A response to the most recent Contrapoints video.
The Crisis of White Masculinity
There’s a joke among historians that masculinity is constantly in crisis. Indeed, this has certainly been true my entire adult life. This has been attributed during that time to changing gender roles, changing economic models, automation, the emergence of digital, gaming and lately it’s the fault of trans people. The crisis doesn’t change, and, on some underlying level, neither do the causes – it’s always caused by change and gains in power from people who aren’t men. When Hildegard of Bingen wrote about the crisis of masculinity in the twelveth century, she bemoaned that her time had become “womanish” (1178), effectively blaming shifting gender roles. Fortunately, in seeking to correct this, she chose not to lead by example.
While I wish to affirm that masculinity does have aspects that are valuable, there are many ways in which it works as an expression of power. These facets of masculinity resemble a much newer idea – whiteness, which it also interacts with. Whiteness (and race in general), was a necessary by-product of slavery and colonial expansion. If some people were marked from birth to be slaves, this necessitated the creation of distinct classes of people – those who could be subject to property confiscation and ceaseless violence and those who were authorised to inflict violence. If slaves were black, then their brutalisers must be something else, which could not be simply thought of as non-black. The enslavers were the ones doing the othering, so needed their own identity to other against. Thus whiteness was born.
Some aspects of masculinity also rely on a constant process of othering and a continual assertion of power. Any changing circumstance has the risk of reducing that assertion of power. However, change is inescapable. Therefore masculinity is constantly in crisis. Specifically, the supremacist aspects of masculinity are in crisis. A masculinity that is not seeking to dominate is much less fragile and much less toxic to the person who chooses to embody it.
Alienation and Right Wing Recruitment
The right wing has found fertile recruiting ground among young men who are hurt and alienated by the toxic masculinity that permeates our culture. Aimless young men, searching for meaning, have been radicalised. While this is largely the fault of social media corporations broadcasting far right recruiting points, the left has sometimes lacked an accessible and equally compelling counter-narrative.
An anonymous writer in The Washingtonian described how her thirteen year old son joined the alt-right. He had been into meme culture and had mentioned an edgy meme to a friend at school. A girl who overheard him reported him for sexual harassment. Unfortunately, the school chose an entirely punitive response to this. He was socially isolated, alienated and depressed. He found the alt-right online. They told him he was ok and hadn’t done anything wrong. They treated him as if his ideas were worthwhile and they offered him leadership opportunities. What de-radicalised him in the end was meeting them in person at a right wing rally, in which he also saw a counter-protesting man, who his mother praised as brave. (Anon 2019) Thus a positive model of masculinity, which included real-life action in the face of risk, was able to supplant months of indoctrination into the far right.
Masculinity is often defined through struggle. Liberalism does not offer this, but instead has only capitalist alienation. Fascism, by contrast, offers an avenue to be constantly heroic. (Eco 1995) The left offers a better world for everyone, but is less immediately clear on what the role of these young men would be. While it identifies toxic masculinity as problematic, there is sometimes a lack of a positive counter example. What does positive masculinity look like? Who are good roll models? Mass media keeps making stories about toxic men who become only more toxic, making compelling anti-heroes. Stories about redemption have fallen out of fashion, but these are what we seem to need. Star Trek: Discovery, for example, does offer these character arcs for Ash Taylor and Spock (Fuller, 2017-), but this also relies on them belonging to a pseudo-military as a means of finding fellowship and working for the greater good. Crucially, these characters struggle against themselves as a necessary part of their struggle on behalf of their comrades.
Positive Masculinity and the Left
The heroism of fascism is ultimately empty. It is not based on achievement or self-improvement, but rather on othering. One can be a hero not because one has accomplished anything, but because of accidents of birth. This is papers over alienation, but does not fill the void. De-radicalising those in the far right is therefore possible and necessary, but it requires the left to offer something fulfilling to cis white young men. This is tactical and must never replace the goal of liberation for all, but it cannot be neglected.
Some on the far left have been successful in recruiting disaffected young men, from those who are alienated and previously apolitical and also sometimes those who have previously been members of the far right. This is valuable, but without a means to de-alienation, the strategy is risky. Some of those recruits are not ideologically grounded. People who are attracted to what they perceive as extremism are often searching for a means to be heroic. Umberto Eco identifies heroism as a key feature of Ur-Fascism (1995). Those seeking a heroism as an end unto itself will tend to eventually (re)join the far right. Historical fascist figures, such as Mosley, have veered wildly from right to left before settling on the far right (Wikipedia 2019) as the more self-glorifying path. Leftist groups must be aware of these risks and take steps to counter them, by grounding new members ideologically and offering them positive ways to enact and embody inescapable aspects of their identities. It’s not enough to offer them membership and fellowship in an organisation. There needs to be included a path to self-improvement and some positive access to struggle against oneself instead of only against an other. Solidarity is key. Reading and discussion groups can help provide this grounding.
The far right allows struggle in physical terms (bro, do you lift?), but their neglect of the intellect seems unfulfilling. We must be careful not to replicate this lack. The good news is that left groups ultimately offer more to alienated people. Anti-fascism allows physical heroism and real-life social bonds, but is also tied to an opportunity for intellectual improvement, solidarity, direction and leadership for all alienated people. The role of cis white men in these spaces should not be centralised, but also it should be clear that all comrades are welcome on an equal footing. Recruitment aimed at alienated cis white men, unfortunately, does require some extra work as they have been heavily indoctrinated against solidarity – it is up to white men to do this work.
Anonymous, 2019. What Happened After My 13-Year-Old Son Joined the Alt-Right. The Washingtonian [Online] https://www.washingtonian.com/2019/05/05/what-happened-after-my-13-year-old-son-joined-the-alt-right/ [Accessed 5 September 2019]
Bingen, H to the prelates of Mainz. 1178. in The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen, vol. 1 tr. J.L Baird, R.K. Ehrmann (Oxford Univ. Press, 1994) [Online] http://www.ldysinger.stjohnsem.edu/@texts2/1170_hildegard/05_hild-lets.htm [Accessed 5 September 2019 ]
Eco, U., 1995. Ur-fascism. The New York Review of Books, 42(11), pp.12-15. [Online] http://pegc.us/archive/Articles/eco_ur-fascism.pdf [Accessed 5 September 2019 ]
Fuller, B., (Executive Producer). 2017-. Star Trek: Discovery [Television Series] New York, USA: CBS All-Access.
Wikipedia contributors, 2019. Oswald Mosley. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. [Online] https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Oswald_Mosley&oldid=913995576 [Accessed 5 Sep. 2019.]