A couple of days ago someone drew my attention to a Twitter thread by Dr Anthony Bradley that has been receiving a lot of attention. Within the thread Bradley seeks to explain the appeal of Jordan Peterson to young guys to people who don’t know Peterson, or who don’t understand why he so resonates. The following are some thoughts springing out of Bradley’s thoughtful thread, which you really ought to read before reading the rest of this post.
At the heart of Bradley’s argument is the claim that men are struggling with shame as a result of a society that is ‘raising kids to be narcissistic, valued according to performance.’ I think that there is an element of truth to this, but also think that it doesn’t go nearly far enough: if you press beyond Bradley’s points, deeper issues come to light. Both male shame and the narcissism encouraged in modern parenting are effects of far deeper shifts in the form of society.
The Aporiae of Feminist Masculinity
The shame of masculinity in the current context cannot adequately be understood apart from some grasp of the ways in which various increasingly onerous and often contradictory or impossible demands close in upon many men today. Unable to satisfy such demands, the male self can slowly move beyond guilt for unfulfilled yet reasonable duties to a sense of shame in its inherent worthlessness, dysfunctionality, inadequacy, or impotence. In such situations, men can stop believing that they are people of inherent worth and dignity who may have done some things wrong to believing that some dimension of their very existence is wrong or worthless. To complexify the problem, many of these obligations and demands, if truly assumed, would be dignifying.
While this problem of shame is widely recognized, different parties tend to highlight different demands among those that impinge upon the male self. For feminists, for instance, the problem for men is toxic masculinity and the patriarchy. The patriarchy hurts men too! Feminism can supposedly help men by enabling them to deal with their vulnerability honestly and openly. If we did away with the patriarchy, men could all deal with their weakness, shame, and vulnerability without the pressure to ‘be men’ and to ‘man up’. The sources of toxic masculinity would steadily evaporate as a result and things such as the male suicide rate would plummet. If we just educated men, their behaviour would be transformed and the world would become a great deal more egalitarian. The real problem here is cultural and educational: men simply are shaped by too many damaging messages.
There are some elements of this theory that will resonate for many men. The pressure to ‘man up’ and to pursue a highly performative masculinity can genuinely be oppressive and damaging for many. This pressure prevents men from being open or dealing with their genuine wounds or struggles, pressuring them stoically to maintain an appearance of confident masculinity while they are crumbling within. Nonetheless, feminist visions of masculinity have been deeply unattractive to the majority of men, who experience them as undignifying and emasculating. In addition, most men sense that the men who subscribe to feminist visions of masculinity are frequently not all that they appear, a fact that recent revelations have served further to expose. Such visions of masculinity play well to and can endear someone to a female audience, but most men know that there are forces within them that run far deeper than cultural messages and which fundamentally threaten or undermine feminist orthodoxies and visions.
There are Christian accounts of masculinity, also especially popular with women, that follow similar lines. Such accounts may even acknowledge the natural existence of some distinctive male tendencies and dynamics, but they use the work of the Spirit to trump these things, believing that inconvenient male tendencies and dynamics can be minimized and marginalized by this. This also enables them to attribute any aspect of masculinity deemed threatening or inconvenient to the sinful nature and to suggest that the Spirit is on the side of a highly gender-integrated and egalitarian society, where such traits are overcome, rather than redeemed. Sanctification is a sort of feminization.
While there are distinctive male vices that Scripture challenges, Scripture also accentuates distinctive male virtues as their alternative. Grace does not do away with nature, but glorifies it. Christ challenges and overturns many visions of masculinity, yet he still presents us with patterns of manliness, rather than just jettisoning gendered archetypes or models altogether.
Most men recognize a dark shadow cast by feminist visions of masculinity. While such visions of masculinity encourage men to be open with their weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and wounds, they are essentially hostile to men developing genuine strength (they also, as we shall see, require assuming a burden of shame in one’s sex). Rather than allowing men to be open about their weaknesses and wounds, supporting them in their impotence, picking them up, helping them to find their feet, and strengthening them as they move out into the world again, the men such a feminist vision of masculinity produce are all too often either abject and emasculated men with a low sense of worth or men who assume a mask of respectability while suppressing or hiding their deeper natures.
While most men believe that respect of women is a non-negotiable mark of healthy manliness, they feel quite stifled by feminist visions of masculinity that push men in the direction of things such as weakness, abjection, and radical deference to women (it is always important to remember that feminists represent a minority of women, just a very loud and influential one), rather than enabling men to play to and accentuate their own strengths. An underlying problem here is that, in an extremely anomalous situation historically—largely a result of a highly modern economy, an expansive social welfare structure, and effective birth control—women are increasingly competing with men on the same terms in our society. Male strength is a threat in such a situation and male cultures that celebrate and accentuate male strength are a direct threat to women’s advancement. The pathologization of such cultures as misogynistic is driven in large measure by the understandable desire for women to get ahead in realms historically created by, according around, and predominantly populated by men.
While feminist visions of masculinity may ostensibly offer men the chance to deal with their wounds and weakness and give them a form in which they can enjoy the moral dignity to be found in empowering the women in their life, the appeal of these visions is limited by men’s realization that this comes at the cost of both alienation from and pathologization of their own manly strength of agency. It also often leads to an abject stance relative to their own existence. Men start to spout nonsense suggesting that they are essentially what is wrong with the world and that the sort of strong, combative, and assertive masculinity that women can’t easily compete with is fundamentally toxic, while maintaining that women are wonderful in every way. While such male shame in masculinity is partially palliated by the moral approval of a female audience, men generally recognize that this isn’t healthy and steer clear.
Such problems are often further snarled up in the perverse interplay of themes of male strength and weakness in feminist discourse. As in the case of conservatives, the theme of male responsibility is a highly prominent one in feminist discourse and there is a reason why they often come close to converging with conservatives when talking about issues such as ‘deadbeat dads’, pornography, or male sexual behaviour. Rather than reckoning with the reality of male weakness at such points, men are assumed to be exercising and in possession of exceedingly high levels of purposive agency—considerably more than women, who are often framed as if passive victims. This enables us to hold men accountable, to lay the blame for problems at their door, and to expect them to turn everything around.
Even while calling men to be weak and vulnerable, feminism needs to align men with the highly agentic tyrannical father figure to blame for the state of the world, and tends to advance by lobbying and protesting patriarchal agencies to change their behaviour or act on their behalf. The responsibility that men are being expected to exercise is primarily a negative one, though: the responsibility of being the ones that assume the blame and must clean up the mess. The ritual self-immolations of the guilt-ridden feminist male will garner him a measure of praise, but he will never truly enjoy honour.
It must be remembered that feminism is a radical myth of male hyper-agency, a theory that depends upon an archetype of the immensely powerful and domineering male. At the heart of the Patriarchy is the figure of the tyrannical father, who, in practically every human society over history, has crafted the entirety of society around the interests of his class of men, controlling women and keeping other men in their place (one can’t help but be impressed by the scale of this imagined figure’s achievement!). This archetype provides the grand explanation for women’s marginalization in society, but it also generally requires that individual men and societies be approached as various manifestations of this grand gendered archetype. This makes it difficult to recognize the interplay of strength and weakness in actual existing men, the possibility of the good yet powerful father, and the genuine variations between societies. Part of the reason why Peterson can approach young men with such compassion is because he doesn’t share the feminist fixation with the archetype of the tyrannical patriarch.
The archetype of the evil patriarch can also lead to a paradoxical need for extreme male strength to sustain the believability of the myth and archetype, even while any idea that men are stronger than women may be rejected as radically heterodox. Although the Patriarchy is declared to be culturally contingent and socially constructed, not natural, much of its force seems to depend upon its being treated as a powerful cross-cultural archetype.
There is a complex double bind here for men. As men are aligned with the tyrannical patriarch, yet the alternative of the good authoritative father is largely denied to them, men must assume the guilt and responsibility belonging to the former, while being refused the honour proper to the latter. Responsibility always comes attached to blame, as a law that sets up its recipient for condemnation and failure (even feminists don’t tend to find abject feminist men very attractive). The result is a shame and guilt-inflected vision of masculinity, one in which men are always being held culpable, yet have relatively little way in which they can enjoy the dignity of a positive responsibility.
The Church’s Shaming of Men
Christian rhetoric around masculinity is also shame-filled in various ways. Pastors harangue men for not attaining to a demanding set of expectations and to roles with which they may only be aligned in the form of pathology or failure, rather than in honour. Guilt and shame at inevitable failure and insufficiency is the natural result.
Why is the chewing out of men from the pulpit such a recurring theme in conservative Christian men’s experience? One could attribute it to theologies of total depravity, but while such theologies may be invoked at such points, one really wouldn’t see women being spoken to in a remotely comparable way. This is something I’ve found very curious when I’ve considered it in the past and I have occasionally wondered where it comes from. I have a few tentative suggestions about contributing factors, but am still uncertain of the answer. I would be interested to hear people’s thoughts. Here are some of my suspicions about contributing factors:
First, theologies of male headship that would be relatively unpalatable to many modern women need to be spun in a way that reduces the weight of the biblical teaching on submission and honouring of the husband and which identify headship less with the actuality of the husband’s place in the marriage than with some impossible ideal to which he cannot reasonably attain and set of extra responsibilities he can’t reasonably fulfil. When we lose sight of the natural fact of male headship—the man simply is the head and needs to be what he is graciously and lovingly—it can be reinvented as a Sisyphean cycle of duties that men must perform for their wives and children in order to become the head. No, the man simply is the head and his duty is a relative straightforward one: humbly to follow the example of Christ in loving his wife, not to drive himself into exhaustion and despair in trying to be some sort of superhuman. When this is forgotten, the result is that a supposed image of the Gospel becomes a condemning Law to the lives of many men. Headship and the example of Christ are presented as truths that burden men with their failure to live up to the standard, rather than as an honouring of their calling as husbands and fathers and an example to follow in grace.
Second, pastors see men sinning egregiously and acting in ways that really hurt others around them. Seeing the reality of the damage they are causing and the sins they are committing, pastors impute a level of intentionality and agency that is not actually present. They don’t adequately grasp men’s need for dignifying responsibility, rather than just the responsibility of blame. They don’t appreciate men’s weakness and their need to be built up and supported if they are going to overcome the destructive sins in their lives.
Third, pastors often have the greatest tendency to move in the direction of Law when they are preaching to their own failings. There may be a sort of subtle pride at work here: ‘I will preach grace into my congregation’s lives, but I am not going to go so lightly on myself—I must hold myself to a higher standard!’ No, grace and mercy are for pastors too, and they are the highest standard of all. A pastor may feel inadequate as a man, as a husband and father, and as a pastor. The answer isn’t to double down on his performance and to beat himself up in his sermons. No, he must receive free forgiveness and unmerited acceptance and then pass on to his congregation the life that he himself has been given. It is near impossible for a pastor to give to other men what he hasn’t received as a man. The perfectionism directed at men from pulpits is unlikely to be solved while pastors struggle with perfectionism themselves. This, of course, is a problem to which we all contribute by expecting pastors to be perfect, while starving them of the thick supportive Christian community of many overlapping ministries they need, practicing a form of church that is so often narrowly fixated upon the person at the front on a Sunday morning.
Fourth, despite the common notion that a male-only pastorate means that men control conservative Christian churches, pastors generally know which side of their bread is buttered and that the most influential core members of most churches are women. Those who have bought into the notion of the patriarchy are generally unable to appreciate the natural—and, in principle, appropriate—power that women generally wield over men in smaller communities, of which most churches are instances. As a pastor you can chew out young men from the pulpit with impunity, but if you fall foul of key women, you will be toast. While people seldom rush to men’s defence, people are much less likely to stand by if you directly challenge a woman. The strength of the pastorate in many churches lies in a group of married and older women who support the pastor and are the core of the social network of the congregation. Pastors don’t challenge this group much, but will often challenge others on their behalf. In particular, men and young single women must be kept in order. Hence, the authority of the Church has often been associated with the domesticating of men, as pastors bring men into line for the sake of their wives (this is one of the concerns behind complaints about the ‘feminization’ of the Church). Sermons challenging men to step up as husbands can go over very well with core women and strengthen the primary support base of the pastor within the congregation.
Fifth, related to the previous point, in an attempt to appear even-handed and not to give their sex special treatment, pastors may come down hard upon men. Rather than jeopardizing their credibility with women by speaking to men in ways that recognize men’s struggles and perspectives and take them seriously, pastors address men as if speaking as the counsel for the (female) prosecution. There is much about many men’s experience that women can struggle to understand and people who speak powerfully into men’s experience can be off-putting or alienating for many women, who may harbour the belief that men just need to behave more like women.
The fact that the other sex have needs and interests of their own that may be in tension with our interests is a truth that we can all struggle with on occasions. Vast numbers of men, for instance, hear Jordan Peterson telling truths about them that hardly anyone else has dared to voice in the public conversation and to speak as their advocate and in their defence. However, various of the truths—truths that I am also highlighting in this post—that he declares are perceived to be threatening by many women, because they make clear that their envisioned feminist paradise is not a healthy place for men and that we must all go back to the drawing board and work out a society that doesn’t merely benefit our sex, but which works for everyone. Men and women must thrive together or not at all.
Sixth, young pastors, who may lack the authority that naturally comes with age, wisdom, and weighty words, try to demonstrate their ‘authority’ by throwing their weight around. Beating down other men is one of the most convenient ways to do this.
Finally, as in the case of feminist visions of masculinity, there is a failure to imagine a realistic positive model of masculinity. While pastors are not focused on the archetype of the tyrannical patriarch as feminists are, they can deal with their failure of imagination by so emphasizing the example of Christ as something that men must live up to that men overwhelmingly encounter their responsibilities in the form of blame and shame.
Whatever the reasons, men can definitely be shamed by much teaching directed at them in churches.
The Problem of Virility
In the relatively recent Disney film Zootopia, the city of Zootropolis is entirely populated by anthropomorphic animals. Creatures who formerly would have been in a predator/prey relationship have evolved beyond those primitive instincts and now largely exist in harmony with each other. Tensions remain, however, with long-standing prejudices about the natures of different creatures stubbornly persisting and with many professions almost exclusively populated by certain types of creatures. The film follows Judy, a bunny and plucky female protagonist, who wishes to break the glass ceiling and become a police officer.
The original conception of the film, however, took the perspective of the male fox. It revealed that the cost of such a society was the forceful and painful repression of predatory instincts in all predators using a ‘tame collar’. These predatory instincts were not merely their killing instinct, but also their higher spiritedness and other strengths. The ‘tame collar’ was part of the broader cost of including the Judys of the world as equal members of the police force and other such parts of society. Even beyond wearing a tame collar, for a truly integrated society, the bulls, lions, rhinoceroses, and other such creatures would all need to behave more like bunnies, to be sensitive and inclusive, and to be pathologized for behaving as the kind of creatures that they are, even when they weren’t devouring others.
This was indeed a startlingly daring vision on Disney’s part and the fact that they did not go through with it is entirely unsurprising. It exposes some of the troubling questions raised by our visions of inclusive and egalitarian society and the hidden costs that this can impose. In particular, it shows the stifling and stunting repression we can feel when we are denied the liberty to exert our strengths and the problems that arise when we force those with contrasting natures into ever more integrated environments. Among other things, in our society, this relates to our inability to cope with virility in ever more gender-integrated environments.
Most decent men know that they should tone themselves down in various ways when they are around women. There are also certain truths about male nature that most women either don’t get or can’t easily stomach. For instance, women don’t usually understand the forcefulness of the male libido (attending to the accounts of transgender persons who have received testosterone may be one of the more illuminating windows onto the contrasts between male and female experience in this area, as I recently observed). A few weeks ago, Germaine Greer remarked: “We sexual reformers thought that when you took away the restrictions, when you let people express their sexuality freely, it would be less sadistic, cruel, humiliating, degrading…. We were absolutely wrong.” This exceedingly naïve assumption on the part of some sexual revolutionaries is one men would be much less likely to fall into than women. Did they even give a thought to the nature of the forces that they were liberating? Behind many of the complaints about our truly dehumanizing sexual culture lies an often ideologically-induced failure to reckon with the reality of the libido—the male libido in particular—and the sort of culture it will produce when key social limits placed upon it are removed.
Women can also struggle with the frequent roughness and combative character of male interactions; failing to appreciate the value and potential goodness of such a dynamic, they far too often pathologize it. They don’t appreciate the ways in which men thrive in such rougher environments. When historically male spaces become gender-integrated, men must tone themselves down in practically every realm of life. When men must restrain themselves across the board, the toning down becomes a stunting of men, rather than an expression of a manly magnanimity and respectfulness of women. While virility—a mastered manliness—was once a glorious strength and virtue of men, finding meaningful expression in many realms of life, it has become a problem in our society. Besides the often puerile or vicarious outlets and escape valves provided by such things as competitive sports or video games, virility is increasingly something that must be repressed, left undeveloped, and starved of meaningful expression.
Yet there is little dignity to be found in this and it is no surprise that many men feel an unmet hunger within themselves and perhaps also a sense of shame at their emasculation. While any true man should be self-controlled and restrained in appropriate contexts as a manifestation of his male virtue and self-mastery, if he lacks realms in which he can truly exert and develop his strengths, but must always restrain himself, he will become unhealthily repressed or impotent.
Practically every human society prior to societies of advanced modernity have clearly distinguished men from women, assigning them different yet overlapping and intertwined spheres and modes of activity, establishing extensive customs, rituals, and institutions around their interactions and relations, and giving them considerable realms of sociality that were largely exclusive to their own gender. Yet advanced modern societies are collapsing the realms of the sexes into each other, denying them meaningful realms apart from each other. The spaces that result are increasingly rule-governed, rather than being realms exhibiting natural gendered virtues. The compliant professional, whose rule-governed behaviour is distinguished from his private character, takes the place of the person of virtue, whose public self is not divorced from the character revealed in his private and personal dealings. One of the results of this is the pathologization of virility, as the all-male spaces that historically would have sustained, encouraged, and facilitated the expression and development of male virtues are lost due to the inclusion of women.
Perhaps one of the most controversial points that Peterson makes is that we still haven’t figured out if men and women can work together in the workplace in a way that enables both to thrive. We don’t know how to fit women neatly into structures that have historically worked according to male patterns of sociality, engagement, and hierarchies. This is truly a third rail in our cultural discourse, but he raises an important issue. Fully gender-integrated workplaces and societies are a radical experiment and we do not yet know whether or how our human nature can be made to thrive in the long term in contexts of such a kind. Indeed, a great many of the problems that we see in our workplaces, lives, institutions, and civil society can be traced back to the conflict between male and female forms of sociality, to the weakness of mere rules against the naturally-charged relations between the sexes, and to the breakdown of old patterns of interdependence between the sexes to be replaced by conflict, exploitation, or divergence.
Of course, the suggestion that, despite many pockets of seeming success, gender-neutralized society might prove to be a failed experiment more generally and in the long term is one that will instinctively be rejected by many. It is anathema to those who believe that we are all, at the most fundamental level, relatively interchangeable and fundamentally androgynous rational individuals and that such individuals can be subjected to rational control. Yet Peterson recognizes that being male and female and the differences and charged relationships that arise from that are deep structuring realities that no human society can afford to ignore.
The assumption that education and self-control are scalable and generalizable solutions to the unruly tendencies of human nature are beliefs common both to progressives and many Christians. Such people may protest the Pence or Graham Rules for limiting women’s progress in male-dominated organizations, for instance, but these are honest though limited attempts to grapple with challenges presented by human nature for which we have yet to find workable solutions. Even if things function in the majority of cases, there is a large minority where they demonstrably don’t. Wishing away human nature isn’t working, education doesn’t remove the problems, and our blind faith in rational control is in vain. Substituting outrage at Peterson’s regressive opinions for real answers isn’t going to help either.
While husbands and wives labouring together in gendered roles in the commonwealth of a household economy and enjoying highly gendered sociality in community with other men and women is a proven sustainable situation in countless cultures, the modern gender-integrated workplace often comes at a heavy and unappreciated price on our social and psychological health (much as the alienation of production from the household and the marginalization of women in a privatized domestic sphere that preceded it). While there are many positive dimensions to the integration of men and women’s lives and labour—radical segregation is not a healthy alternative—the problems of collapsing distinctions between the sexes in society and the workplace really aren’t difficult to see. It can stifle and alienate men and women in different ways, set them at odds with each other, reveal a mismatch between their instinctive social dynamics, and lead to problems of harassment, abuse, and infidelity.
While moderns like to see men and women as autonomous individuals, who just happen to be men and women (yet so individually that these classes are essentially meaningless), Peterson recognizes that maleness and femaleness run far deeper. In particular, they involve contrasting social dynamics and sexually-charged relations, which we cannot simply put on hold. Also, when we integrate the sexes throughout the society and lose meaningful and productive realms of all-male or all-female society, our own development as men and women becomes stunted and we experience a sort of self-alienation. Our starving and pathologization of men’s virility is one expression of this. Men can’t become men by spending the overwhelming majority of their time in contexts where women are heavily represented.
Virile men in the current environment can be deeply off-putting and threatening to women, which is one of the principal reasons why it is discouraged (the need for a biddable workforce in alienated forms of labour might be another). Without distinct yet overlapping realms of sociality, the sexes will find themselves in competition with each other. Virile masculinity takes up space and makes it difficult for women to occupy that space on equal terms. Pushing women back into a domestic sphere that has been shrunken to a powerless, unproductive, and socially marginal realm of consumption is no solution. However, we can’t continue the way we are going either.
The Loss of Male Society and the Rise of Performative Masculinities
To this point, I have highlighted a few key problems that the modern man faces. The modern man struggles to be open about wounds and weakness. However, he also struggles to find places and ways where he can truly be strong and virile. He needs to address his wounds and weakness for the sake of his health, yet cannot easily do that without losing sense of his masculinity or succumbing to a masculinity of abjection. He instinctively feels the natural goodness of virility, yet will be pathologized as patriarchal if he exerts it in a highly gender-integrated society. He may be condemned as a failure in his church. As Peterson recently lamented, such young men may never hear a truly encouraging word in their lives.
In the previous section, I highlighted the stifling of virility in a gender-neutralizing society, where the sexes no longer have meaningful realms of their own. This is exacerbated by the attenuation of connection more generally in a society where most of us no longer live in thick and stable intergenerational communities, in which our lives are no longer organically interwoven by the binding forces of extended structures of kinship, shared labour, custom, commerce, worship, etc. This produces a situation where each man increasingly must work out his masculinity for himself. Especially once one leaves full-time education, where conditions of community and sometimes even gendered community partially exist, masculinity is something that men increasingly must figure out in detachment and loneliness. It is important to consider that this male isolation and lack of meaningful connection is part of the yawning gulf that things such as porn and casual sex are vainly used to fill up.
When social roles are no longer given to us and we lack an intergenerational male community of brothers and fathers, the way that men come to terms with themselves as men fundamentally changes. It is akin to the change that occurred when men of various classes ceased dressing in a standard and fairly uniform fashion, with each person increasingly dressing in a manner calculated ‘authentically’ to express their individuality. In such circumstances, masculinity becomes either twisted or stunted. For many, a cosmetic masculinity substitutes for a masculinity of substance. A certain male style of economic consumption, growing a beard, wearing a particular clothing style, body-building, etc. can all be ways in which emasculated males live-action roleplay at being men. Faced with the pathologization of any actual manliness in much of the culture, a simulation of masculinity may be the best many can muster.
Without robust male community and given social contexts and roles, men are left to construct performative masculinities that act as a brittle façade over their insecurity. When social support and givenness falls away, erecting and maintaining this façade can become increasingly important and there is much less accommodation for weakness. Knowing that you are a man yet coping well with one’s weaknesses is considerably easier when you have a close-knit band of men around you to support you and confirm you in your masculinity. Male community can be a wonderful place to deal with weakness, but it needs to be strong, lasting, and deep to do this well.
Starved of such meaningful male community in which we can express, develop, and find support in our masculinity, be given roles to occupy, or clear models to follow, we become much more self-reflexive, fragile, and ‘performative’ in our masculine identities. ‘Being a man’ becomes an increasingly mysterious thing, framed by gnawing anxieties and uncertainties, rather than something that is just an unquestioned and given aspect of our personal existence.
One area where I am a bit wary about Bradley’s argument is in its emphasis upon teaching and ideas. It seems to me that, if we are looking for our masculinity in books or even from pulpits, we are doing it wrong. Books, more abstract ideologies of masculinity, and faddish cults have tended to flood in where the concrete reality of meaningful, purposive, and productive intergenerational male community has been lost. The teaching of people like Jordan Peterson are much-needed lemons for a scurvy-ridden generation of young men, adrift on the shoreless ocean of modernity. They are not, however, what a healthy diet looks like. A healthy diet is robust male community and there is no substitute for that.
I have heard exceedingly high praise of Bradley’s mentoring of young men and of the difference that he has made in such men’s lives. I suggest that teaching about masculinity matters a whole lot less than simply being a brother or father to other men, patiently rebuilding the fallen edifice of male community where we find ourselves, and that the example of Bradley’s practice may be a more important lesson than his arguments at this specific point.
When men struggle with weakness when starved of male community, they can be drawn not only to the hyper-performativity of masculinity cults, but also to the mawkishness of highly therapeutic male interaction, where men pick at their wounds with others they met with expressly for that purpose. The sort of connection that this makes possible can bring some genuine relief, but it is no solution. It merely addresses some of the more painful symptoms of the unaddressed void where male community used to be.
I strongly suspect that many women experience the same thing. Camille Paglia—who is too much of a troll for my tastes, but often puts her finger upon reality very effectively—has suggested that part of the exhilaration many women have experienced on the Women’s March and in other such female activism is in large part a result of the fact that they are fleetingly enjoying intense female companionship when they have been starved of it for too long.
The appeal of many war movies or of shows like Call the Midwife may hold great gendered appeal for similar reasons: both men and women find something compelling on a primal level in seeing gendered communities engaged in the weighty work of life and death. Even amidst the privations, suffering, and evils that these works can honestly depict, we recognize something truly life-giving at the heart of them. Neither men nor women thrive in societies where they are starved of productive, meaningful, and supportive community with others of their own sex.
None of this is to deny the value and importance of friendship between the sexes (I speak as someone who has enjoyed and continues to enjoy strong friendships with several women). However, it is to take seriously the gendered realities of friendship and to challenge the dangerous naivety with which this matter is approached by many. Friendships between men and women are different from friendships with other persons of our sex and must be approached with considerably more caution. This is especially the case when they are dyadic friendships, as opposed to friendships that exist chiefly within larger groups or which are forged by shared activities. Many such friendships are workable and wonderful, even though they require care and prudence. However, when men and women’s realms of sociality are collapsed into each other and men and women are expected to function with each other much as they would with their own sex, huge problems will fairly unavoidably arise.
People rightly point out that Jesus had women as friends and as members of his circle of disciples. This is extremely important to notice: the worlds of men and women belong together. However, it is no less important to notice that Jesus had a core group that was exclusively composed of other men, with whom he did his primary work. While Christ’s masculinity is often discussed in Christian circles, our modern mindset leads us to focus on Christ as an individual man performing his masculinity. What we can miss is that part of Jesus’ masculinity was surrounding himself with a close band of brothers as the spearhead of his mission. Jesus’ companionship with these other men, his travelling with them, eating with them, suffering hardship with them, the joy and sorrow he shared with them, and his leading them in his walk towards death are all essential parts of what it means for Jesus to be a man, not just a human.
The reality of male brotherhood is hugely important for many men. It is one of the reasons why soldiers returning from war can struggle so much: the loss of the close companionship of their unit and re-entry into a world of alienated and isolated masculinity is a huge blow. It is also why so many men can choke up watching certain scenes from films such as The Lord of Rings trilogy!
The need for this gendered community to be engaged in weighty work is hugely important. Without such a strong shared purpose for men, for instance, we either remain in the perpetual adolescence of an irresponsible and consumption-driven masculinity. Alternatively, our male communities can become about being men, rather than simply growing as men as we work together for some other end entirely. We won’t become men by pursuing ‘masculinity’, but by welcoming the responsibilities that fall to us in productive and purposeful community with other men, and growing in strength as we bear burdens together. Many church men’s groups would be far better off if they put the study guide on Christian manhood to one side and went out as a team of men to serve their communities.
Engaging with Peterson as a Scholar
Dr Bradley argues that Christians really should be attending to Jungians like Peterson and Robert L. Moore if they want to understand how to speak to men. Bradley’s foregrounding of Peterson’s Jungian background prompts the question of how to regard and approach Peterson more generally, a question which has been raised in various forms by a norm of people.
Bradley’s foregrounding of Peterson’s Jungian convictions highlights the fact that Peterson isn’t a mere self-help teacher, but is, among other things, a scholarly advocate of a particularly controversial school of psychology. This must be kept in mind when dealing with him. We should not be baptizing Jungian psychology or Peterson’s specific brand of it any time soon, as anyone with a more than superficial acquaintance with either ought to know. Others might be bemused or concerned about the appeal of a scholar who makes extensive use of evolutionary psychology to conservative Christians. Evangelical Christians are easily drawn in by fads and Peterson could just be the latest in a line of masculinity fads that grabs their attention.
Furthermore, Peterson’s vision includes a very great deal more than personal empowerment and growth (or even gender issues) in its purview. Peterson is tackling the biggest questions of all, questions of the meaning of life, of human nature, of religion and the existence of God, of the nature of a just society, of history and the future, etc. His appeal to young men and Christian men more particularly cannot easily be separated from these things. He talks with compassion and insight into their experience, but he also draws them beyond their immediate experience into engagement with a meaningful reality far, far greater than themselves. While he has a very gendered appeal, he is far more than just a male form of someone like Brené Brown, who, for all of the genuine merits of her work, is operating within much narrower horizons.
What about his more particular ideological commitments, in particularly his Jungian psychology and his commitment to—admittedly, a seemingly non-reductionist form of—evolutionary science? When one looks more closely, these things don’t seem to be incidental to most of what Peterson is saying. Similar sorts of ideological commitments have discredited many other thinkers to conservative Christians, yet many conservative Christians who would strongly resist the Theory of Evolution and would recoil from much Jungian psychology if they were more aware of it have extended Peterson a rapturous welcome. What gives?
Here it is important to consider that what many Christians are appreciating in Peterson is not so much the very specific and developed forms of Jungian psychology or the underlying claims of evolutionary science. Rather, they are (rightly, I believe) appreciating the realities to which these frameworks assist Peterson in attuning himself.
In particular, Jungian psychology, in contrast to much psychology of a more conventional flavour, encourages attentiveness to the deeper structures of the human psyche, calling us to understand humanity from within. Human psychology isn’t primarily a matter of performing experiments on human beings as if they were lab rats or of theorization about abstractions, but of cultivating a deep awareness of the complex realities of human consciousness, whether within our minds or externalized in our cultural products. It helps us to recognize archetypes and the way that they register and resonate in our consciousness. It assists us in understanding the way that things such as the reality of male-and-female are psychically structuring forces for humanity as a whole. People who are attuned to archetypes will, even if they have many problems in their understanding of this area, see a lot that many contemporary minds miss. You will not really begin to understand passages such as Genesis 1-3 or Scripture more generally without some sense of a divinely created archetypal reality, in which male and female are archetypally related with different dimensions of reality. We really can’t retrofit the post-gender society created by various forces of modernity into the world of Scripture: male and female lies at the very heart of its reality.
People who approach the Old Testament in particular with the decidedly modern mindset that believes that we are all fundamentally individuals, who just happen to be male and female, different in quite secondary ways, really will be oblivious to much that is going on. They will miss the different ways that Adam and Eve are related to the earth, for instance. They will fail to see that Eve is more directly aligned with ‘Mother Earth’ (the adamah), while Adam is placed over against both. Just how deeply sexual difference is woven into the fabric of reality itself (for instance, the ways in which the sun and the moon are connected with male and female) will pass them by, because they’ve lost a sort of basic awareness that is pretty much universal in premodern societies.
People who recover such awareness of the inner architecture of the psyche and its resonance with broader realities in the world and bring it to bear upon human experience will often be able to speak very powerfully and effectively into the concrete reality of human experience. By contrast, for instance, much of the critical theory that is popular in our society is blind to psychology, as its poststructural ‘self’ is largely an superficial epiphenomenon of various social forces. For all of their many glaring faults, Freudian and Jungian psychology are alert to an inner symbolic world and to the archetypal and objective realities that structure it. Such an alertness will hold the interpreter of Scripture in good stead, as, if it is difficult to understand the reality of creation without this, it will be nigh impossible to understand things such as the sacrificial system.
What about Peterson’s evolutionary convictions? Peterson’s references to evolution function mostly to identify the mechanism by which to explain the ways in which and the reason why certain things are so adapted to each other. Yet even Christians who reject evolution should believe in the deep implication of created realities with other realities. The man is formed of the earth as his mother. He is related to it and profoundly adapted to it: the man is created for the immediate purpose of tilling the ground and there is a symmetry between the task and reality for which he has been created and his being. The woman is built from the side of the man, built to form a unity with him in love. They are fitted to each other and fitted to their chief purposes: the man is especially related to the earth and the woman is especially related to the work of union and bringing forth of life.
Whether you attribute it to the evolutionary mechanisms of natural and sexual selection or not, the fittingly ordered reality of us as human beings, male and female, is worthy of our notice and attention. Once again, in contrast to gender theory, which is largely oblivious and ideologically resistant to nature, evolutionary biologists tend to be alert to and aware of the innumerable ways in which male and female human beings are naturally fitted in different ways for different ends.
Anyone who would swallow Peterson’s theories wholesale and uncritically is in serious danger. There is a fair amount of error mixed in with the good. However, Peterson is asking the right sort of questions and can help to alert us to realities to which much of the rest of our society—and the Church with it—has become blind.
Summing up, Dr Bradley’s thread puts its finger on the key issue of male shame and identifies part of the reason why Peterson so resonates with young men today. However, I believe that he doesn’t go far enough in identifying its causes. Male shame chiefly results from the subjection of isolated men to increasingly unattainable and contradictory demands that set them up for blame-ridden failure. Men’s struggles also can’t be understood apart from a recognition of the loss of male community and the individualization of male identity. Peterson recognizes men’s stifled natural hunger for virility and speaks to it, holding out to men the possibility of attaining a true manly dignity, while relieving men’s burden of shame in the process.
The increasingly therapeutic framing of masculinity is largely a result of the lack of male community in a gender-neutralizing society. Denied such community, masculinity will increasingly be experienced as a wound that needs to be tended. People like Peterson may be helpful in enabling some men to recover a measure of manly dignity. However, they really can’t substitute for the organic reality of male community. The response to the contemporary crisis of masculinity is not going to be a new and better theory or self-help programme for individuals (which, for all his strengths, is where Peterson largely leaves us), but must be a recovery of robust, deep, and enduring intergenerational male community pursued in meaningful and productive activity.
Finally, we really must approach Peterson with critical awareness and caution. There is much in his work that needs to be sifted out. However, his underlying theoretical convictions foster an attentiveness and alertness to key dimensions of reality to which most of our society is blind. While we may disagree with some of his underlying theoretical claims, we can be justifiably appreciative of what they assist him in seeing.
Peterson among others, helps us to understand some of the reasons why, despite the immense gains of modern society, so many men and women are languishing in our culture. We have enjoyed unprecedented gains in material wealth, generally enjoy a remarkable degree of physical safety, and have immense scope to exercise our individual autonomy. Mortality rates have plummeted, and life expectancy has shot up. So many of the boundaries that once constrained us have fallen away, enabling us to enjoy possibilities our ancestors couldn’t even have dreamed of. We live and work in comfort and security.
Nevertheless, despite all of these gains, and in some respects partially because of them, our lifeworld is slowly unravelling in a great many ways. Our societies seem listless and their sense of purpose is evaporating. A steady stream of men is dropping out of employment and society. Our culture’s imagination is suffering an intense infestation of porn, filling the hearts of both men and women with different forms of shame. We are marrying at much lower rates, but divorcing at an extraordinarily high rate by historical standards. Sex has ceased to mean anything to many and has been reduced to a form of play. We have ceased to reproduce ourselves. Our children are growing up in broken homes or with single or unmarried parents. Social capital isn’t being built up over generations, but is rapidly lost. We are struggling with a devastating degree of loneliness. We are losing faith, not just in God, but in ourselves. We are increasingly governed by our lowest natural instincts and losing sense of virtue. We are becoming reliant upon medication and other forms of substances in order to function. We are forfeiting dominion and increasingly function as coddled consumers. We are paranoid and fearful about the future. Our social fabric is threadbare and fraying. Our politics are fractious and polarizing. We are rapidly destroying our planet.
The immense material pleasures and bodily benefits of modernity notwithstanding, our souls seem to be starving in a world ordered by abstract technique, rather than around the natural human order of maleness and femaleness. At different points one or the other sex may suffer the toxic effects of modernity more keenly. Men’s longing for the dignity and liberty of virility may be experienced as an unwelcome threat by women who have been pressed into competition with men as detached individuals. Women’s longing for the dignity of being held in honour at the heart of the life of society, enjoying weight in its affairs, and having scope for the exercise of their extensive gifts and abilities may be experienced as an unwelcome threat by men who desire autonomous power without the shackles of responsibility. However, both hungers are legitimate and God-given and we must work towards a society where both are met. This must not be a zero-sum game.
Peterson awakens and addresses some of these longings, particularly in men. He resonates with men who have been starved of the close companionship of brothers and the guidance and encouragement of fathers. He resonates with men who have only encountered responsibility in the form of blame and shame. As Dr Bradley observes, many such men have grown up in our churches and have been ill-served by the teaching they have received from the pulpit.
We will not begin to address these needs until we stop treating people as relatively interchangeable genderless and detached individuals and begin to attend to the deeper dynamics of gendered personhood and the prominence of sexual difference as a structuring reality of humanity. This requires that we go far beyond maintaining some façade of complementarianism in home and church, while we largely continue to function relatively uncritically within a society of technique that is paving over our human lifeworld, denying us the conditions we need to thrive—purpose, meaning, belonging, posterity, agency, male and female dignity and society, etc.—and steadily poisoning our spirits.
 Admittedly, a glance at the levels of male suicide in various countries really does not add strength to the claim that patriarchy is the cause of high levels of male suicide and feminism is the solution. The lowest levels of male suicide are found in countries like Pakistan, Jamaica, UAE, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, while the oft-celebrated Nordic feminist paradises have rates four or five times higher.
 One of the reasons why a woman’s positive relationship with her father is such a powerful inoculation against extreme versions of feminism is because it robs this archetype of its intense imaginative power.
 I am not persuaded that modernity as such is the problem. Rather, the unleashing of technique unchecked or unconstrained by the needs and interests of natural human society is the key issue.