Boys to Men

The science of masculinity and manhood

Silencing Boys

Reflections on an Interview with Dr. Peter Breggin

I was pleased to interview with Dr. Peter Breggin today. Since Dr. Breggin "plugged" Psychology Today, I allow that mentioning his internet radio program is justified. The conversation merits some further comments since one of its central topics is so important: male silence.

In his summary of our conversation, Dr Breggin uses the word 'silencing' of boys and men as a central topic of our discussion. I have commented on this in a variety of other interviews, in talks I have given, and in my publications on boys and men. A few more words are in order about the theme, especially since there has been so much silence around it!

Ordinarily, we are told, males are loud and overbearing, and have the first and always the last word, in public and at home, in the State and on dates. This may be true when it is a matter of political opinion, in the media, or in cinema, all of which regularly feature loud, dangerous males as rivals eagerly out to destroy one another. But that is the world of entertainment, from the presentation and realization of "world affairs" by political leaders, to gunsmoke and forensic thrillers. In everyday life, however, matters are quite otherwise for boys and men, from the elementary classroom to the college lecture hall and seminar room--and beyond.

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The "great male silence" has been characteristic of most men since fathers began to withdraw from the domestic scene around the time of World War One, when the structure and dynamics of the family began to change. The silence only deepened when so many men disappeared during the Second World War.

Now most males are barely audible. It is not a matter of an evolved hunting strategy or a result of advanced post-industrial culture. Boys are now regularly punished for being vociferous in ways they were not even two generations ago, when antisocial acts were rightly punished but the enthusiasms of boys were not. Rough-and-tumble play has been pathologized in schools and running is deemed to be "acting out" aggressive tendencies. Such responses to boys' behavior are standard beginning as early as in daycare centers.

While young males at puberty are still encouraged to perform in violent sports (football, ice hockey), they are punished for asserting themselves off the playing field. Still expected to guide the dating ritual (and pay for the fun), adolescent males are admonished for being proactive in showing their sexual and social interest in girls. A double bind, of course. The solution? Silence and stasis, confusion and resignation.

While most males have perhaps never been very vocal in courting girls, a glance at the letters young men wrote to their girlfriends while away from them (before everyone stopped writing letters and began to emit "texts") shows just how verbal and eloquent they were. They still are, buy the way, but now such eloquence remains both unspoken and unwritten (or medicated to dumbness), and if it does appear, it is often received as unwelcome, since passion is construed as excessive: enthusiasm and fervor are likely read as intrusive. (Much passion has been suppressed by the weight of drugs, including those prescribed by physicians pressured by worried educators. Excitement is diagnosed as anxiety or hyperactivity.) Then there is the matter of the recipient of the message deciding whether the eagerness was good or malevolent. And who wants to have one's intimacies judged?

The silence of males is nothing new, then, but it has deepened. Messages not spoken either remain locked away where they ferment or, if they are too urgent to be held in, they are enacted, sometimes explosively. Often the act is self-directed. Here we have surprising, often shocking and violent "statements" of "unspeakable" thoughts and wishes—suicide and impulsive, wild outbursts. Utterances punished into submission become ungovernable impulses, and there are no more wishes.

This is only part of the picture of the world of the silenced male, but it's enough of it for now.

It is important to emphasize with my colleague, Peter Breggin, that being silenced is effected now not only by external restraints (rules in schools) but by internal means: the deadening down of thought and emotion by drugs, including Adderall, Ritalin and the other agents prescribed for 20% (!) of the young American male (high school) population this year. The motivated silence of confused boys and young men is in this way supplemented by an chemically imposed silence. Here "feeling less" is monstrously equated with "feeling better." The net result is a deepening of the silence of boys and men and a widening of its range.

The not-so-"great male silence"—the silence of most males—is finally being acknowledged, however. It is being identified throughout the life course of males, from boys to men. We are beginning to understand that what must be expressed and goes unspoken becomes unspeakable. What cannot be expressed becomes internally toxic and when it finds a small aperture through which to escape, it can be expected to escape with a violence that scares and harms the boy or young man as much as it terrorizes those around him.

Miles Groth, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Wagner College.

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