Growing up, I was taught to listen to others and never speak out of turn. Contrary to what you might think, this had far more to do with my gender than my ethnicity. Across race and culture, women are taught from a young age to hold their tongues and defer to the opinions and ideas of men — men who are disproportionately placed in positions with decision-making power and disproportionately given airtime, opportunities and platforms to influence the public.
For years, I resented my habit of deference to others — typically males — in conversation, apologizing for my rare interjections and qualifying my every statement with the words, “This is just my opinion, but…” But while the ingrained lessons of my upbringing may have stalled my ability to find my voice as a writer and activist, to an extent, watching the events of the past week unfold have led me to see that there is some advantage in being taught to listen to others and think before I speak. That’s not to say that I condone the sexist forces that instill these instincts in young women and not young men, but rather, that it’s high time for men to learn these same lessons.
Last week, President Donald Trump’s remarks about North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un at a United Nations conference — mockingly calling the dictator “Rocket Man” and threatening to destroy North Korea, without blinking an eye — alarmed a number of experts and world leaders. Kim is notorious for his fragile ego, which is precisely why the CIA has warned against directing petty insults toward him. Subsequently, North Korea’s leader identified Trump’s words as a declaration of war, but failing to realize the gravity of the situation — or perhaps encouraged by it — Trump has only continued to mock Kim on Twitter.
In this particular case, the potential consequences are limitless and terrifying — nuclear war, the destruction of the civilized world, all as a result of 140 characters and two deeply sensitive and fragile men at the helm of it all. But the current conflict between the United States and North Korea is, in many ways, just a high-stakes manifestation of what our culture teaches young men — to not tolerate slights and disrespect, to be “alpha” and dominate those who threaten them, to protect their land, property and family.
No wonder 53 percent of men voted to “make America great again” at a time when women are starting to edge out men as household breadwinners. And no wonder conservatives in all their golden traditionalism call men they perceive as weak “cucks” — men who are cheated on by their wives or, in other words, men who are unable to adequately control their property.
Trump and Kim’s behaviors reflect a textbook case of toxic masculinity run amok. But given their positions and nuclear arsenals, it’s a case that could yield so much more than a schoolyard fight — one that could tragically affect millions, and one that the majority of American voters tried to stop.
There’s a lot to be said about the violence inherently attached to collective patriarchal understandings of masculinity. Teaching young men that any of their distasteful actions can be dismissed with the simple, blasé utterance, “boys will be boys” — all while glorifying heterosexual men’s purportedly bestial sexual appetites in media and Trump-esque “locker-room talk” — have constructed a rape culture that may never be dismantled. And in the same vein, a separate column altogether could be dedicated to the roles of patriarchy and masculinity in constructing male obsession with firearms — an obsession that results in thousands of homicides, domestic abuse cases and accidental deaths annually.
But America’s overarching struggles with toxic masculinity are not only apparent in militaristic conflicts or violent crime rates. This weekend, the president’s appalling sparring with black athletes in the NFL and NBA — who were either protesting America’s indisputable problems with structural racism and police brutality, or the Trump administration’s glorification of said structural racism and police brutality — emphasized the great and gendered privilege of being able to shout nonsense without listening to others.
The president is dead-set on the idea that NFL protests during the national anthem have “nothing to do with race,” as he wrote in one tweet, and that players who have adopted the practice of kneeling during the anthem are declaring their hatred of America. He has tuned out players’ endless explanations of how this protest actually demonstrates their patriotism — the protest during the anthem is a fight to make America a better, safer place for everyone. Trump ignores any commentators who point out the hypocrisy of his adoration for Confederate paraphernalia — symbols of a regime that seceded from and splintered the Union — and continues to yell.
It’s shocking and appalling, but in a country of patriarchal politics, it’s nothing new. In 2016, 60 percent of people commenting about reproductive rights on cable television were men, and that 64 percent of comments about reproductive rights on cable television were inaccurate should speak a lot about whether or not men are listening to anyone but themselves. And all in the realm of men doing the vast majority of talking and decision-making on women’s issues while simultaneously tuning out actual women and experts, how many times will activists have to iterate that Planned Parenthood can’t use federal funding for abortion services before this finally gets through Republican lawmakers’ skulls? (That wasn’t a rhetorical question — at this point, I really do want to know.)
In recent years, feminists have responded to this ingrained culture of inequality by encouraging and empowering women to speak up and get what’s theirs, to cut off “mansplainers” and refuse to be interrupted. And that’s important. But it’s not just women we should demand change from — it’s also men. Humility and the ability to listen and learn from others before talking aren’t just deeply important life skills. In today’s political climate, these skills could also stop the world from nuclear destruction.
Kylie Cheung is a sophomore majoring in journalism and political science. She is also the editorial director of the Daily Trojan. Her column,“You Do Uterus,” runs Thursdays.