Men on Top
When I say I am researching how culture exploits men, the first reaction is usually “How can you say culture exploits men, when men are in charge of everything?” This is a fair objection and needs to be taken seriously. It invokes the feminist critique of society. This critique started when some women systematically looked up at the top of society and saw men everywhere: most world rulers, presidents, prime ministers, most members of Congress and parliaments, most CEOs of major corporations, and so forth — these are mostly men. Seeing all this, the feminists thought, wow, men dominate everything, so society is set up to favor men. It must be great to be a man.
The mistake in that way of thinking is to look only at the top. If one were to look downward to the bottom of society instead, one finds mostly men there too. Who’s in prison, all over the world, as criminals or political prisoners? The population on Death Row has never approached 51% female. Who’s homeless? Again, mostly men. Whom does society use for bad or dangerous jobs? US Department of Labor statistics report that 93% of the people killed on the job are men. Likewise, who gets killed in battle? Even in today’s American army, which has made much of integrating the sexes and putting women into combat, the risks aren’t equal. This year we passed the milestone of 3,000 deaths in Iraq, and of those, 2,938 were men, 62 were women.
One can imagine an ancient battle in which the enemy was driven off and the city saved, and the returning soldiers are showered with gold coins. An early feminist might protest that hey, all those men are getting gold coins, half of those coins should go to women. In principle, I agree. But remember, while the men you see are getting gold coins, there are other men you don’t see, who are still bleeding to death on the battlefield from spear wounds.
That’s an important first clue to how culture uses men. Culture has plenty of tradeoffs, in which it needs people to do dangerous or risky things, and so it offers big rewards to motivate people to take those risks. Most cultures have tended to use men for these high-risk, high-payoff slots much more than women. I shall propose there are important pragmatic reasons for this. The result is that some men reap big rewards while others have their lives ruined or even cut short. Most cultures shield their women from the risk and therefore also don’t give them the big rewards. I’m not saying this is what cultures ought to do, morally, but cultures aren’t moral beings. They do what they do for pragmatic reasons driven by competition against other systems and other groups.
Stereotypes at Harvard
I said that today most people hold more favorable stereotypes of women than men. It was not always thus. Up until about the 1960s, psychology (like society) tended to see men as the norm and women as the slightly inferior version. During the 1970s, there was a brief period of saying there were no real differences, just stereotypes. Only since about 1980 has the dominant view been that women are better and men are the inferior version. The surprising thing to me is that it took little more than a decade to go from one view to its opposite, that is, from thinking men are better than women to thinking women are better than men. How is this possible?
I’m sure you’re expecting me to talk about Larry Summers at some point, so let’s get it over with! You recall, he was the president of Harvard. As summarized in The Economist, “Mr Summers infuriated the feminist establishment by wondering out loud whether the prejudice alone could explain the shortage of women at the top of science.” After initially saying, it’s possible that maybe there aren’t as many women physics professors at Harvard because there aren’t as many women as men with that high innate ability, just one possible explanation among others, he had to apologize, retract,...