Rational and Irrational Masculinity

The Cohn journal article makes two main claims about “technostrategic” language. First, a lot about the language, such as its abstraction, serve to distance nuclear decision-makers from the human costs of nuclear attacks. Second, although nuclear decision-makers associate their “technostrategic” language with “cool-headed objectivity”, it contains sexual and masculine undertones and can hardly be called objective. I largely agree with Cohn’s ideas about the existence of distancing mechanisms in the language and how they can lead to the devaluation of human lives, but I believe that there are important attributes of these distancing mechanisms that cannot be easily dismissed.

President Trump’s “my button is bigger than yours” Twitter feud with Kim Jong Un raises concerns about the potentially disastrous effects of masculine impulse. Masculine impulses such as sexual domination could lead countries to take overly aggressive or confrontational stances, and the thirst for power could lead a country to build up a lot more arms than necessary. I would hardly consider that rational behavior and structural controls have to be put in place to prevent important decisions from being driven by such impulses. A possible control measure could be the Markey-Lieu Bill which prevents Trump, and his rampant masculine impulses, from employing nuclear weapons unless Congress has declared war and provided authorization for their use.

However, I believe that there are aspects of nuclear decision-making that demand the exhibition of masculine qualities like emotional detachment, rationality and the ability to be unswayed by “soft” concerns” like human costs. The distancing mechanisms in “technostrategic” language facilitate this by alienating nuclear decision-makers from the human costs of their actions and are hence, in some ways, necessary. At the levels of government where incredibly difficult decisions on whether or not to initiate a nuclear strike are made, it seems almost necessary to have distancing mechanisms. Having to contemplate the thousands of lives that could be lost as a result of a decision would be so emotionally overwhelming to decision-makers that they could be paralyzed from being able to make any kind of decision at all, or suffer a complete emotional collapse. In nuclear-decision making, impossible decisions might have to be made, like having to kill thousands of people in another country to protect one’s own. Distancing mechanisms ensure that a decision can be made while preserving the sanity of the decision maker.

Moreover, from an international relations perspective, the possession of masculine qualities by nuclear decision-makers can be advantageous. The world would certainly be a more peaceful place if every nuclear decision-maker prioritized human costs, but there would always be an incentive for a country to detach itself from the human costs of nuclear strategy so as to gain a strategic advantage (a similar situation to nuclear proliferation). A country that portrays itself to be unswayed by human costs would be able to more easily extract concessions out of the other countries that do. One reason why North Korea has so much bargaining power with the US is that the US fears the human costs of a nuclear attack a lot more than North Korea. Masculine detachment from human costs simply makes it harder for a country to be taken advantage of and improves its diplomatic position.

Do you think distancing mechanisms in “technostrategic” language, as well as the association of masculine qualities with nuclear decision-making do more harm than good? In other words, if a country were able to unilaterally reform itself so that human costs became a far more prominent aspect of its nuclear-decision making process, would it be better or worst off in its international relations? — William