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The present day syllabus of masculinity

On the evening of 30 January 1948, five months after the independence and partition of India, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was walking to a prayer meeting at his home in New Delhi when he was shot three times, at point-blank range. He collapsed and died instantly. His assassin originally feared to be Muslim, turned out to be Nathuram Godse, a Hindu Brahmin from western India. Godse, who did not attempt to escape, said in court that he felt compelled to kill Gandhi since the leader with his womanly politics was emasculating the Hindu nation – in particular, with his generosity to Muslims. Godse is a hero today in an India utterly transformed by extreme Hindu Patriotism – an India in which Mein Kampf is a bestseller, a political movement inspired by European ultranationalism dominates politics and culture. For the first years of his life he was raised as a girl, with a nose ring, and later tried to gain a hard-edged masculine identity through Hindu supremacism. Yet for many struggling young Indians today Godse represents, along with Adolf Hitler, a triumphantly realised individual and national manhood.

The moral prestige of Gandhi’s murderer is only one sign among many of what seems to be a global crisis of masculinity. Luridly retro ideas of what it means to be a strong man have gone mainstream even in so-called advanced nations. In January Jordan B Peterson, a Canadian self-help writer who laments that “the west has lost faith in masculinity” and denounces the “murderous equity doctrine” espoused by women, was hailed in the New York Times as “the most influential public intellectual in the western world right now”.

But gaudy displays of brute manliness in the west, and frenzied loathing of what the alt-rightists call “cultural Marxists”, are not merely a reaction to insolent former weaklings. Such manic assertions of hyper-masculinity have recurred in modern history. They have also profoundly shaped politics and culture in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Osama bin Laden believed that Muslims “have been deprived of their manhood” and could recover it by erasing the phallic symbols of American power. Beheading and raping innocent captives in the name of the caliphate, the black-hooded young volunteers of the Islamic State were as obviously a case of psychotic masculinity as the Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Behring Breivik, who claimed Viking warriors as his ancestors. Last month, the Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte told female rebels in his country that “We will not kill you. We will just shoot you in the vagina.”

Certainly, men would waste this latest crisis of masculinity if they deny or underplay the experience of vulnerability they share with women on a planet that is itself endangered. Masculine power will always remain extremely rare to find, prone to periodic crises, breakdowns and panicky reassertions. It is an unfulfillable ideal, a hallucination of command and control, and an illusion of mastery, in a world where all that is solid melts into thin air, and where even the seemingly powerful are haunted by the spectre of loss and displacement. As a straitjacket of onerous roles and impossible expectations, masculinity has become a source of great suffering – for men as much as women. To understand this is not only to grasp its global crisis today. It is also to sight one possibility of resolving the crisis: a release from the absurd but crippling fear that one has not been man enough.