Here’s an experiment: go to your bathroom mirror, stare deep into your own eyes, and say, “I am an alpha male.” Better still, try working the term into casual conversation. When describing to your coworkers an argument you had with your neighbor about whose trash cans take up too much curb space, try saying, “But we’re both alpha males, so conflict is inevitable.” Or, when picking up your drink from the barista, “Have you noticed how most alpha males drink bulletproof coffee?” Or, after dinner, “I’ll have two scoops of ice cream, because I’m a big, strong alpha male.” You may be thinking I’m only talking about dudes, but that’s not the case. It’s my hope that any person who says any of these, regardless of gender, will be filled with the sort of self-loathing that lingers like the stench of dead skunk on hot asphalt. Conversely, if you feel fantastic after telling your buddy that a waitress was nice “because the ladies always smile when they see an alpha male,” then this may not be for you.
In its most benign form, meaning in relation to professional sports, the term is used as a tool for generating the facile, unverifiable arguments required to sustain a 24 hour media cycle devoted to a topic that could be comprehensively covered in about ten minutes per day. If it’s the first week of August, and nothing of real interest has happened in the NBA for a month, and nothing of interest is likely to happen at least until October, debating some nebulous term is a great way to fill a lazy afternoon. But really, there’s no wrong time to hot take about which member of the Warriors is the alpha male. Even in this, its most public and least freighted context, it rubs elbows with gross ideas – that boys being boys is a valid excuse for bad behavior or that a locker room should adhere to a different moral code than the world at large.
When used casually the term is almost never defined. It’s often little more than a synonym for leader, granting a patina of credibility by sounding like it might be scientific. In a wolf pack the top dog is called the alpha, so it must be the same for humans. (Nevermind that this probably isn’t the case even among wolves.) The implications this entails – that there is particular, genetically determined social order that will exert itself in most groups – goes unexamined.
In the grimier corners of the internet, however, the idea has a much more coherent meaning and a totemic significance. If you must (though I cannot discourage you strongly enough unless you’ve got a thing for brain melting misogyny) head on over to the Red Pill on reddit, where a flourishing community has gathered around the assumption that society is disordered because various groups, feminists in particular, have conspired to subvert foundational parts of human nature by depriving alpha males of the authority that is their due. The wrongs of the world would be righted if people would simply acknowledge that by dint of genetic destiny certain men are owed the respect of other men and the utter submission of women. By this view leadership is fundamentally a matter of birth and inherent authority. As for what a good leader looks like, he is powerful, instinctively decisive, more self-assured than self-reflective, and, most importantly, male. Whether they admit it or not other men wish to be him, and whether they admit it or not all women desire him.
There is an obvious paradox here. If humans have such a strong genetic disposition to order themselves around alpha males that any other arrangement causes massive problems, then why isn’t it more widely recognized? Why the endless posts and articles describing in painful detail the series of steps to take when trying to bed as many women as possible and how doing so will fix everything? The response to this is some quasi-Nietzschean – like the Wikipedia entry on evolutionary psychology mixed with Thus Spake Zarathustra as explained by a drunk freshman at three in the morning – gobbledygook about how society has programmed men to not recognize their fundamental nature. Even if this critique had any basis in reality, which it doesn’t, I would hope returning to a state of primal masculinity would involve lots of roasting haunches of venison over open flames and relatively few defensive articles outlining the best responses to sixteen color-coded criticisms of Men’s Rights Advocates.
I believe that many of modern life’s discontents are related to the lack of unmediated interactions with other people and with the natural world. (By the natural world I mean basically any environment that doesn’t predominantly consist of man-made materials.) But anyone who’s watched pigs jostling at a feed tub would think twice about the wisdom of drawing simplistic conclusions about human nature based on observations of another species. The fact that humans do not have the same kind of instinctive hierarchy as, say, a herd of cows is obvious.
Of course, the appeal is not actually to facts or sound arguments. Even the most verbose accounts of the rightful place of alpha males are nothing more than the most obvious sort of just-so story; they are an ethos masquerading as clear-eyed genetic determinism. While comparatively benign, the everyday use of the term shares the same assumption, which I’m guessing is usually more a feeling than a thought, a feeling that at the end of the day big, brawny manly men are the natural leaders of most any group of people. There’s a word for this, whether it’s an articulated belief or just a vague, unexamined sense of the way the world works.
This isn’t the most pernicious vessel of misogyny, I know, and while I could make an argument that it’s useful to examine the underpinnings of everyday language – and I really think it is – the truth is that I was prompted to write this by my visceral dislike for the term. That is to say, in a sense I’m doing exactly what I’m critiquing, by providing a rationale to bolster beliefs I already held. These include the idea that leadership and interpersonal relationships can be collaborative rather than strictly hierarchical, that uncertainty, expertise, and de-escalation are all useful in many situations, and that authority is not the exclusive domain of one gender.
But even this formulation is a little too impersonal and coherent. The real reason I’m trying to convince you not to call yourself or anyone else an alpha male is that I find the term as aggravating to hear as nails on a chalkboard. If the arguments I’ve made haven’t convinced you, if you still plan on wearing your alpha male t-shirt on your next trip out and about, be aware that I am judging you as I judge few things in this world. I’ll know you have bad taste, I’ll guess you’re not very smart, and simply seeing you walk past will make me feel good about basically every life choice I’ve made. Also, I’ll assume you’re on horse steroids.
Photo Credit – Garth Brown