If you’ve made even a vaguely, politically left-of-centre remark in a public forum online in the last couple of years, chances are that you’ve been hit with the more or less official insult of the alt-right* nerd Nazis, and been called a ‘cuck’. Even if, like me, you’re a white man, equipped with the standard male fragility that comes free with heterosexuality in our society, there’s an equally good chance that this insult has come at you as more abstract and confusing than it has offensive. A cuckold? Where did that come from? Who decided that was the most direct inroad to hurting a left-winger’s feelings, and why?
As an oft-invoked paraphrase from the I Ching goes, there is wisdom to be drawn from the abyss if you keep your eyes open, and surely the ubiquity of this phrase makes it a void worthy of investigation. In the wake of the US election, few can be completely unaware of the political bloc of the so-called alt-right – the male, moneyed, white supremacist rebrand – and surely an examination of their insult of choice can reveal a bit about their concerns, their dreams, and their origins.
To begin with the anecdotal, let’s roll it back to 2010/2011. As a man, there’s a particular aspect of sexist behaviour that is unique to experience: namely, the assumed solidarity with other men airing misogynist views – if you will, the ‘locker room talk’ that acts as a building block and normalisation for the violent attitudes, behaviours and actions that soon enough reach women. In these particular years, I noticed a certain flavour to this hateful banter: that is, a continued namedropping and reverent invocation of ‘pick up artists’ (PUAs) and their sacred text, (or at least their 101 text) The Game. On more occasions, and from more individuals, than I’d like to remember, the thwarted machismo of this ‘process’ for picking up women was extolled to me: essentially, a bro-(pseudo)science for tricking women into sleeping with you.
Whatever the tactic – ‘negging’, ‘plate-spinning’ and so on (and like any pseudoscience, these ‘rules’ were mutable and scholastic) – the underlying assumption was the same: women’s behaviour was predictable and definable by social codes, and could thus be measured and ‘played’ with an almost mathematical precision. Deeper than this nonsense, and at a level almost beneath conscious theory, was an even more disturbing (and even more ahistorical) assumption: that this kind of interaction between men and women represented some kind of natural order – one that all men knew to be true, but that some resisted naming and admitting in the name of acceptability in a ‘politically-correct’ world. It was not, in fact, a belief in a social code, but worse yet, a belief in a genetic one.
Observations of certain patterns of behaviours in certain settings (to be generous about it) became eternal truths. I could disagree with these men all I wanted, but it would be rare to get a real argument in return: usually, the discussion would end there with a knowing wink and smile from the other party, as if by denying the game I was playing some game of my own – aware of the apparently hard and fast ‘rules’, and the devilish promiscuity drive in women, but for some reason – the reason that I later realised was supposedly my liberal cuckold nature – unwilling to admit it.
All of these interactions took place offline, and for some time, were easy enough for me to ignore. The men I heard speak this way were generally young, insecure to some degree, and pretty much always white. Whether their tactics worked for them or (as in most cases) not, they didn’t seem to bring them much joy or confidence. Even Neil Strauss, author of The Game, had ended up denouncing the method’s bearing on good sex or good relationships, and this parting wisdom was visible, if not articulated, in his acolytes. The Game functioned in its readers like most corny self-help manuals: if it worked at all, it worked badly, and chiefly served to assemble an unrealistic – and thus, anxiety-inducing – psychological framework for those taken in. This, to me, is the core of ‘self-help’: an oversimplified and doggedly optimistic attempt at understanding the world that serves to superimpose an idealistic fantasy on top of the observable reality. Such is the rhetorical force of this ‘help’, however: that in its failure, it is the reality that appears to be lacking, not the falsity. Thus, the cycle of nervous second-guessing and self-doubt continues, exacerbated.
At the time of hearing this stuff, to my shame, I ignored the nervous pick up artist-wannabees, writing them off as confused young men in search of a messiah. I too have found comfort in questionable, oversimplified philosophies – surely these PUA-wannabees were people who, like me, would move beyond their problematic frameworks in favour of genuine human interaction. Sadly, I was wrong.
I’d been aware of Reddit for a while without ever spending much time on the site, but an interest in certain niche-y topics, combined with a general lack of savvy concerning more obscure (and more interesting) websites, led me around this time to start visiting a few subreddits on a semi-regular basis. As anyone who has spent time on the site will attest, it does not take long to identify a phenomenon that subtly spreads its fingers through most subreddits: a groupthink that is distinctly guided by (and carried out by) straight / white / cis / middle-to-upper class males (usually from their late teens to early thirties). Within this groupthink, it is similarly easy to discover a disturbing trend running through it – not at the periphery, but at the core: one that elevates the above demographic into a fiercely-guarded normality. Those outside of these markers, it appeared, would be at best treated with orientalist novelty, and at worst, with derision, contempt, and abuse. From politics to music, academia to pants-sagging, what was different couldn’t just be that, different: it had to be morally wrong, an affront to the ‘proper’.
For the most part, this fear of Otherness mirrored (and mirrors) the existence of these attitudes offline, sprouting up as contradictory, unfocused, moralistic and a-theoretical, but some preliminary digging was all it would take to uncover the flipside to the scattergun-prejudice, that is, subreddits and groups where theory had begun to congeal around these principles. These subreddits were (and no doubt are) numerous, and with varying degrees of mouth-foaming, but the most fully formed and rabid that I came across – as well as seemingly serving as a hub of sorts – was the jilted nerd’s paradise, the ‘Red Pill’.
The central premise of the Red Pill was laughably simple: taking the image of drug-induced ‘awakening’ from The Matrix, these redditors saw themselves as tuned in to a ‘realpolitik’ social dynamic that had been obscured and concealed by a nascent liberal world-order: a feminist (or feminised) overlay that existed as an out-and-out assault on masculinity itself, denying ‘human nature’ and traditional Western gender roles in favour of an emasculating equivalency between the sexes. Red Pillers, so it goes, having swallowed the bitterness of reality, see it all as it really is: an age-old battle between men and women that has been lost out to the ‘fairer sex’, leaving ‘men’ stripped of their natural functions, and ergo, denied the satisfaction – sexual and societal – that is their born right.
The page was a motley collection of ‘field reports’ from awakened redditors, citations of the theory in practice, and, at the more chilling end of the scale, cod-academic essays and links attempting to frame the behaviour and mental faculties of women in a ‘scientific’ discourse that would be at home next to theories of eugenics and phrenology – all invoked with the backing of ‘reason’ and ‘logic’ (concepts that had been decided, of course, to be out of the reach of ‘emotive’ women, and laying squarely in the realm of men).
The pseudoscience, the jilted masculinity, the ready recourse to ‘human nature’: it would be hard to miss the similarities to offline bros espousing The Game and pick-up ‘artistry’. Online, however, I noticed two key differences. Firstly, it was in the organised, unified evolution of the theory: in numbers, the discussion took on fresh nuances, new ideological permutations and rhetorical twists – the dubious philosophy had room to grow, to feed off itself, to become articulate. Secondly, the difference was in where the discussion took place. We were no longer in the real world, subject to face to face engagement and criticism – no longer identifiable, but instead anonymous and unaccountable. Gone was the semblance of civility, the nervous unwillingness to argue: in place, online and en masse, the ‘gamers’-cum-Red Pillers were loud, vocal, and vicious.
‘Young men’, wrote Siyanda Mohutsiwa† on Twitter, the day after the election that brought Donald Trump to power in the US, ‘came to these online groups for tips on picking up girls [and] came out believing that it was up to them to save Western civilisation […] I’ve been following these online alt-right groups for three years and watched them evolve from PUA forums to hate-fuelled organisations’. If online radicalisation is the name of the game, then surely this is it: from sexually-frustrated teenager (or manbaby) to white supremacist adult. But how is the trajectory so smooth – how are the tracks between the two so well worn? The clue is where we began: in the left-field insult of cuck.
Like any insult, ‘cuck’ obviously holds weight in the eyes of those saying it: not as a crude jibe, either, but as a considered and measured naming and shaming, designed to hit ‘em where it hurts (I think once more of the sly look the Game-adherents would give me, as if I refused to admit their truth). It stands to reason that this term, and what it signifies, must make up some of the preoccupations of the racist alt-right boys who are throwing it out. Similarly, the antiquated nature of the very word and concept makes it clear that this is no Costanzean ‘I had sex with your wife’ – it is not just a taunt, but a signifier.
So what does it mean, then, to be a cuckold? In the Red Pill framework, it’s easy to slot in: liberals and progressives have sacrificed their masculinity, their ‘manhood’ (whatever that is) and their time-honoured place in the world, undergoing a metaphorical castration and degradation to appease their ‘Blue Pill’ phantasms of equality. Yet surely metaphor cannot fully account for the use of a term so rooted in racialised (or out-and-out racist) pornography and, further back, the insecurities of white slave owners. It is here that the connection between frustrated sexuality, white-pride race hatred, and distrust of liberal society (and all its permissive permutations) intersect most clearly.
Perhaps regrettably, I can’t claim to be much of an expert on cuckold porn, but a fairly preliminary glance at the subgenre is enough to get a sense of what might be the driving force behind the fetish: that is, the same hypersexualisation of black men that underscores vast swathes of (hetero) pornography – the racist flipside to feelings of white sexual inadequacy. It’s no secret that the historical hypersexualisation (and hand-in-hand animalistic dehumanisation) of black men finds some of its roots in slavery: if you will, the Hegelian master/slave dynamic itself, that sees the subjugated as irreducibly defining and in turn psychologically subjugating the oppressor. Indeed, the only difference between cuck porn and regular (explicitly) interracial pornography seems to be the transposition of the viewer through the fourth wall, putting the sexually inadequate (white) viewer there, as it were, in the room. (As an aside: maybe cuckold pornography with white men doing the ‘cucking’ exists, but I’ve never heard of it or encountered it).
Who watches this stuff, and why, is a step beyond my abilities of psychological investigation, but it’s not hard to hazard a guess. As smugly satisfying as it is to posit the audience of cuck porn as Red Pill (and similar pick-up artist forum / racist alt-right forum) advocates, it also seems to be the most accurate guess, and in the fact of the unlikelihood of emergent data, it seems an assumption worth running with.
The supposed diminishment of whites and the cuckolding power of black men finds its connect in the notion of the willing cucks themselves: the perceived wet liberal society, or, more specifically, white men who have shown their cuckold face outside of the safety of the porno, spilling their self-hate and race/sex traitorship into the wider world. These cucks are unwilling to admit ‘real social dynamics’: these are the champions of women and POC, and by extension, LGBQTI folks, Muslims, immigrants, communists and socialists, students, unions, and everyone else who exists in opposition to supposedly rational, ‘end of history’ Western civilisation. If those ‘cucks’ and these groups apparently exist in opposition to the concept, then surely the very notion of ‘Western society’ is defined in opposition to this leftist spectre: that is, defined – necessarily – purely by the negative.
What is particularly striking about this notion of ‘societal degradation’ is how profoundly rooted in fantasy it is; in a mirage of a society that never existed. Maybe this is at the core of political and social conservatism: taking a single, fantastical ‘historical instance’ as an example of ‘correctness’ – in other words, applying an ahistorical moralism to a projected epoch of history (that like all epochs, would necessarily have been in a state of flux). There was never a ‘glorious Reich’, never a ‘White Australia’, and there was and never will be a Fukayama-esque ‘end of history’ where Western civilisation spreads its timeless ideals – themselves a fiction too – across the globe.
Most pertinently, there was no era in which middle and upper class white men, engaged in oppression, were not plagued with the sexual and psychological instability brought about by their tenuous and violent hold on the almost literal reigns – with such power comes inevitably the insecurity of it slipping; the fear that the slave is indeed really the master, and that their far more real power is barely contained.
And for an example of this sense of fragile mastery, one need only to look at a fiction equal to that of the White Western Civilisation – that is, the progressive society that is supposedly antithetical to it. As the left knows – and oppressed minorities, people of colour, queers, women, immigrants, the poor, and so on – there is no global progressive power bloc in any meaningful sense of the world: beneath the thinnest veneer of social justice and the most murmured of lip service, there’s not much of a structural increase in leftist politics out there – be they feminist or otherwise. If society is really that ‘liberal’, then all that goes to show is the paucity of that concept, and what little relationship it has to the values of a struggle that is non-nominal: anticapitalism, antiracism, antifascism, unionism, and so on.
Instead, the word and all it signifies aligns itself irreducibly with the march of big business, capitalist globalisation, exploitation, and concealed (but extreme) class warfare. That such a vacuous, meaningless disruption of the status quo presents itself to the racists as a threat to the core of all that is dear – surely this speaks of the tremble in the seat of power.
If locating the roots of a fascist resurgence in psychosexual frustration seems like a Reichian fantasy of its own, I’d argue that the material evidence outweighs any conjecture: the route between sexual rejection, the liberal enabling of feminism, and the championing of the Other by the left. It’s a heady brew of white men unable to find fault within themselves, instead needing to locate blame elsewhere, anywhere else, and unable to handle a loss of privilege – or, even less: a loss of unanimous agreement.
In the year of the Oxford Dictionary’s ‘post-truth’, this is almost more frightening than any clear policy on the table, than any particular legislation, as it represents a golem more terrible than anything solid could be: instead, it is an amorphous, rabid terror – the mobilisation and galvanisation of jilted nerd-Nazis acting according to an archaic and abstract fear. To be called a cuck is surreal to the point of being laughable, but the point of origin of the term trembles with a violence, newly fed and watered, that is anything but.
* There’s been some worthy debate recently about the function of the term ‘alt-right’ as a normalising euphemism for racists, as well as the use and propagation of the term by the left, for instance see here and here. A slightly different perspective, advocating for the use of the term as a means of identifying – and fighting – nuance in the racist set can be found here.
† Mohutsiwa’s tweets on the relationship between the alt-right and ‘pick up artists’ have served as both inspiration and catalyst for this article, and Chardine Taylor-Stone’s incredible Facebook feed alerted me to the latter.