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Why has it become OK to attack men?

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“How we stop this kid becoming a monster.” The words were emblazoned on the front page of an Australian news tabloid. Alongside was a photo of a boy who appeared about six years old, with a call for “all schools to address [the] menace of toxic masculinity.”

What kind of ideology teaches people to see a six-year-old as a potential "monster"?

The public rhetoric berating boys and men has grown increasingly harsh and bitter — sometimes with good reason. Yet justified outrage against abusive behavior has all too often degraded into ugly male-bashing.

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A Washington Post article was titled, “Why Can’t We Hate Men?”

A Huffington Post editor tweeted #“Kill All Men.”

You can buy T-shirts that say, “So many men. So little ammunition.”

Books have appeared with titles like I Hate Men, No Good Men, and Are Men Necessary?

Even some men have taken to demeaning their own sex. Author and editor John Stoltenberg wrote, “Talking about ‘healthy masculinity’ is like talking about ‘healthy cancer.’” The director of the movie Avatar, James Cameron, said testosterone is “a toxin that you have to work out of your system.”

Where is this hostile language coming from? To answer that, we have to go back in American history to the time when masculinity first began to be described in negative terms — back to the Industrial Revolution.

The ‘highest human art’

Until that time, men worked alongside their wives and children on the family farm, the family industry, the family business. The cultural expectation of men focused on their caretaking role. In fact, most books and articles on parenting were addressed to fathers, not mothers. Sons were like apprentices in their father’s craft or trade.

Men were also expected to reach out to be “fathers of the community.” Harvard historian Steven Ozment writes the “direction of a household was presented as the highest human art,” extending out to “church and school, friends and neighbors, the poor and needy.”

Historians call this a “communal” vision of masculinity. Historian Gordon Wood, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Radicalism of the American Revolution, says men “were expected to suppress their private wants and interests” to protect the common good of their family and community.

The more-than-Industrial Revolution

How did Americans lose this communal vision of masculine virtue? The Industrial Revolution took work out of the home. Men had little choice but to follow their work into offices and factories. For the first time, men were no longer working with their family members — people they loved and had a moral bond with. Instead, they were working as individuals with other men.

People began to protest that men were losing the caretaking ethos of the previous era — that they were becoming individualistic, ego-centric, self-seeking, greedy, and acquisitive, even turning financial success into an “idol.”

This is when we first see negative language applied to the male character.

And because industrialization took fathers out of the home all day, they were not as aware of their children’s needs, not as attuned to their family’s dynamics. Already in the 19th century, fathers began to be criticized as out of touch, irrelevant, superfluous, and incompetent — the seeds of the Homer Simpson stereotype.

Mushroom men

The communal ethic for masculinity was undergirded by a communal vision of society itself, called civic republicanism. In this political philosophy, says UCLA historian Ruth Bloch, virtue was defined as the willingness “to sacrifice individual interests for the common good.”

But a new political philosophy became popular in America — called social contract theory—which proposes that societies are mere aggregates of autonomous, atomistic individuals. A founder of the theory, Thomas Hobbes, suggested that we should “look at men as if they had just emerged from the earth like mushrooms and grown up without any obligation to each other.”

Social groups like families were no longer said to be united by a common good. And if there was no common good, then a man’s duty could no longer be defined as responsibility for protecting the common good.

In short, social contract theory seemed to let men off the hook, to lower the moral expectations on them.

Letting men off the hook

One fascinating way this concern was expressed was in the debate over women’s suffrage. Initially, the majority of women opposed the vote. A leading suffragist, Alice Stone Blackwell, wrote, “The chief obstacle to equal suffrage is the indifference and opposition of women.” Susan B. Anthony agreed, writing that women’s suffrage laws “probably never would have passed if it had been up to women to vote on them.”

Why did most women oppose the vote? Because they saw it as part of the shift to the individualism of social contract theory. Listen to the women’s own words. One anti-suffragist said the vote would “shift the basis of our government from the family as a unit to the individual.” Another said the vote would “strike at the family as the self-governing unit upon which the state is built.” Still, another wrote, “the household, not the individual, is the unit of the state.”

The debate lasted almost a century, and eventually, of course, women came around to supporting the vote. What turned the tide? When the vote was expanded to universal male suffrage (around 1870). At that point, the meaning of the vote changed. Men no longer voted as officeholders responsible for the common good of the household but only as individuals.

And if the vote represented only individual interests, women concluded — quite logically — that they, too, needed to represent themselves. In 1915, Alice Henry, a leader in the Women’s Trade Union League, said female suffrage is necessary “because men, even good men, cannot be trusted to take care of women’s interests.”

Created equal

I recount this history of the vote in my book The Toxic War on Masculinity, and some readers have mistakenly concluded that I oppose women’s suffrage. On the contrary, I support it.

From the beginning of the debate, there were Christians who argued in favor based on women’s spiritual and moral equality as beings made in God’s image. Suffragist Sarah Grimke declared, “Men and Women are CREATED EQUAL.” The proceedings of a Woman's Rights Convention in 1850 spoke of “the work of Creation, when it was so gloriously finished in the garden of Eden, by placing there, in equal companionship, man and woman, made in the image of God.” 

An article subtitled “What Textbooks Don’t Say about Women’s Suffrage” reports that there were “hundreds of ministers who made their churches available for suffragists to deliver their lectures, and who preached in favor of it.”

Jenna Gray-Hildenbrand of Middle Tennessee State University concludes, “It would be difficult to think of women achieving the right to vote in this country … without religious people coming together and seeing this as a religious value."

The fragmenting family

Yet from our vantage point today, we can also see that the anti-suffragists had reason to be concerned about the atomizing effects of social contract theory. Its focus on the autonomous self, warns Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel, is corrosive of the "moral fabric of community,” especially of “family ties.”

Shocking numbers of fathers desert their families. Today about 40% of children are born to single mothers. Most of these children see their fathers rarely, if at all. The U.S. has the highest rate of single parenthood in the world. Tragically, fatherless boys suffer higher rates of depression, school problems, addiction, suicide, and crime.

In recent years, laments New York Times columnist David Brooks, the family has fragmented into ever smaller and more fragile forms. “In many sectors of society, nuclear families fragmented into single-parent families, single-parent families into chaotic families or no families ... There are more American homes with pets than with kids.”

Is marriage ‘natural’?

The upshot, says psychiatrist Frank Pittman, is that “We’re not going to raise a better class of men until we have a better class of fathers.” Yet, elite opinion has taken to dismissing the importance of fathers:

A Huffington Post blog post was titled, “Fathers Are Not Needed.”

An Atlantic article said, “The bad news for Dad is that there’s nothing objectively essential about his contribution.”

A New York Times article fumed, “One of the most persistent and frustrating problems in evolutionary biology is the male. Specifically ... why doesn’t he just go away?”

There’s even a secular script for masculinity that treats marriage and family as contrary to the male nature. “Men are not biologically attuned to being committed fathers,” claims sociologist David Popenoe, co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University. “Left culturally unregulated, men’s sexual behaviour can be promiscuous, their paternity casual, their commitment to families weak.”

In The Moral Animal, Robert Wright goes so far as to say, “Human males are by nature oppressive, possessive, flesh-obsessed pigs.” He adds, “Giving men marriage tips is a little like offering Vikings a free booklet titled ‘How Not to Pillage.’”

In Men and Marriage, George Gilder says men are by nature violent, irresponsible, prone to addiction, and sexually predatory. Their “most profound yearning” is not for a wife and family, but for “the open road, the male group escape to a primal mode of predatory and immediate gratification.”

The original blueprint

But is it really men’s “most profound yearning” to escape? To indulge in “immediate gratification”? Is that how God created men?

In Genesis, when God created the human race, he did not start with an autonomous individual — a solitary man surveying an original wilderness. He created a couple. Marriage and family are part of the original blueprint. Men do not find their true selves by riding off into the sunset like a lone ranger. They find their authentic manhood by investing in their core relationships: to God, their wife, children, and community.

Jesus taught that the two greatest commandments are to “love the Lord” with all your heart, soul, and mind, and to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37–40). Given today’s secular script for masculinity, the idea that men’s primary life goal should be to love is revolutionary.

Research supports Jesus’s words. One of the world’s longest health studies, conducted by Harvard University, followed a group of men for eighty years to find out what made them happy. The result? The most important factor in male happiness and health was not fame, wealth, or professional achievement. Overwhelmingly, the key factor in male mental health was close, loving relationships. Even single men can be “fathers of the community” by mentoring and discipling younger people.

The media and schools need to stop demonizing boys. When we teach six-year-olds the biblical blueprint for masculinity, they will not be in danger of becoming monsters.

Nancy Pearcey is a professor and scholar in residence at Houston Christian University and the author of several books, including Total Truth and Love Thy Body. This article is adapted from her latest book, The Toxic War on Masculinity.

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