This is the text and transcript of a presentation by Florida State University psychology professor Roy F. Baumeister to the American Psychological Association in San Francisco, August 24, 2007. You can also read his book “Is There Anything Good About Men?: How Cultures Flourish by Exploiting Men” published in 2010.
You’re probably thinking that a talk called “Is there anything good about men” will be a short talk! Recent writings have not had much good to say about men. Titles like Men Are Not Cost Effective speak for themselves. Maureen Dowd’s book was called Are Men Necessary? and although she never gave an explicit answer, anyone reading the book knows her answer was no. Louann Brizendine’s book, The Female Brain, introduces itself by saying, “Men, get ready to experience brain envy.” Imagine a book advertising itself by saying that women will soon be envying the superior male brain!
Nor are these isolated examples. Alice Eagly’s research has compiled mountains of data on the stereotypes people have about men and women, which the researchers summarized as “The WAW effect.” WAW stands for “Women Are Wonderful.” Both men and women hold much more favorable views of women than of men. Almost everybody likes women better than men. I certainly do.
My purpose in this talk is not to try to balance this out by praising men, though along the way I will have various positive things to say about both genders. The question of whether there’s anything good about men is only my point of departure. The tentative title of the book I’m writing is “How culture exploits men,” but even that for me is the lead-in to grand questions about how culture shapes action. In that context, what’s good about men means what men are good for, from the perspective of the system.
Hence this is not about the “battle of the sexes,” and in fact I think one unfortunate legacy of feminism has been the idea that men and women are basically enemies. I shall suggest, instead, that most often men and women have been partners, supporting each other rather than exploiting or manipulating each other.
Nor is this about trying to argue that men should be regarded as victims. I detest the whole idea of competing to be victims. And I’m certainly not denying that culture has exploited women. But rather than seeing culture as patriarchy, which is to say a conspiracy by men to exploit women, I think it’s more accurate to understand culture (e.g., a country, a religion) as an abstract system that competes against rival systems — and that uses both men and women, often in different ways, to advance its cause.
Also I think it’s best to avoid value judgments as much as possible. They have made discussion of gender politics very difficult and sensitive, thereby warping the play of ideas. I have no conclusions to present about what’s good or bad or how the world should change. In fact my own theory is built around tradeoffs, so that whenever there is something good it is tied to something else that is bad, and they balance out.
I don’t want to be on anybody’s side. Gender warriors please go home.