“Knowing others is intelligence;
knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength;
Mastering yourself is true power.”
~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.
One of the many fascinating findings in analyses of Trump supporters is that men who identify as “completely masculine” were more likely to vote for him and approve of his policies. Hardly a shocker.
But it gets at something elemental, something too easily dismissed as simple misogyny or, in cutting-edge cultural parlance, “toxic masculinity.” Like “racism,” “transphobia”, and “nativism,” misogyny is a term referring to a real thing whose power declines in proportion to how commonly it is deployed.
It’s true that Trump and Trumpism are suffused by a brutal and basic form of masculinity. It’s true that this lines up perfectly with findings from social psychology that conservatives are less tolerant of ambiguity and less open to experience than liberals, and hence drawn to black and white views of morality and gender identity; indeed, for conservatives generally, the very idea of a differentiation between sex and gender, between biological reality and social construction, seems confused and confusing.
But it’s also true that this is a deep stratum in our body-minds, a foundational piece of our evolutionary inheritance. We ignore it—or attempt to exorcise it—at our individual and collective peril. The Daodejing nudges us to “know the male, but keep to the female,” not to cling to the female and castrate—or cancel—the male.
One way to understand Trumpism is to see it as a symptom of a deeper cultural problem: a lack of respect for traditional masculinity, and the collapse of the socioeconomic stage that allows it to flourish. Put another way, if you do away with traditional masculinity, toxic masculinity will take its place; one of the blind spots of many progressives is that they cannot distinguish between the two, and hence dismiss both. And that, of course, is cause and effect of toxic femininity.
Beneath all of this is an elemental truth: the masculine and feminine powers are not merely social constructs. In fact, social constructs are not merely social constructs or, alternatively put, the idea of “social constructs” is a social construct; they are a part of an integral whole in the world that we separate in analysis in order to better understand the complexity of reality. For human beings, it is natural to construct social reality. The reason we have trouble seeing this is that we have inherited the idea that nature and nurture are separate—that our nature is merely our genetic priors. For Aristotle, however, our nature included “nature” and nurture because we are social, political, meaning-making animals; our nature is to create culture.
And when it comes to sexuality and gender, the culture we create is bounded by biological forces. The sexual forces of male and female are like relatively fixed biological anchors, and the psychological forces of masculine and feminine are like ships tied to them but relatively free to move depending on the currents of culture. Gender is distinct from, but cannot be completely detached from, sex. Otherwise, the entire idea of a distinction between male and female, masculine and feminine—that is, the very ideas of sex and gender—become meaningless.
The obvious form of “mastering others is strength” is the alpha male monster bullying people into submission. But the opposite form of this is the dark female power—Tiamat or Kali—that, unconscious of her own masculinity, captive to her shadow, tries to destroy the other, all in the name of respect for otherness.
“Mastering yourself” means, in part, recognizing and expressing the masculine and feminine within—and not necessarily in equal proportions. At its best, traditional masculinity is one of the most successful formulas for doing this. The code of chivalry, traditional virtues like humility and moderation, and the ideal of the “gentle-man” all sublimate the will to dominate to a higher purpose and connect with the “taming of testosterone” that, as Ken Wilber puts it, is one of the primary tasks and fruits of civilization. That formula may be incomplete, has certainly been applied incorrectly, and needs to be supplemented; but it is a mistake to abandon it as a mere cypher for misogyny, patriarchy, and/or white supremacy.
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”