Competing ideological filters disincentivize nuance.
November 19 was international men’s day. And world toilet day. Both passed largely unnoticed.
It’s challenging to talk about men’s issues without appearing to play the victim. The progressive solution is to focus on how men can support women. For example, domestic violence is a men’s issue because men must stop violence against women.
It’s harder to assert that we should be concerned about people’s problems even if they’re not oppressed. But when we focus only the concerns of marginalized groups we end up ignoring more than a third of domestic violence survivors. The Centers for Disease Control found that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men have experienced severe domestic violence. Yet, progressives are reticent to talk about female perpetrators.
But right-wing identity politics is not the solution. Men’s rights activists invert feminist ideology, claiming that society privileges women at men’s expense. The blame game, however, is all about playing the victim, and many men’s issues existed long before feminism did.
Women face difficulties because of sexism — being treated as sex objects and stereotyped as less capable than men. But while men far less often experience these biases, there are other, invisible gender biases.
It’s become popular to emphasize gender when a woman is harmed or when a man does something bad, and to deemphasize gender when a woman does something bad or when a man is harmed. This may contribute to significantly longer prison sentences when the victim is female, and for male offenders compared to women who commit similar crimes. Even female sex offenders are treated more leniently.
The latter biases reflect what psychologists call the “women are wonderful effect”: in-group bias is almost universal, especially with high status groups — but with a key exception. Women, but not men, show a strong in-group bias. For men, in-group bias requires something besides gender, such as belonging to an elite group.
Reasons for these biases are multifaceted. Men, more so than women, are expected to risk their lives to protect others. But being more expendable can disincentivize empathy for men. Male-on-male violence and violence against women by a small minority of men contributes to a negative impression of men in general. Finally, the feminist belief that society privileges men at women’s expense may lead some to conclude that men’s issues aren’t important.
This could partially explain why we ask, “How must society change so we can better address women’s needs?”; but also ask, “How must men change to better address men’s issues?”
An underlying assumption is that “men are actors and women are acted upon.” But there are limits to this viewpoint. Societal biases mean fathers have to fight harder for their rights as parents. And in almost every developed nation, boys from day one are falling behind girls in school. For almost 20 years women have been 57% of college graduates. And despite men’s mental health needs — homeless men outnumber homeless women 4 to 1, and men are more than three-quarters of suicides —men are only a quarter of recent psychology Ph.D. graduates.
Yet, homelessness and suicide aren’t seen as gender issues. Instead, the gender disparity is dismissed with, “Men use more lethal suicide methods.” This is as insightful as explaining that men get more speeding tickets because they drive faster.
Confronting “toxic masculinity” is a popular answer to how men must change. The American Psychological Association’s blog claims that “traditional masculinity” — “stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression” — is “harmful.” But pathologizing masculinity is problematic. Is this really all traditional masculinity is?
We shouldn’t ignore problems with masculinity, but neither should we ignore what’s good about masculinity. Stereotypical stoicism represses emotions, but philosophical stoicism is about putting emotions into perspective. A firefighter doesn’t have time to discuss his feelings when people are trapped in a burning building — that can wait until later.
While society needs to change to address both women’s and men’s issues, this can’t happen unless individual men and women face the challenge. One-sided gender ideologies that fail to see the big picture won’t get us there.