Many people use the terms “Alpha Male” and “Beta Male” to refer to guys with machismo versus “nice guys.” This is a misunderstanding. I have known plenty of happy-go-lucky, sweet, innocuous guys who are terribly popular with both genders and could easily qualify for “Alpha” status, given that this term is best used for the winner in a tournament species. To the extent that humans are a tournament species, this tournament largely involves charm, verbal dexterity, diplomacy, and social tact, not direct physical violence. The popular “nice guys” that I have known were A) extremely good looking and B) had charmed plenty of “toughs” who would have their backs in an instant if they were ever challenged with violence. As I argued in Pt1, these are the folks that became leaders for the better part of history and pre-history, not the biggest, baddest fighter. Simply put, terms relevant to canine psychology are woefully inadequate for describing humans accurately.
These terms are being bandied about because our society and education system unwittingly encourage the segregation of the good-looking & charming from the unfortunate-looking & awkward; the “cools” from the “nerds.” But this even misunderstands the canine psychology, for as I argued in Pt2, the “beta” is always nipping at the “alpha’s” heels and is a potential rival and stalwart ally, not the meek, quivering underdog. The “beta” is the second in command! The appropriate term for the nerd would be “omega male,” the true underdog at the bottom of the pack who doesn’t even wrestle and compete for position. But even this term has been misappropriated, finding its way into the urban dictionary as the “opposite” of the alpha, though the description is basically the ultimate alpha–the alpha who doesn’t even need friends to back him up! The wishful thinking and wounded merit involved here is just plain transparent. What is going on?
1) the death of the honor culture and myth of “glorious battle” (lost between WW1 and Vietnam), feminism, gender-neutral society, etc.
2) as Harvey Mansfield argues regarding the rational, liberal state, “The entire enterprise of modernity, however, could be understood as a project to keep manliness unemployed.”
3) technology has gradually eroded male relevance, while increasing the relevance of “nice guy” behavior and intelligence (hence the “Rise of the Nerds”)
The Rise of the Nerds
Who is using the terms in question? Usually it is nerds referring to their oppressors as “alphas;” nerds referring to their chosen nerd-in-chief as “omega;” nerds referring to that guy who gets some girls, though he isn’t really an alpha, but he’s not smart enough to hang out with the true nerds, so he’s a “beta.” That is, the entire linguistic mess is born of nerd-ressentiment towards anybody that is getting the status that they feel their intelligence alone merits them. Because more and more anti-social, nerd-types are gaining wealth, fame, and fanboy ego-stroking, I imagine that this ressentiment will only grow. Let’s back up a bit, however, because this stuff starts on the playground.
Though I really like the phrase “Monkey Dance” that is often used to describe male ritual combat in humans, this combat is rare, while the actual tournament might involve, well, dancing. That is, we have a “Human Dance” that involves song, speech, dance, and, sadly, pick-up-artistry, and it is this dance that decides who has status for modern humans, though wealth and apparent celebrity are good substitutes. Unlike any other species on earth, however, our little dance doesn’t have built-in safety measures, which must be imposed by culture instead. You see, very few tournaments in nature involve serious injury or death. When bears wrestle for dominance, do note that the winner doesn’t tear his opponent’s throat open, as he would likely do to his prey. A ram who loses the head-butt competition could easily turn around and ram his opponent in the side, killing him, but this doesn’t happen. The loser knows he’s lost and his genes forbid him from sullying the hallowed combat ritual that maintains the quality of the gene pool. Ironically, unlike any other species I’ve discovered the cultural safety measures governing the “Human Dance” have historically involved violence! As I argued in Pt2, the honor duel was not there to determine “alphas” from “betas,” but instead, was meant to protect the honor culture within which the “Human Dance” took place. If someone grabs your girl’s butt on the dance floor, then you punch him; you do not punch the biggest dude in the room as a means of asking a strange girl for a dance!
In modern society, however, we have failed to protect or revive anything like an honor culture and thereby strip our children of any safety measures governing their little status-tournaments. It’s pretty simple really: fail to teach two young brothers the “rules” of wrestling, and most of their innocent-meaning bouts will end in bloodshed. Worse still, this bloodshed leads everyone to mistakenly believe that the roots of male competitiveness is some kind of blood-lust!
When we understand sibling rivalry for the critical problem it reflects, we can understand the naturalness of ambition, and the basic benignancy of competitiveness. Children are not vicious animals struggling to dominate rivals, but culture-heroes in the making, desperately trying to stand out. -Ernest Becker
The result of all of this misunderstanding is that young boys have no fucking clue what to make of their natural ambitions, energy and competitiveness, while the omega-boy who should be entirely ignored as a potential rival or competitor is mercilessly thrashed, verbally and physically, to the extent that this bullying accomplishes exactly the opposite of its natural aim: to chide a potential hunting-partner into manning up, getting stronger, and proving a useful ally. You see, our verbal taunts and so forth have a number of extremely healthy functions. It is perfectly natural and helpful to the victim of teasing if his friends, knowing that he is really a homosexual unsuccessfully pretending to be hyper-masculine, taunt him and test him, because there is something that he just “doesn’t get,” and this will harm him in the future and possibly harm other people. They are really trying to accept him, but only if he joins the groups shared reality. Laughing at someone’s intellectual error has elements of shadenfreude, but ultimately this is one of the best mechanisms for enforcing learning and the elimination of cognitive errors (See Dennett’s “Inside Jokes”). The deep problem is that we haven’t taught our children the proper uses of teasing and the disastrous effects of bullying. We should hold courses in the “art of brotherly un-love,” for this art is one of the greatest mechanisms for regulating the Human Dance. (evolutionary psychologists even suggest that “gossip” has been one of the main tools checking the power of the dictator or powerful leader).
We need very strong ears to hear ourselves judged frankly, and because there are few who can endure frank criticism without being stung by it, those who venture to criticize us perform a remarkable act of friendship, for to undertake to wound or offend a man for his own good is to have a healthy love for him. -Montaigne
Taking a Stick to the Stones Will Always Hurt You
When I was in the 4th grade it suddenly because trendy to punch your buddy in the nuts. Don’t ask me who started this. It does kind of betray the less noble aspects of male competition, though, doesn’t it. Its obvious that this is about sexual competition. Keep in mind, however, that these kids have no common enemy to rally against and fight, so there is no outlet for the raison d’etre of their male competitiveness. Thus, right from the start it seems obvious that they are natural enemies and rivals in the sexual marketplace. This ball-busting evolved into kicking out the back of your buddy’s knee, then punching him in the arm, and then by the 6th grade everyone realized that the girls were interested in the guy with the band, not the guy nervously jockeying for position by the use of physical force. Then the real “ball-busting” begins–the really cruel stuff.
Sadly, while playful combat and jockeying for position in social animals has the effect of strengthening each group member, determining who is best at what, and cementing bonds of trust, it has the exact opposite effect in modern humans. Unregulated taunting physically weakens the victim while proving no test of strength, fails to determine who is the best at what, and fosters distrust and isolation among everyone. (The “in-crowd” too is a shark-tank where nobody is safe). Play-fighting in animals, much like the “love bite,” is not an expression of aggression, but of care. It is an example of “physical irony,” but ironically, while all animals understand the real message of this play, only modern humans are dumb enough to misunderstand and take it literally, concluding that such behavior is really about sadistic domination and aggression. (a view I was critiquing in the recent post “On Sexual Aggression“).
Bullying is a form of emotional terrorism that is a strange, twisted version of natural play-fighting. It has the effect of lowering the victim’s self-esteem and their immune function, which effects testosterone levels and physical development. It is a means of literally clipping a rivals nuts and making him feel, look, physically develop and act not like a “beta,” but like an “omega” or even an outcast altogether. The bully can discard physical violence and simply use verbal taunts, therefore appearing to be taking part in the “Human Dance” instead of the “Monkey Dance.” That is, the very tools of biting humor and annihilating rhetoric which were meant to keep the physically imposing in check are used by the physically imposing as a proxy for physical intimidation and abuse that they can always just fall back on anyway. The result is a social hierarchy that more closely resembles that of the mountain gorilla than that of our tribal ancestors. “Cools” are those with decent sexual self-esteem, while “nerds” are those with no sexual self-esteem and who retreat into fantasy worlds where they slay monsters, physically dominate opponents and win sexual favors. I hypothesize that this is really why all of this bullshit about “alphas” and “betas” is being introduced. But with the tech revolution, many of these nerds are gaining power, wealth, and celebrity, which they feel should entitle them to reproductive rights. After all, they display great amounts of the virtue that our society is moving towards in terms of preferred fitness markers: intelligence. So of course they are justified in memorizing some PUA tricks and NLP to use their intelligence in order to extort their due of sexual favors؟
As I discussed in Pt2, “winning” has been overemphasized in our culture such that the true spirit of human competition is replaced by a spirit of domination and shadenfreude. “Toughs” feast on empty honor-calories by attacking the defenseless, robbing them of any chance to grow stronger with real competition, and then move on to verbal taunts to finish them off, forgetting that in doing so they rob themselves of any honor gained from such a victory. Because this “competition” grants no honor or lasting security, they keep doing it because they remain compromised and unproven themselves. Much of bullying is just misdirected hostility (redirected aggression is the term from Biology I believe). You see, this is not how the brotherly art of un-love is to be conducted: you should rib a guy in your baseball league about being too fat or not appearing to give full effort because it degrades the value of the competition for you; it strips you of legitimate pride for the win, but compounds your shame in defeat. Taunting a teammate viciously and without relenting will not have the effect of improving your teams chances of winning, but will likely just make him more nervous and clumsy. Since America is not a community, but a business, kids realize that there is no “team,” there is no common goal, and everyone is a rival.
Sticks and Stones Are Highly Preferable To Words
No one who has worked with patients for a long period of time can fail to learn that the psychological and spiritual agony of depersonalization is harder to bear than physical pain. -Rollo May
Dave Grossman argues that aggression and ostracism are the core of man’s deepest phobias and anxieties. This “universal phobia” is what grounds people’s fear of public speaking, hitting on girls at bars, and being creative (ie standing out). It was not unwarranted for Degas to write that “A painter paints a picture with the same feeling as that with which a criminal commits a crime.” But what is important to remember is that the human body codes a moral threat and verbal assault just like a physical assault. Some words from Rollo May should be helpful here:
Every experience of creativity has its potential of aggression or denial towards other persons in one’s environment or towards established patterns within one’s self. To put the matter figuratively, in every experience of creativity something in the past is killed so that something new in the present may be born.
(adding later in the same work): Neurotic anxiety and helplessness are not the result of a realistic view of inadequacy of power but arise out of an inner conflict between dependency and hostility. What is felt as the source of danger is primarily the anticipated hostility of others.
Instead of aggression and competition serving to build a healthy sense of power and proper station, today it has the effect of multiplying anxieties. This is made worse by our misunderstanding it all. We think that guys are scared of talking to strange girls, when in fact they are scared of getting beat up, dominated, or humiliated in front of them. This is the source of their fear, and it is a legitimate source, because they really haven’t earned the right to approach those girls in the first place! Then these poor guys think that they are actually afraid and perhaps angry at these girls, instead of realizing that they are afraid of sexual rivals and that the “bar scene” is a tragic caricature of the true “Human Dance.”
As a brief aside, I would like to suggest that one of the reasons that we are fascinated by zombie movies stems precisely from this “universal human phobia.” There are other reasons, of course: on some level we know that we are not “conscious” all the time, that most stupid-asses out there are rarely conscious ever, that the homeless guy over there screaming nonsense is functionally a zombie, and also we would really like an evil “other” to kill but don’t want to admit this or admit that we have murderous, war-like thoughts about other humans, so zombies are a nice fill-in and scapegoat. But primarily, I argue, the fascination with zombies comes from a deep genetic memory of vicious physical conflict. Just watch this video right before a single episode of “The Walking Dead” and you might notice that “gorilla fighting” looks just like a human fighting off a zombie (holding his chest and neck so he doesn’t bit your neck, etc). End of digression…here is some Ernest Becker:
The psychiatrist Harry Stacks Sullivan liked to use the term ‘self-system’ instead of the Freudian divisions of the psyche, because he saw that you cannot arbitrarily chop up the child’s total ongoing action and experience. For Sullivan, this self-system was largely a linguistic device fashioned by the child to conciliate his world. Words are basic to the formation of his self, and words are the only way he can control his environment. This is a powerful formulation, because it permits us to understand that what we term ‘personality’ is largely a locus of word possibilities. When we expose our self-esteem to possible undermining by others in a social situation, we are exposing a linguistic identity to other loci of linguistic causality. We have no idea what words are going to spout forth from another’s self-system.
This is why words are such potent weapons: we are not born with self-aware “minds,” but develop this with socialization and language. Therefore, our minds are highly volatile and subject to verbal disruption. You can shut your eyes when someone in your 4th grade class chews some food and opens his mouth to gross you out, but you can’t shut your “ear-lids” when he calls you a worthless pussy. Verbal bullying is a tragic misapplication of a natural “ball-busting” instinct used to correct erroneous speech, beliefs, and behaviors. This instinct also relieves some of the social pressure in a situation where everyone sorta tacitly understands that mating rights are still on the line. Watch the barber-shop scene from Clint Eastwoods “Gran Torino” and you will notice that there is a way of busting balls that is affectionate, while still demonstrating power that demands respect. Its a form of irony in which both parties know where the “line” is drawn between appropriate and innappropriate. But while these old-schoolers “got it,” today we have simply erased this line in the hopes that nobody gets called names and everyone feels like daddies special little boy. Foolish. Here is some more Becker…
We see a clear example of inept performance, and of constant attempt to force status, in the phenomenon called ‘riding.’ ‘Riding’ is simply clumsy acting, a grotesque attempt to heighten one’s self-esteem by denigrating another. It is a continuous preoccupation of close in-groups temporarily thrown together in distasteful occupations, like waiters and counter-girls. ‘Riding’ makes a mockery of the delicate skill of cue-sensitive performance.
Hmmm, “close in-groups temporarily thrown together in a distasteful occupation,” does this remind you of anything, like, say, public school!!?! Is it any wonder why healthy “ball-busting” turns into “riding”?
One of the impetuses to the fragmentation of society into subgroups is that they provide some respite from the continual strain on creative alertness of the self-system. In the subgroup, conversation is familiar, automatic, untaxing for the most part. In some primitive societies ‘joking relationships’ are established between certain individuals. These people, when they meet, engage in an unashamed mockery, teasing, and joking that is denied to others. Joking relationships seem to be established at points of tension in the social system–among inlaws, for example–and relieve the individuals of the strain of meeting these encounters, and the necessity of facilitating them creatively. Joking carries the encounter along automatically and also provides for release of tension.
Sadly, in its attempt to remove aggression and violence from society, our (ahem) “culture” multiplies these “points of tension” and necessitates routine purges of anxiety and tension that end up just compounding the problem for everyone. Sadder still, as nerds are now increasingly coming to power, they seem to be applying this same strategy of intellectual battle to their prior oppressors and this seems to be where the “alpha/beta” terminology is coming from, not to mention various movements to label nerds as “brights,” and so forth. But by honoring intelligence and mocking the physical courage of the “brute” or “alpha,” these guys are just further alienating themselves from their own masculinity while perpetuating the very war that they despised and which created them (qua nerds).