In the wake of Harvey Weinstein, #MeToo, increased public attention to sexual harassment, and the growing debate about due process rights of the accused, how are young men to navigate the sexual minefield that exists on many campuses and emerge as neither a lout nor a loner?
The consensus opinion of the academic establishment is predictable: the concept of traditional Western masculinity must go. Contemporary university campuses are linking the supposedly hyper-masculine behavior of Weinstein and his ilk to the struggles of many young men to succeed in higher education. Some are implementing programs to counter what they call “toxic masculinity.” From The Chronicle of Higher Education:
On a small but growing number of campuses, student-affairs reformers are drawing on 40 years of research showing that distorted cultural notions of masculinity skew the psychosocial development of many male students, leading them to be disruptive, threatening, self-harming, and sometimes dangerous.
One administrator at the University of Richmond comments on the young men in his program, “[I]t’s really hard for them to be vulnerable. It runs counter to the narrative of ‘be a man, be tough.’” He further criticizes such notions as “man up,” which “can whiplash into aggression and other unruliness.”
The left perceives these programs as coddling a male demographic that already experiences too much privilege. Many on the right see them as an attack on masculinity; this conservative critique of the treatment of men goes back at least to Christina Hoff Sommers’s 2000 book The War on Boys.
Others see this as simply a byproduct of the rise of women. As women have achieved parity in political, economic, and social standing with men, it is inevitable that some men, especially those of a hyper-masculine disposition, would feel threatened. Without social approval for traditionally masculine attributes and with no apparent alternative, such men would naturally lash out as they struggle to adapt to the new norm.
But defiant aggressiveness is not the only response to this new sexual reality. Millions of young men are already checking out of modern society in one way or another. Many are playing video games rather than going to college or seeking full-time work. Some may not be worried about this phenomenon but combined with other indicators, there is ample evidence that young men are struggling.
With so many of their peers removing themselves from the mating scene (and with males now a shrinking minority on the campuses that were once their domain), the hyper-masculine college student can avail himself of as many women as he can juggle.
While the diagnosis of this sexual anarchy may be realistic, the remedy is not.
Universities are turning toward counseling programs for men aimed at suppressing “alpha male” behavior. The problem is that universities are making the same mistakes that many make in the “manosphere,” that of misunderstanding the “alpha male.”
The distinction between “alpha” and “beta” males is a flawed dichotomy derived from a study on male wolves in captivity. In captivity, researchers noted, male wolves fall into two categories, alpha and beta. Alpha males become aggressive and dominant and beta males become submissive and fearful.
This categorization is frequently applied—or misapplied—to human males. The aggressive, swaggering, and occasionally threatening behavior of “alphas” is roundly condemned in academia, even though many young women find it desirable and some young men find it admirable.
However, the study and categorization were based on male wolves in captivity. It tells us nothing about how healthy male wolves behave in their natural environment. Such a study might tell us something about how healthy male humans behave, or ought to behave, in their natural environment.Here’s the true alpha/beta distinction: those who have self-restraint and those who do not.
Further studies on male wolves living in packs demonstrate a more nuanced understanding of male behavior. Until quite late in the 20th century, researchers assumed that a wolf pack was a group of unrelated wolves who fought each other for dominance within the pack. When wolves were actually studied in the wild, researchers realized that a wolf pack was a family. Male wolves in this environment focus on protecting pack members and cultivating relationships with their children and partner, as well as asserting their dominance against outside aggressors.
These studies indicate an ideal of healthy male behavior: protection of one’s own, which requires an assertion of dominance. But this description requires further nuance.
Enter Hector vs. Paris. Hector and Paris were the sons of Priam, king of Troy. According to Homer, Paris starts the war between Troy and Greece by seducing Helen, the queen of Agamemnon, king of Mycenae. Paris is known for his womanizing. He is essentially the classical world’s version of Hoyt Thorpe, the frat boy who callously seduces Tom Wolfe’s naive protagonist in I am Charlotte Simmons.
Hector, on the other hand, is the noble prince of Troy, a family man who mocks his brother’s lack of self-restraint. And, of course, his brother’s lack of self-restraint is the reason Hector and the rest of the Trojan royal family (and most of Troy’s population) wind up dead at the end of Greek spears.
The difference between Paris and Hector is not that Paris is liberated and Hector is a dutiful pup, subordinate to his guard dog role in Troy. Rather, Paris is a slave to his passions and while his passions may help him to bed Helen, they also render him a coward and a fool. Hector’s duty is born of his strength and his self-restraint. No doubt a warrior of his stature had the same testosterone-fueled passion as Paris and the opportunity to indulge it, but he conquered his passions. It was this quality of self-restraint that gave Hector control over his fear in battle. He was at a great disadvantage to Achilles; unlike the half-God Achilles, Hector was fully human, without supernatural protection or divinely inherited strength. Yet, knowing this, he still left the safety of the city walls to face his great rival. There is a reason that the men of Troy followed Hector into battle. Here’s the true alpha/beta distinction: those who have self-restraint and those who do not.
Which brings us back to toxic masculinity. Behavior that is labeled as such by today’s feminists falls into two categories. The first is the sort of posturing and abusive behavior that characterized Weinstein and his ilk. The second is assertive male behavior that gets labeled “toxic” but is nothing of the kind. It is the sort of assertiveness that a healthy male engages when offering protection or taking leadership when it matters. It is an important aspect of what I will call “decent masculinity.”
Paris has something of the toxic masculine in him. Helen may have really fallen for him (or so Paris said!) but his behavior was quintessential Hoyt Thorpe and I have to think that, given the power of a Trojan prince, bordered on the Weinsteinian. The remedy is not to demand that he be less assertive, but that he gain self-restraint. We must take aim at the “toxic” and not the “masculine,” lest as a society we throw the Hectors out with the Parises.
Universities seem to grasp this at some level, although they inevitably mischaracterize it. One article suggests encouraging young men to emulate the following example (among others) of standing up to wrongful behavior. “The intervening bystander: the frat brother or teammate or just that random guy at a party who confronts another guy who is about to do something that is at best sketchy and at worst a felony assault. He’s not about rescuing a damsel in distress; he’s just doing the right thing.”
Well, such a man in that situation would be, in fact, rescuing a damsel in distress. And that’s a good thing. This doesn’t mean a decent masculinity is limited to rescuing damsels in distress, but rescuing said damsels is in the category of “doing the right thing”—and something that is instinctual in a healthy male. Aggressively defending the weak from predators is not the same as conducting one’s business affairs ethically—also an example of doing the right thing. Many of the problems with the Weinstein case is precisely that the men (and women) around these predators didn’t rescue the damsels in distress; these betas submitted to the alpha male in the unnatural environment of Hollywood.
For Hollywood is certainly as distorted an environment for humans as is captivity for wolves, twisted by extremes of wealth, power, ambition, perversity, and radical politics. One could argue that prior to the Weinstein debacle, there was more stigma attached to the behavior of the “old-fashioned” man who purportedly degrades women by protecting them than to the sleazeball who subjects women to actual degradation. Hector would have a worse reputation than Paris among these louts. From that skewed perspective, the men who allowed Weinstein and his ilk to get away with what they did for so long are feminist heroes: they let the young women fend for themselves.
Social structures on college campuses can be as unnatural as those of Tinseltown. The campus has largely been handed over to radical feminists, some of whom consider gender to be a social construct rather than rooted in biology. Real masculinity has been relegated to the narrow confines of the playing field and gymnasium. Female students vastly outnumber males and random sexual hookups are common, while women, from willing sexual partners to anti-male gender warriors, can pose danger for even well-meaning men. Title IX imposes false equalities, and every male preserve, from fraternities to science labs, is under pressure to yield to feminine strictures.
So it makes sense that unnatural alpha and beta-male behavior would emerge amidst such confusion. The real solution may be one that I suspect many college administrators will not like: developing a decent masculinity. One that is assertive and strong, that looks to Hector as its guide. The guy “doing the right thing” is a guy who asserts himself in a situation where the momentum, the social advantage, is going the other way. That takes some serious huevos. Standing up to Weinstein would have been hard: that guy had some serious clout.
My question: what can universities do to encourage the traits of a positive or decent masculinity?
Some insight into the question is provided by looking at the prevalent male need for role models. Much of the charge against traditional male behavior is led by feminized males in positions of authority. They are hardly the sort that hyper-masculine young men, the type who can cause problems if not properly directed, will choose to emulate. Universities at least acknowledge the lack of role models for men. From The Chronicle, “Few [young men] could nominate role models; even fathers rarely rated.” There has been an increase of men who can’t name a single male role model.We must take aim at the “toxic” and not the “masculine,” lest as a society we throw the Hectors out with the Parises.
Two types of role models are important. The first is a positive role model and the second is the disciplinary role model. They can be the same person, but they reflect two aspects of the role model. Jack Urwin is a British Vibe magazine writer who has emerged as a spokesman for the sort of redefinition of maleness popular in today’s academia. His book, Man Up: Surviving Modern Masculinity, argues that “we don’t need to be the men our grandfathers were.” I disagree. We need to be exactly the men our grandfathers were or, at least, my grandfathers were. I can’t speak for Urwin, but my paternal grandfather was a gentleman, a paradigm of decent masculinity. He didn’t hide his medical problems (as Urwin’s father did), nor did he refrain from talking about how he felt. Except that he also rarely complained (ahem, Urwin). He worked hard (with his hands!), read vociferously, was devoutly religious, and ruthlessly moral. In fact, he was so great and so decent to those around him that had Urwin and most college administrators known him, they would have been partially perplexed by how decent he seemed as they diagnosed him “toxically masculine” and demanded he rein in his assertive behavior.
The problem for Urwin and company is that my grandfather, despite his congenial disposition, was the type who had no qualms about putting a cad in his place, whether it was one of his rambunctious grandsons (that brings back memories…), a lazy neighbor, or an unscrupulous politician. Such a man other men will look up to. And if they don’t, they still must contend with him.
This last point implicates the disciplinary role model and calls to mind another study of the animal world that reveals how destructive the absence of strong male figures can be. In South Africa, young male elephants from herds that had lost their older male elephants to poaching went on rampages and killed a number of white rhinos. Officials solved the problem by bringing in a number of older bull elephants. These older males made the unruly youngsters shape up and the rampages stopped immediately.
People are not elephants, but the same dynamic has been observed in hunter-gatherer tribes and modern societies with healthier social structures than ours.
So what are universities doing to cultivate strong male role models, figures who can keep misbehaving younger males in line and offer a living, breathing example of a strong masculine presence? As far as I can tell: nothing.
What I want to point out here is that there is a relationship between the toxic alphas and the betas. The betas not only let the toxic alphas run the show; they think their passiveness is a sign of virtue until it obviously is not, and then confusion ensues.
What I have described here is a challenge to the egalitarian ethic. Men are different from women. They have their own needs, their own challenges. To have healthy men on campus, we need to acknowledge that.
There is indeed a problem with “toxic masculinity” on campus and in society at large. But the problem goes much deeper than the discussions in The Chronicle and elsewhere in academia. For one thing, today’s toxic masculinity is occurring in tandem with a retreat from masculinity; they appear to be opposite reactions to the same environment. Weinstein is not a true alpha. Like Paris, he is a beta in wolf’s clothing. It is likely that the real problem with men is that they are not masculine enough. By releasing healthy, decent masculinity from its radical feminist chains—and populating the campus with tough-but-wise bull elephants—the problem of “toxic masculinity” may find its historic and effective antidote.