Discover more from Wisdom of Crowds
The Ideal Man Exists
But we refuse to admit it.
Reaction to my Washington Post essay “Men are lost. Here’s a map out of the wilderness” (gift link!) has been overwhelming and, to my delight, generally positive. It’s also given me entirely new questions to think about.
Perhaps the most consistent negative response to the essay has been a rejection of the idea that there might be value in putting forth any sort of “ideal” of manhood or masculinity. As (now-former) Atlantic writer Ed Yong put it: “I just don’t buy the premise that men need a specific “positive vision of…masculinity” over and above just striving to be a good person.”
This is an example of a broader phenomenon that I’ve been observing recently with fascination and frustration: the unwillingness of progressives to grapple with the premise that ideals—or social norms more broadly—might, in fact, be good.
Wisdom of Crowds is a reader-supported publication. To support our work and receive the latest, please subscribe.
Although I don’t have a concrete theory of the case, I do have a few theories as to why this phenomenon occurs.
One, a fear of wrong association. Most longstanding social norms, especially around gender, are seen as conservative in a derogatory sense. Thus, many hesitate to admit that such norms might have value—that they might, in some sense, agree with people it’s popular to despise, or that by asking the same questions, they might be supporting their cause.
I understand how one might end up here—“What is a woman?” is a stupid question when delivered by an annoying man with bad intent. But that doesn’t mean that the question—or its converse, “What is a man?”—is a foolish thing to ask, simpliciter, or that there isn’t an answer, or that the answer is necessarily bad.
Two, an out-of-touch self-exceptionalism, one of the most virulent side effects of living in a liberal society that fetishizes individualism and autonomy. “I loved the process of ‘finding myself,’” the norm-rejector says, “and am completely satisfied with the results of my own unique self-definition. Now, I reject all extant models and am just living—why can’t everyone else?”
Look, sir, I’m happy for you. Alas, you aren’t representative. For one thing, self-definition of this sort takes resources (educational, emotional, material) that aren’t available to all. And when it comes to gender, at least, young men and boys are telling us, often literally, that they desperately need and desire direction, norms, and a concrete rubric for how to be a man —not just a “good person,” — and that in fact the lack of said norms is causing considerable distress. Why not meet them where they are, instead of blithely telling them that, actually, they should just get more like you?
Third, and to me, most defensible: a desire not to do harm by boxing others in.
It’s obvious that in the past—and into the present—overly-strict gender ideals have caused harm. Even a new “norm” of masculinity can be used to punish someone else who doesn’t fit it exactly. Rather than telling all men to live up to one ideal, shouldn’t we be giving them latitude to just… be themselves?
Plus, strict norms on one the spectrum inevitably reflect back to the other end, in ways that may not be positive. As I wrote in the essay itself, “If we say ‘real’ men are strong, does that mean real women must be weak? If men are leaders, are women destined to follow?”
This is not an insignificant problem, but I think the solution here is not silence, but corrigibility. Thick norms used directionally, but open to revision as needed, and applied with sensitivity. Yes, this is an aspirational ask. And yet! Aspire we should.
* * *
Or, we can move away from norms altogether, my friend Osita Nwanevu suggests, by relying on virtue ethics.
“We ought to be telling ourselves that there are noble attributes any of us can aspire to and strive for. We all need guiding principles and a sense of direction — all of us always, not just men. Why return to gender for them when we could reach for—or create—something higher? A set of ideals, whatever they might be, grand and capacious enough to encompass us all?”
I love the idea, in theory. But in practice, will that “capacious” set of ideals be thick enough to live on? I doubt it.
In a Substack post responding to the essay,writes: “The difference between the sexes is the most elemental one that exists in our species except for that between adult and child. One of the strange consequences of our coming age of transhumanism is that our attempts to transcend those categories is unintentionally reinforcing how concrete, meaningful and ineradicable they are.”
I think he’s onto something here. Men and women, by virtue of biological difference and existing social norms, have different embodied experiences in the world, with different challenges and expectations — both physically and psychologically induced. It only makes sense that their answers for how to best exist in the world might not be the same.
Difference demands specificity. “Just be good” isn’t enough.
Not sold on this theory? Other objections to the piece? Have thoughts on the meta-question of norms and their social values that underlies the whole thing? Please, have at it in the comments—I’ll be there, too.
Wisdom of Crowds is a platform challenging premises and understanding first principles on politics and culture. Join us!