Opinion

The poisoned chalice of traditional masculinity

Men today are still suffering because of awful 1950s gender norms. Let's not bring them back.

When I moved to South Africa, I noticed something unusual. Men who were friends would often stand holding hands while they chatted, or while they walked down the street. The question "are they gay?" helplessly leaped into my mind when I first saw it happening — thus providing the instant answer as to why I had not seen it much in America.

It's not just homophobia — indeed, South Africa has some severe problems in that regard — but the particular way in which homophobia and associated norms of masculinity have curdled the American male identity. It's worth considering as people like University of Toronto professor and men's rights hero Jordan Peterson present the case that a return to more conservative gender norms would make for a better society. In reality, the ideology of "traditional" masculinity is a poisoned chalice for men.

Peterson argues that many men are frustrated and lonely in part because of feminism, the sexual revolution, and the decline of traditional families. In a recent New York Times profile, he argued that the logical response to the ISIS-style terrorist attack from an "incel" man — who drove a truck through a crowd, murdering 10 people and injuring 15 more — was to somehow redistribute women. "He was angry at God because women were rejecting him," Peterson said. "The cure for that is enforced monogamy. That’s actually why monogamy emerges."

Mr. Peterson does not pause when he says this. Enforced monogamy is, to him, simply a rational solution. Otherwise women will all only go for the most high-status men, he explains, and that couldn't make either gender happy in the end. [The New York Times]

It's not hard to see why these kind of solutions — which would basically amount to government-coordinated rape — are attractive to lonely, angry, or disillusioned men. "It's somebody else's fault" is generally an attractive sort of diagnosis. And there may be a nugget of truth in the idea that men have been in some ways left behind by the evolution in gender norms, which has focused a lot more on women's liberation than on providing workable behavioral guidelines and socialization for often-bewildered men. (Though the idea that some woman would be forced to take one for the team and marry a violent terrorist is a pretty good explanation as to why the feminist movement happened in the first place.)

But Peterson's explanation of the mechanics here is revealing. There actually is research suggesting that monogamy might have developed through a sort of cultural selection process whereby monogamous cultures had fewer unmarried men and thus less crime, abuse, and so on, thus allowing them to out-compete polygamous cultures (which used to be much more common). But not only is that a tentative and incomplete hypothesis at best, Peterson has the selection mechanism backwards. Women did not flock to the high-status men, those men took the women they wanted.

The idea that women will only sleep with the top men if given the chance is straight out of pick-up artist garbage pseudoscience. This ideology of "beta" and "alpha" males (the latter getting all the sex) is based on a mangled and since-retracted study about wolves, and bears no relationship whatsoever to human societies. Worse, it instills the false notion that women are largely status-obsessed sluts who will have to be basically coerced into sleeping with anyone but the most attractive men.

To be sure, there are plenty of vain and superficial women who want a man to be very attractive above all else — just as there are plenty of men with those qualities (and probably a lot more of them). But there are vastly greater numbers of women who just want a regular loving relationship with someone they can trust and enjoy being with. It can be tough to develop a relationship in this anxious age, but most any man can manage it if he is willing to put in a lot of time, effort, and always try to behave decently. When it comes to women, often the greatest obstacle for men who have drunk deeply from the trough of Peterson and his ilk is that all this poisonous garbage has made them intolerably annoying and entitled.

That brings me back to male friends and touch. Peterson has also referenced the 1950s as a good cultural model. It turns out that the modern American male aversion to "homosocial touch" developed about this time, as homophobic sexual paranoia took deep root. Look at pre-World War II pictures of American men, and they were very often holding hands, leaning on each other, sitting in each other's laps, and so on. They did this — and still do it to some degree in most cultures around the world — because touching one's fellow species members is a nearly universal primate behavior (as opposed to that of lobsters or wolves), and has all matter of empirically-demonstrated health benefits for humans. It was a bit of a jarring realization to grasp that as an American, I was the weird and probably psychologically scarred outlier.

So not only are these notions of masculinity scientific mumbo-jumbo that deeply harm the men they are supposed to help, they aren't even that much of a tradition even in our own warped country.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with enjoying traditionally male hobbies, clothing, or other such things. But men, let us not be taken in by the idea that we can quickly and easily fix our problems by rolling back the sexual culture six or seven decades. It's not remotely possible, and even if it were, we'd all be worse off for it — women and men alike.

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