In Defense of the Tough Guy

If you spend any amount of time with hardcore kids, especially vegan or politically active ones, you’ll hear the phrase “tough guy” thrown around a lot. If you aren’t at least somewhat involved in the hardcore punk scene, this might be somewhat confusing, partly because it might not necessarily be clear who these tough guys are, and why exactly everyone is so resentful of them.
Of course even someone who’s never listened to a single punk record can easily glean the meaning in a general sense. Everyone has dealt with aggravating hyper-masculine men in some context. In high school it might have been the athletes, in college it might have been the frat boys. The annoying alpha male knows no bounds, he’s everywhere.
But that vague sentiment doesn’t really do justice to what a phrase like “tough guy” means in the context of the hardcore scene. It’s not just a physical description, it’s not just an attitude or a behavioral pattern, it’s not just a philosophy. Those are all things that are easy to quantify and describe, but there is a tough guy aesthetic, tough guy melodies, tough guy rhythms, and tough guy musical intonations. You can tell a tough guy band by the sound, not just by looking at the dudes in the band or even their fans. One of the biggest “tough guy” bands a few years ago was made up of people weighing less than 150 pounds, who were some of the quietest, kindest people in their personal relationships. There’s more to “tough guy” than being a tough guy.
And as much as I agree with some of the criticism aimed at that particular brand of music, I love a lot of tough guy bands, and at times I’m pretty unabashed in my tough guy behavior.
I know that most people would think that the world has more than enough hyper-masculinity, violence, intolerance, and exaggerated alpha-male dominance rituals. But I think there’s something to be said for tough guys (even if they’re not such tough guys).
For example, the most common response I ever get when I talk to people about veganism is “I could never give up chicken/beef/cheese/eggs.” And my response is always the same, “yes you could.” Of course it annoys me to constantly hear negative feedback about what is a very important moral issue, but it also is like nails on a chalkboard to hear people openly admit their weakness without shame.
Always in that moment I feel like a tough guy. It might be the result of 13 years of listening to Hatebreed, Judge, and Earth Crisis, but I feel an appropriate amount of shame whenever I have to openly admit that I am afraid of something, or too weak to do something. Of course there’s a downside to that mindset, but I can never feel comfortable saying that I would never do something I know to be for the best simply because I am not strong enough to do it.
I encounter people constantly who “care about” animals or any number of issues who say that their own lack of willpower is what keeps them from changing their lifestyle or bad habits. “I know that cigarettes are bad for me, I know that they hurt the environment and that they test on animals, but I can’t bring myself to quit.” My inner tough guy is disgusted by statements like this.
As awful as it may seem, I do see weakness as something to be ashamed of. I speak from personal experience that the fear and shame of having to admit weakness has kept me from slipping up in some of my own commitments. Of course I’m not perfect in my commitments, and my tough guy attitude has sometimes gotten me into far more trouble than it’s been worth. But you lose out when you become too comfortable saying “I’m afraid, I’m weak.”
Maybe I’ve internalized too much of the tough guy rhetoric, but maybe other people haven’t internalized enough.
We’re all weak, we’re all afraid sometimes, but maybe if we were more ashamed of our flaws that shame might push us to not accept our shortcomings. We let our shame guide our decisions constantly, we’re made to feel bad about our belongings, so we live beyond our means, we’re made to feel bad about our bodies, so we diet and get gym memberships. There are tons of people benefiting from our insecurities, but if we were neurotically insecure about our own weakness, what would we become?