“I think everyone would agree the world would be a better place if we had less testosterone.”
My friend shared this quote with me in bemusement after he heard it at a philosophy meetup. What did the speaker mean? Owing to the links between masculine traits and testosterone, my suspicion is that he meant something like “the world needs less masculinity,” or “the world needs less impulsive men, less risk-taking men, less violent men, less competitive men, and less dominance-focused men.”
Let’s provisionally consider masculinity as a cluster of behaviors and drives based in biology and developed by culture. From an evolutionary perspective, masculinity has developed through both natural and sexual selection: masculine traits are necessary for survival and are beneficial for reproduction. Traditionally, men had to be strong, risk-taking, brave, and ready to inflict violence, in order to feed and protect their tribes. Men have evolved to naturally possess these traits, and women who benefited from them have evolved to find their display attractive.
But masculinity will always contain a tragic element. Male aggression, bravery, and sexuality are a force for goodness, art, and heroism, but also a force for evil and abuse. Cultural institutions, practices, and belief systems attempt to channel the biological drives of men towards ends we can all enjoy and to divert them as much as possible away from abusive ends. Perhaps the speaker was proposing that this is a trade-off we no longer have to accept.
Might we benefit by a reduction in masculinity? Or could we reduce pathological masculinity while preserving positive masculinity? What is masculinity anyway?
Brett McKay, drawing from David Gilmour’s cross-cultural study of masculinity, Manhood in the Making, distills the core of masculinity in his blog series “The Three Ps of Manhood.” McKay names three imperatives for men that exist globally: protect, provide, and procreate. All the virtues associated with manhood, such as strength, bravery, and stoicism, developed throughout history in reference to some version of those core roles.
Are you nodding along? Wait. McKay’s analysis extends to our present condition, far from the conditions in which manhood developed. You and I don’t defend the weak, the state does. You and I don’t take down prey, we shop at grocery stores. And judging by the sub-replacement fertility levels in the West, you and I don’t feel the need to procreate all that much. What’s going on?
Throughout history, male (and, increasingly, female) ingenuity, risk-taking, and hard work have led to creative solutions to many of humanity’s problems. Advances in agriculture have made food provision orders of magnitude more productive than hunting and gathering, and have raised the majority of humanity out of subsistence farming. Trade gave us an alternative to warfare. Advances in medicine meant that more fatherly care could be devoted to fewer offspring. Scientific innovation has ameliorated human suffering in ways our ancestors could not even imagine. In short, the 3 Ps, once the domain of men as a group, are shrinking in their import and scope, to be handled by fewer and fewer men—and women. A small minority of men and women are involved in provisioning food for the majority. Even the association between masculinity and breadwinning, itself a cultural stopover in this historical progression, has been severed, as women have shown themselves to be just as capable of provision. A minority of men and women are involved in protection, and in terms of international conflict, it increasingly looks as though that duty will be the province of autonomous weapons. While it’s likely that a higher percentage of men are involved in procreation now, thanks to our recent tradition of monogamy, we live in a post-sexual revolution world where sex and procreation are often separate activities.
There will always be a need for some men to cultivate and practice those evolutionary masculine imperatives. However, that need will continue to decline as men are supplemented and supplanted by technology. Hunting mammoths required testosterone. Managing global supply chains requires caffeine. The decision-making that required bravery and self-control will increasingly be in the hands of a few men and women with enormous power.
Has masculinity’s greatest achievement been to relieve humanity of the need for masculinity? It would certainly seem that way. If so, masculinity has won a massive victory. The reduction in violence and the improvements to living standards over time are mind-boggling. Is this not cause for celebration? Masculinity, having raised humanity to unforeseeable heights through its passion, hard work, and creativity, can now in its old age retire to enjoy private comforts. Its fruits have been borne. Twitch and Pornhub are both free.
Practicing masculinity is definitely grueling, and can even be painful, dangerous, and risky. More and more men have made the straightforward choice to devote themselves instead to what Dianna Fleischman refers to in her recent article as “fake fitness” solutions to their drives. Instead of courtship, porn. Instead of martiality, e-sports. There is evidence that sexual assault rates are lower where there is more use of porn. The hours young men devote to competitive gaming are hours not devoted to delinquency. The masculine drives are increasingly plugged into safe, harmless pursuits. The claim that astonished my friend turns out to be not so astonishing. It is a modification of an unspoken agreement between Western culture and its men: “The world would be a better place if masculinity got out of the way.”
There is much to be said for virtually satisfying drives that cannot have a healthy release in society. As Fleischman says, “How many teenaged boys would be able to build up the resentment to commit mass shootings or suicide if they had a beautiful sex robot at home?” But Fleischman also expresses concern that socially awkward men who could make good husbands will increasingly tap out of the dating game in favor of virtual substitutes. What about other traits and virtues that never manifest in the public sphere? The risk is that we too quickly give up on the complicated process of integrating difficult traits into society, choosing instead to let those traits spend themselves in the virtual world. What gifts could men contribute to the world that are going to waste?
That’s a question that needs to be answered soon, for greater disruptions are to come. There is no deceleration in sight for the advances of modernity that have left men displaced, distracted, and confused. The upheavals of second-wave feminism, the pill, no-fault divorce, and digital pornography will soon be joined by ever-cheaper and ever-improving sex robots and VR. This is not a feminist conspiracy, nor any sort of conspiracy. The “crisis of masculinity” is merely the logical consequence of a society that has so successfully solved millennia-old challenges that bullshit jobs and entertainment are increasingly all that remains. Hikikomori, NEETS, and the opioid crisis are unfortunate by-products of a world bereft of meaningful and fulfilling masculine roles. We are uncomfortably adjusting to a reality where masculinity appears superfluous. So we relegate it to our stories and our sports, we role-play it on our computers, and we call upon it only when disaster strikes. We honor our heroes and we return to our lives.
Is this thesis false? Consider whether the concept of toxic masculinity (a potentially useful concept in when men overshoot the golden mean of virtue) could emerge in a society in which the material need for masculinity has not evaporated. After every mass murder, feminists raise the cry of toxic masculinity, and their opponents retort that masculinity is fundamentally healthy. These opponents invoke the biological attractiveness of manliness and its non-pathological nature, but they have not taken the next step: to elaborate the role of masculinity in late modernity. Can the defenders of masculinity articulate what masculinity is for in our society, if it is to be more than a relic? What if masculinity is neither fundamentally toxic, nor currently healthy: What if it is ill?
What Sort of Men?
When feminists say there needs to be a conversation about toxic masculinity, men should say, “Yes! Let us talk of what we can offer as a path to lost young men! What can we show them that would provide an alternative to resentment and rage?” The path for men in our society has been “whatever you’d like (so long as it’s not problematic)!” Even if the feminist solutions are unattractive, the conversation is an opportunity to begin the escape from the desolation of meaning in contemporary culture.
The task of masculinity in our society is to convincingly rebut the charges of the thesis I have laid out; to disprove its obsolescence, to articulate a positive vision of itself, and to find a place for itself in the public sphere. In part, this means articulating a thesis through speech and dialogue, but it also means embodying an example that will convince men to strive for masculinity, and convince society to support men in this pursuit. The alternative is for society and masculinity to continue to suffer a decoupling.
One might argue that masculinity becomes necessary in crises, and crises are inevitable. As per Jack Donovan, the author of The Way of Men:“Being good at being a man is about showing other men that you are the kind of guy they’d want on their team if the shit hit the fan.” A friend calls this the “male insurance policy.” McKay codifies it as the “Manhood Reserve:” “While abiding by the traditional code of manhood isn’t urgent in our current environment, someday it might be, and we’ll need men prepared for that moment.”
McKay proposes that the men who elect to join the Manhood Reserve must choose to cultivate and balance protection, provision, and procreation. Though some will find this personally tempting, a criterion for any masculinity is that it must be more appealing to men than virtual hedonism. Faced with the choice between joining a Manhood Reserve in hopes of someday being useful, or enjoying distraction in the here and now, men will increasingly choose the latter as its pleasure potential is developed.
One feminist option, offered in consideration of the crisis of masculinity, has been to propose a new masculinity in greater tune with femininity: A masculinity in which men can be vulnerable and deal with their emotions publicly. But, again, this vision of masculinity has to compete with the one offered by game developers and porn directors, who create spectacles for men that exploit their biological drives instead of ignoring them.
One other option comes from the philosopher Andrew Taggart, in his piece “William James on ‘The Moral Equivalent of War.’” The psychologist William James argued that in the absence of war, men must find a replacement in order to cultivate the martial virtues. Writing a century ago, James was prescient about our condition as citizens of the Long Peace. Taggart identifies James’s solution, war on nature, as sorely lacking. As an alternative, Taggart says:
I believe that the only way available to us today if we do not want to lose the heart, the fire of being a forceful human being is the one that Nietzsche discusses in The Genealogy of Morals. My moral equivalent of war is to have contests with myself, yours to have contests with yourself and not in a mean-spirited sort of way.
Some men will find this appealing and will devote themselves to physical and spiritual exertion— perhaps a new type of Fight Club. But as with Manhood Reserves and feminist masculinity, the majority of men will be torn between the options of grueling self-mastery and Fortnite mastery, and make the easy call.
In Alasdair MacIntyre’s book After Virtue, he says, “It is yet another of Nietzsche’s merits that he joins to his critique of Enlightenment moralities a sense of their failure to address adequately, let alone to answer the question: what sort of person am I to become?” One could say the same of the controversial University of Toronto professor and public intellectual Jordan Peterson, a strange theistic Nietzschean, who has risen to fame partially due to his willingness to grapple with the question of “what sort of men are we to become?” Peterson has forcefully argued that the core of masculinity is responsibility. Raised in a culture that only offers a model of what sort of man not to become, and convinced by Peterson’s sincerity and thumos, an increasing number of young men have made the decision to cultivate masculine virtues as a means to better themselves. Unlike the previous three proposals for a new form of masculinity, what we might call “the Peterson Option” has actually left the world of theory and conscripted men, who have found enormous benefit in it.
On the other hand, there are stinging criticisms of Peterson’s project, and Peterson’s own displays of masculinity are not always aspirational. Fans and critics have wildly opposed perceptions of the man, which is at least partially due to his equivocation on fundamental questions. His critics have also drawn attention to the anti-social actions of his followers. In light of the differend Peterson has become, perhaps that is actually the proper test by which to evaluate the Peterson Option—its manifestation through his followers. Jesus did warn that false prophets shall be known by their fruits. If Peterson actually does have the solution to the crisis of masculinity, then it will reveal itself in the conduct of his followers, the projects to which they commit themselves, the risks they dare to take, and the benefits they return to their communities. More and more men will be inspired to commit themselves to masculine virtue, and their communities will support them in that endeavor. A structural and technological problem will turn out to have an individualistic and metaphysical solution. But if Peterson’s followers fail to integrate masculinity in such a way as to positively impact their communities and the world, then the question remains: whither masculinity?
To sum up, there are at present two implicit theses: the first is that masculinity’s time is up; the second is that there are still tasks for it to perform. If the second thesis is not articulated fully, in speech and example, expect more and more men to drop out of society’s game. There are 1.5 million cases of borderline hikikomori in Japan. For the former thesis, this is inevitable, one more problem for management. For the latter thesis, it is a civilizational catastrophe.
Is masculinity a positive-sum or a negative-sum game? Is it an obstacle to be neutralized by technology, or vital to the species? If its defenders do not articulate its virtues, its detractors will dictate the form of the debate. And without a vision for masculinity’s place in society, masculinity will someday reach its final resting ground: a cultural phantom limb, felt only as an aching sense of lack.