Toxic? You can't 'cure' a tendency towards stoicism, aggression and competition. Elif Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty

April 15, 2021   5 mins

Gender studies courses should only be open to people who either have children, or have spent time working with farmyard animals. What else am I to conclude after learning that academics in this field (especially childless ones) think all sex-based traits are down to “nurture” rather than “nature”, even when it comes to the difference between hens and roosters?

They’d be less confident if they’d watched a clutch of chicks grow up, as we did over lockdown last year. Our little flock of backyard chickens now includes four hens and one rooster. He’s insufferable. I’ve watched his obnoxious personality blossom, in stark contrast to the docile hens, and I can only describe him as an absolute cock — both literally and figuratively. He is aggressive, domineering, territorial, horny, and very, very loud.

It would be difficult to find a creature who more completely epitomises all the traits we’re encouraged to condemn these days, under the catch-all term “toxic masculinity” But as well as being amused by his problematic machismo (and ridiculous hat), I’ve developed a grudging respect for his attitude. He takes his duties as chicken patriarch seriously, and is insufferable mostly because he pursues these duties with bird-brained single-mindedness.

He’s protective of the hens, stands guard while they eat and will fight anything he considers a threat to them – including us. Full-blown military assault by him is a mixture of comical and genuinely unnerving, as now he’s an adult he has spurs. He wields these sharp protrusions from the backs of his legs like a pair of sabres, fluffing up his neck feathers and flying at you spurs first, whereupon you have to win or he’ll attack you every time you go near him.

In humans, this kind of belligerence is the male-coded trait quickest to be filed under “toxic masculinity”. Regardless of how things are for chickens, though, we’re told that aggression in human males has nothing to do with biology. Instead, the explanations for phenomena such as males’ measurably greater propensity to commit violent crime are explained by theories such as bad role models, economic stress or gender role identification.

Having watched the rooster and the hens develop so differently, I find this less than convincing. It seems far-fetched that humans should be the only sexually dimorphic species on the planet in which sex has absolutely zero impact on attitude or behaviour.

“So what?” you might say. We may have some evolved instincts, but unlike chickens, humans can modulate these according to different social and cultural norms. Certainly, in many historic contexts, social pressure has leaned toward punishing not aggressive males but those who weren’t aggressive enough. This was the case until very recently: 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers in World War 1 were shot for cowardice.

And further back in time, some societies took these traits to extremes. The 13th-century Old Norse Saga of the Jomsvikings recounts exploits of such cheerfully macho ultra-violence they make my rooster look chicken. In one such episode, Svein Buason, a Jomsviking due to be executed, asks his enemies to hold his hair away from his neck so it won’t be bloodied as the blade falls. He then jerks his head, causing the blade to fall and cut off his enemy’s hands. It doesn’t get much more macho than using your own inevitable death to troll the enemy.

Contemporary culture, though, has swung the other way, and would rather deprecate than celebrate anything with a whiff of old-school masculinity. This is perhaps understandable: we live in a peaceful and high-tech society, and once-adaptive male-coded traits such as violence and physical risk-taking just aren’t useful like they were to the Jomsvikings. Indeed, in a society where employers prioritise soft skills, collaborative working and low levels of overt conflict, such traits are actively undesirable.

This is all fine, provided you believe human nature to be completely malleable. We just need to train boys out of being cock-ish. But the signs are not especially promising. In 2017-18, there were 7,905 permanent exclusions from schools (mostly for violence), of which only 1,787 (23%) were girls.

Some argue that the cure for this is working harder at teaching boys to eschew toxic masculinity. But what if a baseline of aggression is baked into human males, as it is in cockerels? Even if such tendencies are somewhat responsive to cultural cues, they may not be absolutely so. And if this is the case, efforts to eradicate “toxic masculinity” may be futile or even counter-productive.

Certainly, many of the young men on the receiving end of such social-constructionist efforts are responding by rejecting not stoicism, aggression and competition but the mainstream preference for cooperation, empathy, and non-violent negotiation. You can find some of these men in internet subcultures that revere traditionally cock-ish traits and cultures such as the Vikings and Spartans, while chafing at what Bronze Age Pervert, one of the more prominent voices in these realms, calls “matriarchy”.

In such groups, Jomsviking-style machismo, or even the World War 1 sort, is far from nearing extinction through social engineering. On the contrary: it’s increasingly self-aware and mutinous, and views the war on “toxic masculinity” as a conspiracy to subordinate the natural vigour of males. And men who have adopted a version of this worldview are increasingly opting out of the moral mainstream in more concrete ways too.

It was relatively easy to pretend the 20,000-odd Western fighters who joined Isis were motivated mainly by religious fervour. But this is less persuasive in the case of the hundreds of right-wingers who flocked to the recent conflict in the Ukraine, choosing their “side” seemingly at random and on occasions even shooting at each other.

What do they want, though? Consider the Viking raiders so idolised by such subcultures. These, reports the 17th-century historian William Camden, were drawn by lot from communities with too many spare males, and encouraged to go raiding in no small part because they were a nuisance at home. And they didn’t just want gold and women; they wanted glory. It’s not inconceivable that people such as  Craig Lang, wanted for murder in the USA but feted as a hero in Ukraine for his role in the conflict there, went in search of something similar.

This is not to condone such actions, but to wonder: what are the alternatives? In On Combat, Lt Col David Grossman compares peaceful, productive, empathic citizens (sheep), sociopathic aggressors (wolves) and those with “a capacity for violence, and a deep love for your fellow citizens” which he calls “sheepdogs”: those who fight to protect their own.

For Grossman, there’s honour in being a “sheepdog”. But well-meaning blank-slatist efforts to re-code all combative traits as “toxic masculinity” are now having the side-effect of rendering the “sheepdog” type suspect as well. Today, male-coded belligerence and stoicism are under fire even in quintessential “sheepdog” institutions such as the military and police.

But if, as I suspect, a measure of cockerel-like attitude is ineradicable in at least some human males, this may well backfire. If such men are now unwelcome even in the mainstream military and pseudo-military institutions that previously valued their personalities, we may find ourselves not in a safer and gentler world after all. We might just discover we have more Craig Langs on the loose.

Lang is relatively unusual in seeking out combat. But the underbelly of the internet is full of men violently hostile to the norms of a “feminist” mainstream that deplores the things they value, and who daydream increasingly vividly about the search for glory. Perhaps they will confine this to the realm of fantasy forever. But perhaps they won’t.

None of this is to offer an unqualified endorsement of these traits, which have many downsides. But wouldn’t we be better-advised to seek constructive roles for the men who possess them, rather than trying to “educate” (in other words shame) “toxic masculinity” out of existence. Especially if the alternative is a growing subculture of men who have gone beyond daydreaming online about “Vikings”, to actively seeking to recreate their violent, restless and hypermasculine world in the 21st century.

Our rooster has a job to do, and we value him for it – even though he is a cock. But for men whose personalities tend toward aggression, protectiveness, competition and stoicism, what honourable roles are left? We’d be foolish to shrug our shoulders as such men lose hope of being valued as protectors, and start looking for glory as wolves.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.