Saturday, September 26, 2015

Is There Anything Good About Men?

I've been meaning to write about a phenomenal essay I encountered a few days ago, Roy F. Baumeister's "Is There Anything Good About Men?" Originally a lecture delivered at a 2007 conference of the American Psychological Association, he subsequently expanded on it to publish a book of the same name. He opens by taking on the feminist notion of patriarchy, the feminism that looks up and envies:
The mistake in that way of thinking is to look only at the top. If one were to look downward to the bottom of society instead, one finds mostly men there too. Who’s in prison, all over the world, as criminals or political prisoners? The population on Death Row has never approached 51% female. Who’s homeless? Again, mostly men. Whom does society use for bad or dangerous jobs? US Department of Labor statistics report that 93% of the people killed on the job are men. Likewise, who gets killed in battle? Even in today’s American army, which has made much of integrating the sexes and putting women into combat, the risks aren’t equal. This year we passed the milestone of 3,000 deaths in Iraq, and of those, 2,938 were men, 62 were women.

... Culture has plenty of tradeoffs, in which it needs people to do dangerous or risky things, and so it offers big rewards to motivate people to take those risks. Most cultures have tended to use men for these high-risk, high-payoff slots much more than women. I shall propose there are important pragmatic reasons for this. The result is that some men reap big rewards while others have their lives ruined or even cut short. Most cultures shield their women from the risk and therefore also don’t give them the big rewards. I’m not saying this is what cultures ought to do, morally, but cultures aren’t moral beings. They do what they do for pragmatic reasons driven by competition against other systems and other groups.
He's got a lot of other questions:
  • Why is it that 19th century women didn't forge new musical paths despite increasing access to musical instruments (the piano specifically), yet African-American men, who were demonstrably poorer and "mostly just emerging from slavery", laid down the foundation for jazz?
  • What percent of our ancestors were women? ("It’s not a trick question, and it’s not 50%. ... Today’s human population is descended from twice as many women as men.") What does this mean for human social behavior? ("[M]en outnumbered women both among the losers and among the biggest winners", a fact that informs male risk-taking and creativity.)
  • How do men and women differ in their social behavior? Men, he posits, have large, shallow social networks, where women tend to few and intimate networks. 
 He also makes two observations about earned manhood:
  1. Respect is earned by producing more than you consume.
  2. Putdowns are endemic as a way to remind everyone that respect is in limited supply. ("This, incidentally, has probably been a major source of friction as women have moved into the workplace, and organizations have had to shift toward policies that everyone is entitled to respect. The men hadn’t originally built them to respect everybody.")
Baumeister probably won't convince anyone who thinks patriarchy is real, i.e. a grand conspiracy, but he's got a good framework for understanding why women have it so hard in the modern workplace. A lot of evolutionary psychology amounts to just-so stories, but falsification in this field, as with all evolution, is notoriously difficult to do. I really look forward to reading his book.

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