Revised November 22, 2014
The ideas of manliness and real man (presence or lack of in a male) heavily influence how we determine the value of males. In fact, this is often the main yardstick by which to measure a male’s worthiness of dignity and respect. Likewise for unmanliness being the main measure for a male’s worthiness of disregard, even contempt-worthiness. Our minds soaked up these ideas so thoroughly that we rarely give them a second thought, any more than fish think about the water they swim in. But are manliness and unmanliness really sensible ways to determine one’s worth? Going deeper, can we even agree on what manliness, real man, etc. mean? Still deeper, is manliness even necessary at all for a male to deserve respect, or not being unmanly for deserving no ridicule and contempt?
*It depends on the exact meaning of manliness and similar terms.
*In theory, yes. In practice, I have doubts.
*A plain and simple “No”.
Truth be told, I see a lot of problems with real man, manliness, etc. as they are usually defined, plus the ideas they carry. In fact, I would frankly be embarrassed for myself if anyone described me a real man or similar such terms. Nor will I go near those terms to describe any male I liked, admired, and respected; even if a lot of people think of him as a card-carrying members of the alpha male club; at least not unless popular culture cleans up those terms. There are three basic reasons for this.
First, both the concepts and terms are vague and muddled. Even when there appears to be some agreement among people as to what the terms mean, they are still likely to disagree about which particular trait is more manly than another, or even if a trait should or should not qualify for manly at all. Second, they carry a lot of baggage, particularly about what kinds of traits males ought to have and what behaviors they should engage in, and even what kinds of males deserve disrespect and why. Third, the terms unwittingly promote Social Darwinism, a highly destructive meme for society – for the strong as well as the weak, especially in the long run.
Also, though not specifically part of manliness itself, the opposite terms promote the frankly ignorant idea that unmanly males deserve whatever disrespect that comes their way, regardless of any other positive qualities he proves to have. This is especially true when people regard any of those “other positive qualities” an unmanly male has more as a consolation prize than as a trait of equal or greater actual worth than the oft-called manly traits. Because so many of us consider manliness and unmanliness as deep measures of worthiness of respect or contempt for a male, were I to approve of being called manly – at least its most popular and oft-spoken form – I would be contributing to the idea that unmanly males deserve whatever disrespect comes their way, however indirectly. If and when mainstream society overhauls the term I would abandon this stand, but for now I would rather be known for those genuinely admirable traits than I would for being a real man, even if that means being unmanly.
MUDDLED, VAGUE DEFINITIONS
The definitions of the terms depend on who you ask. Even when people do agree on a definition, they will still give different weights to each trait making up the definition of manliness and allied terms. Some say that being ready, willing, and able to dominate others and handle tough situations is the most important. Others say that kindness, civility, and humanitarian traits are more important. Still others claim carrying and presenting yourself in a certain way trumps all. The same goes for hard work, having grace under pressure, and so forth. So even with agreed upon criteria, the terms still carry the airs of a mere opinion at best. But the most popular, often-heard standard definitions seems to center on possessing what I call the Social Dominance traits, although at some point they must be tempered by what I call the Civilized / Humane traits (both explained shortly).
Inconsistent, contradictory definitions and criteria. I will go into more detail in my next post. For now, I will give an overview of this matter. But first, some background. I see two basic sets of traits in most people’s ideas of an ideal real man, which I call the Social Dominance traits and the Civilized / Humane traits. Social Dominance traits are what people usually associate with manliness: strength, toughness, courage, assertiveness, airs of power, swagger, charisma, confidence with a touch of cockiness, aggressive when needed, etc.
The Civilized / Humane traits (henceforth called Civility for clarity’s sake) are those concerning how fairly and justly one should interact with others: politeness, kindness, mindfulness and concern for other’s needs, an open mind, tolerance of trivial faults, not assigning a low value to a person based on those trivial traits, compassion, giving help to those who need it, and so forth. People also consider these traits the mark of a real man, or at the very least claim a real man will not use his power to hurt others when it is unreasonable to do so.
I add the above because if Social Dominance alone were sufficient for manliness, then bullies and even the most violent, extreme criminals must also qualify for it. Few people will claim those types are more manly than even physically weak and emotionally sensitive men who nevertheless spend ten or more hours a week volunteering to help the needy and underprivileged. So most people will say that, at some point, Civility trumps Social Dominance; even those most fond of throwing around terms like manly, unmanly, real man, etc.
Yet, for all this, many people will give more regard to moderately uncivil high-dominance males well before they give it to highly civil low-dominance males. Correspondingly, these people will be slower to reject the former than to accept the latter, or even accept the latter before the former – even among those claiming to value Civility over Social Dominance. Some of them go even further – outright disparaging the high-Civility low-dominance male while by comparison being merely annoyed by the moderately uncivil high-dominance male. A lot even go so far as to claim that non-dominant highly civil males “ask for” any disrespect they get from others because of their low Social Dominance alone. For people claiming to value Civility over Social Dominance, this is a discrepancy difficult to explain, except in Social Darwinist terms. More about this later.
Given all this, the terms real man or manly says nothing more than he has high Social Dominance yet not so uncivil that he inspires widespread loathing in others. It says nothing precise about how actually civil or humane he is, even if this trait is ultimately more important to his manliness than is his Social Dominance. Thus, the popular uses of manly and allied terms are incoherent.
CARRIES A LOT OF BAGGAGE
In principle, I have no problem with the idea of building a definition of manly that necessarily includes Social Dominance, for one can either place a positive or negative value judgment upon the term or the idea that supplies the term’s meaning. I also have no problem in principle with the idea that Social Dominance is a good trait in and of itself. The problem comes from the overall connotations of manliness (i.e., the unspoken but obviously present undertexts most often associated with a term beyond its strict dictionary definition) and especially its opposite term unmanliness.
The terms often idealize a macho brand of masculinity. In particular, the idea that males only need to be able to dominate tough situations and tough people to get high regard from others, never mind if he very much lacks civilized and humane traits. At the very least, people tend to more slowly reject moderately uncivil high-dominance males than they accept high-civility low-dominance males.
This tendency, unfortunately, is a major feature of our culture. It reinforces the idea that a male must at least look like he can display an aggressive “masculinity” in order to deserve avoiding approval from others. By doing so, we as a society keep giving life to the idea that a male’s value comes primarily from mainly from his immediately and easily visible Social Dominance abilities, and only secondarily from his Civilized tendencies; even for highly dominant males with tremendous kindness, civility, and humanitarianism.
From this, one gets the impression that society treats the Civility aspect of manliness more as a boring-even-if-important add-on rather than as a trait of equal or greater value than Social Dominance. This shows itself even in situations not requiring strength, assertiveness, swagger, etc.: people will still size up a male’s worth in terms of his Social Dominance more than in terms of his Civility.
The messages males get: It is more important that you be dominant than to be civilized and humane; and being a jerk is not nearly as bad as being non-dominant, barring extreme cases. Both notions are a recipe for all kinds of social problems, both for the public and for one’s own household. This leads directly into the next reason why I do not want to be considered a real man.
Could slander a high-civility high-dominance male. Manly as commonly used often groups together two types of socially dominant men who otherwise have nothing else in common. In this case high dominance males who do abound with Civility traits and those who do not. Linking two groups together in this manner can easily imply that each is of equal esteem, given the justifiable assumption that society in practice tends to value in men their Social Dominance over their Civility (again, up to a point). This not only removes incentive for moderately uncivilized dominant men to change their ways, it practically slanders socially dominant men who do abound in civility and humanity.
I would not want to be called a real man if that label applies just as readily to despicable jerks as to a civilized humane man, because I want no confusion in other people’s minds as to the type of person I really am. This is exactly what positively connoted terms do when equally applicable to good and bad people.
PROMOTES SOCIAL DARWINISM
Social Darwinism is a distortion of the theories of evolution and natural selection, based on the popular but oversimple notion that evolution leads to “the survival of the fittest”, especially if “fitness” seems defined primarily in terms of possessing Social Dominance. It is the assumption that “Nature” – in the law-of-the-jungle dog-eat-dog competition sense – provides the most appropriate model for both how to improve the human situation and how humans should interact with each other. The implication is that the strong, smart and brave deserve to survive and thrive simply because they proved themselves able to survive challenges and hence the best at providing good things for society while the weak, “stupid” and timid deserve to be shunned aside and not cared about because they are supposedly a drag on society.
While the terms manly and real man do not always carry this idea, they do so frequently enough to convince many people to see social dominance in a “survival of the fittest” sense. This is not a post about Social Darwinism, so I will give only initial reactions about just how counterproductive this popular but oversimple notion is to our society. For more comprehensive critiques, see Richard Dawkins’ hour-long documentary Nice Guys Finish First and J. Wes Ulm’s essay What Darwin Did Not Mean (also may be titled Cachet of the Cutthroat). There are many other criticisms by professional academics, far too numerous to list in this post; but these two are the most far-reaching, clear, and convincing I have seen.
Even the term “Survival of the fittest” did not originate with Darwin, but with the philosopher and sociologist Herbert Spencer, five years after Charles Darwin published his book On the Origin of the Species. In fact, Darwin himself never intended to suggest his theory of how evolution works, natural selection, should be a basis for increasing present-day human fitness; in fact objecting that his theory should be used in such a way. According to Ulm, Spencer simply saw Darwin’s theory of natural selection as a convenient framework upon which to support his longstanding idea that the wealthy and/or strong deserve to enjoy all the fruits of their labor whole the poor and weak deserve to fade away. From here, it is not much of a creative leap to transfer this notion to the social pecking order in general, formal or informal such orders. In fact, much of the strategy of the Pick-Up Artist community and their associated promotion of “Game” (skill at seducing women) is based on this faulty interpretation of the Theories of Evolution and Natural Selection.
On the surface, Social Darwinism does have an intuitive common sense kind of appeal. Under more detailed and relentless criticism, though, this understanding of how human societies survive and thrive proves to be not just simplistic, but plain wrongheaded. Today, every major evolutionary biologist rejects Social Darwinism as intellectually fragile, for the simple reason that the evidence does not support the theory (e.g. Ulm recounts primatologist Franz de Waal describing field research reporting of ape communities caring for their sick and injured, yet still described as thriving, “robust” to be precise).
This is because Social Darwinism, if put fully into practice, would actually weaken societies, especially the economically and technologically advanced nations. It ignores other, non-dominance, traits that are at least as advantageous to survival as strength, intelligence, and assertiveness – the Civility traits, without which no civilization could function. It is doubtful that even “primitive” tribal societies at a Stone Age level of development could function without them either. Therefore, as counterintuitive as it seems, “survival of the fittest”, at least in the dog-eat-dog cutthroat competitive sense, does not lead to a stronger, smarter, braver society but a more brittle one, even if it remains seemingly strong and impressive on the surface.
The reason the above is true is that “dog-eat-dog” “law of the jungle” environments force people to divert energies otherwise available for truly and sustainably beneficial tasks toward making immediate short-term gains (usually at the expense of long-term well-being) and even toward mere survival. It also denies the so-called “unfit” opportunities to use their non-survival talents to further increase the gap between ill-being and society’s present position, further worsening the productivity problems.
The problems get worse as the talented oppressed, the more civil, and the more independent-minded people who know a better way but blocked from making necessary changes at every turn start to leave the society for less cutthroat fend-for-yourself ones. This later leads to a declining quality of leadership in societies and organizations adopting a Social Darwinist model, with the successful being more skilled at office politics and “street smarts” rather than those most knowledgeable and talented at accomplishing the tasks on which their society or company is based. For these reasons, Social Darwinism would be disastrous for any society or organization based on it, especially in terms of human resource cultivation.
At best, Social Darwinism is fit only when the absolutely only way to gain and secure more resources is to simply be still more stronger, smarter, and braver than you rivals – including fellow species members. That may be the way of some animal species but not for we humans, who have moved far beyond those raw animalistic methods of making a living. In short, Social Darwinist ideas of a real man imply that male humans have no more capacity for rational thought, free will, and morality than do the wild animals. Thus, it is supreme folly to assume this model of evolutionary improvement would give humanity the results it actually wants.
If being a real man means that I adhere to superficially clear understandings of how the world works that appeal only to my instant intuitions, even when the course of history compels us to drop that understanding, then I would not want to be a real man. The same goes for believing that I am more deserving to survive than someone weaker than I am for that reason alone, even if he does have greater civility and humanity than I do. The same goes for any cultural attitude that makes it permissible for me to be indifferent to the well-being of those whose dog-eat-dog survival abilities are less than those of most other men. I would not want to be known as a real man if that phrase draws a lot of its meaning from Social Darwinist ideas. Nor again, would I use that term to describe a male I respect, even if society does consider them the ideal real man.
Despite my plainly low opinion of the terms, I will discuss a way they could be rescued, at least in theory. I’ll get to that in the next post. For now, I’ll say “Yes, but”, meaning that ideal real men do deserve more respect than other men, yet say that men unmanly men as described in this post do not deserve contempt for that reason alone.
INHERENTLY BIGOTED ANTONYMS
Unmanly is not completely comparable to “ugly”, “fat”, and other terms that, while admittedly unflattering and even derogatory (especially against women), still do not carry nearly the stigma that unmanly does for men. The average people in society will usually come to the defense of “ugly” and “fat” women much more quickly than they will come to the defense of non-dominant males (read “wimpy”, “cowardly”, “emo”, “weak”, “broken-spirited”, etc). especially if they disregard Even worse is the idea that very low-dominance but highly civil males deserve whatever disrespect comes their way for that reason alone, which is highly objectionable.
Assumes that low-dominance alone merits indifference or contempt from others. Regardless of any other positive qualities they have. This springs from a fundamental misunderstanding of the proper roles of scorn and contempt. Legitimate scorn, rejection, disrespect, and contempt can occur only in a very narrow set of circumstances; namely when the person consciously and deliberately commits truly harmful or degrading acts (including speech) against others. Even in this case, the scorn and contempt must be in proportion to the wrongdoing or wrong ideas expressed or implied by their acts.
By contrast, lack of social dominance is not a conscious, deliberate attempt to hurt or degrade others. Neither is it a wilfully indifferent to the other human beings fundamental concerns. Only deliberate acts of wrongdoing, unkindness, or willful indifference against another’s deep and legitimate concerns deserve scorn and / or rejection. Nothing about a lack of social dominance comes close to equating with actual unprincipled acts (e.g. lies and other dishonesties, cheatings, theft, exploitation, abuse, etc.).
This means the mere lack of social dominance does not qualify for even legitimate snubs or condesensions, let alone mockery or ridicule. Social non-dominance is not an actual wrongdoing, and thus neither the trait nor the males who have it deserve scorn, rejection, ridicule, etc. This brings up a deeper point concerning unmanly and traits easily construed as being unmanly.
Unmanly and allied terms are not neutral descriptors of a characteristic – these are expressions of disapproval, frustration, and even contempt. As explained above, this is not legitimate grounds for social rejection or otherwise punishing an individual. Thus the term is inherently derogatory, even bigoted, especially if used even in situations not requiring social dominance for the slightest iota of success.
Worse, even when acknowledging a non-dominant male’s positive traits, many people still treat them more as consolation prizes than intrinsically valuable traits relative to the Social Dominance ones. This only strengthens the impression that – for all their lip service praising the Civilized / Humane traits – many people’s tones, actions, and social judgments still imply they value in males Social Dominance more than Civility, at least outside extreme cases of violent felons and the calm and mild males.
If a positive term’s opposite implies a person deserves low regard despite they do nothing reasonably said to hurt or degrade others, I would not want to be known primarily by that positive term no matter how genuinely good it is or how much outright respect I would get for it. Once again, manly qualifies as such a trait.
In the end, the popular culture ideas of manliness and real man are incoherent at best and meaningless at worst. They are both too vague and too contradictory to be useful descriptors of what kind of person a male is. Because its primary focus is on Social Dominance and only in second place Civilized / Humane traits, it combines two types of socially dominant males who otherwise have nothing in common: those who are Civilized / Humane and those who are not.
Still worse, real man and manly sometimes are applied even to men who are outright uncivilized and inhumane, contrary to any claim by those who assert Civility trumps Social Dominance. Worst of all, people who use those terms unwittingly promote Social Darwinist, even outright bigoted, attitudes toward men with low social dominance, even if they do have high civility; because non-dominant yet high-civility men are often labeled unmanly, a highly pejorative label. Due to all these problems both the words and the concepts surrounding and connoting manliness, both the terms and concepts should be either used more coherently and consistently or outright purged from our vocabulary and our popular consciousness.