How the language of disrespect destroys self-esteem and empowers violent behavior.
Last night I took my 11-year-old son to our local diner for a late-night snack. After he’d finished his mushroom and onion burger and was working on a tall root-beer float, the bunch of high school boys in the next booth got up to leave. One of them, a tall, muscular young man with short-cropped brown hair, leaned over the table before walking away and said to his friends, “Tell John he’s a pussy.”
I was not shocked by the phrase—it’s endemic in male youth culture—but I took the opportunity to remind my boy that these words were disrespectful to women, that tagging a boy or a man with slang for a woman’s genitalia and using that word as an insult to mean weak, indecisive, unable to stand up for himself, and unmanly reinforces a damaging double stereotype: first of women being inferior to men; and second of men who possess female characteristics being inferior to other males.
My son said, “Yeah, I know.” I had read him the article I posted yesterday about domestic violence (without showing him the videos), and it had resonated for him. I explained that using the word pussy to insult a man related to what I was writing about, that the language of disrespect enables the behavior of disrespect which in turn paves the way for men to respond to disrespect—either real or perceived—with threats and physical violence and to use violence to enforce “respectful” (read submissive) behavior, both from male friends and colleagues and from women in relationships.
The following three-minute video, put up by The Representation Project, drives this point home. It all starts with disrespect. And criticizing your son—whether you are his mother or his father—for behavior you see as too sensitive; emotional; feeling-based; non-aggressive and therefore weak; too caring, compassionate, or cooperative; too wimpy; or lacking the dominance you believe he should assert over others—is at the bottom line, disrespectful to your child and to society at large. It does your son a great disservice by disregarding his own feelings and replacing them with yours. It also leads to feelings of shame and humiliation that can lower his self-esteem and leave him vulnerable to depression and suicide. And it perpetuates the culture of disrespect that fuels the culture of domestic violence and abuse. As Dr. Joseph Marshall points out in the video, in the current culture of masculinity, “respect is linked to violence.” This is the culture we must dismantle and dispense with. Note that I didn’t say smash or kill.
Disrespect is always an attempt to diminish power, and diminishing power is about achieving dominance. When dominance enters the picture, there can no longer be a relationship of equals, and all relationships—with men and women—become defined and controlled by a power dynamic that pits one person against another in the constant struggle to be top dog. The attitudes we impress on our children determine what the next generation will look like—how each boy we’re raising to “be a man” will act and conduct himself.
To help create the next generation of good men, contact the author at [email protected]
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