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Against Testosterone Poisoned Society
Stop challenging people to fights and grow up, dudes.
It’s “fight me” season for dudes. Elon Musk’s pitiful challenge to fight Mark Zuckerberg was the appetizer. Oklahoma Republican Senator Markwayne Mullin’s challenge to face Teamster president Sean O’Brien in a charity cage match was the entree. And as surely as social conformity is a force to be reckoned with, there will be more rooster-like challenges from famous dudes to come. Perhaps the tide of aggressive woofing is prompted by the warming summer rays, that bring sweat to the skin and enervate the blood; perhaps it is the increasing ubiquity of testosterone replacement therapy in middle aged men; or perhaps it is just a million years of evolution rearing its inappropriate head in an alien modern world. No matter the cause, we all know the collective giddy feeling that these things provoke. The very same force that brings kids rushing to the playground for an after-school fight makes millions of grownups decide that they will order the pay-per-view should any of these celebrity stunt fights actually occur. Even as the Responsible Adults voice the obligatory mild disapproval of these things, there is an undercurrent of glee (among dudes, in particular) that cannot be repressed. Fights are exciting. We all kind of want to see the fights. We’re all, deep down, kind of into it.
This is bad. Not frivolously bad, but morally bad. I’m sorry! I want to see the fights too! But this phenomenon is legitimately, meaningfully bad. I am very sorry, but all of our vicarious enjoyment must be wrapped up and placed in the trash.
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Other than sex, there is no stronger natural drive than the desire to kick someone’s ass. This desire is wholly separate from the ability or inclination to actually get in a fight. It is the unfiltered id. It is a low-grade running fantasy of vanquishing your enemies in the most brutal way. Those who choose to act upon it are criminals—much more often, it is sublimated, driving screaming road rage and wild drunkenness and high school football and many other expressions of re-channeled violence. Governments were invented to monopolize violence in a single place. Democracy and rule of law was invented to give humans a way to process disputes without killing each other. Our legal and electoral systems are flawed, biased, perverted, and weaponized by bad actors, but if you zoom out far enough, they are the outlines of a structure that allows humanity to live in a way that is not reducible to “Whoever can kick your ass can do what they want.” That, as slow as it’s going, is progress.
I have been boxing (for fun) for almost 15 years. When I started boxing I had what I think is a common view, which was: I will learn to box, and then I will be a badass. In fact, this is not the experience of learning to box at all. What you find instead is that you get better, but it never stops being hard. The better you get, the better people they put you in with. You thought that you were on a ladder that went from one to ten. As soon as your skill ascends to level 10, though, you have to face someone at level 20. Eventually you find out that the ladder stretches much farther than you can even see. To a thousand, maybe, or a million. Who knows? Most of us who are not world champions will never find out.
Boxing offers all sorts of very cliched lessons, but the most valuable one, I think, is this: There is always someone who can kick your ass. If you are the biggest badass in your gym, there is someone at another gym who can kick your ass. If you are the biggest badass in your city, there is someone in another city who can kick your ass. And so on, all the way up to being the champion of the world. And guess what? If you are the welterweight champion of the world, the heavyweight champion of the world can still kick your ass. And if you are the heavyweight champion of the world, someone can shoot you. Now how cool do you feel?
Thus, what I had imagined would be a journey to making me feel like a Big Bad Badass—a journey towards cockiness—instead had the opposite effect. It made me more humble. This, again, is very common among people who try some sort of fighting sport. Whereas most people are free to walk around imagining that they are badasses, those who box have had enough direct experience to know that they are not.
A result of this is a profound understanding that violence is a bad way to settle an arguments. Who can kick whose ass has nothing to do with who is right and who is wrong. Nothing! Some of the world’s biggest dumbasses and jerks can, I assure you, kick your ass. So what? Are they right, once they have kicked your ass? No. We all understand this quite easily—as long as we are talking about someone else wrongly victimizing us. How dare they! You brute! But it is much, much harder to resist the allure of us kicking the ass of someone else. That same brute! The jerk! He really deserves it! It would be only right to triumphantly kick your enemy’s ass in front of the whole world. After all, he wouldn’t be your enemy if he didn’t deserve it.
This basic storyline—the hero kicks the villain’s ass—is probably the single most common plot in fictional entertainment. All of us tend to imagine ourselves righteously inflicting the violence upon the enemy. Rarer, I think, is the ability to conceptualize ourselves on the receiving end of the violence. Boxing’s virtue is that it teaches you that lesson in a tangible way. Every fight has a loser. For every champion there is a person defeated. For every punch, a black eye. The idea that we, the protagonists of the world, are naturally destined to be on the fun side of this equation is an error. Punching someone is real easy. Getting punched, though, is more educational.
I’m sorry for sounding like a children’s book version of “The Life of Martin Luther King Jr.” here, but this is why violence is wrong. It is incapable of fairly litigating any disputes, and it causes harm along the way. It has negative moral worth. Apart from situations of absolute necessity, we are obligated to forsake violence even when we would be on the winning side of it. That’s the hard part. (This is especially true for dudes, whose brains are warped by the intoxicating effects of testosterone, a drug far more powerful than booze.) Let a dude lift weights and hit a heavy bag for a while and then put him in a room full of unathletic people and he will be seized by an almost paralyzing desire to assert his own will, because he knows that he could kick everyone’s ass in there. Put that same dude in a room full of New York Jets linebackers, and he will suddenly come to feel that reasonable discussion is the only humane method of solving disagreements. This is essentially what you will learn in a college Introduction to Ethics class, although it’s possible the professor would have some additional details.
Sometimes—I suspect this is true in the case of Elon Musk—dudes will issue wild fight challenges because they have been ensconced in a bubble of unreality for so long that they have lost the ability to imagine themselves being defeated in any way. This sort of dude is basically “a dumb man,” and will learn the hard way if he does not pull back from the precipice in time. Other times—I suspect this is true in the case of Markwayne Mullin, who was a competitive MMA fighter before he became a bad Senator—the knowledge that one possesses some ass kicking ability has the same effect that owning a gun or doing cocaine does, filling a person with bravado and self-assurance, a cowboy pose in which “fight me” is an unfair advantage masquerading as a moral code. The first sort of dude is an idiot, and the second is a bully. This covers the full range of people who issue public fight threats.
As much as the sick boxing freak inside of me would love to watch both of these fights, the effect of allowing this to exist as a legitimized part of our public life is poison. It rewards, in some small way, the wrong things. It gives comfort to the idea that being able to kick someone’s ass is something that should have a role, however rare, in the way that society operates. It implies that the winner of the fight in question will have proven something important. Not true. They prove only that they are not mature enough to stop being macho dickheads, the very quality that society should be designed to marginalize. If this trend of swaggering public celeb fights moves American society even one millimeter closer to the Macho side of the spectrum, then these spectacles are bad. The entire project of trying to form a world that values all of humanity equally is the opposite of embracing a world in which kicking ass is thought to be something that grownups should do when they get upset.
Here is a good thing to do whenever you get the overwhelming urge to challenge someone to a fight: Imagine that the person you are challenging is prime Mike Tyson. Are you a big bad cocky cowboy now? Do you want to fight prime Mike Tyson? If you do, you are a fool. If you don’t, then you are a coward who tries to pick fights only because you know you can win. Either way: grow up, dudes.
Yes, I am aware of the overweening, moralistic tone of this post, like a boring lecture being delivered by a droning teacher to a disgusted class of students. I’m sorry! Sometimes I feel hypnotized and wake up hours later with a moralistic lecture written and no memory how it got there. If you care to read my actual boxing writing, you can find much of it here and here.
Sean O’Brien, the head of the Teamsters, rightfully mocked Markwayne Mullin during a Senate committee hearing, which was the origin of their dispute. O’Brien is, I’m certain, a tough guy, but in general accepting a fight against a onetime professional fighter is a sucker thing to do. Let us instead praise the Teamsters for everything they have done to stand in solidarity with the WGA strike, sacrificing their own work to respect our picket line. If the UPS strike goes down this summer we all gotta go stand with them! Put it on the calendar now! In the meantime, you can find the ongoing WGA picket line schedules here.
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