Sunday, July 24, 2016

on the recent Ghostbusters film, some comments at The Stranger, and a theory of violence being the domain of the man who can't get laid

TRICIA: I loved how even the villain (spoiler alert) was basically a mean, Internet troll, who presumably didn’t get laid, whose fantasy it was to be wanted and handsome and powerful and to control everyone (including women). Although, I’m not sure how I felt about the actor himself.

SEAN: He looked right: kind of dumpy, bad sideburns, etc. (Basically my own worst nightmare of myself.) But his villain characterization is all about his arrogance and entitlement. And then when the ladies get him up against the ropes, his whole meltdown is about how the world has robbed him of his "basic dignity." That’s like an angry white male blogger mantra. It is also the not-so-subtle subtext of all the dudes who “refuse” to see the new Ghostbusters. You can’t take this from me, too!

I don't know ... not that I think there's a reason to be incensed that the four leads are women, but I'm wondering whether the love for the film might have a teensy bit of a back-at-ya vibe.

Take Colin Dickey's riff on how the original Ghostbusters was a rape fantasy over at The New Republic.

Now, sure, not everyone will agree that that's actually what the original Ghostbusters movie was but, assuming for the sake of argument that's a true presentation of the toxic racial and sexual politics how would gender reversals in themselves make a reboot a proposition with merit?  Obviously a studio thought there was the potential for a new franchise here and while for male-dominated franchise bids film critics are cynical and jaded as ever they drop that guard for this franchise.  It's possible to find all the leads funny in a film and still be underwhelmed by the pedestrian and vaguely routine end result. What if 2016 Ghostbusters turns out to be, after the dust has settled and the identity politics stuff has had its say, we find ourselves looking back on this as a film that should have been a whole lot better than it was a la The Three Amigos of the 2010s? That's an idea I floated over here:

What's interesting in the back and forth is about the identity of the villain, the white male internet troll who (presumably) hasn't been laid and resents the world for robbing him of his dignity. 

The theory that a lot of violence and aggression comes from young males isn't a theory, it's more or less a forensic law.  But the theory that a lot of this violence and radicalization may be tethered to males who can't assimilate or integrate into society and can't get laid but also can't get laid in a way that is imbued with social prestige isn't necessarily the punchline plot point to a movie, it's also a serious proposal in some sectors of the net.

The discrepancy between what the shooter wants and what he gets is eventually theorised, but in a lazy way – he adopts the ISIS ideology, or a Westboro Baptist Church-style Christianity, or homophobia, or antifederalist patriotism, or whatever is ready to hand. The frustrated male casts about for a ‘cause’ of his misery, and mistakes the increasing power of newly emancipated communities for his depletion. Whether it is the son of Muslim migrants who turns his rage on the LGBT community, or the hater of Muslim migrants who turns his rage upon the political champion of migration, the same hydraulic of hatred is at work.
The lone-wolf and the jihadist group might not be as far apart as we think. The fanatical ideology of ISIS or Boko Haram is just the last ingredient added to a bubbling cauldron of male frustration, rage and resentment. As the anthropologist Scott Atran wrote recently in Aeon, most jihadists don’t even know much about Islam. A few well-chosen pugilistic Quran quotes and homophobic or misogynistic slogans can rile up a resentful male to all kinds of evil. The wellspring of this evil is not in the religion, nor even the economic conditions, or the socially constructed patriarchy, but in profound, implacable resentment. Other factors converge, as Atran notes, to help sculpt resentment into warfare, including the ‘band of brothers’ promise of jihad – which answers to deep-seated social yearnings in isolated and alienated young men. [emphasis added]
So what can be done? If male frustration and resentment is the unifying psychodynamic underneath homegrown lone-wolves and international extremists alike, then how do we address such root frustration? Every human society has contended with the challenge of containing and redirecting male frustration and rage: these responses can be categorised into a few varieties.

The rest of the piece proposes that basically all these guys need to find sexual outlets that are socially acceptable that let them integrate into their respective societies in a way that works out so they don't resort to violence.

A couple potential problems here ...

Roy Baumeister, for instance, wrote that male socialization processes tend to have a lot of contingent honor.  You don't get a gold star just for being in the class, you have to prove there's any reason to recognize you as on the football team to begin with.  In the military there's the wash-outs.  Male social systems are historically built in such a way that any one male in a stable social system is ultimately replaceable.  So if societies and particularly male social dynamics treat men as disposable how do you come up with a way to make men feel like they're not disposable or make them actually not disposable?  That is essentially a way to describe how cults get formed, so far as I can tell.  That was, in a very practical sense, what Mark Driscoll was trying to solve in the Dead Men sessions.  How he went about doing it had some severe problems but the Aeon author and the former pastor of Mars Hill had a remarkably similar idea about how the greatest social pathology to a stable order is a bunch of disaffected horny young dudes who, lacking a legitimate social outlet for their libidos, might resort to all manner of undesirable and predatory behaviors.

Okay ... but who says antisocial behavior such as mass shootings is necessarily strictly the domain of guys who can't get laid?

Because, and here's the part that's so obvious it might actually need to be said, the dating/mating game in the contemporary West is a remorseless status-vetting process.  Assortive pairing and status matching processes are apparently here to stay in the West.  One of the things tacit in the Strange exchange is that the guy who has presumably never been laid presumably hadn't earned the privilege of getting laid.  Now as scapegoating gambits go the guys who lack the socialization or status capital to get laid being the source of toxic masculinity is an interesting move in terms of not being the first thing people might think of, but it's not exactly an innovative idea. 

The trouble is that not everyone agrees the people most likely to be violent bullies are the not-socially-integrated.  The nastiest bullies can frequently have the highest level of social status, aka the Regina George type or the Flash Thompson.  They bully because they can get away with it or by being selective enough in their choice of victims that they pick low-status targets for whom there may not be a lot of natural sympathy.  Throw in the contemporary idiom of identity politics and someone who might have been a relatively high status person in his/her social strata can take on a narrative of symbolic victimhood for a sympathetic demographic. 

If there's anything weird and unique about the "culture of victimhood" is that it consists of a set of rhetorical idioms and self-identifying labels that can allow just about anyone to self-identify with the persecuted victim label.  Mark Driscoll pulled this move about a decade ago in the wake of having the convenient situation of his handful of rivals to social influence within Mars Hill subjected to kangaroo courts.  So the difficulty with a theory that violence is apt to be perpetrated by he-who-can't-get-laid is that this simply doesn't seem to be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt.  Men who recognize their disposability within a given society and, in resentment of that, find a way to make their mark on society, there's some potential merit in that idea but the Aeon contributor, by fixating on the sexually frustrated male, seems to be drawn like others to a symptom rather than a cause.

Controlling for the means of mass violence (aka gun control) would still be nothing more than treating a symptom rather than the cause, and whatever the cause may be ... it frankly seems absurd to imagine there will be a solution that works across the board.  Violent crime may well be lower than it's ever been compared to thirty years ago but thanks to media access it will be better reported than ever.  The likelihood of mass/serial killing could be lower now thanks to increased capacity to communicate across precinct and county lines that killers could cross back and forth over back in the Reagan era. 

The riff on the Abrahamic religions was quaint because if there was a tradition in the West in which the inability to get laid was made a point of spiritual celebration it would be the Christian tradition.  Paul writing that it was better to remain unmarried if that was possible comes to mind.  What we have in contemporary society is a social expectation that if you haven't gotten laid something's wrong with you as a social creature.  Maybe thirty years ago the single guy at forty would get asked if he was gay, for instance.  It's impolite to ask that now, perhaps, but the supposition that those who can't get laid or haven't gotten laid are in some meaningful sense not fully alive isn't that hard to find in popular culture. 

What won't accomplish anything is to formulate the problem of male aggression in a class warfare idiom, for instance, a woman may aspire to have the same freedoms and liberties of a man but if toxic male aggression stems from those men who have in some sense or another failed to assimilate into society then that could signal to us that men from lower classes don't FEEL like they have a whole lot of meaningful freedoms at all.  White women who are feminists do not, probably, aspire to be treated by the cops the way black men get treated by the cops, so that's a sense in which a feminist who talks abstractly about the benefits men get from the patriarchy can (at times) forget that race introduces a radically new component to theoretical discussions about what the alleged benefits of a patriarchy may be for men. 

If the way status-vetting works in contemporary Western societies stays as is then there will be plenty of guys who lose the contest to have the privilege of having sex with a partner of their choice (male or female) but it's not at all clear that he-who-can't-get-laid is necessarily in danger of perpetrating violent crime.  There does seem to need to be some sense entitlement, perhaps, but radicalization seems to require that individual failure to attain a non-disposable role in society has to be able to be converted into an ideological premise to rationalize violence.  I think the sexual frustration of males meme is too problematic on its face to be taken seriously.  There's a gender essentialism to it that if guys can't get laid they could become mass shooters.  Women who can't get laid will probably never get nominated for this dubious stereotype, but either way it may just be a dubious stereotype since the ability to have sex or the inability is probably itself no more than a symptom and not a cause.

But for those who are already in the negotiated privilege of a regular sexual relationship with someone of satisfactory social status it might be tempting to imagine that those who fail to attain that status may be prone to violence.  That seems like it's a more decorous and genteel form of scapegoating ... but it still seems like scapegoating.  Amasa's tacit proposal seems to be that guys need an outlet for sexual frustration so they don't resort to violence, it seems as though that's asking for the moon, a more practical solution would be to consider that the male ambition for social integration has to be something we can provide as a society irrespective of whether or not young males successfully negotiate the privilege of a sexual relationship.  Given how pitiless the status-vetting game of date-and-mate seems to be if you solve the social integration vs male disposability conundrum in a way that doesn't make getting laid a requirement to a working definition of full/real citizenship you may discover people pair off in satisfactory ways as a side effect.

Or as the joke in the television industry goes, you never actually win the Emmy by going for the Emmy. 

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