Tuesday, February 03, 2015

HT Phoenix Preacher: Roger Olson "The Problem with Men ... " and a problem with a generic discussion of the male desire for respect


... I am no expert on gender matters, but I’ve read a lot of the literature that exists and I’m not convinced by most of it. Oh, of course, there’s some truth in most of it, but I don’t think the experts have, by-and-large, hit on the right causes or solutions. But I admit that my own thoughts about this are based largely on my own observations of boys and men over six to seven decades of life. I consider myself a fairly keen observer of people’s behavior and not particularly bad when it comes to deducing their causes and concluding about some workable solutions.

I suspect, in fact I believe, that human males crave respect. For most males, boys and men, respect is somewhere near the top of their hierarchy of needs. I would go so far as to say that, if they were to be completely honest, when asked which they would prefer if they had to choose one over the other most males would take respect over love. And, perhaps unfortunately, part of that craving for respect is desiring to be respected for their maleness.

Well, respectfully, Wenatchee The Hatchet disputes this particular point.  People in general like to be respected but that's not exactly the nature of the concern I'm about to put forth.

It's not enough for males to get respect, the respect has to be something the recipient can reasonably perceive has been earned.  There may be guys who want respect "just" because they're males but a lot of guys, if they want respect, they want that respect to reflect on their character and productivity.

Roy Baumeister, in his book Is There Anything Good About Men?, put it this way--male social structures tend to make it so that any one male is ultimately superfluous to the life of the organization or movement.  A corporation will tend to survive (if it's going to, anyway) whether or not any one person is part of the corporation.  Baumeister also noted that pretty much the world over the rite of passage from boyhood to manhood has tended to be when a male produces more than he consumes.  Whenever and however he crosses that threshold the boy becomes a man.  So, perhaps unsurprisingly, rites of passage could tend to involve activities in which productive activity play some role.  Hunting for food, cultivating a crop, mastering a trade, whatever it may be, the boy becomes a man when he is able to not just consume but produce more than he consumes, and in more traditional/parochial societies that could be construed as enough "more" to feed a wife and children.

Baumeister went a bit further, though, in proposing that the essential trait of masculinity is that males are disposable and that it is this disposability of the male that makes their contributions to culture paramount.  Males have historically embraced the high risk/high payoff activities that advance civilizations, while the energy and activity of motherhood was so intensive cultures generally refused to put women at the kinds of risks that men were not only put to, but often actively sought out.

That might be like saying that guys want respect but they want it by virtue of having proven they're useful and needed.  While social systems in which everyone is considered essential and has a role to play apply across the board, if Baumeister's right, his proposal would be that guys tend to create teams in which you first have to prove you're worthy of being on the team and then once you've done that then you get respect.  Olson's proposals seem rather generic and unhelpful because while it may be the average male craves respect the average male might also not like respect that he feels has simply been given to him because it's what everybody else is getting.  Maybe guys compete because they want a pecking order and want a basis from which to understand social rankings.  It doesn't matter how progressive or egalitarian humans may try to be, it seems we fall back on hierarchies of status and pecking orders. 

There's been a lot of Christians talking about a crisis in masculinity but what, exactly, is this crisis?  That guys aren't rising to the challenge of adulthood in contemporary society?  Let's reframe the nature of the question, what is it that's worth rising to these days?  Family?  Career?  Education?  These are all positive things but perhaps the cart has been put before the horse because in many societies a lot of these things were decided for you rather than by you. 

Take songs from the 18th century like a jovial number by Haydn, it's a song about this guy who creeps up to visit a beautiful girl cloistered in a nunnery and for the labor of climbing the walls to visit her he asks to be rewarded by her with a kiss.  Haydn himself was nearly turned into a castrato, if memory serves, and he was never able to marry the woman he was crushing on because of class barriers.  What may be different in our age is that there's an elephant in the room, and it may be the real nature of the "crisis" Christians talk about when they talk about a crisis in masculinity.

In social science terms the phrase would be "sexual market value", how viable on the market for mating a person is or isn't.  It may be the crisis in masculinity is not that a whole bunch of guys aren't getting married and getting jobs and starting families already, the crisis may be that in a post-modern information age it's easier than ever for males to realize how disposable they actually are.  When this crosses their mind they may just "opt out" of what has traditionally been called functional adulthood and not because none of them ever want that but because the risk to reward equation may seem stacked against them.  It may just be that for American Christians there's no practical teaching of any value for how to live a Christian life when a person's "sexual market value" is zero other than "well ... get married already."  It can seem as though functional adulthood is so thoroughly defined by sexual activity (since, well, we're all mammals here, right?) that the idea that one size does not fit all has been lost.

A lot has been said about Mark Driscoll over the years but there were some things he understood and even did right, at least early on.  Driscoll used to say that guys need something to do to motivate them.  You can't just confer "respect" on guys and have them buy it.  They have to get the sense that the respect they get is respect they've earned.  If you get guys together and tell them there's something you want done, something that can't be done without them, and then give them the agency to go do that thing then you've gotten the young guys.  The way Driscoll did it was pretty simple, really, he promised a legacy.  Had the legacy that Mark Driscoll invited young guys to participate in and contribute to remained a shared legacy rather than what increasingly seemed to be the personal legacy of Mark Driscoll there might still be a Mars Hill today.  Be that as it may, it's worth suggesting in light of Roger Olson's recent post that while his diagnosis and proposed solution seems nebulous and even lacking, it's kind of a reminder that at one point Driscoll had this nailed down.  He did know how to appeal to and motivate young guys who had previously no investment in "growing up". 

But if we're going to get guys inspired by giving them something to do what would that be?  That is probably the insoluable conundrum within American culture.  Unlike earlier times and places we don't really have a set of options that people could take up when they were deemed not-marriage material.  In the past someone who was at the end of the line for inheritance had to make their own way and if they couldn't they might end up in an army or in a monastery. We don't exactly have those equivalents in the same way.  Rather than even discuss that plenty of people are not marriage/family-building material Christians in particular seem to want all able-bodied or even semi-bodied males to "man up".  One of the numerous shortfalls in Real Marriage was Driscoll opining that some guys didn't trust God enough to provide for children and thus sinfully resisted their wives wanting to have babies.

But if Driscoll has retained any fondness for Bonhoeffer he might have recalled that Bonhoeffer wrote that while abortion was always wrong it might still be more moral to refrain from bringing children into the world you couldn't properly support than to just have them anyway.  Driscoll simultaneously set the bar too high by defining functional adulthood in terms of nuclear family building and yet also too low in the sense that he went so far as to propose that the reason God gave men a huge sex drive was so that that sex drive could spur a boy to become a man and take a wife.  As has been discussed at some length here before, same sex attraction obliterates the viability of Driscoll's own taxonomy of manhood on its own terms, given Driscoll's stance on gays.

So ... even with that in mind, it seems that Mark Driscoll's success was in inspiring young guys in the sorts of ways that those who talk about a crisis in masculinity have kept coming back to. 

At the moment with Driscoll in some kind of stasis sounding off on the crisis of contemporary males is going to be asking a question that probably isn't that contemporary.  The book of Proverbs was advising against joining gangs of worthless young rascals millennia ago.  And it seems that the real crisis American Christians may be facing is that as the nuclear family becomes less and less economically viable tethering all the "practical teaching" to that ideal may reveal the limitations of the "Law" of family as economic realities shift.  For American conservative Protestants it may just be that marriage is the new circumcision and not surprisingly, focusing on the necessity of marriage in other ways may be a progressive Christian concern, too. 

It kind of seems that whether it's a Christian left or right the idea that there's no place for eunuchs, and if we go by Jesus' words on the subject two of three categories of eunuchs didn't pick that status.  And let's not kid ourselves too much, in most times and places the mating game has been a status game.  What if in the age to come the absence of marriage or being given in marriage might have something to do with that, something to do with status indicators in ancient societies that we find hard to appreciate because we've got a romantic sentimental notion that "there's someone for everyone" when in possibly any and every earlier epoch of humanity people may have known better than that?

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