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It is difficult to know quite what to think about Roy Baumeister's Is There Anything Good About Men?: How Cultures Flourish By Exploiting Men. That will hopefully excuse some of the length of this review, but the nature of the book really calls for a critical response as well, and that necessitates an extended discussion. Please bear with me: in what follows, I will be trying to recount the argument of the book such as it is, and then I will offer a few of what seem to me the most significant criticisms of that argument.
The sorry case of Larry Summers seems to be an important touchstone for Baumeister. Summers was the Harvard University president censured for having publicly speculated on whether it was prejudice or ability that best accounted for the scarcity of women among top scientists. This minor bit of thought crime (though perhaps not minor for Summers) sets the stage for Baumeister's thesis. The opposition implied in Summers' comments refers to the theoretical dilemma between explaining the persistent underrepresentation of women among the upper ranks of scientists, artists, musicians, and athletes, as well as in many other fields, by genuine differences in ability on one hand or by oppression and prejudice on the other. The bad old view that men's overrepresentation in such positions is due to inherently greater male ability has been largely outstripped in popularity by the view that such inequalities in society are the result of a history of patriarchal culture constraining women's choices and relegating them to lower-level work that does not reflect women's abilities, as well as oppresses their ambitions and dreams.
Baumeister agrees with neither view: according to Baumeister's assessment of the research, differences in ability between men and women are insignificant. The notion of patriarchy Baumeister likens to a conspiracy theory in which men plot against women to keep the best positions in society for themselves. Instead, Baumeister proposes his own "radical" theory of gender differences, which he sums up in the expression "different but equal." (38) According to this theory, neither gender is superior in ability to the other, and culture exploits both, albeit in different ways. Differences, such as in what field a gender dominates, persist due to trade-offs, as when success in one pursuit precludes success in some other pursuit. What follows is an evolutionary psychological theory to explain why gender inequalities are the way they are.
To put it starkly, Baumeister's thesis is that the real important differences between men and women lie in the strength and direction of their motivation. Men and women can both achieve in, say, mathematics, but men are more highly driven to achieve in general, as well as in such a discipline. In the notion of "trade-offs," Baumeister seems to be proposing a kind of naturally-occurring division of labor that follows from the difference in motivation. He offers the traits of aggression and nurturing as an example (39): it might be that a given culture has purposes that call for each of these traits (competition with other cultures; raising healthy children), but perhaps it is unlikely that one individual could excel in both, while a generalist would be at a disadvantage in both. So, it comes down to a trade-off between the trait of aggression and that of nurturing, and by and large males have been selected for aggression. Baumeister claims these differences are almost certainly due to biological causes though he also has something to say about the role of culture as well (more on this later). He gives two theoretical rationales for gender-based differences in motivation.
First, Baumeister refers us to what he dubs "The Most Underappreciated Fact about Men." In short, in the great race to pass on our genes, women are a shoo-in, but for men, there are no guarantees. Women, as long as they make it to reproductive maturity, have much better odds of reproducing themselves, since they need only wait around for some eligible male to offer to inseminate them. Men, on the other hand, are obliged to prove their worthiness to reproduce and typically do so by some risky means, like hunting mastodon or writing the great American novel. All men are obliged to prove themselves, but many simply fail, which in the case of mastodon hunting might mean starvation or violent death, or in the case of novel writing, poverty, bitterness and alcoholism, none of which are conducive to reproductive success.
The result is that everyone alive today is descended from twice as many women as men. This is supported by DNA analysis and Baumeister lists several sources of original research for this conclusion. But he also offers this more homey reflection (61-2): among wild horses, and many other species, the family pattern consists of a dominant male, a group of females and a group of younger males. The dominant male controls sexual access to the females, and unless they are successful in the struggle for dominance themselves, the younger males will not get the chance to reproduce. While each foal has one father and one mother, the population as a whole has one father and as many mothers as the mares who foaled. And this of course will be reflected in the DNA of subsequent horse populations.
So each young male is obliged to engage in risky business for the chance to reproduce, while the females need only await the results of the dominance contest. The upshot is that given these different strategies for reproductive success, we are descended from women who played it safe and from men who took risks. This is part of Baumeister's explanation of differences in distribution of social goods: men have more because they are driven by the need to take risks in order to reproduce, whereas women have had little motivation to accomplish, or even try, the great things, because they didn't have to in order to reproduce. The result is that men achieve the more spectacular feats, if they succeed at all. Hence, men are the inventors, creative artists, sports heroes, explorers, and such, not because of a conspiracy to exclude women, but because men are driven to it, while women are not.
Second, Baumeister appeals to gender differences in the expression of the human need to belong. He points out that while it has been argued that women are more social than men, his own research indicates that there are few differences between men and women in the need to connect. What is different is the type of social organization in which they specialize. Women specialize in a close, intimate relationship, he claims, while men specialize in larger networks of shallower relationships. Again, this results in differences in motivation, since men's larger networks encourage the self-differentiation and competition necessary to stand out. Competitiveness in intimate relationships may be destructive of those relationships, and so, is incompatible with them. Further, one can see differences in personality traits following from this, such as men's (supposed) emotional distance and aggressiveness.
But the real kicker in this line of thought lies in the nature of the activities that are best suited to each form of social specialization. The wider, shallower relationships of men fit well with participation in team sports, political organizations, larger-scale business and trade, and such. This provides the explanation as to why we see so few women in politics and the upper ranks of corporations--they just don't like that sort of thing. It doesn't fit well with the relationships they prefer.
This also offers an alternative theory about the nature of culture. Baumeister seems to regard as a central thesis of feminism that men invented patriarchal culture as a tool to oppress women and keep the most culturally significant positions in society for themselves. Baumeister's explanation is that men occupy such positions because the relationships in which they specialize allow them to best take advantage of culture. Baumeister defines culture as a kind of system that enables human groups to use information to work together effectively. This works most effectively with the relatively larger groups to which men tend to belong, since there are gains unavailable in smaller groups from being able to create an extensive division of labor. Hence, culture is male because of the fit with men's relationship style, and men have ended up with most of the goods of society because they are able to produce them more effectively.
As the subtitle announces, Baumeister is also arguing that culture actually exploits men to its benefit. However, he does not mean to invoke the parallel one might assume with the situation of women described in feminism. Baumeister does not seem to use the term "exploitation" to connote a socio-economic crime and he is not arguing for male victimhood either. Rather, his point is that the social organization we have inherited is the product of male labour and the particular roles men have played in culture. For example, he claims that the major institutions of society are the result of male specialization in larger, impersonal groups. Whatever benefits that result from these institutions are due not to a male conspiracy to exclude women, but rather are simply a product of characteristic differences in male and female patterns of activity. Women didn't need to be kept out of these institutions because they generally would not have left their intimate personal relationships anyway. To Baumeister's mind, the fact that women start more small businesses than men, but seem content to remain small, testifies to the absence of barriers to women's involvement in business. So much for the "glass ceiling."
Further, men's cultural role makes them responsible for surplus production, on which all growth depends. This is the meaning of the need to 'earn manhood'. Male relationships are characterized by a shortage of respect: from early on in a man's life, it is made clear that, unlike women, he will not be accepted simply as he is, but will have to earn the respect of other men and women by supporting himself at minimum, but preferably by creating wealth to provide for others.
Beside the gains to society from organizing major institutions and providing excess production, men are exploited by being disposable. Social organization entails the existence of risky, dirty jobs that someone has to do in order for the society to survive and flourish, and a disproportionate share of these fall on men's shoulders. When someone has to go to war and kill and be killed, or go down in the mine and get the black lung, or venture into the unknown to expand territory, economic capacity or scientific knowledge, it is almost always men who go. Culture benefits from treating men as expendable, since it achieves things it otherwise wouldn't be able to. By contrast, women are treated as more valuable due to the differences in reproductive chances between men and women: a single male can have far more children than a single woman can, and hence, fewer men are necessary to ensure the next generation.
This is Baumeister's argument in brief. Throughout, Baumeister does a lot of hand-waving to ward off misinterpretation of his ideas, but misinterpretation or not, there seems to be a number of glaring holes in his theory.
The first I'll mention concerns how Baumeister positions his theory in opposition to the feminist theory of patriarchy. In the course of explaining the relationship of his ideas on gender to feminism, Baumeister recites a familiar potted history of the feminist movement over approximately the last half century. According to this story, in the good old days, idealistic, noble-minded women promoted equality and positive views of both genders, in a spirit of freethinking openness. But then, feminism was "stolen" by antagonistic, anti-male female Stalinists, who immediately instituted a radical feminist doctrinal rigidity and condemned all dissent, and men as well, to the gulag. Not to say there might not be a kernel of truth in this picture, but it is evidently so simplistic as to depict a movement that never was.
This bothers Baumeister very little though, since as he remarks, he is "not debating any actual feminist scholars or the movement of feminist thought itself." (9) Indeed, his foil is actually what he refers to as the "Imaginary Feminist." When Baumeister argues for his theories on gender, he says, he is arguing with "a certain stereotyped feminist outlook." (10) He addresses this character, the "Imaginary Feminist," "to remind us of the established wisdom" and to address "misconceptions that many men have about gender relations." (10) In short, he is arguing with "feminists as they are perceived by men." (10; italics original)
It is not clear to me that all of these characterizations amount to the same thing. For example, is the "certain stereotyped feminist outlook" stereotyped because it is typical of the behavior of actual feminists? Baumeister claims not to be addressing the views of any actual feminists. But then does the responsibility for stereotyping feminist views lie with others who don't know what actual feminists think? This seems more likely the case. But how would that count as "the established wisdom," since Baumeister also describes it as a "misconception"? If he is talking about stereotypes of feminism, wouldn't attempting to sort out the truth of matters be the sensible thing to do? He repeatedly eschews this responsibility as irrelevant to his project. If he is addressing misconceptions about feminism, then why embody these misconceptions and make them the foil of his arguments, unless he intends to correct them? It seems that Baumeister wants things both ways: to attribute to feminists these stereotypical views and then rebut them, while waving away as irrelevant the responsibility of ensuring that he is addressing real feminist views of gender. What point could be made by making such a Don Quixote-like tilt at an imaginary dragon?
Second, even setting aside the Imaginary Feminist, Baumeister is arguing against a strawman, in at least three ways. Labeling the notion of patriarchy as a "conspiracy theory" completely trivializes feminist views. "Conspiracy" implies a covert scheme to manipulate events, but the majority of the practices identified by feminists as oppressive or constraining of women's choices have been conducted openly. It is only recently that it has been necessary to conceal discriminatory practices. But ultimately, whether oppression is open or covert misses the point: the notion of patriarchy describes a wide variety of practices of varying degrees of visibility that have a deleterious effect primarily on women. The point is the impact of these practices on women. Further, in coming up with his "radical" theory that the cause of gender inequalities is motivation and not oppression, Baumeister ignores the fact that feminists have theorized about motivational questions as well. It is clear that there are differing directions of motivation between men and women. This assertion is so trivial, one wonders how anything Baumeister says about it could be imagined to be "radical". But feminists have gone on to examine the possible causes, most of which Baumeister simply ignores, such as the effects of varying degrees of rigidity in gender roles, the penalties for transgressing their boundaries, and even the simple absence of female role models in a particular field. These are all plausible effects on motivation, and are not based on any far-fetched conspiracy theory. Finally, Baumeister gives no indication of being aware of the accumulated evidence of actual, concrete constraints placed on women's behavior, from legal restrictions to social disapprobation. Or, if he is aware, he offers no counterargument for dismissing this evidence. As a society, we are only just emerging from a regime of explicit legal restrictions on women, such as lack of suffrage, inability to hold property and a number of others. If, ex hypothesi, women just didn't want to do these things, why would it be necessary to write these prohibitions into law? Consider Baumeister's explanation of differences in motivation by gender differences in forms of social relationship: the features of our culture that he claims flow naturally from the male pattern of relationships (large-scale, impersonal, competitive) are also those that have had the most obvious and striking prohibitions against women's involvement: religion, the military, politics and higher education. So was it really simply that women preferred more intimate relationships? But there are also a myriad of informal constraints that regulate behaviour, concerning acceptable forms of employment, recreation and such. All of this has been uncovered through research into the nature of gender in our society and, if his argument is to have any credibility, Baumeister needs to address this.
It seems possible to continue nitpicking at Baumeister's claims and examples indefinitely, but things really couldn't get much worse for his argument than already detailed, so I will finish with one more general criticism. Baumeister's argument comes close to assuming its conclusion in the following respect: before motivation can serve as an explanation for gender inequalities in society, one has to assume that we live in (and have through most of human history) a sort of quasi-meritocracy. Do we have a good reason to think that the highest levels of achievement in our society reliably track the highest levels of motivation to achieve (holding ability constant, as would seem to be Baumeister's thesis)? On the contrary, we have every reason to believe that a diversity of prohibitions and restrictions have blocked or limited the achievements of identifiable groups within our society throughout human history. Even if not sex (as Baumeister seems to claim), then what about race, class, ethnicity, etc.? Even the way one speaks has been a limiting factor on one's access to certain levels of society, speech being an important determinant of acceptability for group membership, at least in some times and places. But if we cannot assume that the heights of achievement are determined primarily by how badly one wants to achieve something, then motivation will be an inadequate explanation of the different levels of achievement between groups. But Baumeister's sole argument against there being barriers to women's achievement is simply to "prove" that there are naturally occurring differences in motivation between men and women, which effectively assumes what is to be proven.
So, what to say about Is There Anything Good About Men? Baumeister's argument fails to be anything he claims it is. It is not a "radical" theory in any sense: rather, it is a glib, superficial recitation of half-truths that are now long familiar in any case. Motivation and differences in preferences between men and women have been cited frequently to explain gender inequalities, and have been refuted time and again in feminist theory. Arguments that attack a strawman of feminist theory are rife on the internet. The only striking thing here is that Baumeister acknowledges that his target is effectively a strawman, though not in so many words, and dismisses the relevance of this concern. Much of what Baumeister has to say may have some truth to it, but whatever truth there is, is quickly lost to the pointlessness of criticizing theories that feminists do not hold. In conclusion, there are plenty of things about men that are good--but this book is just not one of them.
© 2011 George Williamson
George Williamson, University of Saskatchewan