Books, Feminism, recent, Review

‘For the Love of Men’—A Review

A review of For the Love of Men: A New Vision for Mindful Masculinity by Liz Plank, St. Martin’s Press (September 2019) 336 pages.

“There is no greater threat to humankind,” Liz Plank announces on the first page of her book For the Love of Men, “Than our current definitions of masculinity.” A bold claim. “Toxic masculinity,” Plank claims, underpins vast amounts of suffering across the globe.

Lest this introduction lead one to expect an anti-male screed, Plank is at pains to insist that many of the victims of “toxic masculinity” are men themselves. Who could claim that masculinity cannot be problematic? Men are undeniably responsible for most of the rape and murder in the world, and suicide claims a disproportionate number of male lives. The male bias towards camouflaging vulnerability—expressed, for example, in men’s disproportionate unwillingness to address potential health problems, be they mental or physical—was more adaptive when familial life depended on men getting up to work and fight every day of every week, but it is less so in our more comfortable times.

Social conservatives, meanwhile, may be surprised to find some common ground with Plank’s emphasis on the importance of fathers playing a role in the lives of their children. She scorns egoistic promiscuity, and she identifies loneliness as one of the great scourges of our time, even if, regrettably, she reduces it to male reticence and ignores family breakdown and the decline in social capital.

In theory, then, Plank’s call for a more “mindful” masculinity could have justice. Sadly, though, her book does not deliver on that promise, and much of what remains leaves the impression that the good faith of her professed concern for men’s welfare is debatable. Readers will be shocked to discover that despite working for Vox, Plank habitually makes sweeping, unsourced, bogus claims. Falsehoods litter the pages of her book like dead leaves masquerading as harvest fruits.

Barely has she launched into her introduction when she declares that “almost every single mass shooting in American history was perpetrated by a white man or men.” Anyone who reads the news and has a functioning memory should know that this is wrong. The D.C. snipers are black, Seuing-Hu Cho was Korean-American, Nidal Hasan is a Palestinian-American, and Omar Mateen was Afghan-American. A Center for Inquiry analysis of data on mass shooters confirms that whites are, in fact, not even disproportionately represented among such criminals.

Pages later, Plank announces:

We grade male violence on a curve—men of color receive far greater punishment, scrutiny and collective attention, while violence perpetrated by white men is far more invisible and still considered unexpected. The violence of white men can even be perceived as justified, especially when it’s against people of color. We see it in the case of the white police officer who killed Philando Castile for reaching into his glove compartment, or in George Zimmerman, who shot Trayvon Martin, a black teenager coming back from a convenience store with a bag of Skittles.

Do minority killers receive greater attention? This year the African-American Samuel Little was alleged to be the most prolific serial killer in American history. Have you heard more about him than Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer? And, as Plank must surely know, George Zimmerman is not white. He is mixed-race and dark-skinned, and is only described as “white” by progressive commentators because it suits their racial prejudices.

Plank makes use of studies in her book, but she does so selectively. When research might weaken her argument, references disappear. To bolster her portrayal of “toxic masculinity” as a ubiquitous evil, for example, Plank suggests that lesbian couples are generally free from the “power dynamics” that it introduces. She writes:

When I asked [a relationship counsellor] about couples counseling for lesbians, her answer fascinated me. She said theirs were the easiest kind of relationships to tackle because of the absence of power dynamics she has seen with straight couples. She said the problems were down to personality issues, rather than the typical struggle for control in the relationships she encountered with straight and gay couples. Of course, this is not to say that power dynamics are never present in lesbian relationships; there are many ways these relationships can be toxic, abusive or violent. But the absence of toxic masculinity seemed to have an appeasing effect on relationships, or perhaps the presence of it seemed to be associated with conflict.

However, researchers from the University of Torino, Turin, have argued that:

…many studies have revealed the existence of IPV [Intimate Partner Violence] among lesbian and gay couples, and its incidence is comparable to (Turell, 2000) or higher than that among heterosexual couples (Messinger, 2011Kelley et al., 2012).

If “toxic masculinity” is some malign cultural force which can explain the pervasiveness of abuse and exploitation, why can lesbian relationships, as well as gay and heterosexual relationships, be so abusive and exploitative? This is a serious problem for Plank’s central argument which she fails to acknowledge, let alone address.

Plank never grapples with the essential incoherence of the concept at the centre of For the Love of Men. What is toxic masculinity? It is, the baffled reader is finally left to conclude, anything associated with male behaviour that Plank dislikes. Male violence? Toxic masculinity. Male stoicism? Toxic masculinity. Men not changing babies’ nappies? Toxic masculinity. Men trying to look for rational solutions to relationship problems? You had better believe that that is toxic masculinity. To Plank’s credit, she at least avoids an inconsistency I spot elsewhere: lambasting male emotional repression while also lamenting women’s “emotional labour.” Such terrible food! And in such small portions!

Much of what Plank writes carries the familiar but irritating feminist assumption that male behavioural traits are unnatural and unhealthy while female behavioural traits are natural and good. On relationships, she writes:

Just how central and damaging idealized masculinity can be to men’s intimate relationships showed up in a conversation I had with Shalini Mirpuri, a couples therapist in Gainesville, Florida, about the most recurring problem area for men who enter couples therapy with their female partner. “I always find myself repeating ‘try to listen instead of trying to be right.’” She explained that men tend to try to rationally solve an argument, rather than pay attention to the emotions of their partner.

I get it. Men are liable to think that if their wives are giving them the silent treatment after they ate their chocolate it is because they need chocolate and not because they think their husbands don’t care about them. But is it not also true that women are inclined towards greater indulgence in unhealthy depressive rumination, and that the greater male tendencies towards rational coping can be effective in some circumstances? A study of police officers, for example, found that a higher degree of rational coping was associated with greater psychological resilience. One might, reading the book, forget that women have higher rates of mood and anxiety disorders than men.

Plank is confident that gender differences are learned and not inherited. Some of her arguments in this vein are curious. She seems to think the male tendency towards sexual abuse is enabled by films such as Snow White, Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast. Who knew young boys were such big fans of Disney animations? At one point, Plank leans on the authority of Deepak Chopra, who claims, “Most people think that their brain is in charge of them. We say we are in charge of our brain.” Whether it is me or my brain speaking, I confess I find Deepak Chopra to be a crank unworthy of reference.

It is true that “determinist” arguments for gender differences can be flawed. Plank effectively skewers simplistic arguments about the role of testosterone in male behaviour, for example. But while she cites studies about playing with dolls increasing empathy in children, she ignores papers like Christov-Moore et al‘s analysis of the evolutionary roots of the gender gap in empathy. While there is a lot of talk about John Gray’s justly forgotten book Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus there is no mention of Baillargeon et al‘s paper on gender differences in physical aggression among children aged less than two years old. This kind of cherry-picking allows her to select the most wizened fruit in the determinist orchard and claim that there are no fat, ripe cherries elsewhere.

Still, one might say, if destructive and self-destructive traits are to some extent innate to men is that not worse than if they were internalised? Perhaps it can be so. But the biggest problem with Plank’s book is that it holds up supposedly “toxic” traits as essentially and not just potentially problematic.

Is male stoicism a problem in itself or a problem in excess? I am sure that men, and the world in general, would be better off if we could foster more intimate male friendships and more honest interaction between men and doctors but some idealised vision of male sensitivity might shatter when confronted with the stresses of the world. Is male aggression merely malign or are there healthy channels through which it can be expressed? Plank looks askance at men roughhousing with their sons as if that tends to lead to bar fights and school shootings rather than junior judo competitions. Is male competitiveness just a source of conflict or is it also a source of innovation and entrepreneurship? I am inclined to believe that the latter is the case. But I suppose that might simply be an indication of my toxic stubbornness.

 

Ben Sixsmith is an English writer living in Poland. You can visit his website here and follow him on Twitter @BDSixsmith

Comments

  1. An excellent take down of Plank’s book: precise, unpretentious, and fact-laden with some nice, barbed wit. I especially liked: “Readers will be shocked to discover that despite working for Vox, Plank habitually makes sweeping, unsourced, bogus claims.”

  2. This review is excellent.

    And these two sentences:

    Readers will be shocked to discover that despite working for Vox , Plank habitually makes sweeping, unsourced, bogus claims. Falsehoods litter the pages of her book like dead leaves masquerading as harvest fruits.

    Brilliantly devastating.

    "almost every single mass shooting in American history was perpetrated by a white man or men.”

    Notice the rhetorical game there. Really, it’s white men who are central, but I presume she did her research and found that people of colour men (deliberate) also perpetrate many mass shootings.

    That’s 110 known - I’ve excluded unknown. 65 divided by 110 is 0.59. Whites are more than 59% of population, ergo white mass shooters are under represented.

    Blacks are 17% of mass shooters. Blacks are roughly 13% of population. They are over represented. Latinos are 9% of mass shooters and are under represented. Asians at 7% are over represented - one of the rare ones by Asians. And Indians are 1.6% of population yet make up for 2.7% of mass shooters.

    To avoid being called out for a lie, Ms Plank had to add “and men”. Still though, it creates a very awkward construction. Most normal people would have written "almost every single mass shooting in American history was perpetrated by a man.” Because she presumably has an axe to grind with white people, this leads her to fabricate a misleading narrative so the simulated thinkers will simply parrot her words.

  3. Notice a type of shooting that’s omitted?

    I’ll give you a few moments.

    The let’s-hop-in-car-and-drive-around-until-we-see-people-we-dislike-and-then-spray-bullets-all-over-the-place-whilst-holding-the-guns-sideways-thus-hitting-far-fewer-than-intended-because-we-were-stoned-as-mutha-fuckahs drive-by shootings.

    Is this not toxic masculinity as well? Appears when statistics are compiled, incompetence, by shooters as well as motivated-reasoning researchers, has its merits when one wants to craft a misleading narrative.

    Edit: I’m usually successful at finding data, but a search for “drive-by shootings by race in US” was a tough one to find data on. I couldn’t find a handy-dandy Statista bar graph to place here.

    An analysis 358 mass shootings in America in 2015 found that three-quarters of the victims whose race could be identified were black. Roughly a third of the incidents with known circumstances were drive-by shootings or were identified by law enforcement as gang-related. I doubt the Indians are driving into black neighbourhoods to shoot up the place. Same too of Asians and whites. Nearly 90% of the postal codes that saw mass shootings (4 or more people injured or killed) had higher-than-average poverty rates. (Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/23/us/americas-overlooked-gun-violence.html)

    Yet, when you think of mass shootings, why is it important the number of people struck? If I fire a weapon 30 times outside an enclosed space, like a room, with my bullets spraying all over the place, and I only hit one fella in the leg, this is not a mass shooting. Simply because many people got lucky that day this is not part of the tally.

    In 2015 some numbskull who works for Mother Jones wrote and op-ed in the NY Times stating that in 2015 there were not 355 mass shootings. There were four. Right. Four.

    By our [Mother Jones] measure, there have been four “mass shootings” this year, including the one in San Bernardino, and at least 73 such attacks since 1982.

    What explains the vastly different count? The answer is that there is no official definition for “mass shooting.” Almost all of the gun crimes behind the much larger statistic are less lethal and bear little relevance to the type of public mass murder we have just witnessed again. Including them in the same breath suggests that a 1 a.m. gang fight in a Sacramento restaurant, in which two were killed and two injured, is the same kind of event as a deranged man walking into a community college classroom and massacring nine and injuring nine others. Or that a late-night shooting on a street in Savannah, Ga., yesterday that injured three and killed one is in the same category as the madness that just played out in Southern California.

    When we began compiling our database in 2012, we used that criteria of four or more killed in public attacks, but excluded mass murders that stemmed from robbery, gang violence or domestic abuse in private homes.

    Why would Mother Jones exclude mass murders, which are not the same as mass shootings, that occur during robbery, gang violence, or domestic abuse?

    We need to understand that the public sense makers are gaming the system to create a false understanding of the world we live in.

  4. Was surprised to read a Vice article today about the steadily decreasing life expectancy in American men. They even noted the discrepancy between men’s and women’s life expectancies and suicide rates. Interestingly, they did not conclude that these inequalities were evidence of systemic oppression against men, though.

  5. Whilst it appears true that women are more prone to neuroticism than men, (& usually not without good reason as nurturers) that’s not a licence to fail to validate your partners feelings &/or take responsibility for your contribution for how a person feels. It’s a bit of a low blow to suggest female feelings are justifiably ignored & responsibility ducked because of potential “depressive rumination” & then excuse it as “rational coping”. There’s nothing “rational” about not listening to how your behaviour affects someone & then hiding behind ancient evolutionary needs.

    Yes, yes, we men know that it’s not about the nail.

  6. The title is “for the love of men”. I always find that the worst form of patronising nannying bullshit is the one that masquerades as being founded on good intentions. I’ve no doubt Plank has a special resentment towards men (why write this book otherwise?) so to pretend it is out of love stinks of bad faith.

  7. Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

    – C. S. Lewis

  8. So men must conform to women’s standards but women do not have to conform to men’s? Why not respect both parties different communication styles and allow men and women to express themselves differently. There’s no need to force men into validating women’s emotions.

    Furthermore, chastising someone for failing to “validate feelings &/or take responsibility for your contribution for how they feel,” is a form of gaslighting. If he does not believe the emotional reaction she’s experiencing is proportional and valid, then he should not be coerced into validating it or shouldering blame for it. Finally, asking him to “take responsibility,” for her emotions is abusive. He cannot control her emotional experience, only she can.

    Finally, there’s evidence to suggest that suppressing one’s emotions results in happiness. Behaving emotionally or “getting it out,” tends to strengthen negative feelings.

  9. Still trying to deflect about your idiotic reaction? still trying to fob off your responsibility on others?

    Are you an agent provocateur sent here to ruin women’s case for equal treatment?

  10. Who said “force”? ‘Consider’ would be more my style & helpful to all.
    “Validate” in terms of lets not denigrate using ‘hysteria’ stereotyping that was implied in this piece.

    Except that your instinct was to mock me when I argued against expecting men to meet women’s standards or allow themselves to be controlled with guilt. (“get out of jail free card”). No one is denigrating women or accusing them of “hysteria.” Arguing in favor of men’s coping mechanism is not the same as denigrating women’s coping mechanisms. Pointing out that women are inclined towards greater indulgence in unhealthy depressive rumination is a far cry from completely dismissing all women as hysterical.

    I’m not suggesting he/she believe the situation to be different in their view rather another’s interpretation is different without always assuming it’s different because of neurosis.

    Nowhere in this article does it suggest women’s emotions be dismissed as “neurosis.” The author seems only to argue that men’s coping mechanisms should not be dismissed as “toxic.”

    Nice get out of jail free card Chris. “I can do what i want because your reaction is out of my control”?

    If by “get out of jail free card” you mean, “has no tolerance for emotional abuse tactics.” Imagine thinking it’s okay to blame others for your emotions. imagine thinking it’s okay to shame people for standing up to this emotional abuse.

    Evidence, data please.

  11. Well, there’s this.

    It’s only Psychology Today but it does have some potentially interesting links.

    Personally I’ve always found that directing unpleasant emotion towards constructive actions, rather than wallowing in those emotions, to be the most effective approach.

  12. @Ella-B is no radfem, Andras. Her lack of confidence, revealed in her scattergun relationship with the English language and her wish to avoid making a clear argument,is evidence of the fact that she isn’t that interested in anything other than contradicitng those whom she thinks have made incorrect generalisations about women. But there is often some sense in there if you ignore the utterances that are akin to an on-line bout of tourette’s syndrome.

  13. Dr Warren Farrell has made the observation that ‘toxic masculinity’ is a by-product of male sacrifice, not the male assertion of power. We are hardwired to want to be of use to others, as defenders and providers, and the former is frustrated by the strong rule of law in Western societies, and the role of the latter has been somewhat eclipsed by gender equality. Why else would the suicides of older males have reached such epidemic proportions in Montana, where many older men have found their livelihoods displaced.

    A better place to start, in redefining the role of men in the 21st century, would be to understand that male parenting is distinct from maternal nurturing in the role it accomplishes. We are not simply second-class nurturerers. Rough house play is critical for calibrating a developing brain, father deprived children have difficulty both diagnosing and emoting the difference between aggression and assertiveness, and generally, the male tendency to deny something a child wants, rather than automatically default to maternal caregiving, encourages the development of empathy because the child needs to learn how to persuade and negotiate. But the average person would know none of this, as feminist ideology would have us believe that the mother is the font of all Good, and fathers are dispensable.

    Nevermind that 90% of young men who end up in prison are father-deprived, or that the overwhelming percentage of mass shooters and homegrown terrorists (who share many of the same characteristics), have been father-deprived- or that once one excludes sexual deviants, mothers are almost twice as likely to be responsible for the hospitalisation of a child through physical abuse- because that doesn’t fit the narrative. There are only a few stabilising forces which can socialise a child to fit into society and thrive, and fathers are one of them. The others include strictly enforced low-level discipline in schools (which can give a child an additional two years of schooling, through less disruption, by the time they finish secondary education), and competitive sports (which are vital for putting excess teenage male aggression to constructive use and, on average, for an increase of 0.25 in GPA, through the cross-pollination of all that discipline and hard work into academic study).

    But nobody knows these facts because the Left doesn’t like fathers, it doesn’t like discipline and it doesn’t like competitive sports. As a radical centrist, my argument is that Government can be a force for good, when fiscal and manpower resources are rationed and put to work where they can maximise good. But when cultural and political bias combine to remove time-honoured socially enforced norms, just because the Left doesn’t like them, we are effectively throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and depriving ourselves of social goods that are effectively free. The Left loses all claim to moral ascendancy when it removes social norms which have a profoundly positive impact. Many good things came out of the Civil Rights era, but making fathers optional wasn’t one of them.

    As a side note, the idea that men should open up about their feelings, and be less stoic, is really getting tired. Men and women are biologically different in this respect- even young girls find talking helps, whilst young boys find it awkward, weird and of no help whatsoever. A far better way of getting men to seek help when they need guidance, would be to broadcast the concept that talking about your feelings, is an unfortunate, but necessary diagnostic tool, in finding an effective solution. Under these circumstances men are far more likely to avail themselves of help…

  14. I think there’s always a constant supply of extreme orthodoxists - by this I mean people who feel threatened by others being different, having different views and behaving in different ways. Depending on the time and culture, some forms of this are repressed (as in racism against black people in today’s world) and others encouraged (eg misandry or racism against white people) - what decides the acceptable versus the unacceptable is simply the behaviour or other orthodoxists around them. These people gravitate towards the perceived orthodoxy, and they find it reassuring - they feel the need for certainties and have deeply felt insecurities about doubts. They feel like controlling other people is necessary, because people are messy and complicated and don’t fit nicely into a simple worldview. Today, the more extreme ones become sjw man hating radfems or trans activists, but had they been born in Soviet Russia they would have been KGB informants, or possibly inquisitors in 15th century Spain. This is why the more the ideologies differ, the more the fundamental aspects remain the same. It’s a fundamental personality trait, and is probably of some evolutionary benefit in a Darwinian sense. This is why we can’t expect to ever really be done with crazy ideologues who want to boss everyone else around.

  15. Well stated, Geary_Johansen2020, as usual.

    When I was young, I perceived and described the way that suffering builds up in a man to the point where visible expression becomes inevitable as “getting to the kill or cry stage.” In those days, we were heavily indoctrinated with the idea that it’s never acceptable to kill a person unless you or someone else is in verifiably immanent mortal physical danger and there is no other option but immediate and overwhelming force. “Verifiably immanent” means “right this very minute.” Walking away from violence, however, comes with a significant emotional cost, and that expense must be paid. That’s when a man must express emotion. In many instances, the price of sublimation or ignorance of those emotional costs is too high to ignore.

    This is why men need to be emotionally aware, and by that I don’t mean “visibly emotive over trivialities.” There’s a fairly simple litmus test; duration of rumination. Emotional self awareness provides the ability to first,back off where there is no immanent threat and, second, to understand the point at which rumination is trending toward obsession, which leads to explosively violent behaviors that are highly disproportionate to the stimulus. The explosion “sneaks up on” those who have not been taught that violent feelings are ordinary and normal, but only up to a point. Emotional awareness allows us to see that point before reaching it, and obtain assistance in avoiding it without ignoring it until it spells our doom, or that of another who is not offering physical violence. It’s okay to cry, much better than to wantonly kill, and it’s better to cry in a private and supportive environment.

    But then, in my day you stuck to trading punches, even when armed. We were taught that you don’t shoot, cut or bludgeon someone to death or into a coma, just because they tried to knock you down with their fists. We were also taught to allow an opponent to crawl away, once they were no longer a threat; “curb stomping” was seen as cowardice. I’m old now, and it seems that times may have changed, what with all the “Just die” sentiments being expressed so promiscuously.

    When I’ve been chosen as a sounding board for a man who has avoided consummating a violent intention, I’ve found it efficacious to remind the sufferer that he always had and has the power to kill, and that sparing the life of another is an act of wisdom and strength, rather than stupidity or cowardice. I use the word “he,” but it applies to women, as well. It’s just that society and circumstance allows women to more easily choose “cry” over “kill.”

    I’m using violence in my above example because it’s the single most urgent issue for most men whose suffering may lead them to harm, just ahead of sorrow, and it’s a sort of “gateway drug” to the development of a level of self-awareness that can become permissive of finding help when any sort of suffering becomes too much to bear.

    Stoicism is a good thing, as long as it isn’t a mask for self-destructive sublimation or repression of emotional forces that fester and maim.

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