The Malignant Melancholy

There are, broadly, two kinds of structural lonelinesses. One is the benign loneliness of the socially alienated, the other the malignant melancholy of the erstwhile master.

After Dušan Makavejev

Let us begin by citing an authoritative man: According to Vivek H. Murthy, a former American surgeon general, the world is awash with an epidemic of loneliness. “This isn’t just bad for our health; it’s also bad for business,” he writes, filled with concern that half of the CEOs Harvard Business Review surveyed are lonely. Sad white men seem to concur, writing essays filled with dire citations about how extremely lonely men, specifically, as a gender, are. Billy Baker in the Boston Globe offers the profound observation that men can’t maintain bromances over the phone, while Stephen Thomas in Hazlitt sums up his excruciatingly blinkered essay by reassuring Men Like Him that it’s “normal” (meaning Not Gay) to want intimacy. Not that being gay helps, even if you’re an assimilated cis white man, as Michael Hobbs mourns in the Huffington Post.

An illness becomes an epidemic, and therefore worthy of attention, when enough of the right kind of victims—cis/straight/well-off/white/western/men—begin to suffer from it. This was true of PTSD and AIDS, and now is the turn of loneliness. There exists a literary history of loneliness, one that treats the affliction as proof of a tragic genius too good and pure for this world. This history is a rarified Men’s Club that only occasionally will suffer the entrance of an Emily Dickinson or a Virginia Woolf. Lonely women, on the other hand, who talk about the labors of seeking companionship to alleviate the practical hazards of solitude, are inevitably either relegated to the confessional personal narrative or self-deprecatingly turned into objects of derisive humour—Mrs. Bennet husband-hunting for her daughters or Bridget Jones hunting for one for herself in order to avoid being eaten by Alsatians after a lonely death. When men talk about their collective loneliness, doctors and business magazines must pay attention—profit margins, after all, are very likely to be affected.

It wasn’t until 1980, when forcibly drafted American men were returning from the Vietnam War complaining of nightmares, anxiety, anger, depression, and poor responsiveness, that the term PTSD was added to the DSM. Popular histories of the illness draw its ancestry from diagnoses of shell shock, battle fatigue, and “operational exhaustion.” This lineage exposes the biases of those who issue diagnoses—a predominantly male medical and psychological establishment that only recognizes patterns of trauma in male survivors of military violence. Only after its formal naming was PTSD slowly acknowledged to be a condition suffered “also” by female survivors of marital abuse or incestuous rape who previously were diagnosed as hysterical, febrile, or pathological liars. Even now, the default image of a male PTSD victim is that of a white American soldier rather than a brown or black refugee, or victim of state violence. Similarly, in the past few years women have begun a pushback against the supposedly universal diagnostic standards of ADHD. (Dr. Ellen Littman points out how symptoms like hyperactivity are gender skewed and therefore work to invisibilize girls whose symptoms veer more toward inattentiveness and disorganization.) Meanwhile, women are dying at twice the rate of men of undiagnosed heart attacks because their symptoms, like jaw and upper-back pain, indigestion, and nausea, don’t match the “textbook symptoms” of chest and left-arm pain in books written exclusively about cis men. The pathologization—and therefore governance—of loneliness (nonprofits set up, research funds allocated, street-theater interventions commissioned, et al.) follows this pattern of centering the tribulations of privileged men as cause for concern and the default universal definition of the problem.

Men, compounded by straightness and whiteness as applicable, are the worst theorists of loneliness. They operate from the mind-boggling assumption that there must be something structurally wrong with the world if they are faced with any indication that it does not wish to keep company with them. They can fathom no structural reasons as to why they might be deemed unwanted. Even the U.K.-based Campaign to End Loneliness (which does useful work focused on the demographic of aged people of all genders) claims that “nobody who wants company should be without it.” If you try, however, to apply this logic to childcare, health care, a minimum wage, or housing, you’ll be told that there are structural reasons why your needs are impractical. And pointing out that sex workers, like massage- and psychotherapists, are also in the business of treating loneliness and should therefore be able to negotiate for ethical recompense just leads to morality lectures. Companionship for men, as patriarchy tells us, is the natural order of things, and there must be something terribly wrong if a Regular Nice Guy has to pay for it.

Because straight white men refuse to recognize their own unpalatability, they come up with solutions to loneliness that appropriate the rhetoric of justice- and freedom-based ideologies without actually engaging in any rigorous structural analyses of their culpability in oppression. They don’t want revolutionary change but merely a polite tolerance that would make them more bearable. And this selfishness renders them incompetent to address the structures of loneliness as a social ill.

There are, broadly, two kinds of structural lonelinesses. One is the benign loneliness of the socially alienated, the other the malignant melancholy of the erstwhile master.

The loneliness of the oppressed is the condition of being exiled, being shunned, or having to flee relationship and community structures that have become abusive. All support structures can warp under toxicity, and family and community are especially vulnerable to the impositions of structural oppressions because of the unrelenting intimacy they demand from their constituents. The violence that patriarchy, casteism, racism, capitalism, and cisheterocentrism enact is multifaceted, but all of these structural oppressions remove the nourishment of companionship from the spaces they operate in. To be oppressed by any of these is to encounter loneliness.

Domestic-abuse survivors, migrant laborers, queer young people, religious minorities, ethnic transplants, non-men in organized workforces, people living with disabilities either physical or mental: These are some of the people who have loneliness thrust upon them. They are punished, as an identity, for existing, because prejudiced people with structural power around them reject them. That they face multiple kinds of bigotries, violences, and dehumanizations does not detract from the severity of the loneliness imposed on them, and to not notice that amidst all their other problems and griefs that they are also lonely, as soul-churningly lonely as any sad white boy with an MFA, is part of the crime humanity commits against itself.

Another social pattern of loneliness is particularly wretched because it is deemed a self-imposed choice by an indifferent observer. This is the loneliness we have to choose in order to protect our bodily needs: sexual safety, privacy, self-identity, self-worth, freedom, integrity. An epidemic that no surgeon general seems to have thought to talk about is that of domestic violence and partner rape. Men are often in the habit of asking why women choose to stay in abusive relationships. It does not occur to them that the oft cited “prolonged loneliness being equivalent to 15 cigarettes a day” might be a factor, in addition to every other indirect isolating consequence like financial vulnerability and societal disapproval. There is some—albeit scarce—visibility given to the loneliness of women surrounded by men—outliers in white-collar jobs, visitors to segregated spaces, travelers on the street, migrants in phallic territory. But there is almost no structural cognizance taken of the loneliness of women trapped inside family spaces. Public policy takes note of the elderly who live on their own and who are lonely because they have no caregivers. But what about the loneliness of those deemed caretakers? What structural analysis of loneliness accounts for mothers trapped in a space where their predominant relationship is with an immature individual who provides no reciprocal caretaking? What public cost calculation is made regarding the loneliness of children across the world whose biological families have to leave them without adequate care in pursuit of subsistence-level employment? What health care is being provided to treat the loneliness on both sides of international remittance economies across the globe?

The other kind of structural loneliness—that of the erstwhile master—is a side effect of resistance and victory. Which is not to say that MRAs are justified in blaming their loneliness on feminists but rather that their alienation is a symptom of the malignant misogyny that feminism has finally been able to diagnose and quarantine for. The modern male urgency to calculate the economic burden of their loneliness is appropriated from the struggle to ensure men pay a fair price for the care work they need to alleviate it.

The beneficiaries of oppression—which is to say people in power—have no idea how to meet their social and emotional needs from equals, because they have had subordinates to fulfill them all along. Both in feudal systems of ownership and capitalist structures of employment, men have been set up to unfairly consume labor along the fault lines of caste, race, class, and gender. Social relationship structures have mirrored these systems of entitlement; the family, for example, as a patriarchal structure set up to meet the emotional and physical needs of the man without reciprocation. The great battles of the past few centuries against casteism, racism, classism, and capitalism, while still ongoing, have succeeded to a degree in denying entitled men the care work of enslaved labor. Similarly, as women and children acquire the financial, legal, and cultural ability to free themselves from abusive or simply unrewarding families, men lose captive labor.

The more obvious components of captive labor are caretaking: having someone meet your physical needs, feed your culinary and carnal appetites, provide sanitary and medical attention. But the emotional exploitation of captive labor is what those in power use as a palliative for loneliness. To be lonely is to feel unnoticed and unrecognized, and those in power exploit their position to demand attention: bitching about neighbors to their servants, venting about traffic to chauffeurs, yelling at PAs about stupid coworkers, bloviating about politics while someone else clears the dinner table, taking up space with knees and elbows on public transportation so others are forced to touch them, expecting a smile in addition to service. Still worse is the sordid ordinariness of externalizing violence in any form upon those more vulnerable, from demanding a smile from strangers on the street to sex tourism.

Patriarchy teaches men to alleviate their emotional needs through unequal relationships, rewarding the construction of toxic hierarchies in families, workspaces, and social arenas. When we start dismantling the inequalities between spouses, employees, and fellow citizens, the diminishing powerful have no skills to build relationships of mutual care work with equals. Their loneliness is a way station: a place to take stock in their investment in decolonization and come to terms with their complicity in oppression. Learning how to socialize as a way to survive begins young for women, for religious, racial, and ethnic minorities, for queer and trans people. What lonely entitled men are really asking for is to be cocooned from the life experiences that give other people the skills to survive loneliness.

It is imperative to resist the disproportionate foregrounding of cishet male loneliness because the structurally oppressed manifest their benign loneliness symptoms differently from those who suffer from the malignant disease of thwarted entitlement. Buried inside the lonely-men essays is the threat disguised as suggestion that we feel concern for Lonely Men because Lonely Men can turn violent. This is a red herring in much the same way that alcoholism is used as an excuse for male violence; the problem isn’t alcohol or loneliness but patriarchal masculinity. Meanwhile no surgeon general is declaring racism or misogyny to be an epidemic despite the increasing number of people literally being killed by men “suffering” from these states of mind. It takes a special kind of self-centeredness to be able to cite stats that show that marriage hurts women’s life expectancy and continue to advocate it as a solution to save lonely men instead of trying to fix the toxic husband syndrome that is killing women. Men who demand that women concern themselves with the problem of lonely men in order to ensure their own safety are issuing the same hackneyed threats that patriarchy entrenches—a disguised demand that women invest their energy in socializing boys, in dating men, in doing even more care work than we already do.

Looking at some of the funded programs tackling the “epidemic” it becomes clear that creating spaces where men can feel free to be misogynists is one of the effects of how men warp community responses to loneliness. The first Men’s Shed—a community space where mostly older men could get together to work with their hands and socialize—was set up in Australia in 1998 and by 2010 was receiving funding from the Australian government under its National Male Health Policy. (There are no Men’s Sheds for any of the men trapped in Australia’s detention centers for the crime of being refugees on a boat.) According to the U.K. Men’s Shed Association the rate of growth of Men’s Sheds is between six and nine new sheds a month. (The U.K. government is planning to remove domestic-abuse shelters from housing benefits. On average in England men kill two women a week.) Public policy approves of self-segregating spaces with “old-fashioned mateship and . . . no pressure” (a liability-free way to say “No Homo No Feminist Cooties”) where men can be cajoled and lured into being cared for. Meanwhile sex workers, drug users, and transgender people are more likely to be harassed and jailed by police than be provided with spaces where they can be gently encouraged to talk about their loneliness.

Even though there’s scientific evidence that older people’s brains benefit from learning “something that is unfamiliar, and which requires prolonged and active mental engagement as you cultivate a new set of behaviors,” none of the men saving men seem to think of teaching men feminism. Or noncompetitive dancing instead of walking football. Or even just how to talk face to face. (Women’s magazines have been filled with helpful tips on how to attract a man for decades; perhaps the forlorn gentlemen looking for companionship might start with those?) In spite of all the studies pointing out how aged women have better coping skills—and, therefore, health—than aged men, toxic masculinity has conspired to misrepresent the happy ending of crones, hags, and witches as a scary fairytale. No lonely men talk about parenting, or about helping their male parent friends socialize their male kids in a less toxic fashion. All of them turn for advice to psychologists and sociologist experts, none suggest taking relationship advice from the demographic they keep citing as doing it better—women.

Individual loneliness is a fickle, nebulous sensation. Like other emotions, it is deeply situational—it makes a difference whether you feel lonely because every time you walk down the street a slur is shouted at you or you feel lonely because the spouse you beat every third night has finally left you. As individuals we are not owed freedom from loneliness any more than we can demand love from those we want it from. But collectively we can recognize patterns of loneliness as symptoms of awful structural injustices. And we can use our loneliness as impetus to work toward systems that ethically meet our social and emotional needs. The way to help alleviate the loneliness of the oppressed is to continue to destroy oppressive structures and support organizing and resistance. The only way to ethically survive loneliness is to look at labor: to ask who performs care work for me, who I perform it for, what systems are viable and where I transmute being abandoned to resistance.

Men who demand empathy for their gendered fear of dying un-cared-for, unwanted, and unmourned without referencing feminism are acting in bad faith—they would like us to pretend there is no distinction between the solitary deaths of an abuser and an abused person. They would like gendered consoling while remaining indifferent to the deaths they, as a gender, are responsible for. They would like cosmetic cultural change while believing that emasculation is bad, as though it is horrible to change out of being a toxic oppressor. They would like us to care about men as men, when there are people—disabled, old, sick, poor, queer, migrant, discriminated-against PEOPLE—who are dying and are lonely. Those are the ones we should be focused on. If some of them happen to be men, well, let us try to not hold it against them.