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Purpose Is No Substitute for Public Respect
Why are these alternative influencers attracting huge audiences of young men while traditional institutions and authorities like churches and schools struggle to get a hearing?
It’s in part because the masculinity message of traditional institutions is off in important ways.
I want to illustrate an example of this in the form of a recent column by David French in the New York Times. I have my differences with French, but his writing on masculinity and men’s issues is above average. He’s correctly been interested in this topic for a long time.
This particular column gets a lot of the pieces right. In particular, French notes that a lack of purpose or mission in a man’s life is often debilitating. He highlights how veterans are often given large amounts of respect, yet can severely struggle after leaving the service due to a loss of a sense of purpose.
The true challenge to American masculinity is far upstream from politics and ideology. It’s not fundamentally about what ideological combatants say about men — that they have become “toxic” on the one hand, or “feminized” on the other. Rather the challenge is much more about a man finding his purpose.
A man needs to have a mission.
He also has a point when he says that the problem with treating respect as our ultimate driver then puts our feelings of satisfaction at the mercy of how other people treat us.
Yet there is a danger in the quest for respect. Finding happiness in another person’s regard is elusive and contingent. After all, we have little true control over how others perceive or treat us, yet when we’re denied what we demand, we’re often filled with helpless rage.
He correctly asks, “How much should a man’s self-worth depend on the respect or gratitude of others?”
At the same time, he does note that there’s some merit to the idea that men aren’t respected:
The demand for respect is a hallmark of much right-wing discourse about masculinity. In this narrative, too many women don’t respect their husbands and the culture more broadly devalues men. Parts of this argument have merit.
And, he correctly notes that there’s an aspect to service to mission.
At the same time, however, his description of purpose is largely very much in line with the concept of the “servant leader” touted by evangelical leaders.
To put it more simply still: What men need is not for others to do things for them. They need to do things for others: for spouses, for children, for family and friends and colleagues.
There are few better purposes than helping the people you love walk through life. Virtuous purpose is worth more than any other person’s conditional and unreliable respect. It is rooted in service and sacrifice, not entitlement. And those qualities bring a degree of meaning and joy far more important than the gifts that others — the “grateful” spouse who cooks dinner, the implausibly reverential children — can ever offer. What we do for others is infinitely more rewarding than what we ask them to do for us.
I don’t want to read too much into this, but the general pattern of rhetoric we see in this piece is that men a) should seek to find life satisfaction through purpose b) which consists in acts of “retail” service to other individuals such as their wife, children, or peers, and c) they shouldn’t necessarily expect any external respect, affirmation, or reward for doing this.
This is basically also how pastors tell men to live. For example, I highlight how they often define mission as service to their wife and children at the end of newsletter #33.
This vision contains an element of the truth, but I think misses a few important components - components that are captured well by the alternative influencers.
The first missing piece is the “wholesale” aspects of mission relating to bigger civilization building efforts. For example, a man could find purpose through building a business or becoming a community leader. French himself was a former free speech litigator at FIRE. This obviously helped the individuals in the cases they took on. But it also had the bigger mission of creating and sustaining an environment of free expression on America’s college campuses. Today French is a public intellectual who seeks to persuade people to perspectives that he believes will create the best chance for flourishing in America. These types of purpose or mission are seldom stressed by traditional authorities. They tend to primarily speak of “doing your duty” in the ordinary rhythms of life: do your job, be a good husband and father, etc.
Second, French’s piece misses the importance of objective accomplishment in a competitive, often public realm (and typically involving implicit or explicit contests with other men). We see that French, for example, went to Harvard Law School and is now a columnist for the New York Times. These are major, top level accomplishments that involve winning versus intense competition. Not everybody can go to Harvard. But the vast majority of men can seek objective mastery of a domain. They can also find a role, even if not a leading one, on a winning team that accomplishes something of significance in the world. (This is where men can derive purpose and meaning from doing their job at work). Because manhood is an earned status, men need to earn it and believe they earned it. They need to feel a sense of accomplishment in their purpose. In other words, there are dimensions of a sense of self-worth beyond purpose and respect.
Third, while men should have frame control, and not allow themselves to be dominated by other people’s opinions or emotions, a healthy society should provide respect to men who are doing the right things. I would distinguish here between private vs. public respect. It’s in the private realm that we most need to be able to overcome when someone insults us or fails to treat us with respect. Because all people are sinful and flawed, we should expect to be treated badly in small and sometimes even large ways. We have to be able to rise above that, though let’s be clear that some of these situations, such as not being respected by your wife or children, are very challenging.
Public respect is another matter. The major culture shaping institutions of society provide affirmation and status to people who perform favored actions, and ignore or even condemn actions they don’t like. This sort of public affirmation plays a huge role in shaping how people behave. If men, husbands, fathers are not shown public regard by society, it’s not realistic to expect that they will overcome that and collectively step up and do the things that French wants. If society wants men to behave honorably, then it must provide public honor to those who do so. At the individual level, men have to rise above bad incentives. But if we want to change behavior at scale, providing public honor is critical. Individual purpose is not a substitute for public respect.
Fourth, French seems to suggest men should focus on finding purpose through service to others rather than raising claims for respect. A general theme in the way traditional institutions talk about men is denying their right to self-assertion. They don’t seem to believe men have any right to raise a claim against a legitimate grievance. The general message is that should just man up and sacrifice themselves for others, disregarding injustice directed against them. There’s a limited set of allowed exceptions here, such as protesting against racial injustice. But none of these are related to men as men, but rather to some other property they share with others like race.
There is an element of sacrifice to manhood, sometimes even the ultimate sacrifice, but masculinity is not reducible to self-sacrifice. Alternative influencers correctly diagnose that these calls to sacrifice are self-serving moves by society’s institutions to deflect from the way they deliberately treat men poorly. Not only do they treat men poorly in some cases, they also want to deny men’s right to object to that treatment.
I’m not saying here that French necessarily disagrees with the points I’m making here, just as I agree with most of what he wrote. I would guess that he actually would agree with the first three points, at least for the most part. I’m not sure about point four, because so many evangelical men really do seem to equate manhood with nothing beyond self-sacrifice, but it’s possible he agrees with me here too.
The problem is that these themes don’t typically make it into the masculinity discourse from traditional institutions and authorities, or at least is under-emphasized. We see that in French’s column here where he’s keen to stress service to others. That’s a worthy and important topic, but needs to be presented in balance with a more complete view of men that incorporates many of these other items. This more complete vision of what it means to be a man is what’s needed to better compete with alternative influencers.
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Cover image credit: Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 3.0