Originally posted June 9, 2011
Did the title upset you? Perhaps that was author Roy Baumeister’s intent. His subtitle How Cultures Flourish By Exploiting Men may put you at ease.
Baumeister regards his book Is There Anything Good About Men? as an essay about the state of men. He offers a refreshing view that does not side with feminists or men’s rights activists. He simply addresses the different ways that men get the short end of the stick and why that occurs, sans the usual political correctness.
The book is about what men are good for, not what they are good at. Baumeister argues that the very qualities that society chastises men about — competitiveness, assertiveness, risk-taking — are the qualities that culture needs men more. According to him, cultures operate like living organisms. They do not care about individuals or groups of people, but they need people to survive. As a result, cultures will use various people to maintain themselves. Cultures tend to exploit men more because men make cultures.
While that is not a radical theory, Baumeister’s version comes without the typical feminist spin. He makes no value judgment on men or women, but he does not shy away from noting the stark differences between the sexes, most notably that it is men who typically create and innovate. As he puts it, women are concerned with interpersonal, one-on-one close relationships while men gravitate towards broader, less intimate relationships with lots of people. Men’s spheres cover a wider range while women’s spheres remain rather small. The result: men, not women, create culture, which in turn reflects the male perspective.
All of culture’s competitiveness and risk-taking matches men’s biological tendencies. According to Baumeister, men are nature’s test subjects, her mutants (like the X-men). If nature experimented with women, it ends up with a problem: most of the failures would pass on their genes because most women have children. However, because of biological or social reasons, most men do not find mates. Only the most successful men do, and those men happen to be risk-takers, competitive, assertive, and so on. Essentially, the failed male’s genes die off while the successful ones live on.
These two elements help create a dynamic that results in men living at extremes. Most of the powerful people are male, but so are most of the downtrodden. Most geniuses and severely impaired people are male. And where risks are involved, the majority of the people who take them are male. Culture uses males to sustain itself, and does not care how many men lose out, suffer, or die in the process. While that may seem stark, it is because of men’s willingness to compete and create that culture exists and moves forward. So there is a trade off, but it is not a good one. Men get to do all these things, but most will fail or never really get a chance, and the few who do will not get to enjoy it.
In contrast, women do not have the same pressures men face. They get most of what men get without ever having to work for it. Baumeister repeatedly states that women are just as capable of doing the things men do. It is simply that women typically do not do them. Fewer women create music, invent new items, create large businesses, or create large social spheres. Whatever issues women face is the trade off for getting access to men’s power, money, and culture without every putting anything into it.
That notion probably would not sit well with Baumeister’s Imaginary Feminist. He created this caricature to represent the feminist voices men hear the most. These are the feminists who view all heterosexual sex as rape. These are the feminists who believe there is a global conspiracy called “patriarchy” designed to oppress women. These are the feminists who attack men for expressing any opinions. Baumeister makes it clear that not all feminists are like this, but he also does not care. He needs to shows men’s perspective, and the Imaginary Feminist suits this perfectly.
Baumeister does an excellent job of taking apart some of the favored conclusions about men, such as men not being social. This is demonstrably false. Men clearly group together all the time. It is that the nature of the grouping is more impersonal. Likewise, the notion that men lack empathy does not hold water. Men are more likely to help strangers than women. The same goes for men’s competitiveness. It gets treated as a character flaw, yet it is because of that competitiveness, that desire to improve and outdo the other guy, that we have culture, language, music, sports, computers, cars, architecture, and so on.
Again, these notions might not sit well with the Imaginary Feminist. Her theories posit that the global conspiracy called “patriarchy” is the cause for all women’s problems. Yet culture is the by-product of men’s competition with other men. There is no overt attempt to oppress women. It is all about outdoing or destroying the other group of men. Baumeister also notes that nothing stops women from doing any of the things that men do. Nothing stops women from walking off, creating their own communities, and flourishing. Nothing stops women from innovating. They just appear to lack interest in doing that.
Motivation is the key to Baumeister’s theory, and it also explains why fewer women achieve as much as men do. Men have to prove their worth while women do not. Men earn manhood, while women just grow into womanhood. The social and culture imperative to earn respect and the constant need to keep it motivates men into achievements, or at least attempts at achievements. Most of the time men will fail, but the desire to succeed trumps men’s concern about the risks.
Is There Anything Good About Men? provides a counterbalance to the “us versus them” mentality that leads most gender discussions. Baumeister does not blame, exalt, or demonize anyone. He provides simple explanations, and while they are not politically correct, they are supported by evidence.