In the last post, we explored the origins of manhood – how it consists of an energy born of the innate biological and psychological characteristics of males that is then channeled by cultures towards service that benefits the collective good.
We also discussed the way an emphasis on the code of manhood fluctuates according to the abundance of resources in a given society. The scarcer the resources, the more the code of manhood is emphasized – the more men need to be good at being men. Men’s greater expendability, physical strength, and predisposition towards risk-taking, competition, and status-seeking are needed to procure hard-to-attain resources, and to protect them once they’ve been secured. Differentiation between gender roles increases, as a particular division of labor offers a survival advantage.
When resources are easier and less dangerous to obtain, and aren’t at risk of being raided by others, an emphasis on the code of manhood weakens. Differentiation between gender roles shrinks, as who does what job is not a matter of survival and seems to make little difference in the overall health of the society.
Over time, though at different paces and subject to fluctuations and cycles in various parts of the world, resources on the whole have become increasingly abundant, easier to obtain, and almost completely safe from pillaging.
Here in the West we live in the most resource-rich period in all human history. Even the poverty of today is far less harsh than the poverty of a century ago. The strength of the government’s safety net is debated, but its very existence is a distinctly modern phenomena. Food is so plentiful we have an obesity problem. There hasn’t been a world war in three-quarters of a century. There is very little danger; a man can go his entire life without ever getting into a fistfight. The job of defending the perimeter has been outsourced to a tiny fraction of the population. Not only does most labor not require any physical strength, we have to remind ourselves to even stand up sometimes — to take a break from sitting in front a screen around the clock.
Given this positively luxurious environment, it should come as no surprise that an emphasis on manhood is currently very weak. Society doesn’t need most men to perform dirty, strenuous, dangerous jobs for which their propensity for risk-taking and their physical strength make them uniquely suited. Men are so seemingly unnecessary that we even have the luxury of denigrating them – of speculating whether we might have reached “the end of men.”
But a desire for and celebration of manhood has hardly been completely extinguished. We have not reached a collective accord on the superfluity of masculinity, and its slackening continues to be a cause for periodic bouts of cultural hand-wringing. Americans (and many other Western countries) are in fact quite conflicted on the subject. How we got here, and the root of this conflict will be the subject of this post.
The Inversion of the Pyramid of Manhood
To begin to understand our society’s very conflicted feelings about manhood, I think it helps to imagine the code of manhood as a pyramid — like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but with manhood substituted for self-actualization.
In pre-modern times, the 3 P’s of Manhood represented what societies needed most from men. They were the tenets of being good at being a man. Protection, procreation, and provision were the vital imperatives that helped societies all around the world survive and grow. Protection served as the foundation for the code of manhood – nothing else was possible if men failed in this charge. Once the perimeter was secure, the population was growing steadily, and there was enough food and resources to feed the burgeoning tribe, men could then start to concentrate on cultivating higher virtues of character and spirituality.
As civilization spread and became increasingly complex, what societies most needed from men were not fierce warriors or skilled hunters, but hard-working husbands, loving fathers, honest politicians, wise philosophers, and clever innovators. The tactical virtues of strength, courage, mastery, and honor were lifted off the battlefield and applied more abstractly to the tasks of heading families, running governments, and building businesses.
Thus, the pyramid of manhood was inverted. Society had the luxury of turning the focus of manhood from being good at being a man, to being a good man. The starting point for manhood and male honor became moral virtue and upstanding character – attributes that men could apply to whichever area of life they labored. The new code of manhood still contained a requirement to cultivate courage, to marry and have children, and to provide for one’s family. But unlike the pre-modern version, this new definition of manliness wasn’t as directly related to anything unique about men’s biological make-up. Men were expected to be as virtuous and chaste as women, and providing often did not involve any danger or the need for physical strength. Being a good man wasn’t dramatically different from being a good woman.
While the standards of the code of manhood had shifted, it was still very much enforced as it always had been – through the bestowal of honor and shame. Having a reputation as weak, lazy, immoral, or incompetent brought social stigma to men – losing them chances to procreate and to rise economically. So men were still very motivated to live the code and earn the title of man.
When that culture of honor disappeared in the 20th century, and with it the motivating force of shame and honor, the goal of being a man was replaced with that of every man for himself. Being manly went from keeping the code to doing your own thing and not caring what anyone else thought.
One of the factors that loosened the Western honor culture in the 20th century was feminism, and since this movement always looms so largely in debates about the sexes, let’s wade right into it.
We’re in Tahiti Now Guys!
There are some feminists that believe that patriarchy was an intentional, evil plot by men all over the world to oppress women and keep them down.
There are some misogynists that believe that feminism was an intentional, evil plot by women to dethrone and emasculate men.
I think they’re both wrong.
It seems like it’s popularly thought that for thousands of years patriarchy existed as part of nearly every culture on earth because people were too backwards and bigoted to realize what an unfair and oppressive system it was, and then finally, finally, in the middle of the 20th century, people became enlightened enough to rebel against the system and bring it down.
I don’t think this is quite correct.
The reason feminism emerged when it did was because it could emerge when it did – in the most peaceful, comfortable, resource-rich environment in human history; it was a time when danger had completely receded from the perimeter, and when technology had developed to the point that most jobs could be performed just as well by women as by men.
The way I see it is that mankind is like a figurative group of people who were born in Siberia and spent their formative years just trying to survive in the harshest of environments, and then began a journey in search of a warmer, more hospitable clime. Feminism is basically the moment where the people looked around and realized they had reached Tahiti. “Hey guys! Hold up! We’re in Tahiti now! We can stop looking over our shoulder all the time! It doesn’t matter who does what! We can relax!”
In the harshest of environments, before the rise of civilization, men’s physical strength was needed to perform the dirty and dangerous work of hunting and fighting that kept everyone alive. Men accepted their expendability and did what needed to be done. Primitive societies were fairly egalitarian, but in return for this sacrifice men expected at least a little more power and privilege. Women accepted this arrangement (either gratefully or grudgingly, depending on one’s perspective), because they needed men’s protection for themselves and for their children.
The story of civilization then, is that of men seeking to eradicate this danger, and the need for arduous labor, and above all, male expendability, through the invention of technologies, philosophies, and governments…while at same time, trying to hold on to their power and privilege.
Women understandably increasingly chafed at this arrangement – if they were doing just as much of the providing, and men weren’t regularly required to put their lives on the line anymore, shouldn’t things be completely equal?
So, I’ve never been one to feel angry about feminism. Why should anyone? It’s the natural result of our current environment, our current “season” in civilization. Still, there are today men who want to keep the fruits of civilization and do away with male expendability and return to full-on patriarchy and male privilege. Sorry dudes, never going to happen. If you want to truly return to a time where “men were men,” you’ll need to strip out all the safety and luxury and comfort of the modern world and return to a much more primitive state.
Jack Donovan is actually one of the few writers in the “Manosphere” who sees this clearly. He advocates for a dismantling of states and of modern civilization as a whole in order to restart the world and return to a time of battling clans. If your goal is to get back to a time where the core of masculinity is once again needed and exercised, that’s precisely what would have to happen.
I know what you’re thinking: “That’s not true Brett! Look at like the 1950s. Women were feminine and submissive and men were manly and that was just 60 years ago!” I think because of the vintage aesthetics of AoM, people figure we’re blindly nostalgic about the past. But because we spend so much of our time immersed in research and primary sources from history, few people know as well as we do what is and is not true about “the good old days.”
In truth, even in the 1940s and 1950s, men were complaining about women being too assertive, too demanding, and too career-minded. They pined for the “good old days” of their grandparents’ time in the 19th century when men were men and women were women! But when you read the literature from the 19th century, men complained about henpecking wives and women who were doing manly things like wearing pantaloons and smoking cigarettes. Heck, even Socrates complained about his nagging wife way back in antiquity!
Now just because men have been complaining about women for centuries doesn’t mean things haven’t possibly gotten worse, but it does mean that ever since the dawn of civilization, the sexes have been griping about each other. There was no pure, post-civilization golden age where men were men and women “knew their place.” You truly have to go back to a primitive landscape if that’s the set-up you’re looking for.
And it’s a long way back to Siberia from Tahiti.
You Bood, I Bood, Everybody Bood: Into the Modern Day
Our figurative “immigrants” to “Tahiti” were like any newcomers to a culture; some held on to the old “Siberian” ways for longer, while others quickly assimilated and adopted the norms of their new home.
After the counter-culture movement of the 60s and 70s, many men found the promise of relaxation irresistible, and enjoyed throwing off the demands of the old code of manhood. Sure, there was less power and privilege and less opportunities to exercise their masculine drives, but sex could be had with a lot less effort, and the pressure to excel — on threat of losing one’s manhood — was off.
In a pre-modern tribe, what every individual did mattered; each man’s performance in the 3 P’s of Manhood either strengthened the tribe or weakened it. Every man had to pull his own weight. Today, as Donovan says in The Way of Men, “For what may be the first time in history, the average guy can afford to be careless.” Waves of men can opt-out of contributing to society at all, and there is no immediate effect to their reputation or their community. Men can live at home into their 30s and play video games all day long, and the world keeps right on turning.
The counter-culture movement not only loosened the code of manhood, but also devalued the goal of growing-up altogether – for both sexes. We moderns deny death and seek eternal youth. We flee responsibility. We laugh at the idea of delayed gratification – we want what we want, and we want it now. We watch instead of do, consume instead of create. Adulthood is for suckers. We are eternal children like the Semai, ever shouting: “I’m not listening! You’re not the boss of me!” To the possibility of responsibility or civic duty, we respond in unison: “I bood.”
While some men threw themselves whole hog into the new sexual and gender freedoms of “Tahiti,” other men, up through today, have held onto to some of the traditions of their “homeland.” They’re sometimes not completely sure of why they do them, except that they know their ancestors did them for ages and remembering their heritage feels satisfying.
Which is to say, many men never stopped following the pattern of the inverted pyramid, and continue to do so in the present day. Many modern men still want to be virtuous, well-mannered, kind, smart, faithful…and strong and skillful too – good men most of all but not so bad at being good at being a man, either. They strive to build character even in their youth. As they grow up, they seek a job that adds something to the world, and then look to settle down and have a couple kids. Once they’ve got a house in the suburbs and a steady job, maybe they’ll think about protecting their home and family. Maybe get a gun. Maybe take some classes on how to use it. Or not. It’s optional, no big deal – something to think about if they have time. We’ve got armies and police departments to protect us, after all.
Most of the time men feel okay about the way their lives follow the structure of the inverted pyramid. But sometimes they’re uneasy about it. As you may have noticed, an inverted pyramid is inherently unstable. It balances precariously on the current peace and prosperity of our society. Should that foundation crumble, men wonder how they would personally fare.
Thus men sometimes enjoy life in Tahiti, and sometimes, having had no personal experience with living there themselves, wistfully long to return to Siberia – land of their manlier ancestors. They like their creature comforts, but also fantasize about navigating a world where they have the opportunity to test their mettle, to exercise their masculinity – a world where what they do actually matters.
There’s a reason why the zombie apocalypse meme is so popular these days. And why – be honest now – when you hear rumblings of war with Russia or that an airplane might have been hijacked for terrorist use, you’re kind of excited. You tell yourself, “It’s not like I want something bad to happen,” but there’s a part of you that really does. “Please, please let something actually happen. Anything. Anything to give us something to think about other than who just said something offensive on Twitter.”
The Cyclical Nature of Gender Differentiation
While an emphasis on the code of manhood has generally decreased and androgyny has generally increased as civilization has become more complex and widespread, these changes have not happened linearly. Rather, they move in cycles within this larger trend; during times of crisis, when men are again called on to serve as protectors, an emphasis on manhood gets stronger and gender roles reassert themselves.
For example, after WWII, where men’s strength and courage had once again been needed, and male expendability had once more been undeniably demonstrated, traditional gender roles were re-strengthened. Women wanted to create a nurturing home to comfort the men who had spent years sweating and bleeding in the trenches to protect them. And no one doubted that men were men.
The cyclical nature of gender role differentiation is predicted by the Strauss-Howe generational theory. According to this theory, in times of peace and prosperity, the gap between the sexes closes, only to widen again after a crisis. Strauss and Howe posit that a new crisis period began around 2008, and won’t end until around 2025. According to their cyclical model of history, during the coming decade, the crisis will deepen, men will once again be called upon to perform manly deeds, and in the aftermath, the difference between the sexes will widen. Until peace and prosperity are again taken for granted, and the cycle starts over once more.
Wait, Is That a Storm on the Horizon?
If individual men are sometimes conflicted by the tenor of their manhood, society’s approach to the subject might be classified as downright schizophrenic.
Most of the time our culture focuses on the idea that manhood is just an irrelevant cultural construct, and that men should shake off the shackles of masculinity’s outdated pressures and damaging demands. Men are encouraged to drop the whole dumb “acting tough” business and get in touch with their emotions — to become better communicators and empathizers – more sensitive. Men are told to stop looking back longingly on physically-demanding jobs that have disappeared, to stop being dinosaurs, to be more flexible and get into emerging fields like nursing and HR.
We tell men not to try to fit themselves into some “artificial” mold of manhood, but to instead follow their hearts and own proclivities, even if those proclivities would have been considered historically effeminate. The most important thing is to be yourself. “Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not a man!” “A real man doesn’t care what other people think.”
We tell our young men that violence never solves anything and that competition is for the insecure. We instruct them, as the enslaved Semai do their children, “That it is better to be cautious than to be brave.”
If anything innate about masculinity is ever recognized, it is invariably to point out how men’s unfortunate dispositions are impeding progress and ruining the world. Men’s penchant for risk-taking caused the economic crisis. Men’s competitive, dominance-seeking nature is the reason lawmakers can’t negotiate and get things done. Boys’ wild energy is disrupting the classroom, so they need to be drugged and learn to sit quietly.
This is the dominant thread about masculinity in our day. But at the same time there is another current that pops up occasionally and takes the form of hand-wringing about the state of modern men. “Why are men falling behind in school?!” Why aren’t men getting married?!” “Why aren’t men moving out of their parents’ houses?!” “Why are we sissifying boys?” “Where have all the real men gone?!” “Why aren’t men men anymore?!”
There are still occasionally calls for men to “man up” – usually in the context of being better dads or getting off their keisters to support their families (or even using a particular brand of hair product!). But because these injunctions are no longer directly tied to men’s biological potentialities nor come with any societal recognition or reward, they lack any resonance. The critical underpinnings that motivate behavior and make an honor/shame culture work are no longer in force. It’s every man for himself, and men know it.
So, today’s young men get two competing messages: manhood is dumb and oppressive and not even real. But, don’t be too much of a wuss.
Why are we so conflicted?
While it is generally verboten to acknowledge aloud these days, most people recognize that men built modern civilization – built our roads, our bridges, our buildings, and invented nearly every piece of technology to which we are now slavishly devoted. If men opt-out of contributing to society, we rightly worry about society going down the crapper.
But it goes deeper still. While everything may be luxurious and safe now, deep inside we worry that this languorous peace won’t last. We’re all hanging out in what seems to be Tahiti, and most of the time we’re like, “Hey man! Lay on the beach, soak up the rays, drink a cocktail! Relax!” But occasionally, we look out on the horizon and wonder if we don’t see a storm forming way in the distance. Should we make preparations? Should men ready themselves to be men? Or should we lay back down on the sand and just chillax?
For thousands of years, we lived in perpetual fear of an attack from an enemy tribe. We tell ourselves to let go of that primal anxiety – that everything’s fine, nothing’s ever going to happen. Yet the impulse to continually look over our shoulder remains etched in our psyche. So we tell men to lay down their weapons, to stop acting so macho, to embrace their softer side…yet deep in the pit of our stomach the primeval worry persists: but if we were attacked, could these men protect us? Could they fight if they had to?
Today we are Tahitians. But tomorrow could we be Semai?
This may sound like the future for men is awfully doomy and gloomy. Should men tear down the very civilization they built up in order to start over again and get back to a time when men truly were men?
I confess that I reject that idea and am instead an incurable optimist – a man who wants to learn from the past but find an even better way forward.
I’ve taken heat from more militant men’s blogs for not being angry and angsty enough. They speculate that perhaps my wholesome, conciliatory tone is due to a need to please advertisers – that I must hold my tongue to protect my commercial interests.
Well here’s the truth: I’m not hiding my angst. I am, in fact, not angsty about men, about women, about gender, or about feminism. Not even a little.
I know, it’s terrible. I’m a square. I’d probably be cooler if I was a little more edgy and misanthropic.
But a smoldering angst about gender would not at all be true to my personal experience.
First, while modern civilization has reduced the amount of distinctly manly pleasures in the world, it has greatly increased the amount of human pleasures to be had. There obviously isn’t room in this piece to describe all the wonderful boons of civilization, but here are just a few that I especially prize.
Walking in the woods and soaking up the beauty around me without constantly looking over my shoulder to see if I’m about to be clubbed over the head by an enemy tribesman.
Not worrying when my baby daughter starts coughing that she may have come down with something that is going to kill her.
Having almost the entirety of the world’s knowledge at my fingertips.
There is so much of civilization that is so very good – so very worth preserving.
Second, my experience with women has been almost universally positive. I haven’t had the misfortune of crossing paths with the mythological feminist trolls who want to castrate men that I hear so much about on other men’s blogs. I have tangentially encountered a couple of real doozies who acted in grotesque ways and did indeed wreak havoc in a couple of my guy friends’ lives. But the behavior from these women was less about feminism and more about simply being super low-class – and I’ve seen the same kind of ill-bred women (and men) in stories from decades and centuries ago — long before feminism was a societal force. Plus, it’s not like the men themselves were unwitting victims; the women might as well have been waving a dozen red flags right from the get go.
I have also heard men complain that women these days have let themselves go and are turning into men. Or something. But where I live the women out about town seem classy and put-together. If anything, there has never been so much pressure on women to stay young and beautiful. Women at the gym I go to exercise for two hours, sweating to stay thin, and then hit the spa for beauty treatments. Old Spice recently put out a funny/creepy commercial where moms belt out a catchy tune about their sons. What struck me about the commercial was that I don’t know any moms that look like that anymore. You know, like moms. Mom jeans. Mom glasses. My mom looked like a mom. Moms today try to look like their daughters. Even grandmas don’t look like grandmas anymore. If anything, it’s all a little too much (come on ladies, workout skirts?). All in all, I haven’t seen any evidence that women have become lazy, masculine hobos – quite the opposite.
Third, I think more egalitarian marriages have been a boon to men and women alike. For starters, I think my own is awesome! I never wanted to marry a ditzy wallflower. I love that Kate and I can have deep conversations and debates about every conceivable topic. I love having a companion to go camping and Warrior Dash-ing with. I love running a business side-by-side and working on something creative together. Kate is, as Jack London called his laid-back, up-for-anything wife, my Mate Woman. And I appreciate the fact that while we think of ourselves as equal partners, she still likes to think of me as the head of our family, and appreciates me being a leader in the home. I appreciate the fact that while we both realize such a dynamic isn’t “logical,” paradoxes can be beautiful. I also appreciate the fact that despite our being best friends, she doesn’t begrudge my spending time in an all male “honor group” — and in fact encourages it.
I’ve heard a lot of pessimism these days about marriage and families. That women will lock you down, get you to put a ring on it, and then take all your money in a divorce settlement. But not only is my own marriage happy, folks all around me seem really happy in their marriages too. They feel like they’re married to their best friend and really enjoy each other’s company. They love raising kids together. Many of the moms I know choose to stay home with the children because they want to. The lives of these families may be boring to outsiders, but they’re happy. Statistics bear this out; while divorce has been going up amongst older folks, for those born after 1980, it’s been declining.
Fourth, I think men live in a golden age for providing. There have never been so many career options and it’s never been so easy to start your own business and become an entrepreneur. There are less opportunities for manly excellence but so many more opportunities for human excellence. We live in a world where we can find work that best suits our individual talents and personalities.
I’m grateful I didn’t feel like my only option was a 9-5 at a big corporation where I’d work for decades and decades until I got my gold watch. I think it’s amazing that I could start a new men’s magazine from my couch at home. Even though it runs contrary to the traditional code of manliness, I’m grateful for the chance to be a hands-on dad and to get to spend a lot of time with my kiddos.
Fifth, it seems to me that the excesses of feminism, rather than getting stronger, have actually peaked. I get the feeling that people are keeping the best changes from the movement but are growing more comfortable with letting a little natural masculine and feminine energy flow into their lives – that they don’t have to push it away. They’re finding they can be playful and enjoy gender roles without being slavish to them. Not only do many women seem both kind and classy around here, the men in my neck of the woods are generally good, solid dudes. Men of good character who are also interested in being strong and being good protectors.
If in times past we focused only on the generalities of gender, while denying the reality of exceptions, and today we focus only on the exceptions while denying any generalities, I am optimistic we can come to a place where we accept the exceptions, while also acknowledging that generalities can us help learn about ourselves and how we tick. Even if to simply realize we really are an exception after all!
Sixth, I really believe that Millenials could be the next “Hero Generation.” I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with men today. They just haven’t been asked to do anything yet. But that doesn’t mean they’re not capable and couldn’t rise up to meet a challenge if they were called upon to act like men.
All of which is to say, that in many ways, life is good. Really good. It’s not that there aren’t aspects of our culture that make me wish that an asteroid would demolish the earth on a daily basis – especially whilst looking at the headlines of our click-bait media. And it’s not that I don’t think some of the men-bashing horror stories guys have blogged about don’t happen. But I have long wondered if the slim, more extreme sides of our culture aren’t having an extended argument with each other, one that bypasses and has little to do with how most Americans think and are actually living their lives. I know I don’t see anything that represents my life and perspective in the media.
I have to admit that my rosy outlook may have a lot to do with my faith and where I live. Oklahoma is right smack in the middle of the country and I live in a pretty well-to-do part of Tulsa. The population of Tulsa is more religious, more traditional. Folks are nice, caring – good people. So I’m immersed in Midwestern life, while almost all media emanates from the coasts. (Funny fact: People in NYC and SF are always like, “Hey let’s meet up!…What? You’re located where?”) And I’m just not sure that small groups of people on the East and the West aren’t having a conversation in an echo chamber, continually feasting on dishes of outrage porn and feeding their phony anger into an endless loop of perpetual indignation, all while the majority of people are just going about their lives, enjoying their family and friends and the simple pleasures in life.
But, you may be thinking, no offense, Brett, but I don’t want to move to Oklahoma. Well, you should rethink that – such a low cost of living! But seriously, that’s my whole point: if it can happen in one place, it can happen in others.
Sure, it would be nice if the whole culture were to recognize and celebrate manhood. It would be nice if schools would recognize that boys may have special needs and create outlets for their energy instead of drugging them. It would be nice if the media wasn’t so idiotic and didn’t pounce on anyone with a dissenting thought. It would be nice if boys belonged to organizations that provided positive male role models and rites of passage.
But, I’m not holding my breath. And frankly, I just don’t care if the whole country never again honors the contributions of men.
If you wait on our culture or government or schools to provide you with direction on being a man and an outlet for your energy, you will likely wait forever. But you need not sit around and spend your time carping about what’s wrong with the world today and how everybody needs to change.
The worst thing for manhood is also the best – tons of diversity and options. If you don’t like the educational system, home school. If your son doesn’t have a positive male role model, be one for him as his dad. Give him a rite of passage. If you never got one as a boy, create your own, and seek out challenges. If people bash men where you live, move. If you don’t want to move, join a club or community within your city, where you can enjoy the company of like-minded people. No such club exists? Start one. One of the greatest weaknesses of my generation is the consumer-bred mentality that you can only choose between pre-existing models and options. We have such a cynical beaten-down view of what’s possible. Yet our forbearers started new fraternities, new religions, new churches, new governments, new philosophies, new ways of living. Why not you? What is possible for one man is possible for any man.
In the absence of a code of manhood, some men will have a difficult time forging a path for themselves and will flounder.
But, for individual men of inner discipline, it can be a fantastic era for manhood. Adherence to the code is no longer enforced, but we can still willingly choose to follow aspects of it. Not because someone else is making us, but because we find it helps us live a fulfilling, flourishing life. The manly tasks are even more satisfying when we intentionally seek them out and freely choose them ourselves.
Is it possible to find both masculine fulfillment and human excellence in the modern world? Is it possible to envision a new manhood that’s relevant to our times, but doesn’t stray so far from its origins and become so watered down as to be unrecognizable as anything manly? Is it possible to still choose “the hard way” in a world of quietude and opulent luxury? To live in civilization but not of it?
I strongly believe it is. Why you should consider taking that journey, as well as a roadmap to living as a man in the 21st century, will be the subject of our final post.