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BEYOND CONFORMITY AND GROUP THINK

by Andre B. Heuer

The scent of their cigars reached me at the same time as the cacophony of their voices. "You're a asshole." One shouted "No shit, I'm the biggest asshole you've ever met." They bumped chests and roared. As this mass of loudness passed, I heard insults and derisive remarks about everybody and anybody. I could not tell one man from the other. They lacked any recognizable individuality. I was reminded of the behavior of the young teenage gangs in my city. It was disconcerting to see them walking through the middle of the hall to their seats at a men's gathering.

At a recent men's conference I mentioned that I had returned to my religious tradition and started a men's group. The main point of my sharing was that as men we need to return to our families, people, traditions and institutions. We, men, needed to do this in order to recover parts of ourselves and to do men's work. I was told later by a man that I was a crazy goddamn motherfucker for what I had said. I felt defensive and hurt. What was so terrible in what I had said? I didn't understand. Later I found that it was my comment about returning to my religious tradition. The same day several men thanked me for my remarks. They were fearful to share about their return to their religious tradition. They felt that they would be put down by some men in leadership positions.

My experiences are examples of the crippling conformist, group think found in parts of the men's movements. I am not alone in my experiences. Many men have shared with me their own experiences of such behavior.

The identification with a group of men is an early step in the normal stage of development for most men. It is one step in the quest for manhood. However, it can also be a replication of one of the more self-destructive aspects of the culture of men. In the men's movement, this happens when a man over identifies with a men's group or organization. They begin to see themselves as different from other men not in their group. They experience themselves as belonging to a group that truly understands manhood. The danger of this thinking is that men not in the group become implicitly or explicitly thought of as not being "real men". An example of this behavior is found in some men who identify with the archetype of the warrior They identify men not involved with warrior energy as "soft men." These conformist groups create their own unique social structures, inside jokes and language. A man is expected to conform. He faces a negative response if he doesn't.

The cost of this approach - depending on the rigidness of the group structure - is the loss of individuality, a locked-in group identity, and the loss of opportunity to learn from men outside of the group. The effect is that it creates a moral superiority that lowers the value of other men. This gives the okay to treat men not in the group with contempt and suspicion. I have heard men admit that they find it hard to accept or communicate with a man who hasn't been initiated into their group. Some men have admitted to doing or at least seeing the ostracizing and undermining of men who were not part of their group.

I have heard the stories of hurt and pain caused by this behavior within the men's movements. Some of us have seen it. Many of us have been afraid to name it. This behavior is evident between feminist and masculist men, warriors and non-warriors, and academic and non-academic men. There is plenty of conformity and group think in the men's movements. I believe this conformist, group think behavior is one reason for the decrease in men participating in the men's movements. Many men have matured and no longer need the restrictiveness of such a group. Furthermore, the insider and rigid nature of some men's groups is not inviting to men. Men have already known the hurt of being rejected by groups of rigid men. Why would they risk the possibility of being hurt again?

I have been fortunate in my life to have been loved by men whom I feel exemplify manhood. The men whom I admire have taught me that one does not become a man by living up to the images of manhood given by others. They were men who took a radical step. They broke the rules of the culture and their peers. They did not try to meet the expectations of a group. They listened to their own hearts. They were men who invited stillness into their lives, and heard their "man soul." These men demonstrated their manhood by their choices and their lives. They were self-directed but not self-centered. They had their own community and yet were open to others who were not. These men enjoyed giving and receiving love. They lived full and passionate lives.

If men's work is to flourish we must grow beyond the conforming group stage. I believe we need to encourage the stage of manhood in which each man stands with others in his own soul and identity.

Andre Heuer D.Min. LICSW teaches, consults and writes on men's issues. He has done his work in prisons, treatment centers, churches and social services organizations. Andre is a member and volunteer at the Twins Cities Men's Center. He has published several articles and his chapter on "Men and Goodness" will appear in April in the book Men Healing Shame ed. Schenk; Everingham by Springer Publishing Company. He can be reached at 5609 Vincent Avenue, Minneapolis, MN 55410. (612) 920-5914.


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