Andrew Ryder

Contradictory facts and impressions about Omar Mateen, the murderer of 49 people in Orlando, Florida, continue to circulate. Any consistent and determining identity applied to his character or motive tends to dissolve upon scrutiny: A Muslim fanatic without piety; a violent homophobe who liked gay hook-up apps; a terrorist admirer of the NYPD; a madman without a clear mental illness; a victim and practitioner of racism. Even as intersectionality, the irreducible complexity of combinations of racial and gender oppression, has become an increasingly mainstream notion, this instance seems to exceed and trouble such a problematic. The fundamentally incoherent set of identities that fail to define Mateen reveal the limits and consequences of an intersectionality deadly to himself and to others, or something difficult to express in the terms of intersectionality. He is almost, but also not at all, a “queer person of color,” and nearly, but not quite, an “authoritarian nationalist patriarch.”

It has been apparent for some time that phrases like “radical Islam” and even “jihad” are poor designators for the ideology motivating various bloody crimes in France, the US and elsewhere. Instead, some have suggested that the concept "Salafi-Takfiri jihadism" is a better descriptor, despite its clunky, jargonistic quality, because it specifies the very unusual, novel and idiosyncratic interpretation of jihad proffered by the theorists of Al-Qaeda and Daesh.

However, at least in the case of the most recent attack, “Salafi-Takfiri jihadism” is not quite right either because this still indicates that some kind of political theology, however peculiar, is the determining motivation, and this doesn't seem to be at all the case. Daesh and its sympathizers may be motivated by something much more cynical and opportunist. “Nihilist jihadism” might be the most appropriate term, but I hesitate to include the word “jihad” at all, because even this grants some degree of religious motivation that doesn't actually seem present. So it is worth looking elsewhere entirely than the question of political Islam or distortions of it.

I have seen more than once a dark, serious joke suggested by friends on social media, that it is straight men, rather than Muslims, who need to "clean house" and reflect on the violence rooted in our culture, beliefs and sense of self. The possibility that the perpetrator of the massacre was not exactly straight does not obscure this, because he certainly possessed a profound, murderous desire to be heterosexual, or at least to destroy or dominate any trace of femininity in himself or his surroundings, and this is more significant than the inevitably complex nature of his own sexual practice. 

So with that in mind I am going to write something about the culture and self-experience of straight men and our love for violence.

I'm suspicious of confessional narratives, and never fully convinced of the value of privilege-checking and its disclaimers – you know, one begins with "as a white straight cisgender man ...” It risks the display of self-flagellatory, guilty conscience that can become indistinguishable from narcissism. My personal experiences are not very interesting, but they are symptomatic of something, and I am sure they are not unique. I don’t know anything, directly, about the experiences and psychic make-up of a second-generation Afghan immigrant, but I know about the interior skull-matter of mostly straight guys.

For as long as I can remember, and I’m sure before that, I felt a deep identification with and desire for strength, power, conflict and war. I don't have very many memories of early childhood, but I remember watching the terrible hackwork animation of a show called Masters of the Universe, and playing with the associated toys, and deriving a deep satisfaction from the activities of He-Man and his various allies and opponents. Later, I loved GI Joe and his joyful carnival of destruction and martial valor. My mother was always a bit troubled by this, but I had a pervasive, boyish fascination with war, with violence, and with the annihilation of one group by another. I imagine this must be quite widespread among all children, but probably more among boys than girls, and more frequently with those who will become normatively masculine, rather than those who will experience same-sex desire more frequently or intensely.

Further, I should admit that this desire and urge toward risk, courage, self-sacrifice, destruction and death remains deeply constitutive of my existence, and I am not sure the extent to which this could be eliminated. In the twentieth century, a number of psychoanalytic and phenomenological thinkers suggest that this secret passion for nothingness was constitutive of all humans. Under the names of “death drive,” “Being-toward-death,” or other designations, some authors and researchers concluded that an obscure wish to destroy oneself or others could only be recognized as an intrinsic and universal temptation. But in these theories, gender was disregarded, or rather, masculine experience was made the norm.

More than three decades ago, Nancy C.M. Hartsock wrote that “the most dramatic (though not the only) reversal of the proper order of things characteristic of the male experience is the substitution of death for life.” In her view, patterns of child-rearing, combined with certain bodily factors, contribute to a pathological experience of the world inherent to masculinity. For her, the schema according to which self-knowledge is inherently bound to destruction is a true description, not of universal human experience, but of the masculine worldview. Women, for her, instead possess a stronger sense of community and shared life, and are not susceptible in the same way to this love for death.

Hartsock, though, is subject to criticism for her essentializing of this gender binary – is this not simply “hegemonic masculinity”, and aren't there other masculinities that are not so bound up in the death drive? What of “female masculinity,” as defended by Jack Halberstam? And isn’t it dangerous, even stereotypical, to posit that women have a deep generosity in their hearts? Even Hartsock’s basic opposition, between the violent eroticism presented by the surrealist Georges Bataille and the alternative, reparative notion of object relations described by the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, can seem to break down, insofar as Bataille’s violence communicates great intimacy just as Klein’s reparation depends, as well, on the preceding moment of aggressivity.

Despite these reservations, I think that Hartsock’s claim has some undeniable truth to it, in that the masculinity that we men are socialized to embrace, and that to some extent we spontaneously champion, is imbricated absolutely in this destructive urge. We grow up admiring warriors above all others, for their strength and bravery – strength and bravery, of course, are near-synonyms for dominance and risk.

So, if this is the case, the most uncomfortable question then is, “what are we, those who identify with these norms of masculinity, to do?” Is there, perhaps, some mode of consciousness-raising that will undo our deep love for death and mitigate our temptation toward violence. Perhaps if we discuss our feelings more often, for example, we will find other modes of catharsis. This is a path that was suggested by some male allies of the feminist movement in the 1970s and perhaps it has had some victories in re-inventing masculinity – but, we must admit that, thus far, this reinvention has not been broadly successful.

I think the most uncompromising exponent of this desire to overcome masculinity is John Stoltenberg; he wrote a book called Refusing to Be a Man in 1989 (expanding an essay first published a dozen years earlier). Stoltenberg’s thesis was that manhood was fundamentally violent and that it was up to us men to repudiate it, despite the significant discomfort and risk of such a project. I think that Stoltenberg's plan was quite flawed, partly in that it relied on a highly voluntaristic and moralist concept of practice – a man was meant to realize the sin deep in his heart and to create a new self that would be more caring and giving. Stoltenberg came to overestimate the danger of sexuality, and eventually it was mainly evangelical Christians who were asking his advice to become better husbands and fathers. So this is in danger of becoming a simple “soft patriarchy,” like in Mormon conceptions of masculinity. In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, men are encouraged to cry and to express their emotions, and at the same time they serve very well as businessmen and Secret Service agents and defenders of a traditional family order, or commentators like Glenn Beck. Moreover, some feminists have recently noted the phenomenon of the “soft boy.” While outwardly repudiating all forms of machismo, young men have found that they can maintain destructive, abusive patterns of behavior. So I think this suggests certain limits to the strategy that Stoltenberg advised.

Instead, I think that we might encourage a recognition of these rather unhealthy elements of masculinity – our love for risk, sacrifice and destruction. I think gay men experience these desires as well, somewhat differently perhaps. Lee Edelman’s work, at least, suggests that this death drive is an element of gay culture. Further, it is not clear to me that femininity avoids the proximity to death and loss. I think that Hartsock is wrong to say that men are dedicated to death while women are bringers of life, or at least too simplistic – because there is another kind of love for death that one might see as more feminine, and this is legible in literary traditions, in the writings of Virginia Woolf and Marguerite Duras, for example. At the same time, there are distinctions among these types of sacrifice, so the violence discernible in Woolf is not the same at all as read in Ernest Hemingway or André Malraux. It is hard to avoid the initial realization that the normatively masculine love for death is far more propulsive, more enraged, and claims many more victims.

So I think there might be a different strategy than what Stoltenberg suggested: A slow and patient inquiry into the parts of ourselves that are driven toward death and destruction and a social approach to the means by which these achieve such heinous prominence among certain men, those drawn to a self-annihilating authoritarianism. I don’t think that we can extinguish the desire for risk and sacrifice, or even the temptation to dominate. I think that rather there may be means of sublimating and diverting these tendencies ... through aesthetic catharsis, through games, and through other means of figuring struggle and animosity. We could call these things “evil”, but I think that's a theological problematic that cannot resolve itself without faith and a demand for divine forgiveness that's not going to come to this world. I’m suggesting that there is no simple “confession” of masculinity, or apology for it than can be fully accepted. There is only a continual and unpredictable working through.

Andrew Ryder is an independent researcher living in Seattle, Washington.