Midwest Voices

‘Manly’ behavior is often out of line

Updated: 2013-12-18T01:28:20Z


Special to The Star

A few weeks ago the American media fixated on — and then quickly forgot about — the “knockout game” supposedly trending in American cities.

The game is simple: approach an unsuspecting pedestrian and sucker punch the poor guy in the face. The goal is to knock the person unconscious with one blow. It’s a “one-hitter quitter,” as they say.

In a clip posted on YouTube, a CBS reporter asked a few people on the street what the point of the game is:

“They just want to see if you got enough strength to knock somebody out,” one replies.

“It’s a macho thing,” concludes another.

Hardly. Sucker punching a stranger is among the weakest and most despicable things someone can do. Whatever it is, it is not macho.

Neither is it manly. I use the adjective “manly” cautiously, knowing that in enlightened circles supposed differences between the sexes are considered antiquated. Yet there is a reason why nearly all of the participants in the knockout game are male.

Men are by nature more spirited and prone to violence than women are. According to records kept by the Department of Justice, men committed 99 percent of rapes, 89 percent of murders and 87 percent of robberies in the United States last year.

Previous generations understood that the violent aspect of man’s nature had to be tempered and channeled by the moral virtues, chiefly prudence and courage. Neither brash nor cowardly, the courageous man fears what is appropriate and yet faces those fears when it is right to do so.

Closely related to the virtue of courage is the notion of manliness. In fact, the ancient Greeks used the same word, andreia, to denote both courage and manliness. So, what is this quality? In his book “Manliness,” Harvard political philosopher Harvey Mansfield succinctly describes it as “confidence in a situation of risk,” something, he notes, that is not exclusively male but for which the virtuous male has a particular need.

Kids playing the knockout game lack confidence and avoid risk. They travel in groups, pick an unsuspecting victim, launch a surprise attack and run. All the while perpetrators are egged on by peer pressure but are too weak to do what is right for fear of social ostracism.

It is the very opposite of andreia. The good news, if there is any, is that statistics actually show violent crime trending down in recent years. Still, encouraging trends are a cold consolation for the victims of random violence.

A few years ago city surveillance cameras near my office at the University of Missouri captured a video of seven teenagers approaching from behind a young man named Adam Taylor. One kid in the group knocked the unsuspecting Taylor unconscious with one blow to the back of the head. Game over.

When there are males, but not men, the knockout game is what we can expect.

Justin Dyer is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Missouri in Columbia. To reach him, send email to oped@kcstar.com or write to Midwest Voices, c/o Editorial Page, The Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64108.

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