“I’ve never been there, but the brochure looks nice.”
Over in that part of the intertubes that has been dubbed ‘the Manosphere’ by its denizens and detractors alike, there is much talk of alpha males and beta males.
As I’m sure most of you know, the term alpha male comes from a zoological theory about the social and mating behavior found within wolf packs which has since proven to be incorrect. (It is still thought to have some degree of validity in primate cultures, however.) According to this theory, alphas are males who act as a kind of king-figure, dominating the other males and mating with the females of their choice. Betas are those males that are left to pick at whatever odd scraps the Alphas find unworthy. The theory’s terminology has been picked up by modern American culture, of course, and indeed in the eighties was used as an excuse by no small number of Izod-collar-popping, Gordon-Gecko-wannabes to behave like complete assholes because they thought Bonfire of the Vanities was an instructional How-To guide. What the Manoshpere has done with the terms alpha-male and beta-male, though, is utterly fascinating: In the Manosphere, who is and isn’t an alpha has been largely flipped.
Manosphere-designated alphas are still identified as dominant, bad-ass, and the ones deserving of praise. However, the label is largely given to those who have crappy jobs or are unemployed, and who don’t get their “fair share” of “hot chicks to bang.” Conversely, those men who have plenty of money to burn, have beautiful women clambering to bed or marry them, and own the companies where people in the Manosphere aspire to entry-level employment are referred to as the betas. To be clear: It’s not that the Manoshpere has changed the definition of who is and isn’t an alpha or beta. They’ve just convinced themselves that they are the ones that the rest society wishes it had the courage to emulate, even if they just so happen lack all of the classic alpha-male characteristics.
How the Manosphere got to this point is equally interesting, because they didn’t just waive a metaphorical magic wand. Instead, over time they have constructed a largely impressive intellectual chain of arguments that incorporate arcane zoological terminology and references to historically significant sociologists and political philosophers, as well as a finely tuned grasp of the rhetorical tools used by debaters to dismiss potential counter-arguments such as appeals to probability, fallacy of the undistributed middle, augmentum ad populum, and other logistical fallacies. All of their alpha/beta arguments, in other words, are highly clever, well read and well thought out, and would no doubt be impressive if not for the one tiny flaw that each shares: It takes only a brief glance at the definition of ‘alpha’ and ‘beta’ to see that they are all wrong to a rather painfully obvious (and sometimes humorous) degree.
Which brings me to Jeff Shafer.
As I noted previously in an OTC throw-away, Shafer wrote a piece earlier this week in The Federalist that argued against same-sex marriage. The piece was full of clever and highly intellectual observations — as highly intellectual as the Manosphere’s arguments about who are society’s real alphas, in fact. It was also moronic.
There was some pushback to my mocking of the piece, and that pushback is rightly on me for not taking the time to explain myself. I will attempt to correct this right now — less so because of whatever Shafer said than the point of fact that Shafer’s fatal flaw is one that is surprisingly common with smart people of all political stripes.
The problem with Shafer’s piece isn’t that he and I have differing views on same sex marriage. (Though to be fair, we are indeed on opposite ends of this spectrum.) Neither is it that his piece is highly offensive. (Although it certainly is — and not only to LGBTs, but to adopted children and adopting parents as well.) It isn’t even the rather obvious irony that he wrote about how vital it is that a central government step in and dictate familial lives and structures under the rubric of the ‘Alliance Defending Freedom’ on a site that claims to exist to push for smaller central government. Sure, all of the above were strikes against him from my personal point of view. But they weren’t the piece’s actual fatal flaw, which is this: It falls victim to the crime of Intellectualism.
Please note that I am not talking here about lower-case-i intellectualism, which is simply a term akin to rationalism. Rather, I am talking about capital-I Intellectualism, which I define as that process where trying to impress your peers with your own cleverness gets in the way of your actual thinking. It is what my grandmother used to refer to as “being so sharp that you cut yourself,” and my father as “racing straight through Smart all the way back around to Stupid.” Although Intellectualism pretends that is the same as thinking intellectually, it is not. Rather, Intellectualism is the enemy of intellectualism.
In his argument, Shafer goes through many very smart intellectual observations (which are not so central to this post) to reach his Intellectual conclusion (which is): Because society now recognizes same-sex marriage, we are all orphans with no parents, and further there is no longer any such thing as children. Per Shafer, this applies even to those of us in heterosexual marriages raising our own biological children.
And it was right around here where Shafer should have stopped typing, taken a leisurely walk around whatever neighborhood he lives in, looked around at the people who live there, and said to himself, “Shit, I totally screwed up my math somewhere.”
You may believe that same sex marriage is good; you may believe that it is bad; you may have no opinion on the subject. Hell, you might believe that human should be able to marry hamsters, or that Hurricane Katrina was God’s way of punishing America for even flirting with the idea. What you can’t deny, regardless of your position, is that you have parents, and that the United States’ children didn’t just magically disappear under a cloud of pretty words dressed up to look like thoughtful analysis. To say that because Russell Saunders got married two years ago the children in your town no longer exist requires you to pretend that we have always defined a child as something that we have never, ever, ever defined a child to be. As long as there have been humans, there have been circumstances where said children were not raised by both biological parents. We have never once decided that those underaged people were therefore somehow not children — and we certainly have never argued that their very existence means that no other young people can be considered children either.
I don’t say this about many political arguments here, but I’ll say it about Shafer’s: It’s very, very, very stupid. And it isn’t stupid because it’s anti-SSM. If someone at The Advocate wrote a piece that argued that because Indiana passed a poorly worded religious freedom bill, our nations brothers and sisters are no longer related to one another in any familial way and that if we ever wanted to have siblings again we needed to repeal said law, it too would be a very, very, very stupid argument. The Stupid, in other words, transcends both politics and culture.
And before you shake your head and cluck at either Shafer or the Manosphere, be aware that Intellectualism is far more common among we smart folk than we like to pretend.
For example, I majored in political science, and as a student I was damn good at it. I once was encouraged by a professor to flesh out a paper I’d wanked out overnight (because I’d forgotten that it had been assigned until the day before it was due) and develop it into my dissertation, because he said it was “important and scholarly work.” (For the record, it was neither. I was just really good at making papers sound smart.) But soon after college I began to feel something akin to distain about my chosen discipline, because its community often rewarded Intellectuals over intellectuals. Indeed, Intellectualism is rife in much of academia — or at least it was in my time. To paraphrase Alan Sokol after his famous Social Text hoax, you can talk about gravity being a social construct all you want, but it won’t do you much good when you take a walk out of your twelfth story balcony.
And despite what conservatives might say, Intellectualism isn’t confined to academia; it’s abundant in politics as well.
True story: I have a good friend who is both conservative and damn smart — much, much smarter than I am, in fact. Once he noted to me that liberals in the United States are not only pro-abortion, they are pro-ifanticide. And not just infants — he argued that mainstream liberals were OK with parents or the government killing children up to three years of age for whatever reason. When I challenged him on this, he gave arguments as skillful, cunning, and clever as Shafer’s piece in The Federalist: He had statistics, quotes from modern philosophers, examples of logistical fallacies made by pro-abortion writers, and other very smart lines of thinking that all backed up his thesis about liberals being OK with killing toddlers. The only thing his argument lacked, in fact, was the tiniest shred of actual tethering to reality — a stumbling block which he could have easily detected himself had he ever taken the time to actually talk to a liberal (any liberal) rather than spend all of his time trying to impress his conservative Intellectual brethren with clever word-smithing.
Nor is Intellectualism anything new.
Women have been denied suffrage in this country for a much longer period of time than they have had it. The reason for this denial of voting rights was largely Intellectual arguments — which, if you go back and read them today, are all very smart and clever indeed — which stated that women were too mentally slow, emotionally stunted, and incapable of rational observation to be safely allowed access to a voting booth. This despite the fact that pretty much everyone that conceived or parroted such an argument actually lived with a woman at the time they made it, and should have been able to see very quickly what a load of tosh it truly was had they not spent all of their time trying to sound so smart and clever.
Indeed, if you look through the course of modern human history (and perhaps further back), you will see that almost everything we as a species have done to one another that could be described as so Evil that we really should have collectively known better— genocide, slavery, torture, human testing, eugenics — has been allowed and even condoned because of capital-I Intellectualism. Capital-I Intellectualism is what we clever-thinking folks turn to when we begin suspect that our deification of our own intellect is far more important than the observations of others, and more often than not bad things follow if we’re actually taken seriously.
There has been a long history in this country (and likely everywhere else) of smart people refusing to point out Intellectualism for fear of being seen as slow-witted by their peers, and an equally long history of other smart people refusing to point out Intellectualism for fear that they won’t be considered part of intellectual society if they do. Both of these conditions are alive and thriving today. And I say: Enough of that s**t.
Thus, when Shafer argues that gays being allowed to be married means that you magically no longer have parents, and that the wee person that came out of your womb that you’ve spent over a decade raising is no longer your child, he is part of the problem.
And if you’re defending him and praising his cleverness, then you are too.
 If you’re one of those people who has no idea what the Manosphere is, good for you. Believe me when I say I wish I was still among your number.
For those unfamiliar, the Manosphere is a term that loosely applies to websites and chatrooms that cater to pick-up artists, men’s rights advocates, champions for the legalization of marital rape, that part of #gamergate that doesn’t pretend that #gamergate is all about ethics in journalism, and that one guy that sues bars that have Ladies Nights because he believes his inability to get discounted drinks is the greatest threat to civil liberties in our lifetime.
There’s also this: One of the odd quirks of the Manosphere is that if you ever link to them about anything at all, they tend to show up in droves and yell at everyone in ALLCAPS in your comments section for days, and then the people who have nothing better to do with their free time but follow Manosphere commenters all day and yell at them in ALLCAPS show up to engage in their inexplicable hobby, and basically it’s like when you find grain moths in your pantry and have to throw out all of your food and wipe every surface down with bleach.
And I say all of this because I’m sure people would be otherwise be asking, “Why don’t you link to an example of what you’re talking about so we can judge for ourselves, Tod?”
Basically, that’s why.[/efn_note]