Posted on March 27 2021
WHAT IS SO INHERENTLY MASCULINE ABOUT STATEHOOD AND NATIONS? MEN ALL OVER THE WORLD SEEM DRAWN TO THIS PARTICULAR SENSE OF BELONGING FOUND IN THESE POPULIST, NATIONALIST, EXCLUSIONARY MOVEMENTS. WHY DOES MASCULINITY SEEM SO CLOSELY TIED TO THESE MOVEMENTS? FROM INDIA, TO BRAZIL, TO MYANMAR, TO IRAN...TO MAKING AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, TO THE ALT-RIGHT, OR WHATEVER THE FUCK Q-ANON IS, THEY ARE FORMED MOSTLY BY MEN. WHY DO THEY ALWAYS SEEM AGGRIEVED, LEFT OUT, AND ANGRY? WHY ARE THEY ALWAYS UNITED AGAINST THE MINORITIES, WHILE SAYING THEY HATE THE ELITE? AND WHY DOES IT ALWAYS SEEM TO BE ASSOCIATED WITH NATIONALISTIC THEMES?
By Negin K
I don’t believe in nation-states. I don’t believe that violently belonging to a space between arbitrary, man-made lines on earth, should determine anyone’s access to basic human rights. I don’t believe the unearned, inherited privilege that is citizenship, should determine my right to mobility, or my prospect to have access to food. Who determines that a person born on a piece of land called Norway is more human than a person born in what we call Yemen?
This is why I believe those who subscribe to nationalist ideals, where by definition you unite against and form a bond against an imagined “other,” to be either uninformed or unempathetic. Ideals associated with nationalism are valued in our societies: to protect one’s home, to love one’s land, to be brave in the face of “foreign” intrusion and to respond to the call of duty. Yet it is often men who feel the burden of these calls, and who are often eager to join these causes.
I believe this idea of isolated, sovereign nations no longer serves us. In the globalized world we live in, ignoring the influence of superpowers on other nations is not an option. Whether we like it or not, the happenings in the land of former-peaceful-transitions-of-power impacts the rest of the world. While nation-states exist and the rest of world doesn’t get a say in who leads the US, we all get to nervously watch what unfolds there and fear the repercussions. Perhaps this incessant following of American media was the reason I felt the white supremacists marching in Charlottesville and the insurrection at the US Capitol so viscerally.
A lot has already been written about the whiteness of the riot, and the meek reactions of law enforcement compared to how they responded to marginalized people protesting for justice the previous summer. Yet, what struck me most was the angry men. Angry men storming the heart of American democracy; angry men waving flags, calling themselves patriots, heroes. Angry men draped in bald eagles and the stars and stripes, as visions of lady liberty danced through their heads. Angry men asserting an identity they felt like they belonged to; an identity they didn’t want others to share; angry men feeling entitled to exclusively own something that should be afforded to everyone: “the right to belong”.
It is not a new, or even a remotely unique American phenomenon. Men all over the world seem drawn to this particular sense of belonging found in these populist, nationalist, exclusionary movements. In fact, if this recent episode had not happened in the States, it most probably would not have been newsworthy at all.
Why does masculinity seem so closely tied to these movements? From India, to Brazil, to Myanmar, to Iran…to making “America Great Again”, to the “alt-right”, or whatever the fuck Q-anon is, they are formed mostly of men. And what is the deal with the women who join these misguided idiots in their foolish allegiances?
Why do they always seem aggrieved, left out, and angry? Why are they always united against the minorities, while saying they hate the elite? And why does it always seem to be associated with nationalistic themes?
Where gender, geopolitics, policy and history collide, there can’t be a simple question and there definitely cannot be a simple answer. But for the purpose of brevity, I will not get into concepts such as violence as a buy-in tool into masculine belonging (like when the Proud Boys’ leader said in 2017 to get to the highest level of their hierarchy, one must “kick the crap out of Antifa”); or the role of the male body in the performative aspect of nationalism, leading to militarism as a crux of nationalism and masculinity, trans bodies in war, homonationalism and the distinction some folks like to make between patriotism and nationalism.
The question I would like to begin with is, why men? I have been looking at research on this question as some light bedtime reading this past month. It is no surprise that most texts written on statehood, nationalism, citizenship and democracy use neutral language. We all know that often when Western researchers collect data which is not disaggregated by gender, sex, ability, ethnicity, etc, it almost always defaults to white, cis-het men. This is especially true in international relations and state building. So, most of the research done are the stories of men engaging with these concepts. I then came across a magnificent in-depth analysis of masculinity and nationalism by Joane Nagel. She argues that these concepts are best understood as masculine projects, because they are involving man made institutions, processes and activities. Statehood, a nation, borders as we conceive them all over the world, are all masculine projects.
Now I want to be clear, this is not to blame men for all the bad shit in the world, or claim women have not participated in horrendous acts in the name of nation-states. Of course, women are part of these projects although they rarely have had a hand in shaping them. Women are part of the statehood to an extent, with women being part of the democratic process through voting (although a recent and non-global phenomenon), through glass ceilings being broken by them taking political office in various nations, and through activism for women’s rights. Women’s roles in nation-states cannot be denied, but women are still functioning within a system made by, and for men. This means that by design, women are supporting actors for masculine notions.
Women’s roles in nationalist movements have often been more symbolic, or as biological producers of citizens of the collective, and as relational members like mothers or sisters whose purity must be protected. Often if women want to stray from these predefined roles, they must navigate through masculine systems, and in order to succeed, they must act as men have. There are many historic examples of the active roles of women in nationalist movements, using these same cliches to the advantage of the movement. Northern Irish Catholic women used to bang their trash can lids to notify the neighborhood of impending raids, in Iran and Alegria women rose up to support the revolutionary struggle but were cheated out of equal rights after the religious nationalism highjacked the cause. In most cases these roles remain in support of men’s nationalist struggles.
The next question that is important to ask is, what is so inherently masculine about statehood and nations? Researchers from the 90s proposed that the modern form of Western masculinity came about at the same time as the modern nation state. They have found that what masculinity meant at the time was embraced by the new nationalist movements of the 19th century. We know that nation states formed as masculine institutions and the tenants of many nationalist identities were initially created to emphasize and resonate with qualities, such as honour, patriotism, cowardice and bravery, and duty.
Many scholars, Nagel included, have argued that at any point in history and in any geographical location, there is a “normative” and “hegemonic” masculinity that sets the standards for men’s action, thinking and even demeanor. These types of standards, sometimes perhaps unintentionally, inform the way institutions are shaped, who can participate in them, and the roles certain groups are allowed to assume within them.
This concept of hegemonic masculinity is different from other forms of masculinity. Class, race, or sexuality-based masculinities often compete with the hegemonic form. This is too large a topic to fully explore here, but it is worth noting for anyone reading who may wonder about how masculinity permeates most institutions as an over encompassing concept.
These hegemonic masculine standards have shaped most countries around the world. There are old sayings in almost every culture that are repeated in their modern media and mean something akin to “men don’t cry” or “grow a pair” or some other bullshit told to young men about their particular hegemonic framework. Although we are starting to explore how these notions of masculinity may be harmful to both men and women, they are still infused deeply into most institutions, especially nations.
Hegemonic masculinity is often associated with qualities such as strength, honour, bravery, and a sense of duty. This is where it relates to nationalism and ideals of a nation state. While none of these are inherently bad traits, and are even considered as values, these paradigms often take a narrow view of what each of these mean and how men need to display them within a nation.
One example of this, is the glorification of militarism and the honourable soldier complex. I will not go into the complexities of militarism here, but in its simplest form we see countless movies and other forms of media being made which equate militarism to these same valued qualities. Rarely do we inspect the reasons as to why men are simultaneously drawn towards and expected to participate in these activities. If at the same time, masculinity is defined within this inherently limited perspective, men find themselves perfectly suited to the demands of nationalism. Especially where it demands corporeal sacrifice, as in going into war, for an imagined nation, in order to ensure that same strength, honour, bravery, or duty is fully realized.
This belief of duty, and reverence to it, is strong not just among men but also in those that surround them. In many places we see the prevalence of a sentimental idea of a mother trying to hide her son to avoid them being sent to war. Nagel found the opposite to be true, with in fact some women being openly ashamed of any pacifists related to them. She concludes, “Patriotism is a siren call that few men can resist, particularly in the midst of a political ‘crisis;’ and if they do, they risk the disdain or worse of their communities and families, sometimes including their mothers.” This disdain is very strong among groups of men. It appears that men experience greater FOMO because other men shame each other for missing out on things they deem masculine. You have probably seen quotes going around on the interwebs talking about how women fear violence and men fear being ridiculed or humiliated. This siren call that Nagel mentions is one that is ridiculed or questioned by almost no one, when men respond to a duty to their nation, real or imagined.
The task of defining community, setting boundaries and describing a national character, history and vision for the future, seems to often precede the definition of a nation. This task at its very core emphasizes both unity and otherness. In order to unite, an other must be defined, and so national identities often become a definition of who you are not, which inadvertently leads to ethnocentrism.
When the idea itself of a nation is conceived of, in relation to a geographic place and the existence of an other, its goal becomes to achieve this statehood through a belief in collective community. Projects like the EU, or even Canada, are including a widened idea of community to allow a formerly other-ed person, to hold “citizenship” of this collective. In the case of Canada this idea of citizenship must be examined within the narrative of the colonial occupation of the land. I believe this citizenship as a form of membership is not the same as “belonging.”
I have struggled with “belonging” for a very long time; from growing up in a country with people of various languages and ethnic identities including Kurds, Turks, Lurs, Baluchs, Arabs, Gilaks and Persians, all the while never realizing that “belonging” to an Iranian national identity differed vastly among us, to my angsty teenage years listening to Linkin Park and wondering about where the “somewhere I belong” is, to my adult years, as an immigrant, reading Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider and feeling the space in between the Sister to the Outsider in my bones. I have yet to figure out where I belong.
Perhaps it is because belonging has always remained a poetic or opaque concept – nobody seems to have been able to theorize it. Is it identity? Is it citizenship? Is it both or something entirely separate?
I think it is soft and vague because it is attached to a feeling. By definition, belonging with a group, means there is an other; This means there will inevitably be boundaries to see who the other is and then creates tiers of how much each person belongs. Being “in”, makes you get a feeling of being at home, attached, to places and people where you share civic or ethnic ideas of a community, or where you share an ancestry you have an assumed allegiance to.
Belonging is more than holding a citizenship, it is a dynamic, relational concept between ourselves and society. It is only achieved when we are acting and existing in the world. It is lived. Belonging to a nation is extending beyond formal membership through citizenship – it is reciprocal.
I imagine belonging to a nation-state gives you the tools to feel connected. I wonder if the reason men respond to this form of belonging is because they are so often denied other forms of it. Or if there is fear that if they don’t have at least the performative form of this belonging, by participating in acts belonging, then they would be ridiculed.
Time and again we have talked about how violence perpetrated by men often comes from some trauma related to shame or humiliation. Since most political, societal, economic and cultural structures are built by and for men, it is only natural that many of them feel a sense of entitlement over them. When others enter the spaces historically occupied by men, some of these same men may feel they are missing out, even when in reality they are not. That by virtue of someone’s very existence, they are being denied something. This is a recipe for humiliation. Michael Kimmel the author of Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era in a recent interview said: “The camaraderie of the community validates [these men’s] masculinity, and – even more importantly than that – gives them a sacred mission. That is really powerful for these guys.”
I believe what leads to the prevalence of men’s membership in exclusionary movements, is that the project of nationalism, as well as other geopolitical concepts, are discussed in the vacuum of gender analysis. The durability of the concept of the nation makes such analyses important. By doing so, we can come to terms with the need to belong for all, especially for men. We can continue to inspect the values that are unquestioned in most states and why many men are drawn to them, even as these values are really hollowed out shells of grander concepts. Without inspecting the hegemonic masculinity that underpins so many things in our societies, we will fail to create new, vibrant identities that can expand and shift to our growing humanity.
What if we teach our boys to belong? What if we teach them to belong to humanity beyond borders and nation states? What if the remedy is being held accountable within a community but being held at the same time?
Masculinity is isolating. If we give men the tools to belong, if we teach ideals of masculinity that are not based on hierarchy, if we don’t humiliate men who are different, if we make difference the basis of belonging rather than the cut-off point, can we then allow our boys to form community and belong comfortably to something other than narrowly defined concepts?
It will take policy change as well as men inspecting their own values, questioning what they really mean, and why belonging in spaces other than those that are exclusionary is so challenging for some. Perhaps we can imagine a world where we can unite around something other than flags, outside of the illusional binary of masculine and feminine, and grow our roots above imaginary lines of borders.
Can community bind us more than archaic, restrictive, one dimensional roles? Can mother, soldier, disabled, woman, American, human, citizen, gay, individual, black, autonomous, free, …belong the same? Can we allow transnational, stateless belonging? Indiscriminately belonging to a rock hurtling through space as we speak?
We do not yet know, what this world will look like, but I promise within our well-connected world it is not that far away. Until then, if you happen to have inherited the privilege to never have your belonging questioned, with your choices and dignity intact, I encourage you to question the values that seem so ubiquitous within your own nation. To realize that even when these ideas seem to be on the fringes, they endanger those that are identified as others in our communities. May we find community in inclusion, and bond in connection rather than division.
Negin is an Iranian-Canadian researcher. She spends the majority of her time thinking about the social, psychological and economic implications of gender. In recent years, this "melancholic migrant" has worked in EDI, policy research and gender within international development. She recognizes, with impatience, that she has much to learn and strives daily, to live in harmony with her contradictions. Follow her on Instagram.
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Masculinity and nationalism: gender and sexuality in the making of nations by Joane Nagel, 1998