Henry Higgins, call your office.
Over the past few years there’s been a slow but steady drumbeat on an amorphous issue, or set of issues, that seem finally to have congealed into something covered under the rubric of “the feminization of politics” (or of culture).
A single writer has finally, in a single column, pulled the various threads of this loose and tangled spool of ideas together in clear and lucid prose.
Women’s Tears Win in the Marketplace of Ideas
Richard Hanania, Substack.com, Feb 7
Hanania begins with a nod to others who have written on the issue recently: namely Noah Carl (also on Substack) and Tom Edsall (in the New York Times) and asks, “What is left to contribute on the question of how feminization relates to pathologies in our current political discourse?”
Quite a bit, based on the length and breadth of his piece.
He focuses on three particular questions:
First, I think that the ways in which public debate works when we take steps to make the most emotional and aggressive women comfortable have been overlooked. (…) Second, I think there’s a certain weirdness to the arguments made by both sides of the gender issue. (…) Finally, I argue that much of the opposition to wokeness is distorted and ineffective because it avoids the gendered nature of the problem, which also makes fighting it difficult.
I recommend reading his piece in full: partly because it’s interesting and entertaining, and partly because I don’t intend to parse the whole thing for you here.
So first let me simplify and condense the three points with which he structures his essay.
On the first issue, he contends that public debate is damaged by our efforts to be accomodating to “the most emotional and aggressive women” in large part because we are (all of us, right and left, male and female) shy about acknowledging that that’s what we’re doing. We tell ourselves we’re trying to be less technocratic and more humanistic, when we’re mostly just caving in to emotional terrorism. (That’s my own take-away more than his own particular argument.) At the risk of oversimplifying Hanania’s case, his point boils down to the fact that disputes between men are handled differently than disputes between men and women: we’ve established social constraints to keep men’s violence and aggression in check but very little to protect ourselves from women’s “very particular sets of skills”
…men tend to be puzzled by how to handle getting yelled at by women, and most will try to end the conversation as quickly as possible on whatever terms they can get. Conservative media is much more eager to personalize the enemy when it’s a man who wants to fight than when it’s a woman feeling emotionally vulnerable. There’s nothing noble or heroic, or even much enjoyable, about standing up to such an enemy. When college “snowflakes” are attacked, they’re targeted as young people or liberals, not as women.
That has consequences:
Of course, most women do not cry over hurt feelings or scream in men’s faces when they’re angry. Rather, it’s the loudest minority, being able to indulge their passions in ways that men cannot, that drive most of the censorship we see. How many women were behind the Yale Halloween costume controversy that became the center of American intellectual life? Like 10? Imagine at least one crying woman in every board room, newsroom, faculty meeting, and government office, and you can understand the decentralized force that has led us to this point.
(I should note that Hanania devotes several paragraphs to the Yale episode, even going so far as to embed the video and break it down as if it were the Zapruder film. He then gives similar treatment to a similar, more recent episode at Georgetown.)
The second issue—the weirdness of the arguments used by both sides of the gender issue—covers more territory, so I’ll start by citing his opening to that section (entitled “A More Realistic Marketplace of Ideas”):
While most women don’t go around cancelling people, it’s clear that many do value protecting feelings over free speech. Given these realities, I think we have a few options for how we treat public discourse. The first two are
1. Expect everyone who participates in the marketplace of ideas to abide by male standards, meaning you accept some level of abrasiveness and hurt feelings as the price of entry.
2. Expect everyone to abide by female standards, meaning we care less about truth and prioritize the emotional and mental well-being of participants in debates.
Instead of either of these options, I think we’ve stumbled upon a hybrid system, where
3. We accept gender double standards, and tolerate more aggression towards men than we do towards women. We also tolerate more hyper-emotionalism from women than men.
Option (2) is what I think most people mean by the feminization of intellectual life, but Option (3) is actually worse, because it also introduces double standards we see everywhere in our culture.
In option one, we would consider emotionalism in public discourse just as disqualifying as physical aggression. You can’t win a debate by punching your opponent in the nose; nor can you win a debate by taking your opponents’ arguments off the table with your own tears or trembling lips.
In option two, we grant an emotional veto in public debate. You still can’t win a debate by punching your opponent in the nose, but you can lose a debate by provoking a strong negative emotional response in your audience—even if your arguments are presented coolly and rationally. Watery eyes and trembling lips trump logical syllogisms.
In option three, which is where we are, we sort of allow for differences between men and women by letting men let their freak flags fly when arguing with other men (and let women dish it out against men, because men “can take it,”) while insisting that men treat women with greater decorum and sensitivity lest they become emotionally compromised—all while simultaneously insisting that men and women are exactly alike (and yet different enough that a woman can be trapped in a man’s body, and vice-versa, which actually makes no sense at all if men and women are exactly alike).
Thus, to borrow one of Hanania’s examples, Chris Christie’s weight is considered fair game for criticism and jokes that would be unthinkable if directed toward a woman. (As an aside, a parallel pathology is the way the “body positivity” movement seeks to celebrate obesity in women and even declare it beautiful. It’s not men driving that movement.) So option three gives us the same emotional vetoes we get in option two, but we’re pretending that men and women are alike even as we grant indulgences for women because they’re different.
Hanania’s main thrust is embodied in his closing paragraph of the section:
At the same time, the argument against giving in to more emotional women is that truth is actually pretty important and if feelings get hurt on the way there, too bad. But of course I’d think that. I’m a man, and one at the extreme tail ends of both disagreeableness (high) and neuroticism (low). If I was the type who responded to difficult ideas by “literally shaking,” I could well have a different opinion. But it would be the job of the rest of society to steer me away from thinking too hard about political or philosophical issues, and towards private pursuits where my hypersensitivity would do less harm.
That’s the nub right there: the “rest of society” is no longer doing its job. Instead of insisting that emotions be set aside so that debates can be discussed on the merits, “society” is increasingly committed to two wildly destructive ideas: first, that emotions are as important as facts, and second, that we all have to walk on eggshells in public discourse to avoid provoking discomfort among the emotionally unstable, instead of helping them strengthen their fragility (or helping them toward spheres where it would come under less duress).
Hanania’s third and final point is that the fight against wokeness is hamstrung by our unwillingness to tackle the “gendered nature” of the problem.
After observing his distaste for conservatives’ complaints of their oppression by the rising woke totalitarianism, Hanania says he believes that “to a large extent, conservatives wish they were facing a more masculine form of authoritarianism. Men know what to do when other men try to oppress them. They resist and fight back. But who wants to participate in a struggle where women’s tears are what you need to overcome? Men can feel invigorated after a fistfight with another man, even when they lose! Nobody feels that way after arguing with his wife.”
He goes on (I’m leaving his links intact):
There’s even a strange tendency in the right-wing echo chamber to connect the CCP to BLM and political correctness more generally. I’m including links because this is so stupid it may be hard to believe that anyone actually makes such arguments. Many would like to believe that all the ugliness they see can be traced to a grand plan thought up by some evil pudgy Asian man in Beijing, rather than being the result of nobody wanting to stand up to women crying. This is similar to the anti-Russia obsession among many on the left, who want to believe that Americans only care about kneeling during the national anthem, pronouns, and riots in the street because of Putin’s propaganda.
“Getting the diagnosis of what has happened to the culture right is only the first step,” he ultimately concludes. “If it doesn’t provide a clear path forward, it at least gives some guidance regarding what not to do.”
I’ve skipped over a lot of his arguments and examples, maybe too many of them. But I think I’ve shared enough to represent his broad strokes.
He makes a point early in the essay that he’s unable to support all of his premises with data, but that it’s irrelevant because “anyone who has spent time paying attention to politics, journalism, or academia, or wherever people debate ideas, will understand what I’m talking about.”
Indeed: if you need to see quantitative data before you’ll concede that there’s been a dramatic fluorescence of emotionalism over the past 20-30 years, then you’re beyond reach.
So what exactly has “happened to the culture?”
From my own point of view, I’d say we’ve moved (or have been moving) the nexus of legitimacy from reason and fact to emotion and perception.
Emotions have always been leveraged by politicians and social leaders, but historically it was always understood that purely emotional ploys, while ubiquitous, came with a whiff of taint when relied on too heavily. That taint was on account of the ease with which emotions can be used to manipulate people.
Similarly, an electorates’ (or a peoples’) perception of an issue has similarly always been taken into account by anyone attempting to move public opinion—Aristotle demanded as much—but only recently has expressed perception begun to trump empirical reality. That is, the fact that a given idea or policy or idea is factually sound means nothing if enough emotional hysterics react loudly enough to frighten its supporters into retreat, even in cases where those perceptions (or the manner of their expression) are obviously insincere or being made in bad faith.
It might be argued that although these phenomena are real, they’re not necessarily feminine.
Before I address that argument, allow me a pre-emptive sweeping of the minefield I’ll have to walk through to do so. (Some of these tie into points that Hanania makes in his article, some are just me making sure my ass is genuinely covered.)
Not all men are logical, nor are all women are irrational.
Not all men are emotionally stable, nor are all women are “hyper-emotional.”
Every human being is an individual and every individual is a collage of good and bad, of strengths and weaknesses, equally capable of remarkable heroics and astonishing depravity.
Men and women are different.
There are manly and womanly virtues, and there are manly and womanly vices.
There exist men with womanly virtues and vices, and women with manly virtues and vices. That doesn’t make those men women or those women men, but it can result in such men being perceived as feminine and such women as masculine.
A gay man is still a man; a gay woman still a woman.
We all have emotions and we all struggle to control them.
The most dangerous mines have now been disarmed and are no longer dangerous. So let’s continue.
Is the ascendance of emotion over reason a consequence of the public sphere being dominated by excessively emotional and aggressive women?
When Hanania says that we can “understand the decentralized force that has led us to this point” simply by imagining “at least one crying woman in every board room, newsroom, faculty meeting, and government office,” is he being hyperbolic and provocative, or is he on to something?
Asked another way: would such a scenario actually have a deleterious effect on our culture? Might it not have a positive impact?
I think that cuts to the chase pretty directly, because I don’t think any reasonable person would agree that emotionally unstable people make valuable contributions in any deliberative body; nor do I believe a reasonable person would consider crying in a board room or newsroom a sign of emotional stability.
So here we zero in on the actual question behind all the other questions: where is the line that separates appropriate from inappropriate with respect to expressions of emotion in such bodies?
The quintessential masculine answer would presumably be that there is no line: any expressions of emotion in a board room meeting, a newsroom, a faculty meeting, or a government office—any professional setting at all, really—are inappropriate. Historically, in fact, that’s been one of the measures of professionalism: the ability to keep one’s emotions under wraps. Self-control. “Grace under pressure,” as the man said. This is something both men and women can do.
The quintessential femine answer would presumably be different. It would make allowances for emotion. It would remind us that we’re all human, and we don’t hang our humanity up with our coats or hats when we step into the office. It would start with that and thence descend into the treacly depths of self-help buzzwords.
Because that’s the fundamental difference between the feminine and the masculine, perhaps nowhere better illustrated than in this short but brilliant PSA from about a thousand years ago:
We laugh because it so obviously is about the nail.
But one has to be emotionally grounded to see the humor without getting offended or outraged or rushing off in search of a safe space—or demanding someone’s head on a platter.
But who knows: maybe the unhinged also find it funny: “How hilarious! The misogynist boyfriend doesn’t understand that her feelings are much more real and important to her than the fact of the three-inch nail hammered into her skull! He keeps trying to mansplain things to her!”
Whether this is all rooted in differences between the feminine and the masculine is almost beside the point. The actual problem is that we’ve made it the cultural, social, and political norm to indulge the neurotics in our midst. Yes, of course, how silly of us to have thought it was the nail. Please tell us about your feelings.
That doesn’t help them or us.
Hanania is right in that we need to decide whether we want a “masculine” model of mastered emotions or a “female” model of emotional indulgence. We can’t have both: it doesn’t work. The veto power of the emotionally unstable will allow them to steamroll their way over everything.
We have to choose between a culture focused on removing the nails and a culture focused on everybody’s feelings about the nails.
The cold hard reality is that it doesn’t matter what we “choose”—it’s always all about the nail.
Featured image: screen cap from “It’s Not About the Nail.”