The connections I make here are speculative, tentative, and exploratory, intending to create a deeper understanding of male mental health. As John Barry and Martin Seager explained: ‘Given that human beings area mammalian species, it should not be surprising that biological sex differences make a significant contribution to masculine identity and male psychology.’
The rogue and the alpha
It’s 5pm on the African savannah. Some playful warthogs, zebra, and antelope are grazing near a watering hole; birds are flapping about cooling off from the heat of the day and drinking water. All you can hear is the bird song and the loud, eerie shrill sound of the cicada insect as he vibrates two membranes against his abdomen. Suddenly, the peaceful scene is brutally interrupted by squealing sounds, thuds, and a deep rumbling growling noise, followed by the distinctive sound of a defeated antelope caught in the jaws of a young rogue male lion. He appeared from nowhere and took down the slowest and weakest impala antelope. Because he was a rogue, hunting alone away from his birth-pride, he had the element of surprise on this unsuspecting array of prey.
Defeated, the impala gradually submits to its fate and slowly goes silent. If you hadn’t run off in fear or disgust by now, you’d witness a male lion devour most of the antelope over a few hours. The sounds and smells would be bombarding your primordial brain, screaming at you to getaway now! The rogue lion would not horde the feast though, he is alone and will soon be outnumbered by opportunistic hyenas and other packs of scavengers. Worse, an older alpha male lion might smell the kill and come to investigate, which would spell danger even death for this younger rogue male who has no rank, no territory, no allies, no family to fall back on. In the wild, he is a demon, or as I’ll elaborate below; a daemon.
He eats fast and leaves the area as soon as he can, rather than face the wrath of an alpha male. If the alpha male is sufficiently distracted this rogue male might attempt to mate with one of the females anyway, his eagerness to succeed may even get him killed. The alpha male must remain vigilant while guarding this territory, his females, and his offspring until he is ultimately deposed by a more powerful alpha male. Then, he too will become a rogue, banished to roam his last days alone and in danger of opportunistic pack predators, injury, and disease.
The rogue male appears as a demon in the wild. Inevitably, those who survive undergo a metamorphosis into alpha males: fathers and guardians of a territory. Under their protection female lionesses can rest in peace, hunt for the pride and mate for a new generation of young cubs who are then reared into icons of the African savannah. This is a lesson for any counsellor who sees man as problematic or broken under the narrow vision of ‘toxic masculinity’ and pernicious patriarchy.
In the wild, a rogue male must survive alone and ultimately challenge the alpha male, or remain isolated. For a human male, he may live in a world described well by Hobbes:
In such conditions there is no place for hard work because there is no assurance that it will yield results; and consequently no cultivation of the earth, no navigation or use of materials that can be imported by sea, no construction of large buildings, no machines for moving things that require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no practical skills, no literature or scholarship, no society; and – worst of all – continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
Under these terms, many will die challenging the alpha male, because they instinctively know there is no future unless they can be fathers.
The human condition
Humans have an anthropocentric view that permits us to see ourselves as separate from nature. We often say rogue actions are ‘unnatural’. This perspective has fortunately permitted us to ruminate on meaning, purpose, gods, and fate. However, evolutionary psychology (backed by evolutionary biology) is revealing deep truths in our behaviour that are rooted in observable behaviours in similar species. The newest knowledge of testosterone matches what we see in chimpanzees and helps explain the distinct differences in female and male behaviours, as comprehensively summarised by Carole Hooven in her book Testosterone: The Story of the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us. We are learning that many of our behaviours are very natural.
Males are a distinct variation, differentiated from females by floods of hormones in utero and puberty. But we also diverge in our overwhelming evolved drive to meet the needs of females, the originators of life who bear our young and propagate our genes. Some say we are merely avatars for our genes because genes ultimately dominate our behaviour. Others say men are a long breeding experiment by females. This is due to the evolutionary forces on mating choices made over aeons by females who usually select for certain traits.
From our perspective in Africa, we see natural behaviour like this daily. Here, the relation to ‘natural’ order is more immediate. Many men have no qualms about demonstrating alpha male dominance, it is celebrated and rewarded by various mechanisms in traditional culture combined with consumerism. Even our leaders take multiple wives, mate with whoever they choose, and takedown subordinate males, sometimes by the thousands as in war, to defend their territory.
A hard lesson
I have researched psychology for many years now, I am a 49-year-old male, entrepreneur and psychology graduate. In my life I’ve been present at murder and experienced severe male brutality, I have intervened and confronted rogue males in their worst state of primal attack under existential stress. I have personally been attacked physically several times, three times in danger of being murdered, I have intervened when a murder was being covered up by cornering and confronting the killer while attempting to defend my wife, I have looked into the eyes of sociopaths and psychopaths who would kill, one who definitely did.
I’m sorry to inform you that in South Africa this is not completely uncommon for complex reasons I can’t get into here. But this perspective has given me an uncomfortable feeling when I read the studies, the theories and the psychosocial opinions on boys, men and masculinity. Most literature seems to skip over the potential for all male humans to revert to the primal mode of ‘going rogue’ to survive.
I can say I have confronted, then integrated the rogue male within myself.
Recently, I had to investigate the incel (involuntary celibate) culture that has sprung up mostly in the west, this finally triggered a realisation that the incel male is the inactive version of the active rogue male who wreaks havoc here in South Africa. We have the worst murder rate of any nation not presently in conflict, and at times it’s even higher than those in civil war, a woman is murdered every three hours. Our domestic violence, rape and crime figures are similarly horrific. Disorder and violence are endemic due to complicated factors in our history and perpetuated conditions which I’ve written about before.
The overwhelming evidence tells us males in many nations and varying levels on the economic development spectrum display what I collectively call the ‘rogue male’ default.
Like the rogue lion, a male who has no rank, no territory, no attachments, no role, no purpose and therefore no meaning to his existence reverts to a default setting regardless of his culture, socio-economic status or education. It can happen to any man at any time, although, it mostly happens to the younger testosterone-fuelled young man. Unfortunately, Incel males don’t politely submit to testosterone testing, but I would surmise that they have normal levels, perhaps even raised levels that act to push up their defiance and sexual frustration. Regardless of their actual testosterone levels, they are fuelled by it like other males but probably lack opportunities, role models, mentors and healthy negotiating strategies for what they want, which is ultimately although not exclusively to mate with a female. Of course, I want to resist being reductive about human experiences but you can break that down into palatable sachets like job opportunities, friendships and hobbies if you prefer, the goal remains to partner up and if possible reproduce. Incels have not adapted pro-socially to the world they find outside their parent’s homes. Misogyny and antisocial thinking occurs frequently when a male is ostracised by society, but with western incels; Social Media effectively pours jet fuel onto the issue and it becomes a social contagion.
Two populations, one default
In South Africa, most crime and violence is committed by a fraction of the males between 16–29. Many others try to help their families or become victims of the dominant males. South African men have few job prospects with up to 84% unemployment in some rural areas and low prospects for marriage. Many older, wealthier city men retain multiple younger women. These young girls as young as 14 compete for a ‘sugar daddy’ by posting glamourised images on social media platforms. Fear of the poverty they see all around them motivates more antisocial survival strategies. Adding to this is the rampant political corruption flaunted for all to see by a select elite while the ceaseless consumer culture from the ‘West’ doesn’t help to change this cycle.
In the two scenarios; the western incel male hiding in his room sending hate mail to a prized female, or the young male in South Africa who has to shoot someone or rape a teenage girl to gain status in a gang, there is a common driving force that compels them irrationally to risk death and injury to escape being banished to the wilderness.
The ‘wilderness’ in the west could be described as being celibate at 32, friendless, not in education, employment or training (NEET). Incels see successful mating with a prized female as a rite of passage, redemption, a singular goal. They are grasping for meaning in a world that has reduced natural developmental waypoints to sources of threat, with panic over bullying, and safeguarding confusion which leaves them unchallenged and unable to raise their social capital. These ‘mothering’ systems in modern paternalistic society are often administered by fastidious and neurotic adults who similarly lack purpose and meaning in their own lives, a self-perpetuating cycle. The stoic father role has been banished for fear of trauma to the pristine self; the self that is touched by nothing but love, as described by Howard S. Schwartz; hegemonic authority in the school system, the therapist and the state has replaced the alpha male and the father figure. Often with disastrous results.
The ‘wilderness’ in South Africa is truly the actual barren wilderness of Africa where you are fair game to wild animals and thugs alike. Many boys who run away from circumcision rituals imposed at age 15 die in the wilderness areas near their homes, some escape to the cities where they become victims anyway. Poverty here means starvation and disease. The young powerless male will risk going rogue from his community and society’s rules rather than being banished into the wilderness.
In counselling, we often say these men are victims of a social system that disempowers and leaves them with no choices. My personal experience is that we can make choices even in the worst situations. But I must concede that I don’t believe many of these men can imagine options. Being able to imagine options in your future is a function of cognitive ability, but often these young men lack those abilities due to conditions in poverty, choice is a luxury they don’t have. Perhaps the incel male has fewer excuses but for complex reasons, he also fails to grasp the options around him. I have learned that this is sometimes an earlier failure of their immediate circle, of guardianship to build character, build resilience, create purpose and delay gratification. But that wouldn’t apply to all of them. No doubt some are sociopaths and need to be identified, their antisocial actions limited as soon as possible. Opportunistic predators appear when the prey is distracted, and when there are no other defenders in sight.
The modern world has decoupled the environmental conditions that should make men act in orderly ways within a prescribed benevolent hegemonic social order, think of the relative order created by most religions and tribal traditions. Some have suggested this is a result of the ‘therapeutic culture’ that has proliferated in the west which infantilises people into convenient political categories of victims, but that doesn’t explain the rogue behaviour of males here in South Africa. Here, the lack of moral leadership, education or training in craft skills, joblessness, rampant HIV and other diseases has created a dystopian world for adolescents with no social contract. Here, nihilism is not simply a philosophical danger, it’s a daily reality. In response to this the males “go rogue” for they have nothing left to lose and everything to gain if they survive.
Many people reading this may be sceptical. Surely men are not barbarians who pick up a sword and start raiding their neighbours at the drop of a hat. I am a very passive man myself and most of the men I know are too. But there are also the unspoken thoughts between men. Occasional indiscretions can have devastating consequences; a minority of males commit the majority of offences. Superficially demonstrated by Trump’s 2005 comments about grabbing women’s private parts at will, but conclusively demonstrated by modern atrocities we see in Rwanda, Afghanistan, Ukraine and other gross violations of human rights around the world.
Two sides of the same trait
To bring it into your milieu, imagine me sitting across the table from you in a café, we’re having a polite intellectual conversation about Twitter discourse. I’m sipping a café au lait, I’m dressed well, I’m calm and relaxed. Within a second a male appears pointing a gun at you and attempting to drag you off toward a waiting car. Kidnapping has increased here and we know many females disappear or suffer horrible attacks. In this crisis, I rise with a steak knife in my hand and stab the man in a fit of blind defensive rage. You fall out of his grasp, now safe as the car speeds away.
I saved your life, or at least I saved your dignity. But I went completely rogue for a few seconds and I will likely need counselling for years, but I acted instinctively to defend you. For a moment; I was the alpha male and you were my ward. Think about it, men do this every day as policemen, as firefighters or as common everyday heroes. The rogue male default lies beneath the surface of most males. We will risk everything, anything, to avoid being ostracised from you, from our family, from our community, from society. This is simultaneously the wonder and the dread of what we simplistically call masculinity.
But then we have the man who attempted to kidnap you. He is more like the rogue lion mentioned above. He needs to survive one more day so he can have the opportunity to mate or to climb one more level up the social order away from deprivation. Some men who are already high up in the social order have used this strategy successfully and modulated their rogue mode. They just dress better and have staff around them to alleviate pressures. They are often the ‘sociopaths’ found in the CEO position, the surgeon, the military leader or business manager. Of course, not all these figures are sociopaths most don’t meet the level of Dark Triad traits required to earn that label, but if you questioned them and they were honest I will venture that they have had to act in a rogue way at some point to gain their position or maintain their status.
The truth is all men have this distinctive male default condition of ‘going rogue’ which is their last defence before accepting defeat and retreating onto the wilderness. Women don’t do this. Not the way men do. Women are mothers, they are the biological default but also the archetypal nurturer of all men, she is the ultimate source of acceptance and love before a father or anyone else. Men must first become the leader, the stoic defender, the pillar of society, the metaphysical or biological father before they can fulfil their internal purpose and meaning. This distinction is important because we men are simultaneously the heroes in our communities and also the threats to our most vulnerable.
Realistically, all concerned with human potential and well-being must recognise the triggers for ‘going rogue that males have, for violence or withdrawing into maladaptive online spaces, as with the incel cohort. What are the triggers? I can only name a few here: the mismatch in education between male developmental waypoints and female waypoints, incessant vilification of masculinity in media, idolisation of fatherless homes, hatred toward “traditional” men, the panic of “rape culture”, the scorn of boyhood energy which is then medicated for a feminine result, the deliberate ostracism of low-status males, a feminised mental health culture, neglect of male health issues, disregard of the male suicide rate and others. You may not agree with them all, but surely it is uncontroversial to say we have a serious problem with rogue males in most societies and the old ways are not working but rather could be escalating the evolved triggers in our primordial toolbox. Counsellors especially need to be orientated to this concept so that they can act appropriately when dealing with men on the verge of going rogue. I will venture that research on this approach will provide dramatic results one day.
Let me address the objections. No, I’m not suggesting society must pander to alpha males or aggressive rogue men. Earlier I said the true sociopaths should be identified and dealt with until they can demonstrate they have evolved beyond the rogue condition. But many of our processes to deal with violent men are not working, I believe because we don’t acknowledge the survival aspect of going rogue. In the absence of other social or cognitive options, this behaviour is the default setting for many men rather than facing the alpha male or being banished to a celibate, impotent wilderness.
A new dawn
My philosophical proposal here is that we integrate the daemon, as Jung has suggested, by integrating the truth of the daemon in us all. Specifically, the sex-based paradigm of the rogue male should be recognised and confronted, only then can we achieve eudemonia: good fortune and happiness. Unless we recognise the rogue male in the eye of the deprived young man, the hungry but lonely lion peeking through the grass at dawn, we will always misunderstand male motivation under existential threat. Instead, we will recycle the very patterns that abandon our sons, fathers, brothers, by applying ineffective strategies to punish and control them. This could be the same man who tomorrow would lay down his life for you, or next week become the leader who we all love so much, or next year become a father of the children who will build a better tomorrow.
Vincent Deboni is a registered professional counsellor who is based in Sweden.