As cartoonist Walt Kelly, in his syndicated comic strip “Pogo”, so famously stated, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
I remember reading that line with a high degree of puzzlement. I didn’t understand this to be a parody of the message sent by Oliver Hazard Perry after defeating British ships in the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813. In fact, I didn’t even realize there had been a Battle of Lake Erie. I did, however, understand it to be an indictment, albeit cloaked in humor, of our society; the political and cultural upheaval roiling America at that time.
Curiously enough, I didn’t identify myself in any way as “the enemy.” Perhaps it was my youth or perhaps it was the Saturday B Westerns I so loved, but I was pretty sure I was one of the good guys who saves the day and then rides off into the sunset.
Imagine my surprise, some few years shy of my own ride into the sunset, to discover I am now indeed “the enemy.” When did this happen? Wasn’t I just a good guy? Alas, I am now officially an “old white guy “and, as popular media and all the “woke” folks out there keep pointing out, people like me are what is wrong with this country. We are to blame for the current state of affairs in government and business, if not the entire world; just a bunch of misogynistic and racist cretins intent on retaining control of power as long as we possibly can. I guess, we are now all to be viewed as predators in waiting; unrealized abusers, molesters and rapists. Every one of us ready at the drop of a hat to commit any manner of heinous deeds, as one might see depicted on a canvas by Hieronymus Bosch.
Quite an indictment don’t you think? Do we really want to tar every man with that brush? Isn’t this just more of the same fuzzy-headed thinking that enables folks to label one another and create a sliding scale of societal worth?
Let me be clear: I in no way condone violence or abuse of any kind against women, children, animals, and yes, even other men. I do, however, believe such generalizations about people create the divisions which have long plagued our country. Isn’t this what we are supposed to be fighting against? Isn’t the stated goal of this all-inclusive new social paradigm to allow all people to experience acceptance, regardless of their race and gender, not to mention all the other aspects of who they are, who they love and how they choose to live their lives?
I was raised firmly middle-class during an earlier time when the actions and activities of adults were usually kept well-hidden from children. Despite this, every so often I overheard my parents engaged in some heated conversation when I should have been long-asleep. Yet no matter how upset my father may have been, I know for a fact he never laid a hand on my mother. Nor did he take out his frustrations over married life and work by belittling or bullying her; he leaned more to the passive-aggressive side of things, and mostly went along to get along. Not a bad example if you had to choose.
I’m guessing most of us probably had similar childhoods, and learned the basics of adult relationships and human interaction from these surreptitiously gleaned sound bites – for better or worse. Who taught us the rest?
In my sixth-grade “health” class in school, we were taught the physical differences between the sexes and how our bodies functioned. However, on the playground, we listened raptly to the more worldly of our classmates as they described the alleged exploits of some “friend” or older sibling. These impromptu roundtable discussions continued through high school and into college for most of us guys. I only discovered years later that girls had their own version of these gatherings. From my own experience, and the admissions of a number of others who attended, there was a significant amount of objectifying going on in both groups. The only thing missing from these bull sessions was any discussion of how to treat those of the opposite sex as equals; like feeling, caring human beings and not simply potential conquests. I guess we had all gone brain dead from hormonal overload and forgotten the scriptural exhortation to “Do unto others as you would have others do onto you.” Being unencumbered by such a mundane consideration, we concentrated more fully on the ultimate goal of personal gratification.
I can’t speak for others, but all the sports analogies applied to this pursuit very aptly describe my own singular efforts to “get to first base” and, of course, “score”. I had already been taught to “play to win.” That’s a lot of pressure on a young person. I’m pretty sure girls have much the same pressures, with perhaps the added one to “be good.”
The frisson created when these opposing forces collide is immeasurable. Something is bound to give, but it should never be the clear understanding that, regardless of everything else, we are all to be treated with respect; that “no” means “no” and “stop” means “stop”.
Unfortunately, this has too long been viewed as a mere technicality or overlooked entirely by some of my brethren who, whether through ignorance or some underlying personality flaw, think only of themselves: their own wants, and the need to “win” the “game” at any cost.
Add to this a lack of specific education, and all the societal and cultural pressure to be some version of what is currently cool, and we males can occasionally be real knuckleheads. And yes, some of these same individuals are the very ones who go on to use their positions, and what power they may acquire, to behave toward women in ways which can only be described as piggish – behavior the rest of us would never dream of emulating.
Rather than labeling all men as the enemy, here’s an idea: If we truly want to change the status quo and shift the paradigm, let’s educate our children to treat all people with respect, and reinforce it at every opportunity.
We can’t continue to allow boys to grow into conflicted young men who prey on others, and enter adulthood without a clear understanding of their responsibility to help create a more egalitarian world for everyone regardless of gender, race or sexual orientation; a safe and nurturing place – especially for those they profess to love. Isn’t this preferable to the alternative?
Van Elburg has been a resident of Williamsburg, James City County for more than 30 years. He is semi-retired from a multi-faceted business career and currently teaches classes on blues music for the Christoper Wren Association. He is a musician, writer and on-air personality and programming director for the mobile radio station, TheBluesAlley.com.