Talking about gender

I ran across a provocative and challenging article this AM regarding gender differences. The text of am address to the American Medical Association has been published on line, with the title “Is There Anything Good About Men?

I’m not going to agree with all of it, and it is a culturally biased report that makes sweeping generalizations, yet I really appreciate the sideways thinking, the different interpretations, and the basic premise which I captured in this small quote from the speech by Roy F. Baumeister:

Men on Top

When I say I am researching how culture exploits men, the first reaction is usually “How can you say culture exploits men, when men are in charge of everything?” This is a fair objection and needs to be taken seriously. It invokes the feminist critique of society. This critique started when some women systematically looked up at the top of society and saw men everywhere: most world rulers, presidents, prime ministers, most members of Congress and parliaments, most CEOs of major corporations, and so forth — these are mostly men.

Seeing all this, the feminists thought, wow, men dominate everything, so society is set up to favor men. It must be great to be a man.

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.

That’s an important first clue to how culture uses men. 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.

I have long wondered what men would be like in a society that doesn’t seek to damage them and deny those most special aspects of manhood. I think growing up a male in American culture is pretty cruel, and as is pointed out here so many do not survive intact let alone well nourished and actualized.

It is a piece worth reading, considering, and important for a feminist to contemplate. Our damaging sex roles happen within a context, and no one can claim exclusive rights to the damage done by those roles. I think he is right on with suggesting that conspiracy theories are simplistic, men would have to be supremely masochistic to perpetrate such a system that has devastating costs to the majority of their brothers.

Why is it important to continually re-examine the issue? Because we are paying such a high price, men and women, and our unconscious support of the system that has evolved will only continue it. We need to do better.

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