War and Emotions: Hypermasculine Violence as a Social System

War is not an accident. It is the logical outcome of a certain way of life.

If we want to attack war, we have to attack that way of life.

 A.J. Muste (1970)

War and Emotion: Hypermasculine Violence as a Social System

Thomas Scheff


Many would agree that war is an outcome of a certain way of life. But there is no consensus as to what that way of life is. This essay proposes that it is hidden in plain sight in the world of emotions and relationships. Modern societies seem to  deny and ignore the emotional/relational world. Qualitative studies are needed to help break the silence that surrounds it. The qualitative work of Helen Lewis and others on shame is crucial because it proposes that although shame plays a central role in human behavior, it is usually outside of awareness. That is, in modern societies there is a taboo on shame. I propose that a particular way of managing shame and relationships leads to the “silence/violence pattern.” Although the most visible part of this pattern typically occurs in males, it may be produced by our whole society. Silence/violence may be generated by the way in which the emotional/relational configurations of hypermales and hyperfemales are opposite and complementary. The cult of masculinity seems to involve isolation from others, suppressing fear, and acting out anger. The cult of femininity would be the reciprocal, engulfment with others, suppressing anger, and acting out fear. Many kinds of studies are needed if these hypotheses are to be tested. However, unless they are investigated further and discussed, they have no chance of being tested even if they are true.

Unnecessary violence at the interpersonal and collective levels is a puzzle. For example, it is clear that the current war against Iraq is completely gratuitous. It was obvious even before the attack began that the link between 911 and Iraq was a fabrication. Why did the public accept it? Perhaps the management of emotional responses can explain the link to war in a way that is not at all obvious

The approach offered here first points toward a highly visible pattern, hypermasculinity. Much less apparent is the kind of emotion management involved in this pattern, and the way that it is produced by the social system. Before going into detail, it will be necessary to discuss a very general issue in current social/behavioral studies: can emotions and relationships play a role in the causation of behavior?

Emotional/Relational Causes

Although this issue has been little discussed, it is clear that most people in our society, including scholars and scientists, assume that emotional/relational world is a byproduct of other causes, particularly material causes. This assumption can be seen in the development of Marx’s work.

His early writing implied two basic causal dimensions in human affairs: power and class, on the one hand, and, on the other, social integration, the solidarity/alienation polarity (Marx 1975). His later work, however, was limited to the first dimension, power and class in political economies. Unfortunately, social/behavioral science has followed suit, with greed for power and property, or at least material matters often seen as dominating human motives.

In his early writing, however, Marx gave the two dimensions equal treatment. In 1844 he suggested that the most important human “species” need is connection with other human beings. He went on to discuss alienation from the mode of production, others and self. Although the state of connectedness of actual human bonds is much less visible than power and property, he noted two observable emotional responses to alienation: impotence and indignation (Tucker 1978: 133-144).

However, feelings of impotence can be viewed as a shame cognate, and indignation, as representing a shame-anger blend. Marx himself seemed to link these signals of alienation to violence. In a letter (to Ruge, 1843, in Tucker 1978) discussing German nationalism, he wrote: “Shame is a kind of anger turned in on itself. And if a whole nation were to feel ashamed it would be like a lion recoiling in order to spring” This sentence can be seen as prophetic of the Franco-Prussian War, World War I, and the rise of Hitler. (Scheff 1994). Early Marx seems to have awarded causal weight to the emotional/relational world, and specifically to alienation and the emotion of collective shame.

Following the current practice in most social science, analysis of masculine behavior links it to lust for power and domination, with no mention of alienation and its relational/emotional accompaniments. A hint in the latter direction can be found in the work of the psychoanalyst Alfred Adler (1956). He argued that young children have an intense need for love and connectedness, especially from their parents. To the extent that a secure bond is not available, Adler proposed two different responses: an inferiority complex (chronic shame), or the drive for power. Since we now know, thanks to child development studies, that male children get less affection and intimate talk from parents than females, his idea points toward an emotional/relational basis for the hypermasculine focus on power.

This essay will propose that social integration has as much causal weight as material matters, no more, no less. What is proposed, of course, is only a set of hypotheses to further discussion. In the long run, these hypotheses might not find empirical confirmation. But unless we discuss them, they will never get a chance to be tested.

Discussion of this matter might be particularly relevant to qualitative research. The emotional/relational world is so little discussed that there is small incentive for quantitative studies. The discovery of the detailed components of the emotional relational world awaits qualitative investigation, particularly the invention and dissemination of a scientific, rather than vernacular language for the key components of the emotional/relational world. As Wittgenstein suggested, the couching of problems in ordinary language sometimes makes them insoluble. Perhaps this is the reason for his remark that although experiments with humans as subjects seems like a good idea, they never work. I will return to this issue below.

Unacknowledged Shame

In the vernacular language of modern societies, especially in English, shame has a very narrow meaning: it is a crisis emotion of disgrace. English, for example, makes a rigid distinction between shame and embarrassment. The latter emotion can happen to any one, but shame is a disgrace. However, in traditional societies, such as the Maori (Metge 1986) and even in some modern languages, it has a much broader meaning. Spanish, for example, uses the same work, verguenza, for both shame and embarrassment. More to the point of this essay, English usage makes another narrowing assumption: it implies that shame is always a conscious emotion.

Helen Lewis (1971), Silvan Tomkins (1963) and others have proposed that shame can occur outside of consciousness. Elias’s (1982, 1983, 1984) landmark book argued that although shame and disgust have become the primary means of social control in modern societies, shame has become increasingly less visible. Goffman proposed a similar thesis, but in a milder form. He centered his analysis around embarrassment (1956; 1967) a less taboo term than shame. It seems to me that the central thesis of much of his work is the way in which everyone struggles to avoid embarrassment in everyday life. This idea is particularly prominent in his work on “impression management (1959). Unlike most other emotions, shame is virtually a continuing presence, real or anticipated, in virtually all social interaction.

Lewis was both a practicing psychoanalyst and a research psychologist, Tomkins a theorist of emotion. Hidden shame stands at the center of Lewis’s work, and is strongly implied in Tomkins’ hundred-page discussion of shame. The idea that the range of shame might be much broader than in the vernacular word also appears in other writings, as  in the title of the volume edited by two psychiatrists, Lansky and Morrison, The Widening Scope of Shame (1997).

I will elaborate on Lewis’ work, since shame is at its center, and also because, like Elias (1982, 1983, 1984), she amassed considerable evidence to support her argument. Hidden shame is a component of her study of differences in emotional development of men and women (1976). However, she first discovered it in her earlier study (1971) of psychotherapy sessions. She used a systematic technique to locate shame episodes in many session transcripts, then qualitative methods to analyze each episode, word by word, in the context in which it occurred.

Unlike most other shame researchers, Lewis made relationship issues equal to emotional ones, as in her study of relational tendencies that are different in men and women (1976). Her analysis of emotions is also considerably more detailed and documented than other studies. For these reasons, it provides one of the main sources for the present essay.

One of Lewis’s contributions is the idea that shame is inherently a social emotion. Her formulation was biosocial: human beings are social by biological inheritance. That is, she saw shame as an instinct that has the function of signaling threats to the social bond. Just as the instinctual emotion of fear signals danger to life and limb, shame also signals a potential threat to survival, especially for an infant, threat to the bond.  In this same vein, Kaufman (1989) proposed that shame dynamics form the interpersonal bridge that connects individuals who would otherwise be alienatedf.

In Lewis’s empirical study of shame (1971) she encountered shame because she used a scale for identifying emotions in verbal transcripts, the Gottschalk-Gleser method (1969; 1995). This method involves long lists of key words that are correlated with specific emotions, such as anger, grief, fear, anxiety, and shame.

Counting keywords, Lewis found that anger, fear, grief, and anxiety cues showed up from time to time in the transcripts. But she was surprised by the massive frequency of shame cues. Her methodology was complex and painstaking, in that to each shame episode located by Gottschalk’s method, Lewis also applied a qualitative method, analyzing each occurrence by word in its local context.

Lewis’s findings:

1. Prevalence: Lewis found a high frequency of shame markers in all sessions, far outranking markers of the other emotions combined. This finding suggests that shame was a dominant force in the sessions she analyzed.

2. Lack of acknowledgment: Lewis noted that although shame markers were very frequent, neither patient or therapist used the word shame or it’s near cognates. Even the relatively mild word embarrassment was seldom used. In analyzing the context in which shame markers occurred, Lewis identified situations in which the patient recounted a shameful memory, or seemed to feel distant from, criticized, or exposed by the therapist. These two contexts generated a cloud of shame markers. Both contexts fit the proposition that shame arises from seeing one’s self negatively from the point of view of the other (Darwin 1872; Cooley 1922).

However, patients had two different, seemingly opposite responses in the shame context. In one, the patient seemed to be suffering psychological pain, but failed to identify it as shame. Lewis called this form overt, undifferentiated shame. A patient would usually refer to an emotion or feeling, but the reference misidentified the shame feeling (“This is an awkward moment for me,” “I fear rejection,” or other codeword for shame)

In a second type of response, the patient seemed not to be in pain, revealing an emotional response only by rapid, obsessional speech on topics that seemed slightly removed from the dialogue. Lewis called this second response bypassed shame. Identifying or calling shame by its right name seems to be an important aspect of understanding and managing it.

3. Finally, Lewis noted that there was an affinity between shame and anger. She found that anger markers in the patient’s speech were always preceded by shame markers. Retzinger’s 1991 analysis of four marital quarrels supports Lewis’s finding. All 18 of the angry escalations that occurred in Retzinger’s quarrels were preceded by unacknowledged shame. Apparently one way of hiding shame is to become angry. This link is the key to the explanation of rage and violence offered in this article.

In her study of differences in the way men and women manage emotions (1976), Lewis cites studies suggesting that the overt, undifferentiated form of unacknowledged shame is more characteristic of women than of men, and the bypassed form more characteristic of men than of women. She uses this difference in the management of shame to explain the higher rates of depression in women than in men, and the higher level of aggression in men. This difference, I think, can help explain the causal links between gender and aggression in boys and girls reported by Feshback et al (1997) and other similar studies.

However, before continuing on the main theme, it will be necessary to further explain Lewis’s contention that most shame is hidden. Since her 1971 study was based mostly on transcripts of sessions that she had not herself witnessed, she was coy in naming hidden shame. She called it unacknowledged shame. That is, she noted that the word shame or its near relatives (embarrassment, humiliation) were virtually never used by either the patient or the therapist in reference to shame episodes. By calling such shame unacknowledged, she reserved judgment on the issue of whether the patient was conscious of shame, but not mentioning it.

After completing the study, in her clinical work she realized that patients seldom acknowledged shame because they were usually unaware of it. They were in a state of shame, as Lewis put it, but did not realize it. Here is one of the many examples she provided:

P: Well sometimes it may sound silly, but sometimes on the train when I'm riding a train or something I just ... if I'm doing ... if I'm sitting down or something (laugh) you know you may think that some people may be staring at you [5] or you just sort of wonder what type of well ... why they're staring at you [5] (slight laugh). I don't know, I just you know, If, if you're sitting down and somebody keeps staring at you looking [5]...

T: What do you think when that happens? What passes through your mind?

P: Well just that maybe I don't know if I may be looking awkward [1] or something. I don't know. I can't think of what [6 (blankness)].

T: Anything else cross your mind?

P: You mean concerning what people think about me? Well, most cases, I mean people in most cases, I think people, you know people I dealt with who might [have] any bad things, have any bad feelings -or ill will toward me, like [1], you know other people whom you don't really know too well, I mean you might have various little acquaintances dealing with them, and they don't understand you too well, you know..And I feel very repelled by them [3] (slight laugh).” (1971, pp. 248-249. Emphasis on shame keywords added. Notice also the various indications of alienation from others, as in the last sentence).

Lewis says “In this excerpt… a by-passed shame reaction is experienced entirely without shame affect. …The patient experiences hostile feeling: he is "repelled" by his imagined hostile watchers [5]. Thus he experiences his own retaliatory hostility, devaluing the scornful viewers [1]. There is no shame affect, only shame imagery and ideation. …This patient connected the occurrence of chest pains [3] with the ideation of being watched or looked at by others [5], sometimes in the wake of a failure to live up to his ego-ideal.”

Unlike any other emotion, shame arousal depends entirely on the specifics of the social relationship. Grief is also a social emotion, but a much simpler one; it registers loss of a love object. Although fear may be generated by another person, it is not always social. It is an instinctive reaction to physical danger, regardless of source. Similarly, anger is usually, but not always socially generated. Its origin is frustration, of whatever kind. Unlike any other emotion, shame is relationship specific. Because social relationships are so complex, shame, the affect generated by them, is much more complex than grief, fear and anger.

It should be noted that lately there have been a goodly number of quantitative studies of shame, with the lead researcher being June Tangney (these studies are reviewed in her book with Dearing 2002). Though precise and systematic, they suffer from many problems, the most exiguous being the use of shame in  its vernacular sense: a conscious emotion of crisis and disgrace. For this reason, most of the studies have equivocal or downright erroneous results. One of the studies (Tangney et al), for example, seeks to find, empirically, if shame and embarrassment belong to the same family, or are distinct emotions. Their results suggest that the latter is true. However, if they had used subjects whose language was not English (like Spanish) they would have found the opposite.

To give Tangney credit, some of her studies suggest she might be aware of the semantic problem. In several studies she gathered responses from her subjects using both direct questions and vignettes. The responses to the vignettes could lessen the problem of the semantics of shame, but only if the coders were sophisticated about the broader meanings. Even so, vignettes, at least the way they are used in these studies, do not seem to tap the kind of shame that is totally out of awareness. The methodological tail is wagging the conceptual dog. These difficulties provide some support for Wittgenstein’s unkind remarks about the experimental method with human subjects.

The taboo on shame also is at work in qualitative studies as well. Like many commentators on modern society, Mestrovic has written extensively about the shamelessness of modern societies. His crucial misreading of Elias (1982, 1983, 1984) might have helped his argument along. Like many readers of Elias’s  book, Mestrovic didn’t notice that its main point was that although shame and disgust have become the principle agents of social control in modern societies, shame also has become increasingly less visible. Although not aware of each other’s work, the idea that shame has become all but invisible in modern societies is a central theme in Elias, Lewis, and Tomkins.

One final instance of the scholarly taboo on shame, but this time in only partial form. Honneth (1996) suggests that shame is one of the causes of collective conflict (pp. 137-38). However, all of the other causes he lists, the struggle for recognition, self-esteem, self-confidence, respect, dignity, etc., can be read as shame key words. Like the present essay, his book implies that shame is a primary cause of large scale conflict.

The Mechanism of Humiliated Fury

Although the studies of shame and anger by Lewis (1971), Lansky (1984; 1987; 1989), and Gilligan (1996) are basic resources for an understanding of male emotions and violence, they are lacking in one respect. These earlier studies do not provide a basis for explaining the incredible energy of humiliated fury. These states seem to have an intensity that is usually absent in normal behavior, and, even more unusual, they can last a lifetime. To explain this phenomenon, an explicit theory of process, second by second, would be necessary: how an isolated male progresses from stimuli to shame, to a shame response, to rage, and finally to aggression and/or violence.

Lewis’s moment by moment analysis of shame/anger episodes in discourse (1971) suggests a shame mechanism that I have called spiraling (Scheff 1987; 1994). Shame/anger spirals offer an emotional basis for the high energy level of humiliated fury. Lewis herself has provided a cognitive explanation that complements the emotional one. According to Lewis (1971), the predominant cognitive feature of bypassed shame is what she calls obsessive preoccupation, the narrowing of focus onto a single issue. When an individual has a propensity to isolation from others, these two processes serve to further isolate him or her. They also can help explain a lifetime of anger, aggression and violence.

In this framework, there are three conditions for gratuitous aggression and violence. The first is social: isolation, the absence of affectional attachments. The second is cognitive: obsessive preoccupation. The third is emotional: complete repression of shame, which takes the form of shame/anger spirals. The first and second conditions are straightforward, isolation and obsession. Since the third condition, repression of shame as shame/shame and shame/rage anger sequences, is not widely known, it requires further elaboration.

Most emotional responses are very brief. These responses, since they usually serve as signals to pay attention, may last only a second or two. Then how can emotions such as fear or rage last for hours? Silvan Tomkins (1963) suggested that the basis for long lasting emotions was what he called emotion “binds”: one emotion being bound by another, particularly by shame. Helen Lewis (1971) made a similar suggestion. She used the term “feeling traps.” Again, her specific example involved shame: she thought that shame could be masked by anger, but then heightened by shame about being angry, anger about being ashamed, and so on.

Although not stated explicitly by Tomkins or Lewis, both seem to imply that emotions can form closed loops, a self-perpetuating emotional episode that refuses to subside. A familiar example are people who are  “blushers.” They are so self-conscious about their blushing that they are ashamed of it. But their shame about blushing increases the blush, and so on. This particular example suggests a loop that is not mentioned by either Tomkins or Lewis: shame/shame. But it is this loop, I believe, that gives rise to the most prevalent form of shame spirals, those that lead to blankness and withdrawal, as in the case of Sennett and Cobb’s (1972) working class men (see Scheff 2002).

The two kinds of shame spirals give rise to two different paths: withdrawal and silence (shame/shame) and anger, aggression and violence (shame/anger). The emotional/relational theory of violence outlined here would seem to be particularly applicable to instances involving long term violence on a massive scale. Hitler’s life is particularly useful because there are many detailed glimpses of him both as a child and as a man caught up occasionally in shame/shame, but mostly in spirals of shame/rage (Scheff 1994).

We know that terrorists are usually isolated men like Timothy McVeigh, Ted Kaycinski, and Osana Ben Laden. Often, as is the case with Ben Laden, their rhetoric makes many references to shame and humiliation. It may be that problems with shame are one of the key features of those who join the cult of masculinity.


The sociologist Erving Goffman made an important but inadvertent contribution to the idea of hypermasculinity in his discussion of “action.” (Where the Action Is 1967. These comments are based in part on Chapter 10 of Scheff 2006). In colloquial usage, “action” refers to an opportunity for gambling: “Do you want a piece of the action?” means, do you want to place a bet? Toward the end of the chapter, Goffman finally acknowledges that his discussion of “action” is really about male, or better yet, masculine behavior (p. 209). In his wonderfully apt way, he calls it “the cult of masculinity, ” implying a cultural component of maleness. At this point the purview of “action” broadens out beyond gambling to all kinds of high risk challenges. He notes, for example, that dueling is and has always been almost entirely a male domain.

The center of Goffman’s interest is in what he calls “character contests.” He proposes that scenes of “action” i.e. risk, are occasions that allow the display of “character,” in the sense of establishing one’s degree of “courage, gameness, integrity, and composure” (p. 229). Of the four components, Goffman give most attention to the last. By composure, he means poise, calmness, and above all, control over one’s emotions. Character contests are competitions in which risks are taken to determine which actor has the most character, and particularly, control over their emotions.

Goffman’s whole discussion implies that masculine men have “character.” A man with character who is under stress is not going to cry and blubber like a woman or child might. Although Goffman didn’t use the current phrase, his chapter is about “pissing contests.” Social occasions are seen as opportunities for one to test one’s own character as compared to the other person or persons. The hypermasculine pattern promotes competition, rather than connection between individuals. It is not just asocial, but anti-social. This is one of the ideas crucial to the understanding of unnecessary conflict: the cult of masculinity promotes individuality at the cost of community.

A relevant aspect family systems theory is that alienation occurs in two opposite modes. In the isolated mode, there is too much emphasis on the individual, too little on the relationship. In the engulfed mode, there is too little emphasis on the individual, too much on the relationship. In this latter mode, one or both of the persons involved gives up vital aspects of self out of loyalty to the relationship. In the traditional marriage, for example, the wife gives up her own opinion and feelings out of loyalty to the husband. As will be discussed below, the Madonna role in women involves not only the opposite mode of alienation, engulfment, but also opposite modes of managing anger and fear, as compared to hypermasculinity.

The sociologist Elias (1972) proposed a scheme that is virtually identical to the family systems model. He called the isolated mode “independence” (I-you) and the engulfed mode “dependence” (You-me) He named the non-alienated mode “interdependence” (We). He also noted that at the group level, most social science confounds engulfment with interdependence (genuine solidarity).

Goffman thought hypermasculine control of emotions was a virtue, akin to courage and integrity. However, it can be seen in a totally different way, as suggested by this account of the killing fields of WWI (Koenigsberg 2005).

In the following report, British General Rees describes the massacre of his own brigade as they moved toward German lines.  They advanced in line after line, dressed as if on parade and not a man shirked going through the extremely heavy barrage, or facing the machine gun and rifle fire that finally wiped them out. I saw the lines, which advanced in such admirable order melting away under fire. Yet not a man wavered, broke the ranks, or attempted to come back. I have never seen, indeed could never have imagined such a magnificent display of gallantry, discipline and determination. The reports from the very few survivors of this marvelous advance bear out what I saw with my own eyes: that hardly a man of ours got to the German Front line (emphasis added).

General Rees apparently didn’t explain how he managed to survive when his whole brigade was wiped out. Like Goffman, he sees the men’s self control as virtuous, but it can also be seen as a vice, both by the leaders of the men and the men themselves, a lethal addiction to the cult of masculinity.

Although Goffman was usually a brilliant explorer of social life, he seems to have missed the point in his commentary of the cult of masculinity: how it might lead to violence. The very control over emotions that he admired can itself generate violence, and it also can lead to support for violence in the public. To understand this link, it will be necessary to consider hypermasculine emotion management in some detail. What has been considered so far about such management is only the possibility that it might lead to violence (as in Gilbert’s 1994 analysis).

The most frequent result of hypermasculine emotion management, however, is undramatic to the point of being invisible:  emotional silence. A New Yorker cartoon seemed to convey the idea. A man lying on the analyst’s couch is saying: “Call it denial if you will, but frankly I think that my personal life is none of my own damn business.” The idea that our personal lives are none of our own damn business comes teasingly close to the truth. Most of us are socialized to ignore the most intense element of our personal lives, emotions, except under the most extreme conditions. Compared to behavior and thought, emotions lead a shadow life.

The patient in the cartoon being a man, rather than a woman, is also significant.

Men are particularly trained to ignore emotions. Their attention is diverted elsewhere, more than women’s. But in modern societies both men and women know much less about the emotional world than the other worlds they live in. And both may contribute to the formation of hypermasculinity to the point that it can be seen as a product of our social system as a whole.

Because of the continuing presence of hypermasculinity in large numbers of males, it seems likely that this pattern is helped along both by men and women in their roles as parents, partners, and teachers. In particular, there may be many mothers and wives who encourage, or at least tolerate hypermasculinity. In my various public presentations of the idea of hypermasculinity, there is usually at least one woman who ruefully tells me, after the talk, that she is drawn to hypermasculine men. Perhaps there is a type of femininity that exactly complements and encourages hypermasculinity, women who are drawn to a strong, silent man to protect them. I will return to this issue after discussing emotion management in hypermasculinity.

Emotion Management

This essay will consider the management of four emotions, grief, fear, shame, and anger in males and females. The first three of these will be called the vulnerable emotions (grief, fear and shame). The fourth emotion is anger. There are of course other important emotions as well, but for brevity this discussion will consider only these four.

The emotional tissue of everyday life for children begins at home with their parents and siblings, and continues in their schools. Both boys and girls learn very early to manage emotions. But boys, more than girls, learn early that grief, fear and shame are seen as signs of weakness. Often at home, but certainly at school they find that acting out anger, even if faked, is seen as strength. Even expressing anger only as ordinary talk, rather than storming, is seen as weakness. At first merely for self-protection, boys begin hiding feelings that may be interpreted as signs of weakness. Usually a single beating by the school ground bully is enough to teach this lesson.

Girls are also punished for emotional expression, as is the case with crying, but less reliably and intensely than boys. However, girls are probably punished more intensely and frequently for anger than boys are. Girls are often told that anger is “not feminine” and other such admonitions. However, as women are increasingly being prepared for careers, this pattern might be changing. This issue will be taken up below in the discussion of feminist approaches to masculinity. But at any rate, the change is quite slow. Today even career women are still allowed some leeway with respect to vulnerable emotions.

In Western cultures most boys learn, as first option, to hide their vulnerable feelings in emotionless talk, withdrawal, or silence. I will call these three responses (emotional) SILENCE. In situations where these options seem unavailable, males often cover their vulnerable feelings behind a display of hostility. That is, young boys learn to suppress emotions they actually feel by acting out anger whether they feel it or not.

I call this pattern “silence/violence.” Vulnerable feelings are first hidden from others, and after many repetitions, even from self. In this latter stage, behavior becomes compulsive. When men face what they construe to be threatening situations, they could feel compelled to SILENCE or angry aggression. 

Even without threat, men seem to be more likely to SILENCE or violence than women. With their partners, most men are less likely to talk freely about feelings of resentment, humiliation, embarrassment, rejection, joy, genuine pride, anxiety and other emotions. This may be the reason they are more likely to show anger: they seem to be backed up on a wide variety of intense feelings, but have the strong sense that only anger is allowed them. Two studies of alexthymia [emotionlessness] (Krystal 1988: Taylor et al, 1997) do not explicitly mention differences between men and women, but most of the cases discussed are men.

Numbing out fear, particularly, makes men dangerous to themselves and others. Fear is an innate biological signal of physical danger that helps us survive. When we see a car heading toward us, we have an immediate, automatic fear response: WAKE UP SLEEPY-HEAD, YOUR LIFE IS IN DANGER! Much faster than thought, this reaction increases our chance of survival, and repressing it is dangerous to self and others.

Yet boys are taught to equate fear with cowardice. That is, they are shamed or humiliated if they express fear. It doesn’t take many such lessons for boys to learn to suppress fear as if it didn’t exist. Often boys learn that they will be admired for taking unnecessary risks with guns or vehicles. Since they have repressed their instinctive fear, they can feel good without pain or messages from conscience.

In order to avoid pain inflicted by others, boys learn to repress the expressions of feeling that lead to negative reactions from others. After thousands of curtailments, repression becomes habitual and out of consciousness. But as they become more backed up with avoided emotions, they can have the sense that experienced them would be unbearably painful.  In this way, avoidance leads to avoidance in an ever increasing, self-perpetuating loop. Facing one’s true feelings becomes unthinkable.

Hypermasculine men are silent about their feelings to the point of repressing them altogether, even anger (Acting out anger seldom resolves it). Repressing love and the vulnerable emotions (grief, fear and shame, the latter as in feelings of rejection or disconnection) leads to either silence or withdrawal, on the one hand, or acting out anger (flagrant hostility), on the other. The composure and poise of hypermasculinity sees to be a recipe for silence and violence.

This formulation might explain the enormous energy that propels gratuitous violence. Isolation from others blocks the working through of repressed emotions. Isolation, when combined with the recursive nature of shame, might generate what can be seen as a doomsday machine, experienced by individuals and groups as an unbearable amount of pain and hostility.

Collins (1990; 2004) also notes the vast energy that goes into wanton violence, such as the slaughter of non-combatant men, women and children in villages by U.S troops during the Vietnam war. His explanation is in terms of what he calls a “forward panic.” That is, he suggest like the backward panics that occur in theatre fires, the killing was set off by runaway fear. The theory outlined here proposes that it is a special kind of fear that sets off rampages, since it is unacknowledged. My theory also adds several other components to the model: social isolation of individual killers, the other two vulnerable emotions (grief and shame), and the acting out of anger.

It may be impossible to understand collective conflict, especially gratuitous wars like Vietnam and Iraq, as long as we ignore its emotional/relational components.  It seems particularly applicable to the followers of hypermasculine leaders. Even if the leaders’ desire for power is one of the causes of wanton aggression, the followers, especially the working class, have much less to gain and much more to lose.  In her analysis of working class men supporters of Bush, Hochschild (2004) proposed that they appreciate his hypermasculine style, since it is like their own, or the style that they would like to have. She noted that a near majority (49%) of these men have been voting for Bush against their economic interests. It is possible that the cult of masculinity has so great an appeal that it overcomes economic interests.

Hyper-femininity:  A Complementary Emotion Configuration?

One way in which the socialization of emotions in men and women may be exactly opposite has already been mentioned: males are encouraged to display anger and aggression, but females are likely to be punished for such a display. A further hypothesis enlarges this idea by adding another emotion that is socialized oppositely. In the emotion realm, hyper-feminine women would suppress anger, one the one hand, and act out fear of being victims, on the other. Since men are socialized to suppress fear and act out anger, the difference between the socialization of men and women would lead to emotion management patterns that are opposite and complementary.

In the study of family systems, there are two forms of alienation. Isolation means putting too much value on self as individual. Engulfment means putting too little. In terms of relationships, hyper-feminine women would be engulfed with hypermasculine men, giving up crucial parts of self in order to be loyal. Just as isolation means putting to much emphasis on self as an individual, the engulfed mode means de-individuating losing oneself in the other person. Norwood’s (1985) study of women who tolerated abuse of self and/or their children by their husband provides an example.

The nationally syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin’s idea that she is a “security mom” provides an example of the acting out of fear. She says that being afraid since 9/11 is not the same thing as living in fear (Grewal 2006). But the examples she gives from her daily life suggests that indeed she does live in fear: monitoring all the other passengers on trains and buses, and when driving, paying attention to all vehicles like large trucks and tankers that might harbor a bomb. Her columns are not perfect examples of this model of hyper-femininity, however, since she shows that she is enraged at all liberals. 

These two hyper-genders would be mutually reinforcing, creating a social institution of gender that would support warfare. Being only a surmise, to be taken seriously, it would have to have to be supported by actual studies. One direction would be to study gender differences in preferences, and responses to, certain types of films. The “action” film (Rambo), revenge by men acting out anger through aggression and violence, seems to be the favorite of hypermasculine men. Two recent big budget films of this kind, Shooter and 300, have been wildly successful at the box office.

The corresponding favorite for hyper-feminine women, if my hypothesis is correct, would involve the acting out of fear, as in films that portray danger and threat by intruder(s) in the home, and other threats of violence against defenseless victims. Many feature length films on the Lifetime TV channel are of this type. The 2002 film Panic Room, starring Jodie Foster, is a big budget film version of this theme.

The Madonna type would seek hypermasculine men as husbands and encourage hypermasculinity in their male children. Systematic studies by Smith et al (1995) and Mayback and Gold (1994) supports this idea. Both studies found a correlation between hyper-femininity and attraction to macho men. Like the other studies of hyper-femininity that I have seen, these don’t actually define what the term means. If future studies are able to clearly define hyper-femininity, they might help explain why modern societies continue to have high proportions of men who are hypermasculine, or at least show some of its characteristics.

Except for the Mayback and Gold and Smith et al studies, I have found only hints in this direction in the literature on masculinity. Reardon (1985) went only so far as to suggest that the pattern of women submitting to male domination contributes to the warfare system (p. 19). Jackson’s (1990) study of violent men states that they usually saw their mothers as passive victims (p.88), but the author didn’t try to ascertain the accuracy of their view. Until adequate studies are complete, the Mach-Madonna complementarity offered here can be considered to be only a hypothesis.

To summarize the hypothesis: in the two complementary gender cults emotional/relational socialization is more or less opposite and equal: hypermasculine males learn to be alienated from others in the isolated mode, hyper-feminine women learn to be alienated in the engulfed mode. With regard to emotions, hypermasculine males learn to suppress the vulnerable emotions, and act out anger. Hyper-feminine females learn to suppress anger and act out fear. These two emotional/relational configurations are complementary and reciprocating: each encourages the development of the other.

Emotion Links Between 911 and Iraq

The fall of the World Trade Towers on 911 was a shattering experience for most Americans. It produced strong emotions: fear, because it happened and because of the threat that it could happen again, grief for the loss of life, and perhaps shame or embarrassment because we were caught napping.  This latter feeling would be especially likely in masculine men, since they often think that they should be the protectors of others.

The present U. S government has exploited the fear resulting from 9/11. Rather than helping people work through their fears, the regime has encouraged the public to cover them over with anger. It is a common tactic of governments to help their supporters disguise vulnerable emotions through aggression or passivity.

Yet emotions can be mobilized in the opposite way, encouraging rather than hindering working through. The uncovering of visitors’ hidden grief in response to viewing the war memorials might be a crucial step away from war or inaction.

The emotional approach runs counter to the rationalism of most current thinking about conflict. Politics is usually viewed as propelled by material, calculable forces like power and property.  In world literature, however, there is an alternative to narrow rationalism implied in the quest for self-knowledge: know thyself. Long before Freud, the Greek philosophers proposed that a crucial goal for all human beings was knowledge of self, and by implication, that human folly is a result of ignorance of self. This thread forms a central concern in both ancient and modern literature. This theme is epitomized in Tasso, an 18th century drama:

The gift of the great poet is to be able to voice his suffering, even when other men would be struck dumb in their agony.

Self-knowledge is not just a cognitive matter, but also an emotional one. Discovering one’s hidden emotions may be not only the most difficult part of knowing thyself, but also the most important. Else we remain sleepers.

In addition to grief, there may be a need for the uncovering two other vulnerable emotions: shame and fear. Freud mentioned only the grief work that is necessary after loss. As it turns out, fear work and shame work may be just as important. 9/11 probably created as much unacknowledged fear and shame as grief. For most men, the fear component seems particularly difficult, since they have learned to equate fear with cowardice. For both men and women, shame is also usually well hidden. How could steps be taken to uncover hidden vulnerable emotions in a whole society?

One well-known direction is suggested by the approach to the control of crime called restorative justice. This approach leads to public acknowledgment, not only by the perpetrator or victim of a crime, but also to emotions, especially grief, fear and shame. A similar process was realized on a much larger scale by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. The victims were allowed to voice their suffering.  The perpetrators received amnesty by publicly confessing their crimes.

It is possible that a significant part of the collective rituals needed for waking from passivity involves shame work. Acknowledgement of shame may lie at the core of an effective apology. The offense that is to be apologized for is shaming to both victim and perpetrator. The victim usually feels violated and powerless, the perpetrator morally unworthy. A successful apology may involve the expression and resolution of shame.

Another type of ritual would attempt to apologize for the part we all play in mass violence, if only by our passivity. Since genuine apology can touch basic hidden emotions, it might mark the beginning of the kind of mourning needed to avoid further acting out of anger. Perhaps we need an apologetic mantra for our feelings of helplessness in the face of 911. With its emphasis on shame and guilt, this kind of mantra might be particularly helpful for men, since their training to be protectors would make many of us feel a sense of responsibility about 9/11.





Other mantras that revive feelings are needed for other kinds of trauma. Many women probably need to uncover their hidden feelings toward men. There are by now several substantial studies criticizing feminist theories for blaming men unfairly (Farrell 1993; Patai 1993; Sommers 2001; Levine 2003; Nathanson and Young 2006). Blaming men implies that these theories help their authors hide the grief, fear, and shame generated by their treatment by men behind a mask of blame, i.e, acting out anger in the hypermasculine mode. Perhaps women could create their own mantra about their emotions toward men in order to generate more useful theories of male and female behavior. 

Peace Rituals

To this point, virtually all anti-war activism has been in the form of protest. This format may not be effective, and except under unusual circumstances, may even be counterproductive. Perhaps we need rituals that uncover vulnerable emotions, both created by, and creating secure social bonds.

There is already knowledge of the work that must be done in order to resolve the grief connected with loss: “unresolved grief”. In comparison, there has been little work on the resolution of unacknowledged fear and shame. If we are to organize rituals that will help resolve conflict, we need to learn more about how to deal not only with grief, but also with fear and shame.

It seems likely that the more a person suppresses one of these emotions, the less they will be able to experience any of them. For example, those who are still suffering from their previous losses (perhaps a majority of adults in modern societies) will be unable to mourn, and won’t tolerate mourning in others. It is clear that the failure to mourn is not just a deficiency of individuals, but part of a society-wide pattern.

The inability to mourn is institutionalized in modern societies, which effects, in turn, the politics of war and peace. Perhaps wars will continue as long as there is collective denial. Visits to memorials and the creation of new rituals might be a step away from war toward peace. If the thesis offered here is correct, we will need to begin revivals of feeling not only at memorials, but also in homes, schools, places of worship, and offices.


It is possible that certain emotional/relational configurations lead to the “silence/violence pattern.” Although masculine males show this pattern the most clearly, it may be produced by our whole society. That is, the hypermasculine role in men both generates and is generated by the hyper-feminine role in women. Silence/violence can be seen as of one of the primary bases for gratuitous violence, including unnecessary wars. Silence/violence could be a product of the complementarity of the emotional/relational configurations of hyper-males and –females. The cult of masculinity seems to involve isolation from others, suppressing the vulnerable emotions, and acting out anger. The cult of femininity may involve engulfment with others, suppressing anger, and acting out fear. These statements will be only hypotheses unless they can be tested empirically. Qualitative studies can be used to penetrate into the vast smokescreen in our society that hides emotions and relationships. It is particularly necessary to remove the taboo on shame, so that the basic processes in the emotional/relational world become visible.


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