Guest Post by Thomas Swords
About two years ago, I joined Twitter because I thought it would be a good way to connect with like-minded people about controversial topics such as atheism and politics, which I wanted to steer clear of on my public Facebook page.
I had no idea of what I was getting myself into.
At that time, which perhaps because of the blistering pace of current events feels more like a decade ago, I was a fan of Sam Harris, and was quickly exposed to the kind of “rational skeptics” who revered Harris as a secular prophet. I am just about completely de-converted from this particular cult, but while I was in it, I took the pronouncements of Harris and his acolytes quite seriously. I liked tweets and YouTube videos by everyone from Dave Rubin to Peter Boghossian to Gad Saad to Douglas Murray. I had thought that since all of these men were atheists like myself, and mostly declared themselves to be liberals, we would share most other values as well. After all, two were Jewish (Rubin and Saad) and two were gay (Rubin and Murray). Let’s just say things didn’t turn out the way I’d expected. In fact, all of these men were, if not themselves explicit proponents of taking the red pill, all too willing to ape red-pill talking points, offer full-throated defenses of red-pill thinking, and provide platforms from which red-pill-popping fanatics would spew their anti-feminist message.
Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. So let’s define terms before we go any further. In this blog, I will use the RationalWiki definition of red pill, as it captures the essence of the delusion: That those brave enough to take the red pill will be able to see the world as it really is. In this twisted echo of the classic sci-fi movie The Matrix, from which the red pill concept is lifted, the big lie is that women are oppressed. In the funhouse-mirror version promoted by red-pillers, it’s feminism that discriminates against and oppresses men.
It’s not like I really came close to red pilling, but I was, for a few months, sucked into the vortex of free-speech fundamentalism championed by Harris, Rubin, et al. This exposed me to ideas that are red-pill adjacent, like the notion that it’s condescending to women to treat them as unable to handle men’s advances and that there’s a hysteria sweeping college campuses about sexual assault.
According to Angela Nagle, author of Kill All Normies, which details the rise of the Internet subculture often referred to as the manosphere, anti-feminism was the first uniting principle of the so-called MRA (men’s rights advocates) movement. I say “so-called” because you rarely encounter any actual discussion of rights in MRA forums, though there’s no shortage of vitriol for the many depredations of the “gynocracy.” Later, Nagle argues in a recent DoubleX Gabfest podcast appearance, the MRA movement transitioned form online gripe sessions into a more explicitly political force that helped to drive major world events from Brexit to the Trump candidacy and other far-right politics. The most recent manifestation of this anti-feminist force is racism, as we have seen with the Alt Right, which is a “revalorization of masculinity” and for many of these (mostly white) men, taking the red pill is the beginning of the journey.
In my experience, the most compelling reason to spit out the red pill and reject the poison of toxic masculinity is the tremendous improvement in my relationships. This isn’t just about better relationships with women, though that would be reason enough. No, this is about better connections with women and men alike. And it extends beyond sexuality and friendship into the workplace and with all the other myriad people I encounter along the journey of life. But ultimately, it is my relationship with myself, my ability to look in the mirror and be content with the person I see looking back. That is the most profound benefit of all.
It stands to reason that by not being an aggressive asshole, I would have better relations with women. Because the red pill philosophy presumes women to be the enemy, dropping this adversarial stance allows us as men to trust women and not engage in “us vs. them” thinking. We can get to know women as allies and equals rather than inferiors to be conquered or threats to be overcome. On this peaceful foundation, much can be built, from lasting friendships to healthy marriages and everything in between.
As I was preparing to write this essay, I realized it wasn’t just my relationships with women that were better because of my having rejected pernicious sexism. In fact, I have better relationships with men, too. I think the reason for this is relatively simple: Toxic masculinity demands that men be unemotional, uncaring, and unkind, so the kinds of men who behave terribly toward women also treat other men badly. By avoiding guys like this, I have developed friendships with – dare I say – more enlightened men who treat me better and are not only more pleasant to be around but are, frankly, safer.
My family is quite progressive overall, but the small American town I grew up in was not, and I encountered many men who were not only crude and sexist, but also reckless. And again, it was their beliefs about men’s roles that led them to be this way – to drink too much and drive too fast (often in quick succession). There was always pressure to prove one’s manhood in this environment, and this led to no men being safe from either their own behavior or the impact of their peers’ actions. Today, I still go out with male friends, but there is never pressure to drink more than anyone feels comfortable with and we are all mindful of our limits, particularly when driving. I’d be tempted to attribute much of this to having grown up, and surely my friends now are more sensible with age, but I know when I’ve encountered people from my hometown as adults, I realize that all men grow older, but some never grow up.
Another area of life that leaps out to me when I think about the benefits of spitting out the red pill is the workplace. It has been truly breathtaking to see the almost daily revelations of years of famous men’s sexually inappropriate behavior on the job, whether they are in politics (Al Franken, Roy Moore, Trent Franks, John Conyers, and of course, Donald Trump himself), entertainment (Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Dustin Hoffman, Jeffrey Tambor, and Louis C.K.), and media (Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Thrush, Charlie Rose, Ryan Lizza, and–all from public radio and television–Garrison Keillor, John Hockenberry, Tavis Smiley, Mike Oreskes, and Tom Ashbrook). As you can see, this lineup spans the political spectrum from left to right and includes men of all different racial and ethnic backgrounds. The only common threads are that they’re all men and all had enough power over others to be able to get away with abuse for years, in some cases decades. Imagine any of these men today, having worked their lives to build reputations as consummate professionals, admired by millions in some cases, only to be exposed as lecherous dirtbags, with their legacies in tatters. But do not mistake my words as any sort of apologia for these creeps; they got or will soon get what they deserve. My argument is that treating your female colleagues with respect is both good for your humanity and your career. If you can’t behave decently around women out of your own innate decency, do it to save your job.
Behaving with respect for others is, of course, also incumbent upon men outside the workplace as well. Why on earth would I want to go to my local coffee shop, pharmacy, or library and leave a bad impression of myself? And that gets at one of the aspects of all this I am struggling to comprehend: Why did the men who made these advances convince themselves the women (in some cases less powerful men) wanted their attention? Or did they just not care? Or – and this is what I fear most may be the case – did they derive pleasure in making the targets of their predation uncomfortable, even terrified? Because if it’s option C, it’s the very opposite of what I want someone to feel in my presence. I like having pleasant interactions with cashiers, waitresses (or waiters), whoever is behind the counter. I would be disgusted with myself if I left them feeling that they wanted to avoid me in the future.
Lastly, I’d like to go inward, to perhaps my most crucial relationship, the one I have with myself. This is where my most important work is done, where I build the foundation of my relationships with everyone else. Of course introspection was never taught in my school or encouraged by my peers growing up and yet it has been one of the most remarkable journeys of my life. I am hopeful this trend is changing and that the educational system is doing a better job of helping young people access and understand their feelings without merely acting on them unconsciously. I wonder if some men who have gone down the MRA’s dark path had had the opportunity to open up about their insecurities around women and sexuality, if they would today engage in such hostile behavior, both online and off? I suspect not. It has been so helpful for me personally to be able able to talk to friends, family, and even therapists about my thoughts and feelings before acting on them. Online forums that only reinforce toxic masculinity and punish vulnerability as weak force men to deny they have feelings at all. Well, feelings other than anger at women, feminism, and anyone beyond themselves whom they perceive as a threat to their fragile sense of themselves. As women continue to move toward greater equality, how sad that so many men perceive themselves to be under attack. Because as hard as it has sometimes been to sit with my insecurities and fears, I believe it has improved my relationships with women and men, and in all spheres of my life.
And all I had to do was spit out that red pill.
Thomas Swords is a creative professional and father of two who lives in a very blue coastal state. He comments on social and political issues from a progressive viewpoint and would really appreciate it if more of his fellow atheists could stop being such reactionary assholes, thank you very much. Follow him on Twitter