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Badasses and Alpha Males
A letter from a reader
As I mentioned in my previous post, I get a lot of email from viewers of the Glenn Show. So many, in fact, that we’ve got a new set of initiatives to help viewers get in touch with me and each other in a more organized fashion, which you can read about here.
Our conversation from last week about what John McWhorter termed the “badass motherfucker” problem in the Black community seems to have struck a chord with people, if my inbox and the comments on YouTube are any indication. Many of these responses were quite thoughtful. One in particular addressed itself to some broader implications of the “badass motherfucker” problem so eloquently that I asked the author, Elizabeth Hummel, if I could share her name and her words with my readers. She generously agreed, and so below you’ll find her email to me in very lightly edited form.
Elizabeth rightly points out that the problem of hypermasculinity is not solely a “Black” problem—it’s endemic to the human species. Accordingly, it’s worth remembering that some aspects of the social and cultural maladies that John and I discuss have very, very deep roots in human nature.
But that does not mean that these problems cannot be at least mitigated. We see many places in the world where they are indeed mitigated, even overcome. Elizabeth’s message beautifully outlines the complexity of the “badass motherfucker” problem, but I came away from it with a sense of hope rather than despair. (As to whether I’m truly an “alpha male,” the jury’s out on that!)
Dear Professor Loury,
The “Slippery Slope to Hell” episode with John moved me. I have been feeling despair about the needle moving at all away from toxic woke ideologies, and I saw that despair mirrored in you both. I have been trying to find a ground where I can feel sane and live the rest of my life, doing what I can to change things but also not being paralyzed with grief and isolation. Since my entire social network has been progressive people and not conservative people, this is especially painful. You both were so eloquent in this episode, and as always, I appreciate your contribution to our culture. Sometimes you feel like a lifeline to me. Amidst my gloomy thoughts, it is so refreshing just to hear sane people talking.
I wanted to share some thoughts about the part where you talk about the “badass motherfucker,” because it seems to me that there is an obvious puzzle piece that you do not discuss: alpha males in all human cultures.
John brings up the “badass motherfucker” as a problem that he cannot see a solution for. He says that he “gets it,” both intellectually and culturally as a black person, but he does not see a solution, he doesn’t know what to do with it. He gives an example of a guy standing up in a lecture and declaring to great applause (from women especially) that he is a “badass motherfucker.” You tell your own story of being a badass motherfucker when you were a younger man, teaching at Harvard by day but switching personas at night to hook up, get drugs, walk the streets. You point out that you could have been killed, that it was completely stupid. You paid great prices for being that badass motherfucker, prices so clearly not worth paying.
As you convey, the valorization of this kind of person is incredibly damaging on many levels. Resisting arrest is just stupid, and people who do so should not be seen as manly heroes. I believe we need to criticize the damaging trends in any human culture as you do so eloquently of black culture. The fact that there is very little room for that critique is deeply discouraging, when you clearly want things to be better for black people in America.
So, I completely agree with you, but I do think we need to better understand why not only black culture but all cultures love their badass motherfuckers. I think having some compassion and depth of understanding both for yourself as a younger man and for these young men itching for a fight and a chance to display their tail feathers in this current moment could be helpful as we grapple with so many problems about violence in our society. They are not just going to go away. They never have gone away. It is always going to be a cultural balancing act.
John mentions that this persona exists in other cultures besides the American black culture. In truth, the badass motherfucker male person is in every human culture, including white culture. White girls call them “bad boys.” These fellows are also called alpha males by biologists, in humans and other primates. There is also a great deal of evidence that such males are born, not created by culture. Testosterone levels play a key role. Such behavior has been exhaustively chronicled by scientists about our own species and in our primate cousins, as well as other mammals and birds. Badass motherfuckery is part of primate mating behavior and the quest for social dominance in males. (Robert Sapolsky is a good source on some of this.)
In a relevant aside, John mentions that the women applauded when the badass motherfucker made his pronouncement during the lecture. That is because, as we all know, admit it or not, like it or not, young women are sexually attracted to alpha males. Female primates of mating age are generally speaking attracted to the larger, more dominant, more successful males. It is an anomaly of our current human culture that many males who are by nature more “beta,” that is, not as strong or dominant physically, have found status (and therefore attractive and healthy mates) through education or wealth.
It could be that, even though you had achieved the high social status of a job teaching at Harvard in your mid-30s, something else deep in your biology was also compelling. Alpha males also struggle mightily with monogamy. Even though pursuing these activities was damaging to you and others, even though it was stupid and dangerous, it was still something you had to deal with. It could have had little to do with being black. The particular form—the swagger, the language, the clothes, the drugs of choice—may have been from black American culture, but the deeper issue may have sprung from being born an alpha male.
I do not know black culture as you do, so of course I concede that there probably is a particular issue with young black men and the damaging narratives spun about them by the pundits in this moment we are in. But I believe the basic dynamics are human and pop up in different ways and cause problems in all cultures.
Now that you are older, you are no longer run as much by hormones. You also found your way out of that lifestyle before it killed you. You judge your younger self harshly, because you see how terribly it all could have turned out. The same kind of judgment of our younger selves happens with women: once we are past menopause, we cannot understand why we let ourselves be hurt by those badass motherfuckers when we were young, when there were really nice men on the sidelines that we ignored.
My point is not that we are “only animals,” or that our biology trumps culture and civilization. Civilization is necessary and beautiful and human. Laws are necessary for human culture, anarchy leads to darkness. I also do not make these points to excuse the fallout and harm, or to deny that bad choices are being made and better ones could be made. My point is that if we do not understand ourselves as we are, including the truth of our biological imperatives, we will never make progress. We must see the truth for what it is. Strategies should come from working with the truths about our humanity.
We do not want emasculated men, but we also do not want the excessive violence and other harm that testosterone unleashes in some men. We do not want to be cut off from our animal natures, but we are also cultural beings living in much more complex cultures than the ones in which our species evolved. We must honor and cultivate civilization too, we must grow beauty and create ideas. In my view, the unrest and violence arising all over the planet is at least partially coming from a deep human urge to assert the animal over the civilized being. And if that cannot be seen and honored and balanced as something important to address, then it will keep happening, over and over.
Sometimes it seems to me that the Greeks saw it all with such clarity—the deep and irreparable flaw in our humanity, leading to nothing but tragedy. However, I also believe in the love and compassion that Jesus and the Buddha taught. So I keep trying to communicate, make beautiful art, and enjoy my precious time being alive. Thank you for reading this.
And thank you for all you do.