Because of threats, intimidation, and a family bereavement, scheduled International Conference on Men’s Issues speaker Paul Nathanson was unable to attend. He has graciously allowed us to publish his thoughts. Paul has our gratitude and our compassion in this difficult time. —the Editors
My colleague in research on men is Katherine Young. She is not here today, at least not in corporeal form, but we have collaborated on all five volumes in a series of books on misandry—that is, the sexist counterpart of misogyny. When I say “I,” therefore, I usually mean “we.” Her interest in men emerged from her research on women in India, finding that she could not see the gender norms of one sex adequately without also seeing those of the other. What she needed was “stereoscopic” vision. My interest in men emerged from personal experience as a gay man. But both of us are academics in religious studies, or comparative religion, a field that includes comparative ethics. I rely primarily, though not entirely, on the latter.
Ten or eleven years ago, a journalist interviewed me about misandry for an article on the troubled relations between men and women. But first she told me that not all of her friends, some men and some women, were eager to read her findings. Why, they asked, would anyone be preoccupied today with sexual polarization? The culture wars, they said, were over. Women had made great gains in the world of work. Men were spending more time on household chores. Feminism had done its job, right? Well, I thought, guess what? They were wrong. But they were not wrong for the supposedly obvious reason: that women remain unequal to men in various ways, which means that feminism had yet to complete its job. They were wrong, I suggest, for two other reasons—two intellectual and moral mistakes.
One of these mistakes originated, as Christina Hoff Sommers noted in the title of her most famous book, when extremists “stole” the movement from egalitarians. I would add a particular aspect of the historical context. What had begun in the 1960s as an egalitarian movement had turned by the 1980s into an ideological one. In other words, this change of direction had a slightly earlier prototype: the transition from the civil rights movement to the Black power movement. Both led from liberal politics to identity politics. Not everyone has embraced these transformations, by any means, but those who do tend to be those with great influence in the public square—especially academics, who have produced what they call “engaged scholarship.” This is not the place to explore the larger context of postmodernism in detail, but I will note one ironic anomaly. Postmodernists claim to “expose” or “subvert” all cultural biases, but they actually provide a protective umbrella for the cultural biases that they consider legitimate. And these biases usually coincide with those of some ideology. Young and I have adopted a working definition of ideology: a worldview that relies on a systematic representation of reality in order to attain social, political, and economic goals. More specifically, we have outlined eight of its characteristic features. Among these is dualism: a worldview that sees all of history as a titanic conspiracy of “them” to oppress “us.” Another is the fact that ideologies can function as “secular religions,” fundamentalist ones, of both the political right and the political left.
At the risk of generalization, I suggest that postmodernism rejects the notion of objective truth and therefore of the need even to seek it. Rather, we should focus on “deconstructing” the illusions of all those who pretend to seek it. The result has been to legitimate the notion that scholarship amounts to nothing other than a profoundly cynical—but selectively cynical—battle between “our truth” and “their truth.” Every group has its own truth, its own story of collective victimization. And what we call “ideological feminism” (as distinct from egalitarian feminism) is no exception. Many or most feminists claim to know nothing of ideological feminism; for them, feminism is about sexual equality, not about some eternal urge men to oppress women. Other feminists are aware of the ideological approach and even stay away from it themselves but nonetheless end up condoning it among others for “pushing the envelope” and therefore expanding possibilities for women.
The second mistake of feminists originated in their assumption that men have such godly power, such complete “hegemony,” that nothing can possibly harm them. From that initial premise, it would seem to follow that women can say whatever they like about men without worrying about the consequences for men—and thus, ultimately, for their own sons, for society as a whole, and even for themselves. But we have ample evidence from social scientists that most boys and men are not, by definition, alpha males. They are indeed vulnerable to social and political forces that either ignore them or attack them. I could discuss one or more of the problems that boys and men encounter in American society. Their suicide rates and school dropout rates far exceed those of girls and women, for instance, and they are the victims of violence far more often than girls and women (although you’d never know that by hearing or reading only about “violence against women”). But discussing this double standard would distract me from my primary concern: the use of what Young and I call “comparative suffering” (to promote what we call the “mobilization of resentment”).
The best way for me to introduce “comparative suffering” is to describe another interview. A few months ago, I was asked to discuss the problems of men on a Canadian radio station. I was prepared to define misandry and discuss various aspects of it, but I never got an opportunity to do so. The interviewer asked me immediately why anyone would take seriously the idea that men had any problems, let alone that they were oppressed. To say the very least, she added, no problems that “men” might have could ever amount to very much when compared with those of women. Women still earn 73 cents on the dollar, she added, and still hold only a few positions of political power. Men do not have those problems. Nor do they have even comparable problems. Instead of allowing me to discuss misandry, therefore, she made sure that I could discuss only misogyny. I had to defend the very idea of concern for men. And I had only six minutes to do even that.
I could have answered much more effectively the question about women still earning less money than men do. To do that, and thus present a counter-intuitive argument, I would have had to rely on some academic language. (Even some members of my own family bristle at the very idea that I am an academic.) The usual statistic cited is that women earn approximately three-quarters (“seventy-three cents on the dollar”) of what men earn. Millions of people (including many men) interpret this to mean that every woman earns only three-quarters of what any man would earn at the same job. But the figure is an aggregate number. It includes the staggering salaries of a few alpha males, a fact that skews the total earnings of men upward considerably. Moreover, it includes the many women who work part-time, a fact that skews the total earnings of women downward considerably. In addition, it omits the fact that younger women really do earn as much as the male counterparts because they have the necessary graduate degrees, specialized training, and so on. Finally, it omits the fact that boys and young men are dropping out of school at an alarming rate, which means that they will become an economic underclass and earn considerably less than women.
I could have added that, even though more men than women go into politics and therefore dominate legislatures, we need to credit women with the ability to make choices. Not all women want to be mothers, sure, but not all women want to be politicians. More women than ever before are becoming politicians, nonetheless, and maybe they will eventually be just as common or more common than men in legislatures. Whether this would improve our lives is another matter. I am not convinced that sex or any other innate feature (such as race) makes some politicians better than others. Nor am I convinced that female politicians are necessarily better for women than male politicians are. (Remember Sarah Palin?) In any case, I am not convinced that men cannot be trusted to take the needs and problems of women seriously and therefore to represent women fairly. That is too cynical for me. And if that were the case, then people of neither sex could represent the other. We would need two legislative assemblies, one for men and the other for women. This would be a very disturbing sign of social fragmentation and polarization.
I could have mentioned that the male suicide rate is much, much higher than the female rate. It is true that more women than men attempt suicide, but this requires an explanation. Many more women attempt suicide because of a need to solicit help, not because of a real desire to end their lives. Why do men mean business when they attempt suicide? If they are so happy with all of their godlike power, why are they ready to kill themselves (and sometimes others as well)? And why is society so intent on ignoring the sexual differential that many newspaper reports on suicide rates fail even to mention it? Could it be the result of a double standard: when women attempt suicide, it’s because they are victimized and therefore deserve sympathy; when men do (and often succeed), it is because they are violent and therefore deserve no sympathy? For that matter, why do we hear so little about research on the disturbing fact that women in advanced industrial societies outlive men by as much as seven or eight years?
I could have mentioned some legal problems of men, legal measures that discriminate against men in cases of not only of domestic violence, sexual harassment, or military service but also of divorce and custody. I am convinced that most young men would never marry women or even live with women, let alone have children with women, if they actually knew that the legal deck is stacked against men, heavily, in connection with divorce and custody.
I could have noted that those feminists (including male feminists) who are indifferent to the problems of the grown men in their lives should at least consider those of their own sons or grandsons, who live or will soon live in a world that is anything but “patriarchal.” These problems (let alone their inability to create a healthy collective identity) affect boys and men directly. As a result, more than a few become cynical enough to abandon or even attack a society that has no room for them except in prisons—that is, refuses to take them seriously as people.
I could have explained that the children who bullied me in school included both boys and girls in roughly equal numbers. This, too, caused me to wonder about the difference between sex (maleness or femaleness) and gender (masculinity of femininity). Even I believed that girls were nicer than boys—despite evidence to the contrary that I encountered in my own daily life.
I could have mentioned that inter-sexual dialogue lies at the heart of my research with Katherine Young. And that dialogue is not a euphemism for debate. Debate is about winners and losers, which is why it can be useful in contexts such as the courtroom or the classroom (unless it devolves into two sides ranting at each other). Dialogue is about reconciliation, however, through carefully cultivated empathy or compassion.
I could have added that ideological feminists refuse to acknowledge their own misandry, and even some egalitarian feminists are motivated by political expediency to condone the misandric fallout from ideological feminism. Those who do not simply deny the existence of misandry, for instance, often try to excuse it as nothing more than men getting their comeuppance. But this is revenge, not justice (which does not mean much unless it entails reconciliation). This explains the importance that I attach to the specifically moral dimension of misandry and therefore to the need for inter-sexual dialogue. Whether you define misandry as “hatred” or “contempt,” which is how I do define it, or as something that sounds milder and less provocative, it refers to an inherently evil phenomenon. (It is one of the very few; even killing, after all, is justifiable in some circumstances.) In short, two wrongs do not make a right.
But I should have taken the initiative right from the get-go, however, by ignoring her agenda and referring to what troubled me most of all about my interview: the utter lack of moral reasoning in my interviewer (or at least in her assumptions, probably correct ones, about the audience). No society worth living in can endure if its citizens are either unwilling or unable to acknowledge fundamental moral questions. Given the fact that I had to defend the whole idea of concern for one group of human beings, let alone the notion that we should treat others as we would want them to treat us, I would say that we are entering a new dark age.
By “comparative suffering,” in short, I mean competitive suffering: a contest in which the suffering of one group should take precedence, especially when it comes to legislation and public policy, over that of another. Both women and men can play this game. Until very recently, though, men have seldom done so, at least not publicly, for fear of ridicule. This has allowed women to convince even some men, at least the alpha males among them, to ignore the ways in which society makes men disadvantaged. (I will say more about that in due course.) By now, public rhetoric assumes the priority of breaking down every barrier to “women’s equality” (although that nonsensical but revealing slogan is not quite the same thing as the “equality of women and men”). Whichever group indulges in this game, it encourages members to make extremely heavy emotional investments in winning. Being a victim, at least in the past, has become a primary marker of both personal and collective identity not only for women but also for many other groups. Any challenge to their identity as victims simultaneously challenges assumptions about those who victimized them, of course, and thus brings the conversation to an end. To make my point about men and women, which is almost impossible to discuss without evoking heated and defensive rhetoric, I refer now to one analogy from my own experience.
I grew up in a Jewish home and went to a Jewish day school. At school, during the 1950s, we learned not only about our history as victims of persecution in general but also about the Nazi “holocaust” in particular. And yet my teachers presented the persecution of Jews as one historical pattern but by no means the only one in Jewish history. They encouraged me to form a strong Jewish identity by emphasizing the achievements of Jews, not the suffering of Jews. During the 1960s, though, this approach began to change. Those who had experienced the death camps were no longer eager to “forget” about their suffering in order to get on with their lives; they were beginning to realize that both their children and the world needed to remember what had happened. But it took the publication of a highly controversial book, Richard Rubenstein’s After Auschwitz, to catalyze discussion. Rubenstein argued that belief in the God of history, who intervenes to reward the righteous and punish the wicked, was no longer tenable after the death camps. Assuming that divine intervention is the only kind of religion that monotheism can support (which was a false assumption), he argued that Jews should reject monotheism and find their way back to polytheism. Not many American Jews cared about Rubenstein’s theology or any other version of Jewish theology, but they did care about Jewish identity at a time of rapid assimilation into American society. Many began to see themselves as archetypal victims and even to replace Judaism itself with what amounts to “Holocaustism.” But being archetypal victims is hardly attractive in itself, even among those who believe that it confers some kind of moral superiority. Being victims would never have become an enduring focus of Jewish identity, therefore, had it not been for the reverse pattern, the antidote to despair: being heroes in the re-establishment of a Jewish state. Emil Fackenheim crystallized or legitimated this way of thinking in a book that proclaimed collective survival as a divine commandment that equaled or even superseded the commandments that Moses had received on Mount Sinai. This reversed the paradigm of Judaism. Earlier, the Jewish people had been a means to the greater end of perpetuating Torah. Now, Torah was one means (among many) to the greater end of perpetuating the Jewish people. Jews began to replace Judaism not only with Holocaustism, therefore, but also with Israelism (which goes way, way beyond patriotism or vicarious patriotism).
To maintain their own identity as archetypal victims, at any rate, some Jews feel a subconscious need to diminish the victimization of other groups (although Jews are hardly the only Americans who resort to identity politics). Since the 1960s, at any rate, Jewish Americans and Black Americans have competed with each other and with many other groups for a coveted status: the world’s most victimized group among Jewish Americans and the nation’s most victimized group among Black Americans. Who suffered more, then, Jews under 12 horrific years of Nazi genocide and periodic persecution in earlier times or Black Americans under three horrific centuries of slavery, segregation, and lynching? Anyone who even feels a need even to answer this question, I suggest, has failed to understand that, apart from any other problem, its initial premise is gravely flawed.
The initial premise is that we can compare suffering effectively, a very dubious assertion. It is true that we can do so in connection with identical or very similar forms of suffering. An ordinary headache due to stress and one that is due to a brain tumor are both medical problems, but the former is usually less painful and always much less serious than the latter. Even this kind of comparison works only at a very superficial level, though, because people always experience suffering in connection with both subjectivity and cultural expectations. Two patients who suffer from the same form of cancer, for instance, might not actually suffer to the same degree. Some cultures condition people to ignore pain, after all, or at least not to complain about it. Some people have higher pain thresholds, moreover, than other people. In any case, we have no reliable way of measuring pain for comparative purposes.
More important, though, is the fact that people can suffer in very different ways. It makes no moral sense at all to argue that being an inmate of some concentration camp was either harder or easier than being a slave on some plantation—not unless you compare death in a concentration camp with survival on a plantation. With this in mind, we should be able to conclude, simply, that both groups have suffered historically from severe dehumanization (at the very least). The question of degree is irrelevant for moral purposes, I suggest, though clearly not for political purposes. But not all Black Americans or Jewish Americans use historic suffering, in itself, as an excuse for making political demands. Rather, they use current suffering. For many Black Americans, this could mean continuing to lack economic opportunities due to continuing racial prejudice against them. For many Jewish Americans, it could mean continuing to endure existential threats in Middle Eastern and some other countries due to continuing racial or religious prejudice against them.
Now, then, consider all this specifically in connection with women and men. Women have indulged very effectively in comparative suffering, although some men now try, less effectively, to do the same thing. Anyone who enters the blogosphere knows, or soon learns, that writing about the needs or problems of men inevitably draws implacable hostility, and not only from many women but also from many men. Women very often argue that the needs and problems of men cannot compare with those of women; a lengthy list of the latter inevitably follows—even if a blog’s topic might not have much to do with women. Many items on the list apply to women in Afghanistan, moreover, or to other remote societies with very different cultures and very different histories. Ideological feminists believe fervently, we suggest, that all cultures and all societies are virulently “patriarchal.” An “honor killing” in some tribal society of central Asia, therefore, is no different from a rape in our own society. Never mind that tribal societies demand honor killings, and that our society punishes rape. Never mind that these tribal societies require fathers or brothers to kill the men who dishonor their daughters or sisters and to endure generations of blood feuding as a result. In short, it is the very idea that men could have any problems, let alone serious ones, that rankles many feminists. This is because the underlying assumption, which provides the raison d’être of ideological feminism and finds support even among many egalitarian feminists, is that men have “all the power.” Otherwise, how could anyone legitimately demand exclusive concern for women? So, it is a zero-sum political game. Supposedly, taking the needs and problems of men seriously—not those of “alpha males” alone but those of a vast and highly differentiated group—means trivializing the needs and problems of women. Again, “comparative suffering” is an ironic euphemism for competitive suffering.
As for men, more than a few react with surprising hostility toward the idea that they, too, have distinctive needs and problems. And I am not referring to alpha males, who can afford to ignore those of most other men. They are not hostile to ordinary men, merely indifferent to them. No, I am referring instead to those who actually care about social justice. They simply believe that only some form of feminism can attain social justice, can “level the playing field” by favoring women and therefore that their own needs and problems are trivial in relation to those of women. This, too, presents a specifically moral problem. It relies on the closely related notions of collective guilt and vicarious punishment. All men today, and not only the alpha males among them, are guilty for continuing to benefit from the sins of their ancestors. Ergo, all men today, and not only the alpha males among them, deserve to bear the burden of paying for the sins of their ancestors.
Why would any men accept these notions, which have by now become conventional wisdom in influential circles? It would be cynical to assume that self-interest, whether personal or collective, is the only motivating factor. These men might well believe in altruism, which even today sometimes takes the outmoded form of “chivalry.” And yet these men often reveal themselves not as altruists at all but as ideologues, explaining their point of view by referring to notions that are prevalent in ideological forms of feminism. But precisely how can men adopt an ideology that requires them to deny their own needs and problems and even to accept a very negative identity? They can do so in at least two ways.
Some men try to sever the link between themselves and other men. We are enlightened, they might think, it is only those other bastards who need to see the light of feminism. Charles Blow, for example, routinely says precisely that in his blog for The New York Times. Although a few ideological feminists define men as innately evil (which is a contradiction in terms), most of them—along with egalitarian feminists—do grant men the possibility of redemption through conversion to some form of feminism. Blow is a convert, saying so explicitly on his blog, and therefore what Young and I would classify as an “honorary woman.” As such, he might expect praise from women. If so, he should expect also enmity from other men—that is, men who are either unable or unwilling to ignore their own depressing experience of daily life. And for that very reason, his own stated goal of fostering reconciliation between the sexes remains a fantasy.
Other men have a very different way of ignoring their own needs and problems. They repress their sense of vulnerability. Discussing these things can feel very threatening, after all, because no one actually wants to feel vulnerable. To be vulnerable, after all, means to have unfulfilled needs and insoluble problems. And let us not forget that among the central features of American masculinity has been the sense of being in control—not necessarily in control over other people but always in control of themselves. To be out of control, or vulnerable, is thus to be something other than masculine. Because the current American version of masculinity is a very demanding role—apart from anything else, it demands stoic disregard for physical or even emotional pain—and because the price for abandoning it is intense ridicule or hostility, most American men have grown up with very heavy emotional investments in it. So, these men try to hide from their own vulnerability as long as possible and despite the high cost of doing so. Vulnerability, in short, is for men the “fate worse than death.”
But there is at least one additional possibility. Like so many women, men can acknowledge their own vulnerability to forces beyond their control—social, psychological, historical, legal, military, political, and even physiological forces—in order to become less vulnerable. Why do I say “less vulnerable” instead of invulnerable? I do so because of the fact that no one can ever be completely immune to vulnerability. As social animals, humans can never be completely autonomous, or independent, and therefore must always be vulnerable at least sometimes to disappointment, betrayal, indifference, and so on. We must depend on each other, both as individuals and as groups. Men and women, for instance, have always depended on each other. There are those in our time, though, who believe that women can be, and should be, completely independent—not merely less dependent on men than they used to be. For most feminists, this means primarily financial independence: providing equal opportunities for women and men to have exciting careers and to earn equal pay for equal work but also ensuring that single, widowed, divorced or abandoned women can support themselves and their families without having to depend on men. For some feminists, however, independence goes much further. They demand reproductive autonomy as well: taking unilateral control not only of family life but also of society’s future. With that in mind, they have lobbied for legislation and high-court rulings that promote their own assumptions: the right to have abortions without consulting the fathers, the right to full custody of children after divorce, and so on.
Men have not lobbied for legislation that would guarantee their own autonomy, but many men are aware at some level of consciousness that they are in trouble and therefore need help. They are aware because of what they hear day after day, directly or indirectly, in the academic public square. College men can hardly cross the campus without seeing posters or notices about their victimization of college women. Recently, for instance, ideological feminists have revived the rhetoric of “rape culture.” At issue is not whether rape occurs on college campuses, because it clearly does, or even how pervasive it is. At issue is whether our culture, either on campus or anywhere else, actually fosters rape as a social norm. At issue, in other words, is how to interpret sexual relations. Do all sexual relations between men and women lie on a continuum that begins with a smile and ends with rape? And if so, does this mean that all sexual relations between men and women are forms of rape?
Besides, anyone who watches daytime talk shows or prime-time news shows or reads some of the countless online blogs must realize that many people no longer believe in the need for fathers. Single mothers, for instance, no longer evoke pity or disapproval; on the contrary, they often evoke admiration for their courage. The advent of sperm banks, moreover, has made single-motherhood-by-choice the venue for one more “alternative family.” Many women, especially those who have college degrees, still want their children to have fathers, sure, but not all feel any need to provide their children with fathers. The overall message to men is that mothers can, in a pinch, either do it all for themselves or rely on the state to help them out. Consequently, fathers have become luxuries at best and liabilities at worst. Their dollars are still required, yes, but not necessarily their enduring presence in the home. Women can be not only mothers, it would seem, but also fathers. And if need be, they can always find “father figures” for their children. Moreover, many men do not want the obligations of family life. It would seem that fathers (unlike mothers) have only obligations, not rights. Neither do children, apparently, according to those who believe that children do not need fathers. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that many men now see no reason (aside from legal pressure) to stick around.
In a more general sense, moreover, you could argue that neither women nor men need each other as they once did. Many men find that they no longer need wives or girlfriends, after all, to contribute their traditionally feminine household tasks or social skills. These men can either hire people or do without those services. Unless they want children, therefore, many young men feel no interest at all in marriage or even long-term relationships with women. This became clear in Katherine Gilday’s documentary film for Canada’s National Film Board. In Women and Men Unglued, she interviewed young men and women (mainly but not only White, urban, and middle-class). Discussing their transient and somewhat unsatisfying relationships, some admitted that they envied their parents or grandparents for the enduring relationships that had once been taken for granted. And yet these young people expressed little hope of ever attaining relationships of that kind.
The social scientists are still arguing about all this and will be for some time, because longitudinal studies require decades, not months. If psychologists and sociologists eventually find that children do need fathers, then our social experiment will have seriously deprived a generation. But if they eventually find that children do not need fathers—everyone assumes, of course, that they need mothers—then another problem will emerge, one that is already becoming increasingly urgent. Women do not need men to provide them and their children with resources. Nor do they need men to protect them from predators, human or otherwise. Why not? The answer is obvious. Women can now depend either on themselves or on the state to do both. But if women also do not need men to be fathers, except as assistant mothers or walking wallets, then men will find that all three of their historic functions have become obsolete. And this could be a grave problem not only for men but also for children and for society as a whole.
This brings me to the core of my research with Young: identity. We propose the following hypothesis: that a healthy identity requires the ability to make at least one contribution to society that is (a) distinctive, (b) necessary, and (c) publicly valued. This applies to both the individual and the group, but I refer now to the group—that is, to men as a group within society. Two questions emerge. If men can have a healthy collective identity in our time, which distinctive, necessary, and publicly valued contribution will they be able to make? And if men cannot have a healthy collective identity in our time, what are the consequences likely to be for society as a whole?
In response to the first question, it is clear to us that fatherhood is the one and only remaining source of a healthy collective identity for men and thus for a healthy notion of masculinity—which is to say, one that fosters not only the family but also society as a whole. Relying on the tentative findings of many early studies, we argue that fathers probably do have both distinctive and necessary functions in family life. If so, then society must actively, publicly, and unambiguously value those distinctive and necessary functions. In other words, we argue that mothers cannot be fathers and that children need fathers—not assistant mothers but fathers. Now, then, precisely what is the distinctive and necessary contribution that men can make as fathers?
It might not be enough, after all, for children to have two parents. Every child might need at least one mother and one father. I say “at least one,” because isolated nuclear families probably do not represent the ideal family type; most societies have produced and supported extended families. Nonetheless, most have recognized nuclear families within that larger context. And whether society assigns fatherhood to the genetic father or to the mother’s brother, the “job description” always calls for a male candidate. At issue here are the specific functions of fathers and mothers.
For obvious reasons, mothers not only give birth to infants but also maintain very intimate relations with their infants and young children; although fathers can interact with their children emotionally—and often do so, especially in our own time—they do not need to do so. In modern parlance, mothers generally provide their infants and young children with unconditional love. The importance of fathers increases gradually, though, as children begin to live not only within the security of the home but also within the riskier larger world beyond home. Fathers provide them with earned respect. Fathers do not need to tell their children, “I’ll love you no matter what you do” (although that might well be true for many fathers). Rather, they need to tell their children, “I’ll respect you for acting effectively and honorably in the larger world.”
These vaguely conflicting messages could be confusing if they come from the same parent, of course, because earned respect is really one form of love. So, is love unconditional or conditional? In theory, anyone, male or female, could give one message or the other. In practice, though, it is probably much easier for mothers—or will be at least in the foreseeable future—to give unconditional love to their children and for fathers to give earned respect to their children. This difference is not necessarily due to instinct. It is probably due mainly to the extensive cultural training that still produces “gender,” no matter how attenuated that cultural system has become. (If gender were genetically transmitted, as sex is, then why would every culture find it necessary to reward those who conform to gender expectations and to punish those who don’t?) Some women and some men probably could refrain from one scenario and enact the other one. But we are not there yet. And do not take my word for it. Feminists still complain that women are shackled by their maternal urges. Some argue that those urges are innate (and therefore make women superior to men by nature). Others argue that these urges are imposed by “patriarchal” culture (and therefore have made women the victims of men). Still others argue that all people are the products of both nature and culture. My point is simply that mothers and fathers will have, at least in the foreseeable future, distinctive and necessary functions within the family. If so, then men can indeed still create a healthy collective identity specifically as men.
This brings me to the second question. If men cannot create a healthy collective identity for themselves, what are the likely consequences? Anyone can answer that question merely by looking at the evidence that has piled up in the offices of social scientists. Men, especially young men, are abandoning society and sometimes life itself. They are dropping out of school at a much higher rate than young women; some universities report that only 40% of their students are male. That is a very recent problem, but older ones remain with us. Young men are committing both crime and suicide at much higher rates than young women. Add to these social problems the startling medical fact that women continue to outlive men by approximately five years. Grants for medical research seldom include funding for studies on the difference between male and female life expectancies. It is hard to imagine that situation if the differential favored men, not women. In these ways, though not in all ways, American society is clearly indifferent to the fate of boys and men per se.
Consider one recent case study. Why was anyone surprised to learn that Elliot Rodger opened fire on crowded streets in Santa Barbara and then on himself? His case is particularly interesting, because so many bloggers are dismayed by his murderous hostility toward women and thus frame their interpretation of the event in classic ideological terms. Rodger, they argue, was not insane. Like all or most men, he simply hated women. The cause of his rampage was not abnormal psychology or even access to guns. It was “patriarchy.” How many of these bloggers even remember his murderous hostility toward other men? After all, he mentioned his hatred toward other men in his long letter. And he actually killed more men than women. Everyone had rejected him, so everyone deserved his wrath. We had a similar case in Montreal almost 30 years ago. But Marc Lépine killed only women, fourteen of them, before killing himself as a victim of feminism. And some ideological feminists did indeed exploit this case for political purposes—even at the public funerals. Lépine, they insisted, was not a rare psychopath. He was Everyman. He did what all men have always wanted to do more than anything else: kill or oppress women. Most men do not enact this fantasy, to be sure, but only because they are afraid to do so. Not all feminists, by any means, accepted this theory. But it remained at the heart of public discourse for a very long time. By now, the anniversary has become a solemn day of remembrance in Canada, especially in Quebec. It competes openly with Remembrance Day, moreover, which commemorates those who died while fighting for their country during the world wars—almost all of whom were young men. Public monuments have become pilgrimage sites. The ceremonies that take place there closely resemble those that commemorate not only the military victims of Canadian wars but also, and more pointedly, the civilian victims of Nazi Germany. The implication is clear. Canada (or Quebec) is a “patriarchy” and thus not so very different from Nazi Germany. In that case, caring about men is tantamount to caring about Nazis. And that, from my perspective, is tantamount to misandry.
Hostility toward men, misandry, seldom finds outlets as dramatic as controversy over a mass murderer. More often, it emerges in the underlying assumptions of laws and policies. Most people have been aware for a long time that some laws favor women despite their gender-neutral language. No court in our time would allow any gender-specific law to stand—except, of course, for the one that requires American young men but not young women to register for the draft—but those who interpret laws and those who enforce them do not always honor the spirit of gender-neutrality. Among the more obvious examples are those that involve family courts, which adjudicate matters such as child custody. A Canadian bill would have mandated the presumption of joint custody, unless that arrangement would be likely to endanger children. But this bill was defeated. After years of supporting the presumption of joint custody, the ruling party abandoned it. This leads to speculation that the presumption of joint custody is still politically unacceptable, even though it is both morally legitimate and, according to many social scientists, psychologically sound.
Given the current storm of outrage over what many people consider the “rape culture” on college campuses (but also of society as a whole), universities have found it necessary to revise policies that affect the relation between male and female students on campus. Few universities, if any, have made these revisions known to outsiders. And they probably never will, because revelations of this kind might reveal the extent to which universities might go in order to punish and prevent “sexual assault” (which now has an elastic definition that can include anything from offensive words to rape). But we do know that some students and administrators are demanding revisions that would not only blur the line between campus security departments and municipal police departments but also diminish the prospect of due process for the accused—most of whom, presumably, would be male.
And Michael Kimmel believes that he knows why. He argues that young men are preoccupied with a sense of “aggrieved entitlement.” They believe, he claims, that they have some right to privilege. When society fails to confer privilege on them, they react by turning against society. They turn against women, in particular, because society now appears to confer some forms of privilege on them. This explains the “boy code” and the rampant misogyny on college campuses—what others call their “rape culture.” In one way, Kimmel is correct. These “boys” do exist and now, perhaps, more of them do than ever. What underlies their verbal abuse or physical violence, however, is another matter. I would say that they are preoccupied not with illegitimate “aggrieved entitlement” but with legitimate “aggrieved entitlement.” How can “entitlement” ever be legitimate? The answer should be (but is not yet) obvious: because everyone is surely entitled to some things. Not to privilege but to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And “happiness” (no matter how you define that vague word) is impossible without a healthy collective identity. That is why many young men feel aggrieved. They know that they are entitled to a make at least one contribution to society, as men, that is distinctive, necessary, and publicly valued. They know also that society has ignored their claim to a healthy identity, denying it to them but not to women. They resent that state of affairs. And, frankly, they have good reasons for doing so. It’s simple. If society has no respect for them, specifically as men, then they will have no respect for society. Even an unhealthy identity, they might well believe, is better than no identity at all. This does not excuse their anti-social behavior, but it does explain their anti-social behavior—and in a way that does not rely on ideological cynicism.
Ultimately, misandry is not about this or that law, this or that policy, but about society’s inability or unwillingness to care about men (as if doing that would somehow compromise caring about women). And caring about men, in our time, means helping them to find a healthy collective identity specifically as men.
Katherine Young and I do not stop at analyzing the current predicament of American society. We go further by proposing a solution. Well, not a solution per se but a new method of seeking one. And it is not even new. What we call “inter-sexual dialogue” originated in inter-religious dialogue. The basic premise is that participants must actually want healing and reconciliation, not merely to sound off. They must listen carefully to their dialogue partners, therefore, and not focus all attention on themselves. In short, they must actively cultivate empathy. Clearly, then, dialogue is not debate. In debate, after all, the goal is for one side to win and the other to lose. And this method can be very useful in academic and some legal contexts. In dialogue, however, the goal is for both sides to win. And this method is almost certainly the only one that can end the current polarization of men and women and take us in an entirely new direction.