If you haven’t read William J. Bennett’s little piece on degradation of Maleness posted yesterday on CNN.com, I suggest you do. Bennett, the former U.S. Secretary of Education and director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush, is calling many of the males of our generation un-devout man-children, not least of all because we play video games.
I say, what’s the big deal? I like being an un-devout man-child.
In all seriousness though, I’d like to take this opportunity to address some of the ‘qualms’ he raises. I’ll do my best to dissect it bit by bit, and I apologize in advance for the wall of text.
The source of Bennett’s discontent stems from the fact that women are catching up to, and surpassing men, while on the flip-side we’re declining in many areas such as the ability to graduate from college, get and hold jobs, and – wait for it – the ability to be attentive towards our family life.
To give context to his dissatisfaction with the trend being seen in the male population, he says:
Women now surpass men in college degrees by almost three to two. Women’s earnings grew 44% in real dollars from 1970 to 2007, compared with 6% growth for men. In 1950, 5% of men at the prime working age were unemployed. As of last year, 20% were not working, the highest ever recorded… The out-of-wedlock birthrate is more than 40% in America. In 1960, only 11% of children in the U.S. lived apart from their fathers. In 2010, that share had risen to 27%. Men are also less religious than ever before.
While he could have taken the time to explain the fact that more females are attending college than ever before (hence more women are graduating), he didn’t. He could have brought up the fact that we’re in the biggest economic recession since the great depression, but he didn’t. He might have noted that it takes two to make a baby (and a family), or that religious devotion and prayer won’t make our problems go away, but, guess what, he didn’t.
Yes, Women are making more money than they have in the past, but shouldn’t that be the case? Historically, males in the workplace have relegated women to the sidelines, and now the glass ceiling has been shattered. Is this really such a bad thing, and should we really chastise men for greater equality?
And yes, males are having a hard time finding work, but what about females? You’d have a little more credibility if you cited both figures. More to the point: where have you been since 2008, and why is it that us young’uns are the ones to blame when there is less opportunity for employment, when you’re the ones with the ability to say “I’m going to hire you”?
A phenomena easily demonized, Bennett chooses to lambast that “Today, 18-to- 34-year-old men spend more time playing video games a day than 12-to-17-year-old boys”. Moreso, he complains that:
messages to boys about what it means to be a man are confusing. The machismo of the street gang calls out with a swagger. Video games, television and music offer dubious lessons to boys who have been abandoned by their fathers. Some coaches and drill sergeants bark, ‘What kind of man are you?’ but don’t explain.
Of course video games are the root of all problems in society. And the answer to his problem is easy: to be a real man, you’ve got to swear, fart, and (want to) blow crap up. Or if you are really into explosions and destruction you can join the military and do it for real. Really, though, there’s no easy response to the “quandary” he’s raising.
Did he ever think of the fact that many of the 18-34 year olds that now play video games are the ones that were the first generation that had easy access to them as children, via systems like the Sega Genesis or the Super Nintendo, in their very own homes? In all honesty, why would anybody give up a hobby they love? I know for a fact that grown men (older than 34 years of age) still play with trains and will happily spend thousands of dollars to create their perfect little fantasy village, but no one is blaming them for the lack of a modernized rail system in the U.S. I guess Amtrak will have to do. Anybody up for a two and a half hour delay?
In response to drill sergeants asking what sort of a “man” their trainee is, it’s whatever and whomever the military needs them to be. I don’t think that nuggets have much of a choice in the matter. That being said, I suppose other males outside of a military setting should try to answer the question, but I don’t think Bennett’s concluding thoughts, which suggest a certain level of misogynistic ideals I consider foolhardy in today’s ever-equalizing world, is the right approach.
We need to respond to this culture that sends confusing signals to young men… with a clear and achievable notion of manhood. The Founding Fathers believed, and the evidence still shows, that industriousness, marriage and religion are a very important basis for male empowerment and achievement. We may need to say to a number of our twenty-something men, ‘Get off the video games five hours a day, get yourself together, get a challenging job and get married.’ It’s time for men to man up.
We don’t need to redefine what it is to be a man – not really. Maybe we need to redefine what it is to be an adult, or how as young adults we can smoothly transition to a state of “adulthood”. Or maybe we need to define what it is to be a human, but a Man, not as much. I’d even go so far as to say that the idea of “manliness” has put our world into the state it is in today: conflict-ridden, angry, financially and socially depressed. In fact, these very things which your generation has gifted to mine has made it hard for us twenty-somethings to get that dream job, or even have the finances to start a family.
Mr. Bennett, I’ll give you points for one thing: spending five hours playing videogames day-in, day-out is a bit much, but no shame should be felt for taking joys in our hobbies, waiting to start a family until it is smart to do so, or making our own personal decisions about levels of religiosity and devotion to a “higher calling”.
Instead of taking more lessons from your generation, I’d say that we’re better off forging our own path into the future. If that means playing video games into our late 80s, then so be it. In my eyes, that’s better that than following the same destructive and morally hazy path we’ve followed up until this point as a society at your guidance and the behest of others like yourself.
For a long time being “manly” has meant the expression of dominance and brute strength. I do not think this is an appropriate way for males (or females) to carry themselves today. Resolving conflicts peacefully and with a sense of duty to humanity might qualify, although I don’t think it needs to be as concrete as that, just as long as we’re not merely following in the footsteps of our elders, but rather leading society with a greater trust in the goodness of others, into a brighter, more playful, and happier future. If that means spending time fighting virtually rather than physically, then I’m all in.