The new ideological fractures

Feminism and the problem of supertoxic masculinity

A serious feminist challenge is what to do with hyper-dominant males who are not domesticated by any amount of moral or legal constraint; in fact, excessive social constraints on average males may help explain why supertoxic masculinity is now a fast-track to the heights of political power.

I just watched a documentary film about John McAfee, creator of the famous McAfee Antivirus you will remember from every PC in the 1990s. I didn’t know anything about this man before watching this film. I want to make a point that requires me to give you a brief summary of the story, so here is a plot-spoiling recapitulation. Basically, after he gets rich off McAfee Antivirus, McAfee has a couple of failed business ventures before proceeding through a brazenly aggressive, daring, manipulative, controlling, arrogant, violent, and ultimately murderous course of affairs.1 After a few years as a yoga guru preaching peace and wellness from a retreat center he funded, there’s some indication that he becomes disillusioned with his efforts toward egalitarian community (he suggests something to the effect that others were taking advantage of him, but this is not examined deeply). So he buys a house in Belize, hires an idealistic biologist from the US to run an alternative medicine laboratory, recruits the toughest gangsters he can find to build an in-house private security force, donates to local police equipment worth millions of dollars, and effectively purchases several poor, local women as long-term girlfriends. When he had the time to also get two gnarly tribal tattoos was unclear to me.

Just to round out the psychological and behavioral profile here, note that he rarely, if ever, had sex with his girlfriends; he rather liked to defecate in their mouths while lying in a hammock. When the biologist expresses concern about their business relationship, he drugs and rapes her that evening, according to the biologist’s testimony in the film. McAfee’s vicious guard dogs roamed freely on the public beach around his house, so a neighbor poisoned the dogs. Then, the film suggests, McAfee promptly hired a man to kill the neighbor. This murder allegation becomes global news, and McAfee embarks on an international fugitive escape adventure. He gets into Guatemala, where he avoids extradition back to Belize by faking a heart attack, and thereby engineering his deportation back to the United States. He then promptly runs for President in the Libertarian Party, where he comes in second place.

Now, it is striking enough that the winner of the 2016 Presidential election is an icon of ignoring feminist ethical expectations—at a time when feminist expectations are more culturally ascendant than ever. But perhaps that was a fluke. The McAfee story is profound because it shows in stunning, horrifying detail how the hyper-masculine drive to dominate really works in contemporary culture: when cranked sufficiently high, it rapidly and easily trounces any quantity of moral outrage and/or legal constraints, in a direct line toward the zenith of the global dominance hierarchy.

Moderate misogyny can get you exiled from contemporary public culture, often for good reason, but hyper-misogyny in an intelligent and driven male appears to give you sovereignty over public culture. It seems to me that, if feminism today has one genuinely catastrophic problem to be rightfully alarmist about, it might just be the small number of males who will not be domesticated through social-moral pressure.

First, a premise of my argument is that SJW culture is genuinely quite effective at minimizing the nastier masculine edges of large numbers of men, because most men are decent people who want to be liked and approved by most others. This is not an empirical article so I won’t go into it, but if you doubt there’s been a general cultural pacification of male aggression just watch a random film from the 1950s and then watch a random film at your local cinema. Anyway, people on the left and right disagree about what to call this trend, but its existence is attested by all. Feminists see this as men learning to be less violent and oppressive, and feminists celebrate women’s long-term positive effect on the civilizing of violent patriarchies; others see this as a kind of female totalitarianism and evidence of civilizational decline. But the fact that feminist cultural politics have exerted notable and widespread effects of generally reducing the expression of masculine aggression in public culture seems hard to dispute.

The hypothesis I would like to advance is that this social domestication of masculine tendencies has made our society more vulnerable to the rare cases of men who escape the filter of social opprobrium. The life of John McAfee is a case study of this problem.

Why would the social pacification of once popular, moderate masculinity empower more virulent forms of violent masculinity? Many lefties think that pacifying the larger mass of men will shift the whole distribution of male behavior, lowering the ceiling of how bad the worst men may become. I would say this is the dominant mental model of most SJWs, because it’s the basic picture that comes out of liberal arts education today (that our images of the world shape what we do in the world, hence the emphasis on media and “representations”).

The problem is that when the baseline of masculine dominance expression is held below it’s organic tendency, defined simply as what men would do in the absence of cultural campaigns to defang it, this increases the potential payoff to those who dare exercise it, as there are more resources to dominate precisely to the degree that other men are not contesting them. Not only does it increase the rewards available, it decreases the risk of competing for them, as the chance of being defeated by an equally aggressive male, or even just the chance of encountering costly competition at all, is lower than it would be in a world of much but minor, local masculine excess. We might also adduce a “rusty monitor” effect: Through the domestication of men over time, most people become blissfully forgetful about what genuinely dangerous men are capable of, decreasing the probability or the speed with which domesticated males might awake from their slumber.

Another reason the over-domestication of moderate masculinity is dangerous is that it makes it too easy for ethically lax “bad characters” to win all of the large number of local hierarchies that would typically have the function of imposing humility and modesty on cocky boys coming of age. If you’re a highly intelligent, confident, and driven young man, the complex difficulty of having to navigate multiple distinct local hierarchies (among other highly driven males themselves sometimes prone to dangerous excess) from a young age, teaches you very quickly that you cannot ever be the best at everything. And that if you cut corners anti-socially you will be destroyed by other males invested in the maintenance of sociality. Examples of local hierarchies are sports competition, dating, ethical honor or “character” in the neighborhood or religious community, or even just fleeting micro-social competition such as battles of wits in social gatherings. All of these things will function as negative feedback mechanisms tempering genuinely dangerous anti-social ambitions in young boys coming of age, but only if the other males are equally able and willing to play all of these games to the best of their abilities.

If you’re overzealous or immodest or you cheat or you ignore your standing in one local hierarchy to dominate another—all of these things tend to get constrained by other males of equal will and ability, who are also sometimes dangerous and who have an interest in knocking all wiley characters down a few notches. What’s happened in recent decades is that a non-trivial portion of the West’s most intelligent and ambitious males pursue cultural careers predicated very specifically on the strategic under-display of their will to power. Take someone like the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau—he’s the leading politician of a whole country, so nobody can deny that this is a man with a substantial will to rise to the top through a whole series of competitive filters. But he is one of the best examples of how, today, the path to power for all “decent men” consists in a deeply deceptive competition to appear maximally unthreatening. One reason you get the John McAfee’s of the world is because they went to high school with the Justin Trudeau’s of the world. In all of the little, local hierarchies they encountered throughout life, people like John McAfee and Donald Trump learned that they could be as anti-socially ambitious as they pleased and no other intelligent and able men would check them (because those men were opting for the cultural capital that accrues to being feminist). A serious challenge for feminism is to see that someone like Justin Trudeau is seriously complicit in the production of the McAfees and Trumps of the world. And if your a cheer-leader for the former, you’re an objective supporter and producer of the latter.

I also think that people like McAfee and Trump learn early in life that if you are ostracized from social groups for exceeding moral expectations, then you can just channel your anti-social intelligence to making money all the more efficiently. That is, another key problem is that in secular, advanced capitalist countries such as the U.S., if you are smart and driven enough it is a feasible life path to accept absolute social exile by converting all of your energy into economic capital accumulation, and then build up a new social cosmos for yourself. The interesting thing is to see that this is really only psychologically and materially feasible in a very late stage of advanced western capitalism where non-economic criteria of value have all but disappeared. Whereas above we saw one reason for the emergence of the McAfee’s and Trump’s of the world is that there wasn’t enough local masculine aggression to check them throughout their life, here we note the specific problem that secular society lacks any effective adjudicator of human character other than economic prowess. In this particular dimension we see that the contemporary correlation of anti-capitalism and secularism/atheism is ultimately an untenable loop, because you never have an effective basis for anti-capitalist cultural change if you cannot submit to the possibility that values come from a place higher than practical reality. Of course people pretend they value other criteria, but those criteria don’t operate in the selection of who ultimately wins attention, esteem, and power in society as a whole. There was no person, and no entity, in the entire life of these men who could credibly convey that there exist things in life more powerful than money, for the simple reason that hardly anyone believes this anymore. And so the most toxically ambitious males become the very first to realize that one can very well quit the entire game of socio-moral respectability and shoot to the top of everything via radically unreflective capital accumulation.

Another reason why the constraining of moderate masculine toxicity may increase the power of supertoxic masculinity is that males may become more pathologically power hungry from lacking opportunities for healthy satiation. Once upon a time (for better or worse), masculine prowess promised a fair number of immediate satisfactions. The best football players received the genuine interest of the most desired girls in high school, say. But even from my own observations growing up, it was easy to see that as my cohort aged from about 10 years old up toward about 17 years old, conventionally masculine prowess became less and less effective at winning immediate social rewards. By the end of high school, the most desired girls were more interested in—I kid you not—a nationally competitive business role-playing team. What this suggests to me is that, aside from perhaps an early bump at the very beginning of adolescence, dominance hierarchies rapidly stop rewarding conventional masculine expressions of dominance behavior in favor of the capacity to elegantly dissimulate dominance behavior. Today all of the basic evolutionary machinery of mating and dominance competition remains in full operation, but it’s mind-bogglingly confusing because increasingly females select for males who can most creatively and effectively hide their power. What this means is that precisely the most over-flowingly aggressive males may be less and less likely to receive the basic, small doses of love and esteem that every human being requires, in their early socialization experiences. Combined with the previous point about the ultimate power of money, it’s easy to see how and why the feminist inversion of which males get selected by females (defining dominance as the dissimulation of dominance), has the direct consequence of leaving the most irrepressibly narcissistic and power-hungry males to seek unbridled social domination via capital, as a basic requirement for psychological self-maintenance.

John McAfee and Donald Trump are the types of whom it can be said, literally, that they are capable of making the entire world conform to their whims. They can do this repeatedly and sustainably, even when a large number of interested opponents see what they are doing, even when it publicized to the moral outrage of the entire respectable, cosmopolitan world. What is genuinely frightening and dangerous about powerful males is precisely that their power is real, i.e. absolutely impervious to the wishes, interests, and indignant words of less powerful people.

It seems to me that, broadly, there are two possible ways to dealing with this problem. The method popular activist culture has adopted is to work toward a state of zero dominance expression in all possible local and global hierarchies, with this leading to a substantially higher risk of psychopathic males going straight to the top of the megamachine, for all of the reasons I’ve laid out. Now, to be fair, I see one way you might still find this method preferable: if you believe that psychopathic male drives for dominance could possibly be socialized out of our biology altogether in some kind of long-term evolutionary engineering process. If that’s your model, then I suppose you could defend the now popular approach as a risky but radical plan to eliminate violence forever, or something like that. Personally, I find that hard to believe, but that would require a different essay. In the meantime, I suppose we all have to make our wagers as we see fit.

Of course, the second solution is simply to permit or even encourage small amounts of masculine dominance behavior in a large number of local hierarchies (with some margin greater than zero for dangerous excesses), leading to a low likelihood of psychopathic males rising to the top of the megamachine.

A final point about the role of higher education in all of this. In a contemporary liberal arts education, the primary educational experience is coming to feel the power of words. This is a real and important insight because in modern societies the symbolic order exerts extraordinary if diffuse effects, and I benefitted from gaining this kind of awareness in my own liberal arts education. This feeling is also exciting and empowering because we all have the capacity to produce words. But for this reason—combined with the fact that direct violence in wealthy Western societies is atypically low in long-run historical perspective—a very large number of well-meaning lefty folks today have genuinely forgotten that there exist forces more powerful than words. We have forgotten that the whole, horrifying, tragic, and very real problem of power is precisely that those who have enough of it may ultimately do exactly what they please. Many lefties today seem to be living on the genuine belief that enough people, saying enough words, is a viable method for constraining anything whatsoever. It’s not.

The McAfee documentary is an extraordinary lesson of how no amount of moralizing can solve the fact that unequal distributions of raw human power exist across society; no amount of “awareness” or information-sharing or even law-making will ever be able to stop the will to power wherever it sneaks through the cracks of social inhibition. One of morality’s dirtiest and most harmful little secrets is that it only constrains power where power is already weak for other reasons. Contemporary SJW-styled feminism will make the large mass of beta bro’s marginally more polite. It may, for short- to medium-term intervals, suppress the brutality of alpha types who may indeed be prone to some abusive behaviors. But it will also ensure that wherever the male will to dominance arises in it purest form, it will wreak more havoc, more rapidly, more unpredictably, more completely, and at a higher socio-political level than it ever could have without feminist “moral progress.”

  1. Of course, I am assuming the film’s narrative is to be trusted. I haven’t fact-checked anything. Whether the film is perfectly accurate or fair is probably not crucial for the larger point I will make here.

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Murphy, Justin. 2017. "Feminism and the problem of supertoxic masculinity," (July 13, 2017).