“Real men”, plus “hyper” and “toxic” masculinity…

rmdbg A few weeks ago on my birthday, after watching Godzilla with a friend, downing a few drinks and engaging in critique of the movie’s gender politics, discussion turned to the assumptions underlying, or inferred by, a number of terms. Specifically we discussed the terms  “real men”, “toxic masculinity” and “hyper-masculinity” (all while my friend’s copy of “Demonic Males” slowly emerged from her handbag). First, I’ll briefly address the “Real Men Do/Don’t…” meme that’s recently been going around.

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Don’t get me wrong, “buying girls” is shitty behaviour of a high order, and should be strongly campaigned against even if only because people are not objects to be bought or sold. View just technically, before suffering gets taken into consideration, this is a compelling justice concern.

My objection isn’t with this side of the equation at all, rather my problem comes from the part that ascribes the relevant agency to “real men”. What the fuck is a “real man”? (That’s a rhetorical question).

Others have made critiques on the basis of the inferences the “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls” campaign makes about gender roles, and they are critiques that I generally agree with, however I’ll be addressing another problem.

It’s pretty obvious that most people using the term “real men” aren’t arguing that the concept of “men” is more than just a useful fiction in the philosophical sense, nor, obviously, are they arguing that men who buy girls don’t have existence. What they are implying, if not plainly stating, is that objectively “this (not buying girls) is an essential criteria for being a man”.

This is more or less true for all the other instances of the “real men” meme. You can perform a Google image search to find that other essential criteria of “Man” are argued to be the ability to grow their own scarves, to be able to shave with chainsaws, to abstain from quiche, and other such nonsense. Adelaide band The Beards, performs a line in pseudo-ironic, hipster sexism along much the same lines…

Because it’s original and edgy, because sexism hasn’t been around since… the dawn of history… (3:49)

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You can see how this kind of terminology is a problem with only a little thought experimentation.

Say you have before you, an adult randomly selected from the population of people who have been arrested, charged and sentenced for buying one or more girls. Picture them in your mind. Is it conceivably possible that their sex is “male”? Is it conceivably possible that they self-identify, gender-wise, as a man?

If it’s even logically possible for the answer to these questions to be “yes” (and it’s pretty obvious that this is highly likely to be the case in the “real world”), then we have problems when it comes to the wording of the campaign in question. The statement “real men don’t buy girls” is in contradiction with the evidence presented by these scenarios; here you have men who buy girls.

Either we are in error about the offender’s gender and sex, or we are wrong in assigning certain characteristics to the class “Men”; i.e. either “real men” do on occasion, buy girls, beat wives, and so on and so forth, or they don’t, and the people who do these things are… who or what exactly? If they aren’t Men, then what are they?

More importantly, how do you decide, in a non-arbitrary manner, what constitutes an essential gender criteria, or do you instead, like some folk, avoid trying to objectively define other people’s gender all-together?

Speaking practically, this issue can be side-stepped if different rhetoric is chosen by the people designing these campaigns… “Men who buy girls should be policed more aggressively” or “children should not have to live with the threat of being bought by men”, for example.

The fact that all this mess can be side-stepped with so little effort on the part of campaigners, all without compromising on the message of the campaign, means that there’s really no excuse for getting it wrong.

Admittedly, not all men may find this language comforting, unequivocal as it is about the acts of particularly rotten men. But I’m not in the business of consolations. If you want that, I’m sure Alain de Botton probably has a bromide of one sort or another to sell you.

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(Now if at this point, you’re complaining that this is all just an exercise in semantics, it’s possibly because you’re bigot, or at the very least, the kind of person who doesn’t like to consider the consequences of what they communicate to the world around them. Why you’d even be reading this post in the first place then, is a bit of a mystery.)

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The problems associated with essentialism and gender don’t stop there though. Earlier, I mentioned the “Real Men Grow Their Own Scarves” iteration of the meme.

Taken only a little bit seriously, this is clearly ridiculous. Are you really going to suggest, that because someone cannot grow a beard sufficient to function as a scarf, that this, and this alone, disqualifies them from being a man?

No, you wouldn’t? Perhaps it’s just a harmless joke, right?

Allow me to extend this further with another small thought experiment.

You encounter someone who identifies as a trans-gendered male, who may or may not have been designated the sex of female at birth, and they are unable or unwilling to grow a beard sufficient, by your standards, to act as a scarf. Are you going to acknowledge and treat them as a man?

If your answer is “no”, you’re a transphobe. Congratulations.

Of course, being precisely this kind of asshole to transgendered folk isn’t the worst kind of bigotry they are subjected to, and somewhat less so is naively enjoying Internet memes about “real men” and beards. However, you’d be hard pressed to find an instance of harsher forms of transphobia that aren’t also based on gender essentialism, whether that essentialism takes the form of tropes about “real men” or “real women”, or not.

By using the language and logic of gender essentialism, the “Real Men don’t buy girls” campaign feeds into transphobia. Indirectly, perhaps, but almost inevitably once the logic and language of essentialism takes a hold of the way we talk about gender.

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This brings us back to the matter of “toxic” and “ultra” masculinity.

Given events like the recent Isla Vista shootings, back to the less-recent serial killings of the Hillside Stranglers, or the all-too-familiar skews in statistics like those for domestic violence, and all the chest-beating, pigeon-strutting,  violence-signalling, late-night-posturing bullshit that goes along with it, it’s hard not to view the terms “toxic masculinity” and “ultra-masculinity” as pointing to substantive cultural phenomena. And without entirely discounting the role of the biological, I don’t have any great problem in acknowledging that these phenomena exist as cultural phenomena, and that they, as cultural phenomena, present obviously serious social problems.

However, both of these terms do more than just point to the phenomena they are primarily intended to. They carry other inferences, and baggage, in much the way “real men” conveys more than anti-child-exploitation campaigners may intend.

The concept of toxicity is one where something specific, at a certain level or concentration, becomes harmful – what then, about masculinity, is specifically the part that becomes toxic?

Similarly, “ultra-masculinity” implies the ability to measure a quality, or qualities of masculinity, such that their exaggeration can be noticed above and beyond “normal” levels. What exactly are these qualities, and what makes them a part of masculinity, such that masculinity in general, necessarily infers them? Or put more succinctly, why are these qualities essential to masculinity?

“Toxic” and “ultra” masculinity don’t come out and say it, quite as much as does “real men”, but gender essentialism is implied by the choice of words.

If you’re not a person who has a problem with gender essentialism, the problems posed by its logic, or the consequences of its ideological offshoots, then you’re obviously not going to have a problem with these terms. Again, one wonders why such a person would even be reading this.

And I guess that in addition to this, if you’re also feminist, that having these words in your lexicon still isn’t going to be an issue. In this matter at least, you perhaps count yourself as being ideologically in the company of the likes of Julie Bindel and Germaine Greer. It’s not my place to tell you who or with what ideas you must affiliate, but I can make observations.

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I’m not asserting that the phenomena that “toxic” and “ultra” masculinity point to entail gender essentialism, but rather that through baggage and inference, the language does. If you’re the kind of person who seeks to avoid gender essentialism (i.e. not a “TERF”), while criticising misogynistic culture, then I think you’d possibly be the kind of person who’d want to keep the concepts, but ditch the language.

Examples of how the rhetoric of “toxic masculinity” could contribute to transphobia don’t immediately come to mind, but the logic would seem to leave it open to such a possibility. The idea of “ultra masculinity” on the other hand, through the simple idea of men being able to be more objectively belonging to the class “Men” than others, present obvious exclusionary potential I don’t even want to speculate about.

(It shouldn’t need pointing out that the logic in all of this sets a precedent for/necessarily implies essentialism along the lines of “toxic” and “ultra” femininity, and “real women”, with all the potential for re-enforcement of archaic gender roles and trans-misogyny that comes with it).

Stated outright, “toxic” and “ultra” masculinity, like “real men”, despite what people’s intentions may be, are still rooted to varying extents in patriarchal language*. How much of a problem you take this to be is up to you, but for my part, I’m not ambivalent about it.

As of yet, I don’t really have a handle on any neologisms that could act as substitutes for “toxic” or “ultra” masculinity that wouldn’t also generate a good deal of fruitless confusion. I’m stuck with expending extra words each time I want to talk about “harmful interpretations of masculinity” or “patriarchal culture” or “misogynistic ideations” or “rape culture”.

Usually this entails just being clear, at length, about the matter at hand, but the loss of useful-if-problematic terminology isn’t something to be overlooked either; conversations can get bogged down or driven into rhetorical side-alleys without specific technical language. The word-smithing continues.

~ Bruce

* Patriarchies, and patriarchal cultures, being essentialist themselves.

Don’t mention the manifesto…

supreme gentleman Another young, middle-to-upper class man has allegedly gone out in a blaze of indignation, taking a crowd of innocents along with him. And already, we have the interested parties, sifting through the news, trying to find something that disconfirms their enemies’ claims, or to dismiss, without much in the way of reason, inconvenient facts about politically charged violence.

This, seemingly without regard for either the victims, or future, potential victims of the same phenomena.

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Like other alleged, young, middle-to-upper class killers, Elliot Rodger has left behind a manifesto.

According to reports, Rodger wrote a 137-page tome, presented by email to his own mother. And Rodger was quite clear and candid in expressing his motivations, in the now infamous ‘Elliot Rodger’s Retribution’.

He’s the true “Alpha Male”; it’s women’s fault they didn’t find him attractive; “it’s an injustice [his not getting fucked]”; he’s the “supreme gentleman” (aka Nice Guy); women are things to be possessed… and if we fail to recognise these ideations as truths, Rodger will annihilate us, for we would surely have had more sex than him, or been an unpliable member of the wrong gender…

This is what Rodger flatly and plainly tells us, and it is littered with precisely the kinds of misogynistic ideations we see time and time again, online; the kinds that feminists have been warning us about for years.

And the responses from the usual quarters?

There are other factors the feminists are excluding – This is the stub, the base from which the other deflections grow. Yet you’d be hard pressed to get hold of a representative sample of feminists claiming that misogynistic ideations in isolation are the sole cause of misogynistic violence.

Also, we don’t always disregard manifestos in other instances of violence; are we for example, now to treat Anders Breivik’s manifesto as entirely irrelevant to his terrorism? I’m sure this would suit Pat Condell and Geert Wilders fans just a treat, but what about the rest of us? Are we going to measure the significance of a manifesto, or just ignore it?

What he needed was a therapist – Therapy and mental health care in general, are great things, but supporting them doesn’t oblige you to view all incidents of violence as preventable by therapy. Case in point; Rodger had a therapist.

He was probably just autistic or an Aspie – Autism doesn’t necessarily lead to violence, and often doesn’t even coincide with it. If you’re going to go down this road, then please demonstrate how autism is a reliable predictor of killing sprees, or at least save the speculative pseudo-science for another audience. Aspies and Auties have enough crap to put up with without the generation of even more stereotypes. Also; Rodger wasn’t autistic.

“Mr Astaire said Elliot had not been diagnosed with Asperger’s but the family suspected he was on the spectrum, and had been in therapy for years. He said he knew of no other mental illnesses, but Elliot truly had no friends, as he said in his videos and writings.” – Emphasis added.

(Joe Mozingo, LA Times, 2014)

It’s the general Zeitgeist of the thing… 1984…Orwell! TAKE THE RED PILL!!1! – Please, I’ve had enough.

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I almost forgot that particularly vile meta-criticism: Feminists are only pointing out the misogyny of Rodger’s manifesto to drive page hits! Outrage bloggers!*

Allow me to reply in kind…

Online misogyny is the stuff of loyal readers – provided you keep online misogynists wanting to like you. If you manage this, without giving enough of your contradictions to wedge them, you’ll have a loyal base, albeit an insular one, quite possibly with a limited future.

Every now and then, you’ll have to throw them a bone, and it will help if you accompany this with cries of victimhood when you’re inevitably criticised for it. In the case of Rodgers, the task is to deflect from the content of his manifesto so that MRAs, and associated haters-of-women, don’t have to relate too strongly with his alleged killings. Because let’s face it; politically, the points of the MRAs and of Rodger are very, very similar.

These are people who deny hating women while simultaneously blaming women for being raped, so you can imagine the cognitive dissonance caused when someone who is essentially one of their number allegedly puts political thought into action through murder.

My own turf, for this particular phenomena of apologetics, is among secular/atheist/humanist types, where people are generally happy to ascribe religious-ideological motivations to the 9/11 hijackers. These are also circles where there is a misogyny problem, and an MRA contingent, and a number of self-serving individuals willing to throw bones.

Now, if you’ve ever considered the manifesto of the 9/11 hijackers, or that of (again) Anders Breivik, or Timothy McVeigh, or a Papal encyclical, or any other political document, as being in any way motivating, you’re rather obligating yourself not to dismiss the content of Rodger’s manifesto out-of-hand. This I think is essentially a good way of spotting which ‘side’ is peddling the bullshit in this matter.

If you were to on the one hand, criticise a Papal decree, or a fatwa calling for violence, and yet on the other, dismiss the misogyny of Elliot Roger’s ‘Retribution’ as immaterial, then you’d be outing yourself as a hypocrite. You’d invite queries into your motivations, if not provide evidence for conclusions to be made.

Sure, it’s highly unlikely that any of the manifestos we’re talking about, in isolation, are entirely responsible for the actions of their proponents, but this isn’t what we’re talking about. What we are talking about is the categorical denial of the role of the manifesto, and in select cases (i.e. where politically convenient).

My assertion is that if not out of pure fear of being attacked by misogynists, then people are dismissing the idea of misogyny as being in any way causal, in order to appeal to misogynists, or to undermine the critics of misogynists for other political or personal purposes. While it may be intellectually dishonest, it is, it has to be confessed, probably a good way for crummy public speakers, and writers, to get gigs.

Some people love that shit.

~ Bruce

* As it happens, my blog posts on the topic have almost always been failures if judged in terms of internet traffic. If I’m supposed to get hits from “outrage blogging”, they are yet to manifest.

A decade and more of people coming and going in orbit…

StartrailsI first felt the tidal forces wrought by being flung out of social orbit two or three years ago, when silently, both other persons and myself, went our own ways. Their trajectory sent them in professional directions I can’t say I’d endorse 100%, while I may or may not have been relegated to the status of ‘crazy guy they knew on the Internet’.

For my own part in this, I was getting tired. Tired of passive-aggression, of in-jokes (some poorly veiled), and tired of a few people being too egocentric to realise that no, they weren’t dealing with someone who was gullible, they were dealing with someone who was being charitable; someone who was humouring them, not the other way around.

If I regret anything from this particular period, it’s my lame participation in what passed for some of the humour – which often involved my riffing off of someone else’s bad joke.

All the same, while we were friends, I did get something out of some of them, during what was a difficult time for me, mentally. I don’t know if this admission would injure their egos, or comfort them, and I can’t say I’m particularly worried either way.

If there’s anything I’d be concerned about with them, if I hadn’t put them behind me, it’d be the prejudicial assumptions and leading questions; annoying for me, worse for them if it insinuates its way into their journalism.

The greatest imposture in all of this though, comes from my own faculties – particularly my relative inability to forget things, even small things I don’t much care about. Inevitably something comes along to remind me… like goings on over the past few weeks.

At the very least I wouldn’t be recalling all of these details if I hadn’t been reminded.

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