Four years ago, my guest today published what has become an underground cult classic on masculinity. His name is Jack Donovan and that book was The Way of Men. I had him on the podcast a few years ago to discuss it — check it out if you haven’t listened to it. In The Way of Men, Donovan argued that for men to really live what he calls the “tactical virtues” of masculinity, they need to join an all-male honor group, or what he calls a gang or tribe. In his latest book, Becoming a Barbarian, Donovan lays out what creating these honor groups would look like.
On today’s show, Jack and I discuss why masculinity is often tragic, why today’s modern world makes it hard for men to form male honor groups, the difference between a club and a tribe, and what it means to start the world.
- The runaway success of The Way of Men
- How Becoming a Barbarian is a continuation of The Way of Men
- The difference between a tribe and club
- Why masculinity is tragic and requires conflict
- Anti-fragility and masculinity
- Why men need other men to fully experience masculinity
- Why the lone alpha male is a myth
- Why belonging to a group can make you a more interesting person
- Why modernity makes it hard to be part of a community
- Why individualism can make us less free
- What it means to be a barbarian
- Why social media gives the illusion of action and influence
- Can you have an online tribe?
- Why technology is the opposite of manliness
- How the Amish can serve as a template for living in a community
- What do you build a tribe around?
Resources/Studies/People Mentioned in Podcast
- Leupold Optics
- InSights Training
- Iron John by Robert Bly
- Manliness by Harvey Mansfield
- Hell’s Angels by Hunter S. Thompson
- Communities vs. Networks
- Why I Like It When Other Men Make Me Feel Bad About Myself
- Competition: The Fuel for Greatness
- Antifragile by Nassim Taleb
- Becoming Antifragile
- My podcast with Richard Wrangham about Demonic Males
- My podcast with Joyce Benenson about the differences between how men and women socialize
- Fighting for Life by Walter J. Ong
- Be Alpha Like the Wolf
- What is Honor?
- How to Revive Honor
- My podcast with Marc Dunkelman about The Vanishing Neighbor
- My podcast with Cal Newport about Deep Work
- My podcast with Matthew Crawford about The World Beyond Your Head
- Let Sympathy Lead to Action
- Dunbar’s Number
- Men in Groups by Lionel Tiger
- My podcast with Sebastian Junger about Tribe
Donovan and I admittedly have different conceptions of manliness. To me, “primal” anthropological/biological manhood should always be coupled with the ancient conception of manliness as virtue. Donovan champions a stripped-down, raw masculinity over and above more lofty conceptions. But even if you disagree with some of his views, his sharp and compelling insights into the core of masculinity force you to re-think your assumptions about what it means to be a man and to live in a community; after all, you can’t build towards higher manhood unless you understand the foundation — you can’t become a Gentleman Barbarian and neglect the barbarian virtues. The ideas in his books are thus worth grappling with. You can pick up copies of The Way of Men and Becoming a Barbarian on Amazon.
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
And thanks to Creative Audio Lab in Tulsa, OK for editing our podcast!
Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. Seven years ago my guest today published what has become an underground hit on masculinity. His name is Jack Donovan and that book was The Way of Men. I had Jack on the podcast a few years ago to discuss that book, check it out if you haven’t listened to it yet. Anyways, in The Way of Men, Donovan argued that for men to really live what he calls the tactical virtues of masculinity, they needed to form an all male honor group or what he calls a gang. In his latest book, Becoming a Barbarian, Donovan lays out what creating these honor groups would look like. On today’s show, Jack and I discuss why masculinity is often tragic, why today’s modern world makes it hard for men to form male honor groups, the difference between a club and a tribe, and what it means to start the world. After the show is over, check out the show notes at AOM.is/barbarian where you can get links and resources to delve deeper into this topic. Jack Donovan, welcome back to the show.
Jack Donovan: Thanks for having me, man.
Brett McKay: Your last book was The Way of Men, which has kind of become this underground cult classic among men. What’s been the reaction to that book, what kind of guys are reading it, and what are the responses you’re getting from them?
Jack Donovan: The reaction of the book, I never imagined when I wrote it that I’d end up selling … I think I probably sold about 50,000 copies worldwide.
Brett McKay: That’s insane, dude.
Jack Donovan: Yeah, it’s been translated into Portuguese and French. It just came out in Deutschland this past month, and it’s blown me away. I think the reaction that I get is that The Way of Men put something in a way that a lot of men had always felt, but couldn’t articulate. I get that over and over again. I get these guys who are like “Ah I thought I was the only one who was seeing things this way or thought of it this way.” This is the first time I actually read it. I always assumed that people who were writing were saying one thing and i was thinking a different thing.
A lot of people have really latched into it. I have guys … The thing that honors me the most is when guys buy copies for their sons that were just born, “I’m going to give this to him when he’s 13.” That’s pretty amazing. That blows me away. I’ve also had a lot of interest … There are some guys who, obviously the people who react negatively to it, a lot of them will think that I think I’m the ultimate man, that I’m trying to tell them how to be men, and I haven’t gotten a lot of that, but the people who think that, obviously haven’t read the introduction, because I kind of say right away that that’s not what I’m about.
The guys who get it, it’s really cool. I have a lot of guys that … I would say my readers are better than me. Not all of them, but I have a lot of readers who are really accomplished guys, special forces guys. A lot of them, people who have been successful in business or lifting or whatever and they contact me and they realize that I’m just a guy who was trying to figure something out. They contact me and they want to share their skills with me and hang out and that’s really cool, that’s really exciting.
Brett McKay: You’ve been doing a lot of tactical training and things like that, right.
Jack Donovan: Yeah, I did some long range shooting with Leopold Optics last weekend, and I didn’t think I would like that. It was really fun. That was pretty exciting, and doing some gun stuff with my guy Greg up in Seattle, Insights, and there have been more and more opportunities like that opening up, so that’s really exciting.
Brett McKay: That is really cool. Do you know if your book has been picked up by any gender studies programs? Your book ranks high in that segment on Amazon.
Jack Donovan: It’s kind of funny which means they know who I am. I think that it actually has been part of some curriculums. Every once in a while I hear that someone is teaching it in a class. I know it’s in some libraries, and stuff like that, but I don’t get a lot of notification about stuff like that.
Brett McKay I was curious. It’s funn about books about masculinity, because there aren’t really a lot of books about masculinity in the gender studies area, or, if they are, they’re coming from a feminist standpoint.
Jack Donovan: It’s like you and me and Iron John, it’s like the Amazon ranking thing, it’s like you and me and Iron John-
Brett McKay: Maybe Harvey Mansfield’s, Manliness.
Jack Donovan: Every once in a while, yeah. It’s something like that, and then it’s more like feminist books. It’s like we’re up at the top there. Weirdly, Hunter S. Thompson’s book on the Hell’s Angels is in there for some reason.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I guess that kind of makes sense as a gang.
Jack Donovan: No, it makes sense, it’s just kind of funny that it was categorized that way.
Brett McKay: Right, yeah. Sometimes I see how my book is categorized and it’s bizarre. I find my books in like the trivia section, which makes sense. My first book was just goofy, cool man stuff. Let’s talk about your new book, it’s called Becoming A Barbarian. How is this a continuation of your work in The Way of Men?
Jack Donovan: Obviously, at the end of The Way of Men, it says that men should start a gang or start a tribe. Obviously, the response that I was getting from that was, “How, what do I do?” They want this kind of perfect, guaranteed plan, and I’m like, “Well to begin with, from what I’ve learned actually, kind of joining a tribe on my own is if you want a perfect plan that’s guaranteed to work, you probably aren’t the guy who should be running the tribe, because it’s a creative enterprise. You have to make it up as you go along.”
Obviously there are some basic rules. We borrowed a lot of structures for our tribe from motorcycle clubs just because they’ve been working for years and years and years. What I also found is that people said they wanted to join a tribe or a gang, but they weren’t ready, psychologically they weren’t ready, and I thought that was more important for me to talk about because I have no experience running a tribe for like 20 years. That’s the guy who should write a book on how to run a tribe. In terms of … The changes of the mind have to happen to become part of a tribe instead of just a club.
I think people are confusing tribe and gang and club. I think when it comes to being part of a tribe, it means that you have a shared fate. You have this honor group that you can’t turn away from when you don’t like what they’re saying. You still have to deal with them and you still have to live up to their expectations. That’s the kind of tribe or the kind of gang that I was suggesting that people start is one that you can’t just be like, “eh, this isn’t working out,” and walk away. I don’t think that men were ready to really break away from modern life to the extent that they could really give themselves 100% to a group.
Brett McKay: We’ll talk about that mind-shift change that needs to take place. We’ve written a lot about it on our site about this community mindset that I think a lot of people, particularly in America have lost. Let’s start off with this. You start off the chapter in your book, Becoming a Barbarian, that masculinity is tragic, which I thought was interesting. What do you mean by that and why does masculinity require conflict?
Jack Donovan: I had a young guy write me and he said that that chapter was really depressing. I’m like, “Well, you know life is kind of depressing, if you look at it in a certain way.” We’re born and we get all of these skills and we get better at everything and then we all start to fall apart and die, and that’s pretty depressing. The same thing is true of masculinity. Life is tragic in that way and masculinity is also tragic.
Because you strive to become a man, and eventually, you’re not going to be as good as these skills that you acquired. You become a great fighter, and eventually you’re not going to be a great fighter, you become a great race car driver and eventually you’re going to crash one too many times. There’s an end to it, and that’s what I think is depressing to a lot of people, because you do all this work, and eventually it all falls apart; or, it’s also depressing because maybe you don’t get to be the top guy and most people never will. Most guys will never be at the top of the food chain as in any group of men. That’s kind of depressing as well.
Just as in with life, obviously you’re here for a short period of time and it becomes what you make of it. You want to be the best man that you can be and without conflict, you don’t want to say your life is a story where nothing happened. You can’t have a plot without conflict. It’s a show with no one to watch. Conflict allows men, that’s how we test each other. Without that testing, if we’re always safe, if we’re always protected from each other, then we can’t really grow as men. That’s how we become the kind of men that we’re all saying are gone from this earth or there are fewer of them or masculinity … Our generations are weaker than the ones that came before because we’ve eliminated conflict.
I think you may have even recommended it to me, but I just got around to listening to some of the audio book of that book by Taleb, Antifragile. Again, it’s a lot of the same ideas. If you deal with conflict all the time and you learn how to operate within some kind of chaos, then you’re going to become maybe more resilient, maybe more robust, and possibly even more antifragile, but if you are constantly protected, you’re reliant on that protection.
Brett McKay: Right, and also, you’ve written about this too, we’ve written about it, too, this is based on sociology, psychology, evolutionary biology that one of the defining traits of males across species, particularly, you know, our close primate relatives is that they way the males differentiate themselves is conflict. Within the group, there’s this intra-tribal or intra-group competition, but then there’s also competition or conflict between competing groups. That’s how you create an individual, or at least for males, that’s what they create their psyche around.
Jack Donovan: Absolutely.
Brett McKay: There’s also this great book, if you haven’t read it yet, check it out, Fighting for Life. It was written by this Jesuit priest who is like a philosopher, philosophy professor and it’s all about this male competitive drive, and he makes this really interesting point. He gets kind of Freudian which can get goofy sometimes, but, the males at least or boys, they’re in conflict from the day they’re born, like, they’re inside a woman and they have to battle the estrogen that might be trying to make them more womanlike, and once they’re outside of the womb, they have to differentiate themselves and separate themselves from their mother, and girls don’t have to do that. They can identify with the mother.
Jack Donovan: We say women are always a woman. Manhood is something that you have to earn. Women, womanhood just kind of happens and no one says you’re not a woman because you don’t do this or this. There are some reasons why you might not be, mostly chemical in nature. That definitely does sound pretty Freudian, and I actually used Freud in this book as well. It’s just a model, and if you don’t get crazy where everything is about your mother then it’s all right.
Brett McKay: It’s about your mother, your dad.
Jack Donovan: Yeah, but I used him for the model of the self-schema or whatever. There’s a great model called the iceberg, I think, like superego and ego and id, and I think below the consciousness and what’s above it and what makes you you. I think he was right about a lot of that.
Brett McKay: You argue The Way of Men and this is what Becoming a Barbarian is about is that manliness, to fully express masculinity, it requires a group of guys comprised of a tribe, gang, platoon, posse, whatever you want to call it. I think us modern Americans take pride in our hyper individualism. I think there’s a tendency in a lot of men today saying that joining a group is for suckers, it’s for sheeple and like a real man is the lone alpha wolf who does his thing. Why is it not possible to fully experience masculinity by yourself, and you need to be embedded in a group of men?
Jack Donovan: I guess … I was going to say you could experience, but no, I actually don’t think you can. Like I said, we need that competition, that feedback from other men. If you’re the loan guy off on your own forever, there’s part of your experience that’s missing, because humans are not solitary animals. We are social animals and masculinity is a social phenomenon to a certain degree. As far as Americans and individualism goes, that was my favorite chapter in that book. That’s the one that I got most excited about, that belonging is becoming, just because there are so many guys who think they’re so special and they’re not. They think their opinion is so important. You see them arguing on the internet and their individual opinion, they’ll live and die by it and they cannot join a group because there’s some little detail that they can find that they wouldn’t want to agree with or they want to reserve their right to disagree, so they’re alone. The consequence of that is they’re just alone.
I was talking to a guy the other day. Obviously, I’m not going to mention his name, but he said that … We were talking about our … A lot of guys talk about your bury a body buddy, like who are you going to call when you have to do something that maybe involves breaking the law, or that involves something that goes way beyond what you can handle by yourself. He was like, this guy I was talking about it with, he was pretty squared away, pretty advanced in the military, probably had killed a lot of people, and had a lot of survival skills, but at the end of the day, he’s still concerned about who am I going to call.
A lot of guys far less skilled than him think “I can handle anything that comes my way,” but at the end of the day you can’t. When you can’t, you depend on the government. That’s why, again it comes back to the Antifragile thing, people try and create more and more and more security for themselves, but it’s a security that’s a dependent security. They’re relying on the state to jump in and be their best friend when something goes wrong. As individualist as these guys thing that they are and maybe if you’re a billionaire, you just hire a lot of people to do that work for you, but most of us aren’t, so we need friends.
I think that having relationships with other men is a rich part of our lives that we’re missing. Men understand each other in ways that men and women don’t, and in many ways I think a lot of guys who end up loners end up having themselves defined by women because it that ends up being the most important person in their life and their best friend and their only best friend. Their masculinity becomes defined by her. I think that’s a very Hollywood idea, it’s just a kind of rolling tumbleweed of violence and judgment that comes from Clint Eastwood movies that the real man is a loner all by himself. In reality, the real man gets picked off real easily.
Brett McKay: Right, and people that are like “I’m the alpha, or the lone wolf,” it’s like, you do know the lone wolves are the ones who got kicked out of the pack. They were the runts that the wolves didn’t want.
Jack Donovan: Yeah, you’re like this guy that can’t get along with anyone. Ninety percent of the time that’s the case. The lone wolf is the guy who just can’t get along with anyone, he’s kind of a jerk.
Brett McKay: Then, so this idea of belonging is becoming, how can group affiliation belonging to a tightly knit community or a tribe, whatever you want to call it, can make you a more interesting individual?
Jack Donovan: I just think it fills out. You know yourself more because you’ve been tested in different ways and people have demanded things from you. If you’re just demanding things of yourself, I try and push myself all the time. There’s a lot of ways that I’m the only one driving myself, no one really cares what I do, but, having these other guys to answer to really kind of enriches your life. Say, obviously, I’m oathed into a tribe and I have to think about how my actions are going to effect all of those guys, and what they would think of what I’m doing, and that’s kind of the basis of where honor comes from. If I can’t answer to them maybe I shouldn’t do it. People call that group think, but I think that’s again human nature, and I think that people who don’t think they engage in group think, I can see them online engaging in group think all the time.
Brett McKay: Right.
Jack Donovan: No one is really that immune from that. They just kind of flatter themselves by saying that they are.
Brett McKay: I think it’s interesting, too, I came across it right before the interview, I came across this study about everyone trying to be individual, sociologically. Everybody tries to be individual, unique, butterfly, whatever, it actually ends up creating this mono-culture of just uniqueness. There’s nothing different between anybody because everyone is trying to be unique, so everyone is the same.
Jack Donovan: It becomes very consumer based as well. You’re not really separate from this mono-culture because you’re all in it and you’re all alone, so how do you differentiate yourself? You buy things. What hat is the best hat for me, what band, it’s always bands, people, it’s like what kind of music you like says something about you as a person. They define themselves in these kind of superficial ways that are easy to change. If they come up against resistance, like, “Eh, I don’t like that anymore,” or, “I was just kidding,” that’s kind of like the modern kind of hipster way of looking at everything. If you like something that other people don’t like, then you can always fall back on the idea that you were just kidding, you weren’t really serious, and that’s just the cowardly way of living.
Brett McKay: I think Amish people, like an Amish person would be more interesting to me than just a regular guy who is just buying consumer stuff, trying to differentiate himself. I would be more interested in sitting down talking to an Amish guy about his life.
Jack Donovan: Yeah, because they have a distinct and different culture. They didn’t just make different consumer choices. They have a whole life that is different.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about this. Tribe is the goal, but it seems like and this is what a lot of what you write about in the book that modernity makes it difficult for men, women, for everyone to be a part of a tribe or a community. What about modernity that makes that difficult?
Jack Donovan: To begin with, we’re very separate from each other in the way we make money is organized. We’re not ten farmers living within a few miles of each other, because the community kind of forms itself at that point. We’re a bunch of people who are together until your career takes you to this place, your career takes you to that place, and you all spend more time at work than you spend with anyone else. It makes it hard. It’s hard to have friends in modern life let alone a tribe. It’s hard to make time for the people you really like in your life. You actually have to go out of your way to do it, and that’s one of the things that we look for in our group, it’s like “are you willing to give up something so that you can be here, because if you’re not, we’re not going to waste your time.”
Then, there are so many distractions. Another reader, she sent me a book called Deep Work. It talked a lot about the distractions of social media, and everything, everybody is constantly in the state of distraction and they don’t know how to focus or lock down on anything any more. The world is very anti-tribal as well. If you Google the word tribalism, it’s basically negative. It’s kind of like masculinity, it’s mostly about toxic tribalism, and bad tribalism, and they don’t use the word that much in America. They’re using it a little bit more in terms of politics, you know, the way Americans have become divided, and rapidly divided, and I think that’s just human nature and that’s normal. They think no matter how big the group is, we’re all supposed to learn to love each other.
People who think tribally don’t think that way. They think my group is my group, and your group is your group, and we can get along until we don’t. I think globalism makes that … That’s something that people who are in favor of globalism and big business don’t want because it’s a problem. It creates disruption in the system. If you have groups that cannot work together, you have problems with your government, with your employee relations, your have problems with your entire system if people within it are at odds with each other, and it would be much better for everybody if we were all just kind of loners who think we’re individualist, then we can just buy things and then that will be much easier for everyone.
The United Nations is against tribalism. It’s a big thing. The goal has been for a long time to turn everything into these bigger and bigger and bigger groups, and that really, to my mind is not as idealistic as it is to facilitate commerce.
Brett McKay: Right, whenever you make people, everyone think they’re the same, it makes it easier to sell to, right. I actually had a guy, Matthew Crawford, he got his new book, he did Shop Class as Soul Craft, but he’s got a new book, The World Beyond Your Head and he talks about that like sort of these things that make us feel like we have more control, like companies want to make us feel like we’re individuals. It allows them to control us easier.
Jack Donovan: Absolutely, yeah.
Brett McKay: Because, they’re just dealing with the individual who is not connected with anyone else, and they don’t have really a culture or identity and so they can like, “I can sell you your identity, and here you go.”
Jack Donovan: That’s mostly what they do.
Brett McKay: How do you counter that? It takes relearning how to live in a way that humans have lived for most of humanity. How do you go about learning and overcoming that sort of culture that we have that says, “No, that’s not the best way to do it.”
Jack Donovan: Obviously, to begin with, you have to want to and most people don’t because it’s hard, and nobody wants to be different. They want to be different in a way that’s cute, and like I said, they can back away from. That’s why the book was called Becoming a Barbarian. You have to understand that you’re doing something that society doesn’t want and you have to make peace with it. Civilization is anti-tribal, like the civilization we have right now is anti-tribal, so by becoming more tribal, you’re going to say things and live in a way that makes people uncomfortable, and they may even hate you for it. You have to be wearing … The slogan for the book is cum capite et lupum, which is “with the head of the wolf.” You have to realize that you’re an outsider to them. You’re an insider to your own tribe, but you’re going to be an outsider to them. That’s something people have to make peace with to do that.
In order to do it, that’s kind of what the whole book is about, going through this thought process of breaking away and thinking about things in a group sense, instead of the global group. We’re all taught that we’re supposed to care about everything that happens everywhere and humans really can’t. I feel like it’s very media directed and very fake. Do you really care about this disaster that happened to these strangers 50 miles away or 5,000 miles away? Probably not, but we’re kind of trained to feel bad about that in the way that we feel bad in watching a movie.
Worse things are probably happening next door to you, because they’re people you don’t know or care about, because you don’t know. It’s like the media tells you to care, so we care. I think that’s one of the first things is kind of breaking away from that cycle what everyone is caring about today, I have to care about. It’s actually made it hard for me to write anymore, because I have done that. I actually took a six month break from Facebook where I kind of gave my password and everything to one of my buddies, and he kind of acted as my assistant for a while.
When I came back to it, it was amazing to me, because I had been in a cycle in my entire writing career of looking at what everybody is talking about today, and that’s what we’re going to get angry about and that’s what we’re going to comment on and all of that. Now that I’ve just been thinking about my friends, and my tribe, and my people, when I come back and look at that, I see guys who are really smart and really accomplished, and I’m just watching them sucked up in that same cycle, like this is what we’re going to talk about today. You know that they’re emotionally angry about this thing that someone told them to be angry about, things that they have no control over. I think that’s one of the biggest challenges is to separate yourself from that and bring it back, and care more about the people who are close to you and the people who are in your tribe.
Say, “I don’t really care about that avalanche for strangers.” For a lot of people, that makes you sound like a bad person, but they don’t care about lots of things they don’t know about. If you don’t care about the thing of the day, then you’re a bad person. I think you’re going to face resistance when you talk about things with people or you can just kind of nod your head. I think that’s what I do a lot of the time in those kind of situations, “OK, yeah, sure.”
I think that’s one of the biggest parts is to separate yourself from that cycle where you are reacting constantly to all of these messages, and react to your own world. That’s hard for people to do, but it’s kind of the most important thing. You have to really … Another thing I talk about in the book is you have to figure out who your we is, who your group is, because most people, they say, “We,” they speak really broadly in these broad democratic American terms of “We should do this,” and “We should do that,” but those we’s don’t care about you. They care about you only in the most superficial way. Your we should be people who actually care about your opinion and care about your survival and care about what happens to you. If you don’t know who those people are, you need to find some friends.
Brett McKay: Right. I think the insidious thing, especially with social media is like people do this, and they see these things happen, and they get outraged. They’re commenting and they feel like they’re doing something. They’re commenting, I’m leaving this comment and if you think about it, they’re not really doing anything.
Jack Donovan: No, they’re literally emoting. They’re emoting on command, because they aren’t changing anything. No one cares what they say. They’ll get someone else to react to what they said, but even if that’s like 5,000 people, it’s still kind of a drop in the bucket, it doesn’t really matter, it’s not going to change the world. Stop reacting to those things.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and it’s like wasted energy. You’re getting angry, and it’s like your wasting … Emotions are what drives us to actually take action, and you’re wasting that energy on nothing.
Jack Donovan: Yeah, that’s the point I make in the book is actually like caring is a resource. You can only care about so much, so you really need to be selective about what you care about. You should be caring about other things. The time you spent caring about that thing that doesn’t matter is time that you can be giving to people who are going to give something back to you.
Brett McKay: Right. There is a great essay we published on the site. It said like when these sort of things happen you read in the newspaper, it was published by the guy who was like the founder of psychology, William James. You know, if you see these events in the newspaper, like a ship sinks, or this travesty, it’s OK to feel sad or upset, because that’s human, but go do something with that. Find someone nearby that you know and actually take that and do something in your locus of control, so you don’t waste that emotion. I thought that was a really good idea. Now, whenever I see something happen that kind of tinges me and makes me feel bad, I try to do something constructive where I’m at. It might not even be related to the tragedy, but it might be, I’m going to go check in on my neighbor, I’m going to go call someone who needs to be called or whatever.
Jack Donovan: Yeah, absolutely, I think that’s a good way to go.
Brett McKay: This idea of tribe, online, you see people saying, “Join my online tribe.” Is tribe possible online or do you need to be face to face?
Jack Donovan: Join my secret tribe, what are you a cop?
Brett McKay: Right.
Jack Donovan: No, you don’t know those people, you can’t trust them. If you are really going to be in a tribe with somebody, they know you, they know who you are. They know … That’s what friendship is, right, it’s a certain level of vulnerability, they’ve seen you in the good times and the bad times, and you guys have history. While they can see your good and bad Facebook status updates and you can have deep conversations about things, there’s a difference between a person-to-person relationship and an online relationship because we can kind of be whoever we want to be online. I know a lot of guys, a lot younger guys who are brilliantly funny online. They are great. They are on point, and they make me laugh, and they’re funny, and then they’re much quieter in person.
I’m the same way to a certain extent. I’ve spent a lot of time online, I’m a writer, but I’m a little bit more calm and reserved in person. Your friend knows that, they know that there’s more than one side to you, but online people only know that one side of you. You can start, obviously, like some of the people that I’m oathed to I only know about because I’ve been online. I met them online and contacted them. The online world is a great way to find people who have similar interests to you, and to put a flag out there and say, but, you can’t really consider them a tribe. They’re not really your friends until you actually know them in person.
A good example that I’ve seen, there used to be Arthur’s Hall of Viking Manliness-
Brett McKay: Yeah, I remember that site.
Jack Donovan: Then, there’s a group of guys that kind of kept it going. It’s called the Hall of Manly Excellence. Those guys, they’ve been on forums together for so long, that they actually have their own culture. They have their own jokes. I’ve hung out with them in person. Eventually, they do get together in person, and a lot of those guys have met up and hung out in person. They have, in the way with your old friend you’ll be like “blah, blah, blah,” they’re talking about something that happened online, but it’s this shared experience that you have to talk about. They have this kind of shared culture, and these almost like shared words and slangs and things.
That’s really cool, the level to which culture can be created in online is pretty amazing. But, I think until it really reaches the in-person level, it’s kind of subject to that real life interaction. Because, like I said, you can meet a guy who is really, really cool online, and you find out he’s a jerk in real life or he’s a mess, his life isn’t together at all, he’s got all of these other issues that he’s kind of hidden in the background online. I think to really know someone I think you have to spend time with them in person, and that takes a lot of hard work.
Brett McKay: The online thing, it’s easy to step out. You can say, “I belong to this group,” but like you can just go silent for a week, two weeks, and no one is going to care.
Jack Donovan: Yeah, and again, that’s the thing with tribes. It all comes back to a shared fate, and if you can’t step out, if you really have to answer to that person … I’ll probably write something about this at some point if one of my guys from my tribe doesn’t beat me to it. My buddy, Paul Waggoner has been putting out a lot of great YouTube videos about tribe and he’s been running our tribe for 10 years with his brothers, so he knows a lot about it, and he’s had to deal with a lot of this stuff.
I think one of the things that really made a difference for me personally is the oath. If you take an oath to something, you have to deal with that. In many ways, my writing has been a series of oaths, because I have to kind of stand by my words. I’m like, “Well I said this is what people should do, so now I actually have to do it, and sometimes that sucks.” I kind of hold myself accountable to things that I’ve written. In the same way like an oath, men are pretty good at realizing that I said this thing so I kind of have to stand by it or figure out a way that I don’t have to.
I think if there’s a bunch of guys who are going to hold you accountable to that oath, that’s a big difference from this kind of superficial transient relationship that a lot of people have or they just go in and out of social circles whether online or in real life. People that say “Oh I have my boys, I have my buddies,” and whatever, it’s like, are they really going to be there for you? That’s your drinking buddy or that’s your watching sports buddy or whatever, but they can back up because they don’t have a reason why they can’t. I think the oath is a good reason why they can’t. I’ve already been called in to some situations that I would not be in by choice, but it’s like I said I was going to be there, so I’m there.
Brett McKay: You’re there. That’s some heavy stuff. Throughout the book you call modern culture the empire of nothing. It sounds completely … I guess is why the guy who said this book is depressing, one of the reasons why he probably says depressing. Why do you call modern culture an empire of nothing?
Jack Donovan: There’s a lack of positive identity as much as anything because we don’t have that tribalism. There is none. They talk about modern culture, I’m like, what is that? There is no culture, really. It’s just a series of kind of products whether entertainment products or whatever that we string together and that’s kind of TV shows and so forth are what we all have in common, but we don’t have a shared identity. We have a bunch of mini identities that are flexible and you can do away with. That’s what I mean by an empire of nothing. It’s an empire without an identity. The way the Roman Empire started in Rome, it’s a Roman culture, and even though they assimilated a lot of different groups of people, they maintain that central culture. You knew you were a subject of Rome, what it meant to be Roman. There was a Roman culture that went with that package.
I feel like America, to a certain extent, that’s what we share with the world and that’s the wrong use of we for me. What Americans share with the world is that consumer culture in many ways. I always say that it’s a lot of negative rights, like we don’t do this and we don’t do that, and we don’t do that. It’s like there is no one religion, there is no one culture, there is no single thing that can define it. It just becomes kind of this thing that’s very, very malleable and subject to consumer interests as we talked about identity earlier. This culture that’s spreading really isn’t anything. It just tries to be every thing to everyone.
To actually have an identity, to say the Italians, the French, to have a culture like that, you need to be separate, because it can’t just be everything. In the way that a word to have a definition, to have a definition, a word has to be not something else. It has to have a boundary. The word can’t mean everything or anything that you want it to mean. It means one thing. That’s what I’m getting at nothing. If you can’t say these people are in and these people are out, then you don’t actually have a culture, you have this growing kind of mass of human flesh.
Brett McKay: The mono-culture.
Jack Donovan: Exactly.
Brett McKay: When you read your stuff, Jack, someone can get the impression that you’re like against modern civilization completely. Modern civilization is allowing us to do Skype, do this conversation. It’s allowed both of us to get our writings out to people in a very unrestricted way and so on. Is civilization all bad? What’s the approach of a guy who wants to take this tribal mentality, they want to have a group culture that means something but while still living in modern society and is enjoying its benefits?
Jack Donovan: That’s the point. You can’t escape modern society, find you with a drone, there is nowhere to go. We have drones and satellites, and I think I said in the book at some point, if you run off into the wilderness somewhere, there’s really no guarantee that they’re not going to set up condos a mile from where you set up your little Shangri La where you hide from the world. There’s no way to escape modernity. That’s what a lot of people then say is hypocritical, well you use technology, or this and that.
I’m not against technology. A bow and arrow is technology, and I wrote about this in The Way of Men a little bit, masculinity has always been in conflict with how much technology is too much, how much technology makes us weak, and how do we become too reliant upon it. That’s always a debate that men have had. In terms of how much civilization is too much, I feel like there’s a sweet spot and I think we’re far past it. I think most people are far, far past that sweet spot. I think the governments are far too intrusive and so forth.
In order for that to change, it will have to switch the other way, and that will be uncomfortable, but, civilization itself isn’t always bad. Like I said, there’s a sweet spot. In terms of technology, you have to use the tools that you have to create the world that you want. You can’t be one of these guys who like, “well that’s part of the modern world, so I won’t touch that,” because it’s always going to be very cherry picked anyway. Everything that you have comes to you from the modern world unless you live on some homestead somewhere. Even that, you bought all the stuff that you started the homestead with from the modern world. There’s no way to not do that, so it’s kind of ridiculous.
What you need to do is choose what is important to you and what has the values of your group and then use these other tools that modernity offers and realize the way the world actually works and use them to your advantage, rather than your disadvantage, rather than allowing … People want to be pure of the modernity of the contagion of modernity and that puts somebody at a disadvantage and they just become hermits. They’re just going to be another hermit that’s forgotten and no one cares about.
If you want to actually make an impact on the world, and do something, make your tribe glorious as we would say, you have to use the tools that are available to you. My skill set is very modern in some ways. I’m really good at the Adobe suite. That’s stuff that I could nerd out on a computer all day long. At the end of the day, that’s how I make my t-shirts. I’m even against globalism and people would say that this is hypocritical, but I’m for my tribe. Because my tribe is what matters to me. I don’t care where my products come from. I’m going to get the best deal so I can put the most money back into my tribe. At the end of the day, I think that’s what’s most important to me is helping my tribe to create the world that we want to live in, use the money to buy property and hang out.
Brett McKay: This sounds like a very Amish approach. A lot of people have this misconception of the Amish, like they’re completely anti-technology. They’re not, they’ve incorporated modern technology into their culture, but they’re very intentional about it. They’ll think about it a lot, and say “Will this negatively affect our way of life?” If not, we’ll use it. If there’s a chance it could negatively affect our way of life, they’ll put serious rules about how you use them. You don’t have to get bonkers like that, but like I think just being intentional, right, about it-
Jack Donovan: That’s a great way to think about it. That’s like is this harming us or hurting us. That’s a discussion about Facebook. Facebook and social media. Is this good? Is this making me a better person? That’s why I like Instagram better, but, they’re all owned by the same people, so, it’s not like I’m-
Brett McKay: You’re not escaping them.
Jack Donovan: I’m not escaping them. This group and this particular platform is better for me right now. It kind of highlights the things that are fun and important to me, the culture that I’m trying to spread in the world. You just make choices about what’s working for you and what’s working from a business perspective, what’s working for a personal perspective, what makes you a better person and what’s dragging you down into cycles of emoting about things that don’t matter or, is hurting you in other ways.
Brett McKay: I think most people don’t even think about it. They’re just like, “Oh, well, everyone else is doing it, so I’ll do it, too.”
Jack Donovan: Yeah, like, I was intentional about Snap Chat. I looked at it and I tried it, and I’m like, “How can I make this work for me,” and I’m like “I’ve got nothing.” I’m like, “This is stupid, I hate it.”
Brett McKay: That’s how I felt. I tried it too, everyone was like, “you’ve got to get on Snap Chat,” and I got it and I feel weird just talking into the camera, and I was like no, I can’t do this.
Jack Donovan: Yeah, I mean, occasionally, I could see a purpose for it, and Instagram just stole their features anyway. I guess I’ll use it in that way whenever possible.
Brett McKay: I tried that out and I’m still like this is kind of weird, something about it is kind of weird. I can’t put my finger on it.
Jack Donovan: A little too reality TV for me. I like to know what I’m saying or why I’m doing it when I do it. I guess I should be more Antifragile and embrace the chaos.
Brett McKay: Embrace it. So, if there’s a guy listening to this, and they’re like “Yeah, I have this itch for camaraderie, community, tribe, having a gang,” how do they go about it? What do they build the tribe around? Is it an activity, a set of ideals, faith? What do you build the tribe around?
Jack Donovan: I think all of those things. A lot of people, and it’s again, a very American way of thinking is that all those things don’t matter, it’s just whether we like each other and we’re friends. Well, it kind of does, because when you talk about philosophy or religion, all those things determine what your idea of good is and how you’re going to make decisions, and what’s important to you. I think that you really have to find people who share those values or who are willing to say “OK, that’s fine, that’s close enough.” That’s a lot of what joining a tribe involves. You’re going to have to say that’s fine, that’s close enough, it’s not going to be perfect, nothing is perfect. You’re just going to have to get involved and if there’s things that are slightly off, you either adjust to them or try and adapt to them in any way that you can. Yeah, you’ve got to look for people who have similar values. A lot of people also, you’ve got to avoid the mini kind of Hitler thing. You always have the guy who wants to be the leader real bad and that’s why he wants to have a tribe, is to be the leader. That’s kind of, that’s always going to be a bad leader.
Brett McKay: Right.
Jack Donovan: You have to find people with the right skills to do the right job. People who want to be part of something and they want to create something, they have to commit to this kind of similar vision of what this tribe could be. The other problem that they run into is that they try to over plan, like what is our great society going to look like. You’re going to hit a lot of bumps along the road until you get to your magical society where everything is perfect. You just have to have a shared vision and kind of like the same things.
As important as anything, when we’re looking at prospects in my chapter out here, it’s like do I like hanging out with this guy? That’s also hugely important. It’s like there are a lot of people that maybe share our values but if you don’t like them, you’re just going to not like them even more when you’re oathed to them forever. Actually surround yourself with people whose company you enjoy as well, which is a big point. I think a lot of people try to force it too quick and you can’t, you don’t make friends overnight. Maybe just have two or three friends you start your thing with and you don’t try to start a group that’s at Dunbar’s number yet, don’t go out to 150 or whatever.
You just have to slowly build and build those friendships and decide what you want together. Everybody wants to like, “how can I sign up tomorrow,” or, “How can I start this and have a tribe by next week?” It’s a lot of work. I can tell you. I think we talked earlier and I said about five full days a month is probably what I put in to run and talk and deal with the tribe and the logistics and what everybody needs and where everybody is going to be and so and so lost their job, and so and so just got a job and so and so just moved, and we have to help this guy. There’s a lot work that is involved in being part of a tribe. You have to be willing to do that work. It takes a lot of time, and it doesn’t happen overnight, and most people aren’t going to have that kind of commitment, and if you find people who do, you’re lucky.
Brett McKay: That’s cool. It’s like what do they do when you get together? You said don’t base it around just an activity, but guys when they get together, they like to do stuff.
Jack Donovan: Yeah, that’s super important. I think we both read most of the same books, men bond when they’re aggressing against something or creating something or building something, shoulder to shoulder. I think that creating a project like that. It’s easy if you have some kind of training thing. Obviously I’ve done a lot of tactical training and so forth, although you don’t want to say you’re starting a militia because that’s kind of bad. That kind of creates trouble.
You get together with your guys and work on some training things. You work on learning some fighting skills maybe. A lot of what we’ve been doing, because we’ve had an opportunity to construct some things on land and make the land better. A lot of us, I’ve got guys who will just show up and we’ll work all day putting down mulch, or moving, we need a path over here, we need this, we need to create this, so that when people come they have somewhere to sit, stuff like that. That brings people together because they’re all working together constantly, and things happen when you work together and you react to each other in a certain way. That definitely helps people bond.
It’s not going to be the same, like I said, there is no template, but based on what your values are, what do you want to create, and the more … I know Paul Waggoner always says, “you need land, you need a space, you need somewhere to go that doesn’t belong to somebody else.” Everything really belongs to something else, it belongs to the bank, or the government really. As much as you can possibly own something in this world, you need to find a space and organize your resources in order to do that, and that’s a project in itself. Everybody is going to be different, obviously. Religious groups are going to try and build something in a church.
We kind of have something similar going on with ours, but we also want a place where we can train and all kinds of things. You have to find out what the priorities of your group are and start the project. In many ways, that’s going to be the way you bond. What you don’t want, and I think this is a big pitfall with a lot of people is it’s really easy to start a drinking club. That can be part of it. Men have been doing that for all of history, and that’s cool, but it has to be more than that, otherwise you just have a drinking club. You just have the guys you get drunk with and that’s not terribly productive in and of itself. You need to have something beyond that to do together.
Brett McKay: To kind of summarize, like, get started, just do something, little steps, expect it to be hard, you don’t have to have the grand plan from the get-go, it sort of develops organically, right.
Jack Donovan: Yes, absolutely.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about this. I had Sebastian Younger on the podcast, he came out with this new book, Tribe. He talked about all of these psychological, sociological benefits that come from being embedded in a tightly knit community, like people are less crazy, you’re happier, etc. etc., but I think it’s often easy, too, to overlook some of the downsides of being in a community. You kind of hit on this a little bit. There’s friction, there’s going to be conflict, people annoy you. It’s like family, right.
Jack Donovan: Oh yeah, it is absolutely like family.
Brett McKay: What’s the best way … How do you guys manage or how should guys manage this friction effectively, because in most groups, if you belong to some sort of group, if you don’t like it, you bounce out, there’s no commitment, so you just stop going. What do you do to ensure that doesn’t happen?
Jack Donovan: It’s like a relationship. You have to want to be there. If you all have the commitment that we’re doing this thing, then you have to work out your problems, you have to work out your problems. You have to actually … Something will come up and someone does leave. It happens. We’ve had guys who have …
A lot of that, that’s what I’ve done kind of a lot as a leader in our group is kind of deal with conflicts, like try and make everybody understand each other. This guy is getting mad at this guy and I can see it, so they’re going to need to find some common ground here pretty quick, or they’re going to have a problem. That’s a lot of what you have to do is figure out, manage those conflicts, and find a way to be in it together.
Like you said, it’s the same as a family. Any family you’re going to have, “Well, you know, Uncle Bob is doing his thing again, so we’re just going to wait this out because he’ll be done in a little while.” Everybody has their thing, everybody has something that they do that’s going to annoy other people or something that people don’t like about them. You just have to accept that not everyone is perfect, and they’re all going to have their own little quirks and kind of put it in a bigger perspective. As long as that commitment is there, you make it work. It’s like a relationship or like a marriage. You have to have that commitment to the final goal, to belonging to that relationship or that marriage or that tribe. When you do, then you have to just find ways to work it out, and it’s going to be different for everybody. You have to be wary of conflicts before they get to the worst possible point.
Brett McKay: Again, it takes work. This is not for the faint of heart.
Jack Donovan: No, like I said, it’s at least a part-time job.
Brett McKay: Well, cool. Hey, Jack, this has been a great conversation. Where can people get the book?
Jack Donovan: Oh, the new book, on Amazon. Occasionally I put up signed copies and so forth through my new company called Brutal Co. It’s my new company, it’s called Brutal Co., Brutal Companies, brutalco.com. Obviously, jack-donovan.com is where you find all kinds of news about what I’m doing. Since you talked about Instagram, it’s @starttheworld.
Brett McKay: @starttheworld, and you can see Jack’s luscious garden, backyard farm.
Jack Donovan: It’s like punching things, shooting things, gardening.
Brett McKay: You were telling me earlier that you were canning earlier today.
Jack Donovan: Yeah, maybe I’ll put some pictures of canning up today. I just did a bunch of that. It’s all part of learning how the world really works.
Brett McKay: Right, being self-sufficient. Hey, Jack, thanks so much for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Jack Donovan: All right, man, thanks.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Jack Donovan. He’s the author of the books The Way of Men and Becoming a Barbarian. They’re available on amazon.com. Also, check out the show notes at AOM.is/barbarian for links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic. Well, that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. Our show is edited by Creative Audio Lab here in Tulsa, Oklahoma. If you need audio editing needs or audio production needs, check them out at creativeaudiolab.com. As always, I appreciate your continued support, and until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.
Last updated: December 4, 2017