Touring Salem last weekend, I learned that one of the causes of the witch hysteria of 1692 was the absence of a colony-wide government. About six years before the trials began, the governor of Massachusetts had been ousted, and the status of the colony’s government and even the colony itself were in disarray. This left the villages of Massachusetts at the mercy of the judges, magistrates, and clergymen who ran the local institutions.
In the absence of clear leadership at the top, these men started using and modifying the machinery of the state into a tool for state-sanctioned theft of property, the extraction of fees from the poor, and the punishment of their political enemies. And they took advantage of the lower status of women and religious prejudice to do it.
Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, has compares political institutions to Meso-American pyramids. If you start digging into the grand exterior you’ll eventually hit on the decrepit, subterranean sacrificial mound the whole thing was built on. At the root of the American political pyramid is a Puritan theocracy. If you put enough stress on the overlying structure, eventually you’ll find yourself cast down on the underlying ruin it’s built on. Atavism in institutions can be charming, but it can also be harmful, all the more so because it is so often invisible to those affected by it.
A well-timed essay in the Huffington Post is an excellent reminder of the how a society which fails to constrain the baser impulses of men ends up harming everybody, men included.
Toxic masculinity, a phrase coined by the psychiatrist Terry Kupers, is a good shorthand for all this. Kupers defines it as a “constellation of socially regressive male traits that serve to foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia, and wanton violence.”
Toxic masculinity is nothing new. At least as early as the high middle ages, the catholic clergy launched the Peace and Truce of God movement, which brought local aristocrats in front of the assembled peasants and merchants and tried to make them swear, on the solemnity of a saints relic or simply at the risk of collective shaming, not to abuse their rights, which often included the theft or incineration of land and property in sport or war, and the rape, abuse, and murder of their subjects. Absent a strong monarch (often the case in Europe before the 18th Century), local aristocrats often got busy privatizing the legal system and turning it into a profit center. When they were done doing that, they tried to bully the church and the universities into ideological submission.
In addition to the Peace and Truce of God, the rise of chivalric literature was another attempt to contain toxic masculinity by modeling what knights were supposed to behave like. Even the Crusades were instituted in part to channel the restless male violence of the noble and military classes out of Europe.
So what tools do we have at our disposal to combat the unthinking abuse of privilege by the Donald Trumps and Brett Kavanaughs of the world?
We don’t have the Crusades, thank God, but we do have the equivalent of chivalric romances—movies and novels which can help everybody see the possibilities of a world in which we treat all genders equally.
And like the medieval monks and bishops, we also have the power of shame and mockery. As C.S. Lewis says, “Of all things the devil cannot stand to be mocked.” Far from being toxic, shame and mockery, when wielded in defense of public virtue can be more effective than a well intentioned silence, or by the refusal to come down from the upper reaches of public discourse. Absent a spirit of meanness, shame and mockery can help us all come to our senses.
Imagine what would’ve happened in Salem had the community united to shame the men who kept the witch hunts going long after the women who started them had come to their senses and confessed to lying?
Perhaps it would not have taken over 350 years to clear all the names of those accused, a political task which, unsurprisingly, was completed by the first female governor of Massachusetts.