“Something is happening here, and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?”
—Bob Dylan, “Ballad of a Thin Man” (1965)
Two years ago, I wrote that we’d reached a tipping point in terms of society’s recognition of the problems faced by our nation’s boys and men, only to feel some 18 months later that we still had not really addressed them. But today my optimism is returning, as I more and more feel I am part of a genuine movement.
I have not been an early and truly integral part of any movement before. Yes, I marched against the Vietnam War, and I have spoken out and written on behalf of liberal causes, such as feminism, gay rights, and minorities. But I can’t say I actually knew how it felt to be an early member of a movement whose time had, for those who saw it or felt it, clearly come. And while, for example, women have not yet achieved all their goals, surely it must feel good to have been in the women’s movement of the 1960s and see the unmistakable gains that have been made.
Having been a small part of movements, both local and national, I have gotten some sense of the incredible “up” it is to see a goal realized. But as a white heterosexual male, I have never really felt it as an actual member of a group that has been kept down. And, as Zora Neale Hurston wrote so eloquently in her 1928 essay, “How It Feels to be Colored Like Me,” “The game of keeping what one has is never so exciting as the game of getting.”
In fact, excited by feminism in the early 1970s, and the father of a young son, I very much hoped that my next child would be a girl. I craved the excitement of watching her achieve in ways that my mother, mother-in-law, and wife had not been able to do. It didn’t happen, and it continued not to happen with the births of my third child, and each of my four grandchildren. But as it became gradually clear that all my descendants were going to be male, that I would never have a personal investment in the feminist “game of getting,” something else was happening, something I had suddenly realized in early 1993, when my youngest son had just turned 12. A new “game of getting” was starting to emerge.
What I had noticed was that even though boys were struggling, and not doing as well as girls academically or in their personal lives, they were getting virtually no attention—by government, academia, or the media (what boy advocate Michael Gurian calls “the Big Three," in his most recent book, Saving Our Sons (2017). In fact, quite the reverse was true. But back then I felt quite alone. Warren Farrell's The Myth of Male Power: Why Men Are the Disposable Sex, was soon to be published, but this book, as groundbreaking and important as it was, didn't talk nearly as much about boys as about men. A book focusing on young people was published in 1994—Failing At Fairness by David and Myra Sadker—but its subtitle, “How America’s Schools Cheat Girls,” showed clearly which gender it was concerned about. It would take another six years before, finally, boys' issues made a splash with Christina Hoff Sommers' The War Against Boys.
Unfortunately, since liberalism and feminism were and are still closely linked, the boys' issue has almost exclusively been the province of conservatives. But now there is also a handful (at least) of centrists, or even liberals (like me) who continue to strive for recognition of boys' and men's issues as significant. And though feminists—especially those on the extreme side—continue to fight any attempts to get these issues into full public view, I am starting to feel that this fight itself shows that the movement on behalf of males is starting to have some traction.
But my optimism also comes from the fact that at least two movements in academia, the first quite well-known, the other getting that way, indirectly (and sometimes directly) support those concerned about boys and men. They, like us, see them not as difficulties, problems, creatures to be systematically shaped, but rather as human beings, who are struggling—not just in terms of such problems as poor school performance, incarceration, and high suicide rates—but in terms of being seen negatively, as compared to girls and women.
These two movements—neither necessarily looked upon favorably in liberal circles—are evolutionary psychology and the more recently recognized need for heterodoxy (viewpoint diversity) in the academy. Their leaders are are, respectively, David Buss and Jonathan Haidt. And along with the growing movement on behalf of males, they are fighting what has truly become the establishment in the academic world: the far left. It still saddens me that my fellow liberals (and remember that one definition of liberal is “open-minded”) have not embraced the boys’ issue; that being so, I certainly welcome the accompanying efforts of evolutionary psychology and academic heterodoxy.
But perhaps the biggest reason for my optimism is the backlash. I’m sure that one of the things that has kept women going in their struggles for equality is the counter-reaction from the greater society (especially men). Indeed, an important book in the recent history of women’s struggles is the one with just that name, by Susan Faludi, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women (1991). Interestingly, Sommers’ book in 2000 had the word “war” right in the title, and her subtitle showed that this backlash was against a “misguided feminism” (“How Misguided Feminism is Harming Our Young Men”).
But Sommers was ahead of her time. It would be some nine years before Warren Farrell and other researchers and experts would form a coalition proposing a White House Council on Boys and Men (to parallel the one established by President Obama for women and girls). It would be 11 years before Karen Straughan, first appearing as Girlwriteswhat, would talk with passion of male disposability, in a YouTube video which has gotten nearly 1.5 million views. And whether it was Farrell, whose appearance at the University of Toronto to talk about some of the disadvantages boys and men face in Western society led to an angry and profanity-laced protest (around something he'd written nearly 20 years before); or Straughan, whose scheduled appearance this month on a panel on feminism in Canadian television was canceled at the last minute; or young feminist Cassie Jaye’s positive documentary on the men’s rights movement, “The Red Pill,” getting canceled at various venues; or Jonathan Haidt being put in the same category as Milo Yiannopoulos and white supremacist Richard Spencer by a faculty member at my college after Haidt spoke here; or the strong criticisms leveled at David Buss when he spoke on my campus a couple of years ago, it is the backlash that proves the growing strength of a movement directly in support of boys’ and men’s needs along with concomitant movements.
For all who still feel that boys and men are doing just fine, I recommend reading any of the many articles, or books that contain the data to convince you that they are struggling too. Otherwise, I’d go with a line from Bob Dylan again (this time from his classic "The Times They Are A-Changin'): “Don’t criticize what you can’t understand.”
Incidentally, as I was writing this piece—and he wasn't aware that I was—the oldest of my three sons (who have among them four boys), sent me a link to an opinion piece in the New York Times, titled “The Increasing Significance of the Decline of Men.” It’s just one short piece you might want to read to begin to get some idea of what is happening here.