Measuring Up: The boundaries of working-class masculinity

March 16, 2018 Opinion , OPINION/NEWS , OTHER

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Zak Mucha



When my own therapy shifted into full-on analysis, I acknowledged, “This goes against every class bias I was raised with…” making a joke of my own terror of what I would find beneath the surface. I had never planned to be a psychotherapist. As a child, I knew of no adults who would discuss their inner lives with a stranger (or, possibly, a loved one). Such disclosure was forbidden and therapy itself was a sign of weakness, or something rich people did. I was betraying old rules and relationships, definitions of my own self.


Slavoj Zizek wrote, “The original question of desire is not directly, ‘What do I want?’, but ‘What do others want from me? What do they see in me? What am I to others?’ A small child is embedded in a complex network of relationships; he serves as a kind of catalyst and battlefield for the desires of those around him…” When these wants are not met, we look at the distance between these desires to create something to span that gap. Each construction bridging that gap simultaneously erases and confirms the existence of that gap.


I often found myself in the gap between classes and categories – somewhat accepted, but never fully, and, frequently, belonging nowhere. I grew up in a mostly white, working-class and middle-class neighborhood “safe” from openly-recognized forms of danger – the unseen and the outsiders whom most of my relatives left the city to avoid. Recognizing what was considered “not-safe” was a process that delineated concentric circles around the house, both geographically and culturally. The house was ground-zero, normalized and idealized. My father was a silent workhorse, a Marine Corps Vietnam vet, and shop steward for his union local. The next door neighbor was a Chicago cop; on his front porch was a red-jacketed lawn jockey painted in grotesque blackface. “He’s a good man,” was the general consensus, but suspicion hovered over the foreign-born doctor across the street. The adults hinted at his third-world credentials and Medicaid mill office. The cop was a good guy, the doctor was not. College was “important,” but other adults with professional careers were dismissed. Physical work was good, overtime was better. Violence, actual or threatened, was not “good,” but pride came with recognizing when it was necessary to identify threats.


Signifiers of “good” and “bad” were created by and defined acceptable criteria for masculinity: Caucasian, heterosexual, Catholic, white ethnic, and American-by-one-generation. To be excluded was a threat which demanded constant vigilance and these criteria for the external world extended to my own internal sense of self; I was expected to meet the demands that I be a “good” student (I had an aptitude for drawing and schoolwork was easy), but I also wanted to meet the models of masculinity which devalued such goals. Alfred Lubrano describes the problems of crossing that boundary between socioeconomic classes, noting the working-class kids are taught, “…being educated is effeminate and irrelevant.” Following any track not accepted in this class-based masculinity, one became less masculine — by default, “more feminine” – and issues of education, race, gender, and sexuality are swept up in those accusations of otherness and less-than.


The boundaries of working-class masculinity are enforced almost exclusively by the threat of potential ostracism from the group. This ostracism places the individual stepping outside the boundaries as less-than, a diminishment provoking the primitive anxieties of isolation and annihilation. This threat, given its context, demands a presentation of potential or actual violence as a means of warding off that terror. This threat reverberates externally, playing out in a range of normalized playground taunts, homophobia, institutional racism, white supremacy, homicidal misogyny, and any other tribalism meant to de-humanize the other and protect a fragile, and constricted, sense of self.


Growing up, I learned the phrase “nigger” was common enough often outside the house, but I didn’t expect it so casually spoken at home. “Your mother asked me not to use that around you,” my father said after I graduated high school, “but you’re old enough now.” I imagine he was not ashamed of his language as much as his acquiescence. Racism and anti-Semitism were never overt in the house, but from attempting to decipher adult conversations I, as a child, had the distorted sense that Jews were these strange old men who owned all the stores on Harlem Avenue.


While attempting to remain within those concentric circles of acceptable roles of class and masculinity, I was left to solve the paternal double-bind of instructions layered with negations: “Don’t be like me,” and “You better make something of yourself.” I was expected to achieve something valuable, but were I to make any progress, I presented a threat, summarized in the warning, “Don’t start getting big ideas about yourself.” This double-bind requires a false self to be presented in order to protect the relationship with a masculine armor deflecting criticism, while burying the actual self in that isolating gap.


In analysis, this gap appeared as dream material: A second-cousin at a family party — a non-white person (the “black sheep”), ostracized from the dream family — gave me a tailored suit made of bulky, quilted moving pads used for loading commercial trucks. This dream cousin was proud of his functionally useless creation, but I was embarrassed by his effort to merge my past and present. His gift signified my own calcified perception of class. Early in analysis, I acknowledged my wish to remain safely within and simultaneously escape those confines of a working-class background, an impossible position both desired and shunned since adolescence. A high school teacher disrupted my lack of plans — and my hesitant plans to remain safely within my environment — with a scholarship to art school downtown. (Before I left, one friend asked, “Why you want to do that? It’s all niggers and fags.”) While drawing and art had been a solitary endeavor, art school was a culture shock; I didn’t understand most references, pronounced artists’ names thoroughly incorrectly, and I thought two fellow students were putting me on when they described their trust funds. I was proud of my new surroundings and embarrassed of how much I did not know, defiant and ashamed of both my present and past.


Dropping out of school, I chose jobs that acquiesced to the limitations of working-class masculinity, always keeping one foot out-of-bounds. I never went all-in with a union job or long-term employment of any sort as I still had plans to be a writer. Working in a truck yard, I was able to “prove in” among a transient crowd that did not or could not adhere to middle-class employment expectations. Disputes were not mediated by HR and violence was considered an acceptable problem solving method; one employer informed us we could fight in the alley or in the truck yard, but not in the customers’ houses. My co-workers had criminal records, were undocumented, and living week to week. On job sites, hierarchy had to be established. A young immigrant nicknamed Onionhead could declare his masculinity, his status as better-than, with “the n-word.” The Mongolians, who had once sacrificed a sheep in their studio apartment, would announce their position in the American pecking order with their use of the same racist epithet to proclaim their understanding and position in the race-and-class-based hierarchy. When violence was not the criteria, the work itself – underpaid and exhausting manual labor – was presented as evidence as those who couldn’t maintain the pace were less than masculine. Telling those old stories now, during analysis especially, becomes an effort to anchor myself in the world, to link both then and now, seeking approval from both sides.


Just as work boots and jeans back then declared my space within working-class boundaries, I now dress a little better than required for private practice (my wife had to explain how suits, shirts, and ties should fit) to note I am no longer exactly the same person I used to be. The shadow cousin’s gift of the dream suit was a functionally useless gift in which I was to wrap myself, announcing I may have never fully belonged either here or there.


The day following that dream of the cousin’s gifted suit, I was leaving supervision, questioning whether I belonged in the analytic community as I walked down to the subway platform where a psychotic man was bellowing apocalyptic threats. The crowd of commuters had created a moat of empty space, separating themselves from the ranter. I passed through the space and the man stopped yelling to calmly tell me, “That suit’s not going to protect you. You won’t fool them.” I kept moving as if I hadn’t heard, but I watched the man go back to his ranting as if he hadn’t whispered the truth to me: He could see the clothes still didn’t fit. I wasn’t fooling anyone. The uncanny commentary of the psychotic man pulls forth Sue Grand’s description of the paradox of annihilation where the desire to be known meets the impossibility of being known, both positions simultaneously wanted and unwanted so that being understood becomes, in itself, a threat to renew the sense of annihilation and catastrophic loneliness repeatedly.


Recently, I caught up with a friend from the truck yard after he was arrested for throwing a spinning back kick into the face of a drinking partner at his corner tavern. The cop who arrived on the scene was a family member who told him, “You know how it is — the loser goes to the hospital, the winner goes to jail…” I never considered this man violent; he was nowhere near the most violent of the guys we knew. His violence, affective rather than predatory, was accepted by the people around him, myself included. We laughed at the story and dismissed any deeper concerns about our pal; violence remained a viable response to insult, injury, or threat, and understanding this proved I was still “one of the guys.”


When explaining my private practice to another old pal (who truly did carry himself with an air of violence), he asked, “So, are you like a psychiatrist?”

“I’m better than a psychiatrist.” I had to acknowledge my unchanged alignment with some class boundaries.


“I’m not sure what you do,” he said, “but that’s cool. I’m with you.” For which I was proud, as I feared every move forward distanced me from my past self and my connections to that world. In analysis, I find myself trying to weave together one narrative from these seemingly fractured parts of my life, each dependent upon that sense of acceptance from others. The anger, meant to be protective, furthers the sense of loss and validates the sense of rejection, justifying their refusal and my response. My own desire for that validation remains, knowing these distances between myself and others opens up as I attempt to ward off that loneliness and worthlessness. Ernest Becker describes this existential terror: “But we know that the universal and general cause for personal badness, guilt, and inferiority is the natural world and the person’s relationship to it as a symbolic animal who must find a secure place in it.” The anxiety that arises without an understanding of the symbolic gets displaced, projected onto others as a threat.


In my practice, I see this with male clients where the terror of not “measuring up” as men is mediated by efforts to lift weights, train in MMA styles, and accumulate arsenals in order to fend off concretized fantasies of the threats that have already been internalized. The presentation of a potential for affective violence becomes protective, creating a self-prophetic and self-perpetuating world view where a non-violent stance could be fatal. Sue Grand suggests that humanity attempts to metabolize this paradox through the performance of “evil” behavior, which is “an attempt to answer the riddle of catastrophic loneliness.” The terror of not belonging anywhere in the world demands a response and violence is an acceptable one which, in turn, reinforces the criteria for working-class masculinity.


As I moved into the social work world, I spent seven years supervising an Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) team providing 24/7 wraparound services for persons in the neighborhood suffering from severe psychosis, drug addiction, multiple hospitalizations, incarcerations, homelessness, and all the medical and socioeconomic issues that burden this population. When acquaintances asked me about the dangers of the job, I minimized any concerns (early on, one cop pal offered various weapons to carry) but I realize I liked facing that potential for violence: I once jumped into a fight between a client and the police and was tasered along with the client; I could brag about the collection of confiscated knives I kept in my desk and the pawn shop samurai sword I once convinced a young man to surrender. For a time, I found a route to incorporate past criteria for masculinity into a “non-masculine” job, nurturing others in a corner of the field which required some understanding of violence. One former co-worker from the truck yard dismissed me and the work, “You’re just an adrenaline junkie trying to be nice,” echoing previous dismissals from those first sets of concentric circles of working-class limitations, which were also meant to keep me close; this refusal laced with praise was meant to keep me within acceptable criteria for masculinity.


This criteria is defined by environment and culture; years ago I worked on a locked unit housing adolescents in DCFS custody. The socioeconomic status (which includes race and ethnicity) of these boys and their families did not support the traditional working-class (white) measurements of masculinity. These adolescents had gang tattoos before puberty, some were sex offenders, a couple were arsonists, and others were so neglected they met criteria for “failure to thrive.” Any self-perception among these children did not include an approximation of the working-or-middle-class plan of school-college-work-career-and-family. To even entertain these options meant one was “trying to be white.” Developmental markers to manhood included sentences to the Audi Home and Cook County Jail. Possessing hands shaped by work was un-masculine; any acquiescence to manual labor or steady employment was a sign of weakness, a sign that one could not get over on a system of institutional racism that has traumatized generations. Culture sets the values of class and the outsider’s response to the culture creates a new, oppositional culture and class.


Criminologist Lonnie Athens diagrams a process of social teaching where violence becomes a component of the ideal:


“Ego-syntonic acts are acceptable to the ego and thereby congruent with an individual’s self-image. Thus, if violent crimes were in fact ego-dystonic, then the self-images of the violent criminal actors would be at sharp odds with their violent criminal actions… Although violent criminal acts may be ego-dystonic for psychiatrists, they are ego-syntonic for the people who commit them.”


Setting the boundaries for both race and class are the perceptions of masculinity as each sub-group excludes others, in turn both defining and being defined by economic, cultural, and political factors of race and class. A refusal of the dominant culture, perceived or real becomes a self-protective act threatening the other. In the quote above Athens also hints at the class barrier between doctor and patient which impacts diagnosis and treatment.


The perception and use of violence becomes a part of the acceptable self-image defending against any sense of alienation and terror of annihilation. Christopher Bollas describes the self as a dialogue of introjects, signified by desires and refusals, prompted by the reciprocity, or lack of, in the child’s world. The idealized masculine self justifies the dynamics of violence: If they can do to me whatever they want, conversely, I can do to them whatever I want. One statement is meant to nullify the other, but each statement supports the other. The expectations of “being a man” incorporate the construction that confirms and erases the gap. Internalizing the roles of both actor and target, the individual plays out the process Bollas described. Accepting the roles of victim and aggressor, the individual sees himself as he imagines others might see him – as “weak” – and the violent presentation is to defend against that projection. Freud summarized both sides of this equation: “Punishment must be exacted even if it does not fall upon the guilty.”


Dylann Roof’s mass murder at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, was a declaration of race war dovetailing his personal revenge – against women and the non-white men “taking” those women. The violent actor’s sense of shame and perception of disrespect in the eyes of others remain the fuel for the violent presentation and violent action, simultaneously creating an enemy. The true power Roof sought may have only come in the courtroom when he refused to acknowledge the existence of victims’ or victims’ families during the impact statements following the guilty verdict. Only then was he able to play the role of the powerful, refusing to even acknowledge the existence of the non-masculine. This desire for a negating power supports the ideal that it is better to be at war against the entire world than considered inconsequential to it. The same motivation can be seen in violent actors like Eliot Rodger who targeted random women whom he chose to symbolize those who rejecting him.


This desire for power is enacted in the identification with the lowest common denominator of tribalism. Stalin may have killed more people, but Hitler has more fanboys. In a lifelong struggle to define himself by identifying enemies, 73-year old white supremacist, Glenn Miller, Jr. went on a shooting spree in 2014, killing two people at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City. Miller announced after his arrest, “I finally did something. They’ll remember my name.” He could dismiss the fact his victims were white Christians and not Jewish; his message was a symbolic act. In earlier missives, Miller quantified his sense of inadequacy — encouraging others to pick targets by assigning Jews, blacks, and other “mud people” to a point system of 1-10, and those of higher socioeconomic status or cultural capital were placed at triple-digit point levels. These are the fantasies of a person who already sees himself as doomed to be outside of any roles of power. It is a pornographically violent version of the zero-sum game where the exclusionary and devaluing perception of masculinity demands: It’s not my fault – it’s theirs… and If I cannot have (or be) more, other will have (or be) less.


The counterpoint to this paranoia is the hope which some of the population registered in the barely encoded racism, xenophobia, and misogyny in the most recent presidential election. My wife (there are uncanny similarities between our fathers and the perceptions of class passed down to us) asked, “How does anyone who calls themselves ‘working-class’ decide that a rich guy is going to ever be on their side?” Disgusted with a political system that has ignored them, a large minority of the country grabbed at the candidate who voiced this disgust as well. Within that group, biases of class, race, gender, sexuality and culture have been tapped via code or direct statement, each nurturing explanations as to why people feel unseen, immobile, and unrooted at home, trapped without a place to belong. This place to belong is one which my wife’s father (and my own) could build with a high school degree: a house, a union job with a guaranteed pension, and a family safe from the threats of eviction, poverty, and crushing debt. This path no longer exists for many and the anxiety of not “measuring up” demands other solutions where, if the working class cannot transcend such barriers to define the self and create a space in the world, a sacrifice can be made in the fight for an ideal which can be incorporated into that sense of self and place.


Richard Konigsberg describes how, during World War I, the masculine ideal for soldiers serving on the front led to the equivalent of mass suicide. Konigsberg cites the generals of England and France who prided themselves on the numbers of soldiers obediently sacrificing themselves by walking orderly into the enemy fire. To give one’s life for the nation became an expansion of one’s own self. The most masculine, virile, noble, and patriotic act a soldier could commit was to ignore the technological advancement of machine guns not seen in previous wars, which promised immediate death, and march forward as men did before. In that death was an acknowledgement of sacrifice for the nation and a devaluing of one’s own life which also signified the greater value of that same life.


The limitations of working-class masculinity demand some nobility to come from the potential sacrifice. My father, who was not a gung-ho patriot, said of Vietnam, “It was all show business.” This disappointment becomes the cost and bitter pride of staying within the culture of the working-class. Any others who do not pay that same cost, who do not face such threats, become lesser precisely because of their wider range of options in life. When I was teaching at a law enforcement training program for disabled vets (most presenters had not served in the military), another Marine who served in Afghanistan told me, “If I hear one more person thank me for my service, I’m going to punch him in the fucking face. If they’re that impressed, they should have gone…” The disillusionment that comes when the fantasy is found to be hollow becomes truly dangerous, as generations before have lauded this sacrifice to be redemptive, linking self-identity to a greater cause and incorporating that cause into an expanded sense of self. We see this in homemade paramilitary groups, disorganized terrorists, and self-styled tribalist gangs seeking to belong to something greater. The masculine ideal will find or create a cause in which to immerse one’s self or an enemy to vilify in order to continue mediating the sense of shame transmitted culturally or paternally.


Skinheads perceive themselves as a link in the chain of “working-class” youth movements and birthed a series of short-lived, counter-identifying groups, each declaring themselves the true heirs of working-class ideology. One African-American “non-racist” Chicago skinhead — a known figure in the local mythology — personified the ideal for his group (which was white and at least dozen years younger than he). Arrested and convicted for stabbing a man, he described defending himself in prison:


“…One guy. And I beat the fuck out of him. He was an AB, some Aryan Brotherhood guy… He started talking shit in the hallway when I was coming back from the shower in flip flops and a towel. Basically I beat his ass while I was naked. And fucking people were like: ‘You let him beat you up while he was naked.’ Kinda degrading when a guy’s sitting naked with his balls in your face, smashing you…”


Incorporating his role as violent actor and as ostracizing audience, he acknowledged the layers of meaning behind losing a fight to a black man in prison: The loss of masculinity is witnessed; the victim is shunned by his own group and the institution. The victim is weak and his status (as masculine and heterosexual) is revoked. The victor’s sense of self is further supported by the identification of an enemy: This is what I am not… while his own self-presentation confronts others with the paradox of an African-American skinhead who had adopted some of the fascistic stances of the culture in which he did not wholly fit, but any challenge to his identity provoked a violent response.


Under pressure that threatens its own boundaries, the masculine self-image creates the opportunity to define itself against a threat. That violence, whether in self-defense or as a pre-emptive strike, resonates and replicates itself as in Bollas’ description of the perpetrator taking both positions of the actor and the victim. One neo-Nazi crew leader in California, Jeff Hall, was killed in his sleep by his 10-year old son. Hall cited his own ongoing unemployment as one result of the ZOG conspiracy which forced Hall’s wife to keep the family financially solvent, inverting stereotypical gender roles, and emasculating the working-class male defined by his work.


Following the homicide, the son was interviewed by police:


“’He said he was gonna turn off the smoke alarms and burn the whole house down when we were asleep …. That really scared me.. dad was going to do something that would make mum go away. I didn’t want my mum to leave … dad was kinda mean. So I thought maybe it would be him to leave.’ When asked whether he understood what he had done, the child said: ‘I wasn’t really thinking about if he was gonna die or get unconscious … I was trying to get him to know how I feel when I get hurt …. Then maybe we could go back to being friends and start all over.’”


James Gilligan’s presentation of the function of shame in violence explains the father’s threats against his own family:


“The emotional logic that underlies this particular crime, then, which I called the logic of shame, takes the form of magical thinking that says, ‘If I kill this person in this way, I will kill shame – I will be able to protect myself from being exposed and vulnerable to and potentially overwhelmed by the feeling of shame’…”


The masculine terror of not measuring up to an outside world can be first induced by the fathers who set the ideals for their sons. The negation of the father as an ideal, in whole or part, may be the only way to protect one’s sense of self. Shame always seeks revenge: If I cannot alter the judgment I perceive from the other, then I render the other unable to judge. In the case above, the family became the witness to and the evidence of the father’s inadequacy, which the son attempted to banish. Both Gilligan and Bollas present examples of the symbolism of criminal behavior, but the drive for the commission of that criminal behavior is always a defense against some threat – internal or external, abstract or concrete.


The terror of not measuring up to other males becomes justification enough for the violence meant to bridge the gap between Zizek’s questions of self-identity. That threat felt by the father is passed along, provoking the anxiety of never “measuring up” onto the child, a terror that becomes an abandonment the child or adult will suffer almost any agony to avoid feeling. The image of the father becomes reinforced by that of the inadequate son, a purposeful diminishment accepted to avoid that sense of abandonment, of ostracism. This diminishment is the trade-off for acceptance, but can also provoke the aggression and “badness” to be projected onto an acceptable other, an individual or group who can be “less than.” The threat of not-belonging is carried like a second skin, felt in every setting and fueling the anger which justifies being simultaneously the victim and the violent actor.


That sense of victim and perpetrator, split and simultaneous, does not allow for a perception of acceptance in any environment and both roles can be played out internally, justifying each other. In Winnicott’s question of where the environment sits in the mind, a third space between the subject and the object, created by play and the subject’s experiences in the world allows for this anger and anxiety to exist without the presentation of a false self or the occupation of a dissociative state. When that space threatens annihilation, the individual either has to mediate the gap by concretizing the link between the self and the external world, either in symbiosis and/or opposition. Without this, there is no viable space to exist between here and there, between the strict, exclusionary boundaries of class and masculinity. Like the cousin’s hybrid suit offered in my dream, I have to make something new from the pieces of my own history which, in itself, marks that distance and sense of isolation created by the exclusionary boundaries others imposed.


On the walks to my analyst’s office, I sometimes think of a piece of brutal Slavic humor: A Russian revolutionary sentenced to death is being led into the forest by two soldiers and a priest. Following the execution, his body is to be buried in an unmarked grave deep in the woods so others cannot make him a martyr. After hours of walking silently through the snow, the priest turns to the prisoner, and says: “You think this is bad? I have to walk back.”


Positioned as the prisoner or the priest, I am forced to acknowledge the uncanny threat voiced by the man in the subway: In either position – my self being known or unknown — there is a threat of not belonging, of feeling that childhood terror of being unaccepted and shunned, prompting the rage which can be directed externally or internally. Whether I isolate myself in order to remain protected from threats or seek out others and risk being known and therefore vulnerable, I am forced to accept the dialectic which opens up to loneliness when I can be misunderstood and unknown again with each interaction.





Zak Mucha

Zak Mucha, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in private practice and an analytic candidate at the Chicago Center for Psychoanalysis. Previously he supervised a community mental health program working with persons suffering severe psychosis, substance abuse issues, and homelessness. His most recent book is Emotional Abuse: A manual for self-defense.





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