Re-reading Hanna Rosin’s excellent 2010 article in The Atlantic, “The End of Men,” I found myself thinking about the ways in which reality is often framed these days.
Rosin reports on the ascendancy of women in our new post-industrial world. Among other things, she notes that in a U.S. clinical trial where people chose the gender of their child, 75 percent opted for a girl. Women are now in the majority in the workforce, and for every two men getting a college degree three women do. This recession has been dubbed a “Man-cession,” as the majority of jobs lost have been lost by men.
While there are lots of possible reasons for the growing success of women and girls, and Rosin explores several insightfully, one gets less attention. For years now men, at least in parts of our culture, have been portrayed as dumb and dumber, while women are smart and sensitive. Watching commercials on TV, or the occasional sit-com or listening to the official narrative at sundry public events, my wife (a mother of two sons and a daughter) will note the subtle and not-so-subtle aspersions directed at men and boys. “Turn that one around (gender wise),” she comments, “and there’d be hell to pay.”
Some, of course, say “About time” or "Turnabout is fair play,” and I suppose they have a point. The only problem is that increasingly it seems we live in a society of lost boys and bewildered young (and not so young) men. Have they internalized the mix of diminishment and neglect aimed at their gender? The results aren’t good for anyone.
Beneath this is a cultural narrative that describes the world in terms that are appealing but simplistic. It is the narrative of victims and oppressors, which is itself simply a variation on the larger more elemental theme, that the world divides into the good people and the bad people. Life alas, and thankfully, is more complex.
I was watching a movie recently with a 7-year-old, when he turned to me and said, “Who are the good guys?” To see everything through such a lens (there are the good guys and the bad guys) may be fine for a child, but it’s not so fine for adults. And yet it is a pervasive framework. Women have been oppressed so must be advanced. Men have been oppressors and must be diminished. Stated so baldly, it sounds as ridiculous as it is.
Of course, the victim/oppressor lens is pervasive because there’s truth to it. Whites did oppress blacks. Indigenous peoples were victimized by colonialists. Men have oppressed, and in some cultures continue to oppress, women.
But as explanatory devices and as a way of living in the world, such easy divides break down, proving intellectually deficient and socially consequential. Still, we persist in framing the world through such a lens, wanting to know as my 7-year-old companion did, “Who are the good guys, and who are the bad guys?” Determine that and we’re done.
And so in the matter of genders and “The End of Men,” there are many factors at work, but among them the tendency for a generation or more to celebrate and advance girls but ignore or diminish boys in schools and culture because it fits this script. The result is not only that women are getting three bachelor's degrees for every two earned by men, but the failure on the part of too many men and boys to find their own place in the sun.
Is there an alternative to the victim/oppressor, good guys/bad guys framing of reality? Of course there is. It is voiced throughout history by what is perhaps a more rigorous, if minority, tradition, which finds that the line between good and evil does not run between nations, genders, races, political parties, or social classes but through the heart of each and every human being.
The former President of the Czech Republic, poet and playwright Vaclav Havel, articulated this tradition from within the cauldron of inhumanity that was Eastern Europe in the late 20th century, saying, “The line between good and evil did not run clearly between ‘them' and ‘us,' but through each person.”
Shakespeare said as much in his play All’s Well That Ends Well, when two young noblemen discuss the mixed motives of the characters around them. One says to the other, “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together.”
This is elemental to the Christian theological and intellectual tradition, itself in eclipse these days. Such a faith refused simplistic judgments and instead viewed all people as fallible and prone to error, or to put it more theologically as “sinners in need of grace.” The French essayist and Christian, Pascal, put it both succinctly and memorably when he wrote, “The world does not divide between saints and sinners, but between sinners who believe themselves to be saints and saints who know themselves to be sinners.”
For the time being, the capacity to articulate and embody this subtle tradition seems to have faded from the scene — both the religious one and the broader culture. This is one of the costs, for our society, of the eclipse of Christianity as a significant intellectual tradition. We prefer the good guys/bad guys, victim/oppressor narratives. One consequence, among many, is our culture of present girls but absent boys.