I just lost a friend. In addition to the immense loss of life to Covid-19, we have lost people in other ways over the past year, when the confluence of quarantine, fear, and US-election frenzy tossed our friends and family at the cliffs of radical beliefs. As some of us tried to make use of the lockdown, others sought refuge in ultra-traditionalism.
In 2021 so far, we’ve seen the Proud Boys storm the US capitol and two mass shootings, less than a week apart, committed by isolated young men. One of them targeted sex workers, the other’s motive is yet unknown. Something is approaching a crescendo, and, although the above examples all happened in the States, the underlying problem is universal.
A few months ago, after a period of silence, a bit of typewriter-styled text emerged in my friend’s Instagram stories:
“I hid too many parts of who I am, what I love, and what I believe because of cancel culture.”
My alarms went off. Who’d want to cancel the easygoing, good-looking guy (let’s call him, “Ray”) who played bass at gigs, worked on interesting projects, and charmed my girlfriends for as long as I’d known him? Something was amiss.
I first sensed trouble back in March 2020, when Ray’s Instagram stories began to emanate a kind of anger I hadn’t seen him show before. Anger at his gym being closed, anger at the quarantine, anger at something beyond my field of vision. I didn’t give it very much thought, because at that time many people had a difficult time adjusting to the realities of living in a global pandemic. We live on different continents now, but met fifteen years ago in the States, as coworkers. Though we were not particularly close, we were in each other’s orbit, for years. We’ve shared professional collaborations, laughs, and nights out. There were a few times when he seemed to fall off the face of the earth, and if I’m honest with myself, it was then that I first felt uneasy. Then he’d reemerge, the only discernible difference being a growing immersion in the world of gyms, and although he wouldn’t discuss what he’d been up to, things seemed the same between us. The last time I saw Ray in person was at my birthday party in 2016, just before I moved away.
I only began paying closer attention to Ray’s online output after his “cancel culture” post, and a picture emerged. He was no longer employed at his big-name tech job and had moved to a different city. He’d taken up hunting for sport. Then came a stream of assertions about “strength”, “tradition”, “family”, and “brotherhood”. His feed got to be distinctly dogmatic, and what he was preaching grew increasingly more incongruous with my image of him. I raised these concerns with a couple of mutual friends, who seemed just as dumbfounded. This all remained peripheral in the noise of my insta-feed, until one day he posted the words, “Make families great again”. With growing concern, I tried to find out what he meant; in particular, what made families great in the past and what he’d like to change now.
This gentle nudge set loose a deluge. I wasn’t prepared to learn that my friend believes that feminism has brought harm upon the male species by training women to financially deplete and discard hard-working men, that abortion is the ultimate rejection (of men, by women), and that, in his view, women building their own careers is equivalent to infidelity and leads to broken families. Ray continued: “I will retire my wife so she doesn’t have to work”, which was strange in itself because he’s single, and also because that turn of phrase sounds a bit like a threat. I found out that, according to this doctrine, many of the world’s problems are not only the fault of feminism, but also of “weak men” who have allowed themselves to be led, would do anything to impress women, and chose to avoid “the responsibility to be physically strong”. That day, I was certainly not expecting to hear him use terms like “alpha men” in earnest. Turns out these “alpha” men choose to focus on leading disciplined lives, preserving tradition, making money, and “turning their bodies into weapons”, in order to… What, exactly? To me, all these efforts looked suspiciously like means to take women, love, and sex on such men’s own terms.
Questions swirled. My heart sank. It appeared that my formerly laid-back and reasonable friend had joined some kind of cult. Putting aside my dismay, his newfound worldview’s heteronormativity, the glaring chauvinism, and the fact that no genuinely confident person has ever referred to themselves as “an alpha” in the history of this civilisation, I tried to understand his position. As a cis-woman in a happy and relatively traditional marriage, which seemed to be one of his new goalposts, I shared some of my own experiences, wondering how he might contrast them against his beliefs. I wrote that I turn to my husband for inspiration, rather than protection, and that I think harmonious relationships make the concept of leadership within them irrelevant. I questioned his suggestion that love, masculinity, and existence were things which could be ostensibly systemised. These attempts at initiating a discussion were staved off with the assertion that I had “demonised the other side”, a few references to personal negative experiences of working under female bosses, and how “letting women lead” had been a problem, peppered with an incongruous mix of expressed desire for everyone to be happy, and hostile, largely unrelated soundbites. And finally, radio silence.
What the hell was happening here? Who replaced my old friend with a monosyllabic male supremacist? I headed to the source for answers: Reddit.
And Twitter. And other murky corners of the internet, where I learned that Ray’s new convictions were rooted in loosely connected sets of beliefs with funny names about a world created by self-loathing men who feel cheated by life, and follow an ideology based around codified biological essentialism. A world where women have too much power, male privilege isn’t real, and adherents are indeed fighters in great battles: a battle against perceived societal degeneracy, a battle for control between the sexes. A world of fear, sadness, and misogyny dressed as brotherhood, health, and prosperity. A world only tangentially connected to reality, and born from what, at first, appears to be the opposite of its brawny facade: incels. I first heard of incels in 2014, when Elliot Rodger, a self-proclaimed incel, killed six people and injured fourteen others, leaving behind a video of misogynist grievances and a manifesto before committing suicide. Back then, after being duly horrified for a while, I filed away the concept as ‘fringe internet nonsense’. It was easier to believe they didn’t matter. Then, five more incel-adjacent mass murders followed. How could Ray, a decent guy, who is no virgin, fall into their ranks? In an effort to understand him, I put on my hazmat suit and waded in.
What unfurled before me reached far wider than just the inceldom I was ready to dismiss it as. These same sentiments exist elsewhere, and the strife of male identity is more ubiquitous than I’d understood. After a number of discussions with other male friends, I learned that though they reject the so-called Manosphere’s ideology and conclusions, they understand some of the feelings that fuel it, like the void where a clear definition of a Good Man, or even just masculinity, used to be. In a rapidly-changing, confusing world, the traditional masculine role offers the comfort of familiarity and clarity to those feeling particularly adrift. And it’s the profound yearning for comfort that’s bolstered those leading the Manosphere, among them Jordan Peterson, psychology professor and patriarchy proliferator. To his fans, his status as a public intellectual and his academic credentials lend claims like, “enforced monogamy is a rational solution against murder” and “feminists have an unconscious wish for brutal male domination” a scholarly affect. Peterson and his ilk say that the answer to masculinity in crisis is a sort of nostalgic primitivism, envisioning a cruel, sadistic world in which the man can be a noble predator, guarding his chunk of meat against other savages.
The “crisis of masculinity” discourse is hardly new, and has long been used to support all sorts of, often conflicting, concepts. At The Conversation, Professor Dupuis-Déri writes:
“The rhetoric of the crisis of masculinity offers an opportunity to reaffirm a radical division of humanity into men and women, to associate masculinity with certain stereotyped qualities … and claim that femininity is at once different, inferior and dangerous to men, since the feminine influence is cast as pathological and liable to lead to the decline or even the disappearance of men. Yet if we look closely at the studies of the symptoms supposedly arising from a crisis of masculinity … we see that women are very often not the cause, and that conventional masculine identity constitutes a risk factor rather than a solution.”
What I find particularly disturbing about Peterson’s enormous following is that it doesn’t solely consist of Manosphere radicals; his wistful misogyny preys on folks who, like Ray, might seem alright to a casual observer yet struggle deeply with sadness and compounded rage from life’s various slights, and with their formative visions of Man, Purpose, and Meaning. Unfortunately, the search for these things according to Peterson’s fantasies leads squarely to atavism, back to the distant past, and away from today’s society.
Ray was raised in an authoritarian environment, one where he was expected to behave and perform to a certain standard. His father, a self-made man, placed the same expectations and restrictions on his sons as he had on himself, disowning the gay one when he didn’t meet them. For a long while, Ray went against the grain, pursuing creative hobbies, dyeing his hair, and hanging out with an assortment of unconventional people he currently mostly dismisses as “woke liberals”. What he says about his former self hurts to read, and feels like a warped version of what he was probably told throughout his youth: he was weak, he was stupid, he allowed himself to be lead. The irony of the latter being that, perhaps after heartbreak, or having not been as successful as he’d hoped so far, he’s bought wholesale into a prefabricated ideology right down to its vocabulary.
Conversely, for my other male friends, “being human”, figuring out their values and priorities through the experience of living, and setting their own course and context is a better fit. They acknowledge the uncertainty and peril drifting over contemporary life, and describe the existential pressure of traditional masculinity — a pressure which has been understood in a very particular way throughout history. Since this old understanding has grown less relevant, men like my friends find the possibilities of redefining it liberating and engaging. When they consider masculinity, they re-envision it for themselves, with the emphasis placed on protection through building a better world, rather than fearfully defending scraps in a primal, dog-eat-dog universe.
What makes them different from Ray? When asked, the answers seem to lie in a more compassionate, egalitarian upbringing, in early proximity to women, and in the ability to adapt. One friend was simply supported by his family, and encouraged in his interests and pursuits. Another, despite having a religious upbringing in a place with a very traditionally-male, macho culture, had best friends who were girls early in his teens. Someone else was raised by his grandmother, and this, along with not having been subjected to imposed ideas of masculinity early on, was enough. Every one of them has been able to redirect the existential pressures of the past enough to navigate this changing world instead of seeking comfort in obsolete worldviews and traditions losing purpose.
It could be that a strict, traditional upbringing makes grappling with the concept of flexible identity harder for Ray and others like him; without a strong sense of self, they turn to the Manosphere for answers. The Manosphere deals in history, and, historically, society respected the men who impacted the world at large in some way, or sacrificed themselves for their communities. And it was understood that, in lieu of such heroic pursuits, taking care of a family and dependents (a Man must have dependents), still fulfilled the role of being a good man, and merited respect. Now, changing professional and familial dynamics have left many men feeling like there’s no path to becoming a Good Man anymore, no path to respect or fulfilment. And so they perform visions of heroic manhood, then feel aggrieved when the rest does not play out like the fairy tale. No matter how virtuous the performance, the other half of the stage is empty. Sorry, prince, Rapunzel has left the tower.
The world of sad people seeking simple answers so desperately, that they discard joy, friendships, and reason itself is a bleak abyss to gaze into. So much of this misery is the product of a lie; sex and intimacy are not a male birthright. This world can be scary and cold, and it’s a world where no one is entitled to love and companionship. But when these things do work out, it’s because this scary and cold world permits us the freedom to be curious, to learn, and to become individuals whose uniqueness draws us to each other. In my view, a person that approaches relationships through principally offering security and archaic, reactionary politics doesn’t have much attraction potential in the 21st century.
I’m left with questions for Ray which may never be answered. How can one aspire to goodness, propriety and the happiness of others through their efforts while adhering to an ideology built on fear, inadequacy and subjugation of others? This kind of sentiment can and does kill. It was 2014 killer Elliot Rodger’s rants that became part of the incels’ rallying whimper. And what of Ray’s community, the radical-traditionalist hysterics impersonating Good Strong Men protecting society, merely being the current notch on the incel rung, weight-lifting their way to the shape of the “Chad” they once vilified? Can the goal of “achievement of peak physical and financial shape in order to secure a retired wife” lead to anything but precisely the type of transactional relationships Ray claims to despise? From where I’m standing, the entire thesis is an ouroboros of self-destruction.
Other questions loom, casting a long shadow. Ray wrote that he hid his true self — just how long had he been hiding it? Could I have seen this seething beneath the surface, and could anything have stopped it, anyway? Did he hate … me? And, perhaps the most troubling question of all: -How many others are hiding this way?
With us now out of touch, I’m left with my impressions. Life doesn’t run on prizes, and no amount of self-discipline, trying to turn society back to pre-19th-century values, time spent perfecting aim at the range, or yelling at differently-minded strangers online has amounted to depth or emotional stability. Affection is a spark which cannot be engineered, and now Ray is angry. He’s so angry, that he’s alienated most of what gave him fulfilment, retreating to the family that helped instil those false expectations in the first place. “Thanks for putting up with me all those years, mom”. Maybe he hopes for a reason to use those muscles and guns, and rejects love and happiness even as he spends every day trying to become worthy of them. The snake turns back on itself. A dead end.
While our society is far from perfect, I think it is much-improved by the distribution of responsibility away from a patriarch. Despite us not having quite eradicated violence, on the grand scale we are nonetheless less violent and more prosperous than ever; a world where the traditional male position as ‘protector from violence’ and ‘provider’ has been made redundant. In our society, it’s no longer necessary to determine one’s quintessence by anything but individual intellect and will, with biology as only one facet of the potential for so much more.
The community Ray was drawn into wants what we all want: connection, belonging, a place to call “home”, a sense of purpose — all the things that make being human beautiful. But none of this should be systemised and regulated, nor can it be reached through tyranny and suffering. Any ideology that says otherwise only pushes these dreams further away. Nothing lasting can be built while rejecting reality and clinging to the past — every social order built on oppression and nostalgia has collapsed or evolved within a generation. There’s no denying that rocketing away from the familiar has made an increasing number of men feel lost, without purpose. In fact, we’re all feeling growing pains, relearning to navigate, and adjusting our perspectives. In a world of increasing prosperity and humanism, we must resist retreating into the outdated comfort zones predicated upon fear and constant threat of violence, and upon zealots going so far as to generate that violence in order to simulate purpose. Our world needs less of Menelaus — the jealous and powerful king-husband of the ‘kidnapped’ Helen of Troy; and more of Odysseus — the cunning problem-solver and husband of Penelope, who ruled their kingdom on her own for twenty years while he was away. Enduring strength and well-being can never stem from hate, but grow from our freedom to find and nurture a purpose of our own. Isn’t that what we’ve been fighting for?
I look around at the men in my life today. At the choices they make, how they move through life, and the ways in which they help shape my ideas of present-day male identity. None of them seeks to turn back the clock in order to reconcile their sense of fairy-tale formative-influence role with the actual world they inhabit. A few are quite strong and have helped me carry heavy stuff, but that’s not what all these men have in common; I admire every one of them for their abilities to carry on stimulating discussions, to change their minds, and to change mine; for their ingenuity and their ability to find joy, and to share it. Most of them have been around for over a decade, some longer, and one of them I married. It’s in these men that I see the future.