Is There Anything Good About Men?: How Cultures Flourish by Exploiting Men — Roy Baumeister

I would emphasize this, from Arnold Kling, about Is There Anything Good About Men?: How Cultures Flourish by Exploiting Men:

1. If you are a zero-tolerance reader (“I stopped reading on page 9, because he said X, which is obviously wrong, so I figured there was no point in going any further”), then don’t pick up this book. If you are going to finish it, you have to follow almost the complete opposite approach. “Even if a lot of this is wrong, what insights can I take away?”

And there are a lot of ideas per word and little wasted space, especially because Baumeister goes out of his way to avoid dogmatic thinking, which he says overtly:

This book is not about the “battle of the sexes.” I’m not trying to score points for men against women, or vice versa. I don’t think the “battle” approach is healthy. In fact, I think the idea that men and women are natural enemies who conspire deviously to exploit and oppress each other is one of the most misguided and harmful myths that is distorting our current views about men and women.

That being said, Is There Anything Good About Men? has an unfortunate title but many of those deep “insights” worth exploring—and perhaps an equally large amount of unsupported bullshit. It’s frustrating, for example, to see issues like one on page 54 of the hardcover edition, where Baumeister’s claims about sex drive differences between men and women have no citations to actual underlying research. Nonetheless, it’s hard to conclude that men don’t have, on average, a higher desire for sex more often and with more partners than women do; the very structure of dating markets points to this idea. He does cite work later in the book, but why not cite it when the issue is first raised?

But most of the ideas are implications are better; it’s hard to choose among his many observations to discuss in a short blog post, but here’s one I find intriguing; apologies for the length of the quote:

Mostly, men had recognized that dangerous jobs fall to them and, more important, that to be a man they have to accept them. Whether this will continue is not entirely clear. Today’s men are brought up on a rhetoric of equality, and at some point they may balk at letting women be exempted from certain unpleasant tasks.

Even more important, the psychological processes that enable men to do the dangerous jobs may be weakened. Men of past eras were famously out of touch with their feelings. Today’s men are brought up to be more like women, and that includes becoming more conversant with their own emotions. But might that undermine the ability to make themselves do what needs to be done?

To do the dirty or dangerous jobs, you have to put your feelings aside. Being a man in that sense meant that you focused on the task at hand. It meant others could count on you not to let your emotions interfere with getting the job done. One reason traditional societies put those jobs on men was that women might be too fearful or squeamish or tentative to do them. Traditional men weren’t supposed to admit to having such feelings. Yet nowadays we encourage young men to revel in their feelings. Having uncorked the emotional bottle, can we count on the men to stuff the feelings back inside and cork them away when we need them to do so?

The traditional male role has had definite privileges, but it also had duties and obligations. Our culture has come far along in doing away with those privileges. It has been slower about equalizing the duties and obligations. (to quote [Warren] Farrell once more, ‘Women have rights. Men have responsibilities.’) As we make men more like women and remove their traditional privileges, they may begin to object more strenuously to the duties and responsibilities. The obligations of fatherhood weigh far less on today’s man than on earlier generations, as indicated not least by the increasing numbers of men who abandon pregnant girlfriends or small children.

In other words, whatever the rhetoric that gender writers may espouse, when men and women face real problems and dangerous situations, men still tend to get the dirty and dangerous jobs. Equality is fine when it only means the good stuff, but when there’s a strange noise downstairs or coal mines to be stripped, guys still end up there. On the flipside, however, it may also be that society is evolving away from a space where men need not have feelings and toward one where men having feelings is more beneficial than it was in the past.

We may be seeing cultural evolution, live, even as people fight over whether it’s happening and, if it is, what it might mean. The “traditional male role” might be changing or evolving, and its supposed “privileges” or lack thereof too. See, for example, “Sex Is Cheap: Why young men have the upper hand in bed, even when they’re failing in life from Slate.com. Given the choice between coal mining and war or video games and babes in skirts, I suspect most men would rather get in touch with whatever their feelings might be and assume the latter.

You can see other examples of cultural evolution: I’ve been watching The Sopranos lately, and the tension between the “do what needs to be done” aspect and Tony’s supposed feelings and nostalgia for the maybe good-old-days, when men were men, makes The Sopranos intriguing: Tony continuously hearkens back to his father’s time, when men didn’t have (or at least show) feelings; by contrast, he’s being treated by a female therapist, who helps him explore repressed feelings that manifest themselves in dreams and panic attacks.

For whatever this passage might be worth, however, I don’t love the writing itself: vague mentions about “corking” and “uncorking” feelings among “the men” is too abstract for my taste: if this were a freshman’s paper, I’d write as much in the margins and encourage the writer to think about what, precisely, this means for individuals. Even if I know what it means, I can see reasons why it might help for men to uncork their feelings. Consider the experience of World War I, which shows the problems of men not being willing to express fear or tentativeness and willingly walking to their own deaths for no cause at all: that stupid, destructive, largely pointless war occurred in part because men were willing to let themselves be mass-brainwashed into walking into their own deaths for no reason, directed by ignoramuses who’d failed to realize that the nature of warfare had changed and that 19th Century infantry tactics will not merely fail, but fail spectacularly against 20th Century weaponry. So before we romanticize a lost era of male stoicism, let’s remember some of its costs, too, and the fact that turning off feelings and empathy may also allow men to do the many barbaric and cruel things men do.

There are other social changes, too: notice that the state is far more willing to pick up the slack for “pregnant girlfriends and small children,” which changes incentives for men and women; in addition, women appear to be much more willing to dump men who don’t suit their needs than they once might’ve. They write long articles that get turned into books like Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough that are all about female unwilligness to compromise. It’s also become much more obvious that women do not always tell the truth about fatherhood, and it’s hard to read articles like “How DNA Testing is Changing Fatherhood” and not realize what’s at stake:

Over the last decade, the number of paternity tests taken every year jumped 64 percent, to more than 400,000. That figure counts only a subset of tests — those that are admissible in court and thus require an unbiased tester and a documented chain of possession from test site to lab. Other tests are conducted by men who, like Mike, buy kits from the Internet or at the corner Rite Aid, swab the inside of their cheeks and that of their putative child’s and mail the samples to a lab. Of course, the men who take the tests already question their paternity, and for about 30 percent of them, their hunch is right.”

It’s possible in many states for a man who signs a child’s birth certificate to be responsible for paying that child’s mother for eighteen years even if that child isn’t his. That’s not an optimal way to encourage male responsibility or eagerness to support Baumeister’s pregnant girlfriends. But Baumeister doesn’t quite this far.

Nonetheless, his central insights about the sexes facing potential trade-offs that guide median preferences is fascinating and possibly true. Notice the language in the previous sentence: “trade-offs” and “median preferences,” rather than saying all people are this way or that way. From that one can extrapolate to current cultural conditions.

I would guess that Baumeister, like me, wants equal opportunities in all parts of life, but he would also point out that equal opportunities doesn’t mean people will want the same things. Men, in his viewing, are optimized towards risk taking; DNA analyses indicate that we’re descended from 40% of the men who ever lived but 80% of the women. Which means the median man died without reproducing and the median woman did. Which means the median man has an evolutionary incentive to take risks, given that his outcome if he lost the gamble was zero but so was his outcome if he didn’t take the gamble at all. Hence the hierarchies in all parts of life that men love to set up; Baumeister eventually says: “The pyramid of success is steep and cruel. Nature dooms most of the males to fail but impels each of them to try to be the one.”

I do not think most women appreciate that. Which isn’t to say most men appreciate what it’s like to experience female incentives, costs, and desires. One of the more unusual nonfiction books I’ve read attempts to do exactly that: Norah Vincent’s Self-Made Man, in which she (a lesbian in “real life,” for lack of a better term) dresses and goes about life as a man for about a year. Baumeister says:

One of the most interesting books about gender in recent years was by Norah Vincent. She was a lesbian feminist who with some expert help could pass for a man, and so she went undercover, living as a man in several different social spheres for the better part of a year. The book, Self-Made Man, is her memoir. She is quite frank that she started out thinking she was going to find out how great men have it and write a shocking feminist expose of the fine life that the enemy (men) was enjoying.

Instead, she experienced a rude awakening of how hard it is to be a man. Her readings and classes in Women’s Studies had not prepared her to realize that the ostensible advantages of the male role come at high cost. She was glad when it was over, and in fact she cut the episode short in order to go back to what she concluded was the greatly preferable life as a woman. The book she wrote was far different from the one she planned, and any woman who thinks life is better for men will find it a sobering read.

He goes on to say that men and women don’t have it “better” than each other per se; they have it different, and his book is, among other things, an attempt to explain why.

Baumeister also said something that, incidentally, reminded me of a potential weakness of the novel as a genre, and that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately: “If you consider the problems facing the world today (e.g., global warming, terrorism, pandemics), you can see that they are not likely to be handled by single persons—more likely by large and complex networks of organizations.” One problem for novels is that they focus on individuals and small groups; it’s very hard for a novel to address very large-scale issues save in the context of an individual or small group. Think of how Ian McEwan’s Solar uses Michael Beard and his foibles to discuss some of the technical challenges around global warming.

This may explain why many men prefer nonfiction to fiction: nonfiction is more easily dedicated to large, abstract ideas and organizations potentially involving thousands or millions of people. Fiction is intimate, self has more than a half dozen major characters, and often focuses on a single or small number of very intimate relationships. The fiction that men prefer on average—Elmore Leonard, murder mysteries, and so forth—often involve a single protagonist who is matching wits and brawn with a single antagonist or series of antagonists, which he must confront using an array of shallow connections to many people.

2 responses

  1. Your point about novels being an ill vehicle for a lot of large issues facing is well taken. I’m a mathematician (and a physicist and a biologist and a computer scientist, depending on the day of the week), and a novelist, and it’s something I’ve wrestled with. I am regularly drawn in by the drama of some technical subject, but after hanging it up to look at I can find an huge amounts of beautiful math, lots and lots of fascinating structure, but nary a novel–or even a short story–that doesn’t entirely miss the point.

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    • Frederick—thanks for your comment. It seems like the only way to deal with “society-wide” issues is to embody them in an individual or small group; this loses some of the problem’s scope but still feels like a novel; this is how Ian McEwan talks somewhat about global climate change in Solar. I’m sure there are others, but they’re less obvious and don’t come to mind as readily. Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams, maybe, but that’s not as clearly about large-scale, global forces.

      I know Stanislaw Lem wrote a couple SF novels written mostly in press releases, nonfiction “reports” and the like that he thinks deals better with large-scale issues, but I’m not sure they succeed real well as novels.

      If you’re interested in reading novels about technical subjects and/or people, BTW, take a look at David Leavitt’s The Indian Clerk, which is about Hardy’s relationship with Ramanujan.

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