Stoicism is primarily about justice, courage, moderation, and practical wisdom. Mitigating negative emotions by distinguishing between what is up to us and what is not up to us—and what belongs to us and does not belong to us—is a way to practice these virtues.
But politics, like religion, is increasingly a moralistic endeavor. Conservatives, progressives, centrists, and libertarians all believe that their political ideology is the wisest and most just. It was simply a matter of time before some Stoics would start suggesting that a true Stoic must endorse this or that political ideology.
Partisan politics, however, undermines trust and respect in a group. It shows a failure to understand what’s your and what’s not yours.
I’ve seen a few Facebook posts promoting psychologist Jordan Peterson as a Stoic hero. Peterson’s big idea is that you will only create chaos if you try to change the world before you get your own life in order.
But his politics often overshadows his self-help message. Peterson shot to fame with his vocal opposition to adding gender identity to Canada’s civil rights law. Most legal experts, however, disagree that people will be forced to use alternative gender pronouns.
Peterson sees pronouns as a symptom of a larger problem. He rails against “postmodern neo-Marxism” (a straw man conflation of two different things). And his caricature of the left has caught the alt-right’s attention, though Peterson condemns the alt-right.
Meanwhile, left leaning Stoics are pushing progressive politics. Author and philosopher Massimo Pugliucci recently wrote on his blog that of course Stoics should call themselves feminists and support other progressive social justice causes.
I disagree with Massimo, however. I don’t disagree that feminism is about women’s equality. But women’s equality and gender equality, though related, are not the same thing. Further, feminism is only one of many ways one can support women’s equality. And I disagree with feminism’s frequent anti-male rhetoric, the way it ignores issues other genders face, and the popular claim that conservative women cannot call themselves feminists (especially if they’re pro-life).
I also disagree with the frequent progressive failure to reject bigotry as a matter of principle (e.g. “It’s not sexist when women say derogatory things about men,” “African-Americans can’t be racist,” or “Religion is just an excuse to discriminate.”).
Not being a progressive doesn’t imply lack of support for social justice. I believe that the equal rights of the individual are the basis for universal human rights. Further, these rights exist independent of government, and government’s first task is to protect these rights by not placing restrictions on how you live your life (so long as you don’t impose yourself on others). And I endorse the belief that people should be judged by their character, not by their race, sex, gender, religion, etc.
But I am not about to say that Stoics should be classical liberals. Other people’s choices don’t belong to me. Rather than say that Stoics must adopt certain political labels or causes, my position is that if a Stoic claims to value justice, courage, moderation, and practical wisdom then it is that Stoic’s responsibility to develop political positions that reflect this. Honest people will disagree, however, so this means there will be conservative Stoics, progressive Stoics, centrist Stoics, libertarian Stoics, and so on.
The best response to someone who says that a Stoic should adopt this or that political label or position is: “That’s not up to you.”
I just finished watching Ken Burns’ documentary series on the Roosevelts. Eleanor Roosevelt is known to history as a kindhearted person, a woman of character who treated others with human dignity. She was the primary mover behind the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Neither Eleanor Roosevelt nor Fred Rogers lived a charmed life, however. Mr. Rogers had a lonely childhood and was bullied by his peers. As a child Roosevelt’s mother would tell her how ugly she was. Her father’s alcoholism killed him, and she lived with abusive, drunken uncles. She married her cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt (so her maiden name and married were name the same). He was repeatedly unfaithful to her.
But Roosevelt and Rogers were forces for human dignity because of their pain. Not because they somehow got over their pain, but because they got past their tunnel vision. Their pain was the source of their empathy—even when personally attacked they could see the pain inside the other person and respond with compassion.
It’s something many of us aspire to but fail to achieve. And people who can’t get past their tunnel vision not only can be destructive—they often think their abuse of other people is morally justified.
They see themselves as the real victims. Hitler, for example, was abused as a child and claimed he was defending Germans against their Jewish oppressors. Stalin was once a political prisoner who subsequently sent millions to the gulag in the name of economic justice.
Abuse is often excused as a justified punishment for a moral transgression. When we feel the desire to punish someone we should stop and ask ourselves what our true motives are. Setting healthy boundaries with people or not bailing people out from the natural consequences of poor choices aren’t the same as punishment. And punishment is sometimes necessary, as when someone commits a crime. But other times it’s revenge we’re after.
The Washington Post recently ran an op-ed called “Why can’t we hate men?” The outrage and the defenses it sparked were predictable. There’s a petition to sanction gender studies professor Suzanna Danuta Walters for writing the piece, but I don’t think that will accomplish anything. There are too many calls to fire or punish people instead of genuine efforts for dialog.
Men too often take the bait with articles like this. Their anger and defensiveness gives others the opportunity to laugh at them. Instead we must simply observe the fact that misandry has always been a thing in feminist circles. I’m not saying that all feminists hate men, or that misandry is a central aspect of feminism. But it is tolerated.
Far too many women have been subjected to gender based abuse, and this is the source of much misandry. And though we as a society rarely talk about it, women’s gender based abuse of boys and men is the source of much misogyny.
But none of this is an excuse for hate. Yet, we have no control over what other people do. The starting point is oneself. Promoting human kindness and avoiding hate is the most powerful thing I can do. It’s my responsibility. Look at what Eleanor Roosevelt and Mr. Rogers accomplished for humanity compared to Hitler and Stalin.
This is a challenge for every age, and ours is no exception. Every day brings a mean tweet from President Donald Trump. Meanwhile, millionaire Bill Maher hopes for a recession so Trump won’t be reelected, despite the harm this would cause for millions of working families.
Over at the New York Times David Brooks advocates “personalism.” He notes that, “We talk in shorthand about ‘Trump voters’ or ‘social justice warriors,’ but when you actually meet people they defy categories.” These labels ignore “the uniqueness and depth of each person.”
Personalism, Brooks continues, is about seeing each “person in his or her full depth.” This approach is I-Thou rather than I-It: “get to know their stories” instead of seeing them as data points.
Punishing people like Professor Walters won’t defeat the hate she promotes. Recognizing her humanity while also setting firm boundaries—including her responsibility to recognize the humanity of others—is a better approach.
And this can start with the question: “What do you think increased hatred will achieve for the equal human dignity of all people?”
We need a more comprehensive perspective on gender that isn’t biased against particular genders.
I began writing about men’s issues a few years ago because I wondered why mass shooters are almost always male.
In one article for the Portland (Maine) Press Herald I wrote that social pressure to be a “real man” can push some men and boys—especially if they feel insecure—toward violence. And the hazing men experience in all-male groups and frequent lack of deep male friendships can lead to social isolation.
The “real man” trope also creates problems for women. The chivalric notion that men must protect women can lead some men to feel like they’re entitled to control women, which can result in domestic violence. On top of that, increased gender equality can feel like a loss of status for some men, resulting in what sociologist Michael Kimmel calls “aggrieved entitlement.”
But a deeper problem is that we scold men instead of taking men’s issues seriously. Over three-quarters of suicides are male, but when gender is mentioned the focus is usually on women and girls. Females attempt suicide more than males, but a cry for help shows they believe someone might listen. Males commit suicide more often because they don’t think anyone will listen.
I pointed to our culture’s zero-sum approach to gender as part of the problem—talking about men’s issues means excluding women, except when moralizing at men about “toxic masculinity.” Instead, I wrote that “one way to encourage men to be more empathetic is to be more empathetic toward men.”
In the second piece I questioned the agenda of redefining masculinity. I accused academia of having an anti-masculinity bias. Some academics even call for the abolition of men as a social category. But even mainstream academia finds little good in masculinity. I noted that,
The Conformity to Masculine Norms Inventory has some positive descriptions of masculinity, but mostly negatives concerning things men to do other people. According to the Inventory, masculinity is about violence, dominance, being a playboy, having power over women, disdain for homosexuals, emotional control, self–reliance, winning, pursuit of status, making work primary, and risk taking.
The Conformity to Feminine Norms Inventory also describes femininity in positive and negative terms. The negatives, however, are the effects of masculinity on women and girls. Femininity is about self as mother, being relational and connected, being silent and dependent, being married, looking young and thin, being ornamental, pleasant, relying on and deferring to men, and being virginal while also being sexy.
In contrast, I quoted Dr. Martin Seager’s nuanced statement that it’s not gender that’s toxic, but “gender influences the way and the pattern that damaged people (of either gender) follow when responding to their damage.”
And I quoted writer Rick Belden who observed that healthy masculinity is often defined as how men treat women. But how would we respond to someone saying that healthy femininity is about how women treat men? Belden concludes that we’d do well to shift our thinking: healthy masculinity starts with how well a man treats himself.
Instead of redefining masculinity I said we should focus on a man’s self-determination to be the man he wants to be so long as he respects the equal rights of others.
Though I had written several pieces for the Good Men Project, they decided not to publish this piece. GMP is a male feminist website, and I realized that feminism is too narrow.
In retrospect, I’m surprised I got away with as much as I did at the Good Men Project. I wrote that men are not second class citizens, but a group need not be oppressed for us to take their concerns seriously. Our failure to sometimes even acknowledge male victims of domestic violence is one example.
Part of the problem, I wrote in another GMP article, is that research shows that society has significant bias for women over men. This bias often manifests as a lack of empathy for men. For example, feminists tell men to show their vulnerability but also mock men with hashtags such as #masculinitysofragile.
In yet another article for for GMP I wrote that telling men to show their vulnerability is problematic when there’s little support offered when men do. I noted that the international concern for the girls Boko Haram kidnapped was matched with silence about the boys they’ve killed or kidnapped.
And I pointed to a Department of Justice study which found that a significant number of boys in juvenile detention are sexually abused—almost entirely by female staff—but the media and sexual assault prevention activists have largely ignored them. A bigger problem than acknowledging male vulnerability is talking about female perpetrators.
In this same piece I questioned
the popular belief that men arranged society to privilege men at women’s expense. But this doesn’t account for the reality that throughout history the common man was used as a beast of burden and as cannon fodder. Or that even today when most world leaders are men, the bottom of society — the chronically homeless, victims of violence, prisoners, combat deaths, etc. — is overwhelmingly male.
Rather than privileging men over women, patriarchy is more accurately a small group of powerful men exploiting both women and men. An important distinction is that while men have had greater opportunity for power and status, this power and status is not automatic or guaranteed. Instead, it must be earned with correspondingly higher risk. Failed men are disdained while successful men are lauded and rewarded.
On my personal blog I have rejected the claim that believing in gender equality means one must be a feminist. I think feminism is about left-wing women’s self-interest. Mostly that means equality, but not always. But because feminism is a movement of women and for women, a male feminist must take his talking points from women. Otherwise he’s “mansplaining” women’s issues to women. But this limits a male feminist’s ability to speak authentically about gender from his own perspective.
Despite my criticisms of feminist misandry, though, I also think the men’s rights movement is the wrong approach. I’ve criticized the MRM for its right-wing identity politics. While noting that MRAs are angry because they feel dehumanized, I concluded that both the MRM and feminism are focused on self-interest to the point of diminishing the concerns of the opposite sex.
I also criticized MGTOW—male separatists, or “men going their own way”—for playing the victim, promoting misogynistic stereotypes about women, and not really going their own way if they’re still preoccupied with women.
MRAs seem to blame feminism for almost every difficulty men face. But feminists didn’t create the modern world (though they have contributed greatly to it). However, we do need a more comprehensive perspective on gender that isn’t biased against particular genders and which takes the concerns of all genders seriously.
The perspective I’ve been promoting hasn’t yet accomplished that. I’ve been writing almost entirely about men and boys in an attempt to articulate a male perspective on gender that takes men’s issues seriously without portraying men as victims, which doesn’t promote sexism against women, and which promotes equality.
I do this because I believe that the well being of men and boys matters to society as a whole. For Arc Digital I wrote that men’s roles are changing in unexpected ways, including record numbers of men dropping out of the workforce. The job market has changed greatly, but expectations of men’s earning power—which relates directly to men’s ability to find love—haven’t changed. So young men are increasingly dropping out. Further, Warren Farrell and John Gray recently wrote The Boy Crisis about boys falling behind on several measures in 63 developed countries, and the role that father deprivation plays.
Our first concern should be to promote men’s well being. And that directly supports concerns about the impact of men and masculinity on society at large, including decreasing violence and supporting economic growth.
I got a copy of The Boy Crisis at the library, but a tenth of the way into it I decided to buy a copy. It’s that kind of book.
Warren Farrell and John Gray document the toll that father deprivation has taken on our children—especially boys.
A former board member of the National Organization for Women’s New York chapter, Farrell was ostracized from the feminist movement when he began promoting evidence that fathers play a unique and essential role that mothers can’t replicate.
Rather than the simple narrative of the patriarchy benefiting men at women’s expense, Farrell claims that the men who ruled societies in centuries past exploited men too, but in a different way: men were beasts of burden and cannon fodder.
Until recently society focused on survival needs. People today often fail to understand how disease, famine, and warfare meant that even a couple hundred years ago every day was a struggle for life. Men were disposable as providers and protectors because women, via pregnancy, are the key to maintaining a population. Women were disposable in the service of childbirth, but that was a biological reality that our ancestors could do little about.
Twentieth century science, technology, and capitalism changed all that. Obesity is now the problem in developed countries, not starvation. Contraception gives women reproductive choices, and death in childbirth and infant morality are rare relative to the past.
The movement for women’s equality and freedom from traditional gender roles was a natural outcome of technological and economic progress. And feminism has been a resounding success. Women today earn 57% of bachelor’s degrees. And women are almost half of medical school graduates and more than half of law school graduates. Further, domestic violence against women and sexual assault have plummeted in the past quarter century.
Farrell and Gray say that empowering girls is important. But “let’s not throw out the boy with the bathwater.” High rates of divorce and society’s treatment of fathers as second class parents has created father deprivation for millions of children.
Farrell and Gray focus on father deprivation as the leading cause of the boy crisis because it’s the single largest indicator of male maladjustment. In appendix B they list 55 factors that are far more common for fatherless boys. These include reduced life expectancy, being more likely to commit suicide or commit a mass shooting, being more likely to join a gang (or even ISIS), becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol, ending up in prison, dropping out of school, facing unemployment, and being victimized by a sexual predator.
Dads make a unique contribution to children’s well-being, including boundary enforcement, improved social skills, healthy risk taking, improved emotional resilience, and more.
But too often dad is valued mainly as a wallet. We’ve accepted the claim that career men are privileged. Yet, women have options—work full-time, work part-time, or stay home with the kids—while men’s option are work full-time, or work full-time, or work full-time. And many men give up their passions for high earning but soul crushing careers. Historically, mom made “a sacrifice of her career.” But even today dad often makes “sacrifices in his career.”
We’ve ignored challenges that boys and men face in other ways, and this can have a huge impact. Males commit suicide almost four times more often than females. Yet, Farrell and Gray point out that the media often focus only on girls and women. And social worker Tom Golden claims that the National Association for Social Workers studies only female suicide because there’s no funding to study male suicide. In addition, white males—especially if they’re from higher income families—are especially at risk. Why? High expectations for them to prove themselves.
Females attempt suicide more often, but a cry for help shows they think someone will listen. But if you don’t believe anyone will listen you don’t attempt suicide, you commit suicide. The authors point out that Lois Lane is only interested in Clark Kent after she finds out he’s Superman. He must prove his strength first to earn the privilege of showing his vulnerability.
Farrell and Gray warn us, however, that “boys who hurt, hurt us.” They claim most mass shooters come from father deprived families. And almost 90% of mass shooters have had serious suicidal thoughts. But while Obamacare provides for free well-woman checkups (which include mental health screening), no such benefit exists for men. In fact, there are seven U.S. government agencies focusing on women’s health but zero for men. Yet, addressing the male suicide crisis won’t only save male lives—it’ll save the lives of others.
Though “toxic masculinity” is a popular topic, the term “hyper-masculinity” is a better description. Reading The Boy Crisis I realized that father deprivation is a significant cause of hyper-masculinity due to the lack of a mature male role model who can teach boundaries to a young man who is too eager to prove himself.
In an age where women don’t need men to earn a living (but still value a man’s ability to provide), and where the warrior role is no longer as valued as it was, young men face a crisis of purpose. And being involved fathers—or a positive role model if a man doesn’t have children—can become that purpose.
This is a particular challenge for divorced or unmarried dads. The authors say there are four essentials when dealing with this:
Equal time for each parent.
Parents living within 20 minutes of each other.
Counseling as co-parents.
They detail research showing how this benefits mom as well.
We need a shift in the way we think about the male role, the authors advocate. The hero sacrifices himself to take of others. Today’s man needs the “health intelligence” to know that he must take care of himself in order to take care of others—”healed people heal people.”
Both can agree that a virtuous life is usually more pleasurable.
Stoics and Epicureans were ancient rivals. And some modern followers of these philosophies may feel inclined to perpetuate that rivalry. But it’s unnecessary.
Stoics and Epicureans have different answers to what it means to live a good life. There’s no objective answer to this question, of course. Your chosen path is your responsibility.
Stoics believe that virtue—justice, courage, practical wisdom, and temperance—is the greatest good. And not letting negative emotions overwhelm us is essential in this endeavor. As such, it’s crucial to distinguish between what is up to us—our choices; and what is not up to us—external events. We must regard external events as indifferent, not because they don’t matter, but because good or bad is about how we choose to respond to them.
Both philosophies warn against anger and fear—especially fear of death.
Epicureans believe pleasure is the greatest good. But that doesn’t mean sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. Epicurus taught that maximizing pleasure requires moderation and limiting our desires. Drinking a glass of wine is pleasurable but getting drunk causes pain in the long run. So avoiding pain is a greater pleasure than a desirable but fleeting physical sensation.
Stoics, however, point out that sometimes doing the right thing means doing something painful. And seeking pleasure or avoiding pain can at times cause pain to others.
Epicureans counter that virtue for virtue’s sake makes no sense—we seek to be virtuous because we find it pleasurable in the long run even if there are some bumps in the road.
But modernism clearly favors one philosophy’s ancient physics. Epicureans were and are atomists. Even in ancient times they believed we live in a material universe in which the gods do not interfere. Ancient Stoics, on the other hand, were pantheists. They believed the universe is God and that divine providence plays a central role.
While there are traditional Stoics who adhere to ancient Stoic theology, most modern Stoics have adopted a position similar to Epicurean cosmology. This doesn’t necessarily mean atheism or agnosticism, but it often does. Some modern Stoics are monotheists in the usual sense of the word, and a few are even practicing Christians.
Modern science means philosophical revisions for Stoicism far more than Epicureanism. The Stoic injunction to live according to Nature raises the question, What is Nature? Ancient Stoics said Nature is divine reason—the Logos. But that answer won’t work for a deist, an atheist, or an agnostic.
Nontheist Stoics reject the idea of providence and see fate as synonymous with blind cause and effect. Though Nature is still synonymous with reason, its basis is redefined as the best that evolution has endowed humanity with.
But despite their differences on how to live a good life, there is a common point for both Stoicism and Epicureanism: from a big picture perspective a virtuous life is usually more pleasurable than a life of vice. Individual moments are more problematic, but as a Stoic I hope if I’m tested I will choose to do the right thing even if it’s painful. Of course, I hope I’m never tested in that way.
President Donald Trump called MS-13 gang members “animals.”
E.J. Dionne from the Washington Post disagreed, saying that “It’s never right to call other human beings ‘animals.’”
And writing for the National Review, Dennis Prager responded that Dionne reveals “the moral sickness at the heart of leftism.”
Dionne thinks his position is beyond debate: “No matter how debased the behavior of a given individual or group…dehumanizing others always leads us down a dangerous path.”
Worse, “Dehumanizing those he and his core constituents see as radically different is central to Trump’s project.”
Prager, however, writes that dehumanizing some people actually protects the rest of us. He continues, “By rhetorically reading certain despicable people out of the human race, we elevate the human race. We have declared certain behaviors out of line with being human.”
Prager means human in the moral, not biological sense. Otherwise, what meaning does the word “inhumane” have? Would Dionne not see the Nazis as inhuman?
Prager clarifies that inhumanity should be based on behavior and not “directed at people based on their race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, or any other immutable physical characteristic.”
Dionne deals in absolutes: never and no debate. But the problem with absolutes is a lack of nuance. However, Prager doesn’t add enough nuance to this discussion. He still imputes inhumanity to individuals based on group membership. Certainly joining the Nazi party or MS-13 involves a serious moral compromise. But some Nazis and gang members commit worse atrocities than others.
We have all harmed others. A key question is: At what degree of harm do we lose our moral status as human? And what must we do to gain it back? Too often the answer is self-serving and lacking in self-awareness.
We are all animals. Biologically and morally.
Homo sapiens evolved over millions of years. And like our chimpanzee cousins, we can be vicious. Even bonobos may not deserve their peaceful reputation. And we still carry this evolutionary heritage with us. But we also evolved frontal lobes capable of inhibiting violent behavior—capable even of reason when we are at our best.
We are all animals. But we can do better.
Prager’s statement about the sickness at the heart of leftism highlights the problem. His us-vs.-them attitude seems to assume that progressives are sick and conservatives are morally elevated.
Does Prager recognize that he too is an animal?
The animal within can too easily escape if we fail to admit we too are capable, under certain circumstances, of inhumanity. Those who fail to understand this are in danger of becoming the monster they seek to destroy.
Mass shootings—especially at schools—have gotten a lot of attention, but there’s another type of violence that kills far more teens. Suicide.
I was talking with a middle school principal the other day. He said teen suicide is increasing at an alarming rate. The Centers for Disease Control agree. The CDC says teen suicide peaked in the early 1990s and declined thereafter only to steadily increase after 2007.
In 2015 the teen suicide rate was 14.2 per 100,000 for boys and 5.1 per 100,000 for girls. The media focuses particularly on girls because the teen girl suicide rate doubled between 2007 and 2015 compared to a one-third increase for teen boys.
Taking the needs of boys and men seriously seems to be a big missing puzzle piece. Dr. Warren Farrell and Dr. John Gray recently published a book about The Boy Crisis. They claim fatherlessness is the leading cause of boys’ problems. In an interview with Bettina Arndt, however, Farrell was clear to point out that suicide and murder occur only in a very small minority of boys—most boys raised by single mothers turn out just fine.
What is clear, though, is that troubled boys are far more likely to kill themselves than they are to kill other people. But we only seem concerned when a boy or a man harms another person, at which point we blame “toxic masculinity” and prescribe redefining masculinity along feminist lines as the solution. Instead we should be asking how best to reach out to troubled boys.
And we should be asking how best to reach out to girls. A doubling in teen girls’ suicide rate is alarming. As we were talking, the principal’s wife added that the “mean girls” phenomenon needs to be addressed more directly. Males are more violent, but females engage in “relational aggression” more frequently than boys. And this increases risk for suicidal ideation.
Writing for Psychology Today, Dr. Ditta M. Oliker describes “female aggressive behavior” as:
Excluding, ignoring, teasing, gossiping, secrets, backstabbing, rumor spreading and hostile body language (i.e., eye-rolling and smirking). Most damaging is turning the victim into a social “undesirable”. The behavior and associated anger is hidden, often wrapped in a package seen as somewhat harmless or just a “girl thing”. The covert nature of the aggression leaves the victim with no forum to refute the accusations and, in fact, attempts to defend oneself leads to an escalation of the aggression.
The power of social media to instantly reach hundreds or thousands of people with rumor spreading, shaming, and explicit calls for social exclusion is unprecedented. Social exclusion and public shaming is difficult for anyone, but even more so for adolescents. Dr. Jean Twenge claims that social media makes children more depressed and anxious, dubbing people born after 1995 “iGen”—a cohort with a profoundly different adolescent social experience compared to people born before 1995.
The link between social media and increased teen suicide—not to mention school shootings—has yet to be proved. But it seems undeniable. The principal said the ubiquity of social media is a huge factor in rising teen suicide rates. He said that in years past kids might make fun of a peer in front of a half dozen other kids. But today something posted on social media is seen by hundreds or even thousands of people.