“Traumatic injury in childhood has been equated with a kind of unconscious initiation ceremony—not because it is a spiritual or ceremonial experience, but because the movements within it mimic the movements of the first two stages of real initiation. Understanding the stages of initiation (and the ways in which traumatic incidents mimic initiation) will give us greater understanding of what trauma does to the psyche, to our culture, and sociologically speaking, to us as a species.” —Karla McLaren The Language of Emotions p. 102
This piece is going to explore the ways in which social movements are exterior reflections of interior movements of the psyche. In particular this piece will explore notions of individual and group initiatory experience, i.e. how many political and social movements in our day are groups attempt to resolve (usually unsuccessfully) trauma.
This angle is not typically one used to address a social movement but that’s what this piece is going to endeavor to accomplish. The example I'm going to explore is the Men’s Rights Activist movement (MRAs).
Rather than bringing typical political or social lenses to the topic of MRAs and getting caught in the inevitable gender wars sh#@show this approach gives (in my estimation) a much more illuminating angle. It also has the upshot of cutting across the grain of the binary left-right political spectrum—which is to say heads up nobody comes out looking good in this analysis.
To begin we need a bare bones model and understanding of initiatory experience. Karla McLaren’s cites the work of mythologist Michael Meade on the three stages of tribal initiation.
- Being isolated or departed from the known world
- Having an ordeal or brush with death
- Being recognized and welcomed back as an initiated person.
Meade’s work deals with conscious forms of initiation from traditional societies. McLaren builds on Meade’s work by arguing that contemporary Western culture essentially has created an inverse, unconscious form of initiation through trauma. The quotation I began with speaks to that point directly.
Stage 1: Disorientation
Individuals are taken outside their normal routine or course of action. They are drawn out of the regular rhythm and orbit of their days and brought into another gravitational field, an unknown land, a different order of space & time. In conscious initiation there is a cultural understanding and proper preparation for initiation. it is an understood form of live in those societies.
By contrast in unconscious initiation stage 1:
“there is no preparation. Traumatic stage one is a disorganized removal from the known world—-a sudden, shocking, and wholly unexpected end to normalcy. The stranger approaches, the loved one betrays you, the doctor comes near you, or the play becomes ugly—and it begins.” McLaren, ibid p. 102
Stage 2: Initiating Experience
In conscious stage two there is certainly ordeal. McLaren cites examples of spirit quests, ritual scarring, and so on. These involve encounters with the wildness at the heart of existence, with the mysteries of life and death. But, and this is crucial, they do take place within boundaries and there are built-in protections and sources of support. There is also a clear beginning and ending to the initiatory process.
By contrast the unconscious traumatic initiatory form:
“There is no organization to the ordeal and no promise of an end. Traumatic stage two is the out-of-control moment of the assault…The traumatic brush with death has no container, no safety hatch, no ancestral guidance, and no clearing end point.” McLaren, p. 102
Stage 3: (Re)Integration
Stage 3 involves the celebratory embrace of the newly transformed person. A classic example would be initiatory ordeals that mark the entrance from being a child/adolescent into an adult in the eyes of the community. After this transition the now adult individual occupies an entirely different place in society, complete with different empowerment and responsibilities.
By contrast in an unconscious traumatic initiatory experience:
“there is no stage three; there is no welcoming back for trauma survivors. Traumatic initiations are usually performed in secret or are an established part of the shadow life of the family or the neighborhood. There is no one to tell the trauma victim that he or she has survived a deathlike ordeal and has come out the other side as a new being. There is no conscious acknowledgment of the end of childhood or normalcy, and there is certainly no celebration..” McLaren, p.103
Without a proper sense of right closure to the process (stage 3) the traumatically initiated person is left, as McLaren says, in limbo.
“This is why the third stage of any initiatory process is crucial. Without it, the initiation and the initiate are unfinished, and the tribe is incomplete. (p.103).”
Here’s an article that summarizes McLaren’s point about the lack of a stage 3 in traumatic unconscious initiation. This point is a crucial one that we’re going to explore in relationship to MRAs.
"With trauma, stage three does not happen because for one reason or another, the 'tribe' does not function as a healthy place to share the stories of the life changing event. There is no one to offer validation that is safe or affirming. When this happens, the initiate cycles through stages one and two again. The natural push is to have another chance to experience the life changing effects of stage three, which is so essential to growth and personal evolution, which is the normal and natural tendency of all human beings."
When an individual (or group of individuals) cycle back and forth between stages 1 and 2 never reaching completion in stage 3 then things can go south in a number of different ways.
Cycling back to stage 1 typically shows up as dissociation and addiction. The person looks not to complete her initiation consciously but rather simply to be done with it through either blanking out and if that doesn’t work blacking out say with drugs or alcohol. Dissociation and addiction are numbing responses to the pain of the unconscious initiation (aka traumatic initiation).
If a person cycles principally back to stage 2 then some other expressions tend to play out (though dissociation and addiction can obviously be in play here as well.) In an unconscious return to stage 2 the person tends to come more in contact with the pain of their unconscious initiation. That mostly consists of rage, grief, shame, disgust/revulsion, and panic/terror. Grief for the older form of themselves that was killed in the trauma. Rage at the injustice of that carnage. Panic/Terror at the immensity of it. Disgust/revulsion in response to the horror of it. And shame for having experienced it in the first place.
In order to reach stage 3 a person has to befriend all of those emotions, learning how to turn each and all of them into their conscious, liberated, transmuted form. Moreover, as previously noted, that transmutation needs to be seen, recognized, affirmed, and honored by another or others. This path is a difficult one. it requires time, space, and assistance. It can’t be forced or rushed.
As I’ve argued elsewhere the internet is precisely NOT the environment to do healing work. In fact, the internet and social media spaces especially are not only not a good medium for such work, they are actively counterproductive and themselves traumatizing.
Trauma is defined as any experience that happens too fast and too intensely for the nervous system to handle in real time. The online and social media worlds with their hyper speed activates unprocessed traumatic material and leaves it unhealed but agitated. If that is the case for individuals it is magnified ten thousand fold for movements built around trauma organized primarily through internet/social media spaces, e.g. the men’s rights activist movement.
So if a person comes in contact with their trauma in stage 2 but is not able to move it forward to conscious stage 3 (re)integration, then there are only three options available.
Option a): Return to Stage 1
That is go back to dissociation and/or addictive behavior in attempt to numb out the pain.
The next two options (b and c) both remain with stage 2. They do not regress to stage 1 but neither do their progress to stage 3. They remain betwixt and between in a no man’s land/ intermediate zone. These are the realms where by and large I argue we’ll find the men’s rights activists.
Option b) Ingest the poison
Here the person seeks not to go back into the numbed out ignorance and haze of drugs or porn or whatever the addiction is BUT ALSO they refuse to spew the venom of their trauma onto others. This is in a way a noble path though ultimately a self-destructive one. They never learn to transform the venom of trauma into antidote. Rather it just leaves the person to slowly die of the poison. This is the way of early death due to chronic illness, long term depression, cancer, suicide, etc.
Option c) Pass the pain onto others
In this situation the victim becomes a victimizer. The aggressed becomes the aggressor. The individual becomes the very thing they despise. The person molested as the child who becomes the child molester as an adult. The person whose parent abused him only to himself become the abuser of his own children later in life.
The stage 2 person is in touch with their pain but the pain is unhealed. The pain speaks. It’s emotional, it’s reactive, it’s overly sensitive, it’s irrational. This dynamic can often lead to counter-abusive behavior by a previously (and genuinely) wounded individual justifying abusive behavior by it being part of a process of healing or supposed justice-making. All kinds of online attacks, smear campaigns, and the like have been rhetorically justified in such a manner.
Now that we have a clear framework I’m going to deploy it in relationship to men’s rights activism.
The MRA movement is a descendant of the men’s movements of the 70s/80/90s. Warren Farrell’s The Myth of Male Power is in many ways the founding text of the MRA movement. The movement really came into its own and mutated in the 2000s with the rise of internet—as a significant part of the larger so-called manosphere.
These men all came together to “take the red pill.” Unfortunately, as I’ve detailed elsewhere, they fundamentally misunderstood the flaws in the red pill itself according to the very movie they cite as inspiration for their entire movement.
Now much has been said about this movement from all directions. I simply want to focus on one aspect of it: as a forum for the sharing of male trauma, especially sexual abuse of boys and men.
I would argue this was really the core driving energy of the MRA movement. This topic was (and is) a deeply taboo one. It was taboo for conventional male/masculinist gender dynamics with men having to be tough, strong, and having to keep their feelings on lock down (read: repressed). But male trauma also cut against the grain of much feminist discourse which was focused much more (understandably) on the impact of prejudice against and violence upon girls and women. So there was really no space for this topic until the MRA forums, chat rooms, and the like came on the scene.
Looking at the MRA movement in light of the three stage unconscious trauma model above is very illuminating.
The blogs, forums, and social media spaces of the MRA became in the contemporary parlance “safe spaces” for men to begin sharing their experiences, especially of trauma. That trauma may have been through a brutal and unjust divorce proceeding; physical, emotional, verbal and/or sexual abuse as a child; genital mutilation/male circumcision as an infant, etc.
According to the three-stage initiatory model these MRA spaces created enough trust and sense of safety for men to transition from stage 1 (dissociation/addiction) to stage 2 wherein they actually began to share and discuss and feel their pain. Meaning that on this point precisely the MRA was a step up (or forward) for many men.
For all the controversy around the MRAs, for all the ink spilled on it—both by its supporters and its detractors—this point (in my view) got consistently overlooked. All the discourse really focused on the political ramifications of the movement, in particular its thorough going attack on feminism (more on that in a second). Debate on the subject became highly polarized along traditional gender/cultural wars lines at that point. Meanwhile this rather remarkable arising of male pain was really missed.
Now where the MRA movement failed in its initiation was its inability to move from stage 2 to stage 3. On the whole the MRA space(s) began to cultivate stage 2 option c: scapegoating and trying to expel its trauma onto others as a way to relieve their own pain. The other in this case being women under the guise of attacking feminism.
Now one of the deepest parts of the taboo that was broken in MRA spaces was the massively under reported and under appreciated nature of abuse of boys particularly by female caregivers. This was a major topic of discussion in the forums. During that time (and since) more information was coming to light around, for example, the Catholic church priestly sexual abuse. So there was some growing understanding of abuse of boys in the wider culture but it was either part of a smear campaign to revive the old hoary association of being gay with being lecherous towards boys OR as part of a larger project of critiquing problematic male sexuality as a whole (as well as attacks on religion from new atheist types).
But the topic of abuse of boys by mothers, aunts, older sisters, and female caregivers was pretty much entirely absent in mainstream discourse. Interestingly that taboo was broached in the MRA spaces.
Acknowledging abuse as a male is particularly challenging given the code of “being tough” and “taking it like a man.” To acknowledge that a woman perpetrated that trauma is exponentially more difficult given that code. (Please Note: I’m not suggesting that acknowledging abuse as a woman is easy only that it typically has its own specific and distinct challenges.)
That background context is really important to understand how these MRA forums mutated into pathological strains. Officially the MRA spaces were critiquing feminism but in reality that became a cover for attacking women, providing a green light for the most disturbing and vile forms of misogyny. Whatever the ideological self-justification of attacking feminism, emotionally it became a space that cultivated hatred of women full stop.
Critics from the left simply attacked these forums as misogynist, which they certainly were. What they missed however was the deeper source of much of that pain. Having that deeper and more empathic perspective in no way minimizes or absolves the vile hate spewed on those sites but it does give greater understanding and context for it.
In trauma work the person is not guilty of their original trauma (in most cases). They are however fully responsible for their actions as adults in how they deal with that pain—even while holding a compassionate empathic understanding for those who have been wounded.
The men in these MRA spaces came in touch with their pain (stage 2) which on the whole was a good thing but because of the inadequate nature of the medium the energy stayed largely stuck in that stage 2 formation—particularly in its most violent form of seeking to blame others and seek revenge. The typical liberal attacks on MRA spaces only dug in their resistance deeper because those attacks gave no space to that deeper trauma-aware lens.
Now the MRA movement has been around long enough that it’s fair to call its initiatory phase failed. It’s got too much history at this point to change. It also became for many a doorway into the alt-right, dark enlightenment, and even white supremacists/neo-fascist circles. Others have moved more in the Jordan Peterson direction back (strangely) towards the male mythopoetic movement that men’s rights originally critiqued, though it comes with its own problems as I’ve previously explored.
While I’ve focused mostly on the stage 2 option c response of scapegoating and hate and spewed toxicity, it must be said there has been a movement of the stage 2 option b: hold the pain in option. This would be most obvious in the incels (involuntary celibates, aka black pillers) and MGTOWs (Men Who Go Their Own Way).
Whereas the typical MRA response emphasized the fight in the fight/flight/freeze of trauma, incels especially are pronounced in their freeze response. Freeze here meaning deep existential depression, collapse, and emotional deadness. Remember in the unconscious form of initiation stage 2 never reaches resolution. It’s a very hopeless despairing place for many as a result. Involuntary celibate energy (on the whole) has given up totally. They are collapsed emotionally.
MGTOWs went more into the flight option. Simply seeking not to fight against what they saw as their oppression (“misandry”) nor to collapse (incels) but rather to choose to flee the scene (“flight”).
MGTOWs are straight men who believe they must forsake women (at least romantically and sexually). While the MGTOWs claim a state of empowerment—in that they have voluntarily chosen to disconnect from women—whereas incels are more officially disempowered. MGTOWs are strange in that they replicate a dynamic from heterosexual radical feminists of the 1970s who claimed any sex with men was participation in misogyny/the patriarchy so they choose to become lesbians (or celibates). Some MGTOWs have been arguing that straight guys should turn gay in order not to have to relate to women which is seen as participation in the misandry/matriarchy supposedly running our world. But for all their faux empowerment language MGTOWs are from a nervous system point of view (I would argue) in flight/fear.*
So that really covers the state of the MRA movement from a trauma perspective. It opened up space to enter into the pain of their trauma (stage 2). They never took the fuller step into healed autonomy and renewed empathy of stage 3. As a result the men in this world were left to cycle back and forth between dissociation/addiction (stage 1) and pained wounded expressions of the trauma (stage 2). That latter consists of either freezing (incels), fleeing (MGTOWs), or fighting (MRAs proper). In the fight/aggression energy they misplaced their anger towards specific women (usually mothers) onto women as such, under the guise of being warriors against man-hating feminism. Their counterattacks came from a toxic cesspool of misogyny and scapegoating which only further ensconced them in their defensiveness and reactivity, rather than moving forward into stage 3.
In sum, a failed initiation with tragically no clear path towards becoming a healthy initiatory movement.
Note: While pick up artists (PUAs) technically are not within the bounds of men's rights activism there can be and is a great deal of overlap (as both are part of the so-called manosophere). Some people add a fourth “F” to flight/flight/freeze, which would be fornicate. The PUAs took that option. I see it more as another form of fight and scapegoating/placing the poison on others. Or more bluntly put a number of PUAs explicitly (or implicitly) advocate replicating the behaviors of malignant narcissists and sociopaths in order to get laid, i.e. a total shutdown empathically masquerading as powerful free choice.