COMMENT: Boys and Men Stiffed (Again)

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The title to this post is a reference to Susan Faludi’s 1999 book entitled Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man. When it was released in 1999, Faludi’s book created a bit of a storm within liberal feminist communities. Stiffed seemed to paint the plight of men during the 1990s using sympathetic tones. Displaying any sympathy for the plight of men was a big “no no” back then (and even today) for liberal feminists determined to upend patriarchal power.

I bought Stiffed soon after it was released but didn’t get around to reading it until about five years ago. Stiffed weighs in at over 600 pages and the size probably scared me off. But after I read it I did find myself applauding Faludi’s copious efforts to portray the plight of 1990s men in balanced ways. Here are a few of the areas that Faludi looked at where she saw men (and to a lesser degree boys) getting stiffed:

  • job loss in the aerospace industry
  • job loss in the shipbuilding industry [1]
  • corporatized professional sports and the betrayal of male sports fans [2]
  • military protection
  • rising girl power (and declining boy power)
  • declining male spiritual commitment within the family [3]

After reading Stiffed I did feel bad for men and boys. I found myself asking, “How will men and boys develop a sense of identity if society no longer values them as spacecraft builders, shipbuilders, military protectors, spiritual leaders, etc.?” Now, keep in mind that Stiffed was written back in the 1990s, back before the digital age hit full force. This is important because lately books are coming out talking about how boys and men will be stiffed once again as the waves of the digital age continue to hit our shores. I’ll mention one of these books in a moment. But first I’d like to mention another book that also looks at the “stiffed” topic, but through the lens of conservative feminism.

In 2013 Christina Hoff Sommers released her book entitled The War Against Boys: How Misguided Policies are Harming Our Young Men. This is an updated edition of Sommers’ original book released in 2001 entitled The WAR AGAINST BOYS: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men. Sommers, who I would describe as a conservative feminist [4], frames Faludi’s book Stiffed in a different way. Let’s take a quick look at Sommers’ framing.

Sommers essentially reframes “stiffed” by using the term “shortchanged.” Sommers talks about how liberal feminists (starting in the 1990s and continuing today) have engaged in a well orchestrated campaign to portray boys as being shortchanged. How are boys being shortchanged? Sommers tries to convince us that boys are being shortchanged because they are being (figuratively) ripped from their mother’s arms and thrown into various bastions of male power like shipbuilding and military protection. Sommers persuasively argues that Faludi’s Stiffed is nothing more than an attempt to expand the “shortchanged” worldview to now include men. According to Sommers, Stiffed only paints males in a sympathetic light if we buy into the idea that both boys and men have been shortchanged, that is to say, prematurely removed from female influence and thrust into domains of male power and domination. Sommers challenges us (both back in the early 2000s and today) to reject the shortchanged worldview. With Freud’s Oedipal conflict no doubt floating in the background, Sommers is of the mind that no harm comes to boys/men who separate from their mothers and take up a position within so-called male realms of power. In essence, Sommers’ view holds that the Oedipal conflict does not shortchange men but instead makes them who they should be, men. Now that I have stirred the hornet’s nest, let me switch gears.

Recently I read Geoff Colvin’s 2015 book entitled Humans Are Underrated: What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will. Colvin comes from the world of business and brings this perspective to his writings. At the end of Humans Are Underrated, Colvin effectively says that the digital age will “stiff” or “shortchange” boys and men yet again. To make his point, Colvin draws upon the work of Cambridge University research psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen. Baron-Cohen wrote a book back in 2003 entitled The Essential Difference: Male And Female Brains And The Truth About Autism. Baron-Cohen’s book raised a few liberal feminist eyebrows because it talks about gender differences. Talking about gender differences is another liberal feminist “no no.” Allow me to quote Colvin at length as he describes the differences between male and female brains using Baron-Cohen’s book as a backdrop:

[M]en’s brains are “systemizing” and women’s are “empathizing.” Systemizing means figuring out the rules that govern any kind of system—a lawn mower engine, the weather, software, a golf swing. Empathizing means figuring out the mental state of another person and an appropriate “affective” or emotional response. Systemizing and empathizing are in many ways “almost the opposite of each other,” Baron-Cohen says. Systemizing is the best way of “understanding and predicting the law-governed inanimate universe.” Empathizing is the best way of understanding and predicting the social world.

Again pulling from Baron-Cohen’s work, here’s some of the evidence Colvin presents in support of the above idea that females are better equipped to handle the demands of the social world:

  • Women are better than men not just at reading eyes but also at nonverbal communication generally, such as reading tone of voice and facial expressions.
  • Women value reciprocal relationships more highly than men do. Men value power and competition more highly than women do.
  • Empathy disorders, such as psychopathic personality disorder, are far more common among men. Murder, which Baron-Cohen rather drily calls “the ultimate example of lack of empathy,” is of course overwhelmingly male instigated.

Colvin essentially argues that because men are so good at systemizing, they are systemizing their value out of existence. How? Men are rendering themselves largely valueless through various modes of computerization and automation. If Colvin is indeed correct then liberal feminists can simply sit back and wait for systemizing men to burn themselves out as they continue to create their own mechanical replacements. Colvin argues that computers and automation are gobbling up many of the systemizing tasks that men typically do, computer programming chief among them. As a result, empathizing skills will gain in social value because they are the skills that computers cannot do easily if at all. Who’s good at empathizing? Women. [5]

Colvin points out that “empathy in general appears to be declining, at least in the United States.” This goes along with what attachment researchers are finding: declining rates of secure attachment. Bowlby essentially said that secure attachment is the foundation upon which empathy skills rest. If empathy in general is declining, then this increases the value of those people (men and women alike) who can act in empathetic ways. And Colvin is quick to point out that there is no clear line between male systemizing and female empathizing. But Colvin does intimate that it will be easier for women to learn systemizing skills than it will be for men to learn empathizing skills. But here’s where computerization and automation cut both ways. As computerization and automation take over systemizing tasks, this will leave more time for people (mostly boys and men) to learn empathizing skills. Here’s how Colvin puts it:

Advancing technology is at the root of why we must improve our social abilities, but it’s also enabling us to spend more time doing exactly that, if we choose [my emphasis]. If we can now learn basic knowledge skills in weeks rather than months or years, using infotech [like MOOCs or massive open online courses], then we can focus increasingly on developing interpersonal abilities, just as [many] business students are doing [today]. It’s a hint that as technology creates a new world in which millions of people’s jobs are threatened, it can also help us succeed in that world.

Colvin imagines a future where liberal arts programs will make a big comeback. Why? Well, because systemizing skills can be taught using technology like online courses. But empathizing skills have to be taught face-to-face and in small social groups. Colvin points to Steve Jobs as the poster child for this future movement. Apparently Jobs attended Reed College, “a rigorous liberal arts school in Portland, Oregon“ (quoting Colvin). “[I]n the emerging world of work,” writes Colvin, “the abilities that the humanities nurture are precisely those that the economy will increasingly value.” This certainly is good news for liberal arts programs, which have been in a slump of late. Here’s Colvin’s “bottom line”:

Life will be increasingly tough for [systemizing men]. Organizations used to have a place for them, in solid middle-class jobs in factories or back offices [or shipyards]. But those are the jobs that technology is rapidly taking over. As the shift in valuable skills continues, organizations are finding not only that they have no jobs for the disengaged and socially inept, but that such people are toxic to the enterprise and must be removed. … Now, as technology drives forward more powerfully every year, the transition to the newly valuable skills of empathizing, collaborating, creating, leading, and building relationships is happening faster than corporations, governments, education systems, or most human psyches can keep up with. That’s disorienting, and it gets more so as the fundamental nature of value shifts from what you know to what you’re like [my emphasis].

Yeow! More bad news for boys and men. They’re getting stiffed or shortchanged yet again (depending on your frame). Rather than being stiffed or shortchanged, maybe men will be “disoriented.” And as men’s and boy’s heads are spinning, it will be time for clearheaded women and girls to step up as they already are in areas such as psychology and veterinary sciences (according to Colvin). For more on this trend, see the following article: Why Have So Many Men Stopped Working? But I see at least two flies in the ointment:

  • If shortchangers are right and boys are being ripped from their mother’s bosom too quickly, then why is there such a big push for pre-K and day care programs? I could be way off base here but this seems like a liberal feminist case of “cake and eat it too.” If Colvin is right then we may have to rethink our positions concerning pre-K and day care programs. Bowlby’s big contribution was to say in essence, “Mothering is critical to the creation of empathetic citizens and we have the science to back that claim up.” Sadly, many liberal feminists reject this science because they tend to frame mothering as a form of patriarchal enslavement. Writing in a 1999 article entitled Why Is Attachment In the Air?, [6] liberal feminist psychoanalyst Susie Orbach observed that the 1970s marked a time when Bowlby’s attempts to frame the mother – infant relationship scientifically collided head on with feminist attempts to “understand the relationship of women’s oppression to the structure of the [male headed] nuclear family” (quoting Orbach). To get the discussion going, give this article a look: How Today’s Preschools Are Actually Harming Your Kids.
  • If liberal feminists wish us to believe that child and house care is demeaning, enslaving, and oppressive, why then do they wish that more men be willing to take on these forms of care? Why would men move into areas that women are leaving in droves? And liberal feminists tend to attack patriarchal bastions of power such as the military and the police force, but yet these are the same areas that are now receiving large numbers of women. What gives? Why would women move into areas that liberal feminists are condemning? Makes little sense to me. Liberal feminists “diss” gender difference but are for difference otherwise. Conservative feminists are OK with gender difference but tend to diss difference otherwise. It does get confusing.

As a general observation, there just seems to be a lot of dissing on one hand and praising on another, and for the same things. Move women out of the house and men in: How is that not a gender bias? The only way to dig through this mess is to engage in frame analysis (touched on briefly above), which is way beyond where this post can go. Frame analysis (a la George Lakoff) can help one understand why conservatives can be “the party of life” on one hand and be for the death penalty on the other. Or frame analysis can help us understand how liberals can be “the party of empathy” on one hand and be for per-K and day care on the other. One person’s shortchange is another’s stiffed.

Let me end by mentioning a point that Sommers makes that I think is important and often overlooked. Sommers suggests that there are male forms of care: military protection, fire protection, law and order protection, etc. Sommers challenges us to recognize and value the entire care continuum that includes care of children and house on one end, and care of community and country on the other. I just find it interesting that conservative feminists are more accepting of the entire care continuum as compared to liberal feminists. In my opinion, the care continuum is now open to all and all will find a place where they feel comfortable, regardless of what liberal or conservative pundits may say. But I do agree with Colvin: the care continuum will require increased levels of empathizer skills and decreased levels of systemizer skills. As an example, Colvin talks at length about how today’s military is more about winning hearts and minds and less about destroying hearts and minds. Why? Well, apparently the military is asking humans to win hearts and minds because destroying hearts and minds is increasingly being done by automated machines such as drones. Ethicists warn that it is just a matter of time before drones make kill decisions on their own. And, yes, this shift from systemizing to empathizing will probably adversely affect men and boys more. What’s that line from that country western song: “Mamma don’t let your babies grow up to be systemizers.”


[1] Apparently the musician Sting grew up in an English shipbuilding town. He witnessed the decline of shipbuilding jobs and what it did to his hometown. This led him to write a Broadway play The Last Ship.

[2] This is a topic that conservative social critic Christopher Lasch looked at in detail 20 years before Faludi in his 1979 book entitled The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. See chapter five The Degradation of Sport. Here’s an interesting example of where both conservative and liberal social critics point to the same area—professional sports—as stiffing men.

[3] According to Faludi, declining male spiritual commitment within the family led to the formation of the Promise Keepers movement in the 1990s.

[4] In her book War Against Boys, Sommers mentions that she taught “moral philosophy to college freshmen for more than fifteen years.”

[5] I’m currently reading a 2015 book by psychologist Richard Nisbett entitled Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking. In the section I’m reading, Nisbett compares and contrasts Western logical thinking with Eastern dialectical thinking. In the following quote, Nisbett speculates on which is better:

[I]’ll stick my neck out and hazard the generalization that logical thinking is crucial for scientific thought and some kinds of well-defined problems. Dialectical thinking is often more helpful for thinking about everyday problems, especially those involving human relations.

Yup, you got it:

  • Logical = Western = Systemizing = Scientific Relationships
  • Dialectical = Eastern = Empathizing = Human Relationships.

As more and more of science is done by machines (mainly by building correlations within big data), the result will be that the human domain will become more dialectical, more Eastern. Witness the fact that many Bowlbian attachment researchers (i.e., brain researcher Dan Siegel) are now actively pushing the Buddhist practice of mindfulness. I think Bowlby knew about Eastern ways because his theory of attachment pulls from organismic systems theory which Nisbett points out is very Eastern in its leanings. As Nisbett puts it, “Dialectical thinking emphasizes attention to relations and contexts, the importance of locating an object or phenomenon as part of some larger whole, and emphasis on how systems function, a concern with equilibrium in systems [my emphasis] (such as the body, groups, factory operations), and the need to view problems from many perspectives [my emphasis].” Nisbett provides the following example of how Eastern philosophy influenced Western thought: “Chinese dialectical reasoning had an impact on the physicist Niels Bohr, who was highly knowledgeable about Eastern thought. He attributed his development of quantum theory in part to the metaphysics of the East.”

[6] Orbach, S. (1999). Why is attachment in the air?, Psychoanalytic Dialogues Journal, vol. 9, p. 73–83.