I suspect the focus of Boys’ Day is on the younger boy, and upon activities rather than introspections. Well, outdoor activities are rather problematic at present, and my own “boys” are not only well past that description but are rapidly leaving “young man” behind in favour of encroaching middle-age. That being the case, I shall indeed be introspective and shall address this article as if to an older boy or a young man.
It is a difficult time to be a young man. In truth, it has probably always been a difficult time to be a young man, though that is not what you will have been told. You will have been told that it is – and always was – young women that face the problems, and that you and all your sex are privileged in comparison. Yet a young man in the past faced the prospect of dying prematurely in war or in an industrial accident, or dying young of a work-related illness due to unsafe working conditions. And until my parents’ generation, even in the UK, 95% of men faced the prospect of a life of unremitting hard labour, with scant likelihood of living to enjoy retirement. At least we have progressed beyond that – well, many of us have.
Some of the difficulties facing a young man today are the same as they ever were – unemployment for one. But difficulties of more recent vintage are what I wish to consider here, not least because being male has been declared a problem in itself.
I recall, many years ago now, The Guardian asked a number of celebrity types to write an imaginary letter to their early-teenage younger selves. I was surprised at their offerings. Every one of the faux letters took a lecturing tone, instructing their younger selves in what they should and should not do. Every letter appeared to be an instruction manual on “how to get where I am today – but quicker”. Every one stank of self-satisfaction. Not a single letter took the line I would have taken – apology. “I’m sorry I drifted so far away from your clear sighted simple verities. I could excuse myself by observing that life turned out to be a myriad of distractions, confusions and practical difficulties. But it would be a weak excuse. I do feel I could do better given a second chance, but the fault was mine not yours”. Something like that.
So, I’ll not be telling you what to do or what to think, then.
I have a message, though, or I would not be taking up your time.
The message is this: you have a moral duty to think for yourself.
Ah, you are surprised – not that I exhort you to think for yourself – you’ve heard that one before – but that I call it a moral duty. I’m guessing it’s the phrase “moral duty” that makes you uneasy.
I’ll not be telling you what to think, but if I may be so insufferable (oh, I may) allow me to make some observations on why thinking for yourself is a moral obligation. But first, let me set the scene a little.
I do not know what it is like to be a boy growing up in today’s social climate. Forgive me if my guesses are wide of the mark. But I guess that by the time you were seven you knew that everyone expected girls to be cleverer than boys – and you agreed. By a few years later you would be familiar with the idea that girls had a much tougher time than boys, and as a boy you should be especially considerate towards girls. You would already have absorbed the notion that men treated women very badly in the past, and, as a boy, you had some making-up to do on behalf of your sex.
At primary school you most likely accepted all this without question. But by the time you were in your mid-teens, perhaps you had started to question such things. You might have noticed that many girls were hardly blameless paragons. You might have started to question of what the “male privilege” you kept hearing about was supposed to consist. You didn’t seem to have any privilege yourself. You might have been puzzled about the fuss over girls in STEM subjects when it was clear that girls did better than boys in everything else – and often in STEM too – and always had. Perhaps you even tried to say something about these things but found that you were met with a well-honed barrage of slogans and accusations which you had not the vocabulary to counter. Nor did you receive any support from adults on the matter. So you shut up and kept your thoughts to yourself.
Am I anywhere close?
After puberty, things got even more confused. The ever-present atmosphere of accusation turned serious, relating to violence and sex. Your own riot of emergent sexuality made the accusations so very believable. You were, it seemed, the very monster they were warning you not to be. All you could do was to keep it hidden. On no account say anything, and still less do anything. Enter the uncommunicative, monosyllabic teenage boy.
But beneath the silence was a cacophonous stew inside your head. Here there was something very different, but equally impossible to talk about. Your fantasies, those that related to girls but were not frankly sexual, were dreams of the utmost tenderness, and of service. Your fantasies revolved around rescuing damsels in distress. Such thoughts are simultaneously nothing to be ashamed about and also a source of coruscating shame, for reasons you cannot fathom but may be related to arising unbidden, from nowhere. These tendencies too joined the throng of imperatives for tongue-biting silence.
Then they told you to open up and show your feelings.
Your problem, you see, is that you are suffering from a mental illness called “traditional masculinity”. That is what the ambient social narrative will tell you, perhaps reinforced by what you heard at school. You catch this disease from other men, and you catch it at a remarkably early age. Tiny babies are sometimes claimed to be already infected. There are some problems with this theory, not least that it appears to affect those boys most virulently who are least exposed to adult men.
There is another theory of which you may have heard. This is the theory of evolution. As I’m sure you are aware, this theory has been very successful in rationalising much about the evolution of the species on planet Earth. In this context do please note that evolution acts every bit as much on the behavioural characteristics of organisms as it does on their anatomy. There would be little evolutionary advantage in acquiring the anatomical attributes of a carnivore if the animal in question displayed no interest in hunting and devouring prey. Similarly, the herbivore’s evolutionary strategy is successful only because anatomy, metabolism and behaviour are all consistent with that ecological niche. I’m sorry to labour the obvious but I do so because the ambient social narrative is to deny evolution in the case of human behaviour.
So you are indeed “suffering” from traditional masculinity – and whilst some bits of it will undoubtedly be culturally imbued or enhanced, there is also a big fat chunk of it which your genes have dumped upon you. And – this is the important bit – it isn’t all bad. But if some part of our psyche is inherited from our primate past – and indeed further back than that – we might expect to fall rather short of being “noble in reason, infinite in faculty, in form and moving express and admirable, in action like an Angel, in apprehension like a god, the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals”. To appreciate just what a grip evolution has upon your psyche, just consider sexuality. Contemplate, if you will, how utterly absurd is the act of copulation. And yet it is the motivation for much behaviour.
Some people oppose explanations of human behaviour based on evolution. They regard it as making excuses for bad behaviour. But actually it is quite the opposite. It is a recognition that our civilised behaviour is but a thin veneer. It is a warning that our animalian inheritance may lead us to bad behaviour and we should be on our guard. By denying this reality we are exposed to this danger. It also provides explanations. For example, the odd dissonance between your secret sexual fantasies and their seeming basis in a profound tenderness and desire to cherish, nurture and love. Both arise from the same evolutionary imperative for successful reproduction – and this entails not only the conception of offspring but also their survival to maturity so they may reproduce in turn. It takes a long time for human children to mature. The human inclination to pair bond, a behaviour not shared by our primate cousins, is one of the keys to our evolutionary success. It enhances the likelihood of offspring survival over the 15-plus years required. To copulate is clearly necessary to evolution’s “purpose”. But it is not sufficient in the case of humans. The creation of a pair bond which is stable over the long-term is also required, and this is promoted by the emotional complex called love. Thus, both lust and love, whose natures are in tension, are nevertheless both products of evolution and both based in the emotional psyche.
And this is the point at which the evolutionary – or biological – perspective comes into direct collision with the dominant narrative on gender, namely feminism, because the latter has always had as its main objective the obliteration of the nuclear family. It is worth considering why – but I’m going to leave you to find that out for yourself.
I want to return to my theme: my claim that it is a moral obligation to think for yourself.
Let us suppose you are a kind, considerate and generous person. It’s quite possible that you are, within limits. And let us suppose that you have occasion to exercise these kind and generous attributes to the benefit of an acquaintance whom you have been led to believe is in need and has not had your advantages in life. Clearly you have earned some moral Brownie points. Good for you. My question, though, is this: if it turns out that the recipient of your beneficence is a fraud, they were never truly in need, they had no greater disadvantage in life than yourself, and have acted a part merely to con you – does this diminish the moral validity of your own actions?
It is an instructive dilemma. Many decent people would immediately opine that the wickedness of the recipient of your succour in no way diminishes the moral worth of your actions. But actually it is not so simple. Suppose many people were of this view, and so were inclined to be generous towards undeserving fraudsters? Such conning would catch on. You would end up with a society in which half the people were happily defrauding the other half. From the utilitarian perspective, this is hardly optimal. Does this observation diminish the moral worth of your original action?
It depends upon you. If you have no way of knowing that you are being conned, then your action is beyond reproach. But what if, with sufficient thought, with sufficient effort on your part, you could have discerned that you were faced with a fraudster? At best you are then a fool, but possibly also a coward, and hence have behaved incorrectly.
Suppose we make the situation more challenging. Suppose the bulk of society has fallen for the con trick because it allows them to present themselves as morally upright citizens, and perhaps also because they have not seen through it. If you now, as an individual, refuse to play along, what will happen? You will meet with universal condemnation, both from the fraudsters themselves and from those they have successfully conned, as well as from those who choose to go along with the fraud because it is the easiest course and makes them look good.
The moral right is now as clear as it is difficult to carry out. You must stand against this falsity, alone if necessary, despite turning yourself into a pariah for your pains.
But to get to this point, you must first have thought for yourself rather than having the social narrative do your thinking for you. Ergo, independence of thought is a moral obligation as it may be essential to discern right from wrong.
It is deeply unfashionable to refer to the Cardinal Virtues, so let’s do so then. Prudence is one of them. The usage of “prudence” in antiquity differed from its rather prissy modern ambiance. It actually refers to wisdom or intelligence. So, you see I am not above deploying the Argument From Authority when it suits: the ancients also recognised the moral imperative of deploying intelligence in the service of correct action.
Let us look a little closer at why the deployment of fierce independent intelligence has now become so pressing. Though I shall couch it in generalities, you will easily apply the following to the particular.
That humans can live in huge societies in relative peace and harmony is rather a miracle. It comes about in large part due to a shared sense of what constitutes acceptable behaviour, and a strong tendency to abide by such “correct” behaviour most of the time. We self-police. Culture is what you do when no one is looking. This generally accepted code of behaviour constitutes what you might call the “social morality”. But social morality is mutable: it changes over time and is different in different cultures. What is acceptable today might have been beyond the pale a hundred – or even fifty – years ago.
Human history consists largely of the few exercising control over the many, to the benefit of the few. Power is the ability to impose your will on others. The dominant few are those who contrive to attain power and invariably then abuse it selfishly. But how can a few control the many? In history this was done in part by force. However, there has always been a more subtle element to the exercise of power than the threat of violence. Recall that social morality is the means by which people police their own behaviours, and that it is mutable. Manipulation of this social morality is the mechanism by which the few can control the many. In the past this involved the acceptance by almost everyone that there was a natural social order: one’s station in life. This included the divine right of kings, from which there flowed a hierarchy of patronage within which everyone knew their place and how they were required to act – even down to their allowed style of dress.
If you thought that the manipulation of social morality to facilitate the power of the few was a thing of the past, think again. It is no longer armour-clad barons who claim natural superiority over us, it is now the media, entertainment and academic celebrities who do so. From their possession of the ostensible moral high ground (won, as it were, through conquest of the mechanisms of its propagation) they dictate what we must regard as the moral right. The incipient rebellion is betrayed by the soubriquet of their propagandised morality: Correct Think.
Thinking is not a good in itself. The mere effort is not the point. The purpose of thought is to reach the Truth (yes, I give it a capital here though I shall try to be less portentous). There is such a thing as truth, and it is the purpose of thought to move towards it, though it is a destination never quite fully reached. It has become fashionable to deny that there is such a thing as objective truth. There is your truth and my truth, these people will say. But they say this to legitimise the illegitimate, that might is right, because that is all you will be left with if you abandon truth. This is why it is a moral obligation to think: because valid thought is a pointer to truth, and the moral right is always consistent with truth. Those who deny truth do so because they wish to exploit the mutability of social morality as weapon of control over you. Do not be fooled. To thine own self be true.