We men are under threat. White men make up only 30% of the US population. There was a time when it was over 40%, only about 100 years ago. In the interim, we have been under attack by feminism and homosexuals, losing our traditional roles as providers and even our manliness.
Now, if you’re anyone other than a “men’s rights activist” (male or female) the above is patently absurd. The number of males, though slightly lower than females, has actually been increasing in the 21st century at a faster rate than women. Moreover, it’s particularly absurd if you look at who is in power, particularly in the United States. It doesn’t take much to see the sheer number of (old) white men in positions of power – certainly well over 30% of those in positions of power, to put it mildly – and yet there are a whole lot of men out there – and, incredibly, some women – who think that men are under attack. What is going on here?
100 years ago, old white men dominated politics and the economy in the West, and the West dominated the world. To a great, great extent, white men still dominate politics and the economy. But it’s not anywhere near the same as it was a century ago, as there are now faces that don’t resemble old white men finding their way into leadership roles in government and the private sector.
Moreover, it’s not just institutions that have partially diversified. The internet has allowed all sorts of people who are not old white men or, at the very least white men, to broadcast their opinions and feelings to the world.
What’s fascinating is that it seems to be mostly white men who have not benefited as much from being male and white that are truly terrified of this move towards greater equality. On some level that strikes me as perfectly sensible, given that they already don’t have as much as they want. On the other hand one might expect that it would be those men who had experienced extraordinary political or financial success, in part due to their maleness and whiteness, who would be terrified of these changes. I guess those guys just think they’ll be okay because they’ve always been okay and they are still okay. (Well, they know they’ll be okay, because people keep giving them jobs or at least paychecks regardless of what they do.)
So what is going on here? Why is it that a large number of white men think they are under threat when the demographics show they’re not. After all, if white men do become a minority (rather than a plurality) it will be well after most of the living Men’s Rights activists are dead.
At one level this is just status anxiety; white men see that they, as a (poorly defined) group, are slowly losing their (disproportionate) share of the pie. Even if many of them can’t articulate it, they are aware, at least semi-consciously, that things aren’t like they used to be: a black man was president for two terms, a woman (worse, a Clinton) ran for president and would have won in a different electoral system, and in virtually every centre of power in the United States diversity is creeping in. (This is even more glaring in Canada, where I live, though our only female Prime Minister did not last long. At lower levels of power, there is much more diversity. The former Premier of the Province of Ontario is a lesbian, for example.) Their illusion that white men run the world has been shattered or, at the very least, fractured a bit. Presumably the conclusion of the less well off white man is, if powerful white men are losing opportunities, there must be fewer opportunities for the average guy like me.
But I’m not sure status anxiety is the only explanation. Yes, it’s a major part of the story for sure, but I think there is something deeper at work as well, the Just World Fallacy. The Just World Fallacy is the belief that the world is actually fair and everyone gets what they deserve. Ask an old white man about how he got where he got and, more often than not, you’ll get an explanation that is all about hard work and pulling himself up by his bootstraps, with little to no mention of other people or luck. He deserved his success. (The implication is that those who are not as successful deserve their lack of success.)
White men thought they ran the world. This was a fairly reasonable assumption when the sun never set on the British empire and when the United States and the USSR were the two dominant powers in the world. It’s a less credible assumption when there are female world leaders and China – not Russia – competes with the US for hegemony. The same is true domestically; when all the political and business leaders in the US were (mostly old) white men, it was easy to assume that white men ran the United States and, far more importantly, that this order was just. With more and more non-white and female leaders in business and politics, the illusion of white men running the world became impossible to maintain.
But beliefs often don’t correspond to facts. Just because white men have lost their (hugely disproportionate) share of power both domestically and internationally doesn’t mean they deserved to lose it. The old order, the one in which white men ran the world worked just fine. One of the crucial components of the Just World Fallacy when it is distorted in this way is that the past was better because that was when the world truly was fair. And it is so very true in the case of men who think they are losing their power; the world that allowed people who looked like (older versions of) them to run the world was a fair one but this new world is unfair because it fails to resemble the world of the past, of their childhood (or the childhoods of the their parents and grandparents).
Lost in this picture is the experience of other people who don’t look like them. Though some women may have been perfectly happy living in traditional gender roles, many if not most were not, most of whom were unhappy but not sure why. My grandmother never struck me as a particularly fun lady; she was extremely severe and proper and not someone I enjoyed spending time around as a child. Once she got Alzheimer’s things changed; her young, youthful spirit which had been crushed by domesticity emerged. She smiled much of the time I was around her now. She started telling jokes! (I cannot tell you what a surprise it was the first time I heard my grandmother tell a joke.) A disease liberated her a few years before she died because she no longer felt the need to behave in a certain role. It’s extremely sad to think she had to get sick in her 80s before she could be herself.
That’s just one personal anecdote but the story is similar for so many women, many of whom never felt free to act or do as they pleased and died having behaved only how their parents, husband, children and society expected them to.
Now, a small number of them have managed to reach the highest levels of political power and a few of them have managed to run large multi national corporations, despite women making up 50%+ of the population in most OECD countries. This change is due but we’re not even remotely close to equal yet. But even the slightest change in representation seems like a disruption of the man’s previously fair world. Even one female world leader – a Golda Meir or an Eva Peron – was likely upsetting but could be dismissed as some kind of freak of nature. But women everywhere in public, in power and on the internet, is not the social order of the past and clearly something new and scary. (Even if, as I’ve noted many times, representation still is not in any way in proportionate to population.)
The world order of the past was fair. This new one is not. So men have to get together and restore the old order, otherwise they will all be emasculated, turned into metrosexuals, transsexuals, or even killed. Some of that might seem ridiculous – it is! – but I don’t think we should underestimate the fear coursing through Men’s Rights activists’ minds. Fear of the unknown is the scariest thing for human beings. And a society with 50%+ of positions of power held by women is unknown to all of us. For men, especially white men with little to no power, this unknown future appears to be a future in which they not only no longer matter but they no longer can behave like they used to.
In addition to it being unknown, this future appears to be unfair. It appears to be unfair because the world these men knew as children – a world in which all or nearly all political and business leaders looked like them – was the fair world, where everyone got what they deserved, i.e. the bad were punished and the good were rewarded. (The good were, not coincidentally, nearly all older white men. Some of the bad men were white too, but they were almost always foreigners.) Women had little to no role in this world, at least in public. Not only do they not deserve positions of power in the eyes of these men – what have women done in world history compared to men? – but they are incapable of ruling or running businesses – they are not equipped emotionally or physically. A fair world for these men would be one in which women inhabit traditional gender roles, gender roles they must inhabit due to their lower intelligence, the dominance of emotions in their decision making, and the biological fact that they are designed to have babies, which renders them incapable of running countries or businesses.
The question for the rest of us, then, is how do we convince these men that this vision of the world is not just not fair, it’s just outdated and wrong.