The APA Can’t Spin Its Way Out of Its Attack on ‘Traditional Masculinity’

Our culture has grown more disdainful of common, inherent male characteristics.

Earlier this week I wrote an extended essay defending traditional masculinity from a frontal attack by the American Psychological Association. The APA has drafted new guidelines for psychological practice with men and boys that declared “traditional masculinity” to be harmful. According to the guidelines, “traditional masculinity ideology” has been show to “limit males’ psychological development, constrain their behavior, result in gender role strain and gender role conflict, and negatively influence mental and physical health.”

Yet as our culture grows more disdainful of traditional masculinity, men and boys are hardly flourishing. As I note in my piece, while a powerful male elite unquestionably continues to dominate upper echelons of corporate America, the government, and the military, millions of men are falling behind in school, they’re committing suicide at alarming rates, and their median wages (though higher lately) are lower than they were a generation ago.

In fact, the assault on traditional masculinity — while liberating to men who don’t fit traditional norms — is itself harmful to the millions of young men who seek to be physically and mentally tough, to rise to challenges, and demonstrate leadership under pressure. The assault on traditional masculinity is an assault on their very natures.

The guidelines triggered a backlash online, and yesterday its “Division 51” — the Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinities of the American Psychological Association — issued a statement. And that statement is a case study in misdirection. Here’s what it says about traditional masculinity:

When we report that some aspects of “traditional masculinity” are potentially harmful, we are referring to a belief system held by a few that associates masculinity with extreme behaviors that harm self and others. It is the extreme stereotypical behaviors — not simply being male or a “traditional male” — that may result in negative outcomes. For example, people who believe that to be a “real man” is to get needs met through violence, dominance over others, or extreme restriction of emotions are at risk for poor physical, psychological, and social outcomes (e.g., increased risk for cardiovascular disease, social isolation, depression relationship distress, etc.).

When a man believes that he must be successful no matter who is harmed or his masculinity is expressed by being sexually abusive, disrespectful, and harmful to others, that man is conforming to the negative aspects associated with traditional masculinity.

But wait. That’s not the customary definition of traditional masculinity. Indeed, it’s not even the guidelines’ definition of traditional masculinity. Under a section called “masculinity ideology,” the APA says this:

Masculinity ideology is a set of descriptive, prescriptive, and proscriptive . . . cognitions about boys and men (Levant & Richmond, 2007; Pleck, Sonenstein, & Ku, 1994). Although there are differences in masculinity ideologies, there is a particular constellation of standards that have held sway over large segments of the population, including: anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence. These have been collectively referred to as traditional masculinity ideology (Levant & Richmond, 2007). Additionally, acknowledging the plurality of and social constructionist perspective of masculinity, the term masculinities is being used with increasing frequency (Wong & Wester, 2016).

So, according to the actual, enduring guidelines (not the public-relations response), “traditional masculinity” actually includes a number of very common, inherent male characteristics. Are boys disproportionately adventurous? Are they risk-takers? Do they feel a need to be strong? Do they often by default reject stereotypically “feminine” characteristics. Yes, yes, yes, and yes.

Are those things inherently wrong or harmful? Absolutely not. It depends greatly on how a boy is raised — how his traditional masculinity is channeled.

Note clearly what’s happened here. The APA issues guidelines that do indeed target traditional masculinity as commonly understood. Then, under pressure, they issue a statement that redefines the term. This is a form of “motte-and-bailey” argument. It’s a concept based on an ancient form of fortification. The “bailey” was the place where you lived and worked. The “motte” is the fortress you retreated to when attacked.

Motte-and-bailey argumentation works like this — begin by making wide, sweeping, and stereotypical arguments. That’s your bailey. In the identity-politics context, that’s where you see activists condemn “whiteness,” make broad attacks on Christianity, and (yes) express anger at “masculinity.” Then, when called out for a level of bigotry they’d never tolerate in others, they retreat to the motte — claiming all they’re really concerned about are the truly bad actors. They don’t actually mean to attack everyone, just the bad people.

And so it is here. Called out for the sweeping denunciation of traditional masculinity, the APA’s statement retreats to the motte. Oh no, they say, they’re just concerned with “extreme behaviors that harm self and others.”

Well then, say that on the front end. Revise the guidelines to make that explicit. And, above all, do not equate those “extreme behaviors” with traditional masculinity. In fact, traditional masculinity rejects harmful extremes. A man properly brought up to be traditionally masculine seeks to protect others from those harmful extremes.

The APA can’t be given a pass for its spin. If the concern is for treating extreme behavior and not a desire to scorn the conventional, heartfelt desires and needs of countless millions, then use different words. As it stands now, the statement merely helps the APA endure a news cycle. The guidelines themselves will stand, and they’ll be used time and again to justify the cycle of repression that is harming men and boys across our land.

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