There’s plenty to agree with in Frank Bruni’s column today on ameliorating the culture that leads to disparagement of and aggression toward women. In fact, I’d probably endorse most of the proposals he makes. But, unlike Frank, I don’t believe that masculinity is entirely a cultural construct. Here’s how he puts it:
There are times when I find myself darkly wondering if there’s some ineradicable predatory streak in the male subset of our species. Wrong, Chris Kilmartin told me. It’s not DNA we’re up against; it’s movies, manners and a set of mores, magnified in the worlds of the military and sports, that assign different roles and different worth to men and women. Fix that culture and we can keep women a whole lot safer.
But there is a third option between DNA and culture. It’s called testosterone. It’s a very powerful hormone that makes men men (we are all originally default female embryos) and is the sole real difference between the sexes. And it correlates very strongly with aggression, confidence, pride, and physical strength. There is nothing inherently “dark” about this. Testosterone has fueled a huge amount of human achievement and success as well as over-reach and disaster. And it makes men and women inherently different – something so obvious no one really doubted it until very recently, when the blank-slate left emerged, merging self-righteousness with empirical delusion.
This absolutely doesn’t mean acquiescence to rape or the culture that leads to rape.
That is an extreme and heinously immoral act of violence. Indeed, there’s a great deal of work to be done in creating a dialogue and culture in which the logic of testosterone is challenged constantly. But this used to be done by appealing to male pride, not by suspecting generalized male infamy. The concept of “gentle”-men or “gentlemen” was honed in the last few centuries specifically to encourage such a civilizing cultural climate. And I’d argue that approach will pay far more dividends than the well-intentioned attempts to remake human nature by cultural coercion – because it deploys one the most powerful forces in men, testosterone, against itself. It works with the grain of human nature, rather than assuming that such nature doesn’t really exist and culture is all we need to change.
A man’s self-esteem can be, in some hideous fashion, fed by acts of violence. But it can also be sustained through more open and public recognition of such virtues as courage, confidence and prudent risk-taking and through the critical institution of the family. A spouse channels testosterone to calmer waters; off-spring can bring with them a new sense of manhood if fatherhood is a truly appreciated moral activity. Virtuous institutions – such as you see in the Boy Scouts or at West Point or in the ethos instilled in the US military from George Washington on – are also vital to this. But none of this is possible if we insist on denying reality. Men are not women – and never will be.
A celebration of virtuous masculinity is impossible unless you accept the deep hormonal reality of masculinity itself. And even find much in it to admire.