Friday, September 10, 2010

Roy F. Baumeister's "Is There Anything Good About Men?" Is Confused and Confusing

Social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister's entry into the men's studies book market, "Is There Anything Good About Men?: How Cultures Flourish by Exploiting Men" has gotten bad reviews - it sounds like he wants to be Warren Farrell, partly, and . . . well, it's unclear for sure what else he has in mind.

If you feel compelled to know more about how culture uses up men and spits them out (96% of on the job deaths are men - of the 25 most dangerous jobs, all of them employ men almost exclusively), pick up a used copy of Farrell's The Myth of Male Power - a better book, and you can't go wrong buying used books (they're cheaper and you're recycling).

Anyway, here are two reviews - one from New Scientist and one from the Canadian Globe and Mail.

New Scientist:

The descent of man

descentofman.jpgDeborah Blum, contributor

LET me start by revealing a prejudice: I don't like book titles that end with a question mark. They make me worry that the author doesn't know the answer, that he or she is looking to the reader for homework help.

And if the question posed is Is There Anything Good About Men?, I want some clear conclusions, a nice strong sense of what social psychologist Roy Baumeister thinks is "good" about the Y-chromosome community. A summary of key points might be handy in case there turns out to be a quiz.

Unfortunately, that is not what we get in this book. At times Baumeister seems dubious about men's good points. "To be blunt and undiplomatic, I like women better than men," he says. He cites studies showing that people who chat with women for 10 minutes a day are happier than people who don't get that lucky chance. By contrast, conversations with men appear to be downers. "This is not to say that talking to men is bad," Baumeister adds encouragingly.

men_are_good_for.jpgOr at least I think he is trying to be encouraging. The message is so muddled here that it is a little difficult to tell. That is partly because - or so I deduce - the real story here, the subject that Baumeister is actually passionate about, is in the subtitle How cultures flourish by exploiting men, which, you will notice, doesn't follow entirely logically from the question raised in the title.

When Baumeister is focused on that idea - that we have built our successful civilisation in part by treating men as expendable building blocks - then the argument gains some momentum. He notes not only that men perform the riskiest jobs in society today but that "ninety-two per cent of Americans who die in the line of work are men". And he reminds us how casually we accept that imbalance, without the outrage that might result if the statistic applied to women.

Unfortunately, even when arguing this important point, Baumeister continues to muddy the message. He proposes the not-so-revolutionary idea that men are culturally motivated to take risks - the dangerous jobs, the big gambles that allow them to become rulers of their domains. "These competitions produced immense progress in the men's sphere," Baumeister writes. For instance, men bought ships and explored the world. Women, he continues, did not do such things. Why not? They lacked motivation. "Women could have done it if they wanted to. But they did not want to."

Read the rest.

This one is from the Globe and Mail:

Nothing new in this ‘gender war’

Roy F. Baumeister

Roy Baumeister cherry picks references in an attempt to explain why men dominate the culture

Reviewed by Wendy McElroy

Globe and Mail Update

Professor of psychology Roy F. Baumeister, enters the “gender war” in a brash manner. Is There Anything Good About Men? announces itself as “a third explanation” for “why men have dominated culture and ruled the world.” It promises to be a revolutionary replacement for the two current and conflicting answers – “men are smarter than women” and “men are wicked conspirators against women.”

Baumeister's main thesis: Women excel at close-knit relationships, men are better at broad networking. Thus, men create the broader culture in which women live. Although women have been oppressed in the past, what is now called anti-woman bias is actually a reflection of the fact that men make fundamentally different “trade-offs” than women.

Working longer hours for more money is one such trade-off. If these men make more money, therefore, it is an expression of a natural difference and not of gender oppression.

Is There Anything Good About Men?: How Cultures Flourish by Exploiting Men, by Roy F. Baumeister, Oxford University Press, 306 pages, $27.95

Is There Anything Good About Men?: How Cultures Flourish by Exploiting Men, by Roy F. Baumeister, Oxford University Press, 306 pages, $27.95

The promised revolution does not arrive. The idea of “trade-offs” is nothing new. In a series of books including The Myth of Male Power (1993) and Why Men Earn More (2005), psychologist Warren Farrell already did an admirable job of documenting the phenomenon. Nor is it radical to present genetic or evolutionary differences as leading to social ones.

Moreover, the differences on which Baumeister's thesis hinges often devolve into stereotypes, like women are more lovable than men.

Read the rest.

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