Recently Fox News host Tucker Carlson joked about transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg that he was “trying to figure out how to breastfeed.” Apparently this comment was inspired by Pete’s decision to go on paternity leave after adopting twins with his husband. Fox News’ flagship primetime cable news program, Tucker Carlson Tonight, is viewed by millions. He is arguably the most watched social influencer in America today. His crude comment is not just a case of rude and discriminatory posturing by a media personality. It shapes American culture and it fits into a history of authoritarians leveraging the insecurities of men by celebrating unapologetically male chauvinist identity.
As Tucker’s masculinist narrative goes, the modern world is scary and confusing and unfair to men. The solution, for Carson, is embracing the “natural” gender roles that incidentally place straight, white, cis men above all other people. His retrograde rhetoric is often bolstered by seemingly rational and evidentiary human nature arguments about gender and ethnicity. This essentialist view is largely mythology and representative of a world view that is playing out in boardrooms and video game chat feeds across this country.
What should we make of it? What should we do about it?
Nature / Nurture / Nonsense
Social science has gravitated toward the belief that most of the differences between males and females, blacks and whites, and social identity in general are due to cultural factors, like for example child-rearing differences. Like many other academics of my generation, I am skeptical of giving primacy to the “biological differences” explanation. I am (hopefully) guided by the evidence, and cannot deny that there is a good amount of it that points to biology being implicated in human variability. In the end, however, such differences can be better explained by nature-nurture as mutually reinforcing dynamics. We pretty much need a paradigm shift to understand such complexity, but that is a topic for another day.
The nature/nurture and behavior debate is not just an academic question, of course, it is a central question in our quest for human dignity and justice. There has been a long standing tendency in academia and in established media not to engage with the kind of nonsensical discourse we see promoted on shows like Tucker Carlson Tonight. To dismiss such right wing popular narratives in this way has been a tragic mistake.
“It would not be impossible to prove with sufficient repetition and a psychological understanding of the people concerned that a square is in fact a circle. They are mere words, and words can be molded until they clothe ideas and disguise.” ― Joseph Goebbels
Nazi propagandists most skillfully illustrate how the absurd can easily be made to sound reasonable and logical in the minds and hearts of people. We see these techniques across history, organized repetition of a theme and other propagandistic techniques to create “illusions of truth” that carry great cultural and political weight. With great care, actors like Carlson cherry-pick the scientific evidence to bolster underlying ideologies that in turn implicitly promote injustice and subservience.
In an episode of his show named “Something Ominous is Happening to Men in America,” he weaves together several factual problem that men and boys experience in society and how they are being ignored by the establishment. He paints a portrait of ideal masculinity based on his version of human nature and warns of dire consequences because liberal society has led America astray. There is an art to a good lie and it often involves beginning the lie with the truth. While men are indeed experiencing increasing hardships, the cause is far different than Carlson suggests.
American men are certainly dying younger and experiencing declining life outcomes from educational attainment to social mobility. But if indeed, men in America are experiencing hardship due to liberal ideology then why is this not the case in Europe which is in fact more liberal in many ways than America? The reasons have to do with changes in technology and work. Men traditionally work in industries that require more muscle power, jobs that were vastly automated in the 20th century. Europeans dealt with this transition by providing a solid safety net, free or near-free education, and other public goods. A near majority of American men worked in unionized work places half a century ago and that is no longer true. It is still true in Europe.
The “natural differences” arguments used by Carlson, are also an attempt to explain things like IQ difference among ethnicities. They bolster some very bad and discredited ideas about race just as they do about gender. These arguments are also used to justify bad behavior. I do not think we can ignore such arguments as we would flat-earther nonsense, because they resonate with people, especially when society is in decline. Challenging this propaganda is central to creating a just world. Masculinity is something we need to talk about in full disclosure and with a sensitivity to strategy. We need to navigate these popular narratives that so powerfully shape the course of our world in an effective and intelligent way.
It’s Biology, Stupid?
To begin with, let’s look at the most obvious and indisputable biological sex differences that play out in humanity. At birth the sex ratio is 107:100 male to female. About 2 of that 107 may be explained by selective sexual preference in some countries like India and China. Studies show, however, that biologically the ratio is 105:100. Why are more boys born than girls probably has to do with the fact that over the course of time males have a poorer survival rate than females. There are many explanations for this, from chromosomal variations to the way children are raised. The devil always seems to be in the interpretation.
The biological explanation I found most interesting is the child birth adaptation theory. In premodern times a lot of women died at childbirth. This probably selected female members of our species to be more biologically hardy. It could also explain why women live longer. However, this is one explanation out of many and it really takes a certain level of intellectual dedication to delve into this topic. There is nothing simple about it.
Suffice it to say for our purposes that sex differences, no matter their genesis, are often conflated with more general and popular notions on gender. In short, gender is the lived-out performance of one’s sex as understood in the context of one’s culture. One salient example in American culture is that girls are considered to be more social than boys. It’s a common belief and it is one that is backed up a number of studies. For a good review of the evidence see, Experience-independent sex differences in newborn macaques: Females are more social than males. This evidentiary information is in turn interpreted by people like Carlson to justify gender wage disparities and male-only clubs, and it is used to condemn social justice for forcing “unnatural” behavior.
Researchers have documented how right from birth, boys are treated differently in various types of experiments and analyses. In fact, a set of studies show that even the way infants are held follow a pattern. Male babies are touched more but also treated more roughly while female babies are verbally stimulated more. Nature or nurture is not the right question. The belief that boys and girls are different encourages parenting strategies that promote and reinforce variations in sociability. In turn, these cultural practices are encoded throughout life, shaping beliefs and behaviors in mutually reinforcing ways which can appear as wholly natural.
Natural claims is where the power of Carlson’s narrative resides. It frames the rationale for reclaiming masculinity.
As social and natural science examined questions of identity in the late 20th century our society began to adopt the idea that we should be mindful as parents of gender biases, to treat boys the same way as girls when it comes to expressions of feelings and sociability. Some argued that we should pay particularly close attention to nurturing sociability for boys as a way to promote better behavior by men.
As the Tucker Carlson example testifies, there is a well-crafted backlash to these new ways of envisioning gender. Under this “anti-woke” banner, the beliefs of treating children the same and teaching boys to be more attuned to the social have come under fire of late. According to people like Tucker Carlson, these “equal and nurturing” treatments are unnatural and confusing to children… implicated in things like the decline of men’s lives, the transgender movement, and mental illness. This, in turn, is used to justify returning to traditional gender roles, including practices that are biased and abusive.
These efforts are coded into a masculinity redux happening on the right, a return to traditional notions of the male gender.
The consequences are extensive, from reifying abusive traditional norms to unnecessary pandemic deaths. Joe Rogan may not be as bombastic as Carlson but he conveys the same “emasculation fears” that run through this discourse of resistance against much of social democracy and social justice. Freedom and male strength are inextricably bound in a narrative that is leading to hundreds of thousands of unnecessary fatalities. Rogan claimed that “healthy” men who are “exercising all the time” don’t need the vaccine. In his approachable and friendly style, he warns against the “assault on freedom” by what most consider common sense health measures and pandemic restrictions.
The language and tone may be better but the damage is no less. Refusal to get the COVID-19 vaccine has become a weapon in the war against “fragile masculinity,” with lots of collateral damage.
Carson is correct, of course, that masculinity, as traditionally defined, is under threat. It should be. There are many things about traditional culture that do not fit the modern world, do not fit a world in transition, a world that must change to thrive and even survive. Old things like slavery, hyper nationalism, might is right, and unsustainable exploitation of the natural world must go. The question is how do we get to a better place with male identity? How do we challenge this redux?
One way is to laser focus on popular discourse. Language is a key point of contention in this struggle between progress and tradition. Terms are adopted and used to shape people’s minds and hearts. The label “toxic masculinity,” became a cultural strategy to fight against sexism. It has, however, become a calling cry of resistance for the right, in a similar way to Critical Race theory. People like Carlson have appropriated those terms and coded them for their own purposes to great effect. The right wing insurgencies we are witnessing across the world are loci of power and ideology that is starkly at odds with core liberal principles. So why do they fare so well in the large battle of the narratives? Why do they so often dominate the discourse?
A recent show by Carlson was subtitled, “How culture’s view of ‘toxic masculinity’ hurts men.” Carlson referred to toxic masculinity as a “made-up dumb feminist term” and the product of a “bunch of ludicrous low-IQ academics making it up as they go along.” With purpose and specificity, he is working to take back and control the narrative. Not that we should engage with him or his followers. He has built his audience through the politics of fear and they are now largely of one-mind and set on one course. I’m not sure there is much anyone can do to engage with this group on matters of identity.
It is tempting as such to keep the dialog on masculinity to a reasoned philosophical and scientific level, not to engage with such retrograde and destructive ideas. However, one must lean against a strong wind or be knocked down. Influencers like Carlson can be bombastic. He has his loyal followers, his army. Others like Joe Rogan do not speak with pointy horns on their heads or handle bar mustaches and tall hats. He cultivates a more likeable persona as he interviews and entertains actors who hold such bad ideas. Whatever the case may be, these influencers present themselves as independent thinkers, the reasonable and learned ones. They appeal to calls for fairness, freedom and human nature in those terms.
Boys will be boys… Who doesn’t care for the welfare of children?
We must not allow these actors to craft their arguments unchallenged. They want America to believe that for the left, masculinity is a matter of repression of the natural and they leverage the label toxic masculinity to that purpose. Their argument, as it goes, is to denounce the very idea that traditional masculinity is toxic, that it is a liberal plot to “emasculate” men. We all know this is ridiculous, but it plays well in a declining society fraught with misery. The truth is that the kind of masculinity we progressives find healthy is also quite appealing and has great benefits. It is also rooted in the complex interchange of nature and nurture. It is not a zero sum game. Men gain a lot more from being caring, collaborative, compassionate than they could possibly lose.
As progressives, we know this, and now we must make that case to the larger world. We must illuminate and clarify the actual reasons for the suffering men are experiencing. As social scientists and as ethicists we can certainly make an argument that male toxicity is real and consequential. But that should not be “the message.” To broaden our base and to offer a better vision we need to frame the narrative with true causes and encouragement. At the same time, we do also need to confront the bad behavior. One way to do that, rather than to say “men are toxic,” we can argue that the masculinist ethos that Carlson represents does indeed lead to toxic behavior in men. And that toxic behavior hurts everyone… And here is what else has hurt everyone… It’s not what you are being sold…
Progressives do best when they address universal human suffering and point the way towards better ways of living. That is the message American men should hear. It is the antidote we need right now.