Social Affairs

The relationship between nationalism and toxic masculinity

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Men and nation-states are struggling to adapt to their new role in progressive, cosmopolitan societies. Working out how they do it is essential to protecting society from a more aggressive form of cultural conservatism.

We’ve all heard the phrase ‘gammon’ being hurled across the Twittersphere in recent years. The likes of David Cameron and even Bake Off’s Paul Hollywood have been described with the term, often used to describe middle-age or older white men that support Brexit and represent the right-wing corner of the culture war.

Whilst this is clearly a lazy insult lacking analytical rigour, such a categorisation of men that get rosy in the cheeks when shouting about Trident on Question Time provides an interesting snapshot into a current development in global politics. There is no doubt that as a society and as individuals we are currently going through an identity crisis. What is crucial to note is that there appears to be a strong connection between both the question that asks what it means to be a man, and concerns about what the role of ‘our country in the world’ is.

The crisis in masculinity has been evident to see in recent years. Traditional attributes of ‘manhood’ are being challenged by the progression of women in society. Men no longer are always seen as the courageous, strong breadwinner that has a stiff upper lip and never cries. But departing from this conception of what it means to be a man can often prove difficult, in the face of what many blokes see as a ‘radical feminist movement’.

Cultural conservatives often see feminists as blaming men for most injustices gripping society. ‘Straight, white and male privilege’ is now seen as a legitimate rebuttal in shutting down the argument of men. Whilst this is a caricature of the feminist movement, the presence of this loud minority often makes many men confused about their place in the household, workplace, and wider society in general.

The same can be said of the crisis in the nation-state. Rather than progressive feminism, it is hyper-globalisation that has left the nation state and its imagined communities rudderless. Western nations that have benefitted from the international order now appear to be experiencing problems with others ‘catching up’.

Britain is no longer the global superpower that rules the high seas in the way that it used to. Whilst still a major player, it is increasingly becoming a relative rule-taker compared to the developing East and much of Europe. This sense of decline is in sharp tension with the historical notion of what Britain used to be. Similarly, in a world where women are increasingly occupying boardrooms and universities, some men display friction towards the rest of society getting a seat at the table.

As British historians Hobsbawm and Ranger recognised, the nation-state was built through ‘inventing traditions’. Such nostalgic narratives of a past, where the men and the nation were once ‘great’, leads to a yearning for a return to a worldview based upon ahistorical conceptions of the relationship between society and the realpolitik.

The manifestation of this movement leads to 21st century nationalism becoming a male dominated project. Men desire a mechanism to reassert dominance via the apparatus of the state. Border control is central to most nationalism movements, as is the desire for greater ‘sovereignty’. Ultimately this appears to be a call to ‘make more decisions for ourselves’, something that many men feel like they increasingly cannot do in the age of ‘rampant political correctness’.

Such developments in the emancipation of women, combined with the globalization project, have left men and nations able to see themselves as weak and often vulnerable. Amidst the lack of clarity, direction and purpose, these groups can demand to be succoured by authoritarian soothsayers that cut through the noise.

These leaders normally tend to be men that deride PC culture and draw upon historical narratives of the nation to deliver powerful political messages. Whether it is Modi, Bolsonaro or Johnson, traditional masculinity is embedded within the desire to make their countries the best once more. It is no coincidence that these leaders all compare themselves to Churchill.

With men far more likely to support both a no-deal Brexit and the recent prorogation of parliament than women, it can be easy to return to the image of fellas that give off salted pork vibes when they exclaim ‘let’s get on with it’. But these cries for help are worth seriously reflecting on.

Many men do feel like they are without a purpose, no doubt feeding the mental health pandemic evident amongst many young men. Globalisation has sapped control from workers and reduced the voice of many. It would be easy to try to wish away or ignore the concerns of these movements, but that will only continue the worst excesses of nationalism and the ‘meninist’ movement.

It is essential that we create a positive conception of what it means to be a man that doesn’t lead to another Gamergate Scandal, nor hurts other minorities. Furthermore, conveying the role of the nation-state in determining our culture and identity appears to be central to democratic stability, but it needs to be done in a way that doesn’t lead to sweeping racism and misogyny. We would be wise to dwell on what many of us will see as the vile by-products of modern society, before the culture war descends into mutually assure destruction.

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