Q&A: Calling Men In Versus Calling them Out

I talk to Jeff Perera about how digging into constructive conversations about masculinity can bring us closer to healing. 

The Mandate Letter, by Jason Rogers, focuses on the evolving state of masculinity. Thanks for being here. If you were forwarded this email, get your own:

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I’m excited to share my recent conversation with Jeff Perera!

Jeff is a speaker and writer out of Toronto, Canada who, since 2008, has organized events, delivered talks, and worked to inspire conversations amongst men about helpful versus harmful ideas of manhood.

What I really like about Jeff’s work is that it’s solution-oriented. That is, Jeff roots his thinking in how we offer men and boys model more positive and mindful examples of masculinity — he calls these “Maps to Manhood.”

Our conversation is wide-ranging. We touch on emotional intelligence, accountability, privilege, and more. Find out more about Jeff at Higher Unlearning.

This interview has been editing for length and clarity.

I really like one of the analogies you used in your TEDx talk, “The Ladder of Manhood,” about men’s relationship with emotion. You’ve said that, for many guys, it’s like their “body is rejecting the heart.” Can you tell me what you mean by that and what we can do about it?

I’m obviously stereotyping, so this is not true across the board. But for us guys, it often feels like our own heart is a foreign entity in our own body. That stems from the fact that culture doesn’t permit us as boys to explore our emotional side. It's not that we don't have emotions. We have a storm of emotions. We just don't allow ourselves access to them, so those muscles have atrophied over time.

So, later, as we enter romantic relationships or experience difficult moments in their lives, we struggle because we haven’t been in the emotional gym. But there are people around us who have been working those muscles since they were kids. Now they're ripped and in shape and can go to the gym’s clang-and-bang, old-school weight section and know what they are doing. And but we men are standing around with the fancy equipment just trying to figure it out. 

The real problem occurs when we get into romantic relationships, and our partners have to become our personal emotional trainers and help us get up to speed. That builds resentment and can often lead the relationship to dissolve. So, rather than leaving the heavy lifting to our partners or the women in our lives, we should be doing that heavy lifting together as men. We should be spotting each other emotionally so that we can develop those skills.

Why do so many men get so defensive when invited to think about masculinity broadly?

For many of us men, our identity and value are tied to this perception that we need to be in control and be in charge. So, any language that suggests we’re not enough immediately gets interpreted into “I'm not enough of a man.” When we couch the discussion in being a “good” man or a “better” man, it gets often misinterpreted as better than other men

It’s much better to encourage guys to be better they were yesterday. That's language that we can all relate to and understand. So let’s come back to that metaphor of emotional training. Once we get into that mindset of repetition and building little by little, we begin to arrive at moments in which we realize: Wow, I can pause before taking action. I can be a helper instead of a fixer. The measure of my manhood isn't tied to my ability to fix and solve. And as that reprogramming begins to happen, it becomes easier to connect with the things we’re actually searching for.

How do you invite guys to be more open? What’s the best to begin and fuel that process?

It's really about us getting out of our own way. So many of us men block our own shot in life. When our narrative of success is narrow — money, power, physical strength — you're falling short as a human being. Growth is about digging in and doing that work. And, again, with the workout analogy. When you want to get physically stronger, you get a trainer. When you want to get emotionally stronger, you get a therapist. Of course, there are also ways to work out alone or in a group (e.g., talking with your friends or group therapy). But I think it's about normalizing it, making it part of your routine, and finding role models examples of other guys who are trying to create that muscle memory, emotionally.

I don’t mean to make it sound simple because it's an ongoing process of untangling the shame we have about ourselves. Also, while doing that work, your mind will be screaming, “No, they won't respect you! This is weak!” But it’s recognizing that even though it feels like you’re going in the wrong direction, it’s actually the right one, and once you let go of the fear, these types of adjustments will change your life. 

When it comes to creating safe spaces for other men, how do we balance the need to be open and accepting of all the things a man might want to share while also holding them to accountability around changing their behavior?

After #MeToo, some unfavorable details came about a man that I vaguely knew. And a woman outed me on Twitter for still being friends with this guy on Facebook. I actually didn’t even realize that I was, but I think that action speaks to the prevailing mentality: men should unfriend these people and kick them out of the house party.

Obviously, I'm invested in supporting the person who's received harm. But I'm also invested in the person who's caused the disappointment or the harm. I'm invested in their growing from that moment because if we kick them out of the house party, they will just go on to the next one. So, for me, canceling, blocking, or unfriending someone isn’t allyship because it’s easy to do. We have a duty to at least explore doing more before that last resort.

I'm not judging anyone who takes those actions; I totally understand. But I think someone has to be there to say, “Hey, I'm here to invite you into accountability.” You can't hold anyone to accountability because it's only when the man says to himself, “I want to be accountable,” that something might stick.

Of course, there are non-negotiables, but I think men deserve private calls into responsibility at the early stages of our disappointing or hurtful behavior. And when that approach fails consistently, that’s when you move to calling them out. 

I really like that notion of calling men in versus calling them out. Can you say more about that?

One of the first panels about this topic that I ever joined was a university dormitory here in Toronto. And there was this police officer from the Sex Crimes Unit who got up there and went on and on with a presentation that was all doom and gloom. He kept saying, “you’ll get this much jail time for this crime and this punishment for that crime.” And it was just ten straight minutes of “don't rape, don't cause harm, don't commit a crime.”

And, yes, it’s essential to talk about the rules. But I think we need more tools. We need to understand not only what “better” looks like but also how to do that. This is the crux of the issue for me. In other words, for men to grow, we need to show them the way forward. We need to use ourselves as examples. We need to show them maps to masculinity that actually work.

How does being ethnically Sinhalese (his parents are from Sri Lanka) provide a lens for thinking differently about or better understanding your own masculinity?

All of us are made of layers of identity, and it’s important to step back and understand how your identities impact the way you view the world and how the world views you. So, yeah, I'm Sinhalese, and in Sri Lanka, my people are the majority. By contrast, the Tamil population (who are the minority) is a community that my people are trying to erase. I was born here (in Canada), so that is not something I can directly identify with. However, that attempted genocide helps me understand and relate to what, for example, some white men might be going through in feeling that slavery isn’t their fault.  

Also, I’m often confused for being black, which is beautiful, but it’s not factual. But that means that I’ve been called the N-word many times in my life, and, in some senses, I’ve had a small insight into the black experience. That includes the positive stereotypes of black men around romance and sex and the dehumanizing racist ones that society imposts on black men. People have assumed I'm gay, so I've also experienced stereotypes in that realm as well. And, interestingly, their treatment of me changes once they realize that’s not the case. 

All of that is to say that it helps me contextualize what it's like to navigate privilege and lack of privilege, and how fluid that process can be. It puts me in a place where I can relate and say to others, ‘Yes, I’m different just like you.” I don't pretend to understand exactly what others are going through. But I think when we engage each other based on that kind of empathy, we can begin to break down the roadblocks around fear and shame. 

That’s a really interesting point. And it also makes me think about something I struggle with as it relates to my identities and this work. I’m a cis-white-hetero guy that spent a lot of time in private schooling. And sometimes I worry that, when I offer thoughts about this topic of masculinity-evolving, some might be thinking, “Ok, Mr. Privilege, you just don’t understand.”

Yeah, I think it’s important to acknowledge our advantages in life. But I don’t think it’s fair to put people in a box. When we erase the nuance of people’s privileges and experiences, we are just putting them in boxes. And that doesn't allow us to build that middle ground and to have these critical discourses.

I'm so invested, for example, in white people talking about white supremacy and white privilege amongst themselves. We can argue and say, “well, they can't speak about racism,” but that doesn’t mean that speaking to shared life experiences as white people can't lead "to helpful discourse. But let’s bring it back to men. I’m so invested in men talking about male supremacy and male privilege as men. We can name it and talk about it, but it's not to say we have not had hard lives.

The thing I think about a lot right now is this question: is it tough to be a man right now? Some people may strongly disagree with that notion. But the way we approach the conversation can change the kind of outcomes we can create. The real question about what we should focus on is: how does my idea of manhood bring us closer to healing? How does it bring us closer to building community? That's the kind of compass that I want to use to navigate the conversations I have and the things that I do in my life.

More about Jeff at Higher Unlearning

Department of Links

  • What It Means To Be “Dad Enough” — I wrote another piece for Man Enough featuring three thoughtful voices in the fatherhood community (Kevin Maguire, Ludo Gabriele, and Kier Gaines) — Man Enough

  • The Male Beauty Myth — The article is an on-the-nose book plug. However, Jeremy Langmead, the former editor of British Esquire, dishes some interesting thoughts about how we are cultural becoming more accepting of men undertaking cosmetic procedures as they age — The Guardian

  • The Warrior Beneath the Surface — We’ve become accustomed to the movie narrative where the regular guy/dad is wronged and goes on a rampage for revenge (Fight Club, Taken, and more recently, Nobody). I’m not a fan of the term “toxic masculinity” to critique these narratives, but the author of this piece is right to question whether these archetypal characters are helpful or not — The Guardian

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