If you don’t want the fallout of a confused and pathological masculinity, don’t create it in the first place.
Masculinity and Terrorism in Dialogue
We are used to hearing the words “masculinity” and “terrorism” put in dialogue. The general story is that masculinity is a toxic construct in which patriarchy, violence and domination fuel all manner of atrocities, the like of which have played out yet again with the tragic deaths in Paris. There may well be something to that, and I’m glad it’s a conversation that is taking place.
But there’s something else going on with masculinity and terrorism that flies largely under the radar, but which is nevertheless very revealing about how society mobilizes masculinity in its critique of terrorism. I want to offer four examples below, for no other reason than they have crossed my desk in the past few days: no doubt there is a much more substantial study to be made.
Obama’s Dog Whistle
Let’s consider the carefully-chosen words of President Obama when he heard about Charlie Hebdo. Obama described the attack as “cowardly.” Restrained? Perhaps. Many are familiar with the term “dog whistle politics” in which seemingly reasonable words are used to appeal to a more unsavory undercurrent that will be meaningful to a certain class of voter (for example, “family values” to conservative Christians or the “pro-Israeli Lobby” to anti-Semites).
“Cowardly” is also a dog whistle that appeals to a segment of society that upholds traditional values around masculinity. By calling the terrorists “cowardly” Obama was essentially claiming the terrorists were lacking masculinity. Obama knows it’s not really acceptable to say, “hey, Muḥammad, you’ve got a small dick,” because that would not be very progressive of him would it? But he can offer a nudge and a wink at that meaning by using the word “coward.” Once this word is on your radar it starts popping up all over the place in politics and the media, and is clearly a tool to shame men by appealing to an alleged absence of traditional masculine values.
Loud Progressive Whistles
But not everyone has to walk the delicate political tightrope of Obama and so have no need for dog whistle politics, relying instead on good old-fashion loud whistles, even in ostensibly progressive quarters. Two examples appeared in The Guardian in the past couple of days.
Steve Bell is a cartoonist whose work I have enjoyed for many years. But he is an example of two things progressives often get wrong: gender politics and Islam. Bell’s response to Charlie Hebdo was a cartoon depicting an Islamist pointing a machine gun towards a row of lampooning cartoonists tied up against stakes made of pencils. But the barrel of the Islamist’s gun has gone droopy. Clearly this Islamist has a limp dick! Indeed, that’s what a number of the commentators concluded.
Elsewhere in the paper novelist Ian McEwan shares his opinions on the situation. McEwan, attempting I guess to do justice to his headline of “facing down hatred with laughter,” notes that if you spell Isis backwards you get Sisi, which he describes as “apt.” It’s a bit like being back on the school playground: Isis, you’re a sissy! Traditional masculine values for the win.
Loud Conservative Whistles
While it seems somewhat counterintuitive that progressive voices have a habit of articulating orthodox values about masculinity, it is to be expected from conservatives. This week, FrontPage, which seeks to combat “the efforts of the radical left and its Islamist allies to destroy American values” re-ran an article by Jamie Glazov which claims that “Taliban militants’ spare time involves sodomizing young boys.” Glazov ups the masculinity ante by not just suggesting Islamists are lacking masculinity but that they are clearly queer. Further still, Glazov broadens the focus out from Islamists and suggests that in the “Arab world … having sex with boys or effeminate men is actually a social norm.” Clearly, Muslim masculinity is not just feeble, but outright deviant.
Left and Right Converge
Oddly, while FrontPage lumps the Left together with Islamists, there is more commonality on this issue between it and the Left than the Left and the Islamists. Both use traditional masculinity as a tool to shame Islamists. Both Glazov and McEwan go on to make a further similar point in their articles, appealing to the allegedly terrible attitude of Islamists towards women, whose honor both authors appear inclined to protect (itself another piece of posturing to demonstrate traditional masculinity). No doubt feminists at both ends of the political spectrum find such concern for their wellbeing somewhat at odds with the everyday sexism they experience from political allies.
Why You Should Care
Let’s assume for a moment that there is something to be said for that initial linking of masculinity and terrorism: That there is something problematic about masculinity that in extreme circumstances turns men into killers (whether an on-campus shooter or a terrorist).
The worrying thing is that the kind of appeals to traditional masculinity demonstrated here by Obama, Bell, McEwan and Glazov are exactly the kind of thing that causes the problem in the first place. This is masculinity policing at its finest, or what is described as “hegemonic masculinity,” which creates a standard for masculinity and subordinates all those who cannot or choose not to meet that standard.
In short, if you don’t want the fallout of a confused and pathological masculinity, you’d better not create it in the first place.
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Photo: Flickr/Ben Ledbetter, Architect