About the Silence of Men - and About My Own

Image: Sholto Ramsay on Unsplash

Friday 29th June, 2018

Ralf Wetzel

My name is Ralf, I am 47 years old, trained as electro-mechanic, though ending up as a Business School Professor living and working in what is called ‘the heart of Europe’. I have been an academic for 25 years, being in deep love with social and organizational theory. I am divorced, with two grown up kids and besides all that, I am a man. Why is this important? Well, the last feature is one, if not the reason why I sensitively monitor the discussion about Weinstein and #metoo. It affects me deeply, that I can confess, since it raises a number of very weird feelings within me, feelings I hardly can describe. I feel a call and a wish to express and share what I think. Therefore, on a warm Ascension Day afternoon, in the hope to get some steam off my mind, I find myself sitting at my garden table, holding my blue ink pen, starting to write about what will become my ‘Silence-of-the-men’ blog. It reads like this.

The shock of Default Man

The list of shame containing men accused of sexual harassment following the Weinstein scandal is rather long already and apparently endless. Beyond the self-enforcing and self-referential media-outcry, the endlessness of the list contains already one first truth. This list is not about the power- and money-infused sub-milieus of prominent perverts. The longer the list becomes, the clearer it is that it is the mundane male who is brought to the fore there. Or, using a better expression, it’s the default man, as Grayson Perry calls him in his recent book ‘The Descent of Man’. The standard white, straight, middle-class, middle aged man who stands in the harsh light of question and criticism about his own default world he has built and which responds according to his default mode – so far. The mode of which he was and is so much unware of.

The feeling of shock and paralysis, resting in my body since long, in this very minute I am writing about it grows and crawls up from my stomach through the gullet to my throat. There it decides to stay. My jaw gets tight and my teeth gnash at the same time. Half unaware, half ignorant, I write on.

How much default man is shocked I realize when checking the response to Weinstein & Co. by my gender mates. Trying at all to reach out to gender fellows in the attempt to discuss and reflect what’s going on, led to almost always the same response. The reaction was in fact plain silence and avoidance, with an underlying expression of sheer panic. There is a strong reluctance to address the issues involved head on in the current debate, and to address or even recognize the shift in sexual and behavioural norms between the sexes.

At this point, my mind eventually realizes the block in my throat and I have to put down the pen. My imagination kicks off and identifies this block. The attached feelings don’t come from nowhere. My own internal default man radiates them. He is, well, he has been a part of me ever since childhood, resting deeply within me. Those feelings are his feelings. In fact, we know each other quite well, and, probably more importantly, we don’t like each other much. We are not really friends. I tried to put him aside, didn’t give him much of space throughout the decades. I always considered him dull, stupid, offensive and oppressive, certainly not the features I wanted to be linked with. Now, he sits on my shoulder, with his left arm around my neck. Grey suit (slim line of course), tie, sun glasses. White shirt, barely covering two exercised, sun-tanned biceps and chest plates beneath slowly rising and falling. My mind, totally ignorant of his presence, is still busy with the argument I am about to unfold and eventually finds a reason why there is this fear in my throat.

The primary shock of #metoo for men is the realization that they have substantially lost control of the public debate about their identity. There is no hold, nothing to stand on as a place to somehow detach for a last resort of stability. Any attempts to justify, or at least to reflect are flawed, they de-mask not only themselves as being part of being default, they unveil even more as the construction principles of this world. The nature of that masculine world as being a social construction has become crystal clear for everyone - except for default men. They apparently still dwell in the image of the ontological essence of the classic ‘I-am-strong-and-I-don’t-need-anyone-to-solve-whatever’-hero. Now, as the one-and-only-construction collapses, it does so in the most shameful way possible, measured in the own terms of this hero and his world. Default man cannot exit this destruction as hero, he can’t manage on his own, he is stripped off power. Even in the moment of its undeniable collapse, the construction of the old hero delivers still more than enough emotional safety to prevent men from questioning or changing and starting a discovery into the ‘beyond’. Men manage to deliberately bind themselves to the past.

Anger rises fast and strongly. “Thank you idiots, you brought me there” I think and my anger rages at all the other men out there. Apparently, they all keep within an old snake’s skin just because they don’t see anything else instead. Different from them, I feel that I have outgrown their problem. I feel being already far beyond. I can talk, I already sit and obviously do produce lines to be published criticizing them. They hide instead and bind me to something old and useless. I know what the problem is. I know what their problem is.

The uncertainty about what else might be there instead – and whether there is something at all – is terrifying. This terror upholds any belief that whatever the alternative might be, it provides less emotional safety than the given hero ideology. Whatever might be behind the horizon would never exert as much safety as the past. Since, theoretically, it could mean that, beyond the horizon, there is just literal … nothing. A void might be waiting, deafening and abyss-like empty, filled only with irrelevance, purposelessness, disappearance and hopelessness, like modern literature, especially Samuel Beckett, painfully shows. For all human beings, the fear of getting finally uncompromisingly confronted with the void, is a core feature of modernity. It comes with the realization that individual identity is like an onion, as Peter Fuchs, a German systems-theoretical sociologist once put it. Each skin being pulled off stands for a social expectation that someone else directs to the individual. If every social expectation is stripped off, there is nothing left, no core, substance or magic elixir, being unchangeably individual. This emptiness produces feelings of insecurity and anaphylaxis, of vulnerability.

I know all about the void, says my nodding head. I have read all the relevant sociological texts, it was in the middle of it in my thoughts. I tried to explore it and embrace it. I did! I think I did. Did I? Now it’s me who becomes more and more uncertain about it. My own default man on my right shoulder starts grinning at me. ‘Don’t say a word!’ I throw a poisonous glance towards him. His grinning only grows in response.

The fact that men never dared to discuss and deeply reflect the social construction of their own world now substantially backfires. They are not only terrified and visibly insecure (desperately holding up the old hero), they stand speech- and wordless, plodding, but without progressing. There is no language, hardly any social means to address the deeply inflicted masculine relation between sex and power, not many words about self-protection and self-isolation, and even less about a possibly healthy reconstruction of male libido and re-shaping of identity. Staying away from intellectual confrontation has so far been the easier choice. It is still less threatening to plod on in sexism than to discover what else is there.

“They? You are like them, you are like us, aren’t you?” he calmly addresses me, still smiling. “To whom have you spoken to since, Ralf? Who on this holy earth knows about your insecurities, your terror, your fear? And I mean your real fears? With whom are you connected, who makes you different from us?” I can’t stand his glance and stare on the paper in front of me. The pen moves on mechanically, while my mind is in panic.

Since that would not only require to carry out any discomforting confrontation, it would literally mean to reveal about existing insecurities and about that excruciating void. Being visibly connected to one’s own inner insecurities was not and is not foreseen in the hero’s script. And the idea of regaining credibility by means of presence and vulnerability is by far not an established source of safety for default man. This is the result of a generation-long indoctrinated inability to connect to oneself, to face and accept the void within oneself. Disconnection, emotional self-restraint and self-protection are at the very default heart of Default Man, who too long managed to mask it in terms of subliminally violent self-expression. The abuse of physical, sexual, emotional and finally organizational power has been the means to keep that masquerade intact. That this masquerade is now successfully unveiled by a pornstar, the embodiment of brutalized male libido, clarifies the horror men have successfully maneuvered themselves into.

“That will break his grin” I think, very satisfied with my smart and challenging thought. I look up, turn to him, let my eyes meet his and launch my defence. “What do you think I am doing here? Why do you think I sit down in all of this and put down what I have to say, writing down what’s in my mind? I at least accept what you still deny. Why, do you think, do I disclose and de-mask what has become obvious anyway?” I wait to see the attack unfold its destructive purpose. But the bullet fails., a laughter comes as a response, instead, and its growing. It takes a moment until he stops, catches his breath and answers. “You disclose and de-mask? You write it down? Seriously? Okay, Ralf. Please have a look at what you’ve written so far. Look at it carefully. Where in these lines do I find you? Where are your ‘insecurities’, your ‘vulnerability’ that you treasure so much?”. His right eyebrow snaps up briefly as he puts down his glasses. I am nervously reassessing my lines. “I at least didn’t find any of it!” he snares triumphantly. A feeling of being caught hits my stomach like a fist. “I only found nicely elaborate, polished language, keeping your readers’ minds blurred in rather aloof realms. You don’t share a single grain of yourself in here, Sir, beyond the fact that you declare yourself as the expert, looking through it all, especially men.” An elbow’s push hits my stomach, three times harder than the fist. “You stick to the fucking hero’s tale as we all do, no matter what! Your aloof expert disguise is just a little bit too cheap, my dear.”

My pulse is racing and I take a deep breath to gain some fresh air and some time for a response, hoping there is one. My mind runs dry while as I open my mouth for whatever sort of a response. But instead of my own voice, I suddenly hear another one, saying calmly: “You are not like them, Ralf.” Struck, my head swirls around to where my surprised ears spotted the speaker. He sits on my other, the left shoulder. At first sight, I see ridiculously oversized red shoes, then a skinny, tall body dressed in an undersized purple shirt beneath an even smaller, screamingly neon green sleeveless pullover. Black and thick curly wisps of hair fall all over his head and face, stemming from a gigantic wig. And in the middle of his face, I discover a glooming red plastic nose. A clown! With tilted head, heaped shoulders and crossed legs, he looks at me, smiles and continues. “May I remind you about India, Ralf? Do I really have to remember you that you’ve deliberately have walked right into the middle of it?” Damn! I have been there, to prepare myself to take a few strong decisions, private as much as professional ones. I ended up there in a two-week yoga and meditation retreat, confronting myself with nothing but what was left after emptying my body from all the bullshit of everyday communication – and my hero’s past. “True!” My voice snaps in sudden relief. “Ralf, …” before he can continue, I interrupt … “Wait, I have to note that down …!” I miss seeing him rolling his eyes, while I only can think “My clown! I’m so glad you’re here!” My pen, suddenly liberated from a paralysis, hastily scratches over the paper …

There are ways, however, to encounter the void, and even to unexpectedly enjoy it. The first, unignorably, is the expertise of self-connection and of deliberately facing the inner void. Buddhist and Hindu traditions provide proven tracks on how to overcome disconnection from inner emotional worlds and to access and embrace the void. Strikingly, the void, darkly painted in postmodern literature, theatre, social science, and eventually psychotherapy has been the source of bliss and enjoyment for thousands of years beforehand. Studied and applied well, those ancient traditions and can substantially help in providing self-contact and a joyful encounter with emptiness. For men. And not surprisingly, the number of men undertaking such journeys is constantly rising. Modern, western Psychotherapy provides a considerable amount of …

“Ralf, stop it …” comes it again from my left shoulder … “Wait, please, in a sec!” I mumble …

… relief, it however mainly addresses cognition and substantially ignores the body. Given the physical, embodied traits of war, relationship and family trauma all around the place and reaching beyond generations, this needs to be complemented by physically expressive rather than cognitively introspective work. For this, there are ways existing and used too.

“Ralf, please. Your default man is right. You’re writing nonsense.” The clown giggles, as my hero does in unexpected approval. Oh, how much I love and enjoy my little clown. “I am glad you went to India” he continues. “That gave me back my playground. What you dangerously define as ‘the void’ was the place all of a sudden I could mess around in. There I could stare at, explore and rediscover the mystery of things and people. When you then gave me the red nose, I eventually could create a different world from the one you and your hero are in. Safe and protected as I felt in that void, I was able to turn the world upside down.” Which is true. After I went to India, a good friend dragged me to a theatre clown workshop. And there, all my protection mechanisms, covering and hiding my fear were removed one by one, like with the onion. There I could strip off expectations of being strong, of avoiding failure and there I eventually realized, how much of conformism has taken hold of me. What was left at the end was plain naivety and innocence, which I felt I had forgotten and lost since decades. What was left was a reencountered joy of playfulness, of being lost within the play, which led me to rediscover my own worlds. In the void, there is nothing to be afraid about, there is nothing to lose anymore. Performing Arts equipped me with the confidence to truly enter the void. It was not without harsh confrontations with my other selves, not without crying, stomping, screaming, laughing myself to tears, that let me find a place, which is stripped by most of conventions and classic traits. A place where at least I could re-ignite my imagination to build something different.

The sudden ring of the doorbell kicks me off my train of thought. Surprised I walk to the door, my two alter egos right behind me. My pulse is racing as I wonder why not to take the next occasion to deliberately explore the void. I open the door and a warm “Good evening, Ralf. Still okay to meet?” follows. I take a deep breath to gain some time for a response, hoping there is one. My clown giggles in sheer excitement “Go, Ralf!” he whispers.

Ralf Wetzel began his career as an electro-mechanic. He joined Vlerick Business School as a Professor of Organization and Management after extensive work experience in management and organization research and after being a head of a joint research and consulting group in Switzerland. His path led him from Germany to the UK and via Switzerland to Belgium. He is genuinely passionate about the fields of societal and organizational dynamics, of organizational and individual change, of organizational as much as individual bliss. He is unique in the way he explores the territory beyond the trodden paths of management science to provide truly inspiring insights enabling his clients to excel in today’s VUCA world. Highly successful training and coaching formats employ different art forms like improvisation theatre, movement & dance, surreal painting and clowning to bring leaders and organizations safely and playfully in new contact with themselves to allow for transformational change. Aside of his academic writing, he loves to turn research results into art-based forms like fiction, accessible for non-academic readers. Remarkable here are his Shakespearian drama on organizational change (“To change or not to change”). He is a passionate improvisation theatre player himself and loves to give his own clown all the space it needs to bring fun and laughter to refugee shelters and pedestrian zones, even if it’s only to keep Ralf’s own ability of being surprised alive. Any reflections & comments welcome at Ralf.wetzel@vlerick.com.

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