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In Defense of Men

Let’s not feed hatred and fear

Recently I volunteered at the Lane Peace Center’s annual Peace Symposium, “Rise to End Gender Violence!” Women's empowerment is essential to cultural progress. And violence toward or objectification of women impedes progress. Yet, I also feel compelled to stand up for that other gender, men. 

I once lived with a woman who was active in the LGBT movement and who spoke with great regularity about her hatred toward men, because men had abused her. At some level I understood her antipathy. Yet while she would reassure me that she didn’t hate me, just men in general, I was uncomfortable knowing that I was part of a hated group. Ultimately, I learned to accept her for who she was: a caring, intelligent person who had some issues to work through.

In his Viewpoint “End Gender Violence” April 18, Stan Taylor portrays men as perpetrators of violence, and condemns patriarchy and masculine values. It is true that men perpetrate most of the violent crimes in our society. But the vast majority of men are not violent criminals. Let’s not feed hatred.

Taylor claims that there is an “epidemic of violence against women” in the U.S. and around the world. My concern about this claim is that, by omission, it downplays the importance of violence against men (e.g., across cultures roughly 75 percent of homicide victims are male) and that it exaggerates the overall level of violence.

 

Suppose for a moment that there is not an epidemic of violence, that in fact violence is dramatically declining. If this were true then wouldn’t it be a good idea to acknowledge this fact? It might lead us to try to understand the factors responsible.

Moreover, exaggerating the level of violence could create an atmosphere of fear, which is not conducive to a more tolerant society.

In fact, Steven Pinker in his thoroughly documented 700-page book The Better Angels of Our Nature, argues that there has been a dramatic decline in virtually every form of violence (homicide, rape, torture, deaths in war, etc.). He maintains that “today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence.” The data are most clear with regard to homicide, as many cities have long kept track: Rates today are a tiny fraction of what they were centuries ago.

Even if we limit ourselves to violence against women today in the U.S., and draw on the National Crime Victimization Survey that Taylor cites, we find that between 1995 and 2010 rape and sexual assault declined by 58 percent, while intimate partner violence declined by 64 percent. If we use the mid-1970s as the starting point, the decline in rape is roughly 80 percent. 

Of course, a continued decline in violence would be a good thing. But is Taylor’s proposed cure of convincing men to embrace feminine values the correct prescription? I partially agree with Taylor here. The world’s most patriarchal cultures not only oppress women but also tend to emphasize harshly competitive survivalist values, with men being focused on their own physical and economic security and being distrustful of others.

But a person’s values tend to reflect his or her experience of life. One doesn’t simply talk a person into embracing different values. If you want to help someone change, find a way to help him or her feel more secure, accepted, and more in control of his or her own life. According to Human Development Theory, when people experience life in this way there is a tendency for more progressive values to emerge, values including, among others, tolerance, diversity, creativity, environmental concern and post-materialism.

So condemning masculine values is not the answer. Let’s try to first understand one another. Roy Baumeister maintains that historically most men have been biological dead ends. Women around the world tend to prefer socially dominant or ambitious males as mates. So many men have felt compelled to “strive for greatness,” working hard, being competitive and taking risks in the hope of attracting a mate. This may lead to a great work of art or music, or perhaps a scientific breakthrough or technological innovation. Competition and risk-taking are not all bad. But unless the harsh edges are softened a bit, competition can lead to violence.

If the social environment is too harshly competitive, if social and economic inequalities are too great, many young men may understandably believe that the only way to get to the top is to look out for number one, scramble over others, and take what they can get. Some will fail and find themselves in a situation of desperation, and others will be so harshly competitive that the competition itself results in violence.

Young, unmarried males with poor prospects are responsible for a large share of violent crimes. And many homicides result from dominance contests between men, arguments that start over trivial matters but escalate with seeming inevitability because neither party can find a way to save face while backing down.

 

In our society the majority of individuals who are homeless or living in a mental hospital or a prison are men. The most dangerous jobs in our society, from logging, to police work, to firefighting to soldiering are predominantly done by men. 

My own prescription would include universal health care, affordable higher education, and progressive taxation that rewards economic productivity but not rent-seeking behavior or positional spending. As individuals, anything we do to help others, including young men, to feel safe, valued, and in control of their own lives can help. When people experience their environment as supportive rather than threatening an emphasis on progressive values comes to the fore.