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You Can't Teach Men (or Anyone Else) How They Should Feel

Feelings are the bottom line, and many men feel threatened by the rise of women.

“We need to keep changing the attitude that teaches men to feel threatened by the presence and success of women."

Take a look at the above quote. Is there anything in it that sounds odd, that doesn’t fit with what we know about human beings? You can Google it right now to find out where it comes from, but I will say this: It comes from someone very famous for whom I have the greatest admiration and respect, and whom I think of as an extremely intelligent and thoughtful person.

As an emeritus professor of psychology, who has studied human behavior and emotions for more than 50 years, the problem I have with that sentence is the word “feel.”

You don’t teach people to feel something. An attitude doesn’t teach you to feel. You feel. Period. If men feel threatened by something, they feel threatened. If some men don’t, then look for the reasons why they don’t, and maybe that can help you reason with the men who do feel threatened, to help them perhaps begin to feel differently.

Now I’ll tell you from whom that quote came (which already know if you Googled it). It was President Obama, in a piece titled “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like,” published in Glamour magazine in the summer of 2016.

For a moment, let’s compare me and President Obama, simply as fathers. Mr. Obama has two daughters. I have three sons and four grandsons (and a fifth grandson on the way). For the President, simply as a father, the success of women is very important. We all want our children to achieve to their highest potential. And I’m sure that when Mr. Obama becomes a grandfather, he’ll feel the same about his grandchildren.

For me, the success of men is very important. Not for me personally at this point, but for my children and especially my grandchildren. When everywhere I look, including that article, written by one of the most prominent men in the world, there is a push to help young women succeed, what does this say to my grandchildren? How are you going to change my attitudes, or those of my sons and grandsons, so we don’t feel threatened?

I would not argue for a moment that women don’t feel directly threatened and intimidated in ways that men typically do not. But it’s not an all-or-nothing situation. And to simply ignore the issues faced by males will perpetuate the anger (a common response to threat) they feel.

It’s really a vicious circle. Men feel that women’s and girls’ issues get all the attention in society (from what Michael Gurian calls the “Big Three”: the media, the academy, and the government), and this makes many of them angry. And then feminists can look at them, and say, “What’s wrong with those privileged guys?” This will maintain the women’s own anger and do nothing to reduce that of men.

What is needed are people who are able to see the other side. In fact, as social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has put it so well, the only way for us to get anywhere in our deeply polarized society is to accept other points of view – not necessarily to agree with them, but to accept their reality, and try to understand them – preferably with compassion. Until I became concerned about the problems facing boys and young men, I was someone who tried very hard to understand women. That was, in fact, a major focus of my research from the late1970s through the early 1990s.

Today there are plenty of men either doing that or giving themselves over to the feminist view (President Obama for one, Michael Kimmel for another). But how many women are there who actually sympathize with the issues boys and men face and the feelings they have? Filmmaker Cassie Jaye is one, but while her documentary, “The Red Pill,” has won awards and has been a top seller on YouTube, it has been subject to vicious and dismissive reviews, as well as protests. Jaye is accused of being misogynist in her film -- often by people who apparently have never watched it -- but mainly it’s about men’s experiences and feelings on issues such as child custody, suicide, domestic violence directed against men, and their exposure to dangers in war and in the the workplace.

Perhaps the best argument I ever saw to explain many men’s feelings – though her emphasis was on young white men -- was an opinion piece in the New York Times by Christy Wampole, a young female assistant professor of French at Princeton University. It was titled “Guns and the Decline of the Young Man.” It often takes someone outside of the social sciences (and outside of the group being analyzed) to see things in the most direct way, and I don’t think I’ve ever read anything more powerful and sounding so frighteningly true on the crisis being experienced by a lot of young men.

Writing shortly after the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, Wampole wrote, “Can you imagine being in the shoes of the one who feels his power slipping away? Who can find nothing stable to believe in? Who feels himself becoming unnecessary? That powerlessness and fear ties a dark knot in his stomach. As this knot thickens, a centripetal hatred moves inward toward the self as a centrifugal hatred is cast outward at others: his parents, his girlfriend, his boss, his classmates, society, life.

“For those of us who belong to a demographic that is doing increasingly better (note: she certainly could mean women here), a trained empathic reflex toward those we know to be losing for our gains could lead to a more deferential attitude on our part and could constitute an invitation for them to stay with us. To delight in their losses and aim at them the question, ‘How does it feel?’ will only trigger a cycle of resentment and plant the seeds for vengeance. It is crucial to accommodate the pain of others.” (Suicide is, of course, another "solution" for these young men.)

Starting a bit more than a year ago, I have been going to a weekly conversation on my campus on issues of race and gender. The facilitator is a middle-aged African-American administrator, and he welcomes open discussion of difficult issues. One of the things I love about him, and the way these conversations go, is that while he speaks often and compellingly on issues of racism, as does another black administrator who regularly attends, he also recognizes, sympathetically, that white men are angry at how they have been ignored by liberals. He has clearly listened.

For many years I asked women -- with genuine curiosity and non-judgment -- how they felt. I learned a lot, including how to communicate better with them. How many women have asked men? And truly listened.