Between the recent Gillette advertisement criticizing “toxic masculinity” and the new American Psychological Association’s guidelines for the psychological practice with boys and men, everyone is talking about masculinity. Is it essentially good? Or is it something anachronistic, or even worse? Is it basically a cover for insecurity, and fuel for violence and abuse?
To begin with, this debate and these points are not new. Jack Donovan’s response to the APA makes exactly this point in his usual, direct style.
There’s nothing stated in the announcement by the APA that feminists haven’t been pushing since the 1970s. It’s all the same, right down to the awkwardly out-of-touch reference to John Wayne that quickly reveals someone who is either repeating dogma by rote or a geriatric Boomer who still hasn’t worked out those “greatest generation” daddy issues.
But more importantly, he points out that the terms of the debate begin on weak ground:
There’s no reason why one would expect a group of communists to produce an unbiased analysis of capitalism, and there’s no reason that one would expect a group dominated by women and avowed feminist activists and intellectuals to produce an unbiased analysis of masculinity. Their agenda is open, and Ryon McDermott, who helped develop these guidelines, proclaimed in the announcement that his goal was to “change the world” by “changing men.”
That’s crucial. The objective of the APA isn’t to help men better navigate the challenges of being what they are, but to change them completely.
Now, to be fair, I had a conversation with a subject-matter expert in the family who brought up that there is a steel-man interpretation of the APA — and even Gillette’s commercial — which might be defensible. In inner-city gangs (particularly among blacks and Latinos) and in parts of rural Appalachia, there really do exist hyper-masculine honor cultures which view more than a flicker of eye-contact as a physical challenge. These populations — though tiny minorities of the population as a whole — are responsible for extraordinary proportions of violent crime that our nation experiences. From a mathematical perspective, it’s not crazy to try to try to get to these guys. Even the most hard-right, anti-feminist, high-testosterone trad-con doesn’t want these people as next-door neighbors, precisely because of character qualities that Gillette and the APA are talking about. “Non-toxic” men can simply ignore these things. It’s not about them.
Personally, I’m dubious. Their targeting and language are both just too off the mark. They seem to be aiming at a different demographic with a motte-and-bailey style of argument. That’s just my perception.
But let’s accept the steel-man, just for the sake of argument. Is this generous interpretation really about masculinity at all? The APA cites “gender role strain” and “traditional masculinity,” while Gillette points at “toxic masculinity.” It seems clear that the actors in question believe that masculinity is the source of these problems, rather than a coincidental association.
Further — and I want to plant a flag on this point — they believe that they can change masculinity by providing prominent examples for men to emulate. More on this shortly.
To get to the bottom of this, let’s start with definitions. What is masculinity?
Just from reading the APA’s article and watching Gillette’s commercial, one might get the impression that masculinity was fundamentally about hiding your emotions, aggressively displaying dominance, and essentially bullying others and yourself.
But experts with more skin in the game come to a very different conclusion.
I have yet to find a better source for this subject than Donovan’s The Way of Men, which defines masculinity along four masculine virtues:
Masculinity, according to Donovan, is essentially the intuitively recognizeable possession of the qualities which would have allowed your tribe to survive historically.
Needless to say, Donovan is not the only expert with an opinion on the matter. Gillette and Moore offer a similar 4-part breakdown of what it means to be masculine, this time in terms of archetypes rather than virtues:
- King (generative archetype)
- Warrior (combative/courageous archetype)
- Magician (mastery archetype)
- Lover (spiritual connection archetype)
While Donovan’s list has the merit of being personally actionable, Gillette and Moore’s list provides a slightly more holistic view of what masculinity entails. In both cases, however, we are getting a perspective on what it means to be a man — what it has always meant to be a man — that looks very different from what the APA and Gillette (the company) are portraying “traditional masculinity” to be about.
But let me now return to the subject of changing masculinity through alternative modeling. If this strategy is even theoretically capable of working, than part of the problem with “traditional masculinity” must reside in the traditional role models offered to men. Their theory here would require this to be the case, or else there would be no point in trying to change masculinity through cultural campaigns.
But if we actually look at the most prominent male role-models enshrined in our “books of wisdom” — the texts that men have accepted as legitimate guidance for behavior for thousands of years — we find the APA and Gillette completely rebutted.
The most prominent masculine role model for Western men was (and still is) Jesus of Nazareth. Behind him are the protagonists of Homer (Achilles, Hector, Odysseus), the Knights of King Arthur’s court, Beowulf, Gilgamesh, and Shakespearean heroes such as Prince Hamlet and Henry V.
These are characters that are emotionally expressive. They are not abusive. When they behave in manners considered “toxic,” they are often punished, by others or by the Gods. They are, in most ways, very closely aligned with Donovan and Gillette & Moore’s depiction of masculinity, and not at all aligned with the APA and Gillette (company) vision of what “traditional masculinity” is all about.
If the premise that masculinity can be changed by culture is true, and that boys will not, necessarily, “be boys,” then we would expect that these “traditional” models of masculinity would depict many of the “toxic” qualities we are told emanate from masculinity.
But they don’t. In fact, they are the antithesis of this.
In fact, they actually depict many positive virtues (such as honor) that are slowly being transformed into negative qualities, most often by people in the camp that is claiming to try to save men from themselves, such as Steven Pinker.
If these backwater subcultures of “toxic masculinity” are suffering from anything, it would appear to be a lack of traditional masculinity, not an excess. Traditional masculinity describes exactly what the APA and their academic progenitors claim to be offering men, yet those academics and psychologists label the cure as the disease: “traditional masculinity.”
I believe the character qualities these academics are criticizing do exist, are (mostly) harmful, and are male-specific. But they are not “traditional” — i.e., maintained and upheld by tradition. Rather, they seem to represent neurological settings, perhaps activated by early life trauma, and are biological functions of being a male member of hierarchical mammals, like gorillas or wolves. The ostensible target is not “traditional masculinity,” but what I will call “primordial masculinity.” It is worth noting that primordial masculinity is not socially or culturally constructed.
Traditional masculinity harnesses and redirects the energy of primordial masculinity in a healthy and positive direction. But you cannot have the qualities of traditional masculinity without having the capacity for primordial masculinity. Put another way, you cannot be a “good man” without being “good at being a man.”
All of this indicates that there are two likely possibilities, where the APA’s and Gillettte’s criticisms of traditional masculinity are concerned: either they are dramatically off in their diagnosis and their terms, or their intentions are not what they are presenting.
If the APA’s boast about decades of research on this subject is true, than the former hardly seems likely.
This is why I believe it is more likely that they are advancing a motte-and-bailey argument, in which they are overtly advancing reasonable claims about the negative impacts of authentic “toxic masculinity” cultures (such as gangs), and then using this as a springboard to attack masculinity itself, equivocating with the phrases “toxic masculinity,” “traditional masculinity,” and even “masculinity.” If pressed on the matter, they can point to the serious cases that are universally frowned upon. But once the criticism lets up, they can expand again and go after traditional masculinity, rather than just the negative effects of primordial masculinity as they claim.
Such a desire seems grotesque, even evil, and I have no doubt that some academics might be bitter towards men in general, for reasons of their own. But that would not explain why such a position is viable in the marketplace of ideas. If it isn’t true and no one benefits, then ideas usually kind of fade away. And yet this attack on masculinity is taking off. Cui bono?
I think that ultimately, it comes down to market stability. Males who are less masculine are less disruptive, being less courageous (more risk-averse) and lacking the strong social identities that traditionally masculine men possess. This makes less-masculine men more adaptable to the needs of businesses — perhaps more likely to move to a foreign country, should their company require it — and less likely to put up a fight if a corporation steps on the traditional interests of a religious or ethnic identity. Without a set loyalty, they are free to go where they please and do as they choose, which paradoxically makes them more controllable, because without any fixed direction or set of values, men will simply maximize utility by default. Paychecks are more controllable and less tricky to navigate than belief systems, especially at the international level, where the margins of commerce are highest, but where cultures and beliefs and identities often conflict.
Attacking masculinity just seems like good business sense. It’s a long-game move to increase profits by turning men and women into more androgynous worker-drones, who are motivated by the same things, value the same ideals, and are functionally interchangeable. Left in their natural masculine and feminine states, men and women are not interchangeable with each other. Men aren’t even interchangeable with other men.
That’s not very efficient, from a business perspective.
I am not saying these things to attack markets or capitalism. I consider myself a capitalist, and as a general rule, I believe that the less regulation in an industry, the better (with certain exceptions). No system allocates resources more efficiently.
But at the end of the day, some things are more important than the efficient allocation of resources. If no aggregate all value systems together and average them out (what globalism seems to do), then the efficient allocation of resources is going to be the top priority, simply because it is a priority for everyone. It is the biggest common denominator, after survival and reproduction.
But flesh-and-blood human beings are not statistical averages, and virtually no real person on earth holds the efficient allocation of resources as the top priority. Most men would rather be masculine men than be androgynous nu-males with an extra game system in return for the testicles they traded in. For most men, there is no dollar-value high enough you could pay them to chop off their dick and become Linda from HR with a beard.
It might be “better” for society as a whole — or, rather, for the theoretical concept of society — to androgynize all men. It might be better to eliminate traditional masculinity, toxic and otherwise, for “the greater good,” at least in the short run. Who knows what will happen when your androgynized society starts competing with a masculine competitor; historically, the latter kills and/or enslaves the former. Those championing the androgynous ideal best prepare their children for life under Sharia, or Latino-style patriarchy.
If masculinity is historically inescapable — if boys will be boys, whether childless women like it or not — then we are faced with a choice between traditional masculinity and unfiltered primordial masculinity… or our traditional masculinity and somebody else’s traditional masculinity.
Personally, I think that Gillette and the APA are on the wrong side of that line. They’re wrong about masculinity, they’re wrong about “traditional masculinity,” and they’re wrong to insidiously associate men as a group with negative emotional reactions: “violence,” “bullying,” “sexual harassment,” “abuse,” “rape,” “victim,” “mask.”
It’s wrong, and I’m pretty sure it’s just marketing. If so, it’s also the banal “evil-by-carelessness” that will generate deep hatred in those that see what’s going on, and are getting the short end of the stick. In either case, it won’t go on for much longer. The end of history isn’t coming, and there will be no last man.