“The Way of Men” book author Jack Donovan answers some hard questions about masculinity and society, and the way forward for men.
JC: Strength, courage, mastery, and honor. Which readings were most influential in your choice of these four traits of masculinity?
JD: I’ve been trying to come up with a workable definition of masculinity for about seven years, so I covered a lot of material. You have to consider arguments from feminists and samurai and classical philosophers. As The Way of Men came into focus, the books Demonic Males, Men in Groups, WAR, Roman Manliness, Honor: A History, World of Gangs, and The Decline of Males were all helpful.
Ultimately, defining masculinity is a logic problem which then presents a philosophical problem. I had to determine which virtues would be most specific to a small group of men depending on each other for survival—because that’s the social organization that made us what we are today.
We didn’t just “evolve” as a species because someone gave us an office job or handed us a smart phone. As far as I know, feel-good bumper stickers don’t actually drive the process of natural selection. And simply saying that everyone is equal doesn’t magically turn apples into oranges.
The virtues you selected for defining masculinity were based on those necessary to a small group of men who are struggling to survive. Would you select different virtues for a man who is trying to survive in a modern American city, where large numbers of men and women of all ages live together in a highly industrialized society?
No. The point was not to invent a masculinity of convenience or impose an artificial moral ideal based on an idealized version of contemporary circumstances. That’s what profeminist writers on the subject have been doing for decades—I summarized some of their arguments in a short book called No Man’s Land. (It’s available for free here.) Telling men how you think they should feel about being men doesn’t work if it isn’t in harmony with their natures. Smart leaders used to try to figure out what men really wanted, and try to figure out how to make them believe they were getting it.
The problem today is that our well-meaning, idealistic mandarins in academia and the ruling bureaucracies aren’t satisfied with the reality of what men actually want, so they tell us what they think men should want, and then give it to them … in abundance. If you aren’t honest about who men are and what they want, you’re working against them, and sooner or later they’re going to realize it. If they don’t see a way to move things in their favor, they participate half-heartedly, play the system for kicks, withdraw, or check out. Many end up in prison, where we can forget about them and pretend human nature is changing. There are more men in the correctional system today than there are in the military. Telling the same lies about men over and over doesn’t make those lies true.
Human nature doesn’t change automatically to suit passing economies or political systems. A great example is sex. Think of how much time and money men and women waste worrying about sex, even when they have no intention of having children. That’s not rational or sensible or practical. But we do it anyway. And, since we have so many people who want to have sex, why don’t they just have sex with the first person that offers and get on with their business? Why do so many men try so hard to have sex with a minority of extremely attractive women, when there are plenty of women to go around? And why don’t women always select the first guy to approach?
Asking men to stop caring about being seen as strong, courageous, competent and honorable in the eyes of other men is like asking them to stop caring whether the women they have sex with are beautiful or ugly. You can tell a man that what he wants most in his heart of hearts is to “stand up to injustice based on difference,” and you can force him to repeat it back to you, but if that’s not actually what he wants out of life, you’re just making him a liar and forcing him to retreat inward.
Are different virtues probably more appropriate for our current society as our handlers have imagined it, were it to continue as it is indefinitely? Sure. My questions are: Why try to design men around society? Why wouldn’t men be right to want a society designed around them? (That’s what they’ve always had … patriarchy.) Is the modern world so much better for men, simply because it’s new?
You say that a man who is more concerned with being a good man than with being good at being a man makes a better slave than a citizen. Do you think we should be more like gang members, instead: good at being men, but not so good at being good?
Being good at being a man is a tactical orientation. If you completely outsource tactical thinking to someone else, your life is in their hands. You give them the capability to become your master. This is the bargain of modern democratic thinking. All you can do is hope that your masters choose to use their authority—which is always backed by the threat of violence wielded by the “guardians” you entrusted with the axe—benevolently. You cast your vote and hope someone listens. That makes voting sound a lot like praying, doesn’t it?
If you give up being good at being a man, and concentrate only on being thoughtful or spiritual or well-behaved, you are like a slave or a child whose fate is entirely in someone else’s hands. I don’t think feeling powerless like that makes men happy. It’s freeing, in a way, to allow yourself to be flotsam adrift, but it’s also lazy and unsatisfying. What’s the point of doing anything? Being safe and comfortable and powerless isn’t worth the self-determination, sense of identity and the sense of importance to the immediate group that men have given away.
You describe being good at being a man as a tactical orientation. How does a modern man live his life tactically in relation to corporations and governments, rather than submitting to them?
In The Way of Men, I explain that men are always making a bargain with civilization. They give up a little manliness and freedom for a little bit of security and comfort. They find or create sanctioned outlets for manly endeavor and tribalism. This is why civilizations have always encouraged sports and various kinds of gaming that mimic primal contests. Men find ways to simulate primal masculinity or experience it vicariously. Today we do that through film, video games, sporting events, comic books and literature. We do it in politics. Some men will do it in business, but as companies get larger, more automated and offer less agency to employees, that will prove a manly outlet for fewer and fewer men.
There’s a sweet spot—and it’s probably different for different men—between the wild, brutish freedom of violent tribalism and the luxury and security of completely sedentary domesticity. I believe that we’re on the other side of it, and slipping like sabre-toothed tigers into a tar pit we may never crawl out of. I don’t think the substitutes for virile action that we’re permitted will be enough in the long run. There’s no silver lining and it can only get worse. The only option for most men will be submission, and that’s not satisfactory. This modern lifestyle requires our compliance. It’s built on our backs. I’m telling men to shrug it off, let it fall, and rebuild a more human world where men have a place worth having—not just a handful of approved simulations and vicarious experiences.
You suggest that in other times and places, there has been a synergy between men who excelled at being good—“priests, philosophers, shamans, writers, and historians”—and the men who were best at being men: soldiers and gangsters are two examples you give. What has happened to that old balance? Do we have great men today, who are both good and highly competent men?
Sure. But I think it’s harder for them to reconcile being a good man with being good at being a man than it was for men who came before them. We send them a lot of mixed messages.
Soldiers are a good example. Americans send their young men off to kill and sacrifice themselves, but tell them we hate war. Then, when soldiers do what we sent them to do, but it doesn’t play out the right way in the media, or when they act like men fighting a war instead of noble warrior monks, we turn on them and use them as scapegoats to make ourselves feel morally righteous while we snuggle on comfy couches. It’s no wonder they are freaking out and offing themselves at an increasing and alarming rate. Civilizations used to offer men like that glory and honor. So many Americans today patronize these guys or resent them or treat them with ambivalence, while simultaneously worshipping the actors who pretend to be them in movies. How screwed up is that?
People do the same thing to cops. We put guns in their hands and tell them to risk their lives for us. Then we second-guess their actions from the safety of our homes and call them monsters while we tune in weekly to police procedurals about bad boy detectives.
Men are supposed to be act like angels while we treat them like assholes and blame them for everything that goes wrong. Our culture also sends men a lot of mixed messages when it comes to how men should deal with women. Women are supposed to be the equals of men and the same in every way—except when women are supposed to be treated differently. It’s considered worse to hit women, worse to wrong them, worse to exclude them, worse to talk badly about them, worse to judge them, and worse to portray them in a negative light.
There are plenty of guys who are willing and able to be both good men, and men who are good at being men. But our culture is so two-faced about what we want from men. Look at what happened to the men’s movement in the 1990s, with Robert Bly and Sam Keen and guys like that. They wanted to find a way for men to feel like men—good men—in a feminist, pacifist world. They were mocked and condemned by women and the mainstream media. The same thing happens today with men who identify themselves as feminists. They can only participate as supporting players, and when they get too involved or step out of line—they quickly get put in their place. Again, men are reduced to mere servants and supplicants.
I think a lot of men who want to be good guys eventually just throw up their hands and say, “Fine—I am whatever you say I am.” When they say what they feel, they’re told that their feelings are wrong, but they know that what they are supposed to say is a lie. They give up and tune out and fold themselves into the terminal self-sucking ouroboros of pornography and vicarious violence their handlers have provided for them.
The double bind that you say we place the soldier in is that we expect him to be an individual, and make moral choices not to involve himself in “bad” wars, while also saying that devotion to one’s country is admirable; the latter requires that one’s country can’t involve itself in a questionable war. To which degree do you hold the one who was “just taking orders” accountable for his decision, not just on the battlefield, but for signing up?
Soldiers don’t always know what war they are going to, and they don’t have much control over which battles they fight. And since the government and the media constantly lie about what our military is doing and why, aren’t you expecting a bit too much out of very young men? Most fickle Americans don’t even know if what we’re doing overseas is “good” or “bad.” They know more about reality television shows than they know about the wars they are paying for, run by men they voted for. Americans expect far more wisdom and self-control from their soldiers than they themselves exhibit under far less strenuous circumstances.
Do you actually think that the majority of young men join the military because they are devoted to their country? That seems a bit quaint. It’s probably been true in the past, especially when a particular nation was threatened, and it may have been true right after 9-11, but I’ve never talked to a guy who was thinking about joining the military who listed a passionate desire to serve his fellow citizens as his driving motivation. That’s just something people say that sounds noble and selfless and pleasant.
A lot of men seem to join the military because they don’t have any more appealing options. Many also think it will offer them an experience they won’t be able to get anywhere else in our safety-first society. It looks like best legal opportunity to experience the tribal gang narrative, to be part of a clear “us” fighting a real “them.” They want to test themselves the way the men who came before them did. Whether the modern military truly offers that to most of them is another issue, and one best discussed by a man who wanted that experience and actually joined the military to seek it. I have a lot of readers in the military and I talk to those guys about it privately, but I’ve never been in the armed forces, so I can’t speak for them.
I have a good friend who fighting in Afghanistan right now. He sends me dispatches to post to his blog. I trust his observations more than I trust some carefully screened token who has been selected to speak to a news crew.
Near the end of your chapter entitled “On Being a Good Man,” you say that established interests discourage the formation of new, competing gangs. How does this play out in business today?
Businesses are self-interested units, rather like gangs. Gangs always want to stay one step ahead of each other, and the temptation is always there to grab as much market share as you can and shut down your competition. Chimpanzees do this with competing gangs. They’ll pick off competing stragglers … just for good measure. Keeping new ventures from becoming too successful—or co-opting them when they do become successful—is just good business.
In the same section of your book, you say that one way civilization discourages the formation of gangs is by mixing men and women. How does this work?
The presence of females creates an interference pattern in male gang bonding. Because the part of men that is concerned with being good at being men is tactical, men don’t share intimate details about themselves with other men as quickly as women share with each other. They have to feel each other out shoulder-to-shoulder, push each other’s buttons a bit, and build trust over time—unless there is some sort of emergency or difficult work that forces them to depend on each other. When females are present—and this has almost nothing to do with anything the females say or do—the terms of engagement change.
If the female is reasonably desirable, attention shifts to her, and men compete for her attention. They do and say things they think will charm or please her. Even married men behave this way. I see it all the time. I catch myself doing it. There’s something about most men that revels in the attention of an attractive woman, even when they have no conscious intent to seduce her. This always makes me think of old men sitting in a park with smiles on their faces, content just to watch the pretty girls walk by.
Even if females are not particularly attractive, or if they are trying really hard to be “one of the guys,” it’s never quite the same. Males relate to females differently. Females cannot be brothers; they are mothers, sisters, or potential mates. Men worry more about offending women, so they filter their conversations differently. Competition with females is always a net loss of honor for men, so men tend to “give way” when women show up to compete with them. Co-ed competition becomes less serious and therefore less exciting.
I won’t say that men aren’t themselves when women are present, but they aren’t the same version of themselves that they are in a group of men. Guys have to be able to be that version of themselves for strong male bonds to form. Men can certainly make male friends when women are present, but their friendships are lighter, more superficial, and more disposable than the kind of brotherhood that can form when women are absent. I’m sure there are occasional exceptions—there always are—but this has been the general rule throughout human history.
Our civilization makes groups of men benign by introducing females into male groups. I don’t mean that there’s some kind of grand conspiracy. It’s just something that is happening for a variety of reasons, and it’s convenient for existing power structures. Small groups of men who are more loyal to each other than they are to a state or a company can wreak havoc, create chaos—making commerce more expensive and less lucrative. (See also: Mexico, Africa)
Are there still strongholds of gang formation, and what are they?
You’ll see males form stronger ties to a group of men anywhere that men are separated from women, or allowed freedom of association without female supervision for long periods of time. Prison, ghettos, parts of the military, sports teams, fraternities, private clubs, and traditional religious groups.
Are any of them likely to form gangs that will be more good (in the moral sense) than other conditions for gang formation?
It depends what you mean by “good.” Gangs of terrorists believe they are doing good. Police who beat protesters believe they are doing good. Protesters throwing rocks at police believe they are doing good.
Survival gangs work for the good of their own group, but the interests of one group may bring them into direct conflict with another group. Robin Hood’s gang of merry men may take from the rich and give to the poor, but whether you think that’s “good” or not depends on whether you are rich or poor. A gang of milk-loving Mormons would probably be a lot nicer to its neighbors than a gang of crack dealers, but in a Thunderdome fight for survival, all bets are off.
—Photo credit: ell brown/Flickr