Emerson famously said “society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.”
My guest today says things have gotten a lot worse since Emerson uttered those words over a century and a half ago. His name is Robert Twigger. We last had him on the show to discuss his book Micromastery. Today we discuss a book he wrote 20 years ago called Being a Man in the Lousy Modern World. We begin our conversation discussing how the modern world infantilizes men so they’re easier to control, and whether Robert thinks things have changed since he initially published the book. We then dig into the four factors Robert says need to be in place for a man to feel like a man, and why experiencing these qualities has become harder to do in the present age. We then discuss what Robert did to counter the currents of modern malaise like hiking the Pyrenees mountains and learning a martial art, and whether doing those things actually made him feel manlier. We end our conversation with what men can do to start fighting back against the conspiracy against their manhood.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- The impetus for this book when Robert wrote it 20 years ago
- What is it about the modern world that makes manliness feel obsolete?
- How the modern world keeps us perpetually children
- The 4 factors to be in place for a man to really be a man
- Watered down modern rituals
- Is courage truly rare? How do we test ourselves?
- What is it about handiness that makes you feel manly?
- Violence and manliness
- Passivity vs. action
- Society’s disservice to boys and men
- How to find courage, rites of passage, and adventure in our world
- Do these self-made rites of passage make a difference in your psyche?
- What Robert’s kids thought about the book
- What can men do today to start feeling more masculine?
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- My first interview with Robert about micromastery
- Podcast: How to Be Braver
- 9 Ways to Become More Couragous
- My 8-Week Microadventure Challenge
- Shadow Work and the Rise of Middle-Class Serfdom
- Developing the Heroic Imagination
- How to Create Your Own Rites of Passage
- Podcast: A Man’s Need for Ritual
- Courage vs. Boldness: How to Live With Spartan Bravery
- 100 Skills Every Man Should Know
- A Call for a New Strenuous Age
- When Violence Is the Answer
- The 3 P’s of Manhood: Protect
- Why Every Man Should Be Strong
- You’ve Got to Be a Man, Before You Can Be a Gentleman
- Meditations on the Wisdom of Action
- Ride the Dissonance
- The Magic of Walking
- Center for Practical Wisdom
Connect With Robert
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Emerson famously said, “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.” My guest today says things have gotten a lot worse since Emerson uttered those words over a century-and-a-half ago. His name is Robert Twigger. We last had him on the show to discuss his book Micromastery. That’s episode number 528, if you wanna check that out. Today we discuss a book he wrote 20 years ago called Being a Man in the Lousy Modern World.
We begin our conversation discussing how the modern world infantilizes men so they’re easier to control, and whether Robert thinks things have changed since he initially published the book. We then dig into the four factors Robert says need to be in place for a man to feel like a man, and why experiencing these qualities has become a lot harder to do in the present age. We then discuss what Robert did to counter the currents of modern malaise, like hiking the Pyrenees mountains and learning a martial art, and whether doing those things actually made him feel manlier. We end our conversation with what men can do to start fighting back against the conspiracy against their manhood. After the show’s over check out our show notes at aom.is/twigger.
Alright. Robert Twigger, welcome back to the show.
Robert Twigger: Thanks for having me. Always, always glad to be talking to The Art of Manliness.
Brett McKay: Well, we had you on the show last year to talk about your book Micromastery, and that’s episode number 528 for those who wanna check it out. It’s all about learning new skills, by thinking small. It’s a really great episode, it’s a fan favorite. But we’re gonna talk about a book you wrote almost 20 years ago, it’s called Being a Man in the Lousy Modern World. So tell us, what was the impetus behind this book?
Robert Twigger: The real impetus was at that time… So I was writing that in, I don’t know, 1999 or something like that. Exactly 20 years ago. There was a whole spate of adverts in which men were portrayed as dorks and patsies and the women were all smart and sassy. They were often, it was often, they were commercials in people’s homes and it was the dorky husband who couldn’t do anything and the wife was in control. And I just thought, “This is just sending such a stupid, wrong message.” So it was anger and then it all spiraled out from there, so I just started to look at what the role of men was in the lousy modern world.
Brett McKay: The way you wrote this, you contrasted… You had a son that was coming. And you contrasted that, trying to figure out what does it mean to be a man in this world? And then contrasted all these adventures you tried to go on to figure that out.
Robert Twigger: Yeah, I mean, the other strand in the book was using… ‘Cause my previous couple of books had been these adventures, but I had all these left-over stuff that I’d done, ’cause I was writing for adventure travel pieces for magazines. So I had all this material and thought, “Well, I’ve gotta use it.” And each adventure itself probably wouldn’t have justified a book, so I wove that in and it became… Because the adventure seemed part of being a man, it seemed like a man who shunned any form of adventure always… I guess it was because adventure called forth the need for courage and I knew that courage was a key part of it.
Brett McKay: It was funny, the contrast between you getting ready for the arrival of your son. It was like a day in life of just a regular suburban guy living in the western world, barbecues and you’re kind of like, “Ah… ” The way you described is like, “This is not it.”
Robert Twigger: Yeah, and I wanted to make it honest and there’s a sort of problem, because the language you use to describe adventures, it doesn’t suit describing relationships, and about what you feel about your kids, and all that sort of thing. So it was a fine line to draw. Also, I didn’t want to just burrow into total sentimentality, because before your kids are born, what can you feel? They’ve just arrived, you don’t know what they’re gonna be like. So it was tricky ground, but as you say, yeah, it’s half that theme through the book, which I keep going back to, which is as the day progresses, that’s the driving force and it’s like a micro-adventure in itself, but it’s Mr. Suburbia, and my life is Mr. Suburbia and I’m just not happy with it.
Brett McKay: What is it about the lousy modern world that you felt like that makes manliness feel obsolete? You feel like it’s not suited for men.
Robert Twigger: Yeah, there are so many strands here, but just coming from the top, it’s got to be that we have so many prosthetic devices, computers, cars, things that actually take out the physical aspect, and if there’s… There are many differences between men and women, but the most obvious one is there’s a physical strength difference. So if you’re not actually having to use your physical strength at all, you’re different from most men that have come before you in history. So then there’s that side. There’s the skill aspect, even small skills like learning to light a fire, which my dad used to do, lighting a fire in the house. Even things like fixing a car, which he did. I can’t even fix my own car now ’cause I don’t know how to do the codes into the computerized bit. It’s kind of endless, really, the way we’ve become so impotent and we’re just kind of like living like kings in this world of largely electronic back up.
Brett McKay: I think that one of the points you make, that I thought was really incisive, is that the modern world does a great job of keeping us like children, even as adults. Like you said, you can’t even fix your own car because there’s a computer that you have to be able to program and you have to be licensed to do that change. And you make this point that children are easier to control than adults and you make the… Some would say a cynical conclusion that, well, that’s what corporations and governments want, they want us to be easily controlled.
Robert Twigger: Well, yeah, it may not be… I don’t think there’s some kind of conscious uber mind who’s saying that, “Let’s infantilize our entire population,” but it just seems to work out better that way. So maybe there’s sort of evolutionary imperative at work inside corporations and big organizations that gradually the solution that infantilizes the workforce seems to work better. So, you kind of, by increments, move towards that position, and it’s generally the case. Yeah. I mean, even the police, when for example, somebody stands up and defend themselves against a mugging, there’s always the warning from the police, the police say, “Don’t do this in future… It’s a dangerous thing to try and defend yourself.” At the same time as the newspaper report is saying, “Oh, what a great thing. The 78-year-old guy fought off the mugger.” So, there’s this constant message that you’re better off just being like a kid, really.
Brett McKay: But the insidious thing is that because of all these advances, things are cheap. We’ve got all this technology that basically gives us the world at our fingertips. It makes us feel like we’re in control, but sometimes really not in control.
Robert Twigger: Yeah, it’s a weird idea of control, isn’t it? It’s a bit like… We already had it today. When the computer works, you’re apparently in control. As soon as it doesn’t work, you discover the exact imitations of your control. If you can’t fix something, how much can you say you’re in control? I think being able to fix stuff is a key part of being a man. And when we live in a world where we can’t fix things very easily, maybe we’re just going along on someone else’s ride.
Brett McKay: I guess, yeah, Emerson’s right. He said that the society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.
Robert Twigger: Well, yeah, that was, what, 150 years ago, something like that.
Brett McKay: And so you wrote this 20 years ago and you were seeing this stuff then. How have things changed? Have things gotten worse? Has it stayed the same? Have we seen things get better in some places?
Robert Twigger: Yeah, it’s weird how things have changed. In some ways, it’s got a lot worse. Things that I could humorously joke about then, you can’t really joke about now ’cause you’ll be targeted as somebody, you know, that’s not something you can joke about. Things have become off limits, so that’s kind of worse. The better side is, there’s been a… There’s been a growth in things, the Art of Manliness came along. There’s been a growth in people becoming more aware of mental health issues of young men, which is a tremendous problem. So those kind of knowing jokes, “Oh, it’s the men.” The other day I was at a party and some woman, somebody made some mocking comment about men with respect to mental health. I was able to sort of pull the “it’s a serious subject, kind of thing.” I didn’t have to back off and take it. So there’s been a bit of a push back there, but it’s at a big cost. We’ve seen…
Robert Twigger: I talk about it in the book, I talk about how criminality is a kind of refuge. It’s like the last refuge of masculinity for many men. If you haven’t got much imagination and you can’t get yourself off and do a dangerous or interesting adventure, you’re probably drawn to criminal behavior. We’ve seen a massive or increasing rise in criminality, and that kind of area and its spillover into mental health issues. So, in that sense, worse. It’s pretty similar, though.
Brett McKay: So, in the book, you lay out, you lay out four factors that you think need to be in place for a man to be considered a man. So, this is, again, this is what you said 20 years ago, this might have changed, but what were those four factors that you saw?
Robert Twigger: So, the four factors were killing a beast. Courage is one. Ability to… A set of skills, that were basic skills that seemed to be involved with being a man and passing a rite of passage. That’s something that I circle in the book, which is that men seem to have the need to have undergone some kind of test of difficultness or dangerousness, and it’s a before and after. And you see it characterized in even things like a bar mitzvah or other rites of passage after which you are a man, it’s a ritual.
And I think that if anything, that’s… Just to sort of move on a bit from those four characteristics, that’s one of the key issues of the book is that this lack of ritual in our society means the transition from a boy to a man is blurred, or never even exists. And I think rituals are the way we make transitions, and we’ve lost sight of that.
Brett McKay: We sort of still have rituals, but as you point out in the book, they’re sort of watered down.
Robert Twigger: Yeah, yeah, there’s things like pass your driving test.
Brett McKay: Graduate high school, graduate college, get your first job.
Robert Twigger: Yeah, yeah. And they’re lame as hell. You can’t really look at yourself and think, “Yeah, I’m on… I can stand shoulder to shoulder with people who were in the First World War or single-handedly paddled their way up the Amazon,” or something. So it’s a sort of… You’re gonna just feel lame if you accept the culture.
Brett McKay: They’re male rites of passages for this lousy modern world.
Robert Twigger: Yeah, exactly.
Brett McKay: But yeah, you said this idea, like a rite of passage. It really can help a boy transition. It has those factors, there’s an element of risk to it, of danger where you have to display courage, you have to display fortitude and lacking that, it’s just… It doesn’t… It’s not transformative if there’s no risk involved.
Robert Twigger: Yeah, I think that’s the… It just sharpens things up. And the ability to assess risk is probably a big part of it. I know this guy, a good friend, and he told me he’s going off to Pamplona to party. And I said, “Well, you gotta run the bulls if you’re gonna go to Pamplona.” And he said, “No, no. That’s just stupid. That’s stupid.” That’s kind of the lousy modern world speaking. You’re like Mr. Sensible. And of course, running the bulls has risks and if you’re drunk the risks are higher, but you can assess those risks and decide whether you’re gonna do it or not. Otherwise, don’t go to Pamplona. ‘Cause otherwise you’re borrowing the sort of… The kudos of Ernest Hemingway and all the people who went there. And you’re just going there for a big, kind of, piss up. And that seemed to be another problem.
But the problem itself is not the danger, it’s the unwillingness to assess it, ‘Cause again, that’s a kind of self-reliance. So I’m not saying do dangerous things for the sake of it, to be stupid. There are plenty of people who do that, and some of them get killed. What I’m saying is, develop the skill to assess risk, don’t just offload that skill to looking on the internet and someone tells you, “Oh, it’s dangerous,” or something.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about this. Let’s delve deeper in this courage, ’cause you got philosophical about this, trying to figure out what is courage. Because there are some people who look… And like Aristotle, the philosopher, grappled with this idea. How can you tell someone’s really courageous? It could just be that they’re crazy and they don’t feel fear and they would just do crazy stuff. So are they really courageous? So what’s your assessment of that?
Robert Twigger: Well, I think, yeah, Aristotle does mention, “Know courage by its absence rather than by its presence.” That’s one thing. Talking to people who served in the Army and in dangerous situations, courage is not that rare. Most people, given the right back up, will be courageous. So, it’s not something we should feel it’s a really rare quality. It’s pretty available to everybody. But I think everybody needs to be able to test themselves in a number of situations. ‘Cause you’re right that mere bravado can look like courage, unless someone has felt the consequences. In the book, I talk about this climbing where when I was younger I did climbing, I never had any concept of risk, so I fell off and broke and cracked some vertebrae in my… And cracked a couple of vertebrae and then I realized there were consequences.
And I stopped being crazy. And in fact, I didn’t really do much climbing after that. So I kind of realized that maybe I wasn’t that courageous when it came to heights. So it’s finding those… I think that courage is an exploration of finding those points where you push yourself and… And again, it’s a sort of self knowledge thing. That without putting yourself in those difficult situations you won’t get that self knowledge. So maybe even more than courage what we’re looking at here is knowing yourself and knowing what your limitations are. Because I think, as I said, most people do have courage and it’s sort of a natural human characteristic.
Brett McKay: And I think one of the problems of the lousy modern world, as you put it, is that we don’t have that many opportunities to display courage. You have to often proactively go seek it. In times past it would come to you. You had to display courage for whatever reason ’cause the world was a dangerous place, but now it’s so safe you have to go look for it instead of it finding you.
Yeah, you do, really. There are plenty of opportunities for showing that you’re stoical in the modern world, for showing that you can you put up with awful shit over a long period. But courage, sort of finding out the full kind of topography of courage, I think you do need to be in situations which demand quick thinking, as well as endlessly putting up with something. And for that, yeah, you probably have to seek… Well, you do have to seek it out, I think. I think you have to get either into the wilderness, or you have to deny yourself the normal creature comforts and find a bit of a challenge.
Robert Twigger: Well, let’s talk about this idea of being skilled as a component of manliness. I thought it was fun. This was fun reading this, because I’d read your book, Micromastery and we talked about it, and this was 20 years later. So it’s interesting to see your thinking of skills being an important part of being a man, even 20 years ago. So what is it about being handy that you think makes a man admirable?
Brett McKay: Yeah. Well, I think it’s the hands. Yeah, it’s using our hands. I think that we know that there’s something associated with it. I always remember my grandfather who was very… He ended up as an engineer, but he’d started as doing manual work, building walls and using all kinds of hand tools. He had these really… He was not a big guy but his hands were big and strong. And that we’d feel it in the old handshake. Why do we set such a store by having a bone-crushing handshake? It’s ’cause it kind of means something. It means that you can handle weapons, you can make things, you have the skill to be useful. I think it’s all about a utility factor. Nobody wants to feel useless. And I think there’s a connection in the lousy modern world between people not finding meaning and people being very, very lazy and not getting off their butt.
Robert Twigger: It’s connected to feeling useless. So if you have skills, hand skills, you are useful and therefore you will work and you will find meaning. So, they’re all kind of deeply connected and we know that there’s parts of the brain connected with getting hand skill, or really sort of, if you can use this term, ancients parts of our cognition. This is not a recent development. So, I think it’s tapping into something that is ancient and valuable. And yeah, even Neanderthal man, even proto humans were adept at hand skills, so it seems like an essential thing to master.
Brett McKay: And it’s one of those ways of becoming more competent, is one of those ways you can rebel against this conspiracy against your manhood.
Robert Twigger: Yeah, I think it really is, I think it’s a way of… It’s very satisfying as well, the idea of you can go into the wilderness and start a fire without using a lighter and petrol, if you can use a… Make a bow drill and start a fire like that. I mean, there’s a huge growth in survival which we’ve seen. The being a man thing, it already had started in the ’90s, but in the last 20 years we’ve seen a massive growth in bush-craft and survival and YouTube has been a huge, a huge help there in spreading all kinds of skills. It’s now really quite easy to get quite arcane skills which you had to go on special courses to learn in the past, you can access them through YouTube.
Brett McKay: Alright, so let’s talk about this idea of the ability to kill man or beast. So what’s going on there? I think the point you made is that it’s something that people tacitly accept as being a part of being a man, so like if you are able… If you have the capability to do violence, but they’re dodgy about it, they don’t like to talk about it.
Robert Twigger: Yeah, it’s dodgy ground because you know you’re entering the area of the criminal in the modern culture, but if you go back to traditional societies, most of the rites of passages were either you killed a lion or some dangerous beast or you killed a member of another tribe, but not in the sort of psycho-pathological warfare of the 20th century. It was probably some kind of raiding warfare and even tribes like the Nagas, these head hunters in Burmese-Indian boarder I spent some time with, if you ran away you weren’t considered a coward, but if you got killed in a raid you were given a dishonorable burial, which is quite interesting. So it limited warfare, but it allowed people the chance to get involved. Sometimes of course people were killed in those environments, but the numbers were far, far less than the vast numbers that had been killed in the 20th century, so we can’t really boast that our system is more humane or more manageable, so I think that that gets rid of that objection.
But the hard part is to say that that is an aspect, the potentiality of killing somebody, perhaps the only way around it is to talk about defense, that you are prepared in a situation to put yourself in a difficult situation and be competent to protect somebody, even if it meant dispatching somebody. It is borderline psycho, though, so that is always going to be the problem. And I think the way round it is to think of this as a skill which is kind of bridging between the sort of the past and the present, that if you are… If you believe that you couldn’t in a certain situation, your family was threatened and you had to defend them, if you believe you would just walk away and let them be killed and you wouldn’t do something about it, then there’s something missing. I think that you need to have that potential and that skill to be able to do that and probably it’s more of a willpower thing, and it’s nothing to be particularly proud of, because thousands of people in this world are going around killing people without any thought.
A friend of mine told me that he was in Somalia as war reporter and when he decided that the game was getting a bit dangerous was when a kid, we’re talking about a 10-year-old kid pointed a Kalashnikov and just pulled the trigger. Of course, it was unloaded so, or the bullet jammed or whatever. Anyway, he was lucky. But that, the ability to just blow somebody away is not some huge great skill in that sense, but if you are a rational, calm, normal and you’re not an unhinged human being, then it’s quite a leap. So maybe what we’re edging towards here is if you are someone who is repelled by the idea of killing, and you’re normal in that sense, you should make that effort to comprehend it and I suppose that’s what I’m saying. But if you’re the sort of person who… If you just can’t wait to go and stab somebody, then you’re obviously a psychopath and we’re not talking about you.
So I think that the perspective of the book was really aimed at that thoughtful, perhaps rather suburban character who thinks this is an untenable and outrageous position and maybe it’s all about getting that mental flexibility and moving yourself into that position.
Brett McKay: And some of this is sort of an issue that philosophers have grappled with, it’s like, can you really be considered kind or good if you don’t have the ability to do violence or bad or whatever? Is it any virtue that you don’t even have the ability? You don’t have to overcome it, see what I’m saying? So, it’s like, can you really be proud of your virtue if you had no opportunity to test it, or control it somehow?
Robert Twigger: Yeah, I think that that’s kind of another way into it and I think that’s a good way of looking at it, that you may be over-focused on those virtues, and you might not understand that, well, perhaps they need to be defended in some way, and that they may go hand-in-hand with allied virtue. I’m thinking things like courage and generosity. I’ve often noticed that people who are very generous are often courageous. And actually, if you read traditional type psychology, they’re considered to go hand-in-hand. So, if you want to build your courage, build your generosity. So, there are some sort of links maybe at a deeper level, between more passive virtues and the more kind of out-going aggressive virtues, or borderline vices, depending on how you look at them.
Brett McKay: Well, you make this distinction too between men being either passive or active, and I think that goes to what you were just saying there. Men are… I think we have this idea that men should be active instead of passive. And what does that look like for you in the… As it plays out.
Robert Twigger: One of the things I regret not doing in that book was not using the yin-yang distinction, which of course was fairly well known, but it wasn’t really mainstream. And now I think it is more mainstream, it’s one of the better… One of the things that has definitely happened over the last 20 years is a lot of the concepts that were a bit borderline then are totally mainstream. Brain plasticity, totally mainstream. Use it or lose it, the idea that if you don’t practice these skills, you’ll lose them, all of these things are now mainstream and one of them is yin and yang. And I think that that’s the passive active thing, the sort of yin characteristics. In the sort of Eastern philosophies, things always have a yin and yang element, and it depends on where on the spectrum you are, and I think they don’t necessarily map perfectly onto male and female, but definitely men are more on the yang end of the spectrum, and women in general are more on the yin end of the spectrum, and there’s a bunch of characteristics that are yin and yang.
Passivity is a more of a yin characteristic. Which doesn’t mean it’s better or worse, it’s just a characteristic. And so, I definitely think that men are more on the yang end and therefore need to do more active stuff.
Brett McKay: But another point you make in your book is that the lousy modern world or soft suburban existence can often take men who have that active stance towards the world and then turn them into… They become… They’re sort of like guppy fish. They start out male, young, and then when they get older, they turn into females.
Robert Twigger: Yeah, I think that… That was my great theory that I thought would be taken up, but people just kind of completely ignored it. But yeah, I thought that the sort of traditional polarity, societies seem to need to organize themselves into polarity and maybe that reflects the yin-yang thing. And in most cultures it’s male-female, but we now have evolved a young-old polarity. So, you’re kind of young until you’re about 38, and you start making all these references to getting older and then you suddenly adopt all these kind of timid older characteristics that are quite yin.
And so they’re sort of more like old style feminine characteristics, but you can’t call them that now. So it’s not just what older people do, so that was… But I think there are all sorts of interesting possibilities, like I do think if you trap an active person in a controlled environment, then they become focused on… We see a growth in, not Asperger’s syndrome per se, but sort of characteristics, Asperger-type characteristics, listing, involvement, deep involvement in the sort of hobbies. And I wonder if that’s a reaction to being kind of trapped in a non-active environment. You tend not to see that in tribal groups which still go out hunting and roaming around and generally being kind of hunter-gatherer types. You don’t see that same sort of nerdy kind of behavior, which may be a kind of reaction to being penned in.
Brett McKay: Well, I mean, that’s another thing we’ve done in our lousy modern world: We’ve taken being active sometimes, the extreme forms of being active and we said, “Well, that’s a pathology, they’ve got ADHD. We’re gonna give you some medicine for that,” ’cause again, it’s all about control. We wanna control people.
Robert Twigger: Yeah, I think that that’s certainly true. If you look at the school, school is only tangentially about education, it’s really about socializing people to function in this world, that is very… That does demand a high level of submission to in certain areas. One of the shocking things I found going around a prison in Scotland where I gave a talk a couple of years ago, it reminded me of school. Not in a bad way, even in kind of a good way, ’cause the guards were really trying to help the prisoners in a good way. And I was talking to some of the good prisoners who hadn’t sort of messed up, so they were allowed to listen to my talk.
The whole thing was like a hard-core grim version of school, so it shocked me, and I realized, in other words, those prisoners had just been trained for this environment. This is what they knew by going to school. So I’m not saying that’s the only function of school, ’cause obviously people do learn things, but they could learn them a lot more efficiently in another way. We know that, but that’s not the big issue, the issue is that society needs to control all these people, they can’t have them just running around. And just observing that doesn’t mean to say that I’m proposing that we disband all these things, but it’s just about developing that awareness, and having that awareness doesn’t mean that you are automatically opposed to those institutions.
I think that’s one of the things I was trying to do in the book is to build a sense of have… Be able to hold those slightly contradictory positions in your brain at the same time. Don’t assume that you have to be either one thing or the other.
Brett McKay: And again, the people that are often trying to control our boys, it’s like… Usually, the schools are… What the research says, the way school’s set up, it’s suited for girls. Boys, some do okay, but then some boys don’t do well at all in it, because there’s just so much, there’s no flexibility, they like to be active, and they don’t get that at school.
Robert Twigger: Yeah. I mean, there are just 100 ways that you could improve it, and that we’d probably go off on a complete tangent, but you’re right. Human beings were not meant to sit motionless, or not, hardly moving, in one seat all day long. It’s just not what humans are supposed to do. And to expect people to do that, it’s just, it’s just kind of lunacy.
Brett McKay: So you talk about in this lousy modern world, like we don’t have these opportunities to show male attributes. The courage, the ability to be skilled, you have to go out and find it. What are some of the stuff that you did to go display this stuff? And were you trying to create a rite of passage for yourself with all these activities you did?
Robert Twigger: I think what I was trying to do was emulate people who’d come before me. I wanted to… I knew that people had fought in wars. I knew that people had gone on expeditions and I’d read books about them and I thought, “We’ve got to live up to that. We can’t just assume that things were great in the past, and we’ve just got to all be wimpy nowadays.” So it was a conscious, trying to sort of, to emulate people in the past. And, but starting in a really small way, because I was quite a timid guy. I’m not like Superman who just jumped off. So I started… I mean, I think the first thing is this doing a long distance walk in the Pyrenees. So walking alone about 700 km along this couple of trails that connect the Atlantic with the Mediterranean. And that was a big deal for me, because it was self-reliance, some slightly scary situations when I got lost, but it wasn’t beyond the ability of almost anybody to do. And then that gave me the impetus to go to Japan and study this martial art.
I’d always known that I wanted to do a martial art. I’d just not found a situation where I could do one and actually progress and get better, ’cause I wasn’t that good at it. And then when I got to Japan I realized you could do it absolutely full-on and full-time, five hours a day, five days a week. And that’s when I began to properly progress and achieve that sort of bucket list tick, which, you know, get a black belt had always been a kind of… There’s kind of an overlap with a bucket list, I suppose, here, but I’m a big believer… Or wish list, I think it’s better to call them wish lists. Making a wish list of achievements is no bad thing.
Brett McKay: You also went bull-fighting. Or there was a cow. There was a cow.
Robert Twigger: Oh, yeah, bull-fighter training. Yeah, there was a cow, a famous cow. Yeah, that came about through a men’s magazine, Maxim, I think, and England had a bull-fighter called Frank Evans, sadly now dead, and he offered to train me. I had to go up to Manchester, his town, and we went into the local school playground where he had a shopping trolley with a bale of straw in it, and that was the bull, and I had to practice kind of stabbing it and lifting the cloak. And then we went out to Spain to practice with a cow, ’cause you can’t… If you practice with a bull, you have to actually dispatch the bull, and I wasn’t really gonna do that. So you have to practice with a cow, ’cause then the cow’s allowed to live.
Brett McKay: And the reason why you have to dispatch the bull is that the bull will learn… Basically, they don’t want the bull to learn how to kill humans better.
Robert Twigger: Yeah, yeah, they learn so fast in the 15 minutes that they’re in there, because they’ve been living on the range for two to four years, so they’ve had a wonderful life. They haven’t been inside a horrid shed for six months and then stunned by one of those guns like they used in No Country for Old Men. None of that. They’ve had a wonderful life, and it’s come to an end in 15 minutes. And quite frankly, if that was the way I was gonna go I wouldn’t mind. But yeah, they learn so much. They become very dangerous and they will easily kill the next matador, so they’re dispatched. But cows are considered to be less difficult, but of course cows learn too, so they can be there as a wild card. And Frank himself had suffered some, a terrible injury where a cow had pronged him right up the ass, punctured his bladder, but it had left no damage. So it was an internal injury that had no external kind of damage. So it was rather a touch-and-go nasty thing to happen.
Brett McKay: It sounds unpleasant, though…
Robert Twigger: It sounds deeply unpleasant. I’m trying not to laugh because it’s a horrible thing to happen to anyone. But anyway, so yeah, we went into… It was a tiny cow, but still, yeah, pretty scary when it’s coming, coming full-on at you and all you’ve got is a cape and a sword to protect you. But yeah, that was a cool thing and kind of glad I did it.
Brett McKay: Well, after you did all this stuff, did you feel changed, did you feel like, “I feel like a man,” or was it sort of like, “Ah, that was a letdown.”
Robert Twigger: I think… I was thinking in fact about this the other day, I was thinking, “God, yeah, you’ve done some stuff, you’re alright.” I think experience has an odd effect on you that isn’t explicit, so it doesn’t come up as sentences in your head, it’s just changed the way you approach life a bit. It makes you… Those kind of experiences will tend to make you more confident in unusual situations. You’ll just think, “Oh, this isn’t so bad,” so that’s good. So it gives you a… It gives you a range in which to judge things and some skills which you might need, but it’s not that you’re not gonna feel any different. I think that’s the kind of thing when you’re a kid, you always think, “Oh, I’m gonna feel different.” You’re just the same, you’re still you, but you’re less anxious and you’re more… Yeah, you’re less anxious, really, and you’re more willing to have a go at something. So it increases your range and the possibilities that you have, but you won’t feel like Clint Eastwood inside, whatever he feels like inside.
Brett McKay: Have you talked to your son about this stuff as he’s gotten older?
Robert Twigger: Not really. I mean, that’s the other thing. I don’t think I’m a great dad. So I’m almost like an okay one. Yeah, I’ve kind of brought it up, but mostly what I pontificate on is treated as marginal, marginal interest in our household. So that’s always a problem. But the books are there for them to read. My daughter read it. I think she gets it better, that’s the other paradox, of course, yeah, you spend all this effort thinking you’re talking to your son, and you may well be talking to your daughter, so things work in mysterious ways.
Brett McKay: What did she get about the book? Did she say what connected with her on that?
Robert Twigger: Yeah, what she got, and I think I can see it, she’s tolerant of all kinds of difference. She can see what masculine behavior is important and what isn’t and what it’s just like what men do. She’s used to… She’s not one of these women who demands men to all act as if they’re downtrodden and passive. She’s more able to respond to what they’re actually saying or doing rather than what she might imagine they are, ’cause there are a lot of, especially if you go to college now, there are a lot of behavioral norms that men are supposed to adhere to, which obviously, what everyone does.
Brett McKay: There’s classes now when you start your freshman year where you have to talk about what you’re supposed to do and not do.
Robert Twigger: Yeah. I know, it’s so weird. It’s making this whole area of tacit communication, where you just… You should know already. It’s trying to make it all explicit and it’s a really bizarre move, but yeah, I’m not envious of them.
Brett McKay: Okay, so you’re not there, but what do you think men who are listening to this podcast can start doing to experience what you call, “enhanced male being.” What are the takeaways?
Robert Twigger: Apart from buying the book?
Brett McKay: Apart from buying… Is it even… Is it still in print?
Robert Twigger: Yeah, I don’t know. Yeah, it’s definitely out. That’s the thing. The in print thing doesn’t… You know, there’s quite a few second hand copies out there, especially if you go to the Amazon UK site, so I think you can still get it. It may still be in print, I don’t know, ’cause it was on a reading list at British Columbia, the Simon Fraser University. It was on their masculinity course, as an academic text for a while, so I think it still has a life out there. You probably will be able to get a copy. That aside, what can you do? I think there’s far more resources out there and I think… I mean, I’ve got into this practical wisdom, there’s this website on the University of Chicago, it’s kind of a movement, practical wisdom, which is sort of moving away from rules and incentives, and trying to ground behavior in experience. I think that that’s a way of side-stepping compartmentalizing and labeling, which I think has been part of the problem. But yeah, in general, I would say you’ve got to honor your yang.
I say this to my friends, “You’ve got to yang up”. The other day I was going to join this gun club, and of course shooting guns in UK is pretty difficult, but it’s just a yang experience. You go out, shoot off a few rounds, it’s the ultimate… Maybe you go hunting, maybe you don’t go hunting, but it definitely clocks you up a bit more yang and you come out feeling a little bit more alive, and a bit more energized. So I would generally say, “Yang up.” Find yang-type activities. Chopping wood, it’s been shown that even if you’re 80 years old, you go out and chop wood, your testosterone levels rise to that of a 30-year-old. I mean, jogging won’t do that for you. Find out those activities that do give you that kind of… Use aggression. Aggression has a function, which is to use tools or weapons in a fast and efficient way, so you don’t lose it, and don’t necessarily get into all those endurance sports, like riding your bike for 5,000 miles. You’ve got to have a variety, I think, of activities.
Brett McKay: Well, Robert, where can people go to learn more about your work?
Robert Twigger: I’ve got a website, RobertTwigger.com, with about a thousand articles on it of all kinds of stuff. As you know from the last chap, the area I’m mainly into is polymathy, which is being skilled at many different things. I think that my being a man thing is just a subset of the whole polymathic impulse, which I think as men and women, we all need to spread our wings and not be trapped into specialization.
Brett McKay: Well, Robert Twigger, thanks for this time, it’s been a pleasure.
Robert Twigger: Thank you, Brett, been great.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Robert Twigger. He’s the author of several books, the book we discussed today was called Being a Man in the Lousy Modern World. It’s available on Amazon.com, but you gotta go to the Amazon UK version of Amazon. It’s not available in the States. Now also check out his website, RobertTwigger.com, and check out our show notes at AOM.IS/Twigger where you can find links to resources or you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast, check out our website at ArtofManliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives, which hold thousands of articles we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you can think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so at Stitcher premium. Head over to Stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code “manliness” for a free month trial. Once you’ve signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or IOS, and you can start enjoying new episodes of the AOM podcast, ad-free.
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