The Acculturated symposium, “Can Men be Men Again?” has evoked a very spirited and inspired response from our writers–and a rather passionate response from our readers. Our writers have argued that there has been a breakdown in manly behavior in our culture. So in the comments section and in some of our posts, a question has arisen: Whose fault is it? Men’s or women’s?
I think this question misses the point. At least part of what lies at the heart of the degeneration of manly behavior and the general breakdown in how men and women treat each other is, I maintain, selfishness, ego, and what results when those two things exist excessively in one person: a decline in compassion and empathy, or the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes.
This point really hit home reading Ben Domenech’s thoughts on the state of manliness in our culture. As the girlfriend of a complete gentleman and the sister of a fourteen year old who is learning the rules of gentlemanly behavior, this section of Ben’s post particularly moved me:
I remember the first time a woman swore at me, in Manhattan, for holding a door for her according to my Southern instincts, an indictment of old-fashioned manners in a compressed Bronx vowel. It was a jarring moment, and I have never forgotten it. I haven’t stopped holding doors open, but I’ve noticed others have. Men are all overgrown boys, after all (myself most definitely included)–it’s experience in life, the lessons we take from our mistakes and our triumphs, that makes us men.
I’ve seen this happen before to men with whom I am very close and it’s upsetting, to put the matter mildly. To put the matter more frankly, I think that there is something fundamentally wrong about what women like this do.
Being a good person is an act in two parts. It involves treating others well, as Ben tried to do here, but it also involves gracefully accepting the kindness of others. This woman failed to gracefully accept Ben’s kind act because she thought Ben was being sexist. Was Ben being sexist? I’m sure if you asked Ben–or any other man who holds doors open for women–why he did it, he will say that he was trying to be kind and gentlemanly.
But instead of taking that kindness on its own terms, this woman imposed her own beliefs and ideology onto Ben, as she probably has done with countless other men. In doing so, she makes these men feel like unenlightened sexist brutes. Why? Because she just has to make her political point. The social and moral cost of her ideological position is attacking men like Ben and their kindness. If that doesn’t constitute selfish behavior, I don’t know what does.
I think women like her underestimate how profoundly damaging and hurtful behavior like that is for men–and I think women have a moral responsibility, not to mention a social one, to consider that it’s not always appropriate to wave the feminist flag. (As for women who open doors for men and offer to help men with their groceries: If you do it out of kindness, and not for any political reasons, fine. But if the man insists on holding the door for you and carrying the groceries for you, why would you deny him the opportunity to do something that he thinks is good and decent?).
That said, I think that men have a moral responsibility too. I recently wrote an article in defense of chivalry for The Atlantic, challenging both men and women to higher standards of behavior. With the exception of a small handful of shrill ideologues, women (including many feminists) responded positively to my piece, which was a little bit surprising. But many men–too many men–did not. These men thought that women today did not deserve to be treated in a gentlemanly manner; they thought that women need to choose between accepting feminism or living in a culture where gentlemanly behavior is valued and encouraged; if women chose feminism, they should expect to be treated poorly.
What incentive, these men asked, do men have to treat women well? Their responses were, in fact, very similar to the responses you can read in the comments thread of Ryan Duffy’s recent post for Acculturated, where Ryan argued that men need to be trained to behave better.
I find these responses to be rather disturbing. The incentive to treat women–or anyone, for that matter–well is obvious. It’s the right thing to do. The moral systems from the major world religions, especially Christianity, are clear on this point. Even if you are not treated well by another person, you have a moral duty to be kind to them. Women, who for physical reasons tend to be more vulnerable than men, merit special treatment in special circumstances, regardless–by the way–of their views on feminism.
So who is to blame for the cultural breakdown? We all are. Unfortunately, no one thinks that they need to change their behavior because they think the other side is to blame.
Actually, our relationships would be much better and stronger if we each put our egos aside and, rather than concern ourselves with how others should act, took extra steps to be better, kinder, and more loving to everyone–especially people we disagree with, especially people who treat us poorly. If we could each, individually, pledge to be more compassionate and empathetic, we would move forward in a really meaningful direction on such matters.
Editor’s note: This piece is part of a symposium in which a variety of writers and thinkers weigh in on the question: “Can men be men again?” See earlier takes by Emily Esfahani Smith, Mark Judge, Ryan Duffy, Mark Tapson, R. J. Moeller, Ben Domenech, Abby Schachter, and Anthony Dent. All of the posts are compiled here.