Myths about alpha males redux

I blogged about “alpha male” myths back in 2012, and was reminded of it by this NYT article The alpha dog that wouldn’t hunt: How Trump’s ludicrous “alpha male” act is destroying him. The major portion of Matthew Rozsa’s article focuses on specifics regarding Trump’s history of valorising so-called hyper-masculine traits (a cluster of antisocial dominance displays whose major feature in common is repudiation of any trait regarded as potentially, no matter how tangentially, feminised (which is why it’s become “alpha” to despise education now that women have proven themselves as academic high-achievers)); the quote below aligns with what I wrote about alpha myths back in 2012.

It’s helpful to start by recognizing that the scientific literature that popularized the term “alpha male” is outdated. “The concept of the alpha wolf is well ingrained in the popular wolf literature at least partly because of my book ‘The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species,’explains L. David Mech, one of the scientists whose aforementioned text helped bring the alpha-male concept into conventional use. After pointing out that the last 40 years have revolutionized scientific understanding of wolf social hierarchies, he goes on to write that “one of the outdated pieces of information is the concept of the alpha wolf. ‘Alpha’ implies competing with others and becoming top dog by winning a contest or battle. However, most wolves who lead packs achieved their position simply by mating and producing pups, which then became their pack.”

Of course, even if the lupine origins of the alpha-male trope weren’t obsolete, the notion that the term can even apply to human social structures is inherently absurd. As many scientists have noted, human beings generally inhabit a number of social circles rather than simply one, and each of these subgroups contain complex and varied hierarchies (assuming that they’re hierarchical at all instead of egalitarian). Individuals who may be the top dog in one circle could be quiet and unassuming in another, or even the so-called “beta male.” Just as important, the traits commonly associated with alpha malehood — violence, self-absorption, controlling behavior — have not been found to correlate strongly with professional and sexual success. In fact, researchers have found that assertiveness, confidence and pro-social behaviors (like sensitivity and the capacity to learn from one’s mistakes) are most likely to yield results for people of both genders who wish to lead accomplished lives.

There’s a loud contingent of pro-authoritarians who see braggart bullies like Trump as impressive and laudable role models rather than as gold-plated PITAs or potential despotic threats, and for those of us who know our history the rise of charismatic authoritarians in electoral contests throughout the Western world is becoming more and more alarming. Rozsa links to an article which summarises Thucydides’ account of the disastrously effective hyper-masculine rhetoric of the conspicuously wealthy aristocrat Alcibiades in classical Athens* and compares it directly to what we are hearing from Trump. There are many other articles I’ve read over the last few months comparing Trump to more recent demagogues; I foolishly failed to bookmark them all but I invite readers to share such links in the comments.

How then to more effectively gut/neuter the entwined authoritarian and hyper-masculine propaganda which is being used so effectively by demagogues right now? The problem is that the emotional appeal of the authoritarian simple-answers-to-complex-problems rhetoric creates (a) an anti-intellectual inoculation against measured, logical, nuanced, and historically-informed rebuttals; and (b) a casual contempt for any emotional arguments from recent history against the authoritarianism, which are so easily dismissed as either weak/soft/cowardly or unfairly demonising (often devolving into farcical I’m-not-Hitler-you’re-Hitler shoutfests).

Away from the shoutfests, many women are quietly organising their support for anti-authoritarian candidates in spaces where the loud shouty men cannot see or hear them, because they are weary of being interrupted by the loud shouty men who constantly demand debate and then ignore arguments while resorting to abuse. Anti-authoritarian women are reaching out to other anti-authoritarian women and men through private networks where their time is not being wasted by disruptive loudmouths (and I wonder whether those disruptive loudmouths are right to be as confident as they seem to be regarding how their female family members, and younger family members, plan to vote).

Just because the authoritarian loudmouths have an unfair share of the bully-pulpits in the mass media doesn’t mean the rest of us have nowhere to speak and support each other.

* The Athens expedition to Sicily called for by Alcibiades ended in resounding defeat, and he became a famous turncoat who worked against Athens, first for Sparta and then, having alienated the Spartans, for Persia. Alcibiades then instigated a coup-d’etat in Athens where disgruntled aristocrats displaced the democracy with their oligarchy(!) which named him commander-in-chief, after which he led successful Athenian campaigns against his former friends the Spartans and then (of course) against the Persians. These victories Alcibiades then squandered by the distractions of military glory elsewhere, leaving room for the Spartans to recover and win victories against the Athenian navy, so that Alcibiades left Athens in disgrace to eventually end his days in Persia following the Spartan deciding victory in the Peloponnesian war. What is most astounding (and depressing) is that there are still historians whose primary description of Alcibiades is as a brilliant general and statesman rather than as a disastrous demagogue and audaciously unscrupulous opportunist whose self-aggrandising ambitions ultimately led to a fatally undermined Athens.

Categories: ethics & philosophy, history, Politics, relationships, Sociology

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2 replies

  1. If we survive climate change, as a species we have to work out a way to stop this disastrous play acting itself out over and over. I think education is probably the answer, but it has to be equitable, non-segregated education that teaches critical thinking skills to every single student, rich, poor, city, country etc etc.

    • Late response I know, because I agree with everything you said about what is needed. The problem is getting enough other people to agree with us and get it through to the policy makers.

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