02: History cont’d

with 12 comments

For both Mansfield and Wilber the “plausibility” factor employs history as a legitimizing tool. The argument goes like this: “look, here’s something I’ve identified that has been going on for a very long time, therefore it is true.” Let’s assume for a moment that the thing at hand has been going on for a long time (which is very generous of me). The thing to remember here is that just because something has been identified as a common pattern for seemingly time immemorial, it dos not mean it is “true.”

There are two fundamental reasons why these patterns may not be inevitable, natural or true. The first reason is that there is a good chance we are simply witnessing the Masculinity Conspiracy at work (for seemingly time immemorial). It’s a nice idea that somehow we had a period in history where things worked “naturally” and which explain the way things should be today and, indeed, should continue to be in the future. But there is no evidence to suggest this is the case. All we have is the assumption that because something has been around for a long time, it must therefore be true. Honestly, have a good think about this, because it makes no logical sense whatsoever: For a very long time people thought the earth was flat, but we finally wised up to the fact that this is not the case.

One particular spin on the “it’s been happening a long time, therefore it is true” argument is the appeal to the animal kingdom. In this argument, certain behaviors are identified in the animal kingdom to demonstrate something about the “nature” of the human male. This is a common tactic in many books about men, and one employed by Mansfield. It usually refers to some member of the great ape species which is inherently violent, and uses this as an argument that violence is ingrained in human males.

Once in a while this animal kingdom argument is used to demonstrate other forms of behavior. For example, in some hipster circles in recent years the example of bonobos and their “casual” sexual practices have been wheeled out to demonstrate our “natural” inclination towards multiple and simultaneous sexual partners. The commonality, of course, between these appeals to allegedly natural types of sex and violence is that they explain (read excuse) largely male behaviors generally considered to be socially irresponsible. (However, there may be nothing inherently wrong with multiple and simultaneous sexual partners, but justifying this by appealing to bonobos is lazy.)

But it is a vast leap of logic to suggest that because a certain behavior is present in the animal kingdom it should therefore be found in humanity. Certainly, humans are animals who share a good deal in common with other animals (particularly other mammals). But we are so much more than that. Humans have a level of self-awareness that is (probably) not shared by other animals. Humans can strive for a greater good that transcends such primal behaviors. This is really what Mansfield is hinting at when he refers to thumos, but he is too wedded to biological determinism to fully engage with the implications of self-transcendence.

Further still, what of all those other behaviors in the animal kingdom that humans do not tolerate? For example, the eating of infants or one’s mate after sex, which happens among some species? Clearly there are some “natural” things that even ape-like humans choose not to follow, which suggests the “human code” is at the very least partially constructed by humans, rather than being solely determined by biology. If this is the case then “masculinity” (which, as we shall see, is very hard to define) is equally constructed by humans or, as gender theorists describe it, “socially constructed.” Which, of course, means we don’t have to do it the way it has historically been done. It means, picking up Mansfield’s point (again undeveloped because of his being too wedded to biology), that masculinity can be weighted towards nurture rather than nature. These initial points alone make appealing to history as our guide for masculinity problematic, to say the least.



Written by Joseph Gelfer

June 5, 2010 at 11:28 am

12 Responses

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  1. “Which, of course, means we don’t have to do it [maculinity] the way it has historically been done.”

    We don’t *have* to, but we might wish to.

    If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it: should the weaker, pusillanimous males and naturally weaker females be unhappy about it, hard cheese.


    June 15, 2010 at 7:24 am

    • Well, this brings us back to The Matrix scenario, where some folks wish to be plugged back in once they’ve discovered the true nature of their experience. In the end, there has to be choice: I’m in the game of informing people, not forcing.


      June 15, 2010 at 9:00 am

      • Hmm… but there’s an agenda to your information, nonetheless.

        I’m glad you grant us the freedom to make bad choices, however.



        June 15, 2010 at 9:35 am

        • Certainly: I see no problem with having an agenda. However, there remains a significant difference between my having an agenda and opening up choice, and the conspiracy which denies (or at least polices) choice.


          June 15, 2010 at 10:13 am

          • I don’t think there’s any denial or even policing of choice occurring, really.

            It may be that the majority has the louder and more penetrating voice, but it’s simply pursuing its own agenda and offering a (clearly appealing) choice of its own in the shape of ‘conventional’ masculinity.

            No doubt you’ll frame this point of view as falling into the conspiracy’s tangled skein, however…!


            June 15, 2010 at 10:46 am

            • The conspiracy denies choice by stating that masculinity should be performed in a certain way. Statements like “real men do this” or “authentic masculinity is like that” clearly have a policing function.

              Its agenda is not “clearly appealing,” rather the only agenda seemingly available to those who do not see their choices are being denied or policed. It doesn’t take much untangling.


              June 15, 2010 at 10:58 am

              • “Statements like “real men do this” or “authentic masculinity is like that””

                Does anyone (that anybody’s paying attention to in any significant, mainstream sense) really make statements like that nowadays?

                And even if they were to, I’d argue that “real” and “authentic” are simply used in a branding sense here (again to appeal to the mass sensibility), paralleled by terms such as “alternative” or “feminist” men.


                June 15, 2010 at 11:11 am

                • Yes, they do make statements like that nowadays.

                  Your branding point opens up an interesting avenue about authorial intent. It is possible that some authors assume what they write will be given such a layer of interpretation and nuance by their readers. Unfortunately, from what I can tell most readers do not bring such a layer to the text. The net effect is that “real” and “authentic” are largely taken at face value.


                  June 15, 2010 at 11:19 am

                  • Your average Western man’s (ahem… or woman’s) dominant-to-the-point-of-sole source of influence is the mainstream media, notoriously operated by men (and women) of an ‘alternative’ disposition.

                    Where is the great ‘they’ to be seen making these inflammatory statements through these media, pray?


                    June 15, 2010 at 11:24 am

                    • Do a Google News search on “real men”: of course, they all mean it ironically, right?

                      In our particular context, the source is largely men’s movement literature, which is saturated by such statements, whether secular, Christian, “spiritual” or personal development.


                      June 15, 2010 at 11:30 am

  2. It occurs to me that using the animal kingdom to justify behavior is a lot like using The Bible to justify behavior. Just ‘cuz you found behavior x in your reference of choice doesn’t mean there’s not more to the answer (and maybe even the question).


    June 14, 2010 at 2:07 pm

    • True. Much of the conspiracy feels like statements of faith. However, somewhat ironically, those same people are often the ones who mock actual statements of faith (the Richard Dawkins types). At least those who make actual statements of faith are generally aware of the nature of their statements.


      June 14, 2010 at 2:17 pm

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