The philosopher Nina Power believes men are under attack. Western society has done away with “the positive dimensions of patriarchy”, that is, “the protective father, the responsible man, the paternalistic attitude that exhibits care and compassion.” In her new book, What Do Men Want?, she expresses the hope that, “following a great deal of bitterness in recent years, men and women can reconcile on the basis of a renewed and greater understanding of one another” and advocates a return to “old values and virtues — honour, loyalty, courage”; rather than being made to feel guilty for their gender privilege, “Boys and men must be allowed to be good, to become better.”
These are worthy sentiments, but the underlying premise is doing a lot of heavy lifting. Just how prevalent is “the current demonisation of men”? Have compassion and virtue really been abolished? Are boys not presently allowed to be good? The sweeping, simplistic and vaguely sour tone recalls the handwringing “culture wars” opinion pieces that have proliferated in recent years. They invariably follow a template: an obscure incidence of arguably overzealous identity politicking – usually involving a university campus – is held up as evidence of a deep civilisational malaise. The alarmist register can make for compelling clickbait, but whether it can sustain a serious, book-length work is another matter.
To give us a sense of 21st-century male ennui, Power presents a cursory overview of the masculinist online communities known collectively as the “manosphere”. At the relatively respectable end of the spectrum we find Canadian self-help guru Jordan Peterson, whose brand of commonsensical conservatism has helped lots of young men find a sense of direction in their lives. (“Many people, it seems, desire the kind of certainty that comes from someone saying basic things in a stern manner,” she notes.) At the more extreme end are gender separatist groups such as Men Going Their Own Way, and self-styled incels (involuntary celibates).
Power argues we should try to understand these communities rather than treating them as pariahs. She invokes the trajectory of notorious “pickup artist” Neil Strauss, who authored a bestselling manual on chatting up women before eventually seeing the error of his ways, to show that redemption is possible. Intriguingly, she suggests the subculture around obsessive self-improvement contains a kernel of radical leftism: “If pro-masculinist books have an appeal … it is in large part because they present an image of an escape from various kinds of depressed, morose types of masculinity in a consumerist, hedonistic society.” In this analysis, the restraint and discipline advocated by, for example, the NoFap movement – which preaches abstinence from masturbation and pornography – is re-conceived as a form of anti-capitalist resistance.
After years of febrile identity politics discourse, it can be refreshing to read a writer urging us to come together and put aside our differences. But what does that actually mean? To whom is Power referring when she writes, in an apparent dig at contemporary feminists, that “we should be wary of those who seek to generate resentment by pitting men and women against each other”? Set against her caricaturing of bien-pensant liberalism, Power’s ostensibly reasonable call for compassion feels at best platitudinous, at worst disingenuous or even reactionary: most forms of political struggle involve some measure of conflict between competing groups; to renounce this altogether amounts to a politics of quietism.
There is of course something to be said for the idea that cultivating personal virtue can mitigate the apathy and alienation of modern life, but most people already do this – after a fashion. There may indeed be some pockets of misandry here and there, but they hardly amount to a societal “war … against men”. And while many members of incel communities are probably just decent guys who lost their way, enough of them are thoroughly vile for the movement to be of concern. As with so many sallies in the culture wars, there is little substantive insight here – just a simmering animus against a largely imagined enemy.