Set to Explode: On masculinity and death
My best friend died at twenty years old. He, like so many males, was set to explode; a bomb of manhood with a wick as short as impulse. He was taught only one game: breaking boundaries. In the end he broke his own. Game over.
Masculinity is killing us all. In men’s endless drive to prove themselves as real men, they must break boundaries as a matter of course. “Don’t do that” is simply an invitation. Each inhibition crossed is a further affirmation of manhood. There’s a reason why a certain major firearm company’s main marketing ploy revolves around convincing men that, without these guns, their “manhood cards” will be revoked. Like bombs, men don’t simply hurt themselves when they explode, but also whoever happens to be nearby. That’s the point.
Power is addictive. The more men taste it, the more they grasp for it and the more they cling to it. But masculinity kills them just as surely. Beneath the toxic exterior of ego, men need what all humans do: communion. There is no communion in violation. After all that can be violated is, what remains?
Yet, some men are different. Some men want back the empathy that was long ago stolen from them by the cult of masculinity.
I’d like to say my best friend lived with humanity. He certainly did when I met him. We were 7 years old, and I just moved to town. I asked him to be my best friend, and he agreed. We played and played for years: by the river, in the woods, with a baseball, with skateboards. Gratitude radiated from me and I was sure our friendship would last forever.
The friendship ended years before he died. As teenagers, everything changed between us. He was fully immersed in a conversion from a human being to a man. The culprits were men everywhere: his father, his older brother, the boys at school, the boys on the streets, popular culture. The lessons: pornography, substance use, machismo. It didn’t take long before he was teaching them to me, a true disciple of the manhood gospel. But I was scared. He resented my tepidness and made it known. I tried and tried to care, but it was all too much, too soon. I gave up trying to be this real man he wanted me to be. That was the end of our friendship.
It comes as little surprise to me now to hear of my old friends winding up dead, in prison, or on their way to one or the other—tragic to be sure, but surprising, no. These are merely the logical endpoints on the trajectory of masculinity; its fate, if you will. My friends were set to explode, and they never found their way to defusing the inevitable.
For years, memories of my best friend troubled me, no, tormented me. Daily, I relived this or that disturbing interaction: the first time he showed me pornography, the first time he had me smoke cigarettes, the time he almost set my house on fire by playing pyro, the time he landed us both at the police station because he fired a bee-bee gun at some neighborhood children, and on and on. Such memories confused me: why did I take part in these things? But they also angered me: why did he make me?
Not only was he in my memories, but also my dreams. In that realm, however, it was entirely different. In the dreams he was usually kind, even seeking of my approval.
Such was the case in the dream I had the night of his death. After waking up, my old friend very much on my mind, I checked my phone to find a message from a mutual acquaintance: our friend has overdosed on heroine. He was sorry to have to tell me, but assured me he would let me know about the funeral once details were set. Never before that moment, nor any time since, have I felt devastated in just that way.
Instantly, my feelings about my old best friend shifted. All the contempt that had built up in me for his wrong-doings transformed into something else. Yes, he was still to blame for all the hurt he’d undoubtedly done to others (most especially the women in his life). But it was not him, that little human being who agreed to my friendship all those years ago, that marked this path. No. He was set to explode. I lay the blame at the feet of the whole culture of masculinity; they are the ones who lit the wick.
My best friend died from manhood, as so many others do. Some die from abiding by it, but more die from it being used like a weapon against them (and too often, this is no metaphor). My friend ran his course of a fast and dangerous life, hurting others, but killing himself. There are many more like him out there, hurting and hurting just to try to feel alive. Those who could, rarely tell them to stop. Those who could, rarely show them another way.
Men who break boundaries must be stopped. Of course masculinity hurts men by tricking them out of their humanity, but it’s nothing compared to the plight of its victims. I mourn my old friend’s death, yes, but there are many, many others to mourn as well, for what he did to them. I’m not certain that he ever would have changed, though I know he could have. And that’s the problem.
Ours is a culture of violation. Women, children, other cultures, and other species pay for the exploits of the dominators. Men—like my old friend—serve simply as masculinity’s foot soldiers. They may think they are benefiting as individuals, but in the end, they are slaves to a force that kills their empathy, kills their loved ones, and eventually, kills them.
This world needs universal human rights and universal justice. In a culture based on these, my friend would not be dead, nor would he have learned violation as a means of survival. Instead of universalizing manhood, we need to universalize an indivisible respect for the boundaries of all others.
It’s too late for my best friend. The damage—both to him and to others at his hands—is done. But the masculinity culpable for the harm thrives more than ever, which is to say there is no better time for it to stand trial for all its crimes against life. Masculinity was thought up by men and it can be dismantled by all of us. Men can reclaim their humanity; they can have the kind of honesty I saw in the eyes of my seven-year-old best friend when he made that pact to stand by me. None of us can afford any less than the end of manhood.
Ben Barker is a writer and community organizer from West Bend, Wisconsin. He is a member of Deep Green Resistance and is currently writing a book about toxic qualities of radical subcultures and the need to build a vibrant culture of resistance.