Monday, December 17, 2012

Guns And the Decline Of The Young Man: The Need To Be Deferential.

This is the connection Christy Wampole draws at the Opinionator blog of the New York Times.  The causal arrow her bow shoots is from the decline of the young man to mass shootings.  A snippet:

This is merely anecdotal evidence, not social science, but I believe that it is indicative of a sort of infection spreading in our collective brain, one that whispers to the American subconscious: “The young men are in decline.” They were once our heroes, our young and shining fathers, our sweet brothers, our tireless athletes, our fearless warriors, the brains of our institutions, the makers of our wares, the movers of our world. In the Western imagination, the valiance of symbolically charged figures like Homer’s Ulysses or the Knights of the Round Table remained unquestioned since their conception. However, as centuries progressed and stable categories faltered, the hero figure faces increasing precarity. Even if we consider the 20th century alone, we see this shift from World War II, when the categories of good and evil were firm, to later conflicts like the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, involving a disparity between what the government believed to be right and what much of the civilian population did.
Does the heroic young man still make sense today, or has his value already been depleted?

An interesting thesis.   I don't believe in it because I don't believe that young men have ever been "our heroes, our young and shining fathers, the movers of our world."  Most young men have never had that great powers, to move the world, and very few people of any type are heroes.  And what on earth is a "shining father?"  One decked with Christmas tree lights?

I also don't think that being "heroic" is a very common life objective for anyone.  Being heroic either requires something truly unusual (as in the case of these principals and teachers in the latest massacre), or it's just a stupid and false label for people who are OK citizens.

Wampole then continues:

If the soldier has largely been replaced by the video game character and the drone, if the mothers have proven that they can raise the children alone, if the corporations are less able or willing to guarantee the possibility of upward mobility and some level of respect that comes with title, if someone else can bring home the bacon, what is left for young men?
All this, and they still are not allowed to cry.

Here's where women enter the column.  Women have proved that they can raise children alone, that they can bring home the bacon, so what are young men needed for?  This juxtaposition smells ever-so-slightly of the argument that if women hadn't become workers in the labor market, if women had remained at home, safely married to a bread-winning husband, then these young men wouldn't have to go out and shoot lots of six-year-olds.

I don't think Wampole necessarily means that.  Or does she?  Who knows.  But a different way of putting the same argument would be to state that some men have trouble with changing sex roles and would prefer the old rules back, whatever their costs to others might be.  That's probably true.  But are those young men the group from which mass shooters come?  I don't think Wampole proves her case.  The examples she quotes do not fit the profiles of the most recent mass killers who are not economically deprived, unemployed or otherwise fighting hard times in their lives.  Indeed, most of them seem to have been still students.

Never mind.  Wampole does turn to that group next.  Her take is a slightly unusual one and it would have sat better without that preamble:
The angry white man has usurped the angry black man.
I would argue that maleness and whiteness are commodities in decline. And while those of us who are not male or white have enjoyed some benefits from their decline, the sort of violence and murder that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary will continue to occur if we do not find a way to carry them along with us in our successes rather than leaving them behind.
For women, things are looking up. We can vote, we can make more choices about our bodies than in decades past, we’ve made significant progress regarding fair pay, and more women are involved in American politics than ever before. The same can be said for minorities. However, because resources are limited, gains for women and minorities necessarily equal losses for white males. Even if this feels intuitively fair to many, including those white males who are happy to share resources for the greater benefit of the nation as a whole, it must feel absolutely distressing for those who are uncomfortable with change and who have a difficult time adjusting to the inevitable reordering of society.
From the civil rights and feminist movements of the 1960s and onward, young men – and young white men in particular – have increasingly been asked to yield what they’d believed was securely theirs. This underlying fact, compounded by the backdrop of violent entertainment and easy access to weapons, creates the conditions for thousands of young men to consider their future prospects and decide they would rather destroy than create.
Can you imagine being in the shoes of the one who feels his power slipping away? Who can find nothing stable to believe in? Who feels himself becoming unnecessary? That powerlessness and fear ties a dark knot in his stomach. As this knot thickens, a centripetal hatred moves inward toward the self as a centrifugal hatred is cast outward at others: his parents, his girlfriend, his boss, his classmates, society, life.
What do you think of that?  There may be something in a few parts of that quote.  But this society really is NOT telling white men that they are unnecessary.  If anything, it tells us that all the top places are still occupied by white men, that the churches are operated by white men, that politics is certainly much, much more male than female.

But my major counterargument is that Wampole's thesis doesn't explain the events in China.  China is not a feminist paradise but closer to a patriarchy.  The preference for sons there is strong, the political machine is overwhelmingly male.  Yet China, too, has had its cases of school attacks.  They are not mass shootings because of different gun laws but they are very similar in the selection of victims to the US situation.  Wampole's thesis doesn't explain those events.

Neither is Wampole showing us that the group of disgruntled white men she writes about is the group from which the school shooters come.  What I have read about past shooters and about Adam Lanza demonstrates a more complicated group of reasons, starting with social or psychological adjustment problems very early in life.

I'm also not convinced that today's young men would have had expectations of being treated as number ones however they behave.  That may have been (but probably wasn't) the case for those who were born in the 1950s, say, but not for the last twenty or thirty years.  After all, women started entering college in larger numbers by the early 1990s, Geraldine Ferraro was a vice-presidential candidate in the 1980s.

What is Wampole's cure for the malady that has infected white young men?  It is empathy:

Empathy could serve many of us: those who have not yet put themselves in the position of a person who is losing their power and those who can aim a gun at someone without imagining themselves on the other end of the barrel. For those of us who belong to a demographic that is doing increasingly better, a trained empathic reflex toward those we know to be losing for our gains could lead to a more deferential attitude on our part and could constitute an invitation for them to stay with us. To delight in their losses and aim at them the question, “How does it feel?” will only trigger a cycle of resentment and plant the seeds for vengeance. It is crucial to accommodate the pain of others.

A curious coincidence:  I was just working on the first draft of my perhaps-to-be-book, and came across various evolutionary psychology arguments which stated that women are naturally hard-wired for empathy,  men equally naturally not.   If empathy is natural for women, Wampole couldn't ask any from men and wouldn't have to ask for any from women.  We'd be bubbling over with it already.

And many people are.  Empathy is an extremely important tool.  Even I, a horrible feminazi, feel much empathy with those who are in pain, whether the reason for their pain meets my approval or not.

But "a more deferential attitude????"  From women?  Because that is what she writes.  Women should have a more deferential attitude towards angry young white men and that way no young white man would turn into a school killer.

I can't be reading that bit right.  But what other way is there to read it?  What does "a more deferential attitude" mean?  Bringing back a rank-order of men over women?  Serving all men in the family first?  Please give me more meat on the bones, Wampole.  Should we curtsey or what?

OK.  So I got angry, and I belong to the social group who is not allowed to be angry.  But surely empathy can be reconciled with equality?  Or is Wampole implying that equality is not sufficient?

And on that "delighting in their losses" bit:  I have never done anything of the sort.  My guess is that Wampole has read one or two of those "end-of-men" books and then generalizes from them to all women everywhere.

I get very tired over events such as the "end-of-men" faddish trend, written as if we already live in a matriarchy, as if all feminists are gloating over their past oppressors and so on.  Never mind how hard I write about the real issues (yes, outsourcing has cost us terribly in terms of blue-collar-traditionally-male-jobs, and, yes, we must encourage more boys, especially minority boys, to stay at school and attend college) and the imaginary issues (the mancession, the evil feminist matriarchy which really runs the world, how earning 70-80% of what men earn makes women the wealthier sex and so on), those faddish trends have a rich life of their own, fed by clicks and nasty comments and money.  It's very tiring.

To return to Wampole's column:  Is there anything useful in it?

I'm not sure if it has much to do with the school shootings, directly, but it does remind us of the fact that there never was a real movement similar to the waves of feminism among men, a movement which would have redefined men's roles the way feminism (and other forces) redefined women's roles.

The old roles are now like square pegs trying to fit into round holes, and it's high time to address that.  Yes, men are needed, just as all human beings are needed.  We all come with a bunch of talents and personality traits, and we need to find a way to make better fits between individuals and the society.  We should address the problems of men who have become  unemployed because of that outsourcing.  They should get real support, job training and jobs, psychological support and respect, just as women need those things.  We should address the real problems of young men, of all races.  We should discuss the violent aspects of the traditional definitions of masculinity and we should encourage young men in need to seek help.  We should also make sure that the help is there.

Men should also accept their changing roles in the family.

The new roles are better roles, I think.  They involve being a full parent, not just a disciplinarian who brings home money, to paraphrase the old definition of a male bread-winner.  The new roles mean being emotionally available to the children,  doing real parenting, being there, in one's totality, when one is there.

But many, if not most men, are already doing all that.  Many, if not most, young men are already adjusting to the society, finding their places and becoming useful members of it. 

Empathy is also important.  It's not uncommon in politics to dehumanize the opposition.  But ultimately it doesn't work.  Where I disagree with Wampole is in her hint that it's up to women, the new rulers of the world (tell that to women in most countries!  tell it to women in the US!), to do this work.  We ALL should be able to see the human in other people.

But nobody should demand deferential behavior from us just because the other person is male or white or belongs to some other traditionally privileged class.  Deferential behavior requires something worth being deferential about.  Good deeds, for instance.  Some greatness.

Empathy alone is insufficient, in any case.  If I have an infected finger because of a splinter, I don't baby the finger.  I dig out the splinter.  In some ways Wampole asks us to emphatize with the finger but pretend that the splinter is not there.  In other words, feminine empathy is most likely too weak a medicine for what ails those individuals who might become school killers.  It's too weak even for the problems of angry white men, if those are caused by receiving less privilege than was the case in the past.

Finally,  the assumption that various young school killers didn't receive adequate empathy is just an assumption, not a proven fact.  Perhaps they were given much empathy but they were unable to receive it?