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Most people do a decent job of being empathetic. When a friend has a string of bad luck, we offer a listening ear. If a cat is stuck in a tree, someone calls for help. When an old woman has nowhere to sit on the bus, we offer her our seat.
Our empathy also extends beyond our individual lives, into the realm of collective efforts. Peacekeeping forces risk their lives protecting people they have never met before. Environmental organizations spend time and money protecting animals and our whole biosphere. Many people volunteer for charities.
In fact, the argument can be made that our empathetic embrace is wider than ever before, including people all over the world, as well as many animals. The reason for this is not necessarily that we have more open hearts than our ancestors, but that we are aware of more situations that trigger our willingness to care or even offer our help.
As it turns out, empathy is not only emotional but also cognitive. You have see and understand the problems and challenges that other people face, in order to feel empathy for them. This means that increasing levels of education and a more connected world, translate into a wider empathetic embrace.
In particular, more sophisticated analyses of social issues have led to increased empathy for a range of groups in society. We are now aware of the specific challenges that can be connected to race, class, gender and sexual orientation. This awareness has not led to any kind of final resolution of the issues these groups face, but it has led to a level of recognition, which in itself can be invaluable.
In the field of gender politics, the progress in awareness has been almost exclusively connected to the struggles and daily lives of women. We have been taught about domestic violence, rape, impossible standards of beauty, discrimination in the workplace and the challenge of combining motherhood with a career. As a consequence, men have been given the information and tools needed to feel empathy for women.
Perhaps more importantly, women have received the recognition and validation they deserve. The sacrifices they have made, and still make, within the female gender role no longer go unnoticed. There is a cultural awareness of the fact that womanhood comes with specific challenges, and women know that this awareness is out there.
For men, the situation is quite different. The cultural zeitgeist for the past few decades has been that men get the good deal in life, and women the rough deal. So why have any specific empathy for men and the male gender role?
Women quite simply haven’t been given the information and tools needed to feel empathy for men. Obviously, women can and do feel empathy for men on an individual level. But women haven’t been taught about men’s issues or the specific challenges of the male gender role.
The gender discourse of the past few decades has not been focused on male disposability, custody battles where men lose their children, or suicide and homelessness where men dominate the statistics. Most people do not know that men are also the victims of domestic violence, and we rarely address the fact that overall men are more exposed to violence than women.
How can women—or for that matter, men—feel empathy for men and the male gender role, if this kind of information is not readily available in the public discourse? They cannot, and this lack of empathy is evident in popular culture.
In movies and TV series men can be slapped, kicked in the groin or even raped—as part of a funny sequence. If the genders were reversed, the genre would no longer be comedy. In sitcoms, men and fathers are regularly portrayed as clueless chumps who barely know how to tie their own shoelaces. Portraying women in this way would lead to accusations of misogyny.
Obviously, this kind of imbalance does neither gender any good. Women are deprived of the perspectives and knowledge needed to understand men on a deeper level. They may also feel a growing resentment over what they perceive as one-sided societal structures that primarily hurt women. The world does seem very unfair if you are only taught about the hardships that women face.
Men, on the other hand, may feel a diffuse sense of shame for being the “bad” gender. Since you are not automatically included in the empathetic embrace, you constantly have to prove that you are a good man, worthy of acceptance and respect. Some men may shut down emotionally, choosing not to open up in a world that seems to have limited interest in their inner lives.
So how can we move forward? I can only see one solution, however counter-intuitive it may seem to everyone who has been shaped by our current culture: We need to talk about men and the lives of men. Only by leveling the playing field in the gender discourse, can women and men have a deeper understanding of the male gender role.
What are the specific challenges that men face? How do we want men to be portrayed in popular culture? How can we become more sensitive to men’s needs?
The day that we start including men’s issues in conversations about gender—in schools, universities, the media and in politics—is the day that our empathetic embrace finally expands to include men and the male gender role.
The Good Men Project Magazine is currently running a series on male disposability, where I have contributed an article:
During the past few years a number of voices have questioned whether maleness has any intrinsic value. The basic line of reasoning seems to be that post-industrial society is better suited to women, and that men no longer have any unique contributions to make. The most famous spokesperson for these ideas is perhaps Hanna Rosin, who wrote the article and subsequent book The End of Men.
Rosin posits that women are better suited to our current economy, since they excel at social intelligence, open communication and the ability to sit still and focus. Men, on the other hand, are only better at being big and strong. Women have the traits needed today, men have the traits needed yesterday.
Ultimately, the question asked is the same as the title of Maureen Dowd’s book: Are Men Necessary? Considering how well women are doing in our current economy, this question would seem to be both timely and pertinent. Perhaps maleness is out of fashion—no longer adding any real value—and the best we can do is resocialize men into women, if that is even possible.
I may well write more articles for them, so stayed tuned for further updates.
It’s not everyday I have good news about gender issues to report from Sweden, but lately things have started changing, albeit slowly.
Newspapers are starting to actually cover some men’s issues and national television has had a couple of reports on men who are abused by their spouse. It’s not like men’s issues are winning the day, or anything of that magnitude, but it is still a definite step in the right direction.
Recently, men’s issues also made their first appearance in Swedish politics. Our minister of gender equality, Nyamko Sabuni, has created a one man commission tasked with investigating what relationship men have to gender equality, and what the important men’s issues are.
This is the first time ever that the Swedish government has acknowledged the existence of men’s issues, let alone that they need more facts on the subject. The person who has been appointed to lead this commission is journalist PM Nilsson.
When appearing on a morning news show, Mr Nilsson stated that a couple of issues he will look into are why boys are struggling in school and why young men don’t seek professional help when they have psychological issues. He will have one year to complete his work, and the government is expecting a full report on November 1st, 2013.
For any Swedish speakers out there, you can read the formal government directive here.
David asked me a very interesting question, in a recent thread:
Hi, Pelle. Regarding free speech, could the Lawrence Summers thing have happened in Sweden? Could a university president be fired for saying the things he did? Can you speak of any ways that men are better than women in Sweden other than weight lifting or mixed marital arts?
Here it seems you can say that women are better than men in any number of things, including many cognitive/emotional ways, but if you suggest men are better in cognitive/emotional ways I think you take a big risk in getting labelled sexist.
Whereas you could say things like women are better communicators and have better emotional intelligence and not have anything happen, I think you might get in big trouble and perhaps even be fired if you said something analogous in favor of men, perhaps partly because women or women’s groups might complain if you said something like that but men wouldn’t.
We have the very same problem here in Sweden, so I addressed this issue in my Swedish book on gender issues.
Here is an excerpt from my book, where I comment on the double standards regarding one gender having better skills than the other. I ran the passage through Google Translate, and then cleaned up anything that was incomprehensible:
Let’s do a little thought experiment to see how we reason about gender in our culture.
Some people argue that the problems that exist in our civilization – such as war, environmental destruction and violence – are the fault of men. Men are the ones who have had power in society since time immemorial, and therefore men should be held responsible for things gone wrong. There is a clear logic to this argument, let us accept it as true.
With the same logic, one can argue that the positive things that have occurred in our civilization – such as technological development, prosperity and democracy – are the result of men’s work. But somehow this reasoning is not put forward as frequently.
Instead of asserting that men have created these positive values it is emphasized that women did not get a chance to participate in the building of society – until relatively late in the process, and therefore it is unfair to pay tribute to the men. The women could have done an equally good job if they had had the chance. This argument has a clear logic to it, so let us accept it as true.
The major question that then arises is: If women would have been able to build a civilization just as well as men, would they not have been able to create as much war, environmental degradation and violence? If we believe that women are just as capable of all the positive characteristics of men, do we believe that women are just as capable of all the negative characteristics that men have?
If you argue that women would have been able to build all that men did, but at the same time believe that women would have created fewer wars and less pollution, then you believe that women are a superior life form. Unfortunately, this type of reasoning is far from unusual.
This kind of thinking is exemplified by the Danish author Hanne-Vibeke Holst when she is interviewed by DN:
“So, I’m not saying that men are not human. But they have a tradition of resolving conflicts through violence. Women have a tradition of resolving conflicts by peaceful means. Therefore, overall, it is very important that women are in the highest positions in the UN, at the highest policy levels. Madeleine Albright has certainly sent men into battle, but I think she really thought about it first.”
Holst believes that women are more peaceful, but does she believe that men have positive qualities that women lack in their leadership? Would she be ready to name a positive quality ín men, that women do not have to the same degree? If not, then she unknowingly carries the idea that women are superior to men. If you believe that women are better at certain things, but do not think that men are better at other things, you are basically a gender racist.
Personally, I believe that both men and women are capable of great deeds and misdeeds, and that both sexes have contributed to the positive and negative conditions that exist in our civilization. To the extent that there are differences between the sexes, I do not believe that these differences make one sex better or worse, just different.
Have you come across this issue? Where it’s OK to claim that women are more peaceful and better negotiators, but completely taboo to say that men are better at other things?