In a recent Contrapoints video, Natalie Wynn addresses herself to the problem of masculinity, which — in line with a strikingly ideologically diverse range of commentators — she diagnoses as suffering from a collective collapse of morale. Men do not know what it is to be a good man, and either fall into sinkholes of reactive self-pity or externalise the problem by attaching themselves to fascist identity positions and lashing out. Given this analysis, it seems natural to try to restore the missing moral centre of masculinity, to provide an aspirational image of virtue and self-improvement which can direct men towards constructive and compassionate uses of their physical strength and social power. In practice, as such tombstones of ambition as The Good Men Project attest, this type of project has a seemingly irresistible tendency to collapse into a stinking heap of sexual conservatism and cringe. What’s going on here? Are men simply hardened and reprobate beyond all hope of reform?
Being generally pessimistic about the prospects of any program of moral persuasion, I’m not greatly surprised that those directed at men tend to result in a sickly combination of barefaced preference falsification (“a good man eschews all sexual objectification”) and convoluted ethical bargaining (“a good man seeks out ethically-produced pornography produced by women and showcasing a diverse range of body types and sexual preferences, and pays a fair price for it”). There is no morality stronger than an incentive structure, and it is the incentives surrounding masculine social expression that are fundamentally misaligned. The force of this structural perversion is often identified as “peer pressure”, but its true, uncanny, potency is felt when men persist in idiotic behaviours in spite of the manifest disapproval of their peers, who are more commonly faulted for failing to speak up sufficiently against toxic wrongheadedness than for actively encouraging it. Broadly speaking, it neither the case that men behaving badly don’t know better (such that they could be educated out of their bad behaviour), nor the case that they don’t apply, or are themselves immune to, social pressure to behave better. It’s that they “know” perfectly well, anticipating and actively circumventing peer disapproval — but do it anyway.
What makes someone do, anyway, things that contravene their stated moral commitments and the explicit norms of their proximate moral community? The moralising answer to this question is that they lack something: empathy, sincerity, integrity. They are half-hearted in their attachment to the values they publicly profess, and backslide too readily into selfishness and wickedness. The remedy for this is more effort: one must “step up”, and be a better person. Most contemporary attempts at cajoling men into goodness take the form of an appeal to valour, to the kind of “stepping up” one might resort to if faced with a tough physical challenge. All of this would have been perfectly intelligible to the Victorians, who pushed this form of exhortation to the outer limits of absurdity. Their successors threw in the towel and invented psychoanalysis instead. Psychoanalysis tells us that stated moral commitments and explicit norms form part of the representational structure of a regulatory fiction of selfhood, but that this fiction depends for its maintenance on a kind of studied ignorance — repression — of the impulses and objects which furnish our real psychic life. When someone genuinely “steps up”, demonstrating extraordinary tenacity and indifference to adversity in pursuing a goal, it is usually these impulses and objects which are supplying the necessary motivation. It is precisely because they are not bound to the representational structure of selfhood that they are available as means for the pursuit of self-surpassing ends.
A successful ideology is one which establishes the terms of a compact between its adherents’ publicly avowable self-image and the vociferous promptings of desire, such that the latter can be given their head without threatening too much the integrity of the former. Take for example the bargain offered by conservative evangelical writers on marriage and sexual ethics: if you are a good Christian wife, you can experiment with every kind of sexual perversion in the bedroom with your husband - in fact, it’s your duty (for the sake of keeping the marriage alive, which is what ultimately pleases God)! If we consider the ideological framing of masculinity in the same light, it’s apparent that the discourse of virtue, of how to be a Good Man, defines only one side of that compact. The commandment to be compassionate, to empathize with others in their travails, to recognise and share one’s own vulnerability, implies a relationship of strength to weakness: even when allowing himself to be seen as vulnerable, the Good Man is demonstrating a kind of emotional valour, as opposed to simply being vulnerable and helplessly unable to disguise it (or deliberately manifesting it as a way of soliciting help and sympathy, and strengthening the bonds one has with others). That same relationship is, sotto voce, a relationship of predator to prey. Being ethical, after all, is so demanding: it must have its perks.
The problem, on this reading, is not that male entitlement is an irrepressible natural force which no moral code or culture can tame; it’s that entitlement is encoded into the very terms in which masculine virtue is defined, as an expression (however tender and emotionally literate) of valour — that is, of a type of strength which the other is not expected to possess or exhibit. And this is precisely why re-moralising approaches to the “crisis of masculinity”, which attempt to restore a proper sense of valour and point it in the right direction, invariably end up bringing forth a masquerade of masculinity which is by turns solicitous and grasping.