On 29 September 2022, David Brooks’ New York Times column addressed what has been described as “the male crisis” — various assessments, both statistical and observational, that conclude “men” (as a broad category) are not doing well (economically, intellectually, and psychologically) in our modern culture.
His column offered various potential reasons; and the nearly 4000 online comments on the article before they closed it to additions offered more, though most tended to fall into one of three broad categories:
- We have over-compensated in our quest to make up for past injustices against women
- “Hell, yeah — that’s what women have been putting up with for millennia! Suck it up, snowflakes!”
- All that evidence is apocryphal and disingenuous and self-serving — men still have it great!
I thought none of them got to the root of the matter. This was my response.
Because comments were closed, I sent it to the editor as a letter; but I didn’t really expect them to publish it, especially after so many people had posted comments online. I also sent it directly to David Brooks at his NYT e-mail address.
It was, in fact, not published; and I never heard from Mr. Brooks or saw a follow-up that took it to heart.
Note: Michelle Goldberg used her NYT column on the 3rd of October to address the same subject and inspired by the same source (a new book, “Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It“, by Richard V. Reeves). Hence, I sent this to her, as well. No indication from her that she received it, either.
1 October 2022
I noted a long time ago that one thing conspicuously missing from most modern (or, at least modern Western) societies is any kind of cultural test and/or ritual to mark the passage from childhood into adulthood. Such rituals were (as I recollect — from reading about them, not from personal experience) a common part of most pre-modern cultures.
I mention this because it is also my recollection that the nature of those tests/rituals was traditionally different for young men and young women, reflecting (perhaps) the common gender-related psychological (not to mention physical) differences noted by people like Deborah Tannen and, also, the (corresponding?) common cultural differences in gender-role expectations.
Male-oriented tests/rituals tended to be oriented toward proving oneself as an individual, with the result that one came to the end of it with both a sense of self-confidence — “I am a capable individual and am, therefore, ready to fulfill the responsibilities of my role within the community” — and a formal acknowledgement from the community of that fact. It gave one a place in the social hierarchy and a sense of self-worth.
Female-oriented tests/rituals tended to be oriented toward proving oneself as a member of a group, with the result that one came to the end of it with both a sense of self-worth — “I am a valuable member of the group and am, therefore, ready to contribute that value to the community” — and a formal acknowledgement from the community of that fact. It gave one a seat at the table within the social circle and a sense of self-confident belonging.
Both also left one with a clear sense of identity as a member of the community.
Without those formal rites-of-passage, young people can easily pass from childhood into adulthood with no self-demonstration of their worth in themselves and their value to the community, with no acknowledgement of that value from the community, and, all-too-often, without any clear sense of what their role in the community is or ought to be and without any confidence that they can fulfill it.
Making that worse, my sense is that modern Western culture has, for a long time, been systematically and inexorably “communalizing”.
As part of that, we have culturally de-emphasized and de-valued autonomy, independence, personal prowess, courage, and competition — precisely the ‘masculine’ qualities that have aligned with our historical cultural views of male-gender roles and, arguably, with basic human male psychology and physiology; and we have emphasized and prized the collective, inter-dependence, emotional dexterity, tenacity, and cooperation — precisely the ‘feminine’ qualities that have aligned with our historical cultural views of female-gendered roles and, arguably, aligned with basic human female psychology and physiology.
Is it any wonder that leaves men adrift?
Update, 17 June 2023: This column from Ross Douthat at The New York Times covers similar territory in more concrete (and more erudite) terms.
© Copyright 2022, Augustus P. Lowell