tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
This is a parody of an article by Clay Shirky.
A Rant About Men

By Claudia Worky

So I get email from a good former student, applying for a job and asking for a recommendation. "Sure", I say, "Tell me what you think I should say." I then get a draft letter back in which the student has described their work and fitness in terms so self-effacing it would make a Jewish comedian suggest you take up affirmations.

So I write my letter, looking over the student's self-assessment and dialing it up so that it sounds like it's coming from an enthusiastic mentor and not a depressed 14-year-old, and send it off. And then, as I get over my annoyance, I realize that, by understating their abilities, the student has probably gotten a letter out of me that's appropriate to their level of talent without sounding unrealistic.

Now, can you guess the gender of the student involved?

Of course you can. My home, the Solitary Silence Department at Buffalo Lake State, is fairly gender-balanced, and I've taught about as many men as women over the last decade. In theory, the gender of my former student should be a coin-toss. In practice, I might as well have given her the pseudonym Titsy McBoobity for all the mystery there was. And I've grown increasingly worried that most of the men in the department, past or present, simply couldn't write a letter like that.

This worry isn't about psychology; I'm not concerned that men don't engage in enough abnegation of themselves or don't build enough self-doubt. I'm worried about something much simpler: not enough men have what it takes to behave like humble self-mortifying pushovers.

Remember Nora Helmer, the housewife immortalized in "A Doll's House" who sacrifices to save her husband's life? She hides the truth to protect his pride and acts like a ditzy child to keep him from realizing that she earned money to save his life. She didn't miss the fact that she was getting the short end of the deal and suffering just to protect some man. She just didn't care. (Until the end, anyway; everyone has their limits.)

It's not that men will be better off being doormats; a lot of doormats aren't better off being doormats either. It's just that until men have role models who are willing to contemplate suicide just to protect someone else's ego, they'll miss out on channeling smaller amounts of self-sacrificing charity to help who they want to help, and if they can't do that, they'll help people less than they want to help them.

There is no upper limit to the amount of suffering women are willing to undergo in order to protect someone they care about, and if there is an upper limit for men, they will do less good. They will also hurt themselves less, but I don't think we get the rewards without the risks.
When I was 19 and three days into my first year in college, I went to see Billie Lefraw, the head of music theory (my chosen profession, in those days) to ask if I could enroll in a composition class. She asked me two questions. The first was "How's your intonation?" Not so good, I replied. (I couldn't carry a tune in a bucket.) "OK, how's your sight-reading?" I realized this was it. My sight-reading was just okay; I could have said it was good, but I just couldn't countenance getting into a class on false pretenses. Besides, out in the hall I had happened to see three students waiting to talk to Billie about getting off the waiting list who I knew were much better than me.

"My sight-reading's crappy," I said.

That's the kind of behavior I mean. I sat in the office of someone I admired and feared, someone who was the gatekeeper for something I wanted, and I told her something that made me look terrible. We talked some more and then she said, "You'd better take a different class." And I ran to the local textbook store and bought some math books, since I had to find a new major.

That got me out of the fire. I got the satisfaction of knowing that I made way for students with more competence and passion than I had, I never considered music as a career again, and four years later, I got a job after I graduated. I can't say that my escape from a life of poverty working in a profession I was always mediocre at was due to my behavior in Billie's office, but I can say it was because I was willing to do that kind of thing. The difference between me and Nora Helmer isn't that she's a martyr and I'm not; the difference is that I only assessed myself with brutal honesty when there was no real risk to my health or welfare, and I knew when to stop. That's not a different type of behavior, it's just a different amount.

And it looks to me like men in general, and the men whose educations I am responsible for in particular, are often lousy at those kinds of behaviors, even when the situation calls for it. They aren't just bad at behaving like humble self-effacing pushovers. They are bad at behaving like selfless altruists, meek softies, or modest mice, even a little bit, even temporarily, even when it would be in the world's best interests to do so. Whatever bad things you can say about those behaviors, you can't say they are underrepresented among people who have changed the world.

Now this is asking men to behave more like women, but so what? We ask people to cross gender lines all the time. We're in the middle of a generations-long project to encourage women to be louder talkers and more sexually aggressive partners, to spend less time obsessing over their own feelings and worrying about others' feelings. Similarly, I see colleges spending time and effort teaching men strategies for being less of a violent asshole, including directly not raping women. I sometimes wonder what would happen, though, if my college spent as much effort teaching men self-effacement as self-control.
Some of the reason these strategies are useful is because we live in a world where men don't do their fair share of emotional labor. However, even in an ideal future, self-effacement will be a skill that produces disproportionate social rewards, and if skill at self-effacement remains disproportionally female, the rewards of a place in the world appropriate to one's talents and inclinations will also remain disproportionally female. This isn't because of oppression, it's because of freedom.

But rather than writing some douchebaggy drivel that tortures free-market economics into supporting my questionable argument (see what I did there?), I'll get straight to the point. Institutions that offer opportunities operate in an environment where accurate information is hard to come by. One of their main sources of judgment is asking the candidate directly: Tell us why we should admit you. Tell us why we should hire you. Tell us why we should give you a grant. Tell us why we should promote you.

In these circumstances, people who wave their hands in the air get called on, and people who wave their hands in the air while yelling loudly get called on more. Some of this is because quiet people are easier to ignore, but some of it is because keeping your mouth shut is a signal that underneath your veneer of modesty, you have self-respect and aren't willing to give it up just to work at some dumb-ass job.

That in turn correlates with many of the skills that douchebags need to work at organizations run by douchebags: recruiting other douchebags and raising money, conning naïve people and fooling skeptics, pretending your company has a business plan when all that's actually written down is "Step 3: Profit". Institutions assessing the fitness of candidates, in other words, often pass over self-effacers because self-effacement is linked with being too smart to play such childish games.

It's tempting to imagine that men could be sensible and reserved without being weak or easily manipulated, but that's a false hope, because it's other people who get to decide when they think you're a pushover, and trying to stay under that threshold means giving those people veto power over your actions. To hold yourself back as someone who's not willing to accept a position that goes beyond your innate abilities is, by definition, to expose yourself to all kinds of negative judgments, and as far as I can tell, the fact that other people get to decide what they think of your behavior leaves only two strategies for not suffering from those judgments: not doing anything, or doing what you know is right despite feeling hurt by the reaction.
Doing what you think is right works surprisingly well. Another of my great former students, now a peer and a friend, saw a request from a magazine reporter doing a science story and looking for examples. My friend, who'd previously been too loud about his work, realized that his work had nothing to do with the reporter's request and decided not to make himself look silly by writing to her about it. Instead, he wrote to the reporter to call her attention to the work of our mutual friend Jane, saying, "Jane's work is awesome. You should write about it."

The reporter looked at Jane's work and wrote back saying "Jane's work is indeed awesome, and I will contact her about it. I also have to tell you that you are the only man who suggested a female colleague's work. Women do that all the time, but men only recommend their own work." My friend started helping other colleagues as well, and now he enjoys the satisfaction of knowing he played a part in others' success.

If you walked into my department at Buffalo Lake State, you wouldn't say "Oh my, look how much talented the women are than the men." The level and variety of creative energy in the place is still breathtaking to me, and it's not divided by gender. However, you would be justified in saying "I bet that the students who are happiest with what they've done for their family, friends and colleagues and for social justice in five years will include more women than men", because that's what happens, year after year. My friend talking to the reporter remains the sad exception.

Part of this sorting out of fates is misandry, but part of it is that women are just better at being altruistic, and less concerned about trying to get people to give them credit for things they haven't done.

Now I don't know what to do about this problem. (The essence of a rant, in fact, is that the ranter has no idea how to fix the thing being ranted about.) What I do know is this: it would be good if more men see opportunities to do something for somebody else, opportunities to sacrifice rewards they might otherwise have enjoyed for the sake of the greater good, and then try to take them on. It would be good if more men got in the habit of shutting the hell up when someone asks for an opinion they're not qualified to give, no matter how uncomfortable that makes them.


tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Tim Chevalier

December 2018

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