The following quote about male violence has been making the rounds quite a bit lately, and with good reason. The current geopolitical and socioeconomic climate is rife with angry men doing everything from doxxing, through trying to resurrect genocidal ideologies, to killing a bunch of people.
What’s missing from this snappy meme-ocracy is any discussion of why. It’s implied that this is some fundamental moral failing on the part of men, either individually or severally, depending on the person presenting the quote. But is it? Or is it something deeper, something that seems to disappear for a time, but survives, like brine shrimp or lungfish buried in muck, awaiting the rainy season?
It is vitally important to ask this question. We cannot effectively fight that which we do not understand. Luckily, the why is pretty easy to grasp from a social sciences perspective- if one is doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable answer.
It wasn’t that long ago when embarrassment could be a death sentence for humans. Social stigma, in particular shame, was often punishable by banishment or outright execution. While exceptions exist, this basic rule can be found on every inhabited continent and in every large civilization complex- from Athenian ostracism and the “witch” trial craze to Japanese seppuku and jigai through “honor” killings and Russian shtrafbats.
In the west, this began to change for women several hundred years ago, as patriarchal nonsense about “the Gentle Sex” changed the default punishments for female shame in the West to brutal, but typically survivable oppression. The exceptions, such as the 1876 death of Katie Simpson “McCormick” in Memphis underscore how attitudes were shifting. Note the saintly portrayal of the deceased in the newspaper account and the implication of her family’s wrongdoing by abandoning her- this is a new attitude of the time, hardly the Hester Prynne treatment. Indeed, the publication of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is representative of this transformation.
However, the same did not occur amongst men. If anything, the rise of a large middle class of males engaged in non-manual labor led to a rise in machismo. While the leading men of the Enlightenment era might have proudly worn makeup and lace, within “four score and seven years” of the American Revolution, a rugged, bearded look was all the rage.
While it’s easy to blame this on some moral failing in men, the reality is that traits like size, strength, stubborness, endurance, and fighting prowess still had practical value in a world where ditches were still dug by hand and where the nearest police officer might be a hundred miles away. Theodore Roosevelt, a rich bookworm afflicted with asthma, had to remake his image by first “going west” and then charging up San Juan Hill before anyone would take him seriously.
He also gave a ninety-minute speech shortly after being shot.
While he didn’t win that election, and actually died several years later in his own bed, that young asthmatic died “the old lion”. Few would dispute that Roosevelt lived a “good life”. He had money aplenty, six children, published a number of works, and generally left a legacy.
Here’s where we get into the weirdness of nature-vs.-nuture.
Biologically, males of any species have one genetic role- to change the genome of females’ offspring. Assexual reproduction produces near-clones, with the exception of random mutation. Throwing sex into the mix allows much faster iteration and allows mothers to bring desirable traits from other populations of that species into their own population.
Sure, hermaphroditism allows for mixing of DNA, but there must be some reason why sexual specialization was a competitive advantage. Why have males at all?
Because exogamy is the natural genetic role for males. Since hermaphrodites can all reproduce equally, there is less competition for mates. However, competition amongst males forces some to wander far and wide in search of companionship.
It also allows the females of a species the option to select from a large number of disposable candidates and winnow out huge numbers without losing the desirable traits. Of course, this raises the stakes for the males, since they’re “disposable”. Culture aside (yes, wild animals have culture, too), nature doesn’t require monogamy.
To be sure, this is a gross overgeneralization amongst animals in the wild and more so between human cultures. I bring it up solely to illustrate a trend. If we plot male and female mating behavior across species and cultures on a graph, we will tend to see exogamy- with males as genetic “change agents”.
BTW, if you are one of those “Return of Kings” asshats- NO, I’M NOT AGREEING WITH YOUR BULLSHIT IDEOLOGY.
Here’s where we get back to humans and human cultures. While we tend to think of human history, at least the last few thousand years, as being one giant sausage fest of The Patriarchy, that’s the facade. In reality, woman have always had considerable influence over human societies. Frankly, much of the stability and continuity of cultures worldwide is the result of women putting their foot down. A man might have written the law or swung the sword in many (but not all) cases, but we have ample first-hand evidence of women exercising significant power.
One of the single most potent weapons for wielding that power was public shame- applied to both sexes, to be sure. Much is made of the idea that women place a greater emphasis on verbal and emotional communication. True or not, the “Pick-a-little, Talk-a-little / Goodnight Ladies” stereotype has its roots in at least occasional historical events when gossip influenced public policy. Note that song is from a musical about a con man who is considered unusual because he’s as skilled at gossip and social maneuver as most of the town’s women.
Which brings us back around the beginning of this article. Historically speaking, becoming an object of ridicule amongst women was one of the quickest ways to get your ticket punched for a one-way trip- either out of town or to the gallows. Even minor ridicule was likely to invite abuse from other members of one’s own sex trying to ingratiate themselves with said women.
Did you just think that I’m blaming women for violence? You just jumped to that erroneous conclusion, didn’t you? This is why we can’t have nice things.
No, I’m simply pointing out that there is substantial evolutionary pressure for humans of both sexes to experience a “fight-or-flight” fear response from even mild ridicule from women. By contrast, that same fear response is typically generated (again, in both sexes) by a male “puffing up”, becoming louder, and acting pseudo-violent. Both are evolutionary responses to stimuli based on our ancestors’ life experiences. Experiences that could effectively take someone’s prospects of a good life off the table.
Once a good life is off the table- what’s left?
A “good death“.
While we have a great deal of evidence that cultures imposed this norm on women historically, I’m having a hard time finding solid modern examples for women. You have the occasional “mother dies defending her young” or “she died resisting her attacker”, but these are generally unplanned deaths.
The “good death” problem I’m talking about is planned suicidal behavior. While both men and women attempt suicide today, a wide spectrum of human cultures have retained an additional layer to the prescription for male suicidal behavior.
If you’ve ever seen the type of stotting in which a young (usually male) gazelle bounces up and down in front of predators, you know what I’m talking about.
The basic premise is that once a man has received sufficient social signaling that a good life is no longer possible for him, he is expected to undertake some grand suicidal gesture that demonstrates how erroneous was the judgment of his peers. To simply die is not enough- suicide alone is shameful.
Look at the “War Boys” in Mad Max: Fury Road. All of them are dying of cancer- a good life is off the table. They’ve been taught that they can enjoy redemption (be reborn “shiny and chrome”- note the “chrome grill” spray paint ritual) if they die gloriously (“awesome”) in battle:
Like the War Boys, the condemned man must succeed sufficiently “well” as to leave a legacy. He must, in essence, substitute his memes for his genes.
In a normal healthy good life, this substitution can take many nonviolent forms- works of art, scientific discoveries, etc. But for the condemned, now-disposable man, he likely has but one chance to make a mark so indelible as to convince or punish his accusers- to return with his shield or on it, as it were.
In many societies, the classic example of a good death is that of a warrior surrounded by the corpses of his foes. Take the death of Boromir, for instance. Having shamed himself by trying to take the One Ring, he chooses to sacrifice himself trying to defend the Ringbearer’s friends instead of saving his own skin.
With the 24-hour media giving fifteen minutes of fame to just about any outlandish act of male violence, and days or even years of infamy to mass murderers, is it any wonder than many men see their best hope for a good death as “slaying” as many of their “enemies” as possible?
It doesn’t matter if his victims even knew him- the underlying psychology only requires that he be able to rationalize them as his enemies, the ones denying him his good life.
Before anyone gets up on the high-and-mighty “toxic masculinity” horse, let’s remember that the majority of human cultures that have survived to the present day (and many earlier ones) found aspects of this meme complex useful enough to keep it alive.
For instance, there is a great deal of both biological and cultural value in encouraging most of the men on a sinking ship to give up their seats on the lifeboats for others. There is value in promoting the idea that great acts can redeem the condemned. There is even value, in wartime at least, in the notion of “take as many of them with you as you can.”
It might be uncomfortable for us in our safe homes to admit that last part, but humanity hasn’t changed so much in the last fifty years that warfare has or will any day soon be a thing of the past.
No, the question isn’t how to get rid of the notion of a good death.
The question is how do we prevent so many men from deciding that a good life is off the table?
How do we make multiple options for living a good life apparent to millions of men whose only enculturated concept of it is a “good job”, a wife, a house, and a bunch of kids? Or worse yet (and totally toxic), the idea that he has to have six mansions, a supermodel wife, ten mistresses, and a zillion dollars to not be a failure.
That’s our good death problem at the heart of male violence- the idea that there is only one good life available and that failure to achieve that one, singular ideal requires a good death.
Which brings us back around to Margaret Atwood’s quote about male violence from above.
What have we so messed up as a society that one woman laughing at a man in a bar triggers the same fight-or-flight response as a whole village of women deciding whether or not to vote him off the island?
How did we stupidly manage to constrain millions of men’s list of available future outcomes to such a tiny list of good life options that some sizeable proportion see no more hopeful outcome than the prospect of a good death?
More importantly, how do we fix it?