Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Ernest Hemingway Effect

Michael Dale
So I was watching a news report about Elliot Rodger, the attributed Isla Vista shooter who rampaged around the UC Santa Barbara campus last week, attacking anybody he could find, but especially women. According to the LA Times, Rodger targeted “the hottest sorority of UCSB,” blaming them for his sexual inexperience and feelings of isolation. He apparently believed his sexual deprivation merited blood payback. Millions of frustrated virgins must’ve collectively slapped their foreheads.

Then, without apparent irony, the program switched to a testosterone supplement ad. You’ve seen the one: the Axiron ad starring a handsome middle-aged man, resembling a scruffier George Clooney, who swaggers into his living room to his wife and kids’ open adulation. “I always say ‘be the man with the plan,’” says model and part-time actor Michael Dale. “But with less energy, moodiness, and a low sex drive, I had to do something.”

Some years ago, doctors routinely treated women’s menopausal symptoms with massive hormonal supplements. But long-term exposure to these hormones causes women demonstrable harm: rates of breast and ovarian cancer, gallstones, dementia, and stroke track positively with lifetime exposure to estrogens. Growing bodies of evidence suggest that similar consequences follow long-term testosterone supplementation, including coronary disease, gynecomastia, and (fittingly enough) chronic impotence.

Not that low testosterone isn’t serious. Between two and four million American men suffer clinical hypogonadism, which shortens life expectancy and diminishes quality of life. But barely one in twenty men with diagnosed hypogonadism receive needed treatment. Pharmaceutical companies market testosterone supplements, erectile dysfunction drugs, and other male medications, not to men diagnosed with legitimate illnesses, but to men afraid their lives are insufficiently masculine.  Call it “the Ernest Hemingway effect.”

Ernest Hemingway and friends
Advertisers have actively peddled the impression that masculinity is measured externally. The Axiron voice-over narration establishes masculinity as briskness, gregariousness, and sexual insatiability. Put crudely, real men get some constantly. It’s questionable how completely media-savvy men internalize this message; but based on his writings, Elliot Rodger evidently did. When he couldn’t prove his masculinity through sexual conquest, he apparently considered violence the next best option.

This desire to prove masculinity is hardly new. Hemingway believed that manhood had little relationship to one’s genital orientation; he believed boys became men through action. Like Teddy Roosevelt before him, he constantly created new tests to refine his inner core. These included honor in war and triumph in hunting, but also chivalry toward women, charity for the disadvantaged, and intellectual refinement, embodied in his novels.

While Hemingway’s modern variation on classical Stoicism helped establish the Twentieth Century, it also assumed a years-long learning track. Smarter critics than me have noted that advancing media technologies have stunted consumers’ attention spans. Reading the papers takes too long, and the evening news comes on too rarely; we demand information, ideas, and entertainment right now, dammit. Wired magazine notes that people reading off screens seldom read anything to completion.

Thus, people like Elliot Rodger see images of Hemingway or Roosevelt on the savannah, and think they’re entitled to have others think them masculine. They see Hemingway bagging gazelles, or Roosevelt leading a cavalry charge, not as the culmination of a years-long personal odyssey, but as disconnected moments. Some men, feeling their lives lack requisite manfulness, think they can buy virility in pharmaceutical form. Others tragically mistake cause and effect.

Teddy Roosevelt
If Rodger’s self-penned diatribe is reliable, he felt oppressed because he remained a virgin at twenty-two. Screw you, Junior. I didn’t have my first serious relationship until twenty-five. There’s no evidence Franz Kafka ever had sex, and Isaac Newton—both a learned scientist and devout churchman—boasted in his eighties to have retained his virginity. History and experience show that here’s no correlation between sexual prowess and personal merit.

But Rodger grew up surrounded by imagery reassuring him that masculinity was an entitlement, not an accomplishment. When real life contradicted his media-given macho expectations, he couldn’t reconcile the conflict. Psychologists call this “cognitive dissonance.” Most adults learn to accept this discrepancy. Rodger located its source outside himself, which, in his deluded mind, justified sudden vengeance. He wanted back the illusions real life had stolen.

Elliot Rodger’s violence is clearly an outlier. His psychological struggle is not. Journalists, researchers, and other professionals have spilled much ink about modernity’s supposed manfulness deficit. Our lives today have more stuff, yet feel emptier, than ever before. And it’s impossible to separate that gap from our media-moderated lives. How much happier we’d be if we left our climate-controlled hermitages and just spoke to one another.

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