Friday, December 30, 2022

Toxic Masculinity

There was a movie a few years back called The Art of Self Defense. Despite the unassuming title, the film explores the pitfalls of encountering the wrong dojo to train at. The lead character is a milquetoast pushover who's afraid of his own shadow. After getting beaten and robbed he decides he's had enough and ends up taking karate lessons from a deranged sensei who encourages his new charge to be a violent psychopath. The student takes his misguided teachings into the real world with predictable results. I won't spoil things by revealing more, but not surprisingly, the story does not end well. Cultish behavior is nothing new in the martial arts, and with the advent of social media, young men are finding inspiration in the rather vile corners of the internet. 

My son asked me recently if I ever heard of a retired kickboxing/MMA competitor named Andrew Tate. I hadn't, so with a little digging I found that after Tate retired from competition he started to monetize online courses on how to get rich and "male-female interactions." His Hustler's University turned out to be a pyramid scheme targeting young men who were buying into his hype to become an alpha male. An alpha is the apex of male aggression and dominance hierarchy in the animal kingdom. Primatologist Robert Sapolsky has studied this in non-human primates and its relation to the highly stratified social structure of baboons*. In humans, being an alpha male is associated with narcissism, entitlement and even misogyny. In layman's terms, human alpha males are highly predisposed to just being assholes.

Tate's net worth supposedly puts him in the neighborhood of 50 million USD, but has since been kicked off numerous social media platforms (where he earns most of his money) for inciting violence and dehumanizing speech, particularly aimed at women. As of this writing, Tate sits in a jail cell in Romania awaiting a judge's decision regarding Tate's (and three others') involvement in a human trafficking scheme using women to create pornography for profit, among other charges including rape. I don't know if Tate's years as a world champion martial arts competitor led to his self-indulgent dysfunctional worldview of male dominance. Maybe he got messed up as a kid. A long held psychology axiom states that events that occur during childhood can reveal themselves in unpredictable ways later in life. I doubt that an undertaking in a traditional martial art style during his formative years would've put him on the right path (budo), but who knows? Would an early-life intervention have made a difference in a guy like Tate?

Jason Wilson runs a youth program for troubled boys in Detroit called The Cave of Adullam Transformational Training Academy, a quasi-martial arts facility that "is not a martial arts school but a Transformational Training Academy." Wilson, the chief instructor who cites a background in jiu-jitsu, judo, and kempo (but doesn't hold rank in any of these styles), teaches young men in a traditional dojo-setting the values needed to become an upright man and a decent citizen. Wilson muses how some martial artists can attain a black belt in their chosen style, but remain a white belt in the game of life.

"When I first started the CATTA, there were many “Scared Straight” programs in Michigan, and I had even participated in a couple", says Wilson. "However, I quickly discovered that inflicting trauma will never help a boy release it but instead teach him to suppress it. Nowadays, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a Scared Straight or Bootcamp program because discipline without love is ineffectual."

Maybe that's the antidote to toxic masculinity in young men: The understanding that the best and even worst of us have an innate need to love and to be loved. And the sooner the better. As The Beatles famously sang, "Love is all you need."

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!

*Robert M. Saplolsky 2017. Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. Penguin Press.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,