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Good Is Good: This Much I Know To Be True

Thursday, January 03, 2013

 

Tom Matlack is the former CFO of the Providence Journal and is the founder of The Good Men Project, a non-profit charitable corporation based in Rhode Island and dedicated to helping organizations that provide educational, social, financial, and legal support to men and boys at risk.

Talking about the most difficult parts of manhood—like race, rape, addiction, parenting, porn, divorce, depression, guns, prison, war and suicide—have a way of stirring up great waves of controversy no matter how open-minded your approach.

I started the Good Men Project with the simple premise that I had a story to tell about my own failures (and successes) as a father, husband, worker and man. So did every man I came in contact with. My hypothesis was that too often men don’t speak, don’t emote, and don’t express the deepest, darkest truth of their heart for fear of reprisal as not being tough, macho, or manly enough.

What I found is that when I told my story with as must brutal honesty as I could muster, I was changed and so too were the men who heard me speak. More often than not I was on the receiving end of this healing process, listening to men tell of their pain, their miracles, and their gratitude.

Race, sexual preference, age, family situation, wealth, profession, even political views only became important as part of one man telling his story. A remarkable friend who inspired me greatly happened to be an African-American, gay painter and professor. On the outside he could not possibly look more different than me. But his story moved me to tears and his friendship motivated me to become a better man.

Rape wasn’t a gender issue, it was something that happened to a friend of mine at the hands of a priest. Men’s Rights didn’t have anything to do with the MRA (I only learned what that even meant well after starting GMP when I wrote a piece that caused my name to be forever connected with the term “Mangina” in some people’s mind) but the circle of divorced dads like me trying to sort out visitation with their kids and equitable financial arrangements with their ex-wives.

In the beginning, my sample size was always one. I’d tell you my story and listen to yours. The one-on-one identification was where I believed then, and I still believe now, miracles happened and my manhood slowly began to come out of the shadows of failure and shame.

I realize that personal narrative works well in books, before a live audience, and even in film, but not so much for an issue-focused website about manhood. So my focus has had to change. And with that came a lot of pointed fingers in my direction.

My seeming ability to hit the third rail of manhood even when I am really trying my best to keep my nose clean has been in part the growing pains of moving from personal narrative to more global issues, in part the extent to which manhood has hit the headlines with a complete lack of thought and context, and probably most of all simply because at heart I am a trouble-maker.

My instinct is to fight, to push, to stick to what I believe in even when it costs me dearly. My manhood is often expressed by pitched battle even with those I am closest to. I’m n0t sure that is good or bad.  It’s simply who I am.

♦◊♦

This holiday season I have had time to reflect on how and why I (and the team who now runs GMP) get myself into these fights with certain feminists, with certain kinds of men’s advocates, with mommy bloggers of a certain ilk, and even just random readers who come onto the site, or my twitter feed, and take offense at something I have said.

One thing I have learned the hard way is that I don’t speak for all men. And I sure as hell don’t speak for any woman. When talking about a difficult issue all I can report is my own view, and that of the handful of men who I personally know. So my sample has gone from one to maybe a couple hundred, on a good day. In the process of the GMP, I have talked to more men about more things than your average guy. But that doesn’t mean I know for sure more what you think or feel any more than the next idiot. And I am not a sociologist by any means. I’m a guy. A Dad. A Husband. And a meddling writer.

But I do have strong points of view about a lot of core manhood issues. I don’t like guys getting misrepresented in the media, fathers getting screwed as parents, and sexual abuse in any form (to name a few of many of my h0t buttons). I have realized my beliefs are deeply held because I have witnessed the result of my good intentioned expression of passion. Others get stirred up and, when I am really outspoken, even begin to organize boycotts of GMP as some kind of evil empire. The number of pieces about what GMP is doing wrong taking up space on major media websites include an impressive list of publications. Far from our mission of goodness we seem to inspire a belief that an open dialogue is proactively bad.

The interesting thing is that each time one of those take-down pieces goes up they link back to the piece which is supposedly completely beyond the pale of human dignity (when, in fact, it is generally our attempt to allow all points of view to express themselves in our discussion of manhood).

Like any other website, we track all the data about our visitors and their patterns of behavior very carefully. So we can see isolate the readers coming to GMP from a piece which is highly critical of us. The remarkable thing is those visitors stay much longer than the average. A recent Slate piece spawned a large number of folks coming over and hanging around for an average of ten page views and nearly an hour reading time each. We see a ton of comments that say something like, “I came to your site ready to hate your guts, but when I got here I realized that you are having a far more nuanced conversation than anyone is giving you credit.”

So the question I pondered this vacation, and batted around at great length with my partners in arms here at GMP, was whether it is more productive to try to make friends with those who on the surface seem to dislike us or whether we should stand our ground and fight on principal. They didn’t frame it quite this way but I will: is it more manly to fight or to compromise when it comes to the hardest, most intractable issues we are attempting to discuss?

♦◊♦

I happened to see a play called 1776 last week that was a three-hour examination of John Adam’s role in getting the Declaration of Independence signed. A couple days later, I saw the film Lincoln.

I don’t mean to take you on too long a historical detour here but in light of my own tiny (in comparison) dilemmas here at GMP, I did find it interesting to reflect on what was necessary to start our country and then free the slaves. Both were dirty tasks, requiring bloody war, and amazing leaders who were courageous at times of crisis. Even their friends disliked them for their stubbornness. Each could have sacrificed their principles and delivered themselves from great hardship. But they didn’t. And that made all the difference in the world.

How does this possibly apply to the conversation we are attempting to have at GMP, and the controversy we continually kick up as a result?

To me it’s pretty straightforward. There is, for lack of a better term, “politically correct” ways to talk about manhood whether that is fatherhood, suicide, or sexual abuse. We refuse to be bound by this limited view of manhood, or this limited ability to talk about the most troubling issues involving men. We don’t seek out controversy just for controversy sake, but nor do we shy away from it.

Our tent is, and has always been, infinitely big. You want to disagree with something we have written, or even posted from some third party?  We will publish your critique as long as you stick to the issue at hand and don’t degenerate into personal attack. We want to build bridges, to foster as robust a conversation as we possibly can. But we also aren’t going to play by some pre-defined rules set out by interest group who can’t seem to see beyond the bounds of their own narrow view of manhood. You can try to interpret that statement as coming down on one side or the other of any number of issues where we have caused controversy in the past. But it’s not. We are simply not for shutting down conversation. Period. We think it’s important to talk, and talk some more. Even fight, always with a focus on first person narratives to ground the discussion in real people’s experiences.

♦◊♦

I don’t expect GMP to become less controversial. As long as manhood is stuck in the box of what Madison Avenue, sociologists, headline writers and gender theorists on all sides seem to want to prescribe about us men intend to prove them wrong one man and one story at a time. And they probably aren’t going to like it.

But I am well beyond taking the harsh criticism personally. When someone punches you in the face, the mistake is to punch back, not that you stuck your neck out in the first place.

Some of my most ardent critics have now become good friends. They still don’t agree with me on much but we can fight without making it personal in a way that damages us both. When your aspiration is noble–and I truly believe all of those involved in GMP are doing something purely good–those who would call you out as evil to the core simply can’t chip away at your resolve.

We must take seriously those who criticize specific actions, learning from our mistakes and listening to those who are willing to engage in a sincere way.

But none of that changes one iota the import of what we are about here. We hear day in and day out men who feel less alone by reading a story that touches their heart. And we hear from women who want desperately to understand the men in their lives, and moms who want to understand their sons, in ways that are impossible inside the box of popular culture. We hear from husbands who are reassured in their commitment to their partners, dads who feel we provide a place to share the challenges and beauty of being a father, and from men of all races, sexual preference, economic background, age and nationality that what we are doing is changing their manhood for the better.

So, yes, we will continue to make mistakes. We will continue to stir controversy. But, no, we will not back down or go away.

We welcome you to join us in this noble adventure.

For more of Tom's works, as well as other pieces on related topics, go to The Good Men Project Magazine online, here.

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