PICKERING: Higgins, are you a man of good character where women are concerned?
HIGGINS: Have you ever met a man of good character where women are concerned?
“Pygmalion,” George Bernard Shaw, 1912
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The company of women no longer brings out the best in young men. Around the opposite sex, the adolescent and post-adolescent males of today are at their worst.
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Last month’s horrific mass murder near the University of California, Santa Barbara, inspired once again a national outpouring of anguish and anger. But this time the main focus wasn’t guns or mental illness.
Instead, in a remarkable torrent of social media testimony, columns and blogs, American women responded to the shooter’s insane rage over his lack of sexual success with a chorus of disgust, despair and recognition.
Large numbers of American women seem to agree that while the murderer’s bloody actions were unusual, his attitudes were familiar. Large numbers complain of living today under a siege of sexual belligerence, routinely subjected to everything from lewd heckling to outright assault, and seldom protected from any of it by other men.
In April, the Obama administration responded to a reported epidemic of sexual violence on campus with the inevitable task force report. Among its “most promising prevention strategies” is “bystander intervention” — a “program,” according to news reports “designed to change social norms and encourage people … to intervene [to] prevent sexual assault,” which often occurs, bystanders and all, at campus parties.
The competition is fierce, but this dispatch may qualify as the most depressing evidence unearthed to date of America’s cultural decline.
We now need a federal program to “change social norms” so that young men will understand their duty to protect women from aggressors.
Have they no fathers? Has no one ever taught them what it means to be a man? Have today’s “social norms” led them to believe that sex is just another contact sport in which one pursues trophies?
For decades now, a school of cultural conservative thought has lamented that the answer to such questions is far too often “yes.” Writers such as Christina Hoff Sommers, William Bennett and Terrence Moore, among others, have warned that the enlightened and liberated ethos of post-1960s America is failing in what is a pivotal challenge for every human society — socializing and civilizing young males.
The portrait of modern American manhood on #YesAllWomen suggests they may have been right.
Even as unconventional a Victorian as George Bernard Shaw shared his era’s understanding that nature does not endow men with spontaneous “good character where women are concerned” — that a well-mannered male is a social creation. And of course society today still takes the brute out of most men. That was the essence of the common rebuttal — on #NotAllMen and elsewhere — to the eruption of female discontent in recent weeks.
Another line of argument dismisses talk of an epidemic of rape, saying this ignores plain evidence that levels of violence have fallen in recent years and often involves stretching the definition of “rape” beyond recognition. Maybe so. But it is another sign of decay if even today’s “conservatives” believe that sexual recklessness has to be rape to be wrong.
In a memorable essay a decade ago, Moore, a scholar, educator and ex-Marine, conceded that not all modern men are barbarians.
The rest, he said, are wimps.
That’s one way to understand the need for “bystander intervention” counseling.
“Wimps make worthless watchdogs,” Moore wrote, which “has nothing to do with size or physique. … ‘It is not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog’ that matters. Many of today’s young men seem to have no fight in them at all. Not for them to rescue damsels in distress from the barbarians.”
Everywhere one looks today, there are signs that something is going wrong with men. Statistics tell us they are working less, marrying less, enrolling in college less, succeeding in school at all levels less. Today’s huge population of single-mother households — whatever its many causes and effects — is at bottom evidence of an alarming de-socialization of males.
Many inexorable forces are at work here — economic, social, technological. But cultural conservatives insist one factor is within our control. It is a fashionable contemporary ideology of disdain for “manliness” — for even constructive expressions of the innate male zest for competition and physicality and everything that might be expressed by “fight.”
This war on “traditional manhood,” Moore wrote, is finishing the job of turning men into either lonely “rogues” or lonely “namby-pambies.” Both lack any sense of having a unique, important role in society — something women (as real or potential bearers of new life) receive more fully as a biological birthright.
At the risk of hypocrisy (as a child of the Sixties) and of expressing what is today a wholly forbidden idea, one even has to wonder, along with Moore and others, how well the sexual revolution is actually working out.
Winning a woman’s acceptance, and favor, is, to say the least, a very big deal to men. Many have always misbehaved in its pursuit and no doubt always will.
But men may behave even worse in a social environment where shallow charm, deception and even whining can too easily secure this elemental goal, because then they lack the profound incentive males once had to be neither barbarian nor wimp — to strive instead to be seen as a provider, a protector, a gentleman.
Whatever the problem is, we modern males need to shape up, and to shape up one another.
But it’s a big job, and if it’s not too unmanly to say so, we may need some intervention.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.