Susanna J. Sturgis   Martha's Vineyard writer and editor
writer editor born-again horse girl

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Of Emperors and Elephants (or, Why Guys Aren't Aliens)

July 24, 2005

As you'll see, it's not really about guys, or about guys as guys; which is to say, it's not just about guys.

So making enough noise to drown out all the other sounds in the vicinity is an avoidance technique: if you can't hear it, maybe it didn't make a sound, and for sure you don't have to acknowledge its existence or do anything about it. Motorcycles, chainsaws, loud loud music . . . television! Under cover of car chases and shoot-outs, kids can plot insurrection in the living room without being overheard, and adults can discreetly discuss Uncle Rambo's third arrest for DWI.

Same goes for seeing: if you can't see it, it isn't there, and if nobody else acknowledges its existence, then you begin to doubt your own perception and after a while you don't see it either. This is the "elephant in the living room" metaphor beloved of many of us who grew up in alcoholic families: no one talks about the elephant, but everyone steps very carefully when they walk through the living room. Invert it a bit and you get "The Emperor's New Clothes": not only can people not-see things that are there, they can see things that aren't. (This is hands-down my favorite parable. I'd love to see it taught in the schools, in every grade from first to twelfth. How long before the "ours is not to wonder why" crowd caught on and tried to ban it?)

If all else fails -- if you can't turn off the part of your brain that insists on the existence of the elephant, or the non-existence of the clothes -- help is available in the form of alcohol, all sorts of drugs, tight schedules that leave no time to think, gods and führers that forbid you to think (if you're desperately trying to avoid thinking, this comes as a relief), and levels of abstraction, like money, that screen out all the messy stuff. Women use men as an avoidance technique: men are way better than children for this purpose because, as many women will tell you, they never grow up.

What made me stop flirting with the "men are aliens" hypothesis was the persistent, and persistently growing, awareness that nearly all of these "male" behaviors weren't uniquely, or even characteristically, male at all. They were habitually employed by employers, elected officials, middle-class people, rich people, white people, United-States-of-American people, alcoholics, co-alcoholics . . . By anyone, in other words, whose well-being depends on seeing the new clothes that aren't there and not-seeing the elephant that is. Which is to say, all of us, or nearly all of us, or all of us who think we have something to lose.

 

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