Every person on the planet is affected by masculinity in some shape or form. This is why getting masculinity right is so important. If we get it wrong, everything falls apart. You might have noticed that everything seems to be falling apart... But the debate about masculinity rarely seems to progress.
On one side (I'll put my cards on the table here and say my side), progressive academic types mostly take a feminist position and talk about patriarchy and power, and how this marginalises women (and atypical men). Increasingly, these types also refer to queer theory, which is not solely about gay and lesbian people, rather resisting ways of pigeon-holing the identities of all people.
On the other side, are those who (often quite rightly) identify the many problems suffered by men in society, and simply do not see claims about patriarchy and power as valid any more, chiefly because they are looking at individual men who appear not to be enjoying the privileges of power, rather than the systemic and institutional nature of power. The very words 'systemic and institutional nature of power' will often make these types wince.
This debate has been going on for years: one side claiming they cannot state their watertight case about patriarchy any clearer, the other finding that case unrepresentative of the truth. We have to start finding different ways to frame this debate to make any progress. This is not about finding a middle ground; it as about finding a different ground. It is about finding a different lens through which to view the 'problem' of masculinity. Recently I have been using the lens of conspiracy logic.
The popular definition of conspiracy can be found in the idea of a cover-up, and to a large degree this is certainly the case. However, there are various aspects to conspiracy that are worth unpacking. In his book, A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America, political scientist Michael Barkun claims conspiracy is a method through which people explain the presence of evil in the world. They do this by viewing 'history as controlled by massive, demonic forces'. Conspiracies can therefore be seen as simultaneously frightening and reassuring: the demonic forces are at work, but at least they can be identified as the source of everything around us that is bad, as opposed to the true terror of random evil.
Barkun identifies three key aspects to conspiracy theories, which are worth spelling out. First, nothing happens by accident: there is always intent behind actions; the willed nature of reality is paramount. Second, nothing is as it seems: the source of a conspiracy tends to conceal its activities through the appearance of innocence or misinformation. Third, everything is connected: patterns abound in conspiracy; exposing conspiracy is about unveiling these hidden connections. Barkun sees this type of thinking as ultimately resulting in paranoia: a closed system of ideas that 'defeat any attempt at testing' due to the assumption that all the evidence countering the conspiracy must be part of the conspiracy, and therefore rejected.
To be fair, Barkun is highly critical of conspiracy belief, and when you look at the examples he provides such as the Illuminati and extraterrestrial reptilian masters, it is tempting to agree with him. But because conspiracy theories can often be a bit flaky, it doesn't mean that they are always flaky, or that at the very least there aren't some reasonable things that resemble conspiracies, inasmuch as there being a widespread assumption that needs to be exposed as false.
And this is what I'm getting at with The Masculinity Conspiracy. Gender theorists have been claiming for some time that there is no such thing as a singular 'masculinity'. Instead, there is a vast spectrum of different masculinities, some of which look familiar, some of which do not. The problem, in this worldview, is that those different masculinities (and women) are oppressed and denied by that chief masculinity. Further still, this type of masculinity is responsible for a lot of the problems the world faces today: this type of masculinity needs to be exposed as 'false', inasmuch as it is not the natural and only option available to men.
Instead of thinking about this chief masculinity solely in terms of power and identity, let's try conspiracy. Let's assume there are certain people who are being oppressed (men and women alike, for various reasons). It appears that the way we define masculinity has not happened by accident. It appears that nothing about masculinity is as it commonly seems. It appears that a number of key themes in society are connected to form a legitimising framework for The Masculinity Conspiracy. I'm not, however, suggesting that The Masculinity Conspiracy is 'controlled by massive, demonic forces'. I use the term 'conspiracy' fully aware of its limitations, and somewhat tongue-in-cheek. It is about acknowledging that there is something going on with masculinity beyond the awareness of most people.
Can those who find the language of patriarchy and power too problematic adopt the language of conspiracy? I think it's worth finding out. Perhaps the language of conspiracy is more familiar and less judgmental? Perhaps it is simply more compelling (heroic, even) to expose a conspiracy than overturn patriarchy? This isn't a cynical attempt to lure innocent men's rights advocates into a feminist trap, rather a genuine attempt to consider the problems of masculinity in a different way. Perhaps in doing so we all might discover different insights.
In The Masculinity Conspiracy there is a clear challenge on the table when statements about masculinity are made which appear counter-intuitive: is that your intuition talking, or is it the conspiracy? Following conspiracy logic, the fact that you don't believe me is proof itself that The Masculinity Conspiracy has you successfully conditioned. I say it only half-jokingly.
In the end, once the conspiracy and its method of misinformation have been revealed, it is the choice of the individual whether or not to be misinformed. Either be spoon-fed the lies, or not. It has become a cliché of conspiracy culture, but the 'red pill, blue pill' scenario of The Matrix movie holds true here: 'You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes'.
So, what's it going to be: red pill, or blue?
PART 2: HISTORY
Remember, at the beginning of each chapter is the section called The Conspiracy, which uses one or two books as an example of how the conspiracy plays out in the chapter theme (in the present case, history). This section is about presenting the conspiracy on its own terms, rather than exposing the problematic nature of the conspiracy (this comes in the second section of each chapter, The Problem). The point of this section is to give a fair presentation of what the writers who exemplify the conspiracy intend to communicate.
You might think this was standard protocol when referring to other peoples' work, but unfortunately this is not the case. Writers who exemplify the conspiracy have a habit of offering a particular interpretation of the data to fit their own argument. So we need our bullshit detectors functioning at all times. When a prestigious writer communicates an historical "fact," or summarizes the arguments of another prestigious writer to bolster their own argument, it might be perfectly true; but it might equally be dishonest to varying degrees. I'll unpack an example of this later in the chapter. Of course, in all the books to which I refer there is a lot more going on than that which I discuss. I have, though, endeavored to be fair, but nevertheless focus only on the topics at hand, rather than summarizing the entire territory covered by the books. In this chapter I'm going to look at how the conspiracy appeals to history via two books: Manliness by Harvey Mansfield, and Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution by Ken Wilber.
Mansfield's Manliness was first published in 2006. Mansfield is a Professor of Government at Harvard University who, according to his faculty biographical note, "has hardly left Harvard since his first arrival in 1949" (you see, right from the start, it's tempting to put some spin on a statement like that, but if I did it would belong further down in The Problem section, for the sake of fairness).
The very first paragraph of Mansfield's book gives us a quick insight into his worldview about masculinity (or, as he prefers to call it, manliness). Initial exemplars for manliness offered by Mansfield include Harry S. Truman and Humphrey Bogart's characterization of Rick in the movie Casablanca (we may be getting to the point in time where such cultural references go way over the head of many readers). That first paragraph also claims that manliness "prefers times of war, conflict and risk." Mansfield believes we live in a "gender-neutral" society, which seeks to erase sexual differences, and in particular to deny manliness wherever it finds it. However, what Mansfield describes as "common sense" makes it clear that manliness is there whether we like it nor not.
Mansfield's manliness is about taking action and getting things done, often in a combative fashion. While those with a more evolutionary-biological worldview see manliness as simply being framed by aggression, Mansfield notes that this misses a crucial aspect: thumos, a term used by Plato and Aristotle to describe spiritedness which compels men to "risk their lives in order to save their lives." This more cerebral element to manliness feeds into two of its fundamental characteristics: confidence and command. However, while thumos suggests something more complex and mindful than mere aggression, it is also a direct link between humanity and the other animals. Mansfield describes thumos both as "bestial courage" and "animal bristling," which offers an opportunity to risk and sacrifice oneself in order to transcend the self: a "faculty in common with barking dogs," as Mansfield put it. Humans may enact thumos with more sophistication than other animals, but we are common animals nonetheless.
This appeal to the animal kingdom and our biologically determined nature is crucial to Mansfield. He sees a host of "observable facts of plain biology" going back to the dawn of humanity which show that males are more aggressive than females: "men have more strength, size, and agility than females, who in turn have greater dexterity, delicacy, and endurance (they live longer)." For Mansfield this is all purely down to nature.
Also down to nature are certain facts about the way society has historically unfolded. For example, Mansfield claims that because men are naturally more aggressive and assertive "it is no surprise that men have ruled over all societies at almost all times." Further still, a less evolved aspect of this assertiveness—in the form of simply defending one's turf—can be found in various other animal species, which again Mansfield argues demonstrates its deeply ingrained nature.
The numerous references to nature require an investigation of the age-old nature versus nurture debate. Much of Mansfield's argument favors nature. However, Mansfield views this via the lens of human importance. In short, Mansfield argues that "human beings matter in the grand scheme of things." If manliness was down only to nature, then humans would not matter: their experiences would simply be part of the great unfolding of nature. For Mansfield, this denies human dignity and the spiritedness of manliness: "Hence nature must therefore be seen as a the guide for nurture." The fact that manliness cannot be reduced solely to nurture ultimately leaves the door open for humanity to define what constitutes the "human good."
Equally qualified is Mansfield's discussion of the public–private domain, which is often used to explain the differing roles of men and women in society. Men have historically been in the public domain (going to work and running society) and women in the private domain (having children and tending the home). Mansfield argues this distinction needs to function on two levels: it should hold true in the private domain, but not in the public. In other words, women should have free and equal access to the public domain, but in the private domain, we should all "admit" our natural sex roles, such as possessing manliness, with all its aggression and bestial courage. Mansfield speculates—following the precedent of history—that even with the freedom to choose, most women will opt for the private and most men for the public, which again asserts the "naturalness" of this formula.
So history works in a various ways for Mansfield. We have seen that he looks to our biological roots and commonality with other animals to understand the nature of manliness, which is largely characterized by aggression. While this is a comparison that could be undertaken today, it is essentially historical as it appeals to a timeless aspect of manliness that was present before the neutering effects of contemporary society, and which will inevitably outlive its contemporary denial.
But, of course, aside from animals Mansfield also offers plenty of examples of manliness performed by humans. However, this too is largely an historical exercise, given the neutering effects of contemporary society. As such, Mansfield makes frequent use of the classical Greeks who he sees as having a better grasp on the nature of manliness than contemporary society. For example, we read of the heroes of Homer who knew how to take a risk and do it with some honor. Indeed, the Greeks are presented as seeing manliness as "the main, or only, virtue." Or among many other classical examples, Mansfield refers to the Stoics as a foundation on which to build manliness, who offered a "philosophy of inner freedom, of manly confidence learned by living as if you were a prisoner."
Mansfield identifies more modern examples of manliness, but they are never truly in the here and now, or even real. Hemmingway's fictional characters and jungle-swinging Tarzan are offered; Nietzsche's superman makes numerous appearances. Mansfield's manliness therefore has a continually "not here" feel; it is, as he says, "unemployed," both defined by and relegated to history and fiction by the gender-neutral society, but waiting in the wings to return once more to its rightful place in the world.
To reiterate, Mansfield argues that manliness is:
- an aggressive, assertive and public way of being a man.
- based in biology and the animal kingdom.
- at its best in historical contexts.
- denied in the contemporary gender-neutral society.
The second book I'm going to look at that exemplifies the way the conspiracy mobilizes history is Ken Wilber's Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution, first published in 1995. Wilber is seen by some as a "new age" writer, although he doesn't employ the rainbows and crystals brought to mind by this orientation. He is seen by others as "the most widely translated academic writer in America," although he doesn't tick the boxes one might expect of an academic, such as having a PhD or routinely publishing with academic journals and presses. Whichever way, he is widely known as the preeminent advocate of "integral theory," which is a synthesis of Eastern and Western thought combined with the evolution of consciousness.
The subtitle of Wilber's book "the spirit of evolution" offers an immediate insight into the historical framework of Wilber's thought. Wilber adopts a developmental model where humanity (either collectively or individually) progresses through various stages, spanning history and each person's lifetime. As we develop, we "transcend and include" the previous level of development, so those historical levels remain of crucial—albeit transcended—importance. It is Wilber's presentation of the distinct evolution and character of men and women that is pertinent to the chapter at hand.
Wilber argues that men and women are generally defined by certain characteristics, and that these are shaped and confirmed by the roles men and women have taken on throughout history. In many ways, this is similar to the argument presented by Mansfield, but it speaks more directly to the notion of development and consciousness and, as we shall see, not only history, but also the unfolding of future time.
Wilber sees people as having either a masculine or feminine "type." These types are largely based on Wilber's reading of Carol Gilligan's book In a Different Voice, which was influential in the development of women and gender studies back in the 1980s. In short, the masculine type results in men focusing on agency and ranking; the feminine type results in women focusing on communion and linking. Mansfield also happens to make similar use of Gilligan.
Wilber views the differences between the masculine and feminine type as being based on age-old historical precedents that reflect the practical realities of being a man or a woman. He identifies a divergence of roles for men and women way back at the beginning of the agricultural period. Specifically, the introduction of the animal-drawn plow (over the hand-held hoe) meant that men's strength advantage made them the natural choice for taking on the role of "productive work" in the public domain. Women, on the other hand, retreated into the domestic labor of the private domain. While productive work (and consequently men) was assigned greater significance, Wilber argues this arrangement was reached by both men and women, "in the face of a set of natural givens."
This historical fact has significant ramifications for contemporary gender politics. Wilber argues that the whole notion of patriarchy—the oppression of women by men—makes no sense in this understanding of history. Instead, we should see society as patrifocal, with men's allegedly "privileged" position in the public domain not being the result of men oppressing women into the private domain, rather a joint decision by both men and women. For Wilber, any other understanding of power or focus in society would result in "the sheepification of women and the pigification of men," which he simply does not find representative of the truth.
So the roles of men and women—including the extra value assigned to men's productive work relative to women's domestic work—are biological necessities. The biological realities of men and women also have consequences for Wilber beyond the nature and division of labor: they carry on through to the evolution and nature of consciousness. For example, because men are more focused on agency and less attached to social relationships than women, they have a greater ability to see the "bigger view" and reach more developed levels of consciousness. (Mansfield makes a similar point here claiming more men than women would choose the public domain—with its "bigger view"—even when it is available to both men and women.)
Furthermore, the disparity seen in the historical split between the public and private domain (and the roles assigned to both men and women) cannot be fully undone. Wilber argues that even when we transcend the more worldly limitations of the agricultural era and enter higher stages of consciousness, "given the unavoidable aspects of childbearing, a 'parity' in the public/private domain would be around 60–40 male/female." We return again to the fact that it is biology that makes men and women what they are, and not only has this being going on throughout history, it will also continue in the future.
In sum, there are various things going on here about masculinity that are loosely shared by Mansfield and Wilber:
- Masculinity (or manliness) is a particular thing that has been in place throughout most of human history.
- Masculinity is defined by certain characteristics, whether aggression, confidence and command, or agency and ranking.
- The characteristics that define masculinity have a biological basis.
- The patrifocal nature of society (as demonstrated by the public–private domain) is derived from the natural characteristics and strengths of men, not men actively dominating society.
My goodness, where to begin? One thing that both Mansfield and Wilber have in their favor is that their arguments sound perfectly plausible. After all, these are sensible-looking men citing equally sensible-sounding authors, right? Unfortunately, plausibility has to be one of the most dangerous things around. Not only does plausibility have only the thinnest connection with the truth, it is likely to be lazily accepted as true by those who are either too busy or too disinterested to know any better.
The most basic of assumptions on which these initially plausible-sounding arguments are based can be brought into question. Right at the start, Mansfield claims that manliness is denied by a "gender-neutral" society which seeks to erase sexual difference. "Gender-neutral" is more a term formulated by Mansfield than some commonly-held position of gender politics. What he is suggesting is that there is a large group of people (presumably feminists and those men who are too uptight to adequately express their manliness) who seek to deny that men and women are different.
There are a couple of things going on here. First, there is no single feminist position that can really be identified to which Mansfield can honestly make such a singular response. To fairly represent feminism we must acknowledge that we are talking about feminisms, in the plural: there are forms which celebrate sexual difference, and those which do not; there are forms which speak to all women, and those confined to a particular group of women, such as blacks, lesbians, working-class, and so on. To which form of feminism does Mansfield speak? By homogenizing them into one lump he speaks to nothing in particular. Of course, as a clever Harvard type (indeed, someone who "has hardly left Harvard since his first arrival in 1949"), Mansfield knows there are different feminist positions, it's just that fully accommodating them is not convenient to his argument.
But let's give Mansfield the benefit of the doubt on this matter. The second problem is that even if a "gender-neutral" society does exist it is not about neutralizing gender, rather neutralizing gender inequities. In other words, the gender-neutral society does not seek to deny differences between men and women, it seeks to deny people being treated unfairly because they are men or women. In this way, the "gender-neutral" society does not deny manliness in itself, it simply denies manliness being given some special position because it is enacted by men.
But here's another thing (which will be unpacked further in the Sexuality chapter): when we understand that the "gender-neutral" society bemoaned by Mansfield is actually about gender inequity, we see that far from neutralizing gender, the groups he rails against (feminists and flaccid men lacking in manliness) are actually about diversifying gender into many different forms. These groups would argue that given the patriarchal (or, for Wilber, patrifocal) nature of society, gender has always been neutralized, inasmuch as the masculine has been considered the default.
In short, Mansfield could not be further from the truth: it is his position which neutralizes gender by prioritizing manliness, and the feminist position that seeks to permit a genuinely "gender-diverse" society for the first time. Given, then, that nobody is really attempting to deny manliness, it makes the rest of his argument rather redundant. All that is honestly left for Mansfield to investigate is that the type of manliness to which he aspires is on the decline, but that's a different argument altogether (nor is it one that I can imagine being particularly successful).
For both Mansfield and Wilber the "plausibility" factor employs history as a legitimizing tool. The argument goes like this: "look, here's something I've identified that has been going on for a very long time, therefore it is true." Let's assume for a moment that the thing at hand has been going on for a long time (which is very generous of me). The thing to remember here is that just because something has been identified as a common pattern for seemingly time immemorial, it dos not mean it is "true."
There are two fundamental reasons why these patterns may not be inevitable, natural or true. The first reason is that there is a good chance we are simply witnessing the conspiracy at work (for seemingly time immemorial). It's a nice idea that somehow we had a period in history where things worked "naturally" and which explain the way things should be today and, indeed, should continue to be in the future. But there is no evidence to suggest this is the case. All we have is the assumption that because something has been around for a long time, it must therefore be true. Honestly, have a good think about this, because it makes no logical sense whatsoever: For a very long time people thought the earth was flat, but we finally wised up to the fact that this is not the case.
One particular spin on the "it's been happening a long time, therefore it is true" argument is the appeal to the animal kingdom. In this argument, certain behaviors are identified in the animal kingdom to demonstrate something about the "nature" of the human male. This is a common tactic in many books about men, and one employed by Mansfield. It usually refers to some member of the great ape species which is inherently violent, and uses this as an argument that violence is ingrained in human males.
Once in a while this animal kingdom argument is used to demonstrate other forms of behavior. For example, in some hipster circles in recent years the example of bonobos and their "casual" sexual practices have been wheeled out to demonstrate our "natural" inclination towards multiple and simultaneous sexual partners. The commonality, of course, between these appeals to allegedly natural types of sex and violence is that they explain (read excuse) largely male behaviors generally considered to be socially irresponsible. (However, there may be nothing inherently wrong with multiple and simultaneous sexual partners, but justifying this by appealing to bonobos is lazy.)
But it is a vast leap of logic to suggest that because a certain behavior is present in the animal kingdom it should therefore be found in humanity. Certainly, humans are animals who share a good deal in common with other animals (particularly other mammals). But we are so much more than that. Humans have a level of self-awareness that is (probably) not shared by other animals. Humans can strive for a greater good that transcends such primal behaviors. This is really what Mansfield is hinting at when he refers to thumos, but he is too wedded to biological determinism to fully engage with the implications of self-transcendence.
Further still, what of all those other behaviors in the animal kingdom that humans do not tolerate? For example, the eating of infants or one's mate after sex, which happens among some species? Clearly there are some "natural" things that even ape-like humans choose not to follow, which suggests the "human code" is at the very least partially constructed by humans, rather than being solely determined by biology. If this is the case then "masculinity" (which, as we shall see, is very hard to define) is equally constructed by humans or, as gender theorists describe it, "socially constructed." Which, of course, means we don't have to do it the way it has historically been done. It means, picking up Mansfield's point (again undeveloped because of his being too wedded to biology), that masculinity can be weighted towards nurture rather than nature. These initial points alone make appealing to history as our guide for masculinity problematic, to say the least.
In the previous paragraphs I've been working on the assumption that those (perhaps unwitting) advocates of the conspiracy have been identifying something that has indeed been going on for time immemorial; I've then shown that this is not necessarily a good model on which to base masculinity. However, it gets worse. Not only are those time-immemorial patterns an unsatisfactory model, sometimes they might not even be there in the first place.
For example, both Mansfield and Wilber discuss the issue of the public–private domain. Here it is suggested that men are better suited to the public domain than women: they go out into the world and do things like hold down jobs and govern society. Given that the public domain is more highly rewarded by society than the private domain, it is not surprising that men are more highly rewarded than women.
That has a neat logic about it, right? Wrong.
The thing is, the public–private split (and with it the allocation of men and women to their respective domains and roles—whether they like it or not—and the consequent inequities of their respective rewards) is not anywhere near as natural as it might seem. For example, as far back as 1974 one could read Michelle Rosaldo's Woman, Culture, and Society: A Theoretical Overview which argues against the naturalized allocation of women to the private and men to the public sphere as a result of "women's activities" such as childbirth. In 1988 Henrietta Moore made a similar argument in her book Feminism and Anthropology. Plenty of others have spoken to this issue since. And there is literally a whole generation (or two!) of writers who claim that patriarchy was not a joint decision by men and women but a power system constructed by men, and that women are rewarded less even when they venture into the public domain in the same paid jobs as men. Again, just because something sounds plausible, it doesn't mean that there are not equally plausible counter-arguments.
The above example of the private–public split of course relies on differing opinions about and interpretations of historical and cultural evidence. I'm not suggesting that when Plausible Position A is refuted by Plausible Position B, the former immediately becomes untenable. I'm simply suggesting plausible arguments 'aint always as they appear. However, sometimes it's not just about differing opinions and interpretations of evidence. Sometimes a particular spin is put on evidence which results in our sensible-looking and prestigious-sounding writers being somewhat flexible with the truth when using the arguments of others to support their own.
For example, Wilber uses Carol Gilligan's book In a Different Voice to support his presentation of masculine and feminine types throughout history, which results in men focusing on agency and ranking, and women focusing on communion and linking. However, in the introduction to her book (in other words, one of the first things she says), Gilligan specifically warns against using her work as evidence to suggest that men and women are essentially different. The "different voice" Gilligan refers to is ultimately that of women and girls, which is "lost" in a patriarchal world, not a feminine voice that is essentially "different" to the masculine. To clear this matter up, and to ensure I wasn't projecting my own agenda onto this issue (and being equally flexible with the truth) I sent Gilligan an email outlining Wilber's use of her work, to which she replied, "I would not label agency 'masculine' or communion 'feminine.'" So what's going on?
Given that Wilber bases most of his understanding of masculine and feminine types on Gilligan, and that he is not too accurate (read truthful) about what Gilligan actually says, you might want to adopt that "hermeneutic of suspicion" to everything Wilber says about men and women stretching back through history. You might want to give some serious consideration to the idea that Wilber is part of the conspiracy. Thinking back to the previous chapter and Barkun's three conspiracy principles, it appears that nothing happens by accident (how could such a clear misreading be anything other than deliberate?) and that nothing is as it seems (the reality of the masculine and feminine types). What's left of Barkun's conspiratorial triplet is everything is connected. Here we see that the conspiracy/Wilber's presentation of gender connects itself even to evidence that counters the conspiracy: hijacking, appropriating, making itself plausible. Wiber's position is also connected in a web of writers who mutually confirm each other's position. This again gives the impression of plausibility and "evidence," but is simply a closed ecology of ideas which exclude those which do not offer confirmation. Ironically, while I am suggesting that the masculinity presented here is part of the conspiracy, this kind of closed-ecology thinking is emblematic of what Barkun would identify as the paranoid thinking that identifies conspiracy in the first place.
So please, whenever you read someone citing a prominent expert's work to confirm their own argument, be mindful that not everything is always as it seems. Plenty of writers are careful to represent the truth in this regard, but others are not. When this happens it is probably down to one of two reasons. First, it might be a conscious act of manipulation on behalf of the author: this is deception. Second, it might be that the writer hasn't sufficiently engaged the work s/he is citing to accurately represent it: this is laziness (or incompetence). Sometimes there is a third explanation of genuinely differing interpretations of a text or data: this is valid enough, but complex to navigate.
Whichever way, there is no easy way to avoid being misled in situations like this. The only way to guarantee that such citations of prominent experts are indeed valid is to go and read them for yourself. This runs counter to the way information is packaged these days, with its emphasis on sound bites, summaries and bullet points. Not many people have the time or the inclination to consult the original text to see what is actually being said by the so-called "experts." Unfortunately, those responsible for the conspiracy rely on the fact that not many people have the time or the inclination to perpetuate their campaign of misinformation.
If you go down this finding-out-for-yourself road it might result in the curious situation where you have fewer certain opinions. Basically, the more you genuinely investigate stuff, the more you realize how little you know, and the less inclined you might be to make confident pronouncements on any- and everything. My awareness of how little I know expands with startling speed on a daily basis. I'm not proud to say that I managed to get to about 30 years of age before realizing I didn't have a clue what I was talking about half the time. Only then did I start to see the true magnitude of the misinformation being spun in all directions.
In the end, once this method of misinformation has been revealed, it is the choice of the individual whether or not to be misinformed. Either be spoon-fed the lies, or not. It has become a cliché of conspiracy culture, but the "red pill, blue pill" scenario of The Matrix movie holds true here: "You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes."
In conspiracy, the blue pill results in masculinity being a fixed biologically-determined aggressive condition that has been acting out across history. Believe whatever you want to believe. The red pill results in masculinity being any number of different things, and requires our exploration of Wonderland.
So, what do we do about it? For all my complaints about Wilber, there's a good deal in his framework that points to where the solutions lie. Wilber sees humanity as being plotted on an historical-evolutionary developmental trajectory. In other words, things can only get better (or, more accurately, things should only get better: unfortunately, it seems there's no accounting for stupidity). Remember also I said that Mansfield cannot fully realize the implications of self-transcendence and nurture over nature implied in his own work because of his being too wedded to biology? This is a backwards-looking orientation, one weighted towards the past at the expense of the present and the future. Wilber does a similar thing: he aspires to the future (ever-higher levels of development, or what he describes as "altitudes"), but is strangely tethered to the past, anchoring his masculine and feminine types to the dawn of the agricultural era. This is not something specific to these two writers: it is common across the conspiracy and best typified by the constant desire to "reconnect" with more "authentic" and "archetypal" ways of understanding masculinity that is so prevalent in most types of men's movement.
Addressing this backwards-looking orientation is the first part of the solution. I strongly believe that masculinity has never functioned at its fullest potential. (For the sake of balance, femininity is also on shaky ground; but, as I've said, that's another book, which I urge someone to start work on right now.) Let's say it again for the sake of reinforcement:
- There are no halcyon days on which to look back.
- There is nothing to rediscover.
- There is no "authentic" masculinity with which to reconnect.
Does that sound a little bleak? It's actually quite the reverse. Earlier, to counter the argument that long-held assumptions must be "true," I offered the example of how we used to think the world was flat, but we finally wised up to the fact that this was not the case. Think about what that realization did to folks' perspective on the world: no longer would we drop off the edge of the ocean into some unidentified terror-void if we sailed too far beyond the horizon. Instead, we would go on to find new lands: scary—perhaps—but exciting, and full of the promise of new adventures.
It's exactly the same thing with masculinity. When we realize the limitations of our historical worldview we adopt a fundamentally different perspective on masculinity. We get to sail beyond the horizon and discover new lands—new ways of doing masculinity. Of course, just like the colonization of the "real" world, many of those lands are not new at all, simply new to us. These lands are often inhabited by people (the "natives") who are already living in different ways. As we extend this metaphor, let's not repeat the historical mistakes of colonization. When these "new" lands are "discovered" it is necessary to listen and learn, not to forcefully impose the rules from the Old World. As L. P. Hartley wrote: "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." Adopting this shift in perspective is largely an issue of managing fear: specifically, fear of the unknown. What we know is comfortable: that's why we stick with it, even if what we know has severe limitations. We have become comfortable with the way masculinity has manifest in history, which is why we stick with it.
But let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. While appealing to history as our guide for masculinity is problematic, it nevertheless has great value as a guide for how not to go about the business of masculinity. In other words, we should look at the rather disappointing history of humanity, identify some of those behaviors which do not appear useful for the greater good, and simply state, "hey, let's not do that!" This is a genuinely good start. To figure out what's right, you have to identify what's wrong. This is not about "denying" history. It is about learning from the mistakes of history, rather than perpetuating the mistakes of history.
This principle also holds true with the issue of biological determinism. Rejecting the argument that we are bound by the same "natural" impulses as other animals is not about denying that we are animals. It is about denying that this animality is fixed and defines all that we can be. Sometimes we can even learn lessons of change from the animal kingdom, which is a nice counter-example to the kind of inevitably aggression-orientated stories peddled by Mansfield.
One interesting example of this comes from Stanford Neurologist Robert Sapolsky in his 2006 Foreign Affairs article, "A Natural History of Peace." Sapolsky was studying a troop of baboons in Kenya—subject to "typically" aggressive male behavior—who discovered a hotel garbage dump and began using it to source their food. Unfortunately, the food was contaminated with tuberculosis, which quickly decimated the troop. With the aggressive males—those who had most actively sought the diseased food—gone, the social mood of the troop became more peaceful, with only fewer and less aggressive males remaining. That's not the interesting bit though: I'm not suggesting we cull aggressive males! Once it had recovered, and new younger males began to enter the troop, this more peaceful mood continued. Sapolsky claims, "this troop's special culture is not passed on actively but simply emerges, facilitated by the actions of the resident members."
There are two things to be learned from this. First, in the case at hand, the "facilitated by the actions of the resident members" meant that with fewer aggressive males around, the females became more relaxed. They, in turn, treated new males to the troop more kindly who, in turn, felt less inclined to be aggressive (think of the implications of this for downtown on a Saturday night). There was a collective shift here—male and female alike—but the catalyst was a change in the male population.
Second, it makes it clear that new—learned—behaviors are possible, even within a context such as primates, often claimed as examples of how we are somehow fixed in our behavior and proof that a certain type of masculinity is not part of the conspiracy, rather a fact of biology. The solution, then, does not deny biology: it simply understands the limitations of a biological model incapable of change.
These lessons are implicit in the writings of both Mansfield and Wilber, but both are too backwards-looking for them to be realized. Mansfield believes in complementing nature with nurture (allowing room for human dignity), but is too caught up with biological determinism and historical models of manliness to follow the trajectory of his own thinking. Wilber is focused on exactly the type of development that I am suggesting is necessary, but remains bound by the historical masculinity his own model requires being transcended.
What both Mansfield and Wilber are missing is room for change. And here's the skinny: change is the key aspect of the solution when it comes to history and the conspiracy. We are not defined by history, we define history. Tomorrow, today will be yesterday. By changing today, we define tomorrow's history.
In other words, history is our framework. We dwell in the present, but are connected with the past in two fundamental ways. First, we look back on the past and can either perpetuate or correct its mistakes in the present (a no-brainer, surely?). Second, that perpetuation or correction in the present creates the past for the future. This is the real and proactive value of the hippy mantra "Be Here Now." Mindfulness of the present is nice; mindfulness combined with action is better.
History is the framework in which the conspiracy functions, and which it mobilizes to its advantage by presenting it as defining rather than definable. Within this framework there are individual sites of activity, which again are presented as defining but which are also definable. The first site of activity is sexuality, and that's what we'll get to next.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Chapter 1 of The Masculinity Conspiracy was be reprinted in the October issue. Chapter 4 will be reprinted in the December issue. The list of references (below) will be included with each chapter. If the reader wants to keep reading, click here. To visit the book's web site, click here.
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