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Semiformalishmaybe

Reading Baumeister

Roy Baumeister is a professor of social psychology at Florida State, and he wrote an article, 「Is There Anything Good About Men?」 as a kind of analysis of the state of men and women and an analysis of some of the claims in some flavours of feminism. I ordinarily am not prone to comment on academic matters outside my areas of specific education, but social psychology is a field which is sufficiently divergent, and which overlaps enough with philosophy that my normal inhibition there is fairly weak; I believe any sufficiently scientifically and philosophically literate person is somewhat qualified to comment on matters in that field, unlike most other academic fields.

I do not entirely agree or disagree with Baumeister as expressed in this essay; I am bothered by some of what he has to say though, and think commentary/analysis is appropriate. Like many worthy causes, some of the movements operating in the feminist cause are rotten, and some are healthy. Also like many worthy causes, it's easier for movements operating near the mainstream to avoid that rot because they remain exposed to mainstream discourse and criticism, and retain the ability to explain themselves reasonably to skeptical people. However, the movements near the mainstream are not usually sufficient to effect needed change; the development of powerful theory rarely happens near the mainstream. Among the non-rotten movements that serve a cause, it is the semi-radical movements, that retain the practice of relating to the mainstream while being independent enough from it to develop theory, and which strive to permit broad coalitions as pragmatically needed while nonaggressively promoting their own views, that have the most positive effects for a cause. These rare movements are best built by those who are more committed to causes than movements, and which have boundless energy in politely explaining and persuading without demanding the acceptability and aesthetics of their views. From the mantle of which I hope the reader might consider one of those factions, I offer this criticism/analysis of this essay, just as I have of properly feminist perspectives.

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  • Men on Top - The note that in most positions of high leadership exist men focuses on a narrow subset of feminist critiques; it is not (just) that men more commonly have positions of high leadership that is a problem; it is that the high-to-middle levels of most organisational structures (and in some industries, all but peripheral roles) significantly exclude women. The lack of opportunity to acquire some of these kinds of jobs, whether by rule or discouraged by social attitudes, is a problem. The example of the military is a red herring (and thanks to recent legal changes, that herring is now dead as well), likewise with dangerous jobs, which make a very small percentage of the labour in the United States (or even the world). It is appropriate that he notes that to some extent this is differentiation rather than deification, but the power relations involved do not permit people to defy these differentiations (and are thus oppressive) and they push for an internalisation which wastes the potential of both sexes even when the formal (or hard social) prohibitions are weak/absent. The mention of prison is also more easily understood as different inculturation standards; women tend to be better socialised than men in our society, and the content of that socialisation leads to working out of conflict (as a third option to more healthy ways) through emotional rather than physical abuse. There may be a genetic tendency to that, or possibly not; as far as I am aware that is an open topic in science.
  • Stereotypes at Harvard - I am not bothered by Larry Summers' speculation; it was on a scientific topic, and while it may be on a touchy topic, possibly proposing a framework that, if true, would be an inconvenient fact for liberalism to deal with, such speculation (and even taking of light stances) must remain open in a healthy society so long as it's absent reprehensible value-statements. While we're discussing such theories, I present my own; that if Larry Summers' observations are true, his theory may yet be wrong and the observations may be better explained by that tendency in socialisation; the more typical female inculturation provides discourse styles and life habits that are more interpersonal, creating a tendency towards more pro-social commitments, more communal efforts towards learning, and more concerns for good community relations; this difference in usual style, as a cultural distinction between how men and women are educated (and again, whether there's a genetic/testosterone/estrogen/whatever element to this is not something I would take a stance on) could easily explain sone differences in if and how people reach their potential in different areas. I suspect that it is more usual for men to suffer poor social ties than women, leaving people more alone in development of talents, and making it easier for undersocialised males to negotiate more for their personal benefit and less for the group, and changing how the genders help themselves in skill development in communities. The good news here is that these things can be shaped, and that while neither the male nor the female inculturated norms are particularly healthy, the stereotypical male inculturation is much less healthy.
  • Trading Off - I think this is off for a more solidly scientific reason; we are distant from the EEA of our species, and even if such differences once were emergent from biology and/or culture, they may no longer be so. In fact, I believe that in modern times, when the weight/size differences between men and women are gone and the individualism of earlier times is mitigated by larger societies and technology, our species should be ready for much more egality. If women and men may have tended to be different in reasons unconnected to (relatively static) biology, there is no longer much of a reason for that tendency to continue.
  • Can't vs Won't - The criticisms I've laid out before largely hold here. I further note that improvisation may be hampered by excessively strong social tendencies, and that undersocialisation may lead to more unusual and individualistic approaches to problem-solving. In that area, a more blended socialisation, for both women and men, would ideally produce reasonable results in areas where improvisation is needed; overworking should not be glorified, but neither should conventionalism. Many of the more notable women in history have come from less convention-stressing backgrounds (Ada Lovelace?), or more recently from relatively liberal countries where gender doesn't place people into a straightjacket of gender-normativity. The examples the author gives for a lack of creativity neglect the closed doors and the particular social role piano instruction played in culture at the mentioned times; the idea of going out to change the world was not a large part of inculturation during those decades, and so it was taught, essentially, as a form of light entertainment.
  • The Most Underappreciated Fact - I don't dispute the numbers, but the conclusion is not supportable. There are too many other possible explanations, many of them related to socialisation, and little argument is given to link the numbers and conclusion; is he proposing that men/women understood the provided logistics? Is he neglecting the more recent monogamistic era?
  • Are Women More Social? - He's using the word social in a different way than I have in my analysis, and I doubt his data on this topic.
  • Benefits of Cultural Systems - I doubt his analysis of how men participate in culture on this topic; I am calling bullshit on "the evidence indicates that culture emerged mainly with men and women working together". Likewise, I believe that the common feminist analysis of male dominance in cultural arrangement is stronger than his; there has long been a power relationship there that has granted both explicit power and conversational privilege to male heteronormativity.
  • (Skipping ahead a bit)
  • The Disposable Male - In this, he is describing a world very different than the modern one; the facts of sexual biology doesn't explain what's needed to raise a child well, that being ideally the sparable time of two or more people to help with upbringing. While men are not strictly necessary for that, one person's spare time is not easily sufficient for the task. The chivalric "women and children first" is an artifact of the distant past, unless and except where a mother is paired with child (where there are likely biological reasons to prefer to spare them at higher priority). Even were his analysis accurate, there is no reason to continue it today in the general sense.
  • Earning Manhood - This is another artifact of an earlier time, and one which, since the second wave, those factions of feminism opposed to gender-role essentialism have been working to deconstruct. This notion of manhood as additional normative constraints (whether carrots or sticks) on men is not healthy no matter the content, and is abused as much as the notion of being, say, a "good Scotsman" or a "bad Jew". As a difficult-to-deconstruct cluster of ideas it acts to impede those who differ, to harm women who exhibit those traits (exclusion, ridicule), and to pull men away from more reasoned and modern ways of living. Instead of a unified (between both genders), modern, discussable notion of virtues, we have these notions of "being a man" or "being ladylike". The neuroticism he describes is just the tip of the iceberg.
  • My Conclusion - The way things are between the genders sucks, but it sucks far less than it did in the past and we can continue to make things better by weakening gender-normativity. Baumeister's attempts to explain these differences don't justify them in any way, even if we were to grant them more strength/accuracy than are present in the work. At most, they might amount to inconvenient facts, ones for which explanations might be worth hearing but which don't substantially impact what should be our activism.
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    Comments

    It was a talk, and I actually assign it in my seminar, they're reading it later in the semester! Remind me to read this when I've got the time.
    Do you really think the weight/size differences between men and women will ever be gone? I don't - it's impossible for women to build muscle like men without men's levels of testosterone. And though we are far from the EEA of a lot of traits, evolution is sloooooooow. So we are carrying around adaptations built for that environment, even if they are not functional in this one. To see what we will adapt for our modern environment, we need to wait a few thousand years.
    Men and women don't need to understand the logistics for them to play out. Also, women probably died in childbirth leaving their (already proven valuable) husbands to find other wives. So even with monogamy, serial monogamy would lead to the same conclusions.
    What is your definition of social, and why do you doubt his data? AS this was a talk, there are no citations, but this all sounds familiar to me so I bet it's in the literature.
    We continue practices today that were beneficial years and years ago. And the goal is to reproduce a lot, not necessarily reproduce well - that is only a concern when safety is guaranteed and not threatened. If you want to reproduce a lot, you need lots of women, but not a lot of men. No one consciously thinks of men as expendable, but we still have systems in place that act like we do.
    I take as his point in Earning Manhood as the strength of gender role stereotypes about men, and how they hurt them, too. Modern feminism would agree that rigid gender roles hurt everyone, so we should get rid of them for all.
    I don't think he was trying to justify differences - just explore why they might be there, from an obvious evolutionary angle. And he wasn't talking about activism - in fact, many scientists refuse to comment on such matters. Even though science is never truly value-free, making attempts to keep your personal ideas about saving society out of your research is laudable.
    I don't think the weight-size differences will be gone anytime soon; perhaps not likely over the lifespan of our species. I don't think that needs to be relevant for a lot of things though.

    I recognise that evolution is slow; my point about the EEA was precisely that we may never escape its shadow for our biological traits, even as we might inculturate differently and change traits that are partly or wholly socially determined.

    I doubt his data/theory on close social networks partly because men seem to become more dependent in relationships than men, particularly as they age (this is not based on a study though, so take that as you will). I also doubt it because it doesn't describe what I've seen of men, although that's possibly skewed by both the subculture I'm in and subjective factors; I'd be willing to be convinced with a study though.

    Whether he was intending to tiptoe into the realm of justification or not, the paper merits a response from that perspective, at least partly because "this is the way things are and as a system it works", which is basically his closing summary, amounts to a philosophical argument for a system even if it's not (necessarily) meant as one.
    Thanks for the link! Interesting stuff, although definitely way outside anything I've studied. Read it a few times, will keep it in my "interesting papers" PDF collection :)