Why Are (Some) Males’ Egos So Fragile?
Where does the male sense of entitlement come from?
Posted September 28, 2018 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
We live in a culture that has promoted male supremacy from the start—note that under the Constitution before Amendments 15 and 19, only men with property could vote. Some supporters of Judge Kavanaugh's appointment to the Supreme Court, too, seem to take for granted the notion that women should submit to males’ (deserved) power. As Dr. Christine Blasey Ford gave testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, in which she reaffirmed her allegation that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her, sympathy was expected, not empathy for a woman’s trauma.
Where does this sense of entitlement come from?
Entitlement was not part of our ancestral social environment, nomadic foraging communities—95 percent of our history—where the small, leaderless communities were “fiercely egalitarian” (Boehm, 1999). It was not part of Native American group history, which were matrilineal at the minimum, and took women’s wisdom seriously (Mann, 2006).
Male entitlement was not part of early Christianity, where there were numerous groups of Christians with different beliefs, some with women leaders (Rossi, 1991). Women continued to be healers and community pillars in Europe—until the witch burnings. The community pillars, with their connection to and protection of the “commons” and their healing plants, got in the way of the “Great Transformation” (Federici, 2004). The Great Transformation (Karl Polanyi, 2001) of the social order in 17th Century Europe represented a “revolution of the rich against the poor.” Public lands (forests, marshes—sources of foods, building materials, firewood, and hunting) were privatized. Lands without property titles were called “wastelands.” What used to be available for free in the commons became subject to purchase and sale. Commoners could no longer grow and harvest their own food, draw water or hunt wild game.
In commons, production and governance were part of the same process and all commoners could participate in both (Bollier, 2014). No longer. The takeover of the commons causes enormous upheaval, including the dissolution of communities, loss of social solidarity and identity, deep economic inequality, hunger, famine, poverty, migrations from countryside to cities in search of food and work for food, political turmoil, decimation of community and ecological abuses.
Along with the takeover of the commons, debt was criminalized. Indebtedness and exchange are part of our species heritage, too. Mutualistic, reciprocal exchange is nature’s economy (Worster, 1994). Shifting indebtedness between individuals and groups is normal. Credit between community members had originally reinforced communal ties. It was a common form of cooperation.
“The criminalization of debt, then, was the criminalization of the very basis of human society. It cannot be overemphasized that in a small community, everyone normally was both lender and borrower. The imprecise, informal, community-building indebtedness of "human economies" is only replaced by mathematically precise, firmly enforced debts through the introduction of violence, usually state-sponsored violence in some form of military or police.” (Graeber, 2013).
The last 500 years have continued the hijacking of the commons by governments and the wealthy, extending to the whole world, beginning with the Vatican’s 1493 Doctrine of Discovery, which claimed that any lands not governed by Christians could be “discovered” and claimed by the Christians who arrived onshore. It has continued more recently with government-business partnerships that again take away the livelihoods of the common people through the forces of globalized capitalism (Bollier, 2014; Korten, 2015; Perkins, 2016).
What does this all have to do with male entitlement?
When communities are disrupted, so are families. When families are disrupted, so is child development. When child development is disrupted, it is particularly impactful on boys. While both girls and boys need the evolved nest to grow properly, boys need it more and for longer (Schore, 2017). Girls have more built-in resilience and develop much faster in early life.
The evolved nest practices include soothing perinatal experience, extensive affection (nearly constant in babyhood), responsiveness to needs to keep the child calm, multiple adult responsive caregivers, breastfeeding on request for several years, self-directed social free play, and a positive, supportive climate for mother and child. And no punishment.
Each nest component influences psychosocial neurobiological development and may cause early toxic stress when missing, misdirecting brain and body development (Narvaez et al., 2013). Gaps in brain, self, and social development can occur when experiences are missing and when the child is significantly distressed from their lack.
The USA in the 21st century has made it difficult to provide the nest because there is no paid family leave after the birth of a child and family attention tends to be on making money, which is known to make people self-centered (Vohs, 2015). Today, even wealthy families don't understand what young children need and are not providing the evolved nest that babies need for developing their full human capacities.
How does a child survive who feels highly insecure, who has an empty self and deep despair? He might use his enhanced survival systems to oppose and dominate or submit and emotionally withdraw. He has difficulty behaving in ways that are “fiercely egalitarian” because those capacities are grown within the evolved nest.
Instead, he latches onto scripts, learning the rules that get him ahead. He uses his survival instincts—territoriality, rivalry, routines, and group loyalty—to move through the social world (MacLean, 1990).
The deep insecurity inside is externalized—meaning, other people are the problem—because the splitting of self occurs in early life as a matter for survival. Insight into personal feelings is underdeveloped or too dangerous. The world becomes black and white in certain respects. If he feels bad, it’s someone else’s fault. Because the child himself was not treated with empathy himself in early life, little empathy is developed (Narvaez, 2014).
The script for an entitled male is to make sure their head is higher than that of women or unqualified men. If there is a threat to that script, they must fight like the devil to make the world right again. They feel righteously angry for the threats to their place in the world. We see the raging of entitled males across the USA as they are asked to share privileges with everyone else (Cramer, 2016), including being held accountable for their actions.
It’s easy to understand why our cousins, the nomadic foragers, worry about the dangers of a big ego—the man can become dangerous in doing anything to keep his power. These communities prevent it by, for example, teasing a successful hunter (“maybe we should find a rabbit—it would be so much bigger!”) until his pride of personal greatness melted into laughter (Lee, 1979). Laughing at silliness shifts us out of self-aggrandizement and self-protectionism, bringing us back into the fold of community (Narvaez, 2014). To be silly, you have to get off your high horse, meaning you have to let yourself feel vulnerable. It’s a sign of therapeutic success when clients can laugh at themselves. It means they have broken through survival defenses and realized that vulnerability is safe. We need many such breakthroughs right now.
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Bollier, D. (2014). Think like a commoner: A short introduction to the life of the commons. Gabriola Island, Vancouver, BC: New Society Publishers.
Cramer, K.J. (2016). The politics of resentment. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Federici, S. (2004). Caliban and the witch: Women, the body and primitive accumulation. Chico, CA: AK Press.
Graeber, D.R. (2013). Debt: The first 5000 years. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House.
Korten, D. (2015) Change the story, change the future. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Lee, R. B. (1979). The !Kung San: Men, women, and work in a foraging community. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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Perkins, J. (2016). The New confessions of an economic hitman (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Polanyi, K. (2001). The great transformation: The political and economic origins of our time, 2nd ed. Boston: Beacon Press.
Schore, A.N. (2017). All our sons: The developmental neurobiology and neuroendocrinology of boys at risk. Infant Mental Health Journal, e-pub ahead of print doi: 10.1002/imhj.21616
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Worster, D. (1994). Nature’s economy: A history of ecological ideas (2nd ed.). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.