A macho mindset is a psychological precondition for all oppression
Universalist – Quaker journal – UK – Summer 2014
Peter Tatchell, Director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation, writes:
The 1970s queer liberation and women’s liberation movements shared a common agenda. Both challenged the traditional forms of straight male masculinity that underpin sexism and homophobia. By so doing, they implicitly offered a unique, important contribution to the emancipation of the whole of humanity from violence – and from all forms of oppression and subjugation.
Having been part of these radical movements more than four decades ago, I came to an understanding that gender and sexual emancipation are not merely questions of personal lifestyle, civil rights, social equality or individual freedom.
By contesting misogyny, homophobia and patriarchy, they pointed the way to a non-oppressive form of masculinity – stripped of machismo – and thereby also subverted the macho mindset that is a psychological precondition for war, abuse and tyranny.
The ultimate aim of women’s and queer liberation was a revolution in culture, to end heterosexual male supremacism and the concomitant cult of straight machismo, which lies at the heart of all oppression and exploitation.
Macho ways of thinking and acting are not, of course, biologically ordained and immutable. They are primarily the socially-determined product of a specific set of culturally-constructed institutions and ideologies.
Nor are these expressions of harsh masculinity exclusively the traits of straight men; some gay men and women may also embrace them – as we saw with the female Nazi guards at Ravensbruck concentration camp and male-loving warriors such Alexandra the Great and Field Marshalls Kitchener and Haig.
Throughout much of history, most societies have been straight-dominated patriarchies and have cultivated institutions and ideologies that have resulted in male children being reared and socialised differently from female ones. Boys have been generally conditioned to see rivalry, toughness, domination and even violence as natural, acceptable and normal attributes of maleness.
During childhood these macho values generally become internalised as desirable modes of male behaviour. Male emotion, sensitivity, gentleness, persuasion and conciliation tend to be looked down upon with relative disfavour among men.
These values are usually negatively depicted within most cultures as signs of weakness, typically associated with women and gay men – with the latter frequently being disparaged for failing to conform to the masculine ideal.
From a very early age, most male children learn – to varying degrees – to be competitive, strong, aggressive and unyielding. The idea that problems can be ultimately resolved – and often legitimately resolved – by threats and violence becomes deeply etched into their inner psyche.
The challenge to straight machismo was one very significant aspect of the revolutionary agenda of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) liberation movement which emerged following the Stonewall Riots in New York in June 1969.
In contrast to earlier gay law reform and equality-oriented movements, the 1970s LGBT liberation movement did not seek to ape heterosexual values or secure the acceptance of sexual orientation and gender identity minorities within the existing sexual conventions.
Indeed, it repudiated the prevailing sexual morality and institutions – rejecting not only heterosexism (heterosexual supremacism) but also male machimso, with its oppressive predisposition to rivalry, toughness and aggression; the extreme expressions of which are the rapist, queer-basher, racist murderer and war criminal.
The “radical drag” and ”gender-bender” politics of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) in the early 1970s glorified and promoted male gentleness. A conscious, if sometimes exaggerated, attempt to renounce the oppressiveness of masculinity and male privilege, it rejected straight macho values; identifying them with the subordination of women and LGBT people.
The GLF was truly revolutionary because it attempted to subvert male-female gender roles and straight patriarchy. It denounced the ethos of masculine competitiveness, domination and violence; instead affirming the worthwhileness of male sensitivity and affection between men and, in the case of lesbians, the intrinsic value of an eroticism and love independent of maleness.
These ideas led me to propose that without the construction of a cult of machismo and a mass of aggressive male egos, neither sexual, gender, class, racial, speciesist nor imperialist oppression are possible.
All forms of oppression depend on two factors for their continued maintenance.
First, on specific economic, political and ideological structures.
Second, on a significant proportion of the population, mainly heterosexual men, being socialised into the acceptance of harsh masculine values which involve the legitimisation of aggression and the suppression of gentleness and emotion.
The embracing of these culturally-conditioned macho values is what makes millions of people – mostly straight men, but some women and gay men too – able to participate in, or support, violence and repression.
This interaction between social structures, ideology and individual psychology was a thesis which the 1930s Austrian communist psychologist, Wilhelm Reich, was attempting to articulate in his book, The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933). He wrote about the authoritarian personality and its role of the creation and sustenance of Nazism.
In the case of German fascism, what Nazism did was glorify, awake and excite the macho mindset – the harsh masculinity that is intrinsic to so many patriarchal societies. It then systematically manipulated and organised this extreme machismo into a fascist regime of terror and torture which culminated in the Holocaust.
Since it is the internalisation of the masculine cult of toughness and domination which makes people psychologically suited and willing to be part of oppressive relations, repressive states invariably glorify masculine “warrior” ideals, and persecute those men – mainly queers – who fail to conform to them.
The mental embrace of masculine aggression is a prerequisite for injustice and tyranny. Love and tenderness between men therefore ceases to be a purely private matter or simply a question of personal lifestyle. Instead, it objectively becomes an act of sexual and cultural subversion which undermines the psychological foundations of oppression.
Hence the Nazi’s vilification of gay men as “sexual subversives” and “sexual saboteurs” who, in the words of Heinrich Himmler, had to be “exterminated – root and branch.”
My conclusion is:
The goal of eradicating war, injustice and exploitation requires us to change more than the political, economic and ideological structures of societies. We also need to educate and transform the individual personality to create men and women who are liberated from macho masculinity.
It requires a mental revolution inside our heads, so that we no longer psychologically accept the right, and seek the power, to dominate and exploit others; and are therefore unwilling to be the agents of oppressive regimes – whether as soldiers, police, gaolers and censors or as routine civil servants and state administrators who act as the passive agents of repression by keeping the day-to-day machinery of unjust government ticking over.
By challenging straight machismo, women’s and queer liberation is about much more than the limited agenda of equal rights. It offers a unique, revolutionary contribution to the emancipation of the whole of humanity from war and all forms of subjugation.
- Peter Tatchell was involved in the London Gay Liberation Front from 1971. For more info about the human rights work of the Peter Tatchell Foundation: www.PeterTatchellFoundation.org