The Boy Crisis

There is a recent C-SPAN talk with Warren Farrell about his book, The Boy Crisis. Although mostly focused on the US, I imagine it would apply to some other countries, as he does briefly mention ISIS recruits. American boys and girls have the same suicide rate at age 9, but in the years following that it goes up for boys only. Overall, the mortality of boys is declining in recent years, even though mortality of girls remains the same. I don’t know if the book is insightful or not, as I haven’t read it, but the issues the author brings up are important. I’ve made similar observations about gender divides. Let me make my case, although my thoughts here are tentative and so I’m not entirely attached to them. No doubt my own biases will slip in, but let me try my best to be clear in my position, even if I’m not perfectly right.

The difficulty is gender inevitably is mixed with culture, not that gender is merely a social construct, but gender identity and perception does have a powerful influence. I’d argue that, in certain ways, girls get more of a certain kind of attention. My nieces have received immense help for problems they’ve had such as social training, therapy, etc and been given many opportunities such as signing them up for social events, activities, etc. But what I sense is that my nephew who has serious problems has mostly been ignored, such as no one apparently helping him with his learning difficulties, despite his obviously needing more help than his sister and female cousin who are natural learners. The attitude seems to be that boys will be boys, that boys should suck it up and take care of their own problems, that boys aren’t sensitive like girls and so don’t need the same help, that boys are naturally aggressive and disruptive and so troubled behavior should simply be expected or else punished. Boy problems are to be ignored or eliminated, a Social Darwinian approach less often applied to girls, so it seems to me.

There is also something physiological going on, something I feel more confident in asserting. Boys and girls do seem to deal with health issues differently. Girls, according to some research, have a better ability at dealing with stress (or maybe just less acting out their stress in ways that distress others, similar to how female-profile aspies might be better at socially compensating than male-profile aspies). Some of the aggressive and impulsive behaviors from such things as lead toxicity can be rationalized away as the extremes of otherwise normal boy behavior. The same goes for autism, ADHD, etc — simply not taken as seriously when seen in boys (e.g., autism explained as extreme male profile). This is complicated by the question of whether girls are being diagnosed less, a complication I’ve written about before but won’t be explored further in this post because it goes into difficult issues of the psychology and behavior of personality as filtered through culture.

Dr. Leonard Sax also speculates that something in the environment or diet is causing developmental issues (and this is where much of my own recent thinking comes in). Over time, girls are reaching puberty earlier and boys later, which causes an inequality in neurocognitive development and educational achievement, resulting in boys dropping out at higher rates and girls attending college at higher rates. He suspects it might have to do with estrogen-like chemicals in plastics (then again, it could have to do with food additives, increased soy consumption, hormones in dairy, a high-carb diet, etc or else any number of a slew of environmental toxins and other chemicals, some of which are hormone mimics; others have observed that boys today seem to have more effeminate features such as less square jaw structure than what is seen in photographs of boys from the past and from hunter-gatherer tribes). He also makes a slightly different kind of argument that typical boy behavior is less tolerated in schools with stereotypical girl behavior being the ideal of a good student — that of sitting quietly and calmly, rather than running around like, well, little boys which is an issue as free playtime and gym classes have been among the first to be cut in the new push for teaching to the test (of course, this would also impact girls who don’t follow stereotypical female behavior). Not all of these arguments necessarily fit together.

Most likely, it’s dozen of major factors that are overlapping (and one senses the terrain covered with landmines of confounders). Throw in some reactionary right-wing backlash to mix it up, along with partisan politics to polarize the population. The paranoia about boys being emasculated turns into a moral panic and there is the fear on the other side about the return of theocratic patriarchy or whatever. There is no doubt something to worry about for all involved, but the water gets muddied up with ideologically-driven fearful fantasies and identity politics of every variety. Similar moral panics were seen before WWI and earlier before the Civil War. Societies have a tendency of getting militaristic and violent toward other societies, in the hope of toughening up their boys and often the rhetoric and propaganda becomes rather blatant about this. It is madness that leads to madness. Meanwhile, the real problems facing boys mostly get ignored by the political left and right, until a few generations later when the unresolved problems erupt again as moral panic returns.

Society goes through cycles of ignoring boys and obsessing over them. Girls typically never get the same kind of extreme attention, positive or negative (which one could argue leads to other problems for girls). There is a lot of social pressure in being a boy and a lot more judgment for perceived failure and inadequacy, which surely would relate to the higher rate of suicide and self-destructive behavior, including suicide by cop. That isn’t to say life is easy for girls either, but many of the measurements seem to be improving or at least remaining stable for girls in a way not seen for boys where in important areas worsening is apparent. There is a growing disparity that needs to be explained. Why would mortality be worsening for boys while not for girls? Why would more girls and fewer boys be attending college? Why are there more homeless men on the streets? In a society that is historically patriarchal with certain male privileges, this is the complete opposite of what one would expect. And this resonates with life expectancy and well-being (e.g., drug addiction rates) getting worse for rural white men and middle class white men, even as most other demographics aren’t seeing such declines, indicating that even among males it’s particular populations being hit the most.

The awareness of this problem, a sense of something severely wrong, is the kind of thing driving too many Americans to support someone like President Donald Trump. The populist outrage is real, if misdirected in a way that will make everything worse. Authoritarian nationalism promoted through xenophobic scapegoating, chest-pounding, and war-mongering is not going to save our boys. Yet one can feel that so many people in power are itching for mass violence to enforce social order again and that means enforcing nostalgic notions of ultra-masculinity. Nurturing children, all children, and ensuring public health and the public good for all… well, that is less exciting than lamenting the decline of Western civilization or whatever. It’s not about gender wars, about boys and men losing their position in society or it shouldn’t be about that. We need to find ways to help children where they are at, to create equality of opportunities not only in theory but in reality. We are a society out of balance with gender being one expression among many others.

Improving the lives of girls should be a priority, as is true for other historically disadvantaged demographics and populations. But it is severely problematic if improvement in one area of society seems to be coming at the cost at worsening conditions elsewhere, such as for boys. Even if that isn’t exactly true, in that one can’t be directly or fully blamed for the other, we shouldn’t be so naive as not to realize that is how it will get portrayed. We can’t afford to dismiss the real harm and suffering caused to part of the population, especially at a time when the entire society is under stress. Identity politics turned into dysfunctional demographic tribalism can’t lead to a happy result. This situation isn’t feminism in a fight against the men’s rights movement. These boys have sisters, mothers, and aunts. And these boys will grow up to be husbands and fathers. We don’t live in demographic abstractions for we are part of personal relationships that connect us. Our problems are shared, as is the good we seek.

Juvenile Delinquents and Emasculated Males

I was reminded of an old post of mine where I discussed an unintentionally humorous bumper sticker: “Kids who hunt, fish, and trap don’t mug little old ladies.” The logic being used is rather odd, the former having little to do with the latter. It just makes me smile.

The fact of the matter is that few kids do any of those things. It’s true that most kids who hunt, fish, and trap don’t mug little old ladies. But then again, it’s likewise true that most kids who don’t hunt, fish, and trap also don’t mug little old ladies. Despite the paranoia of right-wing media, there isn’t a pandemic of juvenile delinquents taking advantage of the elderly.

The culture wars never die. In one form or another, they’ve been going on for a long time. The same kind of rhetoric can be found even centuries ago. It’s a powerful worldview, eliciting generational conflict. It seems that adults have always complained about kids being worse than they were before, as if the entirety of civilization has been a slow decline from a Golden Age when perfect children once were obedient little angels.

Seeing that post again, I remembered a book I read about a decade ago: Jackson Lear’s Rebirth of a Nation. The author explained the reason manliness and character building suddenly became an obsession around the turn of the century. It led to stocking rivers with game fish, the creation of the Boy Scouts, and greater emphasis put on team sports.

It was far from a new concern. It was built on the Jeffersonian views of agrarian democracy. Immediately following the revolution, it became a fear that the next generation of children needed to be carefully shaped into good citizens. The wholesome farm life was a major focus, especially among the ruling elite who worried about the unruly underclass. This worry grew over time. What exacerbated the fears over the following generations is that in the mid-to-late 1800s there was the beginnings of mass industrialization and urbanization, along with the commercialization of every aspect of life such as the emergence of a consumer economy and consumer culture. The consumer-citizen didn’t fit the heroic mould of old democratic-republican ideals of masculinity.

It relates to why Southerners worried about the end of slavery. It wasn’t just about blacks being free. It was a sign of the times, the end of the independent farmer and the rise of paid labor. Many worried that this would simply be a new form of slavery. How could a man be a man when he was as dependent as a child on another for his living?

This was a collective concern. And so society turned to collective answers. This contributed to the push for Prohibition and public schooling. It was a sense that boys and young men, in particular, had lost some essential element of character that once came natural to their agrarian ancestors. This new generation would have to be taught how to be real men by teaching them hunting, fishing, trapping, sports, etc.

* * *

Rebirth of a Nation:
The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920
By Jackson Lears
pp. 27-29

But for many other observers, too many American youths—especially among the upper classes—had succumbed to the vices of commerce: the worship of Mammon, the love of ease. Since the Founding Fathers’ generation, republican ideologues had fretted about the corrupting effects of commercial life. Norton and other moralists, North and South, had imagined war would provide an antidote. During the Gilded Age those fears acquired a peculiarly palpable intensity. The specter of “overcivilization”—invoked by republican orators since Jefferson’s time—developed a sharper focus: the figure of the overcivilized businessman became a stock figure in social criticism. Flabby, ineffectual, anxious, possibly even neurasthenic, he embodied bourgeois vulnerability to the new challenges posed by restive, angry workers and waves of strange new immigrants. “Is American Stamina Declining?” asked William Blaikie, a former Harvard athlete and author of How to Get Strong and Stay So, in Harper’s in 1889. Among white-collar “brain-workers,” legions of worried observers were asking similar questions. Throughout the country, metropolitan life for the comfortable classes was becoming a staid indoor affair. Blaikie caught the larger contours of the change:

“A hundred years ago, there was more done to make our men and women hale and vigorous than there is to-day. Over eighty per cent of all our men then were farming, hunting, or fishing, rising early, out all day in the pure, bracing air, giving many muscles very active work, eating wholesome food, retiring early, and so laying in a good stock of vitality and health. But now hardly forty per cent are farmers, and nearly all the rest are at callings—mercantile, mechanical, or professional—which do almost nothing to make one sturdy and enduring.”

This was the sort of anxiety that set men (and more than a few women) to pedaling about on bicycles, lifting weights, and in general pursuing fitness with unprecedented zeal. But for most Americans, fitness was not merely a matter of physical strength. What was equally essential was character, which they defined as adherence to Protestant morality. Body and soul would be saved together.

This was not a gender-neutral project. Since the antebellum era, purveyors of conventional wisdom had assigned respectable women a certain fragility. So the emerging sense of physical vulnerability was especially novel and threatening to men. Manliness, always an issue in Victorian culture, had by the 1880s become an obsession. Older elements of moral character continued to define the manly man, but a new emphasis on physical vitality began to assert itself as well. Concern about the over-soft socialization of the young promoted the popularity of college athletics. During the 1880s, waves of muscular Christianity began to wash over campuses.