This essay was originally submitted as an Op/Ed to the New York Times – they didn’t run it, and so I’m putting it here instead. Please also note! This was written prior to #metoo, and while I’ve made some adjustments to it, it is not intended to be in direct conversation with the movement.
With regards to the history and continuance of wanton abuses of power, often (but not always) enacted by powerful men, two seemingly dissimilar adages come to mind: Boys Will Be Boys, and Nice Guys Finish Last.
An uncomfortable yet tensile connection develops between these two general (if antiquated) truisms when placed in the same sentence. Starting with the one that anyone who has spent time around a group of boys knows to be true, consider the politics of the playground. Anywhere boys gather, small acts of violence will follow. The rules are simple – bully, be bullied, or stay on the outside of the circle facing in, never standing in the way of the bully for fear of becoming the bullied. As a child, maintaining this relationship with the more powerful and ensuring that you yourself do not fall into the position of the powerless is intuitive. No one tells you how, you just know.
Eventually the boys become men. Playground talk becomes locker room talk. Bullying turns into predation. Some of the boys don’t grow up, as is their privilege – their world remains the playground despite the substitution of office chairs for the jungle gym. In a reversal, these men don’t bully other men (as much). Other men exist to be bested in the boardroom, but dominating men is less satisfying than it used to be, and so the target shifts to women. Sexual encounters with these women are framed as a status-bestowing transaction, and the most popular boy, now appearing as a man, must be able to get what he wants at all cost, more out of the fear over losing credibility than out of any genuine desire. These men love the way boys love: cruelly, resentfully, and destructively.
So what of those other men, the boys who grew up and didn’t become powerful, the ones who had learned during adolescence to stay carefully on the outside of the circle? Where are they? (Some of them use their lack of power as a shield to become, say, an internet troll, or position it in an appeal for victimhood, but I’d like to lump those men into a different category – because while they may have also been on the outside of the circle, they are willfully staking out territory and weaponizing their lack of power – I’m not talking about them in that which follows.)
Look closely, if you feel like it. Some of those men who backed off on the playground remain, you just don’t hear from them often (even when you demand that they speak). One reason for this is that they are averse to making their voice audible over the trumpeting of the herd. They make space, as they understand society asks them to do. They make space and that space is taken over by more powerful, more aggressive men. They move aside as prescribed on subway platforms only to be shoulder-checked from behind by someone in a bigger hurry. They are, like all men, imperfect, but they repress and (confusedly) wrestle with the impulses that arise from their darkest inner self, as opposed to consolidating power in order to create an impenetrable environment where one might act on and further feed that darkness. These men do not speak about this invisible struggle because they feel deep shame about the repression part and what it is, exactly, that they’re repressing anyway? (Society tells them it is their manhood. They, for this reason, do not trust society.)
They have privilege too, although they’re not sure what to do with it. If it was something they could take off and give to someone else, they would, but privilege doesn’t work like that, and so they drag it behind them like a limp flag through the dirt. They are uncomfortable being cast as someone who is better off than most of the others, because it’s hard to sense entitlement when you’re hiding from it.
But now, the simple declaration that, despite that fact that they feel mostly ignored, they are in fact benefiting from society (which they still do not trust) whether they like it or not, due to some combination of their gender, race, and sexual orientation, this declaration has stripped away their cover and they feel exposed in that way they felt on the playground when confronted by another because they have something – a football maybe – that someone else wants. But they can’t hand privilege over like a football and be done with it. So they stand, uncomfortably naked, with the football, waiting for someone or something to barrel right through them.
That sense of derision that you’re probably experiencing as I describe them? They feel that way too.
Upon occasion, they may sense an opportunity as it passes them by and is bestowed on someone with a more impressive profile. They contemplate how they might elevate themselves or others who are important to them, but are silenced by themselves: by their intuition, by the same deeply ingrained survival logic that applied on the playground.
They cling, because everyone clings to something, to the internal belief that they are ‘nice guys¹,’ or perhaps ‘one of the good ones,’ although I’d like to differentiate them from the ones who call themselves nice guys to your face: and they most often find themselves – although probably not in very last place, in part because their privilege acts like a floatation device – somewhere near the back of the throng.
Amidst the churn of outrage over the obvious and hither-to-now unchecked abuses of power by those boys, the ones who only seem to be men, the nice guy dares to imagine a world that might allow the less predatory to start finishing in front of the bullies. If not “first”, because what does first mean, exactly, at least in a position that would allow them to apply their values in a meaningful arena, dismantling and restructuring the hierarchy as opposed to sheltering and upholding it? If you give a nice guy power, what will he do with it? (Society’s answer: He fumbles it away, or he fights to maintain it and in the doing so, becomes himself a predator.)
But after all, he thinks, how can we expect the bullies-now-predators be supplanted or replaced when our entire society is built amidst the ruins of past playgrounds, the same toxic pulse ever-driving the pace of the game? The game now played even harder, faster, and more sadistically. Don’t end up last, whatever the cost – and if you can’t keep up, get out.
And so he steps aside. Again.
He awaits a new game with different rules that don’t reward the bullies in the end. He awaits this game in vain. He watches, on social media, the fall of one boy-man and the continued imperviousness of all the others. One turn on the merry-go-round to be filled. Guess who’s up next for that spot? Outta the way, nice guy.
¹It has been brought to my attention that the usage of the term “nice guy” carries significant negative connotations that I was not intending to provoke. My use was more a mirror of the (rather antiquated) adage about finishing last, a sort of broadly benign intent. However, thanks to the generous feedback provided by Benita de Wit and Kelly Webb, you can read more about how the phrase ‘nice guys’ has been co-opted by going here and here. I guess what I’m really referring to is a person we might talk about as a ‘good man’ or, probably even better, a man who is capable of not applying a specific valuation to his behavior, and will not make any claims of his goodness other than to know that he could do better but at least can take some private comfort in the fact that he is trying, even while knowing that private comfort is too comfortable. So, feel free to replace ‘nice guy’ with ‘good man’ or whatever you like, if the usage is skewing the essay for you.