An awful lot of phenomena are behind the rise of nationalism and xenophobia today. I would be careful with any analysis that “gets it” all by pinning it on one or two reasons. But there’s one phenomena that I don’t think gets enough attention as much as it probably should – masculinity. As men I think we should meditate on how much of our political choices spring from this place. Here is what I’ve been thinking on this:
Some of us, men, are gripped in a sense of anxiety thrown up by the social and economic changes that globalization brought with it – especially in the working class. The material conditions that the past few decades have brought, have washed away the secure position of the breadwinner. For a long time, the men gained an idea of their selfhood and a sense of purpose by embodying this role. With increasing financial precarity, the breadwinner identity now is either in completely gone, or on its way to disappearance. What hasn’t left though, is the old construct of masculinity. Even though the socio-economic conditions have made it extremely difficult for a lot of men to actually be the breadwinner, in other words, to be the sole provider and defender of a family, what it means to be a man is still seen to be someone who provides and defends – leaving many men feeling insecure and groping for ways to successfully feel “men” again.
Fear requires us to look within
When anxious or scared, we’d do anything to make it stop. Hatred is far easier to manage than our anxieties and fears. Fear requires us to look within, to change our ways of looking at the world – all that is hard work. Hatred is easy. It puts the problem to somewhere outside of us. The legendary Jedi master Yoda once remarked that “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate” – but even non-legendary, mortals, like high school bullies know very well that to avoid feeling weak and fearful is to bully someone “weak”. After all, isn’t being a man being young, strong, powerful, heterosexual, and a part of the majority group, as opposed to a minority group?
Not all men take up this hatred out of fear, though. Some men from our lot are doing quite alright – thank you for asking. They’re not scared at all, but just have found a way to find new masculine strength in sweet promise of a pure, white nation. The socio-economic changes never got them worried about anything, but wouldn’t some more social power be lovely?
How to maintain masculintiy?
One way of reclaiming, maintaining, or strengthening the hegemonic nature of our masculinity is to be a part of masculine nation. A nation created in our self-image as an impenetrable, aggressive nation rather than a compassional, feminine one. A politics of exclusion and violence is built within the idea of such a nationalism – exclusion of both the enemy Other, and voices that embody a frail, feminine or sentimental vision of nation. This makes for a powerful combo that’s part racist and part sexist.
This combo works well because it promises the materialization of a masculine nation alongside the return of gender hegemony. Is it any wonder then that xenophobic feelings are quite often presented as a battle between two sets of men? Although seemingly concerned about threat of rape from “invaders”, it would be a safe claim to say that many times the real anxiety is whether “our women” will choose to have sex and perhaps children with “alpha males” who aren’t white. Two groups of men fighting out their arenas of domination over women – as if the women in question are unwilling non-agents being dragged into relationships. The aggression towards the other group of men seems clearly based on who-owns-these women. This is why, the “they” in “They are taking away our jobs and our women” are always the Other men.
Xenophobia and masculine anxiety have walked parks together
Why else would the Donald begin his campaign accusing immigrants of being rapists? In fact, it is boring how many times this exact trope has been played out successfully in history. Xenophobia and masculine anxiety have walked parks together, for instance, when the KKK played on fears of women being raped to lynch black men or when the Charleston church shooter exhorted: “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”
Othering the outsider on gendered lines in the name of nationalism is one thing. We also want to preserve the nation’s power and cultural authenticity by the subordination women and increasing their restriction. Their status and bodies become the focus for expressions of our control and return. Questions of tradition and modernity have, since a long time, been debated on the bodies of women. So it is pretty obvious that women disproportionately bear the burden preserving the country’s tradition and culture. Women’s personal choices to bear a child or not, become the litmus test for the country’s anxieties or sense of well-being. Women are called on to preserve the ways of country, at the expense of their liberties.
The traitor and the saviour of the nation
“Selective-labelling” is one dirty trick we play to get this done. We label those aspects of our social life that cater to our increasingly dying sense of hegemony as “benefitting the nation”. Holding on to these practices then becomes “preservation of our culture” and activities that challenge our trick becomes “cultural loss”. Ignoring the fact that women’s conformity to the status quo is not the same as preservation of culture, we cherry-pick aspects of our social life that serve male dominance, and hold them as central components of “our plan to save the nation” against the Other men on their way to get us. This immediately, and very slyly, casts feminist challenges to such practices as “cultural betrayals.” Fighting against feminist work then becomes this sacred task of “resisting globalization” and “preserving the nation”, thus reducing the fight to protect women’s liberty as “betrayals of nation and culture.”
All this, while there are other constructive non-sexist, non-racist projects that can help with preserving and propagating our national cultures more effectively. Investing in cultural research, making language accessible to learning, investing in building brands for local fashion and so on – projects that aren’t premised on showing the women and exotic men their place are chosen for this project.
Imagining post-patriarchal masculinity
Perhaps the only silver-lining to this mess that we’ve created for ourselves is that this is gives us a beautiful opportunity for interventions in schools, labour markets and universities. An intervention premised on the hope that new masculinities can be created while acknowledging the ache of collapsing old ones. Masculinities that create identities on constructive, human and compassionate markers instead of racism, misogyny and homophobia.* In fact, it is precisely by embodying a masculinity beyond traditional gender roles that we can find solace – in a place where we no longer push ourselves to attain a dominant role amidst a slow but sure loss of gender dominance. Unfortunately, very few are taking time out to have this conversation. Or to even begin imagining a new, fresh, masculinity after the demise of patriarchy.
Instead, some of us rather choose to be comforted by someone else having to take responsibility of dealing with us. New magicians have showed up in our towns who, with moral character of comical proportions, promise to make us feel okay again. All they want is our trust, and our votes.
* Bolstering your masculinity on racial or gender superiority might also be bad for your blood pressure. Or maybe not – but a study shows it definitely is bad for those at the receiving end of it. You certainly don’t want that bad karma, do you?