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Are Men OK?

Osita Nwanevu
12 min read
Are Men OK?
Jordan Peterson

Hey all. I hope to be back to regularity with this soon, but it's been rough with a major book deadline approaching. Until then, I'd like to make up for it with longish posts, like this one, when I can. As always, send in any questions to Let's hop to it.


I haven’t seen Don’t Worry Darling or been following the drama around it very closely ⁠— not that I’d admit it if I had ⁠— but I did read a while back that the film is about a utopian community in the 1950s led by a Jordan Peterson-inspired character. Director Olivia Wilde confirmed this to Maggie Gyllenhaal in Interview magazine last month:

WILDE: We based that character on this insane man, Jordan Peterson, who is this pseudo-intellectual hero to the incel community. You know the incels?
WILDE: They’re basically disenfranchised, mostly white men, who believe they are entitled to sex from women.
GYLLENHAAL: Oh, right.
WILDE: And they believe that society has now robbed them—that the idea of feminism is working against nature, and that we must be put back into the correct place.
GYLLENHAAL: Well, they must be psyched. Things are going really well for them.

Peterson, being the sane and stable man that he is, responded predictably to Wilde’s comments in an interview with Piers Morgan last week:

Honestly, Peterson doesn’t well up quite as dramatically here as he’s been known to in the past, but this moment has been the focal point of conversation about the interview in the days since anyway. Longtime Peterson-watchers on the left have been ribbing him; his defenders in the conservative press have been beside themselves over our cruelty. Some guy at RedState:

He was mocked, derided, and ridiculed for daring to show emotion in public as a man, especially over the subject of men. This is a pretty common response to men showing emotion, which is one of the reasons why men feel so isolated and unable to express themselves.
Case in point: The reaction to Peterson is one such example.
Women can express their emotions freely. In fact, doing so often is a net benefit for them. However, for men, expressing emotions can become a liability. It’s a sign of weakness to society and, to boot, indicates a weakness of spirit and emotional instability to potential mates. It looks better on us when we deal with problems stoically or, at the very least, turn our sadness into controlled anger.
So the left wants men to stop being so toxic and start expressing emotions, yet they want men to deal with the natural consequences that come with this alone. They encourage men to be free to shed tears and express their sadness, but they’re perfectly okay with turning right around and using those tears as a cudgel to beat men over the head.
They want you to show them that you’re down so they can kick you while you’re there.
Utter hypocrisy.

This line of thought rhymes a bit with the indignation from the right and the likes of the New York Times’ Pamela Paul that progressives haven’t been celebrating Liz Truss’ rise and the diversity of her government. And there, I’ll concede that historic things really are happening across the pond. Like Thatcher before them, Truss and Kwarteng have proven something monumental. Tanking the British economy is no longer the exclusive privilege of white men.

More seriously, I tend to come away from pieces like the above a little annoyed at the way progressive positions have been characterized. There's been a lot of well-intentioned and often helpful but reductive identity political discourse I've never been fully on board with personally, as much as I've learned from it. It's true that if you were on the internet in the 2010s, you really did hear, in many corners, that getting men to cry was something like a social imperative. Here, from Buzzfeed, are “18 Photos Of Men Crying That Challenge Gender Norms.” Here’s an invitation from Jezebel to “Watch 67 Sensitive Men Shed Hollywood Tears.

But as I’ve written previously for the newsletter, this kind of thing is petering out in favor of more nuanced and self-critical conversations. I don’t know that I have a good handle on why yet, but I suspect two major events have played a role. First, Biden’s nomination and victory seems to have both reflected and exacerbated cynicism about the utility of descriptive representation as a political matter. Second, I think the Floyd protests and the institutional upheavals that followed put more radical energy into progressive identity politics, underscoring the thinness of discourse prior and the hollowness of the commitments mainstream organizations and voices had made to progressive causes. Whatever the reasons, I think conversations about race, gender, and sexuality have sobered up in important ways recently and that this is to the good. So, in that spirit, let’s talk tears.

Should men cry? There’s something a little ridiculous about the question. Crying is not a virtue. Good people cry. Bad people cry. Sometimes people cry for good reasons. And sometimes people cry for reasons that are actually quite stupid. Here, as is usually the case, the whys matter.

Now, it’s true that the repression of male emotion has been bad in clear ways. Women have been hindered by the false impression that they’re more emotional and irrational. Men with unhealthily bottled up anxieties and insecurities can lash out destructively. That said, I don’t think it’s inherently wrong for people of any gender to live their lives with a reasonable amount of emotional reserve if that’s how they want to move about the world. And it’s fine, too, if some people prefer to wear their hearts on their sleeves. The important thing, no matter our dispositions, is that we treat others ⁠— and ourselves ⁠— with respect.

When we don’t, we ought to be set straight. And upon confrontation, some of the very worst of us will cry. Abused women know this well, obviously; the “sensitive” man who strikes his partner and weeps with supposed remorse before doing it again is a person to be reviled. As appropriate and justifiable as it might often be, crying does have a way of occluding the substance of what’s actually being said and done in the moment.

That seems true in Peterson’s case ⁠— commentators haven’t taken too much interest in what he actually told Morgan about inceldom and the idea that men are in a state of deep crisis. That happens to be the subject of Of Boys and Men, a new book from the Brookings Institution’s Richard Reeves that David Brooks, naturally, just wrote up in the Times:

If you’ve been paying attention to the social trends, you probably have some inkling that boys and men are struggling, in the U.S. and across the globe.

They are struggling in the classroom. American girls are 14 percentage points more likely to be “school ready” than boys at age 5, controlling for parental characteristics. By high school, two-thirds of the students in the top 10 percent of the class, ranked by G.P.A., are girls, while roughly two-thirds of the students at the lowest decile are boys. In 2020, at the 16 top American law schools, not a single one of the flagship law reviews had a man as editor in chief.
Men are struggling in the workplace. One in three American men with only a high school diploma — 10 million men — is now out of the labor force. The biggest drop in employment is among young men aged 25 to 34. Men who entered the workforce in 1983 will earn about 10 percent less in real terms in their lifetimes than those who started a generation earlier. Over the same period, women’s lifetime earnings have increased 33 percent. Pretty much all of the income gains that middle-class American families have enjoyed since 1970 are because of increases in women’s earnings.
Men are also struggling physically. Men account for close to three out of every four “deaths of despair” — suicide and drug overdoses. For every 100 middle-aged women who died of Covid up to mid-September 2021, there were 184 middle-aged men who died.

Typically, you’d expect a few policy proposals to follow all this. Brooks relates that Reeves has some, but the column has more to say about what hasn’t worked:

[P]olicies and programs designed to promote social mobility often work for women, but not men. Reeves [...] visited Kalamazoo, Mich., where, thanks to a donor, high school graduates get to go to many colleges in the state free. The program increased the number of women getting college degrees by 45 percent. The men’s graduation rates remained flat. Reeves lists a whole series of programs, from early childhood education to college support efforts, that produced impressive gains for women, but did not boost men.

Brooks does say that Reeves thinks boys should begin school later than they currently do ⁠— “because on average the prefrontal cortex and the cerebellum, which are involved in self-regulation, mature much earlier in girls than in boys” ⁠— but the entirety of the policy space Reeves seems to have evaluated, from what hasn’t worked to what might, seems to lean heavily on education. Nothing’s said in the column about any of the other big ideas that have been advanced for post-industrial America and its struggling men, from bolstering labor rights to proposals like a job guarantee and universal basic income. Instead, after briefly recognizing the role economic shifts have played here, Brooks ⁠— and perhaps Reeves ⁠— veers off into the cultural ether:

There are many reasons men are struggling — for example, the decline in manufacturing jobs that put a high value on physical strength, and the rise of service sector jobs. But I was struck by the theme of demoralization that wafts through the book. Reeves talked to men in Kalamazoo about why women were leaping ahead. The men said that women are just more motivated, work harder, plan ahead better. Yet this is not a matter of individual responsibility. There is something in modern culture that is producing an aspiration gap.
Many men just seem less ambitious. College women are roughly twice as likely to enroll in study abroad programs as college men. In 2020, amid Covid, the decline in college enrollment for male students was seven times that of female students. As Reeves puts it: “It is not that men have fewer opportunities. It is that they are not taking them.”
More men are leading haphazard and lonely lives. Roughly 15 percent of men say they have no close friends, up from 3 percent in 1990. One in five fathers doesn’t live with his children. In 2014, more young men were living with their parents than with a wife or partner. Apparently even many who are married are not ideal mates. Wives are twice as likely to initiate divorces as husbands.

“The culture,” he concludes, “is still searching for a modern masculine ideal. It is not instilling in many boys the nurturing and emotional skills that are so desperately important today.” American men are materially in crisis, the argument goes, partially because masculinity itself is.

That claim’s hard for me to evaluate partially because I don’t really know what masculinity is. I don’t have the benefit of a background in gender theory to help me out either, though I did half-read Gender Trouble once. Like most people, I turn to popular discourse on things like this; most of it isn’t very insightful. A couple years ago, the conservative Tom Nichols began a venture into the subject with a definition from the American Psychological Association, which holds that masculinity encompasses “toughness, dominance, self-reliance, heterosexual behaviors, restriction of emotional expression and the avoidance of traditionally feminine attitudes and behaviors.” It’s about a little more than that though per Nichols, whose piece was about how Donald Trump, for all his machismo, flouted certain masculine cultural standards:

I am a son of the working class, and I know these cultural standards. The men I grew up with think of themselves as pretty tough guys, and most of them are. They are not the products of elite universities and cosmopolitan living. These are men whose fathers and grandfathers came from a culture that looks down upon lying, cheating, and bragging, especially about sex or courage. (My father’s best friend got the Silver Star for wiping out a German machine-gun nest in Europe, and I never heard a word about it until after the man’s funeral.) They admire and value the understated swagger, the rock-solid confidence, and the quiet reserve of such cultural heroes as John Wayne’s Green Beret Colonel Mike Kirby and Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo (also, as it turns out, a former Green Beret).

All of this ⁠— that men traditionally don’t brag about having sex or how courageous they are, the humility of John Wayne ⁠— was news to me, frankly. If Nichols is right, the question then becomes how so many men were duped into thinking of Donald Trump as a masculine exemplar. I don’t know that they can be blamed for their confusion. All my life, I’ve been told that being a man is about both Brooks Brothers suits and overalls. It’s sharp business cards and fishing rods. It’s cruising around in an Aston Martin and sloshing through mud in an ATV. It’s drinking the cheapest beer on tap and taking an interest in expensive cognac. It’s both watching other underdressed men writhe around sweatily and making shows of disgust at male physical intimacy.

Again, I’m relatively untutored in what academics have to say about all this. But my suspicion is that the masculinity of popular discourse is, in fact, a phantom ⁠— a meaningless tangle of contradictory cultural practices and consumer preferences that sit atop the one durable and certain thing that’s always defined men and their place in the world, which is their power over women. As Peterson himself suggests, this is the heart of the matter; materially, anxieties about lost control over women’s sexual lives are now manifesting themselves in an ever more draconian abortion policy regime.

Immaterially ⁠— though again, this is changing ⁠— we’ve been waging an amorphous culture war over whether and how men should express themselves. One front in that battle has been men’s magazines. GQ’s newish editor Will Welch, for instance, has been ridiculed by some voices on the right for his look and editorial ambitions, which were described in a recent profile in the Times:

Mr. Welch trumpeted the publication’s post-#MeToo identity with a fall 2019 cover featuring the singer and producer Pharrell Williams in a quilted, gownlike Moncler coat, bracketed by the words “The New Masculinity Issue” in a froufrou font.
Shot by the photographer Micaiah Carter, it was the first in a series of GQ cover images that caught fire online, a necessity at a time when newsstands have become almost irrelevant to a magazine’s success. Underscoring the issue’s importance, Mr. Welch wrote the cover story himself, noting a connection between Pharrell’s “evolving fashion sensibility and his evolving sense of self.”
[...] In his first editor’s letter, [Welch] noted that the “new iteration of GQ might not be for everyone.” But speaking this summer in his office, he said the magazine was not dictating a particular style to its readers.
“We’re not saying, ‘Men of America, dress in a gender-neutral way,’ or ‘Wear women’s clothes,’” he said, adding that the “mission” of the magazine has moved away from giving readers style tips and sex advice. “Instead, we’re going to show different forms of self-expression, almost like a mood board, and let you find yourself in it.”

That sounds swell and perhaps even liberatory provided you’re the kind of man that might buy a $20,000 watch. But one gets a sense reading this kind of thing that Brooks has a point about those who aren’t ⁠— between all that and the guy who used to host Fear Factor or a Jungian mystic offering advice based upon the social hierarchies of lobsters, there aren’t very many places for ordinary men to turn for a sense of cultural direction. What to do?

One of the ideas I try to foreground early in my book is that democracy, as a structural and material thing, is intertwined with a set of abstract values we ought to live by in our personal lives. I’m leaving a fuller explication of that argument aside for my next project. But the main idea is that democracy builds a sense of individual and collective efficacy and power within us; in turn, that enhanced feeling of agency bolsters democracy. And there have to be venues outside of politics where agency is built for the whole enterprise to work well ⁠— not just civic organizations and the like but spaces within the economy. Relatedly, if it’s true that men today lack the “emotional skills” to cope with the economic and cultural changes that have taken place in this country over the last half-century, I can’t really imagine that they’ll be built back up being jerked around in Amazon warehouses. What they need instead, and what we all need, is a more democratic economy ⁠— real agency in the workplaces where we spend most of our lives rather than feeling like we're being buffeted by material forces that lie increasingly beyond our control and understanding. That’s not the whole solution; I don’t think material progress alone will “fix” men or any of the enduring cultural problems we face. But I do think there’s an extent to which our cultural conversations dance around structural changes to the American economy that have reverberated in supramaterial ways.

A Song

“I Love a Man in Uniform” ⁠— Gang of Four (original 1982, re-recorded 2005)