He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Ugly Truth: Killing Masculine Compassion

Today I stumbled upon a very interesting video regarding the ways in which the social construction of masculinity is harmful.  I began drafting this post quite a while ago, and I'm glad to encounter a video that effectively illustrates some of what I want to cover.

The sort of socialization experienced by boys as demonstrated in the video are couched in contemporary language, but this type of socialization for males is incredibly ancient, probably existing long before we could even be called hominids.The value in socializing men to have reduced empathetic behaviors to one another is that they will be better able to kill or injure other males without remorse or with minimal remorse, a useful capacity when under harsh survival pressure and in fierce competition with other species.  A male needs to be able to do horrible things to others in order to protect his mate and his children under those sorts of conditions.

As a disclaimer, this is not to be mistaken for maligning my fellow hominids of past ages; I'm well aware that without doing those terrible things needed to survive, I would not be able to sit here in my comfy folding chair in reasonably comfortable temperature conditions writing about this.  The suppression of masculine empathy made a great deal of sense in the past, though it was obviously not without cost.  Males with little to no empathy can turn on those they are supposed to protect, become abusive to their mates and children, and even kill themselves.  The examples of these problems in contemporary human societies are far too numerous and obvious to list.

To contribute to the betterment of our societies now that many of us no longer operate under quite the crushing survival pressure experienced by our ancestors and in far greater proximity to others, it would be wise to socialize males in a way which fosters empathy rather than discourages it.

Unfortunately, in some cases we are just finding new ways to suppress masculine empathy.  For example, the typical male expression of compassion is the protective instinct.  This has come to be viewed as a negative behavior by those unable to distinguish between protective behaviors rooted in natural empathy (or internalized altruism) and protective behavior rooted in unhealthy possessive attitudes.  By stigmatizing it regardless of the roots of the behavior, we are in effect providing a negative incentive for men to be compassionate even where it would be beneficial.

And because we frequently make no distinction between positive and negative motivations for protective behaviors when socializing males, it's extremely difficult for them to understand what behaviors are acceptable and why, making it likely that they will simply reject the stigma wholesale rather than arriving at a principled conclusion about what sorts of motivations are appropriate for their behaviors toward women and what sorts of motivations are inappropriate.


  1. There are some who would contend that males actually show no less empathy than females do, on average. For example, men might be more likely to help out in situations in which women would (on average) be more risk-averse, such as offering a ride to an unkempt hitchhiker or breaking up a fight (you more or less alluded to this in your post, that men show empathy in different ways that women). Women, on the other hand, might be more likely to show empathy in more stereotypical ways (such as providing physical comfort and support). In the end, it probably averages out. The idea that women have a monopoly on compassion, though, is a great oversimplification (I realize you yourself did not promote that idea in your post, but many would argue that the increased physical aggressiveness of males means that they are therefore less compassionate as a whole than females).

    1. Indeed, Jack. I don't think that men on average have any less innate compassion than women do. By and large, the folks who do think so are making the error of defining compassion as a set of behaviors in which women are more likely to engage than men, thus prejudicing their conclusion about which sex is more compassionate.

      This is often coming out of an understandable desire to value typical feminine modes over typical masculine modes as a corrective to the tendency of others value typical masculine modes over typical feminine modes. Unfortunately, that doesn't create the balance we need, but rather swings us out of balance in the other direction.