Men: How the Alt-Right got Manhood Completely Wrong
Updated: Nov 2, 2022
Following Trump's success in the USA, both during and after his presidency (for how long his toxic legacy will linger? The question remains in suspend...) there's been a new surge of what's been dubbed 'masculinist' movements, concerned as much about redefining manhood as about the so-called 'pussification' of society under the influence of a triumphing feminism.
I won't be concerned here about the varying differences in opinions within such multiple chapels, some clearly made out of misogynistic looneys on the fringe, while others got more traction and those tenets ended up -again, in the USA at least- into the mainstream culture. What I will be concerned about here is to critically evaluate the work of an author who has been hailed by all as one of their most prominent thinkers (despite him having since then taken his distance with such political trends): Jack Donovan. More precisely, I will be concerned about reviewing one of his best-sellers, 'The Way of Men'.
'The Way of Men' is a strange read. Drawing its stance from sociobiology, this book starts indeed by a very bizarre and flawed assumption: that males define and judge themselves only in regard to what other males think. Mmh?
Now, this is not completely untrue, but only part of the whole picture. Men's quest for status is, in fact, also tied up to what women want and desire. Behaviours of both genders are not isolated within their particular sex-group -they interact and impact each other. Nevertheless, Jack Donovan's view is, here, at least part true. So, putting its flaw aside, what do men within groups of men value which, to the author, would define what constitute manhood? To him:
strength, courage, mastery, honour.
He is, of course, entirely right in claiming that any particular group will expect a specific set of assets from its individual members, and that members possessing those traits will be valued, whereas those who don't will be outcasted or scorned. The thing is, he assumes that such traits when it comes to human males can be traced back to that embodied by chimps... even before we branched out.
Obviously, we came a long way since we branched out from the chimps, and, in our complex societies, culture gained as much influence (if not more) than sole biology. Defining the assets in question, then, becomes particularly tricky, if not downright subjective. The author tries his best in defining the ones he sees as essential (and I agree with him on pointing to these particular four: strength, courage, mastery, honour) but his definitions of each get so muddled (to say the least) that they are downright reductionists. Let's go through...
STRENGTH, to him, is simply about physical strength, meaning ==> the big guys, with big muscles and body mass.
Now, this makes perfect sense if your view is only focused on a group trying to survive in a hostile environment. But, in our modern world, it's completely irrelevant. First, because it excludes those who generally don't have such bigger body mass due to their biology (women especially, but he excludes women throughout the book anyway...). Then, because it denies strength as a spectrum. What about resilience? It's been debated whether women have a higher tolerance to pain than men, does it really make sense to define them as 'the weaker sex'?
He battles, then, with defining COURAGE. We can't blame him. Ever since Aristotle, the concept has been eluding many. The issue, though, is that he reduces courage simply to the will to risk physical harm for the benefits of oneself or the group.
Again, this makes perfect sense when focusing on groups living in hostile environments, where physical toughness and daring is crucial for survival, but it's negating a whole part of the picture. What about the will to risk, for example, your reputation? I agree with him in denying celebrities, and the rest of us, being called 'courageous' for battling illnesses or trauma. This, indeed, has nothing to do with 'courage', but resilience (strength), and, claiming otherwise dilutes what courage truly is by negating its voluntary aspect. But...
But risk doesn't have to be physical only. After all, etymologically, the word 'courage' comes from the Latin 'cor', meaning 'heart'. Courage, then, has always been as much about emotional than physical deeds, even to the Romans (which he ironically looks up to here) who recognised it as being also a civic and moral virtue. Put bluntly: not everything has to be martial to be manly.
I agree with his view on MASTERY. Self-reliance and talent going beyond brute strength are worthy and valuable assets for sure, but here again he shoots himself in the leg by being too simplistic.
His definition is, in fact, quite muddled. He seems to admit the importance of intelligence, creativity, or, at least, 'craftiness' (for lack of a better term) for better control over our environment; yet he, again, gets bogged down with this idea of physical strength as necessary for it:
'Masculinity can never be separated from its connection to violence, because it is through violence that we ultimately compete for status and wield power over other men.'
It's a clumsy way to put it.
Status and power are wielded primarily through assertiveness, and assertiveness doesn't have to be violent. It's not a specifically masculine trait either. Moving on, this is where the book's main flaw starts to make the whole argument collapse.
I understand that he focuses only on groups of men, and deal with what men only value and use as a yardstick to judge and rank each other. But, as I said right from the start, to claim that manhood is defined solely by how men value is too simplistic, not least because it negates the impact of women's input. It becomes obvious with his definition of HONOUR.
Honour is about reputation and integrity, but reputation and integrity depends on what the whole group (including women, then) values, not only one specific sex within that group. To assert, as he does, that it has a meaning only 'within the context of an honour group comprised primarily of men' is too shallow and doesn't stand. In fact, men also judge each other in regard to how they treat women. This is why, in our modern world in any case, abusers and rapists forfeit their right to be called 'men', a point which never crosses him since it involves moral, and Donovan firmly denies that manhood, at its core, has anything to do with morale. This is, actually, one of the most bizarre takes of this book: his attempt to separate masculinity from ethics.
The author encourages men to be what he calls 'good at being a man', instead of being what he calls, in opposition, 'a good man'. What is that all about?
A good man is chiefly concerned 'about morality, ethics, religion, and behaving productively'. Being good at being a man, on the contrary, 'isn't a quest for moral perfection, it's about fighting to survive'. Does it really matter, and why the difference? I am sorry, but, here, I have to say that the author doesn't know what he is talking about, and it has silly consequences.
He worries that, if striving to be a good man surely is a worthy endeavour, it has nothing to do with manhood per se. It has everything to do with being a good person, and, so, doesn't reflect upon one's masculinity or lack thereof:
'Civilised virtue is about being a good person, a good citizen, a good member of a particular society. Manly virtues should be virtues directly related to manhood.'
I can understand the concern, but he clearly hasn't done his homework. The traditional role of men across the ages and cultures has always been about procreating, providing, protecting. Here are the cores assets which make a man a man (the point has been made brilliantly by David Gilmore in his 'Manhood in the Making: Cultural Concepts of Masculinity', a classic anthropological survey which is a must-read for anyone interested in the topic) and, if such assets have been redefined to suit the needs of our modern societies (e.g. women provide and protect too, as much as men can be nurturing) I have yet to see cowardice or being a bum features being valued both by men and women!
Striving to be a good man, then, doesn't threaten manhood -far from that! It's an expansion of it. Missing this point is where his stance about manhood being fundamentally amoral reveals itself misguided, with silly consequences.
Indeed, Jack Donovan has no issue claiming prisoners and suicide-bombers to be 'men', solely because of their aggressiveness, toughness, and courage. The point, though, is more than silly. It's downright ridiculous.
Such men may procreate, but they do not provide nor protect. They, also, are a burden to their groups. Prisoners are kept apart in prisons to a cost, and suicide-bombers self-destructiveness doesn't serve anybody but their selfish will to be martyr (Donovan, here, ought to read Thomas Aquinas on martyrdom...). Prisoners and suicide-bombers, then, cannot be admired as men, for they are outcasts contributing, well: nothing.
What of manhood then?
Over and over, he seems obsessed with survival and physical strength. Again, such concerns make perfect sense when focusing on primitive societies facing hostile environments (including competing groups), but we came a long way since such Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA). Manhood, indeed, now goes beyond such thuggishness to also embrace character. What about it?
Not only does he claim being a good man bears nothing to masculinity, but he then goes on a full-blown attack against what he perceives as 'the feminisation' of society.
Now, there is a whole argument out there whereas empowering women has been a double-edge sword, in that it has also led to a supposedly repudiation of the traits men until then always had embodied. Toughness, courage, assertiveness, strength, ambition, ego battling for status, and risk-taking and else are all features which have contributed to move civilisations forwards; yet most of these traits now seem to some as being demonised as 'toxic', men being 'punished, pathologized, stigmatised from cradle to campus' should they embody them.
It surely is a point when dealing with feminism as misandry, seeing in everything men do as a reflect of the so-called oppressive Patriarchy (I have met a few lunatic feminists too!) but I believe the point to be unfair.
Women did *not* repudiate such traits. On the contrary, they embraced them! The point, here, is not to repudiate, but to assuage them so they are not counter-productive -e.g. one can be protective without being abusively controlling, like one can be tough without being a stoned wall when it comes to feelings. Jack Donovan misses that, because he not only sees women as passive agents (again, his view that their will and behaviours contribute nothing to how men define manhood) but, as weak too. The triumph of feminism and men supporting feminism, then, to him contributes nothing but making men passive and weak as well.
And this where he shoots at another wrong target: the Men's Rights Movement:
'The Men's Rights Movement... wants to relieve men of making sacrifices on the behalf of women. It wants men and women alike to pursue individual prosperity without special, gendered obligations or clearly defined sex roles.'
He worries too much.
Women might have embraced what were until now typically masculine traits so as to empower themselves and succeed within egalitarian societies (something he denies, claiming that, on the contrary, they repudiated them) and men might have toned down such traits in order to detoxify them. Yet, it doesn't mean that 'clearly defined sex roles' will disappear any time soon.
With all due respect to radical social constructivists and political correctness gone mad, nature and biology cannot be completely eradicated. Yes, women can provide and protect too, and they surely do and rightly so! Yet, I still have to meet a majority of them happily doing it only to cater for male bums and cowards. 'Being a man', then, even if as a supportive role, is not obsolete.
And, yes, more and more men are campaigning to get empowered into their households, something which is still vastly denied to them so far (e.g. fathers are still being relegated to second class parent...). It doesn't mean, though, that women as the main nurse of the young is outdated (I might be an involved dad in many respects, no matter what: I don't get pregnant, I don't give birth, and I certainly don't breastfeed).
In other words: sex roles are not dying out; they are merely being reshaped. This is why, narrowing it all down to manhood only, domesticity is not, as the author seems to think, somehow 'emasculating'. It is, on the contrary, another outlet for masculinity: men are still expected by women to procreate, provide, protect; just not on their own but alongside them as well. If, in our modern societies, they don't do as much as their forefathers, it's not due to the advance of feminism, but hyper-consumerism feeding immaturity ('Men to Boys: The Making of Modern Immaturity' is a nice read illustrating the point).
There's is a striking irony in such argument, though.
Donavan complains all throughout against the triumph of identity politics, and whereas lobbying groups 'atomised' society by making available 'a la carte identities' all pulling for their own interest. And, indeed, there's a lot to say against identity politics and its bonkers social constructivism! Yet, dealing as he does with only one such identity (men) at the exclusion of others, and which he sees as a whole unified block to defend at all costs against competing identities out to supposedly repudiate its core assets is, bottom line, nothing but... doing identity politics! When it comes to gender issues, we should be better than that.
All in all, then, The Way of Men is a flawed book.
Its premises are bad. You cannot even think to start defining manhood without involving women's view, something Donovan doesn't (even males chimps' behaviours are partly explained by female chimps' behaviours, as no sex is living in a vacuum).
His focus on strength, courage, mastery and honour to shed lights on what could be 'typical' masculine traits could be relevant, although he shows himself too simplistic in his understanding of each to be of any use. Most importantly, this approach is far too shallow, simply because such traits, in fact, are not intrinsically manly (women can embody them without betraying their femininity). Let's not be harsh, though, for even the greatest philosophers have been battling with such concepts for centuries, and they constitute more a frame of thinking than anything else!
His attempt to dissociate masculinity from ethics, though, is a terrible blunder, and more serious. If moral had nothing to do with defining manhood, then manhood would be nothing else than simply having a penis. Men worth more than that, like masculinity is to aspire to more than that. We're not merely chimps, no matter how much you want to rely on sociobiology to make a point. Sadly, he then delves into an attack against a feminism he misunderstands (or is prejudiced against, for not all feminists are plagued by misandry) to defend a view of manhood which is nothing but thuggish. Being 'a good man' is not being feminized, and being 'good at being a man' is not necessarily serving manhood. Up to him to dedicate more pages to gangsters than productive fathers, but one can also argue that such men are not men in the traditional/ anthropological sense of the term. Again, masculinity and ethics cannot be separated.
Here's an argument which has to be addressed. Nevertheless, it remains imprecise, faulty, and, even, unsound. When it comes to masculinism, then, 'The Way of Men' is certainly not this way.
Thanks for reading, and, if you are interested in more reviews of books tackling men related issues, then please feel free to subscribe here. Meanwhile: sapere aude!