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Personal essays

Certainty - Essay from Newsletter 98

Strength, Aggression and Competitiveness


In the latest episode of “The Sporkful”, Michael Ian Black and host Dan Pashman meet for a meal and a discussion of food at a pizzeria near where Black lives.

I didn’t know most of Black’s credits - I knew him as the funny sidekick in one of Kim’s favorite show’s “Ed” and rediscovered him at the end of his “How to be Amazing” podcast. I would link to the podcast but I don’t see it listed anymore.

Anyway, the conversation turned from food and cooking for their families to an op-ed Black wrote for the New York Times after school shootings in 2018 called, “The Boys Are Not All Right” (subscription may be required).

He write, “Men feel isolated, confused and conflicted about their natures. Many feel that the very qualities that used to define them — their strength, aggression and competitiveness — are no longer wanted or needed; many others never felt strong or aggressive or competitive to begin with. We don’t know how to be, and we’re terrified.”

Black and Pashman talk about how every choice can be seen as more or less masculine. Pashman’s pizza order is more masculine than Black’s salad. Though Pashman didn’t order meat on his pizza and because the pie is too oily and the crust is collapsing eats it with a knife and fork. Getting meat and eating with his hands would clearly be more masculine.

As a suburban, overweight man who mostly sits in a chair on his computer all day, and bakes, cooks, and knits for fun - I have no illusions of where I fit on the masculine scale.

And yes - most nights I have a salad and most days I don’t eat meat.

Strength and Aggression

Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former Chief Security Officer, recently told Jon Favreau on a recent episode of Pod Save America that “when the institutions say we’re not really sure what’s going on, the hucksters can come in and say, ‘I am absolutely positive and I am going to sell you on my vision.’”

I don’t know whether Black was being optimistic or doesn’t share my experience but it is apparent that sadly we don’t live in a world where strength and aggression “are no longer wanted or needed.”

Science is too squishy.

If you base your findings on data then you are bound to change your mind as new data emerges.

This means that your advice on masking may change over time. It doesn’t mean you were wrong. It may mean that you were drawing the best conclusions you could at the time and now when we evaluate what we know we come to different conclusions.

As Stamos goes on to say, “There is a huge demand for people just to be told that this is the absolute truth and they don’t have to have any ambiguity.”

Ambiguity is a sign of weakness. Flip-flopping. Uncertainty. How non-masculine can you be?

I see the words “I don’t know” as a sign of strength.

Then again I’m a salad eating dude who knits.

It depends

Here’s where my friend Will shakes his head and says to me, “Oh, Daniel you should know better.”

It’s the place where I expect consistency from those demanding or eschewing strength and aggression. It’s the third word in Black’s list: competitiveness.

When one side gets called “weak” for changing their mind and the other side gets admired, it’s because the other side is changing their mind loudly with strength and aggression refusing to acknowledge the past.

Did we just say a few years ago that no president should be able to fill a supreme court seat in the last year of their term? We did.

Did we say that you should hold us to the same standard even if our guy is president? We did.

Are we rushing someone through mere weeks before the election? We are.

Why is this ok? Competitiveness. We have no need to appear to be fair because we are boldly claiming dominance and pushing through what we can.

And now the other side - my side - has a problem. We don’t want to be like those other guys. We want a world where strength, aggression, and competitiveness don’t win over everything else. We want a world in which quiet contemplation and careful consideration matter. And so we play by a different set of rules.

We play by the rules that are true within our closest circles. In that world, as Black notes, these bullying traits are no longer wanted or needed.

But we are playing a game with people who aren’t constrained by that.

What do we have to do to win in this game?


In another edition of Pod Save America this week, Jon Lovett told a story from when he was a speech writer for Hillary Clinton during her presidential campaign.

He had written a speech on climate change laying out the candidates position and the challenges ahead.

Late that night he got notes on his speech from Hillary’s husband Bill.

The former president noted that the things we have to do to address climate change can’t be presented as an exhausting, joyless slog.

We have to present the road ahead as fun and full of inspiring moments with a huge payoff.

It’s not that the fight we’re having over the future of democracy isn’t critical - but who wants to play a game that isn’t fun.

You can eat less meat without letting other people fear that you’re coming for their hamburgers.

We can be strong without being aggressive and competitive. In this game, if one side is victorious we all win and if the other side is we all lose. The problem is both sides think we all win only if their side wins.

How do we engage and become winners in the face of all that is happening right now.

I don’t know.

As Black says, “We don’t know how to be, and we’re terrified.”

Essay from Dim Sum Thinking Newsletter 98. Read the rest of the Newsletter or subscribe

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