Against the Extremism of the American Masculinity Debate
There is always a path to raising a boy to be his own version of a good man.
Few debates are more corrupted by extremism than the debate over sex, gender, and masculinity. It’s actually stunning to watch competing extremes vie with each other to engineer destructive ideologies that serve mainly to confuse and divide American parents and American kids.
I’m thinking about masculinity and raising boys again because we have to be thinking about boys. The latest string of mass shootings represents the worst symptom of an underlying cultural disease that is tearing apart families, destroying lives, and damaging our culture.
While there are many millions of men and boys who do quite well in our country, the vast majority of our nation’s young men are falling behind their female peers. I quoted this statistic in my last newsletter, but it’s worth quoting again: Men account for 70 percent of the decline in enrollment in American colleges and universities. I’ll also repeat this key quote from Derek Thompson in The Atlantic:
The statistics are stunning. But education experts and historians aren’t remotely surprised. Women in the United States have earned more bachelor’s degrees than men every year since the mid-1980s—every year, in other words, that I’ve been alive. This particular gender gap hasn’t been breaking news for about 40 years. But the imbalance reveals a genuine shift in how men participate in education, the economy, and society. The world has changed dramatically, but the ideology of masculinity isn’t changing fast enough to keep up.
That last sentence is vital. The world has changed. And those changes aren’t “just” limited to the dramatic (and welcome!) change in women’s opportunities and women’s rights. Our world is much less physical than it used to be. With isolated exceptions, the era of vast armies, massive labor-intensive industry, and physically brutal farming is (hopefully) behind us.
The nature of past economies and cultures meant there were vast spaces that were overwhelmingly and disproportionately suitable for men. But now we live in a different time that demands different skills and places people in different roles. Confusion is inevitable.
And confusion reigns. Just think of the whirlwind of various extremes. Gender is a social construct. Nope, both gender and sex are biological, but they’re distinct. Traditional masculinity ideology is toxic. No, traditional masculinity is the ideal.
Moreover, the debate is corrupted by politics, with different versions of masculinity now so thoroughly identified as red or blue that you can quite often guess how a man votes by the clothes he wears, the vehicle he drives, and the way he describes what it means to be a man.
I’ve been writing and thinking about “the ideology of masculinity” for a very long time—sometimes pushing back against the anti-male ideologies of the far left, other times rejecting the new right’s strange and dangerous cult of “toughness.” And through it all I’ve distilled my thoughts into five general truths.
First, men and women are different, and they’ll always be different. A shorter way of saying this is “biology has consequences,” and those consequences aren’t limited to the reality that only women can bear children or that men are generally physically stronger than women. The vast hormonal differences, for example, yield (in the aggregate) different kinds of personalities and temperaments.
Of course those differences are shaped and mediated through culture—masculine and feminine ideals can vary by region and nation—but nevertheless, general differences persist. Even if you wanted to attempt some sort of unisex cultural ideal, you’d find yourself fighting against overwhelming biological currents.
Second, the differences between men and women are value-neutral. One of the more problematic documents I’ve read is the American Psychological Association’s 2019 “Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men.” The document, as summarized on the APA website, declares that “traditional masculinity — marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance, and aggression — is, on the whole, harmful.”
But wait. Many of those characteristics spring forth from the inherent temperament of millions of young men, and aside from perhaps “dominance,” not one of those characteristics above is fundamentally harmful. In fact, in the right contexts, they can be extraordinarily beneficial. Even aggression is sometimes necessary. Think of the Uvalde police officers who held back in that hallway while a young man murdered children behind an unlocked door. Do we not desperately wish they were more aggressive on that fateful day?
The task of parenting a boy isn’t to suppress manifestations of “traditional masculinity” but to shape and mold those manifestations towards virtuous ends. Indeed, suppressing boys’ essential natures—labeling the core of their personalities as somehow problematic or toxic—leads to its own profound harms.
Third, each boy and girl is still an individual. One of the challenges of recognizing general truths is that they tend to oppress or isolate those who don’t fit the mold. Just as the markers of traditional masculinity aren’t necessarily harmful, they also aren’t necessarily virtuous either. If a boy child is less competitive or aggressive or physical than his peers, it’s not necessarily the right thing to make him “more of a man” by demanding conformance to stereotypes. Indeed, you can do an immense amount of damage by jamming him into the “boy box” of traditional masculinity.
At the same time, there’s a strange convergence between left and right on the matter of gender stereotypes. The stereotypes are too powerful on both sides. One side identifies what a boy or girl is “really like” and tries to make all kids conform. Another side makes the same judgment and questions whether noncomforming kids are “really boys'' or “really girls.” Skyrocketing rates of youth gender transition are the fruit of a radical movement that sows unnecessary and destructive gender confusion.
Fourth, core values are universal. As a Christian father (and now grandfather!) I’ve long noticed that scripture describes our moral obligations in universal terms. The fruit of the spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—is the same for men and women. The command to act justly, love kindness, and walk humbly before God is the same for men and women.
There is not one set of male virtues and one set of female virtues: Women can and do display every virtue that is stereotypically male, just as men can and do display every virtue that is stereotypically female. A good man can be extraordinarily nurturing, for example, and a good woman can display remarkable physical courage.
Fifth, because men and women are different, universal values will often manifest themselves differently. This is how good men and good women—brought up in the same universal values—can still tend towards different temperaments and professions. Let’s talk about physical courage again. A man or woman can be equally courageous, but if a man is bigger, faster, and stronger, then he’s going to have a greater aptitude in a host of professions that require physical courage—such as infantry officer, firefighter, or police officer.
A man can be and should be nurturing, but there is simply no way for a man to replicate the experience of bearing and feeding a child from his own body. There is something profound, mysterious, and different about that inescapable biological distinction.
Thus we simply can’t look at disparities of interest and outcome between men and women and presume that something is wrong. While we should diligently fight invidious discrimination (a legal term of art that generally means discrimination that is “arbitrary, irrational and not reasonably related to a legitimate purpose”), attempting to impose a leveling sameness between the sexes will always be both culturally impossible and individually destructive.
The evolution of economies and cultures would be challenging enough for men and boys. Filter these changes through our polarized, extremist politics, and radical ideologies proliferate. It can now take actual courage to simply be reasonable, to treat your child as a distinct individual but also recognize the existence of general tendencies that cross millennia and cultures.
The goal isn’t to embrace or reject stereotypes, but rather to realize that no matter your son’s temperament, there is always a path to raising a boy to be his own version of a good man.
One more thing …
This week was Curtis and I hosted our first interfaith episode of our Good Faith podcast. My friend Eboo Patel is Muslim, and he’s doing the most interesting interfaith work in America. We talk about Eboo’s unique approach, and his new book, We Need to Build, which challenges an increasingly radicalized America to turn its attention toward rebuilding the local institutions that ultimately bind together a diverse democracy.
One last thing …
As a YouTube commenter said about this song, it’s “scripture laid on top of a gorgeous melody there’s nothing better.” Truth. This is so good. I listen to it all the time: