I Dislike Labels…Strongly

I don’t use the word hate very often, or take it very lightly, but I think it may be warranted in this case. I hate labels. I cannot stand when someone labels me, especially if they are wrong. Language is so very important. Our words perpetuate things unknowingly. They define things or people and inadvertently can create an expectation of behaviour.

What’s a stereotype? According to google, “A widely held but fixed and over simplified image or idea of a particular person or thing.” Where am I going with this, you might wonder? Masculine culture. Thank you to Jennifer L, Berahl, Peter Glick and Marianne Cooper for “How Masculine Contest Undermine Organizations, and What to Do About It.”

In fairness, this article wasn’t the first time I have had this reaction to this topic. The first time was on my Joint Command and Staff Program, a professional Masters level program. We were talking about sexual misconduct in the military, hot on the heels of the Madame Deschampes Report. I sat in the room listening to a Ph D Candidate in gender studies yammer on about masculine traits and feminine traits and masculine hegemony, growing more and more frustrated by the moment. What is with the incessant desire to define a particular characteristic or trait or behaviour as masculine or feminine? To what purpose? 

I didn’t spend most of my life as a female in male dominated environments…scratch that… I haven’t reached the age of 42 and not come to not realization that there are certain traits or characteristics that are more typical of men than women. But does that mean we should define them as masculine, and by extension infer to the layman, that they are male traits? Is it any wonder then that we have woman or girls who do not want to be seen as aggressive? Is it any wonder why we have men who hesitate to display characteristics of empathy and compassion when we choose to define them as feminine? We are our own worst enemy sometimes, and I find myself shifting from resignation, shaking my head in sadness that this is really what we’ve come to be, to oscillating back to indignation and frustration that we can’t be bigger than this. 

A couple of expressions come to mind in answer to articles such as these. “Everything in moderation” is one. The other, “Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water.” I can be as soft hearted, empathetic and compassionate as the anyone in one moment, and I can be as aggressive, dominating, and challenging as the next when required. Problems arise when we, or an organization, are too much in one direction all the time, or at an inappropriate time. 

In principle, I don’t have much issue with what the authors say in their article. What I take exception to is how they define it. It isn’t a masculinity contest. It’s a dysfunctional workplace because it has rewarded the wrong things. But why did this article really strike a nerve for me? Well, because the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) came under fire for having a toxic masculine culture. I’m very wishy washy on how I respond when I hear this. Here’s why. There are things that the CAF can improve upon. I don’t think that any organization should go unchecked, and they should be inclusive to all. I believe wholly in the ethos of the CAF, and believe that respect and dignity should be afforded to all. Nobody should feel harassed in the workplace. But…let’s not forget what the military is about.

What is the role of the infantry? To close with and destroy the enemy. The military needs to be prepared to go to war, engage in combat, and execute lethal force where it is lawful to do so. To cultivate that will to fight, that willingness to apply lethal force, certain traits must be fostered – aggression, physical and mental stamina, mission before self to name a few. All of these traits must exist. They must be cultivated. It would be irresponsible and negligent to forget this. These requirements do not negate the need for compassion, for empathy, or reason. They can mutually exist, and we are better for it when they do. Everything in moderation, as they say. So let us not throw out the baby with the bath water. Just because aggression taken too far can be bad, just because competition can cross a line, just because show no weakness can lead to problems, doesn’t mean that the traits themselves are the problem. The real problem is the weak leadership that fails to address them when they are taken too far and become a problem.

This is not a masculinity contest, it is poor leadership.