This is an article originally published here on Reddit: http://www.reddit.com/r/masculism/comments/11w04k/separating_the_boys_from_the_men_male_heirarchy/
As this piece was published at /r/Masculism it tends to take a less vehement tone than the ‘typical’ pro-men’s-rights piece. Upon re-reading I couldn’t find any substantially objectionable material within it and as such I wish to preserve it here.
Part 1: Introduction
In my article on /r/GenderEgalitarian/ A Few Thoughts On Some Feminist Concepts, I pointed out an interesting quirk of language use:
“It is interesting to note how the phrase “real men” is used in a way that contradicts what people typically mean by “real.” You are probably reading this article on a computer or similar electronic device; this device exists and is therefore real. Yet the minute we shift to “real men” we start talking not about men that exist, but men who embody a specific ideal of correct manliness (also called the Hegemonic Masculinity). The word “real” is used to mean “ideal.””
This sudden shift in the definition of “real,” from “something that exists” to “exemplar of an ideal,” is a process I call a Platonic Inversion (because it is an instance of underlying residual Platonism in people’s thought processes – Plato after all believed that the “ideal” was “more real” than physical stuff).
In the mainstream of our culture, this Platonic Inversion with respect to “men” is nearly unquestioned. When we talk about a real DVD player, using the term to mean a “far better DVD player,” we all know that the term “real” is being used metaphorically.
But, on the other hand, being a “real man” is not a matter of metaphor. It is a matter of personal pride. It is a big deal (socially speaking), not a simple case of a metaphorical invocation of Platonism.
The reason for this is that, according to the cultural mainstream, being a “real man” is an earned social status rather than something innate in physically real men. “Real manhood” must be repeatedly demonstrated, proven, confirmed and defended. Psychological studies have backed this point up.
How did this situation come to pass?
A common theory, one which I think has significant explanatory power, is that women’s signs of biological maturity were relatively obvious; they had their menstural cycle, grew breasts, and (most importantly in societies which were fed through the manual labor of a growing population) bear children. “Girls” simply became “Women” (with the exceptions of infertile females), at which point they could fulfil their expected social role of bearing children.
Men, on the other hand, had less physically obvious signs of biological maturation. This was coupled with the fact that early human societies had reproductive pressures that incentivized protection of the females, as well as the fact that pregnant females were less able to perform hard labor/hunt/fish/farm/etc. The social role of women was something that the vast majority of women would grow into being capable of performing just by the nature of female biology.
The social role performed by men was not as biologically assured. Men had to be protectors and providers; tasks which were physically strenuous, dangerous, and could be performed with different levels of success and/or failure (i.e. men could be “good men” or “bad men” in the sense of being more or less competent at fulfilling their assigned roles; women of course had something similar (infertile women being seen as “bad women” or “barren”) but as a matter of degree the pressure wasn’t as strong since any given man was more likely to be a bad warrior/hunter than any given women was likely to be infertile, and then we have to introduce the matter of levels of skill at performing warrior/hunter tasks relative to breeding tasks (women do have different levels of fertility, but how wide is that scope vs. the scope of competence at warrior/hunter tasks?)).
As such, “proper” femaleness was seen as innate, but “proper” maleness required actions which produced specific outcomes. Barring infertility, a female would always become a “real woman,” but a man would have to continually fulfill his social functions in order to be seen as a “real man.”
It should come as no surprise that this formed our society’s most basic gender role; a role that I’d generally say Feminists and Masculists and Gender Egalitarians of all stripes basically accept as the foundation of our society’s gender system. This is the Subject-Object distinction, often phrased as “men do, women are.” Men are actors, women are acted upon.
Feminists, Gender Egalitarians, and MRA’s have consistently traced out the misogynistic and misandric implications and outcomes of this role system.
So, the above is a brief sketch of how our society came to its basic gender system. During early human history, this system probably had significant utility – human survival was predicated on manual labor, and a steadily-growing supply of manual labor was premised on consistent reproduction (ergo women having to have children and men having to protect/feed the family).
When the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution ushered in modern civilization as we know it, things changed. Manual labor stopped being the engine of human survival and prosperity; a progressively automated, capital-and-enterprise-dependent economy took its place. It is no coincidence that modern gender discourse, kicked off by Classical Liberal Feminism, was a product of the Enlightenment era. Fundamentally, gender discourse is a product of the fact that our technology has developed far more quickly than our received cultural wisdom; now, the “received wisdom” about masculinity and femininity is clearly obsolete.
From this point onward, I wish to focus on masculinity, or more correctly our society’s understanding of “correct” masculinity, and how it has constructed a system which oppresses men
Part 2: The Machismo Economy
So how does our society’s “masculinity system” (whatever you want to call it) operate?
As stated above, the casual acceptance of “real men” to be used to refer to men who meet some ideal standard gives us an important clue; under this system, not all physically real men are “real men.” Manhood (in the “real man” sense) is a socially-earned status. It is conferred. Because it can be conferred, it can also be revoked.
This means that the system has a binary component, where a man either is a “real man” or is not a “real man.” They either “pass” or “fail.” They are “real men” or they are socially emasculated.
This binary component is one of “separating the men from the boys.” Degrees do not exist within this component of the system. Note the use of “boys” here; the implication being that insufficiently masculine (by social standards) men are not fully mature (i.e. they are child males rather than adult males). This further validates the hypothesis expressed in Part 1; “real manhood” is a socially-earned status because a man’s full maturity isn’t as biologically obvious as a woman’s, and that the male social role wasn’t as connected to innate biological capabilities as the female’s.
It is often noted that various institutions mediate the conferral of social manhood; sports teams, the military, fraternities, etc. Again, the need for institutional validation of social manhood seems to back up the hypothesis that the relative understatedness of male biological maturation is an important reason for the nature of the current gender system (also note how real-world tribal societies frequently have rituals which initiate “boys” into “manhood”).
Thus, within the “manhood” system developed by our society, you will typically find an underclass of “not real men.” Call them “boys,” “beta males” or “omega males,” “the socially emasculated” or whatever; if being a “real man” is like being in a nightclub, these men are outside of the club.
But then we move into the second component of the “manhood” system; inter-male heirarchialism. Once someone has been admitted into the category of “real man” there is competition amongst the men inside to establish an order of rank. As explained earlier, there are differences in degree of how well men can fulfill the social role of “real man,” and whilst there is the aforementioned binary distinction between “those that can’t” (“boys”) and “those that can” (“real men”), some “real men” can do it better than others.
This is the familiar battle for “Alpha Maleness.” With it comes power over one’s underlings and, crucially, the ability to socially emasculate them (kick them out of the “real man” club and reduce them to a “boy”). The battle for Alpha status is not pleasant, it is endless and must be repeatedly fought, yet the alternative to being “one of the real men” is social emasculation.
In brief, you could say the social system of “real manhood” operates with three basic “tiers.” At the top, the Alpha who can bestow or revoke “real man” status. In the middle, those “real men” who are attempting to continually acquire more “real man” status and outcompete their opponents. At the very bottom, the “boys” or “not real men,” the socially emasculated, the outcasts.
We might describe these tiers with the labels “Alpha,” “Beta” and “Omega” but those would just be shorthand, plus I wouldn’t want to get the above confused with PUA terminology (PUA terminology refers to frequency of sexual success, which is related to but certainly not the same thing as status amongst fellow males).
Part 3: Some Effects Of This System
1) GENDER POLICING: A simple truth of economics is that people respond to incentives – if conduct X confers a benefit, and conduct Y bears a cost, then ceteris paribus people will be more likely to engage in X and less likely to engage in Y.
The “real manhood” system operates in such a way as to incentivize gender policing; by outperforming another man at a specific masculine-coded task, one gains more “real man” credit whilst at the same time diminishing the social masculinity of the outperformed men. The incentive isn’t to be good or competent at these specific tasks, but rather to be better than others at these specific tasks. Thus, men are motivated not to view other men’s strengths as good, but as threats. Men are motivated to view other men’s weaknesses as opportunities to be exploited.
Let’s put aside the strange moral inversion (resenting the admired, wishing to see more of the disdained) that this system implies for now; the obvious effect is gender policing. Make one slip and your “fellow men” will be right there to tear you apart and degrade you for it; it is the only way for them to increase their own status.
Obviously, this makes authentic self-expression and pursuit of one’s own happiness into a minefield for men, particularly those with some preferences that fall outside of traditional gender boundaries (in fact it is fair to say that almost all men have at least one interest which transgresses gender boundaries). Even those that, to their knowledge, have purely gender-typical interests, are socially penalized by this gender policing to some degree; they are discouraged from exploring things which may end up potentially enhancing their lives.
2) HERD CONFORMITY/GROUP IDENTITY: Significant neurological evidence exists to indicate that one’s gender identity (innate feeling of being male or female) is a result of neuroanatomy (for instance, transgender persons have been shown to have neuroanatomy of the opposite sex to the anatomy of the rest of their bodies; transgender conditions are arguably the neurological version of intersex conditions). When one’s gender identity is attacked or questioned, it can be distressing.
But, as stated before, being a “real man” is a social status rather than something innate, and the mechanism for acquiring and reinforcing this status is interpersonal. Basically, it is conferred by group insociation.
As a result, males have a portion of their innate identity subject to social approval and validation.
Now, most readers of this piece would accept the proposition that there is a mind-independent reality, and that facts aren’t the same thing as group consensus. And yet, this is precisely what “real manhood” requires – subjective acceptance of someone as a “real man.” So not only does “real manhood” refer to a Platonic ideal rather than physical reality, it also refers to a socially subjective status, as if the World Of Forms and the Consensus Reality were one and the same.
Leaving aside the utterly crackbrained metaphysics and epistemology that seem to be entailed here, the psychological effects of such an attitude are pretty obvious; if a critical part of one’s identity is dependent on the group, then one is far less likely to be fully individuated. One is far less likely to go against the grain, to think for oneself, to live with authenticity and integrity, when critical components of one’s identity are heavily invested in a group membership that is granted by mass consensus.
This goes far beyond gender policing. The damage that can be caused is fundamentally cognitive; if someone’s primary reference point for facts of reality is social rather than empirical, then that someone has basically abandoned any pretense at rationality.
This group-granted, group-dependent “real man” identity does nothing less than encourage complete cognitive dependence in males, crush unorthodox thinking, and incentivize “fitting in” and being “one of the guys” over being one’s authentic self.
3) PARALLEL HIERARCHIES: As stated above, having one’s innate gender identity questioned or attacked is a distressing experience (as many transgender people will attest). And, as stated before, plenty of males are not granted the status of “real men,” rather they are seen as failed men, as “boys” or some other emasculated label. Thus, many real men (physically real men, not “real men”) unfortunately live in a state where they commonly are inflicted with the distress of having their innate gender identity socially denied.
Denial of an individual’s innate gender identity – in effect a claim that this individual doesn’t really know their own mind and that the denier knows that individual better than that individual knows themselves – is offensive. It is offensive when it happens to trans people, and it is offensive when it happens to cisgender people, including cisgender men.
Given how social sanction and reinforcement has always been a crucial component of “real manhood” (a component which, it can be plausibly argued, is more important to “real manhood” than “real womanhood”), social emasculation can cause a remarkable amount of distress to men.
So, how do those men that have had their “real man” status revoked react? Sure, there are some that simply reject the whole enterprise of proving themselves to others, but this reaction isn’t as common as we’d all like. Indeed, the more common reaction is to form a parallel institution – in this case to simply create a different kind of heirarchical masculinity with its own cultural standards of “real manhood.”
The pattern of traditional masculinity is taken; there’s an heirarchically-structured “in group” led by the person that most exemplifies the group’s standards, with subordinate members competing with each other in an attempt to outdo each other at compliance with the group’s standards; unsurprisingly there is also an “out-group” composed of those that are not considered the “in-group” and who’s masculinity is held as fundamentally deficient/failed.
Why would some of the socially emasculated react by reproducing a variant of the same system that humiliated them? The answer is simple – those that are socially emasculated and respond by forming a parallel masculinity do so out of a desire to be accepted by the “real man” group that rejected them, and create their own as a substitute. They don’t reject the underlying premises of the system, they simply alter the standards to ones more favorable to their own traits.
Those familiar with the theory of Hegemonic Masculinity should see the parallels here; there is a socially normative model of “real manhood,” but not all can practice it successfully. Those who are heavily dependent on such group validation for their gender identity, yet find themselves socially emasculated, will desire to have their “real manhood” reinstated through insociation. In order to cater to this need, they will seek out or set up a parallel institution more likely to accept them.
4) DESTRUCTION OF PEER BONDS AND TRUE BROTHERHOOD: And we finally come to the most ironic and arguably most pernicious effect that the traditional system of “real manhood” has inflicted upon actual men: the poisoning of male relationships.
The “real manhood” system is hierarchically structured and incentivizes competition with and subjugation of one’s fellow man. After all, if one begins a gender system by positing a Platonic ideal then the moral imperative is to refashion oneself into that ideal as much as possible; if one defines the process of moving closer to this ideal as defeating others, then defeating others becomes a duty.
A peer relationship, i.e. a relationship of equals, cannot exist in this framework. Benefit can only come from a violation of the peership. If one posits hierarchical behavior as a proper component of “real manhood,” then peer relationships become emasculated (hence accusations of “those two men are getting too friendly/buddyish, obviously they must be gay” etcetera).
And yet, is not true brotherhood inherently about an ultimate sense of peership? Is it not about admiring and respecting the competencies and virtues of another, rather than conspiring to defeat or lessen those competencies and virtues? Aristotle famously described a true friend as another self – does one attempt to diminish, demean, defeat, humiliate and subjugate oneself?
Human beings relate to those that are like themselves – birds of a feather flock together is more than just a saying. This is why women like their “girl’s nights out” and men like their “boy’s nights out.” Same-gender social bonding is normal and healthy; it is almost certainly a human need (arguably this is another reason for the phenomenon of Parallel Heirarchies discussed above). To make this bonding into an adversarial exercise and a threat to one’s gender identity is a cruel joke at the very least.
Part 4: Conclusion
Traditional concepts of gender were Gender Essentialist, but the type of Essentialism differed between men and women (due to the different roles men and women had to play in pre-modern societies and the differences in the obviousness of their physical maturation). Femininity was typically treated as innate, i.e. as an immanent essence (Aristotelian/Moderate Essentialism) which women possessed by virtue of birth.
Men, on the other hand, were saddled with a Platonic Essentialist concept of masculinity. As such, identity as a “real man” was always a less sure thing than identity as a “real woman.” Women were beings and men were doings. This basic Subject-Object separation ultimately underpins our society’s traditional gender roles, and provides both men and women with various different advantages and disadvantages relative to each other.
One specific disadvantage the traditional conception of the “proper” way to be a “real man” has is that, by virtue of its Platonic nature, it emasculates many men. It compels men to be unsure of their identity, to rely on social verification, to conform and be “one of the guys” at any cost. It encourages men to police other men’s gender expression, to capitalize on each other’s “weakness” and resent each other’s capabilities and skills. Ultimately, it generates a toxic hierarchical environment where even the basic human need of same-gender camaraderie becomes a veritable battleground.
If gender policing, sabotage of individuation and individuality, and the corruption of the process of fulfilling a natural human need, are correctly called “oppressive,” then the current sex/gender system is oppressive of men.
In my earlier article, A Few Thoughts On Some Feminist Concepts, I argued that “Platocracy” is a better term than “Patriarchy” to describe the traditional gender system. It is in traditional ideas of “real manhood” that we find the clearest evidence for the Platonic basis of this gender system.