Manly men are an endangered breed. So says some manly men who criticize feminism, progressive politics, and consumerism for casting masculinity as toxic. See, for example, the Order of Men, a men’s support group which advocates for strong and competent men. Their motto is “Protect. Provide. Preside.”
To quote from their flagship video, “We live in a world where being a man is no longer a requirement for a male. It’s optional. You have to choose to be a man. You have to choose to exhibit strength. Choose to make yourself capable of protecting yourself and others. Choose to develop the skills to more adequately provide for yourself and your loved ones. Choose to lead virtuously with strength and courage.”
This group is about “finding and harnessing the raw masculine energy that for so many reasons has been silenced for way too long.” The reason for this group, according to the video, is that, “The world needs leaders. The world needs engaged fathers in the home, powerful entrepreneurs in the business community, and intelligent and effective leaders at the city, state, and national levels. The world needs men.”
Late-Modern Threats to Masculinity
To get a better idea of the type of man that’s supposedly endangered, think of the famed Navy SEAL from movies or from the TV show SEAL Team. This heroic male is physically strong, brave, loyal, patriotic, and competent. He works the problem and gets the job done or dies trying.
The manly man’s criticism, then, is that traditional values of masculinity seem unfashionable or politically incorrect in many developed societies. The liberal principle that women should have the same rights as men has had the unintended effect of feminizing men. Perhaps as women entered the workforce, men found they had to emulate women’s feminine traits to get ahead. Thus, instead of taking the necessary steps to accomplish the task at hand, men had to take into account other people’s feelings.
Just as women for centuries had to hide their intelligence to play up their feminine attributes in patriarchal societies, now men are encouraged to hide their manly know-how to play up their neutered role as insipid team players. In feminine workplaces, the emphasis is on rights and feelings, not on expertise and securing victories. The feminizing plan isn’t to train to be as effective as possible, to accomplish the mission even under hazardous conditions, that being the ideal scenario for the manly man. Instead, the preoccupation is with preserving the team’s sense of self-worth by validating the members’ feelings, even if that simultaneously guarantees and excuses failure.
It’s as though a team of feminized men entered an Olympics swimming tournament, but instead of training their muscles and skills to be capable of performing well as swimmers, they sit around and talk about their feelings all day, devising more and more ways to hold each other back, such as by building up a bureaucracy that overregulates their conduct and prevents them from dominating.
The other threat to masculinity is the rise of machines, since automation in the workplace is replacing men as robots are proving more efficient at the physical tasks that used to build character and strength in men. The reliance on machines and computers in farming, manufacturing, and even in the military is emasculating. For example, soldiers can now kill with remote-controlled drone planes, which obviously isn’t as manly or as honourable as looking your enemy in the eye.
Manly Men in the Dominance Hierarchy
There’s a problem with this analysis, however. The so-called manly or masculine man is only one type of man, and the other types were hardly brought into being by late-modern economic conditions. The main types of men correspond to the levels of dominance in just about every social hierarchy of animals. As I explain elsewhere, in most competitive endeavors, at least three types of animals emerge: the leader, the follower, and the outsider. In ethology, these are known as alphas, betas, and omegas.
The heroic SEAL figure is just the alpha male, the one who dominates or leads the group because of his prowess. Rather than being inherently patriotic, protective or virtuous, though, the leader’s dominant position affords the leader the opportunity to abuse his power over the other members of the group. Thus, the dominant male animal often rapes females in the wild and bullies his subordinate males. In our supposedly more intelligent and self-aware species, dominant men are prone to psychopathy, megalomania, and other personality disorders. This is why your male boss is more likely odious than gallant.
In hierarchal societies, females are often treated as resources or as prizes since they don’t need to compete to attract a mate. On the contrary, in most species the males are adorned with the more colourful or flamboyant fur, feathers, or scales, since they have to dance or wrestle or otherwise impress the female who picks from the male suitors.
As for the “feminized” men who are supposedly replacing masculine men, thanks to the likes of feminism, progressivism, and automation, these men are just the betas, those who have to play by the rules to avoid being cast out of the hierarchy by the dominant, tyrannical alphas. This is nearly a universal phenomenon even in sophisticated human societies. Think of the slaves in ancient civilizations and notice how their pacified, neutered behaviour might come across as “feminized,” given the patriarchal privileging of masculinity over femininity.
In current corporate environments, the feminized male is the follower who lacks sufficient authority or control to be authentic to his inner nature without having to fear the consequences. He’s defined as a follower, because his public role is to play by the rules, to run the race to get ahead in business. In the current United States which is rigged to be highly unequal in economic terms, only the richest ten percent can afford to behave like dominators, since they have more wealth than they could rationally dispose of, whereas the rest of the society with its shrinking middle class has to struggle to keep up.
Of course, the proponents of male masculinity don’t take themselves to be advocating for tyranny. On the contrary, they’d say, the aristocrat or plutocrat is liable to be decadent and spoiled by his privileges. In short, that obscene degree of success will ironically deprive him of his masculine qualities, since he no longer has to work hard to earn anything; his servants hand him empty rewards on a silver platter.
But that’s my point! Once the masculine male succeeds and beats all his rivals, he becomes a tyrannical dominator, a predator or parasite at the pinnacle of a monopoly. Prior to that ultimate triumph, when he’s still struggling in an environment he doesn’t fully control, his traits will be mixed since he’ll be a leader compared to some members of the hierarchy, and a follower compared to others. He’ll have to play by certain rules he doesn’t dictate, which can make him seem “feminine” or passive and exploited.
Toxic masculinity is what masculinity tends to become, because this competitive game for men is unstable, and its instability is due to its natural unfairness. For every dominator who no longer has to compete, because he’s attained a godlike lifestyle, the majority must languish with no hope of freeing themselves entirely from hardship and strife. Nature avenges herself against the victor, too, since godlike power corrupts the dominator’s character.
That is, the pseudo-purpose of social hierarchies in the wild isn’t to create godlike creatures; instead, biologically speaking, all levels of the hierarchy — including alphas and betas — are used as instruments to stabilize the group and to transmit the fittest genes to the next generation. Toxic masculinity is a byproduct of evolution’s indifference to the pains and pleasures of the hosts that carry the genetic information.
Following the Loser
The questions remain whether we should encourage masculine qualities and whether we’re being overly feminized by certain economic and political elements. In so far as we’re forced to behave like animals, because our minds are imprisoned in our bodies and we’re subject to scarcity of resources that we need to survive, I think we should respect the advantages of masculinity and be repulsed by excessive feminization of men.
However, to the extent that we’re people rather than animals, because we can understand what’s really going on and we have some freedom to apply that knowledge, we might learn to appreciate the values of the neglected group of omegas or outsiders. Alphas, the leaders who tend to become monstrous dominators act as avatars of evolution’s wildness; again, the dominant male’s amoral exploitation of his subordinates reflects nature’s indifference towards the rights and values of the trillions of creatures that are born to die.
But people stand apart from animals and from the wilderness, which is why we build our self-serving, artificial worlds. In that respect, our species as a whole is better represented by the losers among us, by the social outsiders, including the homeless, the mentally ill, and the ascetics. We’re all losers and outsiders in our existential relation to nature and to the animal kingdom. Our sapience and arrogance cast us out of our primordial home in the wild, just as the have-nots are pariahs in human societies.
We’re all homeless compared to the animals that have no conception of the wider universe and that therefore feel at home in the limited plot of land they can comprehend. We’re all mentally deranged compared to the animals that can’t feel angst or alienation, because unlike big-brained humans they haven’t learned much more than they can handle without their having to resort to self-deception.
More relevantly, we may all be obliged to renounce certain pastimes, whereas animals rush to exploit all their traits in their struggle to survive. What are, after all, the values of the social outsider who neither leads nor follows in the competition, because he’s failed so spectacularly or withdraws due to some weakness or insight? The outsider can be expected to be resentful, at worst, and perhaps mentally unbalanced, but also spiritually (existentially) free and wise. This is why we have the stock character of the sage omega male, from the Buddha to Socrates to Jesus.
To be sure, the outsider will have no clue as to how to succeed in conventional competitions, such as in the marketplace or on the battlefield, but his marginalization alienates him from the group and that alienation can make him ruthlessly objective. Just as an anthropologist who studies a tribe can misunderstand the tribal behaviour but also learn to grasp it scientifically, precisely because the anthropologist isn’t committed to the culture and bound to interpret its norms with a sympathetic bias, a loser of a game may have the deepest insight into the game’s nature.
The follower and the leader are too distracted by the business of obeying or of writing the rules to be concerned with the existential question of what the game is for, but the loser on the sidelines may be free to observe and to reflect without attachments or biases. The lack of cultural prestige for professional philosophy may be ironically fitting, because meta-knowledge is generated by creative flashes of insight that extract the thinker from a conventional mindset, which freedom can threaten those who prefer to conform to social expectations.
Just as masculinity can be self-destructive, a hyper-masculine society can be expected to undermine itself by oppressing its citizens and polluting its environment, according to the whims and schemes of the corrupted leaders and their cowed followers. Thus, rather than preparing to dominate others and to embarrass ourselves as pampered dictators who used to be honourable warriors, we might cultivate some of the loser’s virtues and learn to observe the world with an artist’s detachment, a Cynic’s mirth, and a mystic’s awe.