The #MeToo movement has drawn attention to much horrific male behavior and deservedly has received much coverage. The Kavanaugh hearings also brought forth a torrent of discussion of what is sometimes called toxic masculinity. Headlines and social media posts about sexism, sexual assault, and men’s general piggishness abound. The harmful effects of misogyny, male boorishness and violence, and the meanings of “masculinity” are extremely important issues, given the millions of women who are hurt, often brutally.
Yet there are other sets of male problems that often get sidelined amid the media’s focus on male bad behavior and often primitive attitudes toward women. Tens of millions of men face and suffer from a host of largely male-specific problems that by and large go undiscussed in popular media. Many of these problems are related to the problems highlighted by many feminists, but if we focus only on men as the problem we miss the fact that millions of men have a range of serious problems and concerns.
As many as 20 million men have abandoned work (or work has abandoned them). Nearly 10 million fathers don’t see their children. Millennial men are doing significantly worse than their counterparts a generation earlier and than women of their cohort. Approximately 20 million formerly incarcerated men have bleak prospects for a decent life. Health and mental health problems among men are increasing. Men bear the brunt of opioid, heroin, and alcohol addiction and overdoses. Suicide is three and a half times more common among men than women. Life expectancy is declining among American men. Many men are lonely or disengaging from society. Many are angry — with women, employers, government, and “the system.” And men are struggling with what it means to be a man and what their roles as men should be, as they are bombarded by conflicting messages.
Despite the impressive victories of female candidates in the midterm elections and the fact that nearly three out of five college graduates are women, by many measures, women in the United States and throughout the world still get the short end of the stick. However, the fact that women are, on average, worse off than men in many ways does not mean that we should ignore the reality that many men are doing poorly and live lives beset by major difficulties. Do we ignore poverty in the United States because poverty is worse in Bangladesh or Congo?
Liberals, ever since the Enlightenment, have professed values of eradicating, or at least alleviating, suffering and injustice among all people. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” as Martin Luther King said. Hardship among any people is a threat to the well-being of all people.
Some conservatives take up the mantle of pointing out difficult issues facing many men — some, very thoughtfully; others, as a sotto voce way to bash women and feminism. Yet, why do many in the liberal media and others who claim to be liberals avoid talking about problems among tens of millions of American men — especially since they also affect women, children, and society at large?
One answer may be that it’s not politically correct. It would defy the conventional wisdom, which economist John Kenneth Galbraith acerbically defined as “ideas which are esteemed at any time for their acceptability,” and that he said are “an act of affirmation like reading aloud from the Scriptures.” Another answer could be that men — including liberals — are loath to talk about their problems because of traditional masculine norms that they toughen up.
Forthright, thoughtful discussion of how all too many men are on the sidelines of American life is likely to elicit jeers, if not wrath, from many. The idea that men could have problems deserving of societal attention seems heretical to those who believe that patriarchal structures and men themselves cause most of our problems.
Nonetheless, many American men, particularly young men, once-employed middle-aged men, and formerly incarcerated men, need help getting into the labor force and achieving at least a modicum of economic success. Single moms are heroic, but children also need their fathers and fathers need their children; as Margaret Mead said: “Every known human society rests firmly on the learned nurturing behavior of men.” Men disproportionately need help with addictions, alcoholism, loneliness, anger, violence, and their much greater propensity to commit suicide.
Obviously, many men need to learn to embrace gender equality. But gender equality means equality as parents as much as it means workplace equality. It also does not require that all traditionally “manly” qualities and virtues be impugned. As the great French feminist Simone de Beauvoir said, gender equity does not need to preclude recognizing any differences between men and women.
“Listen, liberal,” as the author Thomas Frank said. If you believe, as I do, in promoting the well-being of all people and going after suffering and harm affecting any people, other liberals should pay attention to men’s, as well as women’s, problems.
Andrew L. Yarrow, a historian, journalist, and policy analyst, examines many, often intertwined problems affecting many men — and, in turn, women, children, and society — in his new book, Man Out: Men on the Sidelines of American Life.