02: History cont’d

with 3 comments

But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. While appealing to history as our guide for masculinity is problematic, it nevertheless has great value as a guide for how not to go about the business of masculinity. In other words, we should look at the rather disappointing history of humanity, identify some of those behaviors which do not appear useful for the greater good, and simply state, “hey, let’s not do that!” This is a genuinely good start. To figure out what’s right, you have to identify what’s wrong. This is not about “denying” history. It is about learning from the mistakes of history, rather than perpetuating the mistakes of history.

This principle also holds true with the issue of biological determinism. Rejecting the argument that we are bound by the same “natural” impulses as other animals is not about denying that we are animals. It is about denying that this animality is fixed and defines all that we can be. Sometimes we can even learn lessons of change from the animal kingdom, which is a nice counter-example to the kind of inevitably aggression-orientated stories peddled by Mansfield.

One interesting example of this comes from Stanford Neurologist Robert Sapolsky in his 2006 Foreign Affairs article, “A Natural History of Peace.” Sapolsky was studying a troop of baboons in Kenya—subject to “typically” aggressive male behavior—who discovered a hotel garbage dump and began using it to source their food. Unfortunately, the food was contaminated with tuberculosis, which quickly decimated the troop. With the aggressive males—those who had most actively sought the diseased food—gone, the social mood of the troop became more peaceful, with only fewer and less aggressive males remaining. That’s not the interesting bit though: I’m not suggesting we cull aggressive males! Once it had recovered, and new younger males began to enter the troop, this more peaceful mood continued. Sapolsky claims, “this troop’s special culture is not passed on actively but simply emerges, facilitated by the actions of the resident members.”

There are two things to be learned from this. First, in the case at hand, the “facilitated by the actions of the resident members” meant that with fewer aggressive males around, the females became more relaxed. They, in turn, treated new males to the troop more kindly who, in turn, felt less inclined to be aggressive (think of the implications of this for downtown on a Saturday night). There was a collective shift here—male and female alike—but the catalyst was a change in the male population.

Second, it makes it clear that new—learned—behaviors are possible, even within a context such as primates, often claimed as examples of how we are somehow fixed in our behavior and proof that a certain type of masculinity is not part of the conspiracy, rather a fact of biology. The solution, then, does not deny biology: it simply understands the limitations of a biological model incapable of change.



Written by Joseph Gelfer

June 5, 2010 at 11:38 am

3 Responses

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  1. “I’m not suggesting we cull aggressive males!”

    Might not be such a bad idea, though. Or some sort of forced sterilisation programme. In fact, we could usefully lose a significant section of the male population. Simply retain the benign and *truly* wise patriarchs in the sense of ‘venerable old men’ with venerable meaning ‘commanding respect because of dignity and noble character’. There’s room for matriarchs too.


    June 15, 2010 at 7:53 am

    • I think that would be a hard sell, even with your good self among the wise patriarchs.

      Fact is (I’ll get to this in the Money chapter), the capitalist state upon which the conspiracy is based requires all those aggressive young males to produce “wealth,” so I can’t see it happening if for no other reason than ruthless economics 😉


      June 15, 2010 at 9:14 am

      • I await your more detailed analysis with anticipatory pleasure.


        June 15, 2010 at 9:37 am

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