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Andrew Fiala on Ethics: Big boys do, and should, cry

President Barack Obama cries during a Jan. 5 news conference to announce executive actions intended to expand background checks for some firearm purchases and step up federal enforcement of the nation’s gun laws.
President Barack Obama cries during a Jan. 5 news conference to announce executive actions intended to expand background checks for some firearm purchases and step up federal enforcement of the nation’s gun laws. Tribune News Service

Our image of masculinity has evolved. Men used to avoid crying in public. But those days are over.

Male politicians have shed gallons of tears. John Boehner cried more than once, including during the pope’s visit to Congress. Chris Christie recently admitted to crying during Hurricane Sandy and after sharing a hug with Bruce Springsteen.

President Barack Obama shed a tear recently while announcing his gun control initiative. Supporters celebrated the depth of Obama’s emotion. Conspiracy theorists claimed he was faking it.

Many men – from Bill Clinton to Justin Bieber – have been accused of faking tears. Women also have been accused. But there is something about a man’s tears that connect to our ideas about sincerity, authenticity and truth.

Masculine tears carry special weight as an exception to the rule that big boys don’t cry. We think that male weeping is a psychological achievement indicating depth of soul.

That’s why phony tears are cynical and opportunistic. Counterfeit crying is disturbing because a man’s tears send a message of spiritual depth.

It is usually callous to doubt the sincerity of those who weep. Tears usually are beyond reproach, as a moist manifestation of emotional life.

Tears can be faked. Parents learn to navigate the swamp of their kids’ crocodile tears. But in order to weigh the salt in someone’s tears we need experience and personal contact. We lack such insight into the emotional lives of celebrities and politicians. It is impossible to plumb the depths of a stranger’s eye water.

That doesn’t stop us from judging. While the cynics doubted Obama’s tears, Donald Trump came to the rescue, declaring that Obama’s tears were sincere. It’s a mystery, of course, how Trump could know this.

Trump is not fond of crying. He recently made fun of Glenn Beck for being a “weird dude” who is “always crying.” Trump claims that he personally hasn’t cried since he was a baby.

Long-held standard

The idea that men shouldn’t cry has deep roots. When Socrates drank the hemlock, he berated his male friends for crying. “Keep quiet and be brave,” he said, suggesting that crying is for women.

Men did cry in the ancient world. Odysseus wailed and sobbed. Even Jesus wept. His tears are celebrated as a sign of his humanity. The ancients understood the force and beauty of tears. The Roman poet Ovid encouraged men to learn to weep – or to fake weeping – as a useful tool in the art of seduction.

Tears are an effective form of communication. They express sincerity and authenticity. Simply saying what we mean is often not enough. Tears communicate emotional commitment that goes beyond language and argument.

Tears also provoke a visceral and empathetic response. Like sneezing and laughter, tears are contagious. We cry when others cry.

We also cry when we put important ideas into words. My students often choke up when discussing ethical and religious topics. When we realize the meaning of deep ideas, our emotional reservoirs swell and overflow.

It’s only human

Crying exposes part of the mystery of being human. Men are not robots. We cry and laugh and sing and make love. And we live in bodies that are often beyond our control. Weeping overwhelms us. The voice cracks. The lip trembles. The eyes fill with water. Tears are a glistening glimmer of spirit breaking through the facade of composed rationality.

Because of their connection with sincerity and depth of spirit, tears are often connected to truth. Tears flow, we think, when the criminal confesses, when a heartfelt apology is given, or when a repressed individual finally lets down his guard. Phony tears betray these expectations, leaving us unable to distinguish truth from trickery.

For most men, these salty gushers of emotion are unpredictable and uncontrollable. Sometimes we cry at the right times. Other times, we cry too much or at the wrong things. Sometimes we don’t cry, when we should. And icy-hearted men occasionally melt.

It is hard enough to control our own emotional lives. It is nearly impossible to judge the sincerity of other men’s tears. And in fact, their tears are usually none of our business.

Sometimes men cry. Sometimes men should cry. But our tears are less important than our ideas, our actions, and the consistency of our character.

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State. Contact him: fiala.andrew@gmail.com.

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