Philip Zimbardo & Nikita Coulombe step outside the box and offer real solutions.
Philip Zimbardo’s 2011 TED Talk “The demise of guys” became a short
ebook by the same title. And with coauthor Nikita Coulombe it’s now a full length book called Man Interrupted.
Zimbardo is best known for the Stanford prison experiment where he found that social situations have a far greater effect on behavior than most of us think.
In Man Interrupted, Zimbardo & Coulombe look at challenges facing young men today, and how societal changes contribute to this.
Notice that these are symptoms, not causes.
The book has three parts: symptoms, causes, and solutions. Symptoms include excessive porn and video game use, drug and alcohol abuse, obesity, and opting out of the workforce. Notice that these are symptoms, not causes.
The causes are absent dads, failing schools, environmental changes, technology enabling arousal addiction, and entitlement versus reality.
Let’s dig a little deeper before I get to their solutions. First, they note that human behavior is complex, and simple explanations won’t do – especially pejorative explanations.
How does a young man contend with female dominated schools that are biased against boys, environmental factors that reduce testosterone levels, a culture that recognizes women’s needs while ignoring men’s needs, and a poor job market? And what if he has no father or male mentor to guide him?
We can judge the easy escape of violent video games and readily available pornography (which fails to depict real sexuality). Or we can try to empathize and support him.
Boys need men – especially fathers – as mentors.
“Knowing that they’re needed motivates [men], and they want respect from…other men.” But Zimbardo & Coulombe emphasize that “respect needs to come from doing pro-social things that make life better…not…from out-drinking their buddies or doing some stupid shit.” But to accomplish this boys need men – especially fathers – as mentors.
Instead, society is alienating young men by devaluing fathers, with a political atmosphere that puts women on a pedestal while ignoring or even mocking men’s concerns, and mass media portraying men as buffoons while also encouraging male entitlement.
Referencing Erik Erikson‘s psycho-social development theory, they note that Western society’s distorted ideals often short-circuit the adolescent task of balancing the ideal self with reality. Anger and entitlement rise when we fail “to come to terms with the fact that we are no more special than anyone else.”
For grown men this discrepancy can be heartbreaking. Often a father’s value is more about finances than love. But compared to mothers, twice as many fathers wish they could spend more time with their children.
“Men’s friendships are based on what abilities they bring to the group – remembering that their life is devalued but their skillsets are not.”
How do we address this? Zimbardo & Coulombe advocate going beyond society’s female-centric conversations, which alienate men. We need to treat father’s rights as equal to mother’s rights. We also need to dispel the myth that mothers or other men can serve as replacements for fathers. We need to make fatherhood a priority.
We also need to acknowledge that men as a group have more power than women, but this power comes with tradeoffs. They quote a soldier’s description of the male gender role: “Men’s friendships among peers in competitive atmospheres are based on what abilities they bring to the group; remembering that their life is devalued but their skillsets are not. Showing concern means that you question their ability.”
That almost four out of five suicides are men and boys – an issue which first appears when puberty begins – should be a wakeup call that something’s wrong. But instead there’s societal indifference.
To “harness the power of young men, society is going to have to care about its young men.”
With a nod to men’s writer Warren Farrell, Zimbardo & Coulombe conclude that true power is about control over your life “and having access to fulfilling personal experiences.” But the traditional male role – earning money for others and dying sooner – doesn’t meet that definition. They warn that “if society wants to harness the constructive power of its young men, society is going to have to care about its young men.”
Now to the solutions. They promote political support for a White House Council on Boys and Men, noting that there’s already one for girls and women. Male mentorship programs are important. There’s also a government Office of Women’s Health, but not for men.
They detail extensive school reforms to help boys succeed. They encourage physical activity rather than medication for ADHD (and learning to dance is a great way to do this).
Boys need better sex education, including discussions about peer pressure, consent, boundaries, and the difference between porn and reality.
Men need to teach boys respect for women through actions as well as words. Boys need to know that it’s not okay to call women sluts or hos, but boys also need to learn to avoid the princess (the entitled woman).
Finally, we need to pressure the media to portray men in a more positive and multifaceted light. Zimbardo & Coulombe advocate a “reverse Bechdel Test” with mature and responsible fathers, honest hard-working men, women valuing men before they becomes heroes, and men who resolve conflicts in creative non-violent ways.