack of power they feel deep within themselves. The language used by these boys appears to be aggressive, but it’s really a kind of pseudo-aggression, a phony pugnacity that covers up their underlying emotional association with being a frightened, passive self in a world that reveres dynamic masculinity. Boys can easily feel overwhelmed by the challenging of becoming that ideal. Their emotional weakness is inherent to the psyche; it’s not directly the fault of parents, culture, or the boys themselves.
As a saving grace, the boys’ aggressive language is often toned down with wit and banter that says, “I’m joking–don’t take me seriously.” The camaraderie succeeds on the basis of mutual acceptance, the smiles and laughs at one another’s wise-cracking bravado.
The immature language serves as an unconscious psychological defense that, as one example, goes like this: “I’m not a weakling who’s fearful of being exposed as someone who can’t get to first base with girls or who might even be intimidated by them. Look at how aggressive I am when talking with the guys about girls. My words are confident and self-assured, not passive.”
But the boys are passive, in the sense that the profoundly passive experience of childhood—involving helplessness and dependency—is baked into the human psyche. This passivity (termed inner passivity) is a universal feature of the psyche. Why are the boys afraid of it? Deep down they have, in part, identified with this passivity. It’s enmeshed with their self-doubt, inner fear, challenges concerning self-regulation, repressed memories of childhood helplessness, experiences of mother as the original authority-figure, exposure to paternal weakness, and expectations of what it means to be a man. Becoming aware of the extent of one’s emotional identification with this passivity is a jolt to the system.
Girls have inner passivity, too, but they don’t react to it in the same way as boys. Their passivity is often an aspect of femininity and their feminine traits are, of course, socially accepted.
Orenstein writes that, “Sexual conquest—or perhaps more specifically, bragging about your experiences to other boys—is, arguably the most crucial aspect of toxic masculinity.” She paraphrases a comment from one of the boys: Guys need to prove themselves to their guys … they’re going to be dominating … they’re going to push … because the girl is just there as a means for him to get off and to brag.
It’s not helpful to call this behavior “toxic masculinity” because that phrase offers no insight. It’s more helpful to understand that boys use this “weaponized” language because they’re desperate out of inner fear to assert an impression of power in order to hide from others—and from themselves—their deep identification with inner passivity.
The Atlantic article offers many examples of the boys’ coarse language. One boy noted that “being vegans would make us pussies.” When inner passivity enters the discussion, we can see the source of the boys’ coarse language. The expression fag was used pervasively by the boys Orenstein interviewed. The boys were not likely to use the expression in reference to a specific homosexual. Instead, the word was used to mock an alleged lack of toughness—e.g., a boy acting romantically with a girl.
It’s likely that some boys want to stay clear of the passive implications that they believe are represented in homosexuality. Hence, they use language that denies any affinity with homosexuality. Orenstein referenced a widely used Twitter hashtag, #nohomo, used by straight guys who, when expressing positive or sensitive emotions, wanted to inoculate themselves against insults from other guys. Boys routinely confided to her that they felt shut down emotionally, denied access to emphatic language out of fear of feeling or being emasculated. One gay boy, she noted, changed the way he walked to avoid being targeted as “girly.”
What more does this say about the boys’ psyche? Depth psychology helps us to see the specific nature of emotional weakness. One vital aspect of this weakness is inner passivity. While psychological in nature, this passivity is established biologically and is associated with the subordinate or unconscious ego. Every child spends many years in stages of helplessness and dependency, which is a factor in why inner passivity remains a powerful identification (emotional default point) for adults. At an unconscious level, it is often experienced as an essential aspect of our being. We don’t quite know who we are without it. Once inner passivity is identified and its influence understood, it acquires a clinical distinction that enables us to create intellectual and emotional separation from it.
Inner passivity is always in conflict with our inner critic. Inner passivity allows or enables our inner critic to impose its harsh, irrational dictates upon us. Inwardly, we don’t stand up for ourselves against the inner critic (superego). The inner critic is formed, as Sigmund Freud correctly determined, when a baby’s natural biological aggression overwhelms his or her body to establish a drive consisting of self-aggression. This drive has a primitive intelligence, and it poses as our inner authority. When young children first experience the inner critic or superego bearing down upon them, they have little sense of how it might be an alien or invasive force, let alone how it might be counteracted. As adults, we can have difficultly detecting our inner critic (as opposed to neurotic symptoms it induces) because this self-aggression seems such a normal, natural part of us, even to the point of adopting the style and language of a parent.
In the psyche of boys and young men, the self-aggression takes the form of mockery, sarcasm, self-blame, and denigration. Much of this content can be entirely unconscious. Again, boys feel mostly the symptoms such as tension, self-doubt, anxiety, and fear. In more conflicted cases, boys experience guilt, shame, depression, and suicidal thoughts. The inner critic mocks them for any alleged weaknesses or failures. Their identification with inner passivity means they resonate emotionally with a sense of weakness, exacerbated by inner conflict between their abusive inner critic and their meek, defensive inner passivity. They now adopt coarse, aggressive language, thereby coping with the conflict by creating an illusion of being tough and powerful. Many boys value athletics because, in addition to its pure pleasure as a participant or spectator, sporting aggression and “bro-bonding” disclaim passive associations.
The more we recognize these elements of inner conflict, the quicker our consciousness aligns with our inherent goodness. Awareness of inner passivity, therefore, is tremendously helpful. If boys were taught these inner dynamics, they would be much less compelled to act out pseudo-aggressively. Higher consciousness, in this regard, means the game is up. Boys now are free to align with their better self instead of reacting naively and immaturely to unrecognized passivity. Inner strengthening occurs as previously unconscious content becomes conscious, providing vital knowledge to one’s intelligence.
Here’s a small example of this vital knowledge. As The Atlantic article notes, many boys feel that becoming combative is the proper response to being angry. Yet depth psychology teaches us that being angry is often employed as an unconscious defense covering up helpless and powerless feelings that are directly associated with inner passivity. “I’m not feeling passive or victimized,” the unconscious defense contends, “I’m angry at those who act against me.” The anger feels like aggression, whether a boy acts on it or not. When a boy’s intelligence is made aware of this defense, he realizes that acting on such anger would be pointless and self-defeating. A boy’s reactive anger dissipates as he assimilates this deeper understanding.
In every instance of inner conflict, passivity is experienced. Consciously, boys want to feel strong and self-possessed. Yet they’re contending simultaneously with a pronounced or even overwhelming sense of emotional weakness. While their inner passivity itself is mostly unconscious, it is experienced, as mentioned, as tension, self-doubt, anxiety, and fear, particularly when boys are reacting defensively to their inner critic’s challenge to their fortitude, worthiness, integrity, and goodness.
Everyone to some degree has inner conflict. The conflict between inner passivity and the inner critic is enmeshed in other conflicts and attachments involving impressions of being deprived, refused, criticized, controlled, rejected, and abandoned. These conflicts—wanting to feel loved, for instance, versus inwardly expecting rejection—all involve a sense of weakness and passivity, especially in the failure to support oneself emotionally, to fend off the inner critic, to understand the dynamics of self-deception, and to express one’s authenticity.
It is true, boys are being miseducated. Yet the psyche has been treated by educators like an incidental, invisible, unknowable fuzzball. Now’s the time to show it some respect.
My latest book has just been published. It’s titled, Our Deadly Flaw: Healing the Inner Conflict that Cripples Us and Subverts Society (2022), and it’s available here in paperback (315 pages) or as an e-book.