Norah Vincent: Masculinity goes to war
Norah Vincent
Published May 2, 2002

Nobody talks about honor anymore, certainly not male honor, so this is going to sound very old-fashioned. And nobody, except the hippest, most artfully abstruse academics, thinks of wars in terms of gender paradigms.

But the war on terror is just such a war. It's a war about cultural masculinity, ours vs. theirs.

Western masculinity is in remarkably good shape at present. Part of the reason is, of course, that physical bravery, one of the cardinal masculine virtues of old, is popular again after Sept. 11 -- more popular, one could argue, than it has been since the sexual revolution of the 1970s. Suddenly everybody understands why it's not such a bad idea to have a few stolid, burly guys in uniform around when the enemy attacks. It seems to have finally dawned on us that machismo has its upside, a considerable one, in fact, that might just save us in a crunch.

Interestingly, American masculinity wouldn't have come out looking so good on Sept. 11 if it hadn't been thriving on Sept. 10. Those men -- and a few women -- ran into those burning buildings because their cultural cues told them it was their duty to do so. I am distinguishing here between gender (masculinity or femininity) and sex (maleness or femaleness) -- gender being cultural, sex being biological. Thus in both men and women, cultural masculinity had been provided an outlet in the form of a firefighter's or a police officer's uniform. Those people knew what they were supposed to do, what they instinctively felt inclined to do, and they did it. Both they and society benefited as a result.

Consider, by contrast, an equivalent situation in the Arab world: the unveiled girls who were caught recently in a fire at their school in Saudi Arabia. Because the girls were not dressed in proper hijab, male rescuers did not go in to rescue them. Their fragile masculinity -- the same fragile masculinity that has led Muslim clerics for generations to opportunistically misinterpret the Koran's teachings on women -- also prevented them from saving innocent lives.

Likewise, the same insecure and thwarted masculinity that compels so many Muslim extremists to oppress women also may be what compels them to commit acts of terror such as the string of senseless suicide bombings that Palestinians, both men and now a few women, have committed in Israel. We have heard many reports in the past seven months of high unemployment in the Arab world coupled with a huge population of people under 25. This is true in the West Bank and Gaza as well. Should we be surprised when this results in violence? Take crowds of young men, give them nothing to do, no hope for the future, someone to blame for their misfortunes and no outlet for their masculine instincts, and you have a breeding ground for terrorism.

Much as we may not like to admit that we are animals, naturalists and researchers have emphasized that unsocialized males are dangerous. In parts of Africa and Asia, for example, certain elephants have been known to attack and even kill other animals, unusual behavior for this generally docile, nonpredatory mammal. After researching the phenomenon, specialists found that the marauding culprits or "rogue" elephants were males who had been improperly socialized as a result of having left the matriarchal elephant society at too young an age and having gone unsupervised for too long.

Are we immune to such an outcome simply by virtue of being human? Many studies of adolescent boys have shown that we are not.

Clearly, there is a place for the classic masculine virtues -- for courage and strength and unflinching resolve in the face of danger -- in any civilized society. This has been true throughout human history, embodied in the three major monotheistic faiths, all of which are patriarchal. But fundamentalist Islam has gone to misogynistic extremes -- a bad sign for the state of Islamist masculinity.

When religion and culture clash and the balance of instinct and socialization is offset, disaster results. That is why we are unlikely to solve our terror problem until the Middle East solves its masculinity problem.

-- Norah Vincent is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a think tank set up after Sept. 11 to study terrorism. She wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times.

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