Vaneisa: Something to cry about—the winners and losers of repressive childhood codes

He is in his mid-fifties, a woodworker of the old school, where craftsmanship was an emblem of pride. He had come to Trinidad many years ago, on a roundabout journey from Guyana that had taken him to places far, and jobs disparate.

Now, in modest circumstances, he plies his trade: joiner, carpenter, restorer of antiques, and general repairs.

A joiner at work.

He has rehabilitated an old chair for me, and constructed shutters for my living room windows to help muffle the sounds from my neighbour’s incessant noise, and so we had chatted often. He had stories galore—experiences that were both intriguing and alarming, especially tales from his childhood.

My friend from primary school, who had hooked us up, would be present at some of these discourses and we would exchange astonished looks as he calmly related some of the bizarre episodes of what has passed for raising children in this part of the world.

Casual cruelty—this offhand way of subjecting children to all manner of abuse: verbal, emotional, and most especially, physical—has left enduring scars that have shaped the kind of society we have become.

Last week, as he returned a chair that had needed a simple repair, we got to chatting as usual, and quite abruptly he asked me what I thought about the way parents often tell their sons that boys/men don’t cry; shouldn’t cry; must not show emotions, because that is for sissies and softies.

Do real men cry?

It had come out of nowhere and he explained that a few days before he was having an online conversation with a pastor, and the discussion had unexpectedly triggered a flood of tears from him. It had surprised him how intense it was, and how he felt afterwards.

He said he felt lighter, like a heavy load had been dropped off. It made him reflect on the childhood admonitions not to cry, and how he had grown up thinking it was a sign of weakness.

He is a stoic, a practical man—measured in his actions, and thoughtful in his approach. He wanted to understand why boy children were taught such repressive behaviour.

Hadn’t we learned that this was why they could not manage their emotions? Isn’t there a link between that conditioning and violent outbursts?

Concepts of masculinity have always involved complex and often irrational definitions of what qualifies as manly.

Stiff upper lips, gentlemen.

The alpha male, commonly defined as the most successful and powerful in any group, atop the social status hierarchy, is given to intimidation, domination and physical prowess: a real man.

Obviously, other characteristics are involved along the spectrum, but there is a misguided tendency to coach and encourage aggression, especially violent reactions to confrontations. Layer after layer settles upon one another, until even with the best intentions a man doesn’t know what is appropriate or relevant for himself.

Another insidious source of miseducation that has done untold damage is the idea of snitching. The first time I read Beyond a Boundary, the CLR James classic, I was dismayed by the public-school code of the English, which he described. Boys were taught unconditional loyalty.

“Along with restraint, not so much externally as in internal inhibitions, we learnt loyalty.” Loyalty to the team, to the school, to country, and so on.

Image: A satirical take on whistleblowing.

It meant developing the capacity to overlook, to sightsee rather than explore the conditions underpinning circumstance. Certainly, it suggests uncritical acceptance of even that which contradicts principles. Loyalty at any cost.

Yet another element was the idea of silence that meant no one reported any behaviour that would be viewed as an indictment of its perpetrator. Awful words were used to describe those who did: rat, snitch, fink, tattle-tale, traitor, weasel, stool pigeon—language that denotes a kind of underhanded greasiness.

But what the code actually enforced was a licence that enabled bullies, sexual predators, physical abuse and a host of abominations to be perpetrated on young boys, suffering in chilling silence and carrying lifelong wounds.

How could this have been an honourable code? How could the stiff upper lip have been a sign of manliness?

Victims of domestic abuse often live behind a wall of silence.

Only now has the idea of the whistle-blower gained some traction as an acceptable force for good. I remember too that the IGDS (The Institute for Gender and Development Studies) at The UWI had found it urgently necessary to launch a campaign based on the theme, “Break the Silence”, to encourage youngsters particularly, and other victims of violence, to speak up and tell about their abuse.

It had to be done because so many were afraid to talk, feared retribution, or thought they should carry the burdens secretly.

It is something that has deep roots, and it was planted by those who would benefit most from its practice. We don’t have to look far to find the wretched consequences.

Churches, children’s homes, prisons, corporations, everywhere has been infested with callous abuse of the vulnerable. How do they get away with it?

Reports into local children homes found shocking abuse of boys and girls.

To a large extent, because the victims have been conditioned to repress their negative experiences, often to blame themselves and to carry guilt as an additional burden.

It comes down to codes that are imposed on young, impressionable minds—sometimes by well-meaning parents and teachers.

How could a child be taught that to weep, to sob, to let a solitary teardrop roll freely, was to act without courage?

As the joiner has found in the middle of his fifties, it is unnatural—you really can’t hold back the tears.

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