and also (utterly consistently!) Cormac McCarthy and the Chaconne of JSB
[The claim you are asked to entertain is that this is a serious and highly admirable mode of self-presentation.]
This just up at American Mind.
The point to emphasize: the ludicrous discussion I describe in the article was recommended as uniquely instructive on the topic by faculty members at a university. Finding podcasts that are in freefall away from reality is hardly a difficult task. What is noteworthy is that this brand of deranged is being presented to college students by their teachers as something that merits their serious consideration, indeed, as something self-evidently true and beyond debate.
This is the way in which being male and female is talked about in much of contemporary higher education, and that tells you all you need to know about how desperately the thing is broken. Even in the absence of any information about the specific goings-on at the “Undefine Masculinity” event beyond the advertisement in which the podcast was recommended (I did not attend, as the list of unpleasant things I would gladly do in place of being present while groups of my Woke professional colleagues talk about their belief system is lengthy), I am pristinely confident that it was consistent in terms of intellectual seriousness with the object of my article.
And right on cue, the ever-reliable NPR did a bit on this topic yesterday, offering some fascinating tidbits of knowledge, e.g.,:
“Everyone’s [i.e., men are] afraid to be themselves” (No discussion of how many men were consulted to demonstrate how generalizable this belief is—anecdotally, I don’t know a single man who would agree that he thinks this, but they’re probably just afraid to admit to the belief).
“Masculinity is about men policing each other about how they’re failing at being real” (I admit I don’t know precisely what this could mean, but that incomprehension is perhaps an indication that I’m one of those doing the policing, or being policed, or both).
“Masculinity is…a performance” (Of course it is! Everything is a performance!)
“Maybe somebody calls you out for ‘mansplaining’ in the office…try to check yourself…apologize and keep it movin’” (Always best just to apologize immediately when you’ve been mansplaining, and, even better, to also promptly un-mansplain/anti-mansplain, that is, give a long dissertation on why men are wrong about most things, but not too long, as otherwise you’ll just be mansplaining in your anti-mansplaining).
“Start small. List out your values or journal about them, practice being more present to notice the discrepancies…me-work like this requires some bravery.” (But isn’t “bravery” one of the main characteristics of the icky traditional definition of masculinity that we’re trying to get away from? Though, perhaps talking about writing in your journal as an act of “bravery” (the terrible human costs of papercuts and the fear engendered just by thinking about them and their potential manifestation should not be unjustly minimized) is itself a proper subversion of the traditional meaning of that word—unless the journal is situated a foot away from an adult Nile crocodile or a pile of radioactive waste).
“We aren’t suggesting you take your kids out of football or stop watching UFC or playing Call of Duty, but it is important to acknowledge that…there is a culture of violence among men” (No word on where the “culture of violence” among men might have come from, given that we find evidence of e.g., greater male participation in violence in every single human society about which we know anything. Of course, it can’t have anything to do with a biological sex difference, because that might suggest that not everything is performance…)
“We’re [Boys are] not given the total range of emotions that a human should have, right? You oftentimes see parents telling boys, ‘You shouldn’t cry,’” right?…So when you scrape your knee, instead of crying, you get angry, right?” (Again, it’d be interesting to see what data show that this is consistent with the actual upbringing of boys. It’s not consistent with mine. And, as an aside, the speaker of this phrase—apparently a man, though I don’t want to leap to any potentially permanently harmful conclusions!—deserves high marks for having taken on board non-masculine characteristics insofar as he’s learned a distinctive mode of expression (annoyingly turn every sentence into a question with a concluding “right?”) that is empirically almost always evidence that the speaker is a left-of-center upper middle-class educated professional woman. But maybe he identifies as a woman, in which case—horrors!—I’ve misgendered him/her/them/none of the above/etc.).
And I leave it to readers to ponder the meaning of a discussion of masculinity in which one of the main participants is a “transman,” that is, a biological female.
Can we expect from NPR another program next week on “femininity” in which we hear from at least one “transwoman,” i.e., biological male, about how to define that term? Surely no conversation on either topic can be left only to individuals who’ve inhabited the requisite sex and gender positions for their entire lives?
While we’re at it, why not a discussion of what it means to be tall in which at least a few of the participants are under 5’7” but firmly believe themselves, in their heart of hearts, to be 6’10” NBA power forwards, or an examination of intelligence that includes people with IQs at the median who nonetheless have always considered themselves to be extraordinarily bright? It’s all performance, after all!
A serious conclusion: I append at the end of this article a section from my last book on the sex-gender relationship that briefly describes a scientific way of understanding that topic.
Cormac McCarthy’s Stella Maris, which I’ve about finished and will be reviewing in short order, is a masterwork, a short book that I can already tell will bear multiple re-readings.
One quick example of its brilliance, in which the protagonist is describing inheriting half a million dollars from her parents and then immediately spending nearly half of it on an Amati violin and playing it for the first time:
“When I got home I sat down on the bed with it in my lap and opened the case. Nothing smells like a three hundred year old violin. I plucked the strings and it was surprisingly close. I took it out of the case and sat there and tuned it…I…started playing Bach’s Chaconne…Such a raw, haunting piece. He’d composed it for his wife who’d died while he was away. But I couldnt finish it.
Because…I started crying and I couldnt stop.
Why were you crying? Why are you crying?
I kept thinking of the lines: What a piece of work is a man. I couldnt stop crying. And I remember saying: What are we? Sitting there on the bed holding the Amati, which was so beautiful it hardly seemed real. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen and I couldnt understand how such a thing could even be possible.”
The Sex-Gender Relationship [excerpted from Toward a Biosocial Science]
Much of the mainstream sociological effort to understand what sociobiologists refer to as the sex difference hinges on the rhetorical move away from the category ‘sex’ and toward the category ‘gender.’ The way this move works is that sex is considered a purely biological category and therefore abandoned to the biologists—though as we will see, there are sociological efforts to take on sex by undermining most of the aspects of the term that come to us from biological science--and gender is defined as a purely social and cultural category that has no concrete, determinable relationship to sex. But arguing for a neat separation between sex and gender is denying much empirical evidence present in real human beings and real human societies. The social and cultural categories we produce to talk about gender difference are unavoidably intertwined with the biological basis of the sex difference.
It is not completely arbitrary that, for example, in virtually all societies, assertiveness is more frequently a character trait assigned to the masculine gender than to the feminine, and there are good reasons to believe that individuals at one end of the sex binary are much more likely to be more immediately and powerfully drawn to the gender role that includes assertiveness as one of its core traits. There is an evolutionary logic that describes why this would be the case. Anisogamy and sexual selection alone tells us that we might expect this. Social and cultural forces can of course shape that in many ways, and even work against the logic of anisogamy and sexual selection. But to completely separate the gender categories from the sex categories, as some contemporary feminist-based writing recommends, represents a fundamental misstep if the goal is the most accurate scientific knowledge of why human behavior and social arrangements look as they do.
The use of the term ‘gender’ to refer to the social role differences that emerge from sex difference is relatively recent. Cultural anthropologists did early work to show the category’s variability across cultures, but some exaggerated a few exotic examples into a theoretical effort to undo the binary nature of the gender axis. The alignment of the sex binary with gender is a cultural universal, with some variation at the edges. Just as male and female are the two categories of the sex binary, with the vast majority of nearly 99.99% of empirical examples occupying one of those two positions, so with gender, albeit with more room for variation in the latter. Some cultures here and there will have an additional gender category or two, occupied by a small number of individuals, perhaps permanently, perhaps as a transitional or temporary identity, between the two main categories, but the two main categories are an overwhelming cultural universal.
Robert Trivers (2011:163-4) describes the “extraordinary verbal one-step” that has taken place in recent decades to effectively replace sex with gender as the basic term for denoting the sex binary in our species. Both terms have a long history of several centuries in English of being used to describe the male/female difference, but gender has an even longer association with linguistics and grammar. Languages frequently assign gender to nouns, in ways that are extremely variable and can appear arbitrary—e.g., ‘moon’ is feminine in French and Spanish, masculine in German. Trivers suggests that the more relativist and amorphous of the two terms has recently come into more widespread use even in the social sciences, at the expense of exactness, precisely because of the political desires of those advocating for its use. ‘Gender’ implies that maleness and femaleness are less clearly separated than is implied by ‘sex.’
A remarkable tendency in the gender-focused literature is to find a singular piece of a culture that emphasizes some degree of gender fluidity or mixing of binary categories and then endlessly discuss that, without recognizing that in everyday life the society or societies at issue are remarkably consistent with the binary sex/gender norm in our species. It is certainly true that specific cultural means of displaying maleness or femaleness can differ significantly. For example, one society might award status to males who excel in contests of physical prowess, while others highly value males who demonstrate the ability to calmly solve logical and technical problems, especially as they involve important technologies. But in both societies, it is a virtual certainty that men will be, on average, larger, stronger, more assertive, and more aggressive, with predictable general consequences for social relations and social order. Universally observed higher levels of male aggression will work themselves out in behavioral predilections slightly differently in this culture compared to that one, but the fact that males are universally more aggressive across cultures remains. To fixate on the specifics of minor, limited cultural variation as a contribution to the effort to distract attention from the universals in human nature is indicative of an anti-scientific motivation in this field.
Contemporary cultural anthropologists and scholars influenced by their conception of culture have greatly developed and refined the skill of emphasizing similarities in the sexes, or differences that seem to value women over men, while ignoring much more obvious differences that help produce more or less traditional differences between the sexes in social position and status. Sometimes the acrobatic rhetorical moves they must make to do so are evident in their own words. One scholar writing about Nahua society in pre-Columbian Mexico points out that Nahua women who died in childbirth were assigned high status, and economic life among the Nahua involved both men and women. This is evidence then, he goes on, that Nahua notions of gender elude the typical gender/sex mapping we see in the evolutionary perspective. But elsewhere in his discussion he admits, in an aside, that men were uniformly in control of the two central institutions in Nahua society, politics and religion, and that only men could be warriors, the single highest status position available (Sigal 2011:14).
Sometimes, the move to relativize among radical gender/sex scholars involves imputing the inadequacy of the entire intellectual culture from which evolutionary theory emerges. In a book that is a favorite of advocates who would reject the elements of the category of sex I have discussed here more or less altogether, one learns that “[t]he fundamental problem is that our academic disciplines are all rooted in Western culture, which discriminates against diversity” (Roughgarden 2009:3).
Gender as a category is in some of this work remade to the point that it does not even do any of the work that would be needed to serve as a substitute for sex. Some feminist sociologists see the entire business of gender categories as little more than “a larger process whereby groups and categories of people create and perpetuate distinctions defining themselves and identifying ‘others.’ Boundaries serve to create and maintain inequalities in many spheres” (Epstein 2006:45). That there are substantive, statistical differences between the two genders, in all societies, that are essentially those of the two sex categories ‘male’ and ‘female’ is explicitly rejected by some of these thinkers. It is claimed that “there is considerable debate as to whether [males and females] have different basic emotional and cognitive attributes [that lead them to] act and feel different with regard to a wide range of behaviors and characteristics.” If there are differences in behaviors and predilections, then they must be produced by socialization and culture, not biological sex difference. There are, we are told, “obvious and subtle controls that assign females and males to social roles…rules (either set by law or tradition) are supported by values that specify such ideas as ‘Women's place is in the home taking care of children,’ or ‘Real men will fight to protect their family and country’” (ibid.:46).
Let us use just these values to evaluate this argument and illustrate its weaknesses. There is no question but that cultures and socialization do indeed make such statements about values—that is, that it is good that women be interested in taking care of children and that it is good that men be interested in protecting their kin and their countrymen. Many known human societies embrace just these two value claims and socialize their members accordingly. Why is it the case though that we so frequently find these values assigned in this way to the genders and not, say, similar values with the genders reversed? Where are the societies that advocate that men should be the primary caretakers of children and women should take the central part in physically defending kin? One can certainly conceive what such cultures might look like, but why are there no such societies in existence? To be sure, there are societies that say both men and women should have some interest in both duties, but the skew is empirically just as the author notes, and yet somehow she does not have the curiosity to ask why there are literally no counter-examples with the gender values reversed in all of human history.
The typical feminist answer to that question is something along these lines: men control power in most if not all societies, and they prefer doing the fighting to doing the child-rearing. But why would that be so? If it is true that this is just a game of men as a class looking out for their interests against the interests of women as a class, why would they choose the more lethal of the two activities? Every year in every single society around the planet, it is safe to say that many more young men lose their lives fighting to protect their families and their countries than women lose their lives taking care of children. (This balance shifts if one builds into the latter number the quantity of women who die in childbirth annually, but that is related to a fact of biology that could not be addressed by the choices of men regarding social roles.) War is more prestigious than taking care of children, says the feminist, and that is because it was men who invented the status systems.
But it seems that men would be still cleverer and more manipulative orchestrators of power if they could only devise a way to turn child-rearing into the most noble and prestigious of activities, and relegate war to something of less importance, and then force women to go and get themselves killed in the latter, while they watch the kids and get all the prestige. Why would they deliberately choose the more dangerous activity as their own, if their patriarchal power were presumably sufficient that they could have done as they pleased?
We also must note that there is a lot of empirical evidence to show that women and men do have typical preference schemes about these two activities, and they line up with the cultural values our feminist sociologist notes. That is, women on average are much more interested in caring for small children than men are, and men on average are much more interested in physically fighting to defend those close to them than women are. Further, as I will discuss shortly, the evidence shows that this propensity to gender differences on such matters is there early on, even before socialization and culture have had time to do much work to shape these values. What could be causing that, since it clearly cannot be the gender role socialization that only comes later?
The great advantage of evolutionary theory is that it has a framework for understanding this state of affairs, whereas gender feminist theory has next to nothing to offer here, beyond meta-claims about the gender bias of the science showing the sex differences. Females of mammalian species like us are more interested in and more likely to bond with infants precisely because they give birth to them, and their bodies have been modified by natural selection to enhance the likelihood that they will have significant interest in caring for them, and in most cases significantly greater interest in that care than biological fathers do.
The gamete difference previously described is only the base of this explanation. Once you have the differential interest in the welfare of offspring produced by that, you will tend to get neurochemical and hormonal forces pushing in the direction of care and bonding. The difference is not categorical across the sexes, but it is there as a sufficiently statistically obvious fact that it makes sense to distinguish the sexes on this variable. Male and female responses to infant cries, for example, illustrate both the similarities and the differences. When the tenor of the infant’s cry is of distress—as in ‘I am under serious threat’—both mothers and fathers respond quickly. But if the infant cry is not a distress signal but just an attention-getter—'I want someone to hold me now’—mothers and fathers do not respond equally. The former are much more likely to respond quickly, and even to be unable to ignore the cries without anxiety (Hrdy 1999:212).
As I was working on this chapter, I had a real world experience that gets at this point in a concrete way. I was sitting in an auto dealership while the exhaust system on my car was getting some much needed attention. There were only men in the room—perhaps ten of us total—until a young woman entered, accompanied by an older woman, and holding a baby carrier.
For half an hour, the two sat there in the room with the baby, surrounded by men, none of whom ventured even to look into the carrier to see the baby, much less to inquire about the child of its mother and, presumably, its grandmother. Then two more women, also apparently an adult mother-daughter pair, came in and went to the counter to tell the clerk they wanted to have their car inspected. They sat down on the side of the large room opposite the other pair of women with the baby. In well under a minute after sitting down, though, they saw the baby carrier. Immediately, the younger of the two women got up and walked briskly over to the other two women and began to lavishly compliment the child, cooing, oohing and ahhing, avidly remarking on the baby’s attractiveness. The older of the two recently-arrived women joined her quickly and chimed in with the baby talk and admiration.
A few of the men in the room looked over once or twice noncommittally; most seemed not to have noticed this interaction at all and kept busy at whatever they were already doing. None of the men made any comment about what was going on among the women in the room—beyond, of course, those in the form of the hastily typed notes on the goings-on that were recorded by a certain male social scientist who happened to be in the room.
All of us will likely, with a little effort, be able to recall similar experiences. Try to imagine, though, a human culture in which the sex reactions were reversed. Theoretically, such a thing should be possible if the reactions seen in this kind of scene are completely caused by socialization and cultural norms. Yet imagining such a thing as a culture in which men ooh and ahh over babies while women sit at a disinterested distance is the stuff of comedy skits, not human societies we can imagine as plausible.