Still grieving over Sandy Hook? While your tear ducts are still flowing, how about shedding a few empathetic drops for a much broader group of victims: depressed and discombobulated white males. Those who once were heroes, filled with a sense of purpose and place? They're now lost young men, reeling from the rapid depletion of their privilege.
Fortunately, ladies, there's something you can do to help. Something that might even prevent the next Newtown massacre. You "who belong to a demographic that is doing increasingly better" (women) can "cultivate a more deferential attitude" to America's bountiful crop of overgrown, bewildered boys. Do that, and there's a chance you could "make someone think twice before targeting another human being."
Post-Patriarchal Depression is a real thing, according to an article by Christy Wampole for the New York Times last Sunday. Not just real, but deadly: this decline in status is directly linked to the horrific spate of recent rampage killings by anguished white guys. "Life seems at times to have stacked the cards against them," she declares, and while only a few of the displaced turn into spree shooters, far more are suffering from what Wampole, a French professor at Princeton, declares is "a centripetal hatred (that) moves inward toward the self as a centrifugal hatred is cast outward at others." (Take a moment to visualize.) Wampole's not just talking about the Adam Lanzas of the world, but about an entire generation of young men who need our immediate comforting.
In the year where The End of Men became a bestseller and in the week where we finally started talking about the common denominator among all of our recent mass murderers, it's not hard to convince people that there's something wrong with young American white guys. The debate is over what that "something" is. And while renowned experts on masculinity like Michael Kimmel and Jackson Katz have weighed in with calls for greater male responsibility in ending violence, the danger is that their recommendations are in danger of being drowned out by the louder cries for (increasingly successful) women to stop expecting so much from confused, exhausted, alienated young men. Or else.
There's nothing new about asking women to curb their ambitions in order to make men feel more masculine; relationship manuals have cautioned women to "tone it down" for decades. What's new is that this time, the call for deference is less about improving marriages and more about giving an entire generation of lost boys the sense of purpose that they'll need in order to avoid shooting first graders. Last year, Kate Bolick suggested that the growing ambition gulf between men and women would lead to an epidemic of "single ladies" unable to find mates who were their intellectual or financial equals. In the aftermath of Newtown, Wampole takes that troubling argument one huge step further, arguing that women's triumphs don't just guarantee that romance will be more difficult, but that society itself will become more violent as a result of young men's despair at falling further and further behind "The sort of violence and murder that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary will continue to occur if we do not find a way to carry (young white men) along with us in our successes rather than leaving them behind," she writes.
Wampole doesn't recommend that women defer to men out of respect for masculine authority, but out of empathy for those suffering from Post-Patriarchal Depression. But why should empathy require deference rather than a passing acknowledgement that yeah, life can be confusing for many young men today? The answer lies in how Wampole — and most of the other peddlers of the myth of male malaise -– see men: fragile, inflexible, and dangerous. We don't just defer to those we respect, after all. We defer to those we fear in hopes of placating them, and we defer to those whom we think will break (or at the least, opt out) if they aren't given a steady flow of reassurance that they're still needed.
Other pundits have gone to even more bizarre lengths to prove that unless we make men feel more welcome and needed, our children will die. In a stunning op-ed for the National Review Online this week, conservative commentator Charlotte Allen reached a similar conclusion to Wampole, declaring that as a result of the women's movement, modern elementary schools have become passive "feminized spaces" that are especially vulnerable to predators. A few good men or husky 12 year-old boys could have stopped Adam Lanza's bullets, Allen claimed (to widespread ridicule), but alas, those magical male bullet-catching bodies weren't around. Presumably, they'd all been driven away by self-sufficient women who erroneously thought they didn't male protection.
Both Allen and Wampole are wrong on their facts. There were male staff members on the Sandy Hook campus, including a custodian who ran down the halls making sure doors were locked. As for the French professor's theory, though we've witnessed a horrible rash of rampage shootings committed by young men in recent years, the rates for most violent crimes (including homicide and rape) are declining. If men were really as infuriated by female success as Wampole suggests, we'd expect to see the crime rate rising in conjunction with women's increased participation in the workforce. That's not happening. But why let silly facts derail arguments, particularly when those arguments are conveniently designed to make women feel that their own ambitions are the source of both their own loneliness and the greater vulnerability of our children to harm?
The Post-Patriarchal Depression afflicting what Wampole seems to regard as Poor Pitiful Dudes is less a consequence of the loss of status than a stubborn refusal on the part of too many young men to embrace the opportunities that a changing culture brings. When she laments that men "are still not allowed to cry" even after so much social change, Wampole forgets that that reluctance to weep has nothing to do with a loss of status and everything to do with the frustrating persistence of a rigid Guy Code that men impose upon themselves.
Women spent eons being empathetic to sons and husbands, which conveniently allowed men to outsource their emotional care to wives and mothers and daughters. Now that at least a few women have chosen to direct their energies into their own success rather than spend all their time coddling and managing men's emotions, the dudes get a chance to grow up and take responsibility for their own happiness. That some of them choose not to take that chance, preferring to sulk and self-medicate, is their choice. In other words, to the extent that it's real, the "man crisis" is more about the truculent refusal to adapt than the bewildered inability to do so. While each of us may deserve some measure of empathy for our own personal struggles, the absolute last thing privileged young white men need is more deference.
Jezebel columnist Hugo Schwyzer teaches history and gender studies at Pasadena City College and is a nationally-known speaker on sex, masculinity, body image and beauty culture. He also blogs at his eponymous site. Follow him on Twitter: @hugoschwyzer.