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A current TV ad has one member of a small group of corporate types falling into quicksand. The leader promptly convenes a committee-of-the-whole and, as the victim rapidly sinks, commences a discussion in trendy corpo-babble of feasible options. One member silently breaks from the group to throw a saving line into the grasp of the disappearing victim. The Royal Bank of Scotland "gets things done". The savior in this scene has dared to choose separation from the crowd, eschew consensus, and accept with confidence the risk of public failure. This hero shows a preference for action over contemplation and "confidence in the face of risk" (p. 23) while seeking none of the satisfactions of public commendation.
We need a name for the quality that this singular individual manifests and so I propose "effective agency". Among the thousands of other designations this seems as good as any. And yes, we will need a book describing "effective agency", separating it from what it is not, homing in on what it is, illustrating it with familiar individuals who have embodied it, Teddy Roosevelt is one (p. 82), and with some who have not. And how about a Harvard professor to write this book? For this will be a subtle analysis showing that "effective agency" can be used for the nefarious as well as the good. And it will be historically erudite, demonstrating that Plato and Aristotle got the subtlety of it all but few others ever did, excepting of course our author. Finally, it will be peppered with Hemingway and Hobbes, Lacan and Locke, Friedan and Foucault, Kipling and Kant, Darwin and DiMaggio.
The problem is that so far what we have sounds like a recycled Ph. D. dissertation in political philosophy, not a promising prospect to the marketing crowd in basement cubicles. The work needs spice, a giant to slay, a position to take in the culture wars of our young century. A bete noir is required, one that seeks nothing less than the discrediting, no the elimination, of "effective agency" as a revered modus operandi. This sounds a bit ludicrous of course, but it can be done, and Harvey Mansfield in three mouse clicks and a couple of keystrokes has done it. Word Processor Command: FIND all instances of "effective agency", REPLACE with "manliness".
It's a genius solution. Out of the fog of the mouse clicks appears the evil genie of feminism with its gender-neutral social dreams, reveries that would isolate and disparage the manly man of action. The "gender neutral society", an evil if ever there was one. This linguistic nod toward the masculine, to "manliness", permits a survey course in early popular-culture feminism, Friedan, Firestone, Millet, Naomi Wolf. It allows straw men to be battered to pulps, "Women of today want to be equal to men ... in a way that makes them similar to, or virtually the same as, men." (p. 2), "Thus the true, the effectual, meaning of woman's equality is women's independence ... from men and children." (p. 3), "... all feminism of today is looking for ways to keep women independent of men." (p. 140).
But the whole discussion and critique of feminism has a point only if "effective agency" (my term, please recall) can be connected in some relevant way to male sexuality. This is the issue that will determine if the book is an interesting call to reason or, how I read it, a giant puff of smoke.
Why should we regard "effective agency" as a male quality and so employ "manliness" as a synonym? Mansfield notes that not every male has it, indeed only a few have it to a high degree, and some women have it. Margaret Thatcher is his favorite. But, "Though it's clear that women can be manly, it's just as clear that they are not as manly or as often manly, as men."(p. 63). "Manliness is not so much what all males share, or what most males share with a few females, as what a few males have superlatively." (p. 38) So, "effective agency" is a masculine trait because its male best is better than its female best and for any notable portion of it in some individual, a greater percentage of men will have that portion than women. The same reasoning would make tennis and golf male games, height and weight male qualities, and accountancy and law, with their shifting gender representations, female occupations, and high school and college graduation in the U. S. female activities. These are silly ideas, of course, all based upon the notion that statistical correlations can determine something's sexual identification as if vaginas would become a male characteristic if enough men got "transgendered".
Mansfield relates some of what's found in Carol Gilligan and Deborah Tannen, that women speak "in a different voice", exhibit an "ethics of care" rather than of rules, play house rather than king of the mountain, and are more willing to ask directions - ideas popularly familiar from the claim that "Men are from Mars ...". So he feels comfortable with, "Today's women want power, but they are not willing to accept the risk that goes with seeking power." And then astonishingly, "An indication of this failing is the willingness of women to claim solidarity with other women in the 'women's movement'" (p. 69) Men, even the manly men who captain industry and football teams, don't seek the company and solidarity of other men? On golf courses? Out fishing? In locker rooms? Slapping backs, whacking buts and commiserating about wives? Males quit high school and college at significantly higher rates than women, a fact that one who wanted to play Mansfield's game in reverse could take as evidence that woman are the more strenuous power seekers. Or the fact that women persist in high school and college at higher rates despite lower mean SAT and IQ scores could be taken as a sign of the superiority of womanly will, a key ingredient of "manliness".
The author has a surprising eagerness to equate personal power with physical strength, as if the loser who spends his days pumping iron at Golds Gym while ogling the girls is more powerful than Bill Gates. "... it is still a considerable fact that almost any man can beat up almost any woman." (p. 42) "It is no small help to an aggressive [male] disposition to have the means available to express it in powerful fists, a sturdy chest, a head to butt with, and feet that can kick." (p. 42) "Women are contextual because in the context of men and women they are the weaker sex." (p. 239) "Men have manliness to compete with other men; women use the manliness of men to protect themselves and their children." (p. 45) (Does our author live in a bubble? Most of my evening students are women and most of those are single mothers holding full-time jobs, attending college and functioning as heads-of-household.) In general though Mansfield's conception of the sources of social power seems oddly fixated on the middle school playground with its emphasis on physical strength. As a source of power this will become largely irrelevant in no more than half decade of the child's life. One is reminded of Springsteen's great, "Glory Days".
This emphasis on the physical appears to promote Mansfield's program of attributing masculinity to the characteristic of "effective agency" by making it easier to explain sex differences by nature rather than by the effects of convention. Why does patriarchy persist? Because men are stronger and more aggressive than women, more imbued with "effective agency". Why is this so? Here's the explanation. Because nature has made men that way, it's in the genetic marrow of the masculine among us. Vast stretches of evolutionary history have conspired to select the male of the species to rule, to be the hero, to be manly.
Let's suppose that this explanation is true. Here is Mansfield's error in his own words, "... [sex differences] must be traced to a deeper cause, to what is unchangeable, to nature." (p. 42) Or again, "... repressing the [sex] difference won't work because manliness is in our nature and cannot be repressed." (p. 228) There are two errors in Mansfield's program to discredit the gender-neutral society by pumping up the naturalness male assertiveness, one is empirical and one is philosophical.
The empirical error is the assumption that the natural is unchangeable, that traits, whether of individuals or groups, resulting from genotype are either immutable or less malleable than traits resulting from environment. Once Mansfield thinks he has made the case that the aggression, self-assertion and individual confidence associated with "manliness" are genetically present in higher degrees in the male he believes no further argument is necessary that this will always be so. The false assumption is clear, genetically based traits are per se less changeable by environmental alteration than environmentally based traits. This error is common, but for that fact no less false (see my forthcoming "Nature, Nurture and Individual Change" in Behavior and Philosophy). It may suffice here to note several examples to the contrary. First, behavior geneticists have succeeded through twin and other studies in showing that IQ has a high heritability factor (Heritability is roughly the percentage of trait variance in a group that is explained by the genetic variance in that group.) Yet studies have indicated as well that being adopted into homes of higher socio-economic status can significantly raise IQ. (see Maccoby, Eleanor. (2002). Parenting Effects: Issues and Controversies. in Borkowski, John G., Sharon L. Ramey and Marie Bristol Powers, eds. (2002). Parenting and the Child's World. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbau(m Associates, Publishers, 35-46.) Second, The "Flynn Effect" is a record of rather astonishing increases in mean group IQ in European countries, between 9 and 20 points per generation. (Flynn, James R. and William T. Dickens. (2001). Heritability Estimates Versus Large Environmental Effects: The IQ Paradox Resolved. Pyschological Review, April.). Third, in similar manner body height has been calculated as 80% heritable and yet its mean has increased by roughly 1 cm per decade in the twentieth century among European countries (Silventoien, Kerri et. al. (2003). Heritability of Adult Body Height: A Comparative Study of Twin Cohorts in Eight Countries. Twin Research, 5, 399-408, October.) Fourth, in non-abusive circumstances childhood shyness has a strong genetic component and yet is readily susceptible to change through behavior therapy. Finally, PKU retardation is caused by the inability of the pre-adolescent child to process phenylalanine in the blood and tissues and is highly genetic and yet easily prevented through a low protein diet. The point is this, some traits that are highly genetic are easily modified, some are more resistant, and the exact same conclusion applies to environmentally caused traits. To identify a trait as genetic or environmental implies nothing about its malleability.
Mansfield's philosophical error is well described in his account of Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex. It is the error of essentialism, that some unchosen feature of one's self or circumstance creates a moral imperative to live in a way different from those without the feature. But as de Beauvoir says, women have no "mysterious essence" that narrows and shapes their lives. They have "largely open" futures in which they can transcend circumstance (Mansfield's characterization of this as nihilistic is way off the mark.). Mansfield believes that the naturalness of "effective agency" to men (in quantities different from women) is a showing that women should aspire to something else, that womanly virtue lays elsewhere than in courageous self-assertion. He paraphrases Rousseau approvingly, "When women try to resemble men, they will be mastered by men." (p. 195) Of course women have succeeded in "resembling men" by moving into the male territories of accountancy, law, medicine, philosophy and as students in higher education without having been mastered. Essentialism is a philosophically unsupportable idea, and this is over and above the historical horrors that have been prosecuted with its blessing. (For the most subtle treatment of this see the recent work of Kwame Anthony Appiah).
In the end, after all the startling and politically incorrect pronouncements, following all the recounting of ancient wisdom and idiosyncratic readings of great literature, Mansfield gives up the ghost and comes down to earth precisely where most developed societies are today. In the public spheres of work and politics, gender neutrality must rule. There can be no going back to prescribed, gender-driven, public social roles, and I'm not even sure that the author, for all his bluster, is disappointed about this (perhaps he is aware that manly men prefer sex with independent women.). In private life men and women should not be disparaged for seeking to inhabit traditional gender roles if these are their choices. I take this to mean that women should be left alone if they desire to wear spiked heels and slinky black dresses and men should be permitted the exquisite "notes" emanating from the mufflers of their mid-life Harleys. The problem is that after all that Mansfield has put the reader through he or she surely deserves more than to return to precisely the spot from which he or she began.
© 2006 John D. Mullen
John D. Mullen is professor of Philosophy at Dowling College in Oakdale, New York. He has written a widely read text, Kierkegaard's Philosophy: Self-deception and cowardice in the present age, Hard Thinking: A Reintroduction of logic to everyday life, and co-authored with Byron M. Roth, Decision Making: Its logic and practice.