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A critique of Richard Reeves's Of Boys and Men
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Written by Adam Hadidi.
Men owe their manhood to a theft and a theatrical mime, which would fall to the ground in a moment as mere dust and ashes if its true constituents were known. A shaky structure, protected by endless taboos… it survives only as long as everyone keeps the rules.
– Margaret Mead, Male and Female
One would be hard-pressed to come up with any such rules in the modern world. Without them, according to Mead, men’s manhood would fall to the ground “as mere dust and ashes”. The crisis that follows from that can be called a “masculinity crisis” – a phenomenon of which our culture has become acutely aware over the past few years. It’s a crisis that seems to encompass more than just the confusion over values of masculinity and manhood to include the very health and success of our entire male population. And it’s caught the attention of many popular figures – from Jordan Peterson and Scott Galloway to Forward Party leader Andrew Yang and Senator Josh Hawley, among many other researchers and authors. Yet it took Richard Reeves’s groundbreaking work, Of Boys and Men, for us to understand the full magnitude of this crisis and what we can do about it. Hailed for its diagnosis of what is often called the “male malaise”, Reeves’s book reveals how our political and economic policies over the past few decades have failed to take account of the concerns of men, their consequences on modern man, and what we can do about them to create a better future for both sexes.
Some conclusions drawn by Reeves in support of his list of potential solutions for this crisis, however, are weakened by his interpretations of three vital aspects of this phenomenon. First, his understanding of the hormone Testosterone on the male brain and its implications for society. Second, his definition (or lack thereof) of the term “masculinity” and what it really means for our culture. And third, the real cost of his proposals considering the previous two points.
Of Boys and Men
In Part 1 of the book, titled the “The Male Malaise”, Reeves begins with the facts about men over the last few decades across several important dimensions. The results are not encouraging.
By almost every metric, women in the West are, on average, doing better than men. They’re better educated, better employed, live longer, and are less likely to suffer from crippling addictions resulting from issues of mental health.
Moreover, the research also shows that men are doing worse than they used to in the past. It’s not that men, as a group, have stagnated at their prior levels of education and employability while women have been rising on all of these dimensions. It’s that the objective number of educated and employable males has decreased over the years. (Reeves, The Male Malaise: Working Man Blues, 2022)
Reeves relates these facts as with the nimbleness of an acrobat navigating a minefield because he recognizes the incendiary nature of this issue: it is easy to misconstrue the facts as somehow implying that the rise of women has caused the downfall of men. The improvement of women’s overall health, economic prospects, and general freedom is certainly a good thing – but did these changes take place at the cost of men?
Reeves preempts his answer by noting that this isn’t a zero-sum game. He continuously reminds us that focusing on men and their plight does not have to come at the expense of women. There are ways to move forward in which both sexes are better off, and he finishes the book off with real, practical solutions that he believes could put us on the path of true equality between the sexes. But are his proposals plausible?
Follow the Hormones
There are three major problems with Reeves’s analysis of the modern masculinity crisis – the first of which concerns his interpretation of the hormone testosterone.
Reeves mentions the seminal role of the hormone testosterone in the chapter Making Men. In it, he discusses research showing how testosterone is linked with aggression and high risk-taking. Implicit throughout his description of the hormone is how much it has negatively affected men’s ability to adapt in a world where the traits partially induced by the hormone are no longer useful. Coincidentally, this is also the argument Hanna Rosin makes in her famous Atlantic article The End of Men.
Remarkably, however, Reeves never mentions the latest research showing the wide-scale trend of decreasing testosterone levels all over the Western world, because, as contradictory as it may seem, it is hard to look at that research without coming to the conclusion that this represents a key element in explaining the modern male malaise.
If testosterone is a major differentiator of men’s behaviour and if we agree that its consequences (aggression and risk-taking) result in behaviour unsuitable for a world where emotional intelligence and agreeableness are more valuable than physical ability and aggression, then it is only reasonable to assume that lowering testosterone levels should improve men’s chances at adapting to that world. Instead, however, research suggests that the physical and psychological results of low testosterone are deleterious, causing a decrease in personal motivation, decreases in physical muscular and skeletal development, and a high susceptibility to depression and other psychological disorders – all symptoms that have been steadily increasing among modern males over the last few decades.
For example, The Washington Post published an article in 2016 titled, “Today’s men are not nearly as strong as their dads were, researchers say”, where the author reviewed literature showing a 17% percent decrease in average male grip strength between 20-to-34-year-old today vs those of the same age group in 1985. Other research shows a general decline in aerobic fitness in children since the 70s.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report, Suicide Rising Across the US: More Than a Mental Health Concern, published in June of 2018, showed an increase in U.S. suicides of more than 30% in half of the states since 1999, with males up to seven times more likely than females to commit suicide and male suicides are more likely to be more violent to the both the suicide victim and others. They also found that suicide is the 6th leading cause of death for males and the 14th leading cause for females in the United States.
While these data show changes in men’s health that eerily correspond with the decline of testosterone levels over the past few decades, it’s important to understand that correlation is not causation, and both the general decline in testosterone levels and the outcomes of the research above could be the result of a third (or more), yet unknown factor overshadowing our culture as a whole. At any rate, a more holistic discussion of the effects of testosterone, including its importance for the health and well-being of the individual male, would have to be necessary if we want to understand the underlying causes of this crisis.
The second major problem with Reeves’s analysis is that it doesn’t offer a coherent explanation of the term “masculinity”. If we’re calling our crisis a “masculinity crisis”, then we must be able to explain what that entails and how we can overcome the problems associated with it. In fact, nowhere in the book does Reeves define what “masculinity” is and whether society would benefit from it.
Historically, several prominent authors on the subject have treated masculinity and femininity as social constructs, conditioned by the values of the predominant culture. The most famous of these was Margaret Mead, the anthropologist who described in her book Male and Female the unusual patterns of sex roles among the Pacific South Sea tribes, leading her to explore the possibility that culture plays a much larger role in shaping sex-specific behaviors.
For example, in her book she describes how both the men and women of the Arapesh mountain dwellers are generally mild and timid, and while there is a sharp division of labour between the two sexes, traditional Western notions of masculinity can hardly be applied to the men of that tribe. Conversely, the cannibal tribe of the Mundugumor are robust and fierce, with the women as assertive and vigorous as the men, and so traditional Western notions of femininity can hardly be applied to the women of that tribe. A third tribe, the Tchambuli, observes a marked reversal of sex roles – with the women “brisk, unadorned, managing and industrious, fish and go to market; the men, decorative and adorned, carve and paint and practice dance-steps”.
Equally important is Simone De Beauvoir, the famous feminist thinker and author of the 20th century, who described in her book The Second Sex the sex role theory of gender, where she made the famous declaration that one is not born a woman, but becomes one, and that “social discrimination produces in women moral and intellectual effects so profound that they appear to be caused by nature”.
This line of thinking culminates in the “blank slate” theory of gender, or what Linda Nicholson calls the “coat-rack view” of gender: our sexed bodies are like coat racks and “provide the site upon which gender is constructed”.
Be that as it may, we must then ask ourselves why nature produced the sharp division of the sexes that is observed not just in our species, but throughout the animal kingdom (known in science as sexual dimorphism). If we’re true blank slates, primed for the inculcation of any attitude or behaviour, then it would be extremely inefficient from the point of view of natural selection to have two separate types of “coat-racks” when only one is necessary. While the influence of culture and upbringing on the human mind is undeniable, so is biology.
Reeves acknowledges this point when he says: “It is hard to find a responsible scientist who is either an outright determinist or an outright denier on the question of biology. The real debate is not about whether biology matters, but how much it does, and when it does”
Of course, the more important question is how much the male biology influences men to adopt attitudes and make life decisions that are different from women. It’s these differences that are crucial to understanding the masculinity crisis, and the well-known concepts of “masculinity” and “femininity” become enormously helpful when trying to both categorize these differences and observe their imprint in our society. In the case of masculinity, Reeves’s analysis boils down to nothing more than a simple equation of masculinity with the effects of testosterone, and specifically the traits of aggression and risk-taking. But other research shows masculinity to be more complicated and multifaceted.
For example, the famous “Men and things, women and people” study shows a statistically significant difference between men and women on the Things-People dimension, where men (on average) prefer working with things and women (on average) prefer working with people. Other research reveals more or less identical results on the Sensitivity factor (sensitive, aesthetic, sentimental, vs utilitarian, objective, and tough-minded) across cultures all over the world, with the authors concluding that this pattern of effects is consistent with previous findings on sex differences based on the Big Five Model.
If we take this research as revealing certain biological inclinations among males (and females), then we can view masculinity as a family of traits that have served a useful purpose in our evolutionary history. In other words, “masculinity” can be understood as a personality archetype to which the male biology approximates, but not always achieves.
Culture, on the other hand, can be seen as a sociological phenomenon adapting to an already-existing biological tendency within our species, and whose customs were shaped to fit the biological imperative of “masculinity” (for males) and “femininity” (for females) in any given environment. This explains why, as Dawkins wrote in The Selfish Gene, only those cultural forms that are evolutionary advantageous were allowed to exist and propagate throughout our species – and the reason why tribes like those of the Pacific South Sea are always a rare sight across the whole range of human cultural diversity. They are the exception that proves the rule – the rule being that our traditional notions of masculinity and femininity are biologically favored by our species, giving those cultures that act in accordance with it an evolutionary advantage over those that do not.
If we accept that masculinity (properly understood) was never in fact a social construct, but a personality archetype whose roots lie in male biology, then our “masculinity crisis” can really be seen as a crisis of culture, marking a disconnect between our modern culture and the biological imperative of masculinity, and whose consequences we can see reflected in our society. It is important to note the recent efforts pushing positive masculinity in our culture, which can be seen as ways to preserve some remnants of masculinity but without the so-called negative parts. While many of these efforts are undoubtedly good-intentioned, the reality is that “masculinity”, understood properly, can never be truly subdivided into “good” parts and “bad” parts; it’s culture that determines how masculinity expresses itself. Bad cultures, like bad upbringing, produce uglier manifestations of masculinity, while good cultures, like good upbringing, allow masculinity to express itself in productive ways. That’s not to say that someone’s individual character does not factor into the equation, but how that someone was raised has an enormous effect on their expression of masculinity.
A man who constantly feels the need to assert his superiority over others while drifting in his Bugatti exhibits just as much masculinity as a man who musters the courage to save vulnerable women and children in a house fire. It’s just that one of them is an asshole, while the other is a hero. But to frame masculinity itself (or aspects of it) as “positive” or “negative” is to hopelessly twist its meaning.
The third issue concerns Reeves’s solution to the masculinity crisis – a solution composed of three different parts: redshirting the boys, encouraging men into HEAL jobs, and transforming Fatherhood into an institution.
Redshirting the Boys
‘Redshirting’ in this context means giving boys an extra year in the classroom. According to Reeves, this is due to recent research showing how boys’ brains mature at a slower rate than girls, causing the pervasive academic disparity between boys and girls in the classroom. If we can give boys an extra year in the classroom, then we can offset this disparity in ‘brain maturity’ between boys and girls, potentially improving young boys’ academic performance and their prospects at college and university.
Getting men into HEAL jobs
HEAL is an acronym that means Health, Education, Administration and Literacy. Reeves believes that careers in the HEAL sectors represent the future, and if we want to improve the economic and health prospects of our boys and men of the future, we need to train them with an emphasis on aspects that prepare them better for those jobs and careers.
Fatherhood as an Institution
Reeves advocates a reframing of ‘fatherhood’ in our culture to be as something as fundamental as a right, with all the advantages and benefits that are at present accorded to maternity and ‘motherhood’. This will incentivize men to take an active role in their families, breaking the cycle of fatherlessness that exists among a growing number of families in the US.
While on the surface these solutions do seem to support improving men’s conditions across each of the academic, economic, and familial dimensions, they do not address the core issues raised around the true role ‘masculinity’ (or ‘femininity’ for that matter) in our culture, and, in light of our previous two points, can be seen as just that: surface solutions. Implicit in all of these solutions is the notion that both men and women are fundamentally indistinguishable as individuals, but unfortunately Reeves never explicitly mentions his reasoning for this claim, and as a reader I’m left with a certain sense of doubt regarding the effectiveness of these suggestions. Like those pharmaceutical drugs that work for their intended purpose, but nobody understands the full mechanism by which they work, Reeves’s solutions make sense for their intended purpose, but the reasoning behind these particular suggestions (as opposed to the million other suggestions that are possible) is never explained in depth. And like that pharmaceutical drug, we’re left wondering whether the side effects could be far worse than the cure.
Reeves’s book Of Boys and Men is considered a landmark in the effort to understand the dynamics between the sexes, raising the alarm on the important issues facing young boys and men growing up in the modern world.
In many ways, what Reeves and others describe as a “masculinity crisis” can be viewed as a crisis of culture, a crisis where men, born and raised in the cultural mindset of a former era, are shocked by a society that has rapidly and unrecognizably changed. Reeves’s solutions to this problem come close to understanding the need for a re-evaluation of what it means to be a man (and woman), but these solutions cannot be fully accepted and digested without setting the right philosophical and conceptual background for them. The popularity of the Red Pill / Black Pill movements and the phenomenon of Andrew Tate are at bottom symptoms of this collective confusion among men in our society on what it really means to be a man in the modern world.
But if we’re still committed to finding a solution to this crisis, then at the top of our list needs to be the inculcation of an educated awareness of our nature, and in that understanding comes the freedom to act wisely. Lacking a deeper understanding of the biological foundations of both “masculinity” and “femininity”, we inevitably run the risk of causing even greater damage to both men and women over the long term. And how we balance those biological facts with our culture’s cherished ideals of personal freedom and liberty will be the great undertaking of this crisis, bridging the cultural, political, and economic facets of our lives to secure a better, happier, and more fulfilling future for both sexes.
Adam Hadidi works in the IT sector. He writes about philosophy and culture.
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