Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Brawl of Masculinities

The stirring of a men’s movement on the intellectual dark web, the vengeance of the #MeToo backlash, the lame posturing of the Gillette ad, and the American Psychological Association’s warning that toxic masculinity is bad for mental health—these have all raised the question of the nature of masculinity. Is there an ideal way to be a man? Is that question politically loaded or otherwise socially constructed? Or is there a more philosophical perspective that enables us to see through the political games and illuminate the larger problem?

Conservative and Liberal Masculinities

George Monbiot takes up the question of toxic masculinity in a Guardian article, arguing against the conventional wisdom on the right that ‘a “grown man” requires “oppressive” discipline, aggression and risk-taking.’ On the contrary, writes Monbiot, “growing up—whether as a man or a woman— means abandoning anger, aggression and the need to dominate. It means learning to talk about fear, loss, joy and love. It means learning both to listen and to share, to name your troubles and engage with other people’s.” Far from being tougher than the average liberal softy, the macho right-winger is especially vulnerable, says Monbiot, because he often hides some unresolved emotional trauma that threatens to undo his accomplishments. “What sort of a man are you if you have to go to such lengths to prove your masculinity? The confident construction of identity does not require crude cultural markers, but emotional literacy and honest self-appraisal. The more we proclaim our strength and dominance, the weaker we reveal ourselves to be.”

The problem with these discussions is that there’s no such thing as men, psychologically speaking. Most men have the same biological traits, but in large societies men organize themselves into hierarchies, and men at the top are mentally unlike men at the bottom. Our social position impacts our personality, so the differences aren’t subjective. Broadly speaking, men fall into three groups: leaders, followers, and outsiders. The first two groups are part of a larger group which is opposed to outsiders, so that there’s an even broader distinction between winners and losers. The former three categories correspond to the ethological terms, “alpha,” “beta,” and “omega,” although that terminology is tainted by its association with the alt right. In any case, just as there are classes of men with distinct ideals befitting their social station, there are masculinities rather than an overarching value system that ought self-evidently to be adopted by all men.

Male leaders idolize the psychopath, because what distinguishes these men is the social power that naturally corrupts their character, sapping them of their capacities for empathy, compassion and humour. The set of psychopathic traits that characterizes the action movie star, for example, is the traditional kind of masculinity favoured by “conservatives,” since the tradition they wish to conserve or reestablish is monarchism, slavery to the ultra-ruler or tyrant. Conservatism is thus a social movement that prizes bullying, at a minimum, if not a totalitarian dictatorship, and so conservatives seek to preserve the social systems that enable bullies to emerge and prosper. A bully is just a leader whose dominance is recognized by his followers, because the leader has demonstrated his greater share of social power by conspicuous acts of belittling others in the group. The bully’s psychopathic traits, in turn, evolved out of desperation when long ago hunters needed to psych themselves up to bring down big game. Psyching themselves up to stalk dangerous prey or to guard the tribe against fellow predators meant turning themselves at least temporarily into psychos, that is, into fearless, amoral killers. Once our kind succeeded in lording it over the animal kingdoms, our “leaders” trained their psychopathic traits onto the rest of us, and so they became hunters of men and women—not of their fellow humans, mind you, but of subordinate ranks of human creatures that only outwardly resemble them.

Males who are traditionally masculine are thus aggressive, dominant, and amoral. They’re subcriminal psychopaths who adapt to civilized norms by sublimating their killer instincts. Instead of becoming serial killers, which would perfectly fulfill this masculine ideal, these manly men dominate their subordinates in symbolic ways that liberal societies often allow—at least until the feminist backlash and the #MeToo movement. Instead of beating or slaying a subordinate, for example, a business leader may only speak condescendingly or send the underling out on menial chores. As Monbiot suspects, these traditional males suffer from a trauma, but it’s not necessarily a personal one akin to a rosebud moment in their childhood. Instead, the reason traditional males are so self-destructive is that their displays of animal savagery are inherently antisocial in that they threaten the noble lies we tell ourselves to cooperate in our large-scale undertakings. Once a leader’s psychopathy becomes incompatible with our self-image of being persons as opposed to vain and deluded animals, the leader is targeted as a parasite. Hence the ancient rituals, uncovered by James Frazer, of the king who is ritually slaughtered as a scapegoat to maintain the greater peace. 

By contrast, masculinity for followers corresponds to Monbiot’s liberal ideal and to Nietzsche’s notion of slave morality, and so is characterized as a duplicitous embrace of femininity. Slaves who want to be freed, followers who participate in the meat grinder of civilization and who thus work to earn power, to become leaders must define themselves so as not to antagonize the ruling class. The followers thus hide behind the egalitarian ideals of the weaker, more submissive class, concealing their ambition until the moment arrives when they’ve acquired sufficient power to announce that they’ve “grown more conservative in their thinking,” when they’ve become the assholes that alone are fit to rule a predatorial dominance hierarchy. (Regardless of our self-serving myths, humans are apex predators as far as the rest of the planet is concerned.) So masculinity for followers and for victims of bullying, that is, for liberal men is feminization. The stated ideal for male followers is for all men to be more like women, to be “emotionally mature” and comfortable with expressing their feelings, and to treat everyone as equally deserving of respect.

This is the “masculinity” expressed by the Gillette ad, which evidently seeks to appeal to men who, in turn, increasingly need to curry favour with their aggressively feminist wives or girlfriends. Gillette laid down a cultural marker to enable untraditional, progressive men to pretend to be like women just because they’re purchased the politically correct type of razor and shaving cream. The ad presents do-gooder males as more manly than the sexist brutes and bullies whom traditionalists revere. The underlying reason this ad strikes a false note with many viewers is that Gillette is hardly going as far as to advocate for socialism or for any radical shift in government or in the economic order that would rival capitalism or plutocracy in which social hierarchies are free to form. Thus, far from challenging the systems which turn even the most effeminate men or nerds into bullies (as in Silicon Valley, for example), or which turn even women into aggressive assholes, Gillette is just a company attempting to sell products in a “free market,” in an environment in which social power is accumulated through wealth with little in the way of regulated redistribution. So the Gillette ad’s advocacy of #MeToo values is only superficial, but this hypocrisy is part of a larger strategy of exploiting the hypocrisy of the male class of followers. Again, these middle class men don’t want to alienate the rulers, because doing so might hinder their effort to achieve their implicit goal of shedding their follower status and becoming leaders (egregious predators/dominators/psychopaths).

Male followers wear femininity as camouflage to reassure the leaders that their dominant position is secure. If the follower succeeds in climbing the social ladder, he’ll eventually end the charade if only because the temptations that come with greater wealth will force his hand. In other words, liberal masculinity is a sophisticated version of classic beta-male postures of appeasement, in which the male bows meekly before the pack leader, presents his rear end for symbolic abuse, or engages in some other submissive display so as not to antagonize the alpha. Instead of turning over on their backs and providing dominators access to their vulnerable bellies, liberal males disguise themselves as women, psychologically speaking, since traditional men are comfortable dominating women, thanks to millennia of world-wide patriarchy. Of course, liberals pay lip service to the goal of ending all male aggression, but without reckoning with the natural dynamics responsible for that brand of masculinity (with the law of oligarchy, dominance hierarchy, or corruption by power), that’s a hypocritical fantasy.

Outsider males are more like aliens in our midst than masculine or manly. These outsiders may be autistic or asexual or loners or homeless or elderly or radical or so self-consciously cynical as to eschew any social category. These are men who have lost in the struggle for advantage in large societies, and so they fall outside the systems and power games in which masters and slaves vie for the right to impose their ideal of manhood onto the other. Outsiders are ignored or shunned, not because of any fear of the extent to which they’ve lived up to cultural expectations, but because they can’t even begin to compete in that arena or because their time has passed. Thus, there is no concept of masculinity associated with outsiders or with losers, because they’ve neither the power to become monstrous nor the wherewithal to participate in the systems in which cultural stereotypes function as symbols aiding in collective endeavours. Outsiders have minimal or no social networks and so society has no need to brand them. These male losers are nameless and faceless placeholders, as far as society’s winners are concerned.

Outsiders, Posthumans, and our Existential Burden

by Luke Humphris
The conventional debate about masculinity is stale because each political side only begs the question in its favour. Conservatives uphold the traditional ideal of manliness, because that psychopathic type of man is indispensible to the pyramidal structure of society favoured by conservatives due to their authoritarian disposition. Meanwhile, liberal men insist on egalitarian values and thus on a blurring of the line between men and women, masculinity and femininity, because this talk of equality is their tactic of appearing submissive as they hypocritically climb the social ladder to acquire the dominant status that will turn them into “conservative leaders” (into psychopaths, tyrants, or bullies).

But that’s not the final word on masculinity. Enlightenment beckons if we shift our focus once more to the outsiders, since they implicitly challenge the narrowness of conservative and progressive notions of manliness, by effectively aligning themselves with the existential status of our species as a whole. All living things are estranged from the godless universe, and our species’ godlikeness represents an even higher order of alienation. Therefore, outsiders raise the question of how male leaders or followers should behave when they attend not to the culturally-defined roles but to their existential status. Society recognizes leaders and followers as such, according to the stories we tell to feel proud of our collective way of life, but outsiders see our social roles differently, since their vantage point is high up on Mount Nowhere. Outsiders view our social games and ladders and dominance hierarchies from the gutter or the back alley, and so they recognize the horror of what we are, objectively at the existential, phenomenological level. While outsiders needn’t see leaders and followers and society as a whole in the specialized terms of physics or biology, they have at their disposal the lay terms of detachment, according to which all of us are outsiders in the larger context. We all die as playthings of indifferent natural forces, and we all resist accepting the appalling truth that our life has no worthwhile meaning beyond what we create. Existentially speaking, all people are losers or tragic heroes at best.

Another way of speaking of our existential role as opposed to our social hierarchical one is to associate the former with a posthuman outlook. Of course, we don’t know how posthumans would think, nor even if any such species will evolve out of us, but we can safely say that a species with a philosophically advanced perspective wouldn’t be preoccupied with any of our parochial, self-serving conceptions. If any way of understanding what we’re really about can be expected to appeal to a posthuman mind, it’s one that grapples with our universal status of being hapless persons in an uncaring world.

The tripartite classification, then, is oversimplified. There are leaders, followers, and outsiders, but there are also leaders and followers who succeed or fail in the outsider’s existential or posthuman terms. Thus, male leaders who excel according to the cultural standard of succumbing to temptation, corrupting themselves with power and dominating their subordinates will have failed in the existential analysis. Psychopathic or conservatively masculine leaders make for great kings, emperors, or CEOs, but only for pitifully misled persons, existentially speaking. Given some understanding of our common predicament, a male leader’s predatorial impulses would be countered by the humility, compassion, and humour instilled by the outsider’s perspective. That is, in so far as the leader learns to detach from his mere social status and to think more philosophically about what he and his underlings are as existent beings, cursed to know too much to be happy without recourse to self-deception, the leader can play a more tragic role. Such a leader would renounce some trappings of power and would view everyone as existentially equivalent, albeit not as socially equal as the liberal would have it. The limit case of this renunciation is the one in which the alpha voluntarily accepts full omega status, as in the Buddha or Jesus. But presumably, degrees of disruptive enlightenment are possible.

Likewise, the male follower can succeed as a wily conformist, bluffing his way to a greater capacity for social dominance, while simultaneously failing to acknowledge the underlying process. Philosophically, the master and slave relationship is a flagrant embarrassment and absurdity, and if you’re not inclined to laugh at it, you don’t understand what’s really happening but, like a method actor, you may be lost in your social role of being, say, a leader or a follower. Instead of allying with women to usurp the tyrant’s vantage point, the liberal male might broaden his perspective to instill not feminine values but existential ones. Instead of repressing his aggression, the liberal man might contemplate the existential predicament which he has in common with all persons who’ve ever lived. That existential problem of how to be worthy not in society’s eyes, but in relation to the absurd world at large shapes our character through experiences of humiliation, disgust, and awe, some of the ensuing virtues being humility and compassion, righteous anger and a sense of humour.

The great task isn’t to win in any internal competition between social classes, especially when the competition is staged to distract from the underlying philosophical issues; rather, the more enduring struggle is between life and nonlife, and between the godlike potential of personhood and the universe’s indifference that mocks our creative vision. The question raised by the persistence of social failure, then, is whether we might be compelled to abandon our internally-divisive labels, to focus on the greater contest with nature. In short, outsiders (losers or omegas) may be omens of a posthuman future in which our descendants will vent their wrath not on human subordinates but on natural processes that will be helpless before the all-powerful technology. Master and servant: godlike (satanic) posthumanity and the disenchanted wilderness. At least as an exercise in widening our perspective, we might check our political notions of masculinity with some recognition of the likelihood of emerging posthuman heroism.


  1. Meticulously thought out. Requires tons of intellectual courage. I have played with the posthuman angle as mentioned above since I discovered western transhumanust in the early 90 being steeped in Russian transhumanism since mid 80s. But even that angle is thoroughly bastadized these days, even the transhumanust so called "scene" in Toronto invokes only continuous wtf in me. So it seems the transhumanust angle is nothing but a dead end unfulfilled wish these days, in the context of the above piece, at least.

    1. I don't know about the intellectual courage. I might be writing a companion article soon on the nature of femininity, and that might take more courage. ;)

      Russian cosmism is certainly interesting. What I take from transhumanism isn't so much any prediction or guarantee of some sci-fi scenario. But I gathered from my exchange with R. Scott Bakker that if the science and technology keep advancing, we'll likely know much more about the mind's neurochemical aspect. It will then be harder to take cultural values seriously, because we'll see how they arise from evolutionary concerns. Cynicism and nihilism will be easy, but there will also be an opportunity for a Buddhist calm in absorbing this psychological and cultural apocalypse.

      The only values that will have any chance of being objective or not overtly based on evolutionary accidents or delusions will be the aesthetic ones that follow from the coming together of scientific detachment and pantheistic appreciation of the universe's mindless self-creativity (as I try to explain in "Life as Art"). It's that absurdist, Matrix-like vision of the mere quasi-artistic value of everything that seems likely to inform an intellectually advanced mindset. No one knows what will actually transpire, but I suspect that that kind of enlightened perspective is a real danger and an opportunity for existential nobility.

      I'd certainly doubt that any utopian sci-fi prediction will come to pass in the foreseeable future. We already had those wishes throughout the last century (the Jetsons, etc), and look where we are now. 5G networks are poised to make businesses more productive through automation, and Yuval Harari points out that that will put most people out of work. That's the irony of technoscientific advances: they spell disaster when there's no accompanying progress in our ways of thinking. We'll need to reconsider our ultimate goals if we're to have any honour as the machines and algorithms continue to take over.

      Do you live in Toronto? Small world!