Whosoever would be a man must be a nonconformist.” (Why, after 200 years, Emerson is still relevant.)

When do you follow the rules?

When do you break them?

Do you break the rules in order to do the right thing?

Even if breaking the rules will get you punished?

When following orders kills. These questions have been on my mind a lot this past week as Canada has borne witness to a public inquest into the tragic death-in-custody of Ashley Smith, a troubled 19 year-old woman who strangled herself to death with a piece of cloth while prison staff looked on from outside her cell, doing nothing. Smith managed to kill herself even though she was in a one-person cell, on a formal suicide watch, being videotaped, and under constant and direct visual surveillance by prison guards. She died as the guards watched her through the window of her cell door. Guards who had been ordered by their supervisors not to intervene until she lost consciousness. Guards who followed those orders despite having intense misgivings about doing so. Guards who while conducting a suicide watch chose -- against their better judgement -- to follow the directives of their superiors and wound up watching a young woman actually commit suicide.

Testifying at the inquest, one of the guards stated that “in a perfect world” he would have entered the cell to save the young woman’s life. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2013/01/21/canada-ashley-smith-inqu…

According to another news report, “Senior managers at the prison ordered that staff only enter her cell in such cases if she was no longer breathing. But, on several occasions, staff broke that rule because they were concerned for Smith's safety...

“‘When you see someone struggling and you see they can't breathe, but you are told not to go in, it's very difficult to live with that,’ said one guard.

“Howard Rubel, Union of Canadian Correctional Officers representative, said several guards were disciplined because they [had previously disobeyed orders and] entered Smith's cell… Rubel said the guards' concerns were ignored by senior managers. ‘They were repeatedly being told, no, we know what we are doing. You follow the treatment program. You follow the rules we have set.’" http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/story/2013/01/20/ashley-smith-gua…

Implications for masculinity. Ashley Smith’s death is a tragic situation that raises some relatively profound ethical issues. Issues that are pretty universal. Questions like: at what point do you decide to stop doing what you have been told to do, and break rank in order to do the right thing? At what point do you choose to respond to a higher call, a moral imperative, and leave the rules, the regulations, and the orders behind in the dust?

People of any gender can encounter clashes between rules and ethics. Challenges to one’s integrity. But I believe that these ethical dilemmas -- these crossroads of justice, these decisions of whether to choose obedience over morality -- are a near-constant hallmark of modern life for most men and boys. Because modern masculinity is a highly performative, superficial, and artificial way of being. And to a great extent it is rooted in a deep sense of supremacy over women. And when we men are at our most masculine, we are not being genuine. We’re not being truly human. We’re just following the rules about what society has determined makes us a man. And one of those rules is the fiction that men should exert power over women.

As men (or men in the making), we are asked on a daily basis (and often multiple times a day) to be “manly.” Which in its typical form means expressing some form of male supremacy. And at each of those times we must choose between doing what is right and doing what is “manly.” We must choose between justice on the one hand and masculine supremacy on the other. And it is a stark choice, because justice and masculine supremacy cannot exist simultaneously. They are irredeemably cleaved. And when we opt to enact “manly” behaviors -- acts that promote sexism, that diminish or demean or objectify women -- we are choosing the side of injustice and misogyny.

Simply put, following many of the current societal messages about what makes you “a man” makes you a jerk.

A selfish jerk.

A selfish, sexist, jerk.

When we listen to (or tell) sexist jokes, when we comment on female coworkers’ body parts, when we criticize a woman on the basis of her gender (or her looks) rather than on the merits of her ideas, when we touch a woman without her permission (be this on a date or while gathered around the water cooler), when we treat women as sexual conquests, when we yell at a woman in order to win an argument, when we harass a woman from a passing car, when we decide for ourselves that a woman is behaving a certain way because of her hormones, when we imply that women as a sex are somehow less bright, less qualified, less knowing, less capable than we men are, when we do any of these things we are being oppressive. We are being offensive. We are denigrating half of humanity. And we are diminishing our own humanity as well.

We are choosing masculine posturing over justice.

And that’s not right.

Transcending masculinity? But it seems that the American writer and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson did have it right -- nearly 200 years ago -- when he said:

“Whosoever would be a man must be a nonconformist.”

I think that’s a pretty accurate statement. Because merely conforming to what society says makes you a man -- embracing the masculine supremacist ideology of “bros before hos,” avoiding anything that is remotely tender or cute, ranking your worth according to how many horses you’ve got under the hood or how many women you’ve gotten into your bed -- that stuff doesn’t make you a man. It just makes you a thug. A conformist thug.

The truly “real men” are not guys who go along with the crowd. They’re not the ones who drink the most, fight the most, screw the most. No, the men who are truly the most manly are the ones who do not succumb to the pressure to be anything different than who they truly are. They do not limit themselves by adopting the artificial masculine pose. They don’t chant along with the crowd. They dance to the beat of their own drum. To the rhythm of their own heart.

I think Emerson’s famous statement is a profound one. But he made other statements that I think also speak deeply to the necessary challenges of becoming one’s own man:

“Fear defeats more people than any other one thing in the world.” Emerson understands that our fear holds us back. And, just as the fear of getting in trouble held those prison guards back from doing the right thing and saving Ashley Smith, the fear of being judged as “not man enough” by others holds too many of us men back from doing what we would truly like to do. From being who we would like to be. From doing the right thing.

“As long as a man stands in his own way, everything seems to be in his way.” The fear controls us. It keeps us marching in lockstep when what we truly want is to listen to the songs in our hearts. We are only here on this earth for a very brief time. Are we really going to keep standing in our own way -- letting our antiquated notions of what makes one a man keep us from becoming the full human beings we yearn to be?

“Don't be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment.” When we are old -- if we are fortunate to live that long -- what will we find was the outcome of this experiment? Did we test ourselves in the ways we wanted to be tested? Did we try different ways of being or doing? Did we create new solutions? Or did we just plow forward, keeping our heads down, following the well-worn routes, failing to explore?

“The reason why the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps, is because man is disunited with himself.” As Emerson pointed out nearly two centuries ago, our failure to act in accordance with our true nature -- in accordance with our spirit, in alliance with our soul -- has immense consequences for all of existence. We destroy our fellow human beings rather than building them up. We conquer rather than unite. We pillage rather than share. We act outside of what our hearts truly want, and what our brain, our body, our very spirit know to be true. And what we leave is wreckage.

“Every actual State is corrupt. Good men must not obey laws too well.” If only those prison guards who stood there watching Ashley Smith die had listened instead to what was in their hearts! If only they had decided once more to disobey the orders and go in and stop this 19 year-old from killing herself under their watch! She might still be alive today. And they would not have to live with the knowledge that their failure to act -- their choice to obey rules too well -- resulted in her death.

And if those of us who live and work on the outside of the penitentiaries -- and yet who dwell imprisoned by masculinity even so -- if only we were to spend more time deciding whether or not to obey the archaic laws of just what is manly and what is not! Perhaps then we would realize that for the most part those laws are not worth obeying! Only those rules that make you a better human being are worth following! And any rule that makes you a man but erodes your humanity must be rejected!

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” Emerson knew that it is not easy to become -- and to continue to be -- one’s own person. And he knew that the world wants nothing so much as to turn you into something else. And while I think this is a struggle for people of any gender, I feel like we men have fallen far behind in this struggle for self-discovery and self-actualization. While women have been growing and changing and developing, we men have, by and large, stayed frozen in place. Why? Because by and large we men have also benefitted from having surrendered our souls. (At least this is true for white, straight, educated guys.) We have -- at least until the present time -- gained something in return for selling out. We have gained unequal access to power and resources. We have exerted global influence at a level that is hugely disproportionate to our numbers. We have been the ultimate colonizers. And we have been well compensated financially for choosing to turn off our humanity. But those benefits are rapidly eroding.

And what has been the cost to us of selling out? Our souls. But a lot of us can’t even recognize that we’ve lost anything.

It’s like that old joke goes:

“The Devil went to [insert name of your least favorite political leader here] and said:

“Look, I’ll make you President if you just sell me your soul.”

And the political leader replies:

“Uh... okay. But what’s the catch?”

Because he recognizes no cost for having sold his soul.

Preventing needless death: obedience versus heroism. But there is a cost for selling one’s soul. A terrible cost -- for everyone involved. Ashley Smith killed herself while prison guards watched her through the glass. Following their orders, they let her die. They watched her die! Where was their humanity? Where were their souls? They were absent that day. The guards’ bodies reported to work, but their spirits did not.

And I don’t mean to overly damn those folks. They are not so different from most of the rest of us. But following stupid orders and watching people die is not the only route one can take when faced with a moral crisis. So while some may think that the decision that those prison guards made not to intervene is just a mark of mankind -- the tendency to mindlessly obey -- I prefer to think instead of someone like Hugh Thompson, an American helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War, who, seeing a horrific massacre of Vietnamese civilians being carried out by U.S. troops in the small hamlet of My Lai, landed his helicopter between the advancing Americans and the retreating villagers. He demanded that the Americans halt their bloody slaughter, and he ordered his machine gunner to open fire on their own soldiers if the men kept advancing on the remaining unarmed civilians who had somehow escaped the initial butchery. Hundreds of unarmed civilians were murdered that day. But even more would have died if Thompson had not risked his own life to fly survivors out to safety.

Thompson and his crew eventually -- three decades later! -- received the esteemed Soldier’s Medal for heroism. But when he first returned to the United States from Vietnam, Thompson was called a “traitor” for reporting on what his brothers-in-arms had done. He was called anti-American. He got death threats in the middle of the night. Mutilated animals were dropped on his doorstep. All of this was society’s punishment of him for having done the right thing. For having stopped the slaughter of innocent people.

But to me, Hugh Thompson wasn’t acting like a traitor. He was acting like a man.

Like a real man.

Like a man who was in touch with his soul.

Like a nonconformist.