The "Menaissance" and Its Dickscontents

This City Journal piece by Kay Hymowitz perfectly exemplifies a time-honored form of conservative argument. It goes something like this: liberal equality is just too confusing!
I think I first saw this kind of argument clearly laid out in Tocqueville. If I remember correctly, he noted that there is a kind of soothing clarity in stratified societies with brightly marked class lines. When classes are stable over generations, and there is little mobility up or down, conventions that govern class relations become settled, making it easy to know how to behave toward those above and below one's station. Moreover, when classes are fixed and mobility is limited, there is little anxiety about improving one's position, since there's so little prospect for doing so. American-style democratic equality creates a pattern of unceasingly stressful striving for relative rank, and all this mobility up and down produces a confusion in manners that can lead to dangerous social frictions and resentments. It becomes too hard to know what to expect of others, or what others expect from us.
This is, as far as I can tell, Hymowitz's argument about gender relations in the post-feminist era. Women attaining something like social equality with men has created not so much liberation as a kind of toxic confusion. When women are free to be individuals, free to want different things than other women, men can't be sure what any particular women might want from him. To open the door for her or not!? To pick up the check or not!? To be a nice guy like she says she wants or a bad boy like she really wants?! These unresolved and unresolvable questions have led inevitably to the contemporary condition in which men are either unlovable whining sad sacks or misogynist assholes who cite a cartoon version of Darwinism to justify treating a woman as little more than an upgrade from Jergens and a sock. If we don't like it, we only have feminism to blame. Or something like that.
Look, the phenomenon Hymowitz describes is real enough. Rapid social change inevitably makes it harder to coordinate expectations. If it is a change worth having, then the pains of adjustment are worth it. Period. That doesn't mean those pains are unimportant. Guys do suffer uncertainty about whether or not to open doors or pick up checks. It really can be frustrating for the sensitive guy to find out he'd be more generally attractive if he learned to be a bit more of a dick.
But annoyances and disappointments suffered in the process of realizing fundamental conditions of a decent society don't call into question the desirability of those conditions. All this vexation is a very, very small price to pay for equality. For men, it is a very, very small price to pay for the opportunity to share a life with a peer, a full partner, rather than with a woman limited by convention and straitened opportunity to a more circumscribed and subordinate role in life. Sexual equality has created the possibility of greater exactness and complementarity in matching women to men. That is, in my book, a huge gain to men. But equality does raise expectations for love and marriage. The prospect of finding a true partner, rather than someone to satisfactorily perform the generic role of husband or wife, leaves many of us single and searching for a good long time. But this isn't about delaying adulthood, it's about meeting higher standards for what marriage and family should be.
I think Hymowitz's story gives too small a part to resentment at the loss of male privilege. Many men aren't angry and confused because they don't know what women want. They're angry because they want what their fathers or grandfathers had, and they can't get it. They're confused because they can't quite grasp why not. I think part of the fascination for many white guys with the show Mad Men is that it is a window into an attractive (to them) world of white male dominance and privilege that has largely disappeared. It is still possible to create a traditional patriarchal household, but it's harder than ever for men to find women who will happily play along. And, in any case, there is little assurance of the stability of this sort of arrangement, since the social esteem that was once accorded to it — which helped reinforce men's and women's confidence in their traditional roles within it — has largely dissipated.
To my mind, too little attention has been paid to reconsidering ideals of manhood in the age of equality. Since I was a teenager, I've found old-school machismo pathetic and somehow irrelevant to the problem of becoming a man. Without even knowing what or why it was, I was heavily influenced by gay culture, which provided me, and many other straight young men, a wide variety of templates for manhood that are at once unmistakably masculine, playfully ironic, aesthetic, emotionally open, and happily sexual. You can be manly and care about shoes!!! I'll confess that I used to periodically regret my heterosexuality because there seemed to be greater scope for constructing a distinctive and satisfying male identity within gay culture. I think that's telling. And the virulent homophobia that remains in most American dude subcultures has cut most young men off from the possibility of modeling their manhood after any of the delightful variety of types available to the homophile. And that really doesn't leave them with much to work with. Most Americans these days seem happy enough to see women succeed as high-achieving go-getters. And who doesn't love Tim Gunn? But most of us have not yet given up on oppressively restrictive, strongly normative conceptions of hetero masculinity. That, I submit, is what stands in the way of a real, um … renaissance for men.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

5 thoughts

  1. I’ll just add three things. One, we mustn’t forget about the requirements of survival vis-a-vis the external environment. Two, the reciprocity instinct motivates us toward redress/revenge (when we experience an “affecting perception of injustice”); this motivation cannot be removed from the in-group instinct; in many ways it alters and amplifies it; and yet this “concept of justice” is absolutely necessary for liberal society, the center of mass in Hayekian and Rawlsian liberalism. Three, a society must have both order and chaos to survive and adapt; it must be “balanced on the border” between the two; infiltration-expeditions into new realms of design space must be a central feature of a healthy society, or it will soon be overtaken and vanquished by its competitors.
    Overall, this kind of binary analysis is interesting, but not very helpful.

  2. Will, I think you are vastly unimaginative regarding the categories that Haidt labels as “Conservative.” What has been happening over time is not that society is more “liberal” by focusing on “harm” and “fairness” to the exclusion of the others, but the wealthy Western countries have gotten more sophisticated in how all these mores are acted out. We now have focus on healthy food, thinness, and use of birth control as ways of measuring purity, and education, income, and culture / manners as ways of measuring in-group status. As for authority, to the extent that crime, looting and rioting are not problematic in your neighborhood, well there you go. Also, millions of people are going to vote on Tuesday with no coercion other than cultural respect for government as a concept.

  3. Haidt’s work has terrific explanatory power, his methodology (moral dumbfounding) is cool, and any libertarian has got to love that he’s offering a prize to anyone who can amend his theory. I’m a fan. But I have to agree with Will, Haidt is giving conservatives too much credit regarding the great conservative insight. Are the three conservative morals (authority, tribalism, purity) really any more about order than the liberal two (care and fairness)? Civil war, sectarianism, blood in the streets, etc is obviously harmful and unfair. There are plenty of liberals who roll their eyes at modern-day Jacobins, and plenty of conservatives who are happy to tear apart society in pursuit of their tribal instincts (That may be an unintended consequence. They might assume they are maintaining order). Those exercising their conservative morals were certainly the villains during the civil rights era.
    Still, it’s easy to imagine a time in the previous million years of humanity when the conservative three conferred some selective advantage. If you boiled down what people consider the virtues of a warrior, it’d be authority and tribalism. So as much as I wish it weren’t so, I doubt the conservative three are going away. I doubt that liberals will be able to reason them out of existence.
    Haidt’s correct to take the problem of anomie seriously. You’ve got to give the people who care about authority, tribe, and purity a way to exercise those morals, or someone else will.
    Will, thanks for bringing Haidt to wider attention. Your BH episode with him was fantastic (I listened to it twice), and I’m happy to see you keep engaging with the subject.

  4. Two thoughts. Two comments.
    First, the sequence in which you apply these values is significant.
    If you do 1) authority, 2) purity, 3) ingroup, 4) care, 5) fair you might get a group that is puts high value on those who are pure followers of a leader, offering them care as fairly as you can, but those who don’t aren’t worthy of consideration.
    If you reverse the order, to 1) fair, 2) care, 3) ingroup, 4) purity, 5) authority you get people who want to be fair first and foremost – not to screw people. Then, to offer care within the boundaries of fairness (not to violate fairness to care). Then honoring those who agree to play by rules of fairness and caring above those who violate those standards. Then to especially honor those who most purely act consistent with fair/care, who embody those values most thoroughly, and then to honor the authorities we have authorized to adjudicate and enforce our social agreements around fairness, as well as the leaders we have entrusted to inspire caring.
    Authority, In-Group, and Purity are absolutely useful as heurisms WHEN they are in service of fairness first, caring second. In fact, without them, liberal societies won’t work. The key is the nature of the authority, the boundaries of in vs. out-group, and the principles that we strive towards purity around – namely fairness and caring within that fairness.

  5. Second thought, Second Comment
    The question that is not addressed in this blog or in the talk is levels of development. Whether or not you agree with the particular characterizations of Spiral Dynamics or Integral Institute’s “Elevations,” the evidence for development of our values is critical to understand these issues.
    Different levels of the developmental spiral relate to these moral sentiments radically differently, and different levels are attracted to each of them. For people who do not have a sufficiently advanced and abstract understanding of self/culture, fairness is not compelling to them. Purity, authority, and in-group give them guidance and principles that they can understand and implement. If you take them away as legitimate values, they are left with anarchy and fear. This is not good – danger Will Robinson, Danger.
    Red can understand in-group and authority/power easily, perhaps purity in an ethnic/race sense, but not fairness, care, and purity. When might makes right, and fair/care is stupidity.
    Blue can understand authority/obedience/loyalty, and extends “in-group” well, and purity in terms of dogma, but fair/care towards evil people makes no sense.
    Orange understands fairness optimally – a nation of laws not men, all men are created equal, inalienable rights to life, liberty, pursuit of happiness according to our conscience. However, in-group, authority, care, purity all threaten fairness.
    Green understands care well. At its best, it understands that fairness is the foundation of care, and lack of it undermines care. It finds authority, purity, and in-group to be threatening to care, and at worst, fairness also becomes a threat to care.
    Yellow can appreciate the value of each of the sentiments, especially their relative value to people whose values “center” is at red, blue, orange, or green respectively. By understanding the value of each of these moral sentiments to different levels of moral development (and/or different levels of our brain processes – myth and symbols are powerful unconscious drivers of behavior), we can respect the real-world mental/emotional frameworks that people and cultures use to guide their behavior.
    If, on the other hand, we de-legitimize the more unconscious, primal value sentiments (ingroup, authority, purity), we undermine the development people need to understand the more abstract and universal moral sentiments (fairness/care).

Comments are closed.