The Corner

RE: Demonic Males

Andrew, obviously some of the tone of my post was in jest, but the point was no joke. You don’t think women tend to civilize men?

The taming of men, and especially the task of getting men to stay with women and help raise and rear children, is surely among the most essential challenges every society faces, and a great many of our (and every civilization’s) social institutions are designed to help make that happen, the family first and foremost.

This has often been done by giving men a stake in staying and civilizing—especially by giving them some rewards of status or authority in return for good behavior. That, I would argue, is one reason for the Christian granting of the title of “moral and spiritual leader” to the man of the house (which started this whole discussion), even though the woman of the house is more likely to be providing children with moral education and making sure the family goes to church on Sunday. Jewish practice, with which I’m more familiar, is also full of this kind of stroking of male egos. A Jewish prayer service requires the presence of at least ten men, rather than ten people, and while the Rabbis have given all sorts of reasons for this through the years, it has always seemed to me that the basic reason is that otherwise (as Reform Judaism has found) only women would go to the synagogue.

But the basic civilizing forces in a civilized society are the preferences of women. For reasons both low and high, men try to do what women want, so societies try to educate women to want the right things. Think of the Victorian education of women, or the medieval code of chivalry, or Plutarch’s Spartan women. Tocqueville’s reflections on the American woman are full of wisdom on this too (Democracy in America, Vol. 2, Part 3), and the passage on the ideal man and woman in Rousseau’s Emile is not bad either. “Women make mores,” as Tocqueville puts it.

And it’s not just a matter of education. Women generally (all of this is awfully general of course, there are many exceptions) don’t seem to need quite so much coaxing and civilizing to stay with the family and live responsibly as men do. And when civilization breaks down (due to war, say, or some moral collapse) women tend to end up with awful responsibilities and men tend to up awfully irresponsible. That’s why the coming woman shortage in China is cause for great concern, and why the wild west was wild. It wasn’t the federal marshals who calmed it down, it was wives.

The trouble is that these kinds of civilizing duties and ego-stroking social institutions have historically tended to burden women with inequitable responsibilities and lesser roles in public life, and one part of the modern liberal (in the best sense) project has been to attend to some of this and see if the more egregious forms of it could be mitigated without failing to accomplish the original aim of taming men. This has sometimes been taken to excess in harmful ways, but the basic aim strikes me as a very just and reasonable goal, though surely difficult to achieve. Some of it has worked, some of it hasn’t, and it’s worth continuing to try.

Maybe it’s uncouth to talk this way, but neither of us is president of Harvard, so why worry? In any case, these bitter truths are hardly “saccharine,” and neither are they the stuff of radical feminism. Feminism argues not that women are morally superior (and so bear greater responsibilities) but that they’re no different from men in any way (and so don’t).

None of this is to free men of moral responsibility. On the contrary, men should be held to the same moral standards as women and made to carry their weight and then some. But men tend to need to be held to these standards by women, whereas women are better at holding themselves to the standard, for reasons that are, among other things, moral and spiritual. It’s also not to say that men bring nothing to the table. They more often bring thumos, not morals, but thumos is essential too. To crush it (with saccharine) is to crush society, as our European cousins are learning. We need both.

Obviously all of this involves a whole lot of generalizations, and there are exceptions (and important ones) to every one of them. And obviously an epigram (like “men are animals, but women don’t like animals, so men behave”) is always shorthand. But I think it’s shorthand for an important truth about civilization. Is the basic idea that women have more to do with shaping society’s morals than men really so repulsive?

I will admit to never having seen a single Lifetime movie, but I somehow doubt they’re all about moral leadership, so I don’t think your association of my point with saccharine Oprahism makes sense. But maybe I’m wrong. If this be feminism, make the most of it.

Yuval Levin — Yuval Levin is the editor of National Affairs and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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