Sunday, September 16, 2007

Is There Anything Good About Men?

This is the title of a speech to the American Psychological Association by one Roy F. Baumeister. The speech starts most promisingly, by Professor Baumeister promising that he will be neutral and objective. He even tells gender warriors to leave the room!

That's the way you know that Baumeister is not a gender warrior himself, obviously. Never mind that someone called Roy F. Baumeister, from Tallahassee, Florida, sent this to the Economist magazine's blog:


Your otherwise fine magazine routinely loses its objectivity when discussing gender, descending instead into sloganeering and bias. Whenever you address the shortage of women at the top of corporate hierarchies, you blame bias, macho cultures, and taking clients to strip clubs. Somehow you forget your own prior reports that 80% of people who work more than 48 hours per week are men. I'll bet that if you spoke to corporate executives about how to succeed, both men and women there would tell you that 50-hour weeks accomplish more than visiting striptease clubs. If so, then ending the gender gap in pay will require a legislative commitment to equal pay for less work.

You find women victims but not male. It's surprising that you can end your report on how women will soon control most private wealth by whining that "It's still hard to be a woman," yet you pass over the apparent fact that many women still amass their wealth because their overstressed husband, who earned the money, dies prematurely. A more evenhanded approach might recognize the gender gaps in pay and longevity as related problems with related solutions, if any.

Roy F. Baumeister
Tallahassee, Florida

It could be some other Roy F. Baumeister? Who knows, but this one does sound like a gender warrior to me.

Anyway, to return to the speech. What motivated Professor Baumeister to give it? Astonishingly, it is the way everybody now likes women better than men:

You're probably thinking that a talk called "Is there anything good about men" will be a short talk! Recent writings have not had much good to say about men. Titles like "Men Are Not Cost Effective" speak for themselves. Maureen Dowd's book was called "Are Men Necessary?" and although she never gave an explicit answer, anyone reading the book knows her answer was no. Brizendine's book "The Female Brain" introduces itself by saying, "Men, get ready to experience brain envy." Imagine a book advertising itself by saying that women will soon be envying the superior male brain!

At this point I had to lie down for a few minutes. Maureen Dowd and Louise Brizendine as feminists! Wonders never cease. Just to make sure, I scrolled down the speech and found it again: It's women who are the favored sex:

I said that today most people hold more favorable stereotypes of women than men. It was not always thus. Up until about the 1960s, psychology (like society) tended to see men as the norm and women as the slightly inferior version. During the 1970s, there was a brief period of saying there were no real differences, just stereotypes. Only since about 1980 has the dominant view been that women are better and men are the inferior version.

I wonder what color the sky is in Baumeister's world. Hasn't he read professor Kanazawa's book about politically incorrect truths (i.e. that men have power naturally and it's ok) or Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate or the many other books by his brethren-in-despair-over-the-end-of-patriarchy?

Well, he is going to remedy the bad treatment of men in his speech, by showing that men are both better and worse than women and by arguing that men are the creators of that thing called culture. You know, literature, science, history, architecture. Those things. Women are of course valuable, too, because they give birth. All this is arrived at not through patriarchy (a silly feminist concept) but through an open and friendly partnership between men and women which has just made certain cultures (such as that of Saudi Arabia*) to thrive, while other, more egalitarian cultures (such as what?) have disappeared down the drain of evolutionary dead-ends.

That men are both better and worse than women, according to Baumeister, is because men are more likely to be found in the tails of various test distributions, even if the average scores are the same for men and women. This means that there are more men in the upper tail, and it is those men who run everything and build the boats they then take out to make discoveries and to amass treasure which they then take back home and get to mate with most of the women. The guys in the lower end are the ones who commit murders and such and never get to mate at all. But almost all women get to mate, you see?

Ok. Let's do that again: HISTORICALLY speaking, the men in the upper tails of various distributions were more likely to build the boat and bring back the treasure and mate with all those women. That's why today's men should be ON AVERAGE better than today's women if Baumeister's argument made sense. But it doesn't have to make sense, so men and women are still equal on average in various abilities but men are more likely to be really bad or really good. The only way all this would make sense is if men started a lot less able than women and only slowly, over centuries, managed to crawl up the frequency distributions. OOPS. We don't want that.

So let's tell the same story about motivations! Yes, that's the ticket, because there is no way of properly measuring motivations or their environmental component, so discussing the evolutionary inheritance of motivations by gender will work! Never mind about the genetic explanation for such an inheritance. We'll worry about that later.

Yes, I know that my writing isn't the clearest possible here, but you could go and read Baumeister's speech first. Then you would truly appreciate my creative style here. Except that according to Baumeister women aren't that creative. He knows this because women don't improvise in jazz or create beautiful symphonies, even though poor black men do and it's harder to buy instruments when you are that poor (and no, Elizabeth Cotten doesn't count as a counterexample here). Then, of course, poor black women have also created fantastic improvised quilts but that must be a mistake as women lack that creative juice. And no, there was nobody who made it hard for Clara Schumann to compose, not at all. Instead:

I suppose the stock explanation for any such difference is that women were not encouraged, or were not appreciated, or were discouraged from being creative. But I don't think this stock explanation fits the facts very well. In the 19th century in America, middle-class girls and women played piano far more than men. Yet all that piano playing failed to result in any creative output. There were no great women composers, no new directions in style of music or how to play, or anything like that. All those female pianists entertained their families and their dinner guests but did not seem motivated to create anything new.

Do you see how neutral and even-handed professor Baumeister is here?

He does tell us that women are really good in intimate groups, such as the family, but that men are much better at other types of groups, such as the firm, the army, the country and the world. It is in the latter groups that creativity, being special and working hard really pay off! Hence it's men who control most everything, but it all pans out equally, because women are needed to tend to children. And none of these differences have anything to do with sexism. It's just how things have worked out on their very own.

No, Baumeister doesn't mention that most cultures have had very clear laws banning women from most occupations, or from owning money. Those two would have made discovery voyages by female adventurers a little bit difficult, but Baumeister assures us that the reason men took such trips is just biology:

Later in this talk we will ponder things like, why was it so rare for a hundred women to get together and build a ship and sail off to explore unknown regions, whereas men have fairly regularly done such things? But taking chances like that would be stupid, from the perspective of a biological organism seeking to reproduce. They might drown or be killed by savages or catch a disease. For women, the optimal thing to do is go along with the crowd, be nice, play it safe. The odds are good that men will come along and offer sex and you'll be able to have babies. All that matters is choosing the best offer. We're descended from women who played it safe.

Why was it so rare for a hundred women to get together and build a ship? Hmm. A tough question, if one assumes that there were no restrictions on the movements of young women away from their homes (because they might be raped, say, or because they might no longer be able to prove their virginity) or if one assumes that young women had access to money and time to hang out with those other ninety-nine other women, unsupervised.

In professor Baumeister's view of history women were never banned from doing such things, even though in reality women were legally banned from the majority of occupations and most everything that didn't have to do with giving birth within a marriage, and those children were the children not of the woman who gave birth to them but of the man who sired them. Why was it important in medieval Germany to ban women from guilds? What happened to female midwives, really? Why could women not own property? Why bother banning women from the military if women had no inclination to join it in any case? Why did women not have the vote until quite recently?

Baumeister doesn't answer my questions because his view of the history has no laws or misogynistic religions or misogynistic traditions. Everything that has happened has been for the best, without any oppression at all, rather the reverse: Women are favored because the lives of women and children are not seen as fair game in wars or accidental deaths. Of course, women and children have traditionally not been active participants in wars, and the property value of a woman is a very different thing to value than her individuality. It is the former that is valued, rather than the latter.

Now I feel all guilty about not staying as neutral and cordial as professor Baumeister, who even says this:

Giving birth is a revealing example. What could be more feminine than giving birth? Throughout most of history and prehistory, giving birth was at the center of the women's sphere, and men were totally excluded. Men were rarely or never present at childbirth, nor was the knowledge about birthing even shared with them. But not very long ago, men were finally allowed to get involved, and the men were able to figure out ways to make childbirth safer for both mother and baby. Think of it: the most quintessentially female activity, and yet the men were able to improve on it in ways the women had not discovered for thousands and thousands of years.

Wow! Men do even births better than women! That shows the true neutrality of professor Baumeister. Maybe the gender warriors he asked to leave the room at the beginning of the speech should now be invited back so that Baumeister wouldn't look quite so much a misogynistic ass, standing there all alone.

Oh, I forgot. He's not just some misogynistic ass. He's a professor of Social Psychology. Goddess help us all.
*My example, not Baumeister's. I apologize for trying to be creative here. I also apologize for all the bits I decided to leave out so that people would read the post; bits about how Baumeister ignores the hours of childcare as an explanation why more men than women burn the midnight oil at work and bits such as the quandary one reaches when trying to fit Baumeister's thesis into the facts of fairly rapid change in women's roles in the last century or so. Because his theories would assume that such change will not happen. Damn! There I go again, apologizing and shit. Please note that the apologies are sarcasm and therefore creative, too.