“You can’t manipulate the snake!”

The student I’m speaking with after class keeps coming back to this point, as he tries to get me to understand his thoughts about nature vs. nurture.

I had just given a guest lecture in a psychology class at San Quentin, the infamous prison tucked away in a remarkably beautiful spot on San Francisco Bay. My topic was masculinity and how I’ve come to think about competition as the essential theme in our deepest “nature.” The men in the class, all inmates, had read the article that I’d written for the AFTNC newsletter, as well as a portion of Louise Brizendine’s “The Male Brain.” The instructor, my colleague Morgan Howson, who had invited me, would require that they all submit papers about the reading and lecture. There was a substantial interest in the topic, as I was framing our basic struggle as men in the language of “winning and losing.” The men in this class were, in the obvious way, losers: locked away, watched over, and officially removed from the economy in which the rest of us compete. I mean that as an objective distinction, not a personal one. I had interesting and enjoyable chats with several of them. As we sometimes say in family therapy: “context matters.” Among the folks in that classroom, I was a “winner” because I wasn’t subject to the forces of oppression that rule every moment of their lives. This is, after all, a high security prison in which I, as an outsider, was constrained from wearing blue, white or gray clothing, or carrying any personal item aside from an ID card, just in case something “went down,” but at the end of the class, I would be heading home. Part of the point I was trying to make, is that contexts of competition define “winners and losers” in ways that shape identity.

My lecture depended on arguments from neuroscience, cognitive psychology, evolutionary biology and almost forty years of counseling men, as well as my own experience of being a man who grew up in a triumphalist post war America: Land of the Free and Home of the Brave.

As best as I was able to understand the point that this man was trying to get me to see, it was that snakes, particularly venomous ones, are what they are, and that we have to accept that. I on the other hand, was holding on to my idea that all snakes, like men, respond to their environments in different ways, and in the thought experiment he was presenting, I would be willing to reach into a snake pit if I could do it when the temperature was low enough that the snakes, being cold blooded, couldn’t react in the normal way, giving me the advantage. That was when he pointed out that I wasn’t allowed to “manipulate” the snake in trying to understand it’s “true” nature.

Later that evening, as I was having dinner with my wife and we were talking about how our days had transpired, I realized that this man’s question/complaint had been quite personal and contained a larger perspective on the topic I was lecturing about. He wasn’t the only class member who was expressing his concern about the nature vs. nurture issue. Another very earnest member of the class, who was agreeing with me about the importance of learning “fair play” through team sports, began talking about how it wasn’t just straight men who were responsible for fights, as he noted that gay men and women were also capable of viciousness. In fact, his questions led to the common essentialist idea that one goal of psychology should be a careful breeding program to alter the expression of our genetic heritage. His answer to my question about who might be the decision makers in such a policy suggested that his personal experience was like the other student’s, or mine, or Hamlet’s, or almost anybody who asks this question. Is the fault in ourselves, or in the stars (currently understood as genes?)

So the argument is that the “real” unmanipulated snake has a true nature, and that we mere mortals are fools not to see that. It is in fact, our basic problem in life. The nature of the snake drives us from paradise and dooms us to the common lot of all creatures: we die.

That is our creation myth in the “Christian” nation of America. The men in my lecture grapple with this in the deepest of ways, but they are no different from the rest of us who struggle to “manipulate the snake.”

I am grateful to have had these conversations and will continue to write about this as I explore the nature of gender, power, and the meaning of “good and evil” in a world where science and religion compete for power and glory.