The Modern Male Malaise

Nationwide, boys have poorer reading scores than girls, they are five times more likely to commit suicide, two and a half times more likely to drop out of high school, and, as of 2008, women accounted for 59% of all those enrolled in graduate school.  In January of 2010, for the first time in history, America had more women in its workforce than men.   There are now more females in med school and law school, two traditionally male-dominated professions.

This is not yet a tsunami.  There are different ways to look at the numbers.  For instance, more men still graduate from four-year colleges (29.5% of males versus 28% of females).  But trend projections make it seem likely that will soon change too.  In all, the image surfaces of western women on the rise and western men on the decline.

Now why is this happening?

I think there are a number of reasons.  First, people I trust tell me that the educational system disadvantages men.  It has something to do with how boys learn and how girls are better verbal processors sooner.  Secondly, I fault the lingering momentum of feminism.  Societal change has come about so quickly that many, especially those in the older generation, have not realized that it happened, and so they continue to advocate for the empowerment of women generally and everywhere as if they were still living in the 1950s.  I am for the empowerment of women, very much so.  But in broad sections of American society today, feminism is not necessary anymore.  In fact, it can be hurtful.  Generalized prescriptions quickly become stupid in a world and a country as large and complex as ours.

But what really interests me is another factor which is rarely discussed and seems to draw some ire.  It has to do with the relative uselessness of physical strength today.  Of course, strength is still useful for a number of things.  After all, boxes need to be moved and jars need to be opened.  However, such relatively meaningless activities serve to underscore how truly unimportant strength has become, especially when one ponders, just for a minute, how important it used to be.  Here we enter an alien world: the vast majority of human history.

In a world without guns, police, and communication technology, nearly all of the population existed in a state of what might be called quasi-anarchy.  Roving tribes attacked each other and the governments that did exist were not overly committed to protecting civil rights.  If you lived anywhere you likely lived within a tribe.  You would be completely reliant on the strong individuals in your tribe, specifically in your immediate family, to protect you, from wild animals, bandits, other tribes, etc., and those that could provide security naturally enjoyed a place of social prominence.

This old world was much closer to the state of nature that worried Thomas Hobbes, where life is “nasty, brutish, and short.”  It sounds awful.  I am glad I did not live back then.  But, because the challenges of staying alive were what they were, physical abilities were highly cherished.

Understanding this old world makes some sense of weird institutions like polygamy.  Today, polygamy is perceived to be an incredibly sexist institution–end of story.  But the truth is more complicated than that.  Undoubtedly, polygamy was used as a means to acquire women as if they were property, but it also served to protect women.  If you were a woman, living in this old world, how safe do you think it would be to live on your own?  In fact, women often begged men to take them in as a second or third wife when their own close male relative died.  If I was alive at the time, I feel that I would be morally obliged to acquiesce.  Does that mean I am sexist?

So, for thousands of years, maybe hundreds of thousands of years, maybe millions, men evolved and competed against themselves, as was encouraged by men and women, to better fill this perpetual need to be strong and protect.  Deep-seated cultural and genetic adaptations developed that created an abiding drive in men to address this need.  How long, do you think, does it take to undo this hardwired tendency?  If it is possible at all, I would guess it would take a while.  How long has strength been comparatively useless?  Maybe 50 years?  Unfortunately, this is the same 50 years that has seen the rise of feminism.

Of course, society has been getting progressively safer long before the 1950s, and thus women and men have been increasingly less concerned about having strength for the purposes of personal protection, especially in cities and among higher-class society and occupations.  Nonetheless, for most, strength continued to be important for work.  Sailors, soldiers, farmers, etc., needed to be strong.  To get a sense of how strength was valued, consider that in 1900, 70% of Americans farmed and lived on farms.  In 2000, that number is 2%.  Certainly, hard work is as necessary today as it was 100 years ago, but weak legs are as good as strong ones if they are simply under a desk all day.

I have been reading a biography of Abraham Lincoln.  As a youth, he became well known and respected for, quite simply, being good at splitting wood.  Almost two centuries later, chopping wood, and talents like it, are rather quaint, even cute.  Taking pride in such abilities seem childlike.  Of course they do.  Fox cubs play chase and wrestle with each other in part because it helps them develop the talents that they will need in order to survive as adults.  I imagine that our forefathers who survived a harsh world were selected in part by how their childhood games prepared them for life.  This same sort of play, the desire for children to play this way continues, but the purpose for the play is gone.  Today, lots of boys play sports, grow up, and discover that the main talents they pursued, such as physical fitness, agility, speed, coordination, are mostly useless in the real world, and the other talents that came as a byproduct of sports, such as teamwork, communication skills, and perseverance, are much more valuable.  Is it possible to switch?  Can we push kids to pursue useful things and have the byproducts be the useless skills like throwing a ball through a hoop?  Can we reform play in order to help prepare our children for being adults in a different world?  What is clear is that men have not only inherited the adaptation and desire for physical strength, we are also raised to excel in these now-useless abilities.

Really, I have no answers and nearly everything in this post is speculation.  I also should give a caveat: I am a former captain of my varsity soccer and wrestling teams.  For people like me especially, the discovery of the meaninglessness of sports and strength can be rather shocking.  It made me ask, “Tell me again, why was I led to believe this mattered?”

This much we know: it is going to be very difficult to get men to stop caring about feeling manly.  Civilizations that are successful will find ways to use this drive productively.  Fortunately, there is more associated with manliness besides physical abilities.  Maybe we can emphasize those other qualities:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with wornout tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on”;

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run –
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man my son!

-Rudyard Kipling, If 

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About Jer Clifton

Look up, friend. The world is too beautiful for my eyes alone. View all posts by Jer Clifton

3 responses to “The Modern Male Malaise

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