There have been some extreme examples in high-profile court cases of the past year. The courtroom tears of Kyle Rittenhouse, who was later acquitted in the deaths of two men he shot and the wounding of another, and Travis McMichael, who, along with his father and a neighbor, was convicted of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, were public displays of petulant vulnerability. They show strikingly how this aggrieved, self-righteous mind-set privileges one’s own vulnerability over that of others: The crying killer doesn’t recognize the vulnerability of his victim.
The aftermath of last year’s Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol was a festival of petulant vulnerability. While the attack itself was violent and wrathful, many in the mostly male mob, who screamed obscenities or threw heavy objects at police officers that day, later wept as they expressed shame, offered excuses or complained about jobs and friends they lost. One rioter even blamed “Foxitis” for his actions: His lawyer argued that months of watching Fox News had destabilized him to the point where he started believing untruths. Classic toxic masculinity was on full display when those would-be heroes rallied to “save America” on Jan. 6, but some became hapless patsies once they were held accountable. Their capes became baby blankets.
Petulant vulnerability is not, of course, confined to men. An example can be found in the case of Amy Cooper, the woman who was filmed falsely reporting to the police that “an African-American man is threatening my life,” her voice sounding breathless and panicked, after a bird watcher in Central Park asked her to leash her dog.
What is real vulnerability? Brené Brown, a researcher whose work on vulnerability has made her a celebrity, defines it as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure” in her 2013 book “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.” Petulant vulnerability, however, uses the language of vulnerability as a cudgel. If true vulnerability means accepting change, personal fallibility and the human condition of reliance on others, petulant vulnerability feigns emotional fragility as a means of retaining power.
If true vulnerability seems scary, it is — but that doesn’t make expressing it any less necessary, for men as for everyone. What if, on Jan. 5, 2021, a man upset by Donald Trump’s electoral defeat had confessed to friends and loved ones that he was afraid and that he felt he was losing control in a world he believed no longer valued him? What if he had sat with those feelings, cried if he wanted to and discussed how to chart his path in a changing landscape? That would have been vulnerable.