Basket-Brawls, The Irritable Male Syndrome, and the End of Civilization - I

Night after night on every news and sports report we were bombarded with images. Ben Wallace of the Detroit Pistons shoving Indiana Pacer’s Ron Artest. Players from both teams throwing punches.

Artest charging into the stands after a fan who had thrown a cup of beer on him. Steven Jackson and Jermaine O’Neal assaulting fans who came on the court. Players being spit on and dowsed with beer and soft drinks as they left the arena. Males, all males, with fists raised and aggressive eyes looking for a fight.

Everyone wants to know what’s going on here?” Are these symptoms of individual rage or a rip in the fabric of civilized society? Is the problem with sports or with the larger community? There was a time when even continued stress and resentment wouldn't have caused the kind of ugliness that was seen at the Palace of Auburn Hills, when it wouldn't have occurred to fans to attack players, and players would have suppressed their anger when taunted by angry fans. That was before the standards for acceptable behavior changed, before it was common for guys to issue obscene gestures to opposing players, before we began chanting "Bull----!" when a referee makes a call we don't like.

Violence has always been a part of sports, but it seems to be escalating and changing character. I notice a kind of desperation among the coaches, players, and fans. These don’t seem to be manly men with excessive testosterone flowing, but rather frightened men who act like they are fighting for their lives. Rather than sleek panther’s hunting for the next kill that will feed their families, they act more like starving, garbage-dump mongrels, attacking each other over a dried out chicken bone with a little gristle left on it.

Irritable Male Syndrome

We see this kind of impotent rage all around us and we’re not just talking about sports.

We flip each other off in the car more often, fire off angry e-mails, and yell at our wives and children. What’s going on here? After 40 year’s of clinical experience and results from a research study with nearly 10,000 males, we have discovered a new problem affecting millions of men and those closest to them. It’s called The Irritable Male Syndrome or IMS. IMS can be defined as a state of hypersensitivity, anxiety, frustration, and anger that occurs in males and is associated with biochemical changes, hormonal fluctuations, stress, and loss of male identity.

“IMS is incredibly common—up to 30 percent of men experience it,” says Christopher Steidle, M.D., clinical associate professor of urology at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis. Based on the results of our survey of males between the ages of 10 and 75, Dr. Steidle may be underestimating the problem. 91% of the males surveyed said they experienced some degree of irritability within the past 2 weeks. 40% said they were often or nearly always irritable. From the locker-room to the bedroom, our relationships are becoming increasingly mean and nasty. You can see if you or someone you care about is suffering from IMS by visiting our website at

One woman described what it is like living with an IMS male. “It’s like being tied to a primed stick of dynamite. One minute he is sweet and kind and the next he is evil, angry, and mean. He can get so angry over nothing. Sometimes just saying ‘good morning’ sets him off. At other times he gets angry if I don't say ‘good morning’. I never know where I stand. It feels like I’m living with a rabid dog one minute and a priest the next. I never know who he is from second to second.”

A married man describes his situation this way. “I’m sure I’m not the only man who feels like he’s not having sex with his wife. She just doesn’t seem very interested no matter how romantic I try and be. But it isn’t just sexual attention that I miss, it’s just plain attention, admiration, and praise. I don’t have to be her knight in shining armor, but I would like to feel that I’m special. She doesn’t seem to need me and rarely do I feel she really wants me. There’s a rage that is building in me that is frightening. I worry that I might hurt my wife and family. Sometimes I think the best way to protect them would be for me to check out.”

Irritable Male Syndrome and Low Testosterone

Kay Redfield Jamison, Ph.D., is professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and one of the world’s experts on mood disorders. In her exceptionally fine book An Unquiet Mind, she talks openly about her own struggles with mental illness and her road to recovery. She offers a description of her personal experience that many who suffer from IMS will readily understand:

“You’re irritable and paranoid and humorless and lifeless and critical and demanding, and no reassurance is ever enough. You’re frightened, and you’re frightening, and ‘you’re not at all like yourself but will be soon,’ but you know you won’t.” Jamison correctly recognizes the relationship between fear that is evoked in others by violent behavior and the fear that is occurring inside the person who is angry and aggressive.

Over the years I have treated violent men, I have come to see that underneath their anger and aggression is fear of losing what is most precious to them—their feelings of self-esteem and manhood. For men, a key contributor to our maleness is the testosterone that circulates through our blood stream. Theresa Crenshaw, M.D., author of The Alchemy of Love and Lust calls testosterone, the “young Marlon Brando” hormone. “It is sexual, sensual, alluring, dark, with a dangerous undertone.” She goes on to say that “it is also our ‘warmon,’ triggering aggression, competitiveness, and even violence. Testy is a fitting term.”

The image of football players working themselves up before a game so they can be monsters on the field is a strong one. I remember seeing pictures of defensive linemen beating their heads against their lockers to get ready to “kill the quarterback.” You can almost feel the testosterone rising. Many football players, as well body builders and other sports figures who want bigger muscles and more strength, have taken large doses of testosterone-like steroids to artificially pump themselves up. “Roid-rage”, though more media hype that reality, can occur to some men who dose themselves with too much testosterone.

However, what few realized until recently was that irritability, anger, and violence could result from too little testosterone as well as too much. In early 2002, a colleague sent me a copy of an article by Dr. Gerald A. Lincoln, a researcher in Edinburgh, Scotland. In the article he titled the irritable male syndrome, he described what he observed in the animals following the withdrawal of testosterone.

In the introduction to his paper he said that the “irritability-anxiety-depression syndromes associated with withdrawal of sex steroid hormones are well recognized in the female.” They are, he noted, connected with changes associated with the ovarian cycle and include premenstrual syndrome, postnatal depression, and menopause. “The occurrence of a potentially similar behavioral syndrome in males following withdrawal of testosterone (T) has received less attention.

In my previous research on andropause, or male menopause, I observed these same symptoms in men when their testosterone levels dropped as they got older. I found that many men became nervous, depressed, fatigued, irritable, and lost sexual function. It’s clear that violence can result when we try to keep testosterone levels artificially high or when they fall below healthy levels.

Disrespect, Paranoia and Violence

We can learn a great deal about what causes violence in our world by talking to the most violent men who are locked up in our prisons. I worked with many of these men over the years. It took a long time for them to overcome their understandable distrust of others, but I learned some surprising things about how they saw themselves and the world. Men I saw in prison said they felt like robots or zombies, that they felt empty inside. Although they never voiced it, they seemed terrified that others would find out that they were literally straw men, easily blown away. To counter their feelings of impotence and inadequacy many would bulk up their bodies and fight anyone who showed any signs of disrespect.

James Gilligan, M.D., author of Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic and Its Causes, says “the word ‘disrespect’ is so central in the vocabulary, moral value system and psychodynamics of these chronically violent men that they have abbreviated it into the slang term, ‘he dis’ed me.’”

We can begin to understand the relationship between the need for self-respect and violence by listening to the words of some of the inmates that Gilligan interviewed. When asked about his behavior in prison that put his life at risk one inmate replied, “Death is a positive in this situation not a negative, because I’m so tired of all this bullshit that death seems thrilling by comparison…. I don’t have any feelings or wants, but I’ve got to have my self-respect, and I’ve declared war on the whole world till I get it!”

In summing up over 30 year’s experience working with violent men Gilligan concluded, “I have yet to see a serious act of violence that was not provoked by the experience of feeling shamed and humiliated, disrespected and ridiculed, and that did not represent the attempt to prevent or undo this ‘loss of face’—no matter how severe the punishment, even if it includes death.”

African-Americans have had to fight hard over the years to develop and maintain self respect in a country that is still quite racist. There is clearly a racial element in the taunts and badmouthing that goes on as basketball fans demonstrate their displeasure at the behavior of the players. It wasn’t just a “fan” that threw beer on a basketball “player.” It was a white man expressing his rage and contempt for a black man. This shouldn’t surprise us in a sport where 85% of the players are black men making millions of dollars and 90% of the fans are white working-class men.


The Destruction of the Twin Towers, The War in Iraq, and the Torture at Abu Ghraib

With humor, and more than a little insight, comedian Elayne Boosler says, “When women are depressed, they either eat or go shopping. Men invade another country.” One of the recurring images that is burned into the mind of every American is seeing the planes crash into each of the Twin Towers, men and women jumping to their deaths, and the Towers collapsing into rubble. Symbols and images shape our reality and can propel our actions.

Many have given their interpretations of the symbolic meaning of what occurred on September 11, 2001 and its implication for our future. I offer my own. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center as phallic symbols. Their size and shape say something about male imagery. At the time of their completion in 1973, the World Trade Center towers were the two tallest buildings in the world. The Towers were also symbols of the all-American male businessman, the biggest economy in the most prosperous country on the face of the planet.

Symbolically, the destruction of the phallic towers represents the destruction of the power of traditional masculinity. Men of my generation were taught that a man must be:

  • Physically strong
  • Cool and stoic
  • Economically powerful
  • Aggressive
  • Outspoken
  • Rugged
  • Tough
  • Protective
  • Logical
  • Responsible
  • Dominant
  • “Not a woman”

This last trait was the one most males fight against their whole lives. Much of our social discomfort with homosexuality is male fear of being seen as “less than manly.” When I was growing up, the worst thing you could say about a guy was to accuse him of acting like a “girl.” Anything feminine was to be shunned and males were taught that a man must not be:

  • Soft
  • Passive
  • Receptive
  • Apologetic
  • Giving
  • Feeling
  • Nurturing
  • Caring

Although most women have shed the demands that they act like ladies and avoid being seen as “masculine,” this has been more difficult for males. The term “tom boy” does not have nearly the negative connotation that is attached to the word “sissy.” When our phallic Towers went down, core symbols of traditional masculinity went with them. Traditional males with insecure egos felt they must regain their manhood at any cost.

There are many reasons we chose to go to war in Iraq, not the least of which was to control the last easily available oil reserves on the planet. A less obvious reason is that we are trying to recapture our lost manhood. The words of the prison inmate I referred to earlier makes me think of our President. “I’ve got to have my self-respect, and I’ve declared war on the whole world till I get it!” The problem is that there are a lot of men like the President and manhood will never be found fighting an endless war against shadowy enemies. The enemy is within, not in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, or North Korea.

Just as children who have been abused, shamed, and humiliated often perpetuate the abuse when they become adults, leaders who feel emasculated often abuse other innocents. This is what happened in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The government did everything it could to cover up what happened, until the pictures started to come out. We were shocked to see our young soldiers smiling and giving the thumbs up as prisoners were tortured. We were horrified to see men with hoods over their heads and electrodes attached to their bodies. We couldn’t believe these actions were being carried out by our own government.

In the era of Saddam Hussein, Abu Ghraib, twenty miles west of Baghdad, was one of the world’s most deadly prisons. Torture was common, executions occurred, and detainees were forced to live in vile conditions. Although we never found the weapons of mass destruction that we were told was the reason for the war, the President told us it was good we invaded Iraq. We needed to get rid of Saddam Hussein because of the horrible deeds he committed.

Now we were finding out that our own leaders were giving the orders to commit unspeakable acts. In his book, Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib, Pulitizer Prize winning author Seymour M. Hersh reported the findings of Major General Antonio M. Taguba who had been sent to the prison to find out what had happened. Hersh was able to get a copy of the fifty-three-page report that was not meant for public release.

Taguba found that between October and December 2003 there were numerous instances of “sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses” at Abu Ghraib. Some of the abuse was obviously sexual in nature and meant to degrade and humiliate the Iraqi prisoners. Taguba’s report listed some of these acts:

Pouring cold water on naked detainees; threatening male detainees with rape; sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light and perhaps a broom stick; forcing men to masturbate in front of each other; forcing men to lie naked on each other. Such dehumanization is horrible in any culture, but it is especially so in the Arab world. Homosexual acts are against Islamic law, and it is humiliating for men to be naked in front of other men. According to Bernard Haykel, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at New York University, “Being put on top of each other and forced to masturbate, being naked in front of each other—it’s all a form of torture.”

When the phallic Towers fell, the leading male of America had to make someone pay. The fact that he was re-elected suggests to me that many other men in America also felt a loss of male identity and sought to reclaim it by making other men feel the same humiliation we felt. When will it end? Who will stop the cycle of abuse?

The Future of the Masculine Principle and the Future of the World

“When ecologists find a predictable life-span of a generation separating us from total extinction, it would seem that we have a duty to search for another interpretation of mankind’s life story.” These are the words of Vine Deloria, Jr., from his book God is Red. Deloria is a leading Native American scholar, whose research, writings, and teaching have encompassed history, law, religious studies, and political science. He is the former executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, a retired professor of political science at the University of Arizona, and a retired professor emeritus of history at the University of Colorado.

So, what is the dominant interpretation of mankind’s story? Daniel Quinn, in his book, Ishmael, describes the story this way. “We learned it in school. We learned it in church. We’d know it even if we never went to school or to church, because every news story, every magazine article, every book is written as part of that story. It is written with that story as background. You could learn it just watching television commercials. The story is about the conquest of the world. It’s about man gaining control over his environment. It’s about man rising above nature and mastering it as a workman masters a tool. It’s about man reshaping the earth to his own purposes.”

It’s a story dominated by an elite group of white male leaders who are guided by their interpretation of the directions they receive from a white male god. It’s a story that has been with us for nearly 10,000 years. It’s also a story, as Deloria suggests, that is leading us down a path of extinction. Quinn offers an image about our dogged acceptance of this story and its ultimate end. He described a man who felt he had discovered the secrets of flight. He climbed up to the top of the highest building in the world. Perhaps it was one of the Towers. He jumps from the top and begins flapping his arms. As he passes the 50th floor on his way down, he smiles and says to himself, “So far, so good.”

People who are willing to see the truth of our situation recognize that industrial civilization is not sustainable. It never was. We will find a new way to exist on the planet or we will die. It’s that simple. Our current “wars on terror” are like fighting over deck chairs on the Titanic. They are our addictions to keep us from thinking the unthinkable, that the ship of civilization is sinking.

Like the Titanic, civilization was supposed to be the biggest and best there ever was. The bad news is that what we call civilization is coming to an end. The good news is that there is something better on the other side. Daniel Quinn is one of many visionaries who is beginning to help us see what that might look like. In his book, Beyond Civilization: Humanity’s Next Great Adventure, he offers a number of guidelines. One which ties well with Deloria and many others who have come to recognize the wisdom of indigenous people throughout the world is the need to abandon the hierarchy that is the cornerstone of civilization and return to the egalitarian network that is at the heart of tribal living. We were born into the tribe and it is the tribe to which we must return.

“The tribal life and no other is the gift of natural selection to humanity,” says Quinn. It is to humanity what pack life is to wolves, pod life is to whales, and hive life is to bees. After three or four million years of human evolution, it alone emerged as the social organization that works for people. People like the tribal organization because it works equally well for all members.”

Trying to live the hierarchical life of civilization has had as much long term success as bees trying to live like whales. It’s only our big brains and ability to adapt to the most horrendous conditions that has kept us from recognizing the futility of trying to live a kind of life that humans are not built to endure.

What we are seeing is an old way of life that was never sustainable going down like the Twin Towers. Some will do anything they can to keep that way of life alive. They are heavily invested in its succeeding. These people will lie, cheat, steal, and kill. They’ll do anything except admit that there is a better way to live. Others will get off the Titanic, get into small boats of their own, link in with other like-minded people, and will go back to the future—back to the tribal way of life that is our human birthright. The bad news is that we have been living out of harmony with nature for eight or ten thousand years. The good news is that we all lived in harmony with nature for three or four million years before that and there are pockets of people throughout the world who still remember the old ways. We live in interesting times. Let’s get busy. We have a lot to do and it’s going to be great fun doing it.

©2010 Jed Diamond

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Jed Diamond is the internationally best-selling author of nine books including Male Menopause, The Irritable Male Syndrome: Managing. The 4 Key Causes of Depression and Aggression. and Mr. Mean: Saving Your Relationship from the Irritable Male Syndrome. His upcoming book, Tapping Power: A Man’s Guide to Eliminating Pain, Stress, Anger, Depression and Other Ills Using the Revolutionary Tools of Energy Psychology will be available next year. For over 38 years he has been a leader in the field of men's health. He is a member of the International Scientific Board of the World Congress on Men’s Health and has been on the Board of Advisors of the Men’s Health Network since its founding in 1992. His work has been featured in major newspapers throughout the United States including the New York Times, Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, and USA Today. He has been featured on more than 1,000 radio and T.V. programs including The View with Barbara Walters, Good Morning America, Inside Edition, CBS, NBC, and Fox News, To Tell the Truth, Extra, Leeza, Geraldo, and Joan Rivers. He also did a nationally televised special on Male Menopause for PBS. He looks forward to your feedback. E-Mail. You can visit his website at

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