Image: Shutterstock

Current ideological trends have been increasingly hostile toward white men, especially if they are older and well to do.  Attitudes which in earlier times would have been consigned to the confessional (finding delight in being cruel to old white men) or the psychiatrist’s couch (some of women’s responses to Trump) have been allowed to move into the mainstream.  White men, it seems, are treated as guilty because accused, rather than innocent until proven guilty.   The Covington boy was pilloried because he was white and male, and in some people’s eyes resembled Brett Kavanaugh.

Politically, this has been poison and the psychological cost to young white men has been severe (including a high suicide rate and other deaths of despair).  Being guilted for being white, desiring women,  or knowing what sex you are (“cissexual privilege”) puts an unjust burden on heterosexual white men. 

For one thing, huge numbers of white men are struggling to support families while barely hanging on to the lower reaches of the middle class.  If you are in immediate danger of slipping down into poverty, as many white men are, getting lectures about white privilege is going to make you angry.  And the costs of preferential policies to boost the position of women and people of color have largely been borne by low status white men who lack seniority or tenure protection. “Mea culpa, you-a pay-a” is the message they get. “If you ain’t a woman, you ain’t black, and you ain’t gay, you ain’t shit,” as a student of my husband’s put it. 

Small wonder so many low status white men (and women also) voted for Trump. Since older, white men with some wealth are likely to have skills and connections and resources, instead of sinking into envy and resentment, we need to regard them as possible allies who can help fund and develop socially valuable projects.

The idea that being white conveys some sort of taint is just flat out bigotry.  People generally want to feel that their ancestors are deserving of respect.  All too often students are deluged with an endless list of terrible things white people have done, omitting all the good things.  This is demoralizing and can  lead to a sort of racial self-hatred.  We have all inherited a rather chequered history.  A rather weakly-Catholic school I taught at had several professors who laid on heavy guilt over our treatment of the Indians (which, was of course, often abominable), or dug up every negative thing in the history of the Catholic Church. 

Inculcating cultural or racial or sexual self- hatred does no one any good.  Each of us has inherited all sorts of things from our ancestors – physical, mental, material and cultural.   We have the responsibility to develop and use these for good.  This includes developing the good strands of our cultural tradition, and also using what material goods we have to do good. 

We hear of toxic masculinity, but never, it seems, of healthy masculinity.  And we cannot deny the existence of toxic femininity, which exists alongside healthy femininity. Call it original sin, if you will, but women and men both have their good and bad traits.  And there are certain good traits commonly associated with masculinity across different cultures and periods of time.  These may be stereotypes, but it would be good to hold these up to young men as things to aspire to, rather than focusing on how their masculinity may develop in bad directions. 

Some characteristics commonly associated with what was once called “an honourable manhood” are courage, willingness to explore, to take risks and sacrifice oneself to protect the weak.  A man should always keep his word faithfully, even when it costs him something to do so, and be able to make good decisions under stress.  Loyalty to one’s comrades and friends is valued, as is ability to hold to what is right, even in the face of fear and pain.

Virtues commonly associated with women are compassion, mercy, peace making, caring for the vulnerable, sustaining communities, and the complex of traits that go into nurturing new life and guiding the child’s development.

Yes, men can be bullying, violent, dominating, sexually aggressive in a way that fails to respect women, selfishly ambitious and competitive.  Women can be petty, vain, and mean.  They often  enforce social conformity by shunning non-conformists, and destroy people by malicious gossip.  The “rules” to which they demand conformity are often unstated or stated with pernicious vagueness (we must avoid “creating a perception” of some impropriety, for example).  They may err by being too indulgent, and play favourites rather than being fair.  Being empathetic, they can be emotionally manipulative and able to hurt people in subtle and deep ways. Claire Booth Luce’s play The Women portrays the dark side of femininity in unforgettable ways. 

All of these observations are true only ordinarily and for the most part. There are brutal women, and men who exhibit feminine vices (especially in academia).  Likewise there are women who courageously endured painful martyrdom, and men who have exhibited great compassion

All too often, the spotlight is put on bad male traits and good female ones.  This is dirty pool.  We are all morally mixed, with potential for good or evil.  Only by making the best of what we have and pooling our varied strengths can we hope to make America, or the world a better place to live.

Celia Wolf-Devine is a retired philosophy professor. See also her blog Progressive, Pro-Woman, Pro-life.

Celia Wolf-Devine is retired from her position teaching philosophy at Stonehill College. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island, USA with her husband Phil Devine, who is also a retired philosophy professor....