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Review: The Boy Crisis by Warren Farrell
A book every dad (and mom) should read
What’s Wrong with Men?
The Boy Crisis is filled with statistics about how poorly boys are faring in American society—spiking suicide and crime rates, plummeting academic performance, rising unemployment, obesity, depression, and addiction, to name only a few—but perhaps the most telling sign is a simple anecdote from the book’s introduction. At a dinner party of upper-class, highly educated friends, the host asked a simple question: if you were born today, would you rather be a boy or a girl? All but one (a woman) said they would rather be a girl. The polls back it up, with fathers in particular twice as likely to prefer a daughter, a sharp reversal from history. And it’s not just that girls have finally caught up to boys in achievement but that boys are actively struggling. Whether we know the statistics or not, we can sense that something has gone wrong in our boys and therefore in our men.
What happened? It may be tempting for some to blame the rise of feminism or voices that tell men their masculinity is toxic and the patriarchy is responsible for society’s evils, and perhaps that common narrative contributes to perceptions (certainly it isn’t accurate or helpful), but it is far too simple an explanation for a problem of such scope and scale. Our boys aren’t struggling because women are succeeding or because some people say mean things about them. Dr. Farrell instead makes a compelling case that the core issues are built into the structure of our economic and social situation.
For most of history, societies relied heavily on men’s bodies to survive. Whether in producing food or collecting resources or building homes or fighting wars, everyone needing men to be strong and willing to risk their lives for their families and tribes and nations. All the incentives, from wealth to sex to marriage to respect, accrued to men who had the skills and values to fit the role of protector and provider, which Farrell calls “Heroic Intelligence.”
But that need has greatly diminished in the America of today. Mechanization and automation of production has diminished the need for raw strength on the farm or in the factory, and globalization has sent much of the remaining manual labor overseas, while the need for bodies in war has been blunted by time of relative peace and the prominence of technological solutions to warfare. The economy has instead become oriented around service work, which relies less on physical strength and more on communication, empathy, and caring, traits more traditionally valued and nurtured in women. With more women entering the workforce to meet this demand, a large group of men (particularly among the young, poor, and uneducated) found themselves in positions that were a poor fit for their natural skills or without an opportunity at all.
Of course, most men still have a place (even a dominant one) in the economy, but the social dynamic has shifted regardless. Women have been freed from an overreliance on mens’ labor and income, which is a good thing, but the freedom does have a cost. If a man’s primary value in a relationship has always been to protect and provide, then a relative reduction in that value (even if it means more income shared between a couple) can lead to a loss of purpose. If his wife doesn’t need his work or his protection, what is he giving to the family? At the same time, the economic changes might mean he is less adapted to his work in the first place, making the daily drudgery both arduous and less meaningful. The wife might unconsciously feel the same way, and her freedom means she can express her disappointment or dissatisfaction—including through divorce—without fear of financial ruin. The cycle contributes to high divorce rates, which deprives children, especially boys, of the example and guidance they need to navigate this difficult situation.
An obvious solution might be to have more dads stay at home to raise children or tend the house, a simple switch in roles, but its not easy to fight against the current of all human evolution, psychology, and cultural incentives up to this point. Even dads who are capable and willing to raise children full-time have trouble actually finding themselves in such a situation, since both their natural advantages and social expectations push them toward protecting and providing. Polls consistently show that few women will date, much less marry, a man who is unemployed or without many prospects, and that women are generally more attracted to men with higher social status and income than their own. That may change over time as society recognizes and adapts to these new conditions, but it’s a slow process. Right now, boys and young men are facing increasing pressure to work and succeed as a requisite for a happy marriage and life at just the moment their ability and opportunity to do so is dwindling. The result for too many of them is a no-options, no-win situation where they feel lost without potential or purpose. And we wonder why so many are anxious, depressed, addicted, and suicidal?
Making the Switch
We can quibble with parts of Farrell’s analysis, which is obviously more complicated and detailed than this brief summary, but the core of it rings true. Cultural and philosophical changes combined with technological advancement shattered the old arrangements that were largely built on biological necessity and had resulted in genuine cruelty and injustices in the restriction of women. A corrective to those injustices, made possible in part by our ease and abundance, was good and necessary, if not inevitable under the circumstances. But every change, whatever its aggregate benefits, has winners and losers. It’s fair to question whether the process has gone too far too fast, now doing more harm to our social fabric and relationships than the marginal benefit of pushing to the extremes, but we need to be careful not to blame or resent women or some caricature of feminism for changes that are outside any person or group’s control and have consequences, both positive and negative, for men and women alike. We all have to adapt to the new world we’ve built.
Because we aren’t going back to the old order. Not based on some platitude of progress—often it is the best course to turn around if you have made a mistake or fallen into a falsehood—but because it’s impossible to reverse the structural changes we’ve made barring civilizational collapse. A majority of the population is not returning to work on a farm or even a factory. Machines and computers and robots aren’t going to be doing less of our heavy lifting. Women can’t and shouldn’t abandon the workforce en masse. We can’t un-invent birth control. We wouldn’t want to. The world would seem positively post-apocalyptic. If it were only a matter of changing attitudes or beliefs, we might hope to restore some modified, more just version of the gender roles that guided humanity for so long, but with all the new structures we’ve built, most of them to our great benefit, any attempt to shift the foundations is likely to send the whole thing tumbling down.
Likewise, we can’t ignore the differences between men and women. Men aren’t going to suddenly become the physically weaker sex. Men aren’t going to be become less aggressive and disagreeable or more nurturing and empathetic than women. They aren’t going to stop bonding and teaching through competition and roughhousing and risk-taking. They aren’t going to swap their testosterone for estrogen or their sperm for eggs. They aren’t going to grow a uterus. These things matter. We are never going to be a species of identical, interchangeable, androgynous beings who can do all things equally well and fit even into all situations. It’s a few million years too late for that, and cultural pressure or technology can only close the gap so much.
Tempting though it is to think that if women are stepping into areas that were traditionally male, then men should simply fill the vacated spaces, that transition is not easy, and it’s hardest for the men who need to transition the most. You might as well tell a High School dropout who lost his job in a car factory that all he needs to do is learn to code. Actually, we’ve tried that, and it’s failed miserably. Because not everyone is suited to every kind of work. As someone who codes for a living (using a very simple language) and interacts with many more advanced software engineers, I can assure you it’s job that, although many people could probably learn, regardless of intellect, relatively few would enjoy or thrive in. It’s not as simple as encouraging or incentivizing men to join the caring professions or child-rearing, because you will merely attract the men who are most capable of doing so, and who therefore already have a wealth of opportunities, not those left behind. Of course, it’s a good thing to pull down barriers to doing so if they exist. Affirmative action for women in STEM is a great benefit to those women who are scientifically inclined but lacked opportunity, but it’s not likely to transform your average housewife into a mathematician (at least not a happy one) any more than an ad campaign is likely to turn the average coal miner into a counselor.
If we want dislocated men to have a purposeful place in society, whether in the economy or the home, we will need to radically rethink how we perform those functions in a way that will appeal to a man’s ambitions (along with a woman’s expectations) and fit the skills where he has a comparative advantage. This is where things get difficult, and Farrell begins to waver. On the one hand, he documents the many ways in which men, particularly dads, differ in their approaches to parenting (and why it is a necessary complement to a mother’s), from enforcing boundaries to handling conflict to teaching lessons. But his suggestions for how to integrate more men into current economic and family environment all amount to little more than training men to be more like women.
He contrasts men’s traditional “Heroic Intelligence” with women’s traditional “Health Intelligence,” a focus on things which tend to make you safer and healthier, and, finding that women are more adapted to today’s world, suggests that men adopt a health intelligence mindset. Good luck. This idea is to encourage less-risking taking, less macho behavior and posturing, less fighting to resolve conflict, less glamorizing of dangerous sports and jobs, less emphasis on sacrifice to earn respect and love, more emotional vulnerability and openness, more compassion and communication, more diplomacy, more mutual cooperation and bonding, etc.
Who could deny these are good things for everyone? We all want our sons to be smart in taking risks rather than reckless. We want our boys to work out problems without punching each other. It’s good for them to be able to recognize and express their negative emotions before they do damage. But that doesn’t address the fundamental dynamics. Teaching them these things—and we’ve been trying to tame male aggression since the beginning of time—would undoubtedly make them better men, but it wouldn’t make them women. It wouldn’t anything to ease all the tensions described in the first half of the book, because it doesn’t take the differences it highlights seriously. Instead, it treats them as mere products of social conditioning, of society’s need to have boys risk their lives for the survival of the group and assumes we can simply turn the dial of human nature back in the other direction now that we no longer need the same function, because it fails to ask the crucial questions. Is there nothing unique about men apart from their size and training? Is there nothing to be lost by pounding them into a facsimile of a woman to meet the demands of a retail economy? Is there nothing heroic left to be done? What is a hero, anyway, and what will happen when they are all gone? What, after all, makes a man?
What Makes a Man?
Humanity is many things, but the essence of a man is sacrifice. That’s what it means to be a provider and protector. Not providing for yourself. Not protecting your own body. To give yourself in service of something else. Not coincidentally, it’s the definition of a hero. In a dangerous world, heroes are necessary, and men are positioned to answer the call. A pregnant women or nursing mother is vulnerable in a way a man will never be. For the family and the future, she had to be defended and sustained when she could not do so for herself, and the only other being sufficiently invested in that future to sacrifice his own safety was the man whose offspring she carried. So a man who loved his wife had be savage in accordance to the threats the family (or tribe or nation) faced. As long as there has been evil in the world attempting to do harm, whether nature or predator or person, some man has had to find the will and the strength to stand against it, or perish. That’s where Farrell’s “Heroic Intelligence” comes from. Our culture is a refection of this fact, not the cause of it. Men aren’t heroes by default. It’s not the only option. They can also either die or fall. And all too often their instincts and aggression and strength spill over into villainy. But if they are heroes, it’s not because they saw it in a movie or felt the pressure of their peers or were angling for sex. If a man becomes a hero, it’s because no one else could be.
Of course, women sacrifice something for their children (or others) as well and may be heroes in their own right, but there is also the feeling of any mother that she must care for her own health to care for the person within her, that she can give up everything to her children except herself, and that her only defense is in some cases to put her trust in someone else. This is what Farrell labels “Health Intelligence.” Technology has swept away the natural predators, reduced the burdens of childbirth, and empowered women to provide for themselves even at their most vulnerable. It’s created a whole set of opportunities where strength is meaningless, danger is insignificant, nurturing is necessary, and communication with trust is paramount. It’s good that there are women to fill them, and it’s good that some portion of men are also skilled and caring and willing enough to help. But we fool ourselves when we imagine that there is no longer any evil in the world to face, no danger that must be undertaken, no risks that must be assumed, no sacrifices to be made. We’ve merely shifted them along new dimensions. The time of heroes is not over. We will regret the decision to remove mens’ chests on the day we require their courage. It need not be an external force. As we’ve seen, if men are deprived of any opportunity or incentive to exercise their natural spirit of sacrifice and heroism, most will not therefore become women; they will become villains. A mass of hopeless, purposeless, drug-addicted, sexually frustrated zombie-men is a threat of it’s own making.
If it isn’t wise and won’t work to squash the heroic spirit of men, and the modern economy or military no loner provide the same opportunities to exercise it, then we had better start finding something heroic for them to do.
To be continued in Part 2. Coming soon(ish).
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