Tuesday, August 21, 2012

David Brooks On Gender. Through The Ages.

I do tend to dissect Brooks' writings often, don't I?  But the truth is that I stopped reading him so obsessively some years ago and mostly forgot what he actually says about women, girls and the wider question of gender. 

Working in my archives reminded me why I dislike him so.  Here's a smorgasbord of Brooks on the question of gender:

March 2006:

According to David Brooks, thymos is the secret ingredient in men, the thing that makes them tick. Not the puppydogs' tails, after all. Had there ever been a female Freud she might have had her question about what men want answered easily: men want to be recognized:*
Let me tell you what men want. Let me tell you why some middle-age men wear the sports jerseys of semiliterate behemoths half their age while others customize their cars with so many speakers they sound like the hip-hop version of the San Francisco earthquake as they roll down the street.

Recognition. Men want others to recognize their significance. They want to feel important and part of something important.

Some people believe men are motivated by greed for money or lust for power. But money and power are means to get recognition. They are markers of success, and success makes men feel important and causes others to pay attention when they walk in the room.

Plato famously divided the soul into three parts: reason, eros (desire) and thymos (the hunger for recognition). Thymos is what motivates the best and worst things men do. It drives them to seek glory and assert themselves aggressively for noble causes. It drives them to rage if others don't recognize their worth. Sometimes it even causes them to kill over a trifle if they feel disrespected.

Brooks is trying to hedge his bets about whether women might want similar things, too. On the one hand, he has just read a really fun and supportive book about Manliness. On the other hand, he wants recognition from women as the kind of guy who might not bash them on the head and drag them back to the cave for some... recognition.

April 2006:*

All great scandals occur twice, first as Tom Wolfe novels, then as real-life events that nightmarishly mimic them. And so after "I Am Charlotte Simmons," it was perhaps inevitable that Duke University would have to endure a mini-social explosion involving athletic thugs, resentful townies, nervous administrators, male predators, aggrieved professors, binge drinking and lust gone wild.
The educators who used this vocabulary several decades ago understood that when you concentrate young men, they have a tropism toward barbarism. That's why these educators cared less about academics than about instilling a formula for character building. The formula, then called chivalry, consisted first of manners, habits and self-imposed restraints to prevent the downward slide.

Furthermore, it was believed that each of us had a godlike and a demonic side, and that decent people perpetually strengthened the muscles of their virtuous side in order to restrain the deathless sinner within. If you read commencement addresses from, say, the 1920's, you can actually see college presidents exhorting their students to battle the beast within — a sentiment that if uttered by a contemporary administrator would cause the audience to gape and the earth to fall off its axis.

Today that old code of obsolete chivalry is gone, as is a whole vocabulary on how young people should think about character.

The concept of "chivalry" is offered to women in lieue of equality on several MRA sites, by the way.  So far we have learned that men want recognition and that they should be taught chivalry.

June 2006 (note that I wrote two posts on one column there), to analyze in greater detail this Brooks column:

Over the past two decades, there has been a steady accumulation of evidence that male and female brains work differently. Women use both sides of their brain more symmetrically than men. Men and women hear and smell differently (women are much more sensitive). Boys and girls process colors differently (young girls enjoy an array of red, green and orange crayons whereas young boys generally stick to black, gray and blue). Men and women experience risk differently (men enjoy it more).
It could be, in short, that biological factors influence reading tastes, even after accounting for culture. Women who have congenital adrenal hyperplasia, which leads to high male hormone secretions, are more likely to choose violent stories than other women.
This wouldn't be a problem if we all understood these biological factors and if teachers devised different curriculums to instill an equal love of reading in both boys and girls.
The problem is that even after the recent flurry of attention about why boys are falling behind, there is still intense social pressure not to talk about biological differences between boys and girls (ask Larry Summers). There is still resistance, especially in the educational world, to the findings of brain researchers. Despite some innovations here and there, in most classrooms boys and girls are taught the same books in the same ways.

That's a wonderful stew of all sorts of observations, some clearly proven false!   Brooks wants sex-segregated schools, of course, and believes that things like color preferences (pink!) are innate.   That Iran, with its sex-segregated schools, geared towards boys most likely, shows the same gender differences as the US doesn't matter to Brooks.  Neither does the fact that schools were created for boys, not for girls, initially, and that the sitting quietly in classrooms was a feature of all those boys' schools. 

September 2006:

That would be a good name for a movie, starring David Brooks as the earnest and impartial neuroscientist who finds, after all, that girls are icky. Brooks has written yet another column about how the old sexual stereotypes are all validated by science:
Over the past several weeks, I've found I can change the conversation at any social gathering by mentioning Louann Brizendine's book, "The Female Brain." Brizendine is a neuropsychiatrist and the founder of the Women's and Teen Girls' Mood and Hormone Clinic in San Francisco. She's written a breezy — maybe too breezy — summary of hundreds of studies on the neurological differences between men and women.

All human beings, she writes, start out with a brain that looks female. But around the eighth week in the womb, testosterone surges through male brains, killing cells in some regions (communications) and growing cells in others (sex and aggression).

By the time they are three months old, girls are, on average, much better at making eye contact with other people and picking up information from faces. During play, girls look back at their mothers, on average, 10 to 20 times more than boys, to check for emotional signals. Girls can also, on average, hear a broader range of sounds in the human voice, and can better discern changes in tone.


This shift in how we see human behavior is bound to have huge effects. Freudianism encouraged people to think about destroying inhibitions. This new understanding both validates ancient stereotypes about the sexes, and fuzzes up moral judgments about human responsibility (biology inclines individuals toward certain virtues and vices).

Once radicals dreamed of new ways of living, but now happiness seems to consist of living in harmony with the patterns that nature and evolution laid down long, long ago.

That's pretty hilarious, given the criticism Brizendine's books have received!  She is not a neuro-scientist, by the way.

October 2006:

This is a tale of two predators. The first is a congressman who befriended teenage pages. He sent them cajoling instant messages asking them to describe their sexual habits, so he could get his jollies.

The second is a secretary, who invited a 13-year-old girl from her neighborhood into her car and kissed her. Then she invited the girl up to her apartment, gave her some vodka, took off her underwear and gave her a satin teddy to wear.

Then she had sex with the girl, which was interrupted when the girl's mother called. Then she made the girl masturbate in front of her and taught her some new techniques.

The first predator, of course, is Mark Foley, the Florida congressman. The second predator is a character in Eve Ensler's play, "The Vagina Monologues."

Enough said.  A fictional story and actual events are treated as equal.

July 2007.

This was in response to a column where Brooks worried about the anger of women.

August 2007.

This, in turn, was a reaction to Brooks' attempt at creating a masculine mystique.

At this point I stopped following Brooks so obsessively and my mental health instantly improved.  I even spotted him changing some of his ingrained opinions on gender:

June 2009:

In 2000, Geoffrey Miller, a leading evolutionary psychologist, published a book called "The Mating Mind," in which he argued that the process of sexual selection among early human groups hardwired many of the behaviors we see in humans today. Some of the traits are physical. Men generally prefer women with a 0.7 waist-to-hip ratio (that's a 24-inch waist and 36-inch hips, for those of you reading this at the gym). Women generally prefer men who are taller and slightly older.

Some of these traits are more subtle. Men, Miller argues, tip better in restaurants, because they've been programmed to show how much surplus wealth they have. The average American adult knows 60,000 words, far more than we need. We have all those words because we like to mate with people who caress us with language.


But individuals aren't formed before they enter society. Individuals are created by social interaction. Our identities are formed by the particular rhythms of maternal attunement, by the shared webs of ideas, symbols and actions that vibrate through us second by second. Shopping isn't merely a way to broadcast permanent, inborn traits. For some people, it's also an activity of trying things on in the never-ending process of creating and discovering who they are.

The allure of evolutionary psychology is that it organizes all behavior into one eternal theory, impervious to the serendipity of time and place. But there's no escaping context. That's worth remembering next time somebody tells you we are hardwired to do this or that.

The allure of evolutionary psychology is actually in the fact that anyone can do it, over a cocktail wiener, and that it can be bent to support any bias one might have, given that evidence is impossible to obtain.  But I take whatever crumbs fell of Brooks' table here.

December 2010, however, shows Brooks back in his old form.

And in January, 2012, he seems to recommend wage subsidies for men so that they can get married to us the gold-digger females of Evolutionary Psychology.

Finally, in July 2012 Brooks was back to arguing that social engineering is an absolute necessity to save boys at school.

OK, that looks a bit like a laundry list.  It most likely omits many similar pieces, given that I stopped keeping a snake eye on our David, what with finding enough irritation elsewhere in my life.

But there are certain general patterns, more easily discerned in such a list.   Brooks believes in innate differences as the explanation for all gender-based stereotypes (which he regards as the truth), and he fishes in the rivers of academia for those studies (or pseudo-studies) that would support that belief.

Thus, what is is for reasons of biology and no government policies are necessary to correct it.  Women don't enter mathematics and the sciences because of innate gender differences, for instance.

The one exception to this can be found in Brooks' concern about boys at school.  There he urges social engineering of a type, albeit one based on his presumed gender stereotypes.

This contradiction is an interesting one and worth thinking about.  After all, evolutionary psychologists have argued that anything widespread across various cultures has a good chance of being innate.   Girls are doing better than boys in essentially all countries which allow girls entry to the school system.  Given this, one might propose that the observed gender differences in school success are innate, right?

That's rubbish, and I only present it here to point out that Brooks picks selectively from his menu of possibly biological sex differences.  The ones that hurt women are clearly biological, the ones that hurt men must be cultural or environmental and need correction.

So.  I was also struck by Brooks' pining for the golden era of chivalry.  Doesn't it sound wonderful?  Chivalrous men holding doors open for you and letting you get the best jobs going and so on? 

That's not what chivalry is all about.  From the column Brooks wrote it sounds more like a promise not to assault or rape someone, to be honest.

The links to dates are to my old posts.  The links attached to the direct quotes go to Brooks' columns.
*I couldn't find the links to two of Brooks' original columns except as dead ones.