What Does It Mean To Be A Man in 2023?

I just read the 2007 book Beer, Babes, and Balls: Masculinity and Sports Talk Radio by left-wing social worker and author David Nylund.

Here are some highlights from the book:

* I view masculinity as a social construction that assumes different forms in different historical moments and contexts.

* Men can pay a cost—in the form of poor health, shallow/narrow relationships, for instance—for conformity with the narrow definitions of masculinity that promise to bring them status and privilege.

* “A Martian arriving on Planet Earth and not knowing what masculinity was would quickly form the opinion that it is a highly damaged and damaging condition with very few, if any, redeeming features.”

I agree with the left that masculinity, like femininity, is a socially construction “that assumes different forms in different historical moments and contexts.” I agree with the right that masculinity and femininity are genetically constructed.

Society and genes make us who we are.

The claim that modern masculinity has no virtues is absurd.

So what does it mean to be a man today? If someone exhorted you “to be a man,” what are they saying?

Here is my vision for masculinity at this time and place:

* Mastery. A man should have mastery of himself. He should drink what he chooses to drink, eat what he chooses to eat, watch the amount of TV that is aligned with his best interests, and put in the type of performance at work and with his family that makes him feel good about himself. A man who regularly compulsively participates in his own destruction is not a man.

A man should not only have mastery over himself, he should also have mastery over many different parts of life, including his education, profession, and family (chiefly protecting and providing). A man lacking in mastery is not a man.

* A man should be at ease with reality, including hierarchy and rules. A man realizes that every community has hierarchy and rules. A man recognizes when it is appropriate for him to lead and when he should follow, when he should sing and when he should dance and when he should make romance.

* Men are more physically aggressive than women. Ninety five percent of men are physically stronger than women their age. A man is at ease with his aggression and channels it in productive ways, such as working out. Men love to compete within the rules, while women usually hate competition with its stark winners and losers, and when life forces them to compete, they often don’t observe any rules.

It’s not pathological to enjoy competition and to recognize that one of the responsibilities of manhood is the willingness to take the life of a predator to protect those you love. The world is filled with dangerous men and a real man recognizes that reality and takes steps to protect himself and his community.

From the book:

* “When they talk sports, they usually report-talk: they offer information, competing to establish who is most informed. It’s a verbal one-upmanship, an oral contest. This competitive conversation simultaneously establishes both hierarchy and unity: we are men talking about men’s interests.”

* Many men, in response to these changes, searched for places “where they could be real men with other men” and where they could actively exclude women, nonnative-born whites, men of color, and homosexuals. Men created homosocial organizations (male-only spaces) such as fraternal lodges, rodeos, college fraternities, and the Boy Scouts to initiate the next generation of traditional manhood.

* Sports talk, which today usually means talk about mediated sports, is one of the only remaining discursive spaces where men of all social classes and ethnic groups directly discuss such values as discipline, skill, courage, competition, loyalty, fairness, teamwork, hierarchy, and achievement. Sports and sports fandom are also sites of male bonding.

* sports talk radio, even more than political talk radio, is the only arena left for white men who have been “wounded by the indignities of feminism, affirmative action, and other groups’ quest for social equality”…

* Sports talk show is a venue for the embattled White male seeking recreational repose…

* in-group humor is a primary feature of men’s relationships; “that the male bond is built upon a joking relationship that negotiates the tension men feel about their relationships with each other, and with women”…

* in-group humor gives regular listeners a sense of community based on mutually shared background and common knowledge. The incessant focus on pathologizing Michael Jackson appears to function in maintaining group solidarity among Rome and his clones. As Meyer (1997) writes, “Humor’s power in communication lies in sociability, as people share in communicating similar perceptions of the normal and abnormal”(p.191). Ridiculing Jackson, in this sense, helps to construct the clones as “normal.”

* The [Jim Rome] show’s popularity reveals men’s anxiety about finding their place in the modern world, and then seeking a “third place” to connect and even earn the respect of other men. Furthermore, the irony and masculinist humor of Rome’s show may not necessarily hide a macho agenda; rather, they conceal the nervousness of men who might prefer a simpler gender and economic order, but are attempting to face up to modern realities anyway. Respect is earned not only through sexism or irony but by presenting oneself as open-minded and tolerant regarding issues of racism and homophobia, for example. Therefore, the Jungle community is many things, both enabling and constraining, including a mediated accountability community where men police each other in a postfeminist, post-civil rights America.

* A man doesn’t just do things to feel like he’s doing something. A man weighs the consequences of his words and actions. He recognizes with Tom Sowell that there are no solutions, only trade-offs.

* A man has other options than just sports talk radio to bond with men. A man should spend most of his spare time with other men. Men need a tribe. The more you have in common with others, the more likely you are to bond with them. It’s not a weakness or a flaw or a pathology or a sin to prefer to be around people like yourself. Most people benefit from a strong in-group identity.

A man shouldn’t need to turn to talk radio to assuage his loneliness. He should have friends and community in addition to family.

Men are predisposed by their genes to fuck and to fight. Men should be part of male-only communities that elevates these basic instincts in healthy directions. Men around women are frequently the watered-down version of themselves that is acceptable to feminist-run HR departments.

I might be biased here. I’m from Australia, the most sexually-segregated first-world nation.

* A man isn’t self-promoting.

* Once you’ve found your tribe, you’ve found your identity and your ethic and you won’t need uncertainty-reducing cons like right-wing talk radio and Fox News.

* Talk radio gave listeners a way to tap into the nation, into public opinion, into a community that they did not have before, where they could hear viewpoints that had not been filtered and homogenized by the TV networks and their news anchors … Listeners find themselves politically isolated at work or at home, deprived of any forum for discussion or debate. Co-workers and family members were either politically apathetic and ignorant or of a different political persuasion, which meant that going back and forth with them about cur-rent affairs would be frustrating, even infuriating. But tuning into talk radio, people could hear other points of view, even outrageous points of view, and they could take them in quietly, or scream back at the radio without fear of an altercation.

* Constructed certitude provides a sense of stability amid men’s current insecurities and anxieties. The construction of certitude offers a magical resolution to questions of identity, eradicating doubt and uncertainty in a society that is perceived as increasingly fragile and ambiguous.

* According to the book, “sports talk can momentarily break down barriers of race, ethnicity, age, and class. …sport facilitates the transient construction of alliances across racial, class, and even ethnic lines: White suburbanites, inner-city Latino and African American men can all support the New York Knicks or the Los Angeles Dodgers.” That’s great temporarily. It’s not a universal ideal. A man should be at ease with the reality of group differences.

* Men need healthy enthusiasms outside of their family such as career, education, religion, and hobbies.

* Almost every man has had the experience of being punched in the face and has learned not to say certain derogatory things (to avoid “fighting words”). Most women have not been punched in the face and hence they often say things that would get a man a good thumping.

* A man has appropriate levels of fear.

* A man should be at ease with the natural passions. He shouldn’t judge himself for wanting sex, fame, fortune, status and the like. He should spot these passions rising into view and then master them.

* A man doesn’t need other people to tell him who he is (but when he gets useful feedback, he’s grateful). A man is primarily self-validating. For example, if I think this blog post is good and nobody else does, that should be OK for me.

* A man doesn’t placate more than is absolutely necessary.

* A man should feel like the king of his castle. Even if he lives with his family, he should have his own space. A man needs his cave.

* A man should feel good if his life is less than 95% selfish.

* A man will feel better when he has the clarity that almost all of our major institutions are controlled by the left who have a radically different conception of masculinity from the traditional one.

The challenges men face today are similar to the ones faced by the feudal lord who had to move to court and code-switch from lord-speak to courtier-speak, as Rony Guldmann explains in his work-in-progress, Conservative Claims of Cultural Oppression: On the Nature and Origins of Conservaphobia:

* Beset on the one side by the ever-expanding political power of the centralized monarchies and on the other by the new economic prowess of an emerging bourgeoisie, the old feudal nobility found itself progressively emasculated, both militarily and economically, stripped of the glorious self-sufficiency that was the hallmark of an earlier, more anarchic period. Retaining any vestige of their former power and prestige now required, not physical prowess and military excellence, but cultivating the right relationships with the founts of power. And this, at its limit, came to mean taking up full-time residence in the absolutist monarchic court. One of the most decisive developments in the Western civilizing process, writes Elias, was the transformation of warriors into courtiers.92 For this political transition entailed a set of thoroughgoing psychological changes that would eventually spread beyond the monarchic courts and profoundly affect the identity of the modern West, shaping our basic concept of what it means to be “civilized.”

* “He is no longer the relatively free man, the master of his own castle, whose castle is his homeland. He now lives at court. He serves the prince. He waits on him at table. And at court he lives surrounded by people. He must behave toward each of them in exact accordance with their rank and his own. He must learn to adjust his gestures exactly to the different ranks and standing of the people at court, to measure his language exactly, and even to control his eyes exactly. It is a new self-discipline, an incomparably stronger reserve that is imposed on people by this new social space and the new ties of interdependence.”

This new social space generated a new personality/affective structure, a new “peculiarly courtly rationality”97 under whose aegis “the coarser habits, the wilder, more uninhibited customs of medieval society with its warrior upper classes, the corollaries of an uncertain, constantly threatened life” became “softened,” “polished,” and “civilized.”98 Medieval mayhem and wantonness could become suppressed because it is only at this point in Western history, with the radical heightening of the level of the day-to-day, and indeed minute-to-minute, coercion which one individual was capable of exerting on another, that “the demand for ‘good behavior’ is raised more emphatically,” and that “[a]ll problems concerned with behavior take on new importance.”

…More primitive social arrangements unmarked by complicated chains of human interdependency generally encouraged either “unambiguously negative relationships, of pure, unmoderated enmity” or else “unmixed friendships, alliances, relationships of love and service.”111 Hence, for example, what Elias describes as the “peculiar black-and-white colouring of many medieval books, which often know nothing but good friends or villains.”112 But the extended chains of functional dependencies in which one was enmeshed at court—and which were simultaneously arising within the wider society as a whole—encouraged heretofore unknown levels of ambiguity, contradiction, and compromise in the feelings and behavior of people. These now became marked by “a co-existence of positive and negative elements, a mixture of muted affection and muted dislike in varying proportions and nuances.”113 The courtiers had to become more calculating, less wholehearted in their sentiments—less “sincere” and “authentic,” we might say. Such was simply inevitable given the new intertwining layers of social interdependency. If people developed a new moral sophistication, this was the product, not of advancing knowledge, but of the gradual introjection of social exigencies, the muting of affect-structure required by the peculiarly courtly rationality.

This new social and psychological sophistication emerges hand-in-hand with the lowering of the threshold of shame, embarrassment, and repugnance in the social relations of the European upper classes, as “people, in the course of the civilizing process, seek to suppress in themselves every characteristic that they feel to be ‘animal.’”114 There was an intensification of disgust before the ejection of saliva, which becomes increasingly surrounded by taboos.115 Attitudes toward food, and meat in particular, also became transformed. Whereas the carving of a dead animal at table was previously a matter of indifference, or possibly pleasure, the new standard required eliminating any reminders that a meat dish has something to do with the killing of animals. The animal origin of meat dishes had to be “so concealed and changed by the art of its preparation and carving that while eating one is scarcely reminded of its origin.”116 In the same spirit, eating with one’s hands becomes increasingly taboo, as the fork and individual cutlery and crockery were introduced into the dining experience.

Much of Rony Guldmann’s book can be read as Masculine Claims of Cultural Oppression: On the Nature and Origins of Manaphobia, just replace “liberal” with “feminine” and “conservative” with “masculine”:

Enjoying the plausible deniability provided by a façade of democratic idealism, the liberal elites have quietly colonized a host of powerful social institutions—the judiciary, academia, public public schools, large foundations, the media, entertainment, and others—through which they now pursue unofficially what earlier clerisies had to pursue officially. They do not marginalize or excommunicate in the name of some codified orthodoxy like Catholic teaching or Talmudic law. But conservatives believe that the cumulative social prestige arrogated by this “rising class” is the functional equivalent of such an orthodoxy, imbuing the liberal elites’ pronouncements with a special power to cut off debate and silence dissent. Seeking above all to maintain this power, this new secular priesthood will badger, scold, and bully all who defy it. And this means conservatives. If they strike liberal professors like Connolly as angry and obstreperous, this is as a natural reaction to this new regime, to provocations whose very existence the elites refuse to acknowledge.

* Liberalism is not just a political orientation, but a totalistic worldview and way of being that has by now crept into the American psyche itself and can always be discovered at work in the seeming trifles of social life and pop culture—suffocating conservatives from all sides. Liberalism is not sustained by reason and argument, but by the mores and pieties that liberals have quietly entrenched as the unquestioned, taken-for-granted background of things—a parochial ethos into which the populace has become progressively indoctrinated by small, often imperceptible increments. In issuing their claims of cultural oppression, conservatives seek to awaken their fellow Americans to this hidden reality.

* Diagnosing the roots of liberal hostility toward home-schooling, Kevin Williamson observes: “The Left’s organizing principle is control, and the possibility that children might commonly be raised outside of its control matrix is an existential threat from the progressive point of view. Institutions such as free markets and free speech terrify progressives, because they are the result of arrangements in which nobody is in control… Home-schooling isn’t for everybody, but every home-school student, like every firearm in private hands, is a quiet little declaration of independence. It’s no accident that the people who want to seize your guns are also the ones who want to seize your children.”

* Like many on the Left, conservative claimants of cultural oppression believe that “the personal is the political.” Given liberals’ insatiable lust for control, what were once purely private preferences on how best to educate one’s children have now become political acts—“quiet little declarations of independence” through which to hold off left-liberal hegemony for yet another day. Conservative claims of cultural oppression seek, not primarily to highlight liberalism’s flaws as a political philosophy, but to expose its transgressions as a social practice that works to demoralize and delegitimize those who remain steadfastly loyal to “traditional American values”—gun owners, home schoolers, housewives, church goers, the police, ranchers, small business entrepreneurs, and others. The ordered liberty of the conservative is a basic threat to liberal control and so must be targeted at every turn as a danger to the civilized order, the idea of which has now become identified with liberalism itself. If liberals are hostile toward the home-schooling to which some conservative parents are drawn, this is because those parents cannot be counted upon to civilize their children in the manner prescribed—that is, to raise their children as liberals. That is why those children must be seized.

Conservative claimants of cultural oppression see themselves, not only as the losers in a “war of ideas” that was always rigged against them, but furthermore as a quasi-ethnic group being encroached upon by a foreign colonial power that is endlessly contemptuous of their native folkways and bent on replacing these with its own supposedly more advanced culture. The National Review laments: “The crusade against private gun ownership is, for the Left, a kulturkampf. The sort of people who are likely to own or enjoy firearms are the sort of people who are most intensely detested by the social tendency that produced Barack Obama et al. — atavistic throwbacks and “bitter clingers,” as somebody once put it. The Left’s jihad against hunters, rural people, shooting enthusiasts, and Second Amendment partisans will do effectively nothing to prevent lunatics from shooting up schools or shopping malls. That they would exploit the victims of these awful crimes in the service of what amounts to a very focused form of snobbery is remarkable.”

Notwithstanding their ostensible egalitarianism and pragmatism, the liberal elites are committed to their own particular brand of identity politics, complete with its own special kind of otherization. The “bitter clingers” who stand in the way of gun control are not merely criticized as misguided, but despised as occupants of a lower moral and cognitive order, atavisms of a barbaric past that liberals alone have superseded. Whereas now eclipsed traditionalist hierarchies revolved around perceived differences in things like sexual purity, work ethic, religious affiliation, family pedigree, and ethnic bona fides, the new status hierarchy of liberalism is rooted in “cognitive elitism” and centers around a morally charged division between those who are “aware” and those who are not, those who possess the psychic maturity to accede to liberalism and those who lack it and must be reformed. This kind of identity politics will always take refuge in some pragmatic-sounding pretext—e.g., the dangers of firearms or the inadequacies of home schooling. But conservatives dismiss this pragmatism as an elaborate façade for a status hierarchy that liberals refuse to acknowledge. If this hierarchy can go overlooked by “thinking people,” by the “educated,” this is because thoughtfulness and education are themselves now defined by the liberal dispensation. These have become mere badges of honor to be conferred on liberals and withheld from others. Liberals’ near-monopoly on the means of cultural reproduction lets their own kind of identity politics pass under the radar screen, camouflaged in an aura of hard-nosed utilitarianism.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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