A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability
Vol. 8, No. 5, May 2012|
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
The Masculinity Conspiracy - Part 8: Conclusion
Monash University, Melbourne, Australia
Originally published in
The Masculinity Conspiracy,
CreateSpace, 14 August 2011
REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION OF THE AUTHOR
What if the biggest conspiracy in human history had gone completely unnoticed? What if that conspiracy was responsible for some of the biggest problems the world faces today? Wouldn't you want to know? Wouldn't you want to do something about it? Well guess what: You can. The Masculinity Conspiracy argues that nearly every assumption about masculinity in contemporary society is wrong. The result is nothing short of exposing a worldwide conspiracy that has been preventing humanity from reaching its fullest potential.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This book breaks new ground. The subject matter is bound to elicit controversy, but one that must be faced with humble courage for the sake of fostering human solidarity and ecological sustainability. With the author's permission the book will be serialized in eight parts, one for each of the eight chapters. The overview that follows, and the list of references at the end, will be included with each part.
Chapter 1 - Conspiracy, Problem, Solution
Chapter 2 - History
Chapter 3 - Sexuality
Chapter 4 - Relationships
Chapter 5 - Fatherhood
Chapter 6 - Archetypes
Chapter 7 - Spirituality
Chapter 8 - Conclusion
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 8: CONCLUSION
In the very first paragraph of this book I asked you to look in a mirror. I asked you to contemplate certain details and to notice that there is an increasingly large disconnect between who you feel you are and the person in the mirror, a distance between the two yous that is difficult to articulate in words. I then asked you to imagine that gap between the mirror and every man in the world alive right now, then for every man who has ever lived. That’s a lot of disconnect, a vast space between men and the men in the mirror.
This is largely a thinking exercise about perception and how easy it is to realize that what you think you know—your image in the mirror—can swiftly be called into question. If we can acknowledge that new perceptions can be established even in our own reflection, then we can acknowledge that new perceptions can be established in all aspects of our identify. But there’s also a more literal sense to this disconnect between men and the men in the mirror. The masculinity conspiracy is chiefly a dissociative exercise: it forces an unwanted space between men and their potential in order to pursue its own ends (which we will explore shortly). Let’s briefly look back on the previous chapters to see where these spaces are constructed:
Within the context of history the dissociative space is constructed by tethering men to the past. The conspiracy argues there are innumerable historical precedents for its model of masculinity, demonstrating it is not just culturally and socially determined, but also biologically determined.
Within the context of sexuality the dissociative space is constructed by tethering men to sexual polarity. The conspiracy argues that men’s rightful sexuality is defined chiefly by assertiveness in opposition to women’s sexual receptivity.
Within the context of relationships the dissociative space is constructed by tethering men to specific relational dynamics. The conspiracy argues that men and women think and communicate differently and that these differences must be decoded and mastered in order for men to be successful with women.
Within the context of fatherhood the dissociative space is constructed by tethering men to a narrow understanding of boyhood. The conspiracy argues that boys develop in particular ways and that to ignore this is to rob them of their true nature.
Within the context of archetypes the dissociative space is constructed by tethering men to simplistic behavioral templates. The conspiracy argues there are a small number of mythical or metaphorical models of manhood to emulate that encapsulate its true essence.
Within the context of spirituality the dissociative space is constructed by tethering men to Biblical masculinity. The conspiracy argues that sacred texts provide a divinely ordained model of masculinity that does not only show men how to behave, but resists the feminization of faith and society in general.
In each chapter I have unraveled some of the initial problems with these lines of thought, and provided some solutions for re-thinking them in more useful ways, all the while opening up a more fruitful space for your own visions of counter-conspiratorial masculinity rather than a specific alternative.
However, the conspiracy has done a very good job of convincing both men and women that its vision of masculinity is correct. It has, after all, operated in most places throughout most times. But it does not rest on its laurels. It continually regulates the domain over which it reigns and asserts in a mantra-like fashion phrases like “real,” “authentic,” or “true” masculinity. It also continually seeks out other domains in which to function, and is very clever at describing all sorts of “new,” “evolved,” and “counter-cultural” masculinities that continue to perpetuate conspiratorial values, turning over old orthodoxies and creating new ones. The conspiracy is dead! Long live the conspiracy!
Throughout this book I have shown you numerous examples of the conspiracy at work. But let’s dig a bit deeper into how the conspiracy works. Remember Michael Barkun’s description of conspiracy thinking from the introductory chapter? Barkun states it is characterized by three chief elements. 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.
I confess that when I initially mobilized the conspiracy motif it was done so rather cynically. While I was genuinely interested in finding a different way of discussing masculinity that moved beyond the binary proposed on the one hand by feminists and on the other hand by men’s rights advocates, I was also simply hoping to capture the imagination of readers who were into conspiracy books. Conspiracy logic as defined by Barkun seemed reasonably applicable to gender politics, so I used it. But as I have finished each chapter of this book, I have fallen more into line with the idea that the conspiracy motif is far more applicable than I originally imagined.
As we have seen throughout the text, nothing happens by accident: Each chapter has demonstrated that while the conspiracy claims its presentation of masculinity is simply the way things are, a specific and proactive agenda is being fulfilled. As we have seen throughout the text, nothing is as it seems: Each chapter has demonstrated that while the conspiracy claims its presentation of masculinity is natural and inevitable, there are clear alternatives, and not just imagined and theoretical alternatives, but ones that are surprisingly easy to embody. And as we have seen throughout the text, everything is connected: Each chapter has demonstrated that while the conspiracy claims to be based on “evidence” and “science,” this is often a closed ecology of connected people and ideas that simply choose not to consider conflicting options, referring instead only to those who confirm their worldview.
But how does the conspiracy pull it off? How has it managed to perpetuate itself so successfully for so many centuries and in so many places? Answering that question is in itself another book. Today, one of the chief problems with the conspiracy is that it robs us of the ability to even realize it is in operation. This is what all the “real,” “authentic,” and “true” language is all about. The conspiracy is framed not as a specific regulatory dynamic with a particular agenda; rather, there is no conspiracy, only the way that it is. By concealing the fact that it even exists—by appealing to the supposedly “natural” and “common sense”—the conspiracy hides in plain sight. There are some nice fictional precedents for this tactic. Think, for example, of the movie The Usual Suspects in which the villain, Keyser Söze, secures the potency of his evil persona by creating an aura of doubt about his existence. As he sits before his clueless interrogator, Söze transparently shares his methodology with the memorable line, “the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” (The more literary among you may prefer the same point as made earlier by C. S. Lewis, and before him Charles Baudelaire).
Further still, the conspiracy robs us of the critical thinking skills required to identify that it is hiding in plain sight in the first place, let alone to do something about it. This is achieved by the extraordinary dumbing down of information around us, which I have referred to in earlier chapters. It has been an interesting exercise as this book has been published online to witness a small but persistent number of readers complain that the style of writing is too complex and “intellectual.” On various occasions I have been asked to cut out the jargon, make it easier to read, provide allegedly “real life examples” and so on, which would all bring the text more into line with the kind of self-help books many folks seem to have become conditioned to expect.
The impression seems to be that this is an “academic” book trying to pass itself off a something altogether different. But this is genuinely not the case. If you think this writing is academic, you clearly have not read much academic writing lately (which often I can’t figure out either). The demand for ever-simpler writing, bullet points, instant insights, micro-summaries and so forth render books incapable of addressing the complexity of the issues at hand. Masculinity is a complex issue: you might think some of the popular writers are writing about it with “clarity,” but they are simply stripping it of all subtlety and nuance. It’s certainly desirable to aim for clarity, but at some point compromise becomes fatal: it might result in a slot on Oprah’s couch, but it will not result in anything useful. Complex issues require appropriately complex handling.
More than this, the status quo critiqued here requires people not to think with appropriate complexity, subtlety and nuance in order to perpetuate its nonsense agenda. So when I hear complaints about the book being too complex, my immediate thought is not that I’ve failed in my task to clearly communicate, rather that the reader is showing how far they are conditioned into the conspiracy (a classic example of conspiratorial logic, if ever there was one!). It also seems a bit fishy to me when critics will focus on what they claim to be stylistic problems rather than the topics under discussion, which seems a rather transparent diversion tactic.
Instead of meeting the reader behind such complaints fully on their ground, I ask them to meet me half way (as I have already moved from my natural domain into the middle ground). In doing so we collectively claw back some of the critical thinking territory lost in our dumbed-down world. My aim, too, in writing in an appropriately complex manner is to pay readers the respect they deserve in assuming they are capable of understanding complex issues: an important but increasingly rare gesture. I find that in my face-to-face communications with people (often in rather random circumstances) I can get into some really quite complex territory, the like of which it is assumed they are not capable of reading in books. This assumption was made even clearer to me recently on receiving comments from several “professional” readers from an unnamed mind-body-spirit publisher who read The Masculinity Conspiracy. Have a look at the following feedback:
Reader 1: I like the style. My question is how much more is it than an extended book(s) review, (most of which I haven’t read, so confess ignorance in the area), and how we’re going to sell it.
Reader 2: Love the short blurb, it immediately made me want to read the book. Extremely well written in a reader friendly way that makes even someone completely uninterested in the subject sit up and take notice. The book certainly makes some good points and although it examines other books on the subject it does so in a style which, although serious, is light and sometimes humorous. I found this an enjoyable read and it made me stop and think and in doing so I realized that a part of my mind had already explored these issues but without having anywhere to express them. I’m not sure how many people would actually buy it.
Reader 3: I agree, well written, great style and an interesting subject, but general sales will be a problem.
This is an excellent example of how the conspiracy regulates society. Here we have three professional readers who all seem to like the book, but they can’t imagine anyone else liking it! Certainly, they know the market and what people tend to buy. But people buy largely in accordance with their conditioning by the conspiracy, so to narrowly serve that market is to serve the conspiracy. This is forgivable for people who do not know any better, but I find it troubling that people who knowingly like a counter-conspiratorial text choose not to publish it, as this is nothing short of spineless collaboration. One could be forgiven for thinking it was not that these readers could not imagine anyone else liking the book, rather they did not want anyone else liking the book. But that would be the kind of paranoia Barkun identifies as being symptomatic of conspiratorial thinking, rather than exposing it :) Instead, endless books are published and celebrated that both perpetuate conspiratorial values and congratulate readers for being in agreement, which in turn makes readers feel better about those values, and thus that closed ecology of ideas continues.
This leads to the final twist in the act of self-concealment: despite all the dumbing down, the conspiracy will often paradoxically give the impression that the people it dupes are extremely clever. Barkun echoes this point in his description of conspiracy thinking, noting that it will often mimic mainstream scholarship (I spoke a bit about the use of the term “research” and flaky PhDs back in the Relationships chapter). Not only do conspiracy writers give the impression they are extremely clever, citing other fancy writers, describing themselves as “philosophers” and perhaps belonging to some kind of vaporous Institute of Evolved Personhood (often little more than a paper entity with a bank account set up to accept donations and workshop fees), they also talk about their followers as being extremely clever. This is a cunning maneuver as it at once makes people feel very special for agreeing with the conspiratorial worldview, implies that if you do not agree with it you must not be very clever, and neutralizes momentum to move beyond it to something genuinely clever (or, more accurately, and as we shall see next, something elegantly simple, because while the machinations of the conspiracy are complex, its ultimate source is not).
In sum, the conspiracy functions via numerous sleights of hand:
Through its prescriptive vision of masculinity the conspiracy produces a forced space between men and their potential.
By giving the impression that there is no conspiracy—simple the way things are—the conspiracy hides in plain sight.
By robbing us of the critical thinking skills required to identify it exists, the conspiracy prevents us from imagining a viable alternative.
But identifying how the conspiracy manifests—and even how it functions—is not the end of the story. Indeed, the chief problem remains: what is ultimately behind the conspiracy? When talking about this with people there is often an assumption that I am doing something very simply here: namely, using the word “conspiracy” instead of “patriarchy.” That initially sounds quite plausible, as a good number of the points I have made in this book are based on a feminist analysis of patriarchy. Others points are based on an understanding of “hegemonic masculinity” as described by Raewyn Connell, which is about how men regulate themselves as well as women in relation to time-honored ways of being a man. Still others are based on queer theory, which is about subverting and demonstrating the fluidity of meaning that surrounds terms like “masculinity.” All these ways of looking at gender foreground patriarchy, so it is certainly a reasonable assumption that patriarchy is the conspiracy. But it is only a partial answer.
While understanding patriarchy is a crucial aspect of exposing the conspiracy, we have to move past typically entrenched positions on this subject. In debates surrounding men and masculinities, there are two commonly held positions on patriarchy. On the one hand are those with feminist sympathies who talk about patriarchy, and how this marginalizes and oppresses women (and atypical men). On the other hand are men’s rights advocates who identify the many problems suffered by men in society (such as poor health and education standards, violence, incarceration, social isolation, suicide, and so on) and simply do not see claims about patriarchy as valid any more.
But there is a way to reconcile these two seemingly opposed positions. Yes, it is true that patriarchy exists, but patriarchy is not the conspiracy, rather patriarchy is mobilized by the conspiracy. The conspiracy co-opts men to oppress women, a statement which supports the feminist claim that patriarchy operates as a regulating force within society. But, paradoxically, the conspiracy has little interest in men as individuals, which explains why men simultaneously enjoy the benefits of systemic privilege while often being on the shitty end of the stick as individuals. (There is a lot more complexity to be unpacked in this paragraph, but this will have to wait for another time).
It is crucial for those with a feminist worldview to realize that patriarchy is ultimately a tool of the conspiracy, not an end in itself. And while there are only few radical separatist feminists around these days, it is therefore important to acknowledge that there is nothing inherently bad about men, simply that they have been co-opted by the conspiracy in such an extraordinarily effective way that they usually don’t even realize it has happened. Of course, this does not absolve men of the ills wrought by patriarchy, nor of the requirement to counter its oppressive effects. It is also crucial for those with a men’s rights worldview to acknowledge that patriarchy does exist, to understand the complexity that comes with owning systemic privilege (the kind of thing that still results in men often earning more money than women for the same job) and understanding this is different to individual privilege (from which individual men may or may benefit).
Clearly, if patriarchy is not the conspiracy then there must be some higher—overarching—force (maybe even, according to Barkun's original conspiratorial formula, a “demonic force”). There are plenty of people I speak to who, having agreed that patriarchy is not the conspiracy, then swiftly move on to the conclusion that it is capitalism that is the conspiracy. There is, after all, a long-standing Marxist tradition that shows how capitalism is the driving oppressive force in society, and it is easy to imagine that it is this that mobilizes patriarchy in the way described above. There are other contenders too: classism, racism, and so on. All these contenders either mobilize patriarchy in some way, or we can imagine how the conspiracy is using them as a vehicle for perpetuating its prescriptive vision for masculinity.
All these contenders are reasonable, but the conspiracy ultimately works on a broader level still. And it’s nothing obscure or esoteric, nothing that requires a PhD in developmental psychology or political science to understand. The conspiracy is simply power and domination. A good place to get a description of this is Walter Wink’s Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (a quick nod to Luke Devlin, whose comments on earlier online chapters drew the Wink connection). Wink is a theologian, so genuinely tends towards the forces at hand being “demonic” and our salvation from them being of the literal variety. However, the way he describes power and domination is also largely valid from an atheistic point of view.
Wink argues there has been a domination myth at the heart of humanity that dates back thousands of years in which “might makes right.” Quite early in his book, Wink also tables a version of the masculinity conspiracy, stating “this myth also inadvertently reveals the price men have paid for power they acquired over women: complete servitude to their earthly rules and gods. Women for their part were identified with inertia, chaos, and anarchy.”
So the conspiracy is an abstract assertion of power and domination over people at an individual, institutional and systemic level (in other words, at every level). In our present context, the conspiracy demands a particular form of masculinity that lends itself towards domination (think again of all the references we’ve heard about aggression, assertiveness, warriors, and so on) and mobilizes men to put that domination to work against women and other men via various methods such as patriarchy.
But in exactly the same way that the conspiracy constructs a particular form of masculinity (demonstrating its changeability), so too is the conspiracy itself constructed. Wink argues the domination myth took hold through various accidents of social and cultural construction and warfare (and, importantly for Wink, humanity’s Fall from grace in the eyes of God), to the point where it seemed ingrained in human nature. This does not mean that domination is inherent in humanity, simply that it was forced up on it, as noted by Wink: “The struggle for domination meant that many humane cultural options that people might have preferred were closed off. The self-interests of individuals were subordinated, often even sacrificed, to the interests of the larger systems in which they were embedded.”
Identifying how the conspiratorial machine operates then becomes increasingly simple. Domination as the myth of default human behavior took hold, and we can see how this filters across society. Wink claims, “power lost by men through submission to a ruling elite was compensated by power gained over women, children, hired workers, slaves, and the land.” In that sentence alone we see our previous contenders for the conspiracy: patriarchy, capitalism, class, race, and how they all serve the domination myth.
The domination myth became the consensus reality, taking on a life of its own: this is why it is impossible to identify a “person” behind the conspiracy, because the conspiracy is the sum of all our actions and complicity within the domination myth. Further still, Wink argues that even the leaders who run the various modes of domination do not have genuine agency in the matter: their roles are conferred upon them by the domination system. For Wink, “people have thus become slaves of their own evolving systems, rather than civilized society being the servant of its members.”
In order for such a false consensus reality to take hold, we—as actors in this conspiratorial drama—must allow ourselves to be blinkered by the conspiracy. Or, in the parlance again of The Matrix movie, we must choose to take the blue pill: “wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe.” Wink claims that “whatever the System tells our brains is real is what we are allowed to notice; everything else must be ignored.” This explains how the “natural” and “common sense” appear to prevail in the conspiracy, despite there being easy-to-grasp alternatives: our conspiracy-conditioned brains simply cannot see them, they must be ignored.
Have you ever been faced by a large quandary (let’s say third world poverty) that seems so blindingly easy to fix (a more equitable distribution of global capital), but the solution seems so obvious and simple that you feel it must be wrong—otherwise we’d be doing it, right? That’s the domination myth at work: the consensus reality it constructs will not allow us to accept the blindingly obvious solution. Similarly, the conspiracy will not allow us to accept the blindingly obvious alternatives to the model of masculinity it demands.
For many, the real horror is not that this has happened throughout human history (although this is bad enough), but rather coming to the realization that this trick has been pulled on us personally and our role within it. Wink states, “It is only after we experience liberation from primary socialization to the world-system that we realize how terribly we have violated our authentic personhood—and how violated we have been.” For some, the horror is too great: Plug me back into the matrix! For others, the pulling back of the curtain to see the “great” wizard is a genuinely empowering revelation: I have met people who have woken up to this fact and rapidly changed their lives in fundamental ways.
So to recap, while it is important to understand how the conspiracy works in terms of masculinity, it is also important to understand what is actually behind the conspiracy:
The conspiracy mobilizes patriarchy by encouraging men to oppress women (and atypical men), but paradoxically has little interest in men as individuals.
Patriarchy is not the conspiracy, nor are other plausible-sounding contenders such as capitalism, classism and racism.
Power and domination are at the heart of the conspiracy.
The domination myth is simply a consensus realty. Despite the claims of the conspiracy, it is not natural or inevitable.
Our challenge, of course, is what we then do about it, this thing that has had us duped for most—if not all—of human history. The good news for us is that we do not necessarily have to immediately construct glorious alternatives to bring about great change, rather simply withdraw our support from the conspiratorial status quo. Wink cites the sixteenth-century French political philosopher Étienne de La Boétie who wrote in reference to the masses who allowed themselves to be hoodwinked by rulers who really had very little power over them: “I do not ask that you place hand upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that you support him no longer; then you will behold him, like a great colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break into pieces.”
I’m not sure it’s quite that simple, but it’s an excellent start. In order to withdraw our support we need to firstly and primarily start thinking differently. This is the point where I often hear people moan about over-intellectualizing at the expense of action. But this too is the conspiracy speaking through the person in front of me, a cunning act of ventriloquism. If we do not firstly create a new thinking space there can be no useful action. Without the thinking space we are either rendered impotent by the conspiracy and do nothing, or we act without sufficient thought, both of which play expertly into the hands of the conspiracy.
Creating new thinking spaces allows us two equally valuable options. First is the obvious path of significantly changing our lifestyles. More people than you imagine do this. I have met a number of people who live radically counter-cultural lifestyles who were once some kind of deeply entrenched cog in the machine. These folks are not, as is so easy to imagine, people who never bought into the system in the first place, folks chasing an endless adolescence and delaying the inevitable perils of settling down under the yoke of responsibility. These folks have woken up to the reality that alternatives are possible and take only a relatively minor leap of faith to manifest (relatively minor, that is, to the alternative of spending the rest of one’s life being plugged into the matrix). I don’t want to speak further here about specific alternatives because they depend on individual needs and desires, and I am more interested in catalyzing the thought processes for people to construct those alternatives for themselves.
Second, creating new thinking spaces allows us to think afresh about our current circumstances. You may, for example, perceive yourself to be an administrative drone working for some nameless organization. You don’t need to pack it all in and move to a commune to embody a solution. The solution lies chiefly in our interior, and despite efforts to the contrary in various conspiratorial domains, this still belongs to us as free agents. And don’t make the mistake of thinking that you’re not a free agent, because you most certainly are. You may well be locked into a job and a mortgage with all manner or ties (some you’re happy about, others you’re not), but you remain free to think yourself out of the conspiracy while remaining in your current circumstances.
The conspiracy is a confidence trick, and it is surprisingly easy to call its bluff. Indeed, it may be more valuable to be an “enemy within” the system by reimagining your current circumstances than to opt out of them. You can create a quiet revolution: subtle re-thinking, transgression and subversion. You might be surprised at the liminal space you can make around you which, when connected with that of others, gently transforms rather than overturns the environments in which you live and work.
To create new thinking spaces we can return initially to the mirror. When we look in the mirror and begin to notice the disconnect between our interior and the person in the mirror, an obvious question bubbles to the surface of our consciousness: Who am I? Whether your worldview is spiritual or humanistic, this points to a fundamentally existential line of thought which is crucial to exposing the conspiracy. The conspiracy wants to tell you who you are, populating our interior with all those assumptions about masculinity (and femininity) we have worked through in the previous chapters. But the existential line of questioning has no time for such packaged answers: it wants to know the fundamental question: Why?
If you can, go and pick up a copy of Irvin Yalom’s Existential Psychotherapy (actually, any of his books will probably do the job, and also be lighter to carry home from the library). Yalom does an excellent job of unpacking the four existential ultimate concerns: death, meaninglessness, isolation and freedom. (As it happens, I’m not convinced these four concerns are equally ultimate. For example, isolation and freedom are like water off a duck’s back to me, but death and meaninglessness—two sides of the same coin—routinely keep me awake at night).
I would suggest if you have not wrangled with these issues at some point, you are not paying sufficient attention. Yalom demonstrates how many of our neuroses come down to trying to address these issues, often in unconscious or inarticulate ways. We grapple with death: how do we live in the face of death, what strategies do we employ in an attempt to cheat death? We grapple with meaning: How do we construct meaning, what's the damn point of it all if we’re going to die anyway? We grapple with isolation: How do we navigate this bleak territory that keeps us isolated both from ourselves and other people? We grapple with freedom: How do we accept the horror that we are free to choose (and, indeed, have already chosen) or at least interpret the circumstances in which we find ourselves, rather than putting the blame elsewhere?
These four concerns alone are sufficient to fill a lifetime of contemplation and anxiety. I am told it is possible to move beyond this line of questioning and if not to find actual answers then at least make peace with the questions. I’m not convinced of this personally, but at 37 years old am nevertheless open to changing my mind on the matter at some period in the future when I have discovered mental tranquility :) The point is, this line of questioning will open up the thinking space necessary to counter the conspiracy. I don’t care what your conclusions are at the moment: I’m simply suggesting they will at the very least disrupt the hold the conspiracy has over you. (Of course, it’s not necessarily good: there are some dangerous conclusions, such as extremists who go to murderous lengths to demonstrate some kind of post-ethical freedom to be who they want to be). In short, existentialism is back!
Once we are routinely creating new thinking spaces we can begin to look outside of ourselves. Again, I’m not interested here in identifying specific solutions, rather making basic points that will enable those solutions to emerge within the experiences of you, the reader. On a number of occasions throughout this book I have stated that in the same way that there is a masculinity conspiracy, there is also a femininity conspiracy: As the flip-side of the conspiratorial coin, the masculinity conspiracy requires an equally prescriptive model of femininity to perpetuate its power grab. However, I firmly believe it is the masculinity conspiracy that is more problematic. While the femininity conspiracy asserts power in various ways (an example commonly perceived being the use of sex as a bargaining tool with men, and a shaming tool with other women), it does not have the power footprint of the masculinity conspiracy, which has mobilized patriarchy within our social and cultural systems, and which in turn has extended into a whopping ecological footprint on our planet.
As such, when looking outwards for solutions, the primary agents in overturning the conspiracy must be men. I'll say it again: the solution lies mostly with men. Of course, this does not absolve women of responsibility, it simply suggests men need to do more work than women. This requires two distinct steps. First, men need to own their individual privilege within patriarchy, and also their part in the systemic privilege that patriarchy confers upon them. Again, this may seem counter-intuitive to some men whose experience echoes the shocking statistics of men and poor health, violence, isolation and so on. But them’s the breaks, and the conspiracy wants you to resist it as to do so continues its concealment. Second, once men have owned their role in patriarchy, they must do something about it: but, crucially, not be shamed by it.
There are a small number of men who, having discovered their complicity in patriarchy, become overwhelmingly shamed, and retreat into self-loathing. (This is the type of “mangina” perceived and bemoaned by hostile men’s rights advocates. As it happens, most of those labeled as such are not bound by shame and self-loathing, rather men healthily seeking to counter patriarchy, but nevertheless it can be an issue.) This type of shamed individual sometimes has a habit of assuming women (and queer people) have the moral high-ground when it comes to issues about gender. As such, the solutions tend to have a focus towards their agency, when as much attention needs to be given to “regular” men’s agency.
I have already mentioned this above in regard to the two commonly held positions in the gender debate, but I firmly believe the solution lies in getting men to understand that patriarchy paradoxically has little interest in them as individuals. There is a tremendous amount of energy within men’s rights communities, but it is too often hostile towards women and feminism. Many of the problems those communities rightly identify are often blamed on the too-far-swung pendulum of women’s gains in recent decades. But this is not the case. Women’s gains do not come at the expense of men’s; it is not a zero sum game. Women’s gains have been earned by claiming what is rightfully and justly theirs: they have extracted this from the conspiracy, not from men.
I believe that once it becomes clear to men that they have been co-opted by the conspiracy into patriarchy to further the domination myth, and that it is this and not women’s gains that is responsible for the problems men face in society, they will see the benefit of overturning both patriarchy and the conspiracy. And they will do so swiftly. All the energy that is currently wasted on finger-pointing from men’s rights advocates can then be usefully spent elsewhere. I also believe that such a realization will allow the kind of healing in men’s psyches that has been sought since the men’s movement flourished in the early 1990s, but which to date has been misdirected by the conspiracy into concerns about the feminization of society.
However, while it is primarily men who must step up and counter the conspiracy, a further necessity is the realization that we are all in this together: men, women, gay, straight, and anyone who quite rightly resists such categorization. As gender and identity politics evolved over the past forty or so years it has been necessary for a certain amount of separatism to eventuate. Women and queer people, for example, needed to get together on their own, celebrate and assert their identities, and hold their oppressors accountable for the injustices dealt to them.
While it remains as important as ever for such specific voices to be heard, it is now necessary to complement these with strong alliances. This means moving beyond the women’s movement, and beyond the men’s movement, towards a people’s movement. Do not hear me say that individual oppressed voices—such as women and queer people—should be in any way erased in such a movement. A people’s movement is built precisely on the different experiences of its members: it celebrates and advocates for those differences. However, a people’s movement is not defined by specific differences. A people’s movement is defined by the assumption of everybody’s differences. It is in such an alliance that the critical mass is achieved for a multiplicity of new thinking spaces and resulting actions that will overturn the conspiracy not just at the individual, but at the systemic level: the great colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away falls of his own weight and breaks into pieces.
And while the people’s movement is born out of gendered identity, it does not stop there. It is inevitable that the kind of thought processes—and then actions—that go into supporting genuine gender difference extend into other domains, those other sites of oppression referred to above: class, race and so on. The people’s movement demands freedom from power and domination wherever it operates. The people’s movement shouts, “The emperor is wearing no clothes!” The people’s movement calls the conspiracy’s bluff. It’s so simple, so elegant. And it all starts with looking in the mirror, and questioning who it is who looks back.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the Part 8 of the series on The Masculinity Conspiracy by Joseph Gelfer. Chapters 1 to 7 of the book were reprinted in the October 2011, November 2011, December 2011, January 2012, February 2012, March 2012, and April 2012 issues, respectively. To visit the book's web site and access the original online version, click here.
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Joseph Gelfer is a masculinities researcher in the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University, Australia. He is author of Numen, Old Men: Contemporary Masculine Spiritualities and the problem of Patriarchy, and editor of the Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality. His latest book is 2012: Decoding the Countercultural Apocalypse.
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