Friday, October 12, 2018

Brooks Gets a Big Thing

Photo via CafeMom.

Ladies, rejoice! David F. Brooks ("Two Cheers for Feminism") thinks you're OK! I mean, not on the unpleasant issues like demanding equal pay, or impeaching Brett Kavanaugh, but:
I disagree with academic feminism a lot — with those vague oppressor stories about the patriarchy, with the strange unwillingness to admit inherited-gender differences and with the tone of faculty lounge militancy. But academic feminism is right about the big thing.
Which turns out to be—uh, what? What does the hedgehog of academic feminism know that the rest of us foxes are missing?
The big thing is that for thousands of years social thinking has been dominated by men — usually alpha men — who saw life as a place where warriors and traders went out and competed for wealth and power.
What? The big thing is that academic feminists have spent millennia in the wilderness? I don't want to quibble here, but that sounds more like a big meta-thing, not about the findings but about the methodology, and it also sounds like a vague oppressor story about the patriarchy.

So not exactly: there's a big thing about the big thing, which is that the academic masculists have been missing something important:

These male writers were largely blind to the systems of care that undergirded everything else.
These male-dominated narratives created a tunnel. Everything that extolled competition, self-interest and independence was celebrated, and everything that celebrated relation and intimacy was diminished.
Which, aside from any stylistic deficiencies (I really hate that tic of his starting two sentences in a row in what look like the same words, and the contrast between celebrating that which extols and diminishing that which celebrates is at best confusing, and at worst a grave error, implying social science is all making value judgments about value judgments), sounds like the echo of a valid critique. And "academic feminists" turn out to be four specific scholars, I think, who have made the critique:
As Niobe Way, Alisha Ali, Carol Gilligan and Pedro Noguera argue in the introduction of “The Crisis of Connection,” a new anthology they edited, the stereotypical masculine culture values “self over relationships, individual success over the common good, the mind over the body, and thinking over feeling.”
Though what Way, Ali, Gilligan, and Noguera actually wrote—
Patriarchal ideologies, for example, lead us to privilege stereotypically masculine qualities and characteristics over those deemed feminine. Thus, we value self over relationships, individual success over the common good, the mind over the body, and thinking over feeling. Such priorities and preferences explicitly devalue core elements of our humanity and contribute to a decline in familial and communal bonds and a disconnection from oneself and others.
—meant something different, with "stereotype" and "masculine" in the object of the sentence (what gets privileges) instead of the subject (which was originally simply "we"), and I think Brooks's desire not to look at some of those words ("patriarchal", "ideologies". and "privilege") is making it really hard for him to understand what he's reading. Just saying.

There's a bit of a David Brooks plagiarism watch going on here, with the introduction to the book (which seems as usual to be all of the book he has looked at), not, as usual, so much to steal ideas as to pretend he's looked at more sources than he actually has, ever the 8th-grader padding his bibliography.

When children are young, they grow up unaware of the tunnel. At age 9, girls are sophisticated and expressive about their own feelings. But then as they get into adolescence they become aware of the preferences around them. As Gilligan’s work demonstrates, they conclude that if they expressed their real emotions nobody would want to be with them. They begin to hide themselves in order to fit in. “I never utter my real feelings about anything,” Anne Frank wrote in her diary. “My house is wallpapered with lies,” a girl in a Harvard research group observed.
Way, Ali, Gilligan, and Noguera:
In a discussion of whether it is ever good to tell a lie, Elise, an eleven-year-old sixth grader in an urban public school, and a participant in the Harvard Project’s after-school program on strengthening healthy resistance and courage in girls, said: “My house is wallpapered with lies.” (p. 7) .... Girls who had been lively and outspoken at eight and nine, ten and eleven, came under pressure to be a certain kind of girl—the kind of girl other people want to be with. Someone who will be included rather than excluded; someone who doesn’t say what she “really” thinks and feels, who is not “too loud” or too honest.... “I never utter my real feelings about anything,” Anne Frank wrote in her diary at age fifteen. Her confession is echoed by countless girls during early and middle adolescence (p. 8)
Similarly, boys, as Way shows in her book “Deep Secrets,” are born with a great talent for emotional openness and a great capacity for deep and loving male friendships. But then in adolescence they have to earn their manhood. They do that by differentiating themselves from girls and from their young “immature” selves. They often turn stoical, unemotional and tough. They seek to belong by being apathetic and independent.
(Another sequence of four present-tense sentences starting with "they".)

Way, Ali, Gilligan, and Noguera:
Drawing from hundreds of interviews conducted throughout adolescence with boys from a wide range of ethnicities, races, and social classes, developmental psychologist Niobe Way and her research team reveal a story similar to the one found in the research with girls. [footnote ref to Deep Secrets] Like girls, boys openly express their desire for genuine connections with others, including with boys. They reveal the human capacity for mutual understanding, care, and empathy and demonstrate remarkably astute abilities to read the human world. Yet as they reach middle to late adolescence and as expectations of manhood intensify... they begin to experience a crisis of connection in which they speak about losing trust and closeness in their male friendships and, for some, no longer believe it’s possible to have intimate relationships with other boys even though they continue to yearn for them. Rather than “I don’t know” evident in the girls’ research, the boys begin to say “I don’t care” in response to questions about whether they want close male friendships. (p. 12)
The Brooksiest thing going on here is the way he tumbles unconsciously into the frame he was castigating in his first paragraph, the "strange unwillingness to admit inherited-gender differences": five paragraphs in and he's gushing over the way boys and girls manifest the same openness and appetite for intimacy until an obnoxious gendered culture starts blocking them into opposed patterns. He's practically a feminist Jean-Jacques Rousseau! "Man is born emotionally gender-fluid, and yet everywhere we see him in the trousers of distrust!" Or something.

Which reminds me to mention that it's just not the case that social science has always glorified alpha males and competition. Just the kind of social science (classical economics and Great Man history) that was regarded as serious at the University of Chicago when he was there.

He has a hazy sense that he's going wrong here, and wrenches himself back into the more conventional conservative posture of explaining that the patriarchal cookie cutter is only a problem now because the decadence of our society—the way we've abandoned the feminizing faith of our fathers—has made it one:
All of this was survivable when religion played a bigger role in national life, with its gospel of mercy, charity and love. But now we have an ethos of detachment and competition all the way down.
(Yes, I know not all religions do in fact have a gospel, let alone a gospel of mercy, charity, and love, and that the ones that do haven't put an end to competition and brutality—not even communism!)

But at this point he's actually drowning in inconsistency, and ready to grasp at whatever driftwood he can—The Crisis of Connection, and a sweet story from way back on p. 254 about the deeply damaged 8th-grade boy who decides he wants to hold the baby:
The mother was nervous but let him, and Darren was great with the baby. He went over to a quiet corner and rocked the baby while the baby snuggled into his chest. Darren returned the baby to his mother and asked innocently, “If nobody has ever loved you, do you think you could still be a good father?”
There it was, Gordon writes, even in traumatized soil, a bloom of empathy.

I like how Brooks planted that seed and got a bloom. Still pretending to read more than he's read, and lifting language shamelessly, but I believe there's some good in David, however deeply it's buried by the harshnesses of his early life. He'll be a feminist, or a Christian, or something, sooner or later. Give it time!

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