James Comey vs. Donald Trump: What makes a good man?

Yahoo Lifestyle
Graphic: Quinn Lemmers for Yahoo Lifestyle
Graphic: Quinn Lemmers for Yahoo Lifestyle

Welcome to a new Yahoo Lifestyle column, “The #MeToo Guide to Raising Boys,” which takes a look at where we’ve gone wrong — and how we can go right — while raising caring, respectful, self-assured boys today. Michael C. Reichert is a psychologist, executive director of the Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives, and author of the forthcoming The New Boyhood: The Power of Connections to Build Good Men.

In James Comey’s new buzzed-about book, A Higher Loyalty, the former FBI director describes the current U.S. president as “untethered to truth.” Under Donald Trump’s leadership, he writes, “basic facts are disputed, fundamental truth is questioned, lying is normalized, and unethical behavior is ignored, excused, or rewarded.”

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New York Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani anticipates even more of a dogfight ahead as she contrasts the public character of the two men: One is “boy-scout polite,” a “straight-arrow bureaucrat,” an “apostle of order and the rule of law,” while the other is an “impulsive, utterly transactional narcissist.” And America, Kakutani predicts, will evaluate their he-said, he-said competition by considering the broader context of their lives and careers.

Indeed, Comey’s initial moral claim was promptly challenged, as the president responded in his preferred Twitter vernacular to cast Comey as an “untruthful slime ball.” The Republican National Committee echoed his view, amplifying the message on Fox News, and the rest of mainstream media weighed in as well: An April 10 Washington Post story said that Trump “may well be the most corrupt major business figure in the United States of America.”

As a psychologist specializing in male development, I am not surprised that the scout/scoundrel trope is once again being used to explain men’s character. But the book’s moral posturing is unlikely to move our understanding of why men act as they do.

Fortunately, scholars have gained new insight into the developmental processes — and what we’re learning about the intersection between male development and moral formation is both revealing and, excitingly, transformative. As I have worked with young men in wealthy and poor contexts, juvenile justice systems and clinical settings, I have observed how closely men’s character is tied to masculine socialization and experiences of nurture.

By and large, good men are not hard to find.

Under the right conditions, they are being turned out in families, communities, schools, and churches, all the time. The magic takes place in boys’ relationships with their parents, teachers, coaches, and mentors — nurturing interactions are internalized, actually forming the habits of mind and heart we call virtue.

Character strengths are not the product of genetics. Nor do children learn grit, ambition, and compassion from lectures or from preaching. Instead, as they face day-to-day challenges and make decisions, leaning on supportive relationships, they incorporate life lessons into their emerging sense of self.

Marvin Berkowitz of the University of Missouri-St. Louis summarized the science of character education: “First, it is clear that the primary influence on a child’s character development is how people treat the child.”Upon this developmental platform of attachment and love, a boy comes naturally to extend his care to others.

Scholars have also come to a better understanding of how things go awry. It is not a design flaw or some kind of deficit in male nature. Far too many males experience a boyhood deprived of nurturing relationships, disrupting their education in empathy, respect, and mutual regard. Such men are truly untethered, able to think only about themselves, their impulses, and their frozen childhood needs for validation.

There has been, to my mind, far too much snarky speculation about Trump’s boyhood, particularly his relationship with his father. Such fascination is understandable as the country tries to make sense of behavior that plumbs new depths of entitlement and excess. But in the sense that character is the observable outcome of what a boy experienced in his important relationships, what we see tells us what was learned — and not learned.

Young men who are preoccupied by unmet needs can behave in ways that are antisocial. Both narcissists and sociopaths are manipulative, even exploitative, and can be unmoved by anything except how to advance their own interests. Both personality types lack interest in others except as a means to their ends. Both can be charming and very convincing, especially when fully focused on an important goal. And both are more likely to be male. In his book Bad Boys, Bad Men, psychiatrist Donald Black offers, “The most significant epidemiologic feature of ASP (anti-social personality disorder) is that it is almost exclusively a disorder of men.”

The way male development can go off-track, producing men who are unrestrained by norms of kindness or civility, wreaks havoc all around us. But it is a mistake merely to blame the problem on the individual man. Comey risks being sanctimonious, an attitude that is both a fearful exaggeration and misleading, in terms of policy. Moral superiority slows down the reinvention of boyhood that is needed to ensure that boys have sufficient opportunities to attach, grow, and develop virtue.

Separating men into scouts and scoundrels is easier than facing how difficult it is to provide boys with meaningful connections — the truth is that the potential for both attitudes resides in most all men’s hearts, given the imperfect state of our nurture.

And the same smug distance by which we separate ourselves from men who behave badly allows us to pretend that we have no responsibility for the way boys become bad.

We can do boyhood better.

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