A man’s value among other men is often based on the skills he brings to the group – and in certain groups such as the military, police, or sports team his skills sometimes matter more than his personal wellbeing. That’s the opinion of a soldier Philip Zimbardo and Nikita Coulombe quote in their book Man Interrupted, one of the most important books about men and boys in recent years. This insight can help us better understand the psychology of men.
Almost every group – religious, political, ethnic, and so on – secretly thinks they’re better than the rest, and are willing to excuse faults that they condemn in others. Groups crave a distinct and positive identity.
Outsiders tend to view higher status groups more positively than lower status groups, and that intensifies bias within high status groups. But gender is an exception. Women on average show a high degree of ingroup bias, and men also tend to assign more positive characteristics to women – a phenomenon researchers call the “women are wonderful” effect.
In a recent post on malepsychology.org.uk, Dr John Barry writes that “uniquely in social identity theory – male identity, unlike female identity, invokes no significant ingroup bias.” Men need something other than gender to create an ingroup bias. Often this is a group centered on certain skills or particular interests.
Does being raised primarily by mothers account for some of men’s low ingroup bias? Or maybe negative stereotypes about men being violent diminishes ingroup bias? Does men’s role as protectors of women and children means men must place less value on men’s lives? More research is needed.
What about male privilege and misogyny?
At first glance male privilege and misogyny seem to contradict claims about men’s low ingroup bias. One observation, however, is that the women are wonderful effect diminishes for less traditional women. And a woman’s social status historically was often derived from the man she’s attached to, which gives him power over her. Ingroup bias among men also manifests with groups, such as soldiers, who are primarily male but whose identity is more than just gender – in this example, a group honored above the average male.
There’s also the popular belief that men arranged society to privilege men at women’s expense. But this doesn’t account for the reality that throughout history the common man was used as a beast of burden and as cannon fodder. Or that even today when most world leaders are men, the bottom of society – the chronically homeless, victims of violence, prisoners, combat deaths, etc. – is overwhelmingly male.
Rather than privileging men over women, patriarchy is more accurately a small group of powerful men exploiting both women and men. An important distinction is that while men have had greater opportunity for power and status, this power and status is not automatic or guaranteed. Instead, it must be earned with correspondingly higher risk. Failed men are disdained while successful men are lauded and rewarded. The demand that men continuously prove themselves has no exact parallel for women.
In another article, Barry addresses the male gender empathy gap. The male role is about being a successful provider and protector, and this requires mastery over his feelings. But this emotional control results in less empathy from others. Further, society places less value on men’s lives because men are expected to sacrifice their lives to protect women and children – and empathy for men calls that duty into question.
Achieving hero status is a social bribe for this lack of empathy. In other words, it’s better to be respected. But the resulting competition between men reduces group cohesiveness.
What if a man is a failure and is neither respected nor cared for? Men hide vulnerability because society perceives male vulnerability as failure. Barry writes, “Men have evolved to be disposable, being there to put their bodies on the line, to offer protection, not receive it.” A man who needs protection is a failed man. Others may describe him as a feminine or childish not necessarily because of misogyny, but because he is unable to protect women and children.
A man navigating acceptable and unacceptable displays of vulnerability is walking a tightrope. Following Warren Farrell’s lead, Barry says we should understand that insisting you’re invincible is a weakness, but acting despite vulnerability is a strength. Crucially, however, this requires “a need for all of us in society to tune in more to male emotional language.”
Instead, we often blame “toxic masculinity” for these issues. But this ignores the positive and healthy models of masculinity that have existed for millennia. Barry points out that “the evidence is much clearer…that it is not masculinity that is the problem as much as our attitudes to it…The fact that we can even seriously entertain the hypothesis that half of our gender spectrum in the human species is faulty shows evidence as to where the real problem lies.” He clarifies that although extreme masculinity can be toxic (just like extreme anything can be), this is being confused with the masculine norm.
There’s a lot of talk about redefining masculinity, though what form this redefinition should take is unclear. But if this agenda isn’t driven primarily by men then we must question whether a redefined man would really own his identity. We’re in danger of reinforcing rather than challenging society’s downplaying of men’s issues.
The notion of meeting people where they are applies here. Barry says that men respond better to the challenge of self-mastery and mental skills than terms such as mental health. That’s an example of why it’s important to develop a deeper psychology of men and boys.
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