The Crisis of Masculinity

 
Ain Sophistry
 
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Ain Sophistry
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31 July 2018 19:17
 

This is a topic I’ve been researching and mulling over for the past few years. I think a lot of the commentary made on it has been pretty shallow and axe-grind-y. Not enough deep dives. There’s also an awful lot of psychological and anthropological research relevant to various dimensions of this problem that hasn’t really been integrated into a unitary picture. So I made a video attempting to redress both these omissions:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3czQ7cpnNRc

It’s a long’un, I know, but I think this stuff is really important and needs to be explored in detail.

For the busy or impatient, the gist of the explanation I’m proposing is the following:

1. As our ancestors moved out of the equatorial forests into savanna environments where cooperative foraging (particularly meat sharing) became crucial to survival, we shifted from a social organization based on dominance/fear to one based on prestige/admiration.

2. This shift to prestige-based social status saw the evolution of “social emotions” like pride, shame, envy, etc. to help us monitor how well-regarded we were in the eyes of our groupmates and to motivate us to respond accordingly.

3. Men, at least ancestrally, faced particularly intense pressure to maintain satisfactory levels of prestige because, not being a limiting reproductive resource, they imposed a larger default cost on their groupmates than women. They offset this cost via continuous valued action (e.g., successful hunting or predator defense) and virtuous conduct (e.g., willingness to share kills, to risk one’s life for others). This—earned belonging—is what meaning is, and it’s something we must work constantly to maintain.

4. We estimate our prestige by comparing ourselves to others, and upward comparisons have a lot more weight than downward comparisons. This effect is additive in a pretty mechanistic way: the more upward comparisons we make, the more shame and envy we feel. This worked well enough in hunter-gatherer bands where the population tended to stay between 20 and 50.

5. Modern societies now afford us unprecedented opportunity for upward comparison. This is especially true online and on social media, where people can construct highly curated public images. There will (almost) always be people better than us at the particular activities we value and through which we seek to provide value, and those people are now easier than ever to find.

6. The result of this omnipresent upward comparison information is a growing feeling of anxiety, marginalization, worthlessness, resentment, and desperation to make one’s mark on the world. Particular strategies for offsetting this perceived prestige deficit include: contrarianism (attacking the very basis on which prestige in a particular community is allocated), endorsing and spreading conspiracy theories (suggesting that those “elites” to whom you’re comparing themselves don’t really deserve their status but have only acquired it by rigging the game), joining and promoting identity groups (because they guarantee you a certain amount of local status based solely on who you are or what you believe), virtue signaling and purity spiraling (attempting to show you’re the most devoted to your group’s particular cause), and generally increased hostility toward other groups one feels to be more prestigious on the whole than one’s own.

There’s a lot more to unpack here, but that’s what the video is for. There is, I think, a pretty striking confluence across scientific fields pointing toward this phenomenon. At any rate, it’s angle that I think deserves a lot more attention in discussions of masculinity, our increasing political volatility, and meaning and purpose more broadly.

I hope you find some food for thought here.

 
 
Poldano
 
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Poldano
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01 August 2018 01:50
 

Thanks for the reference. It pushes my buttons.

 
 
EN
 
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EN
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01 August 2018 05:44
 

I think the Lone Wolf strategy helps solve the crisis on an individual level.  While difficult to implement, it allows a man to simply be happy with himself apart from any group identity or comparison.  I employ it in fleeting moments daily.  Those are my happiest times.

 
TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher
 
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TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher
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02 August 2018 06:23
 

Well, thanks for the most profitable 50 minutes of my yesterday.  I loved the video.  Clear, concise and convincing.  You’ve explained the evolutionary origins of the status emotions as well as I’ve ever seen, and I have nothing to add or offer except a question, one which may seem to go to the heart of the issue, but really I think it’s just incidental and, frankly, relatively unimportant.

Simply put, I question whether status concerns and the social emotions from which they draw are more aggravated now than in the past, particularly for men.  Prima facie it would seem possible that they are.  Social media, the Internet in general—all in all the vastly more interconnected nervous system of society…these new aspects of social living suggest status concerns and anxiety over them might be more prevalent than before.  At least there are more possibilities to establish and question status, more possibilities for comparison, and those in real time from virtually anywhere.  But, from the fact of this enhanced nervous system it doesn’t follow that it’s causing enhanced status anxiety, and I’d like to see something beyond anecdotal evidence that it is.  How prevalent are status concerns now relative to other times?  Are men in fact particularly vulnerable now?  Is the grasping we see now for male identity more prevalent than in the past, and whatever the prevalence, is it uniquely qualified by these new possible comparisons?  In any case, nothing in your presentation hangs on these questions; the explanation for the degree that status concerns do exist stands as it stands, and it stands well.  If one grants that status is a concern and in this concern masculine status is particularly vulnerable, then regardless of whether either are more pressing in our time or not, you explain to my satisfaction the why and wherefore of both. 

So again, thanks for a great 50 minutes.  Even though I’m vaguely familiar with a lot of the research from which you draw, I’ve never synthesized it in such a focused way on such a focused topic.  I’ll think on status in general and masculine status in particular along these lines from now on… 

[ Edited: 02 August 2018 11:18 by TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher]
 
GAD
 
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GAD
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02 August 2018 07:10
 

I made it 6m in and have a question, your premise is that violent Masculinity is worse/more extreme now then ever, when was the golden age of no violence masculinity? You also claim shame as the issue/driver yet I feel no shame in the context you are arguing, am I special? I like to think so but have found I’m more average then I think/like, if I’m average here is the next 44m meant to convince me/average men that shame is our problem?

 
 
Ain Sophistry
 
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03 August 2018 00:45
 
TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher - 02 August 2018 06:23 AM

Well, thanks for the most profitable 50 minutes of my yesterday.  I loved the video.  Clear, concise and convincing.  You’ve explained the evolutionary origins of the status emotions as well as I’ve ever seen, and I have nothing to add or offer except a question, one which may seem to go to the heart of the issue, but really I think it’s just incidental and, frankly, relatively unimportant.

Simply put, I question whether status concerns and the social emotions from which they draw are more aggravated now than in the past, particularly for men.  Prima facie it would seem possible that they are.  Social media, the Internet in general—all in all the vastly more interconnected nervous system of society…these new aspects of social living suggest status concerns and anxiety over them might be more prevalent than before.  At least there are more possibilities to establish and question status, more possibilities for comparison, and those in real time from virtually anywhere.  But, from the fact of this enhanced nervous system it doesn’t follow that it’s causing enhanced status anxiety, and I’d like to see something beyond anecdotal evidence that it is.  How prevalent are status concerns now relative to other times?  Are men in fact particularly vulnerable now?  Is the grasping we see now for male identity more prevalent than in the past, and whatever the prevalence, is it uniquely qualified by these new possible comparisons?  In any case, nothing in your presentation hangs on these questions; the explanation for the degree that status concerns do exist stands as it stands, and it stands well.  If one grants that status is a concern and in this concern masculine status is particularly vulnerable, then regardless of whether either are more pressing in our time or not, you explain to my satisfaction the why and wherefore of both. 

So again, thanks for a great 50 minutes.  Even though I’m vaguely familiar with a lot of the research from which you draw, I’ve never synthesized it in such a focused way on such a focused topic.  I’ll think on status in general and masculine status in particular along these lines from now on…

Thanks for your thoughts, TAP. You raise good questions, and it is indeed difficult to establish a historical baseline for status anxiety directly. There are, however, some indirect indications that status anxiety has been increasing over time.

For one, there’s an oft-cited finding that children today report the same level of (trait) anxiety as psychiatric patients in the 1950s. I hunted down the meta-analysis from which this statistic is taken, and it turns out that “today” meant the 1980s and early 90s. This is, of course, well before the advent of social media, but social media, I think, is just the latest novelty in a trend of technological innovation facilitating greater upward social comparison (predecessors here include the automobile, the radio, fashion and lifestyle magazines, cinema, television, etc.). This meta-analysis didn’t examine status or social anxiety in particular, but it did find that one of the two main contributors to this increase in general anxiety was social disconnection.

Additionally, people are having fewer children now, and that means a greater share of children are first-born and only children. There’s a fair amount of research suggesting first-borns and onlies tend to have more perfectionistic tendencies—which (I’m speculating) may be proxies for sensitivity to upward comparison information. Consider: a child with a lot of older siblings (in a relatively healthy family environment) grows up seeing: (1) that a lot of people in his immediate environment are bigger, stronger, and more developed in their talents than he is; but also (2) that his parents nevertheless love him just as much as his brothers and sisters. Doesn’t seem to big a stretch to me to imagine people who grow up in such an environment tend to end up feeling less threatened by upward comparisons. Conversely, earlier borns in the same environment may feel they need to maintain superior status in order to simply break even with their younger siblings in terms of parental affection and approval.

There’s also been a good deal of research on income inequality and subjective wellbeing. The relationship, unsurprisingly, is a negative one, and it seems that perceived income rank, rather than absolute income, is the primary mediator. Since income inequality has been increasing in much of the West over the past hundred years, we might expect that average perceived income rank has fallen (especially considering the increased exposure we now have, thanks to televisual media, to wealthy elites) and average self-esteem with it.

These are all, of course, ceteris paribus hypotheses, and the ceteris are never wholly paribus at this scale, but I think the data, piecemeal and oblique as they may be, are at least suggestive.

 
 
Ain Sophistry
 
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03 August 2018 01:46
 
GAD - 02 August 2018 07:10 AM

I made it 6m in and have a question, your premise is that violent Masculinity is worse/more extreme now then ever, when was the golden age of no violence masculinity?

That’s not my premise. Most kinds of violent crime have been decreasing in frequency since the early 90s (in the US). Certain kinds of violence associated with status grievances (e.g., mass shootings) are on the rise, however. I’m not conflating this violence with masculinity itself but approaching it as a symptom of a perceived failure on the part of modern boys/men to produce continual conspicuous valued action—which I argue is the ancestral precondition for being awarded masculine status.

GAD - 02 August 2018 07:10 AM

You also claim shame as the issue/driver yet I feel no shame in the context you are arguing, am I special? I like to think so but have found I’m more average then I think/like, if I’m average here is the next 44m meant to convince me/average men that shame is our problem?

If you’re more average than you’d like to be, you may—just may—be dealing with a bit more shame than you realize. That said, the aim of the video is not to convince anyone that he/she in particular is bedeviled by shame but only that enough people are to constitute a problem worth taking seriously. Or do you suppose all the dudes out there donning swastikas or black bloc or building a marketable identity on bitching about wiminz or begging for Jordan Peterson’s intellectual cummies or tweeting faschy edgelord bullshit behind Pepe avatars are acting from the same place of blissful shamelessness you inhabit?

 
 
EN
 
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03 August 2018 02:04
 

What do you propose to do about this crisis?  I continue to believe that it is possible to train oneself to cease comparing oneself to others, to be happy with who you are apart from what others do, and to simply accept others for who they are.  But what is your proposal?

 
Ain Sophistry
 
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03 August 2018 02:35
 
EN - 03 August 2018 02:04 AM

What do you propose to do about this crisis?  I continue to believe that it is possible to train oneself to cease comparing oneself to others, to be happy with who you are apart from what others do, and to simply accept others for who they are.  But what is your proposal?

I’m still working at all that. It’s a delicate balancing act, I think. Status pressures aren’t uniformly bad; they’ve urged people toward great feats of art, science, and philanthropy. But we seem to be at a point now where they’re starting to spiral out of control in really maladaptive ways. And this is only apt to get worse in the age of mass automation as more and more people lose access to one of the principal avenues of recognized value production.

I think there’s some promising data on practicing gratitude (since it refocuses us away from upward comparisons) and, to a somewhat lesser extent, on Carol Dweck’s growth mindset stuff. The latter will probably be more effective among children than adults. Paul Gilbert has developed a Compassionate Mind Training protocol for patients high in shame and self-criticism (dunno how it works, though, with people high in humiliation and other-criticism). I also suspect cultivating strong and stable face-to-face relationships can provide a sizable buffer against status anxiety. So, more neighborhood BBQs, plz.

 
 
GAD
 
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03 August 2018 07:46
 
Ain Sophistry - 03 August 2018 01:46 AM
GAD - 02 August 2018 07:10 AM

You also claim shame as the issue/driver yet I feel no shame in the context you are arguing, am I special? I like to think so but have found I’m more average then I think/like, if I’m average here is the next 44m meant to convince me/average men that shame is our problem?

If you’re more average than you’d like to be, you may—just may—be dealing with a bit more shame than you realize. That said, the aim of the video is not to convince anyone that he/she in particular is bedeviled by shame but only that enough people are to constitute a problem worth taking seriously. Or do you suppose all the dudes out there donning swastikas or black bloc or building a marketable identity on bitching about wiminz or begging for Jordan Peterson’s intellectual cummies or tweeting faschy edgelord bullshit behind Pepe avatars are acting from the same place of blissful shamelessness you inhabit?

Have you ask/told any of those douchebags out there if/that their problem is shame of not being a man? If not aren’t you projecting and if so what was result.

 
 
EN
 
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03 August 2018 08:17
 
Ain Sophistry - 03 August 2018 02:35 AM
EN - 03 August 2018 02:04 AM

What do you propose to do about this crisis?  I continue to believe that it is possible to train oneself to cease comparing oneself to others, to be happy with who you are apart from what others do, and to simply accept others for who they are.  But what is your proposal?

I’m still working at all that. It’s a delicate balancing act, I think. Status pressures aren’t uniformly bad; they’ve urged people toward great feats of art, science, and philanthropy. But we seem to be at a point now where they’re starting to spiral out of control in really maladaptive ways. And this is only apt to get worse in the age of mass automation as more and more people lose access to one of the principal avenues of recognized value production.

I think there’s some promising data on practicing gratitude (since it refocuses us away from upward comparisons) and, to a somewhat lesser extent, on Carol Dweck’s growth mindset stuff. The latter will probably be more effective among children than adults. Paul Gilbert has developed a Compassionate Mind Training protocol for patients high in shame and self-criticism (dunno how it works, though, with people high in humiliation and other-criticism). I also suspect cultivating strong and stable face-to-face relationships can provide a sizable buffer against status anxiety. So, more neighborhood BBQs, plz.

Not too many years ago a person’s world basically had a radius of 100 miles. Outside that, most people didn’t know what was going on. Now we are instantly informed about events all over the world.  We are comparing ourselves with far, far too many people. That’s why I propose a mental “Lone Wolf” strategy - minimize my values world to one person - me. Find happiness in myself and the things/people/ideas that really interest and concern me. I agree that gratitude and compassion are important. But compassion has it’s limits.  I can feel empathy for things that happen close to me, but I don’t have the emotional resources to have a heart-rending experience every time 1000 people are killed in a flood in Bangladesh or every time a baby elephant is poached in Kenya.  Minimizing one’s world for values/comparison purposes while maximizing it for knowledge is a tricky task, but it can be done.

 
TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher
 
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03 August 2018 10:29
 

Thanks for your thoughts, TAP. You raise good questions, and it is indeed difficult to establish a historical baseline for status anxiety directly. There are, however, some indirect indications that status anxiety has been increasing over time.

For one, there’s an oft-cited finding that children today report the same level of (trait) anxiety as psychiatric patients in the 1950s. I hunted down the meta-analysis from which this statistic is taken, and it turns out that “today” meant the 1980s and early 90s. This is, of course, well before the advent of social media, but social media, I think, is just the latest novelty in a trend of technological innovation facilitating greater upward social comparison (predecessors here include the automobile, the radio, fashion and lifestyle magazines, cinema, television, etc.). This meta-analysis didn’t examine status or social anxiety in particular, but it did find that one of the two main contributors to this increase in general anxiety was social disconnection.

Additionally, people are having fewer children now, and that means a greater share of children are first-born and only children. There’s a fair amount of research suggesting first-borns and onlies tend to have more perfectionistic tendencies—which (I’m speculating) may be proxies for sensitivity to upward comparison information. Consider: a child with a lot of older siblings (in a relatively healthy family environment) grows up seeing: (1) that a lot of people in his immediate environment are bigger, stronger, and more developed in their talents than he is; but also (2) that his parents nevertheless love him just as much as his brothers and sisters. Doesn’t seem to big a stretch to me to imagine people who grow up in such an environment tend to end up feeling less threatened by upward comparisons. Conversely, earlier borns in the same environment may feel they need to maintain superior status in order to simply break even with their younger siblings in terms of parental affection and approval.

There’s also been a good deal of research on income inequality and subjective wellbeing. The relationship, unsurprisingly, is a negative one, and it seems that perceived income rank, rather than absolute income, is the primary mediator. Since income inequality has been increasing in much of the West over the past hundred years, we might expect that average perceived income rank has fallen (especially considering the increased exposure we now have, thanks to televisual media, to wealthy elites) and average self-esteem with it.

These are all, of course, ceteris paribus hypotheses, and the ceteris are never wholly paribus at this scale, but I think the data, piecemeal and oblique as they may be, are at least suggestive.

I agree these indirect indicators suggest unique contemporary pressures on status anxiety, particularly the second two, but I wonder about the first.  That is, I think an alternative interpretation of the findings in that study is plausible.

As you note, technological innovation has facilitated upward social comparisons, but in the time frame of that study it has also resulted in a “great disruption” (Fukuyama) of what’s generally called (perhaps somewhat vaguely) “social capital.”  During that time, the social-cultural environment became both a more dangerous place (as all types of crimes increased) and a more uncertain place (as traditional social bonds and roles changed).  With respect to crime, at least, this trend peaked in the mid-90’s, so naturally, I think, anxiety among both children and college students during this time frame would have increased along with these social disruptions.  In any case, social disconnection had been one of the primary results of this technological innovation, so this interpretation of the data is at least consistent with what we already know.  Status may be part-and-parcel of that social disconnect, but then again it may not.  Independent evidence, I think, is necessary to suggest either way.

But again, I don’t think much hinges on this point.  Whether status anxiety in general and masculine status anxiety in particular is relatively constant across generations—renewed, as it were, each time under differing conditions—or whether it is uniquely aggravated in our time doesn’t affect your overall analysis.  And it may be that it is uniquely aggravated, which would only lend to its timelines and explanatory power (both of which are already considerable).

 
GAD
 
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05 August 2018 10:18
 

OK, I finally finished the video. Well done but difficult to buy into, as I said before I don’t feel the kind of shame you are pushing here. I think probably because I do not suffer from the upwards comparison argument you use to push your shame. I never think of other people being better them me, no matter their position or achievements, I see them as equal or likely lesser. And no this isn’t because my mother told me I’m as good as anyone, it’s because I’ve met enough of them in life to know it empirically . That just leaves jealousy, envy and anger over equal or lesser people having/done more then me. But I seem to have found ways to rationalize that effectively as it’s not a significant issue in life/world view.