“Angry white men” A challenge

The challenge: Discuss the following civilly. Most readers will not really find it at all difficult to meet the challenge. I hope all can do it.

Some of our readers may have noticed that a number of recent venues, purporting to provide opportunities to discuss the philosophy profession, end up containing expressions of anger, even rage, that is unusual compared to the sort of academic discourse most of us are used to. And a very favorite topic centers on “the” feminists, and their supposed quest for world professional domination.

Angry White Men by a distinguished sociologist, Michael Kimmel, offers an explanation for the kind of the anger we see. Since anonymous comments on blogs may express anger and rage in all sorts of context, we might think his explanation is just partial. But we can still consider whether his account offers a good explanation of an anger that in fact targets women in the philosophy profession. With few exceptions, we would seem to most people, I think, as fairly tame game. But in some contexts we (or at least those on this blog) have recently been called ‘moral monsters’ quite a few times.  Kimmel offers the following as the background. It is precisely the loss of this high privilege that he take to be fueling the anger:

Yet the truth is that white men are the beneficiaries of the single greatest affirmative action program in world history. It’s called “world history.” White men so stacked the deck that everyone else was pretty much excluded from playing at all. When those others did begin to play, the field was so uneven that white men got a massive head start, and everyone else had to play with enormous handicaps. Maybe actually having to play evenly matched, on a level playing field, is too frightening for a gender that stakes its entire identity on making sure it wins every time.

He then looks at what is happening as we are reaching the end of patriarchy:

Angry White Men tells the story of the other side of the American Dream: the futility, the dashed hopes, the despair, and the rage. It tells the story of the rich and famous wannabes, the ones who thought they could invent themselves, reinvent themselves, be even more successful than their fathers. It tells the story of how white American men came to believe that power and authority were what they were entitled to, by birth, and how that birthright is now eroding. Economic and social changes that are bewilderingly fast and dramatic are experienced as the general “wimpification” of American men— castrated by taxation, crowded out by newcomers who have rules bent for them, white men in America often feel like they are presiding over the destruction of their species.

Discuss, please!

25 thoughts on ““Angry white men” A challenge

  1. Comment peut «regarder» question, une des personnes privées de la vue. / How can “look” question, a persons deprived of sight.

  2. Here’s a simple hypothesis: We know that loss aversion is a big false and positional envy (I think there’s a formal name but it escapes me; i.e., absolute levels matter to satisfaction less than matching or being better off than your perceived peer group) are huge forces. The end of patriarchy hits both of these multipliers hard (loss of lots of advantages and people who were *below* your peer group, now are doing better relative to you).

    So, no need for a “frightened” or central identity hypothesis: General psychological mechanisms suffice.

  3. Bijan, I’m not sure he’s positing any special mechanism to explain the anger, as opposed to the circumstances that prompt the anger. I think he also says that white men have been by and large unaware of their privilege, so that those now gaining on them are getting unfair assistance, at least as they see it.

  4. I adopt the principle of charity here. White males, for the most part, don’t realize the playing field is tipped in their favor so they assume that what is in fact leveling it, is tipping it against them. It isn’t a matter of feeling entitled to privilege so much as not recognizing that they have it.

    I had lunch last year with a guy I hadn’t seen since undergraduate days. A good person, and now a local Democratic politico, we talked a little about such. He graduated with a BA in political science, immediately got a job as management trainee at Dunkin’ Donuts and moved up through the ranks. I noted that when we graduated in 19** women with undergraduate degrees couldn’t get jobs like that—generic middle-class middle-management-track jobs. He said, y’know that’s true—I just never thought of it.

    That I’m convinced, is it—not bad will, or a sense of entitlement to privilege, or misogyny, but the failure to see that what is for them normal treatment isn’t the norm for non-white non-males. It’s a lack of information, and lack of imagination.

    So next Tuesday, in the critical thinking part of my baby logic class I will have students take the IAT and discuss implicit bias. I doubt that most will be convinced, but I’ll put the empirical data out for them and hope for the best.

  5. Anne, I took “Maybe actually having to play evenly matched, on a level playing field, is too frightening for a gender that stakes its entire identity on making sure it wins every time.” as being fairly specific. I.e., we have that white male identity is predicated on winning every time, so the fear is in part due to threat to identity. I don’t think that’s necessarily implausible, but I think loss aversion and positional loss are more basic and explicate the rest. And the explanation is robust to things like being or becoming aware of their privilege (I notice that evidence of privilege tends to make angry white men *more* angry).

    So, if the fear they face is simple loss aversion and the resentment is partially or whole positional, then you get why they are fearful and specifically angry: A group is depriving them of something (even if they are merely lifted up and the white dudes don’t actually lose anything material).

    (Maybe I’m just increasingly fond of those mechanisms as core explanations :))

  6. Bijan, maybe his stuff about identity is to explain why the loss is so important? I realize that I’m not very familiar with the theory you are alluding to. Would they reject the idea that some things constitute our identy?

  7. So loss aversion is just the fact that people weigh losses greater than gains:

    In economics and decision theory, loss aversion refers to people’s tendency to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. Most studies suggest that losses are twice as powerful, psychologically, as gains.

    Now add that part of what is lost is status (as well as substantive goods, opportunities). (This is partly where identity, at least group identity, might come in.) Thus even if I’m not in any substantive sense worse off, I’m no longer better off than my prior near rivals. So, I’ve lost a lot of the satisfaction I had with my situation. (Compare with someone who buys a big house but then their friend buys a bigger house. All that they’ve lost is having the biggest house among their friends. But this can seriously diminish their pleasure and satisfaction.) If you add in actual losses, plus the loss aversion multiplier, then you have some straightforward reasons to be angry.

    That sense of deprivation can help drive e.g., discounting or ignoring that what you had was unfairly allocated in the first place.

    (This doesn’t mean that identity issues per se might not affect people as well, of course. But what is the structure of that identity damage? Is it that they are being “wimpified”? That is a change in their actual psychological arrangement. Or are they “merely” losing positional goods?)

    So, maybe I should separate things. Loss aversion can explain big reactions and I think the loss can be just positional. If you add scapegoating for real losses, then you have a very strong reason to be pretty angry.

    I’m no longer sure if I’m saying something distinct :)

  8. No worries! It’s a great topic so thanks for raising it. I’ll be out of connectivity range until tomorrow UK time.

    The other thing I think is that it is really difficult to be whole ignorant of the advantages being white and male conveys, at least in the US and UK these days. So, I think something more active is needed to discount those advantages. Hence the idea that government is in favour of women, or that feminist control hiring, etc. But perhaps also, if one weighs the losses against the gains given to others, loss aversion makes them seem disproportionate (and thus “unfair” the other way). So perhaps some generalised loss aversion + scapegoating + false generalisation (or focus on negatives) + maybe implicit bias (which further skews the merit evaluation) is at work?

  9. There are a lot of good thoughts here. But if we’re talking about the philosophy profession specifically, we’d be remiss not to mention the role played by rampant abuse of anonymity on the Internet. The voice of the so-called “angry white men” is amplified by the fact that a very small number of knuckleheads are either saying things “for the lulz” or saying things that they wouldn’t dare sign their names too (and not because they’re worried about retaliation, but rather because they know the things they say are entirely indefensible and absurd).

  10. Another thing: Yesterday I was scrolling through one of those reddit threads were seemingly every men’s right activist and lots of teenagers were complaining about the difficult situation of men in society, e.g. always getting the short stick in divorce court, suspicion of paedophilia when caring for children or buying children clothes or working as kindergarten teachers etc.. These problems might be totally imagined (I personally have never encountered suspicion while playing with or caring for children. On the contrary. But this might also be an USA thing.) and they are of course not the fault of “the feminists” as reddit seems to believe, but I think the point to an interesting dimension of the whole “angry white men” problem. Namely that, while some traditionally male sectors of society get (the work place, politics, philosophy, whatever) are becoming more and more open to women and minorities, the traditionally “non-white-male” sectors are perceived as not being that open to the white male.
    Maybe most of them are not even trying, and maybe some let themselves be discourage from horror stories on the internet, but I’m pretty sure some encounter reactionary prejudices against men in the domestic sector.

    So there might be the additional problem (or perceived problem) of no new sector opening up for white men, leading to even more anger and the feeling of being wronged.

    I realize that this very close to “what about the men” territory and maybe it does not help with this discussion but It might be an explanation for some of the anger.

  11. I think part of the problem is the rather broadbrush characterisations that sometimes get made on this blog and elsewhere in the feminist blogging communities and on public social media (All/most white men are.. etc). If I was a white working-class guy in a relatively unstarry PhD programme struggling to get a foot in the workplace, and desperate to do so because I loved philosophy, it would annoy me intensely to read glib and unsympathetic or even downright aggressive depictions of me, qua white guy, as a holder of unrecognised privilege who should put up and shut up, often written by people who seem unaware of their own privilege (e.g. mostly white, mostly straight, and often well-connected). Even when these descriptions are written by people who are genuine historical victims of injustice and implicit bias, and not particularly privileged in the hierarchy, it is unclear to me how aggressive caricatural generalisations about white ‘dudes’ help, except as a way of venting one’s own feelings of irritation (and so it escalates…).

    I think a better approach, where possible, is to always try to treat people as individuals, with individual histories; to avoid inflammatory and smug language (as far as one can tell how it will strike others, which is sometimes limited); and to recognise that just because many members of a group may have historically benefited from belonging to that group, not all will have, or do.

    Finally, and along these lines; every internet group or blog attracts a small number of people who for their own reasons like to engage in juvenile hostility and childish name-calling, and we don’t need to see it as symptomatic of white males in philosophy, rather than people at an immature stage of development, with big problems of their own, who are probably to be pitied rather than feared. (Yeah, I know, that’s smug, I can’t help myself..)

  12. As a non angry white male, aged 63, I doubt I could mount any plausible argument counter to the hypothesis given. Upon my birth, and with no undertaking of labour, skill, or education, all opportunity lay before me with the only barrier in place being my own failure to take advantage of what was given. To not recognize this, in my opinion, is to have never given it serious thought. I am forever grateful for the good luck to be born into such privilege. I do take issue with a thread that seems to run throughout the discussion, that being the one of wanting to win every time. I think it most probable that the desire to win is deeply embedded in our psyche as a survival mechanism shared by all, regardless of rrace or gender.

  13. Frederik, I think the suspicion of men involved with children is to some extent an American thing, all wrapped up with obsessive, popular fears of pedophilia and sexual predation. Men aren’t excluded from ‘non-white-male’ occupational areas, like nursing (where the minority of men who have the good sense to get into it make more than their female counterparts). But for the past 20 years or so there’s been a cultural obsession with sexual abuse and pedophilia that’s resulted in virtually imprisoning kids in their homes. Kids, at least middle class kids, aren’t allowed to go out on their own and play in the street—they have ‘play dates’ arranged by parents. Parents can get in trouble with the law if their school-age kids are outdoors out of their sight. Kids aren’t allowed to walk to school in many places by school policy. There are now young adults brought up under this regime who have never learnt to ride a bike.

    This is phenomena is real, and pervasive. Sensationalist stories of sexual abuse make good press, and this theme has been played over and over again. That’s fact.

    As for conjecture…why? I suspect its the American (and maybe general Anglo-Saxon) obsession with sex. There’s a huge body of Puritanism we can’t get rid of. As post-Freudians we’re committed to the doctrine that sex is wonderful and essential to the good life. But because the total quantity of Puritanism remains constant, we distinguish between Good Sex (consensual, non-exploitative, among adults) and Bad Sex and push all the Puritanism out of the Good Sex area into obsessing about Bad Sex—rape (date and other) and most particularly the sexual abuse of children. So the total amount of Puritanism remains constant.

    More controversially, I think this has formed the way in which feminism developed in the US, at least at the popular level. In house WE worry about women’s professional prospects, but if you look at how concerns about women’s situation play out in the popular press and popular political rhetoric the focus is always on sexuality issues broadly construed: rape, sexual harassment, and above all abortion. All this is of course important, but it’s disturbing that there’s so little attention to wage gaps, discrimination in employment and sex segregation in the labor force.

    Feminism didn’t cause this obsession with pedophilia and sexual abuse. Our obsession with sex shaped public attitudes including the public perception of feminism.

  14. I agree with you, Kathleen to a large extent. But in that case how do we talk about social disadvantage and try to correct it? In order to do that we have to talk about social groups and their relative levels of social advantage, don’t we? I’m not sure how that point tallies with the idea of treating everyone as individuals in the way you seem to be suggesting.

    But yeah, all this mean talk about white dudes ends up being pretty unhelpful.

  15. Kathleen, two points:

    1. It isn’t right, I think, to interpret the post as claiming that all white men are angry. The claim ‘White men are angry’ is probably a generic, lick ‘ticks carry lymne disease,’ which is true when in fact relatively few do.

    2. The post is pretty carefully focused on those writing comments on philosophy blogs that are full of anger and even rage. Should they be feared? Should we fear the extreme people who say Obama is a muslim, that end of life discussions are death panels? I think it is a serious mistake to discount the effects of repeated assertions.

    That said, sometimes I think the rage-filled comments are actually written by undergrads who think it is great fun to stir things up on professors’ blogs.

  16. Anne: on 1, I wasn’t claiming the post said that, I was positing a causal link between expressions of anger on blogs by some white men, and their reading crass generalisations on this blog and other feminist fora about all/most white men.

    On 2, I’m told that the average age for an internet troll is around 14. If that’s true, I don’t think the average internet troll should be feared, no, though I understand why they are. Even if it’s not true about the average age, I think that the relative ease of sitting behind a computer and anonymously typing obscenities into the faceless void makes it less scary than nearly all other forms of verbal abuse, and it should be treated as such by people at the other end of it. I realise I am in a minority in thinking this. I suspect that there’s a very human, almost primal temptation as a recipient of such abuse to catastrophise, to tell the worst possible stories about who’s behind it and what it means, because one knows nothing about the sender.. to project a lot of fear onto the grey shape that pressed ‘send’. I think this tendency should not be encouraged – and treating all internet trolls as criminals with ‘victims’ is not helpful in fighting the tendency. Of course context is everything – there’s a different between sustained targeting of one individual, over multiple media, and random commenting, for instance. Even in the former, the relatively low effort/cost to the perpetrator of doing it means it is less worrying than other forms of verbal abuse (mailing a letter, phone calling, actual confrontation), in my view.

    (As for repeated assertions, I would think the effects vary – they might make contrarians and those who dislike group-thinking, less likely to believe them, rather than more. I suspect they have this effect in my own case).

    Monkey – I wish I knew. I want to be able to talk about social disadvantage at a structural level without personally blaming those who benefit from it at an individual level,* simply* for benefiting (this is distinct from blaming them for doing nothing to change it – I am not sure whether I think that’s OK).

  17. Kathleen – again I agree with you about not blaming individuals for being recipients of structural advantage. I took you to be suggesting something different in your earlier comment.

  18. Harriet Baber – don’t think its more of an American thing. My friends neighbour threatened to beat him up for saying hello to the neighbour’s daughter. Another male friend also found himself in a sticky spot recently when he was trying to change his daughters soggy pants (potty training) at the park.

  19. Kathleen, the idea that this blog has posts with crass generalizations about all or most white men is certainly not a happy thought. I would have hoped we’d catch each other out, and stop it. I’d like to see some examples from you or others of such stuff on this blog.

    I think the empirical evidence on the effects of repeated statements is realy clear: these things can spread very effectively and it can be very hard to stop them. The republicans have this tactic well in hand and have done a lot of damage with it.

  20. Hi Anne, I don’t have time to look properly for examples, and a cursory search doesn’t come up with any clear cut cases, so I withdraw that comment. I think that perhaps, with quick inattentive reading of blogs in a particular political area, in between doing other things, it’s easy to get a general impression which doesn’t distinguish reasonable from less reasonable contributors or fora. Or that’s my excuse. Maybe that’s partly why some readers are (unfairly) so angry.

  21. I posted this comment at the Leiter Reports, but it may stand a better chance of getting a reply here.

    I do not think that the bloggers at FP are “moral monsters”. But I do find much to object to (morally) in much of what they’ve done. Perhaps this example is obvious, but I think it deserves explicit mention lest it be forgotten too quickly: Heidi Lockwood’s affidavit in the Ludlow case. It was irresponsible, damaging, and wrong. Her “apologies” at the Daily Snooze are totally unconvincing (to me, at least), and I get the sense she has no real remorse for passing on falsehoods and gossip (some of it second- or third- hand) so casually and into a forum so open as the public record of a case that many philosophers are watching closely. Lockwood has been closely associated with the FP blog (commenting and authoring posts regularly) and with its agenda (inserting herself into several cases of alleged sexual harassment) for some time now. I think it is obtuse to think (as AJJ seems to do) that negative reactions to Lockwood’s bad behavior are just angry white men getting upset about privilege being taken away from them. No. They’re not pissed because they’re white men, they’re pissed because someone did something deeply harmful and wrong! Why is that so implausible to AJJ?

    Again, Lockwood is a prominent member of the FP crowd. It is not unreasonable to subject her actions to moral critique (and to, by extension, subject FP to moral critique, especially for its near-total silence about what one of its prominent bloggers has been doing).

  22. Anonlibfem, I’m glad you’ve aised these issues, and I’m grateful to you for bringing them to our forum. Unfortunately, it’s pretty late here in the middle of the country, but let me at least make a start.

    My understanding of HL’s actions is this: she had a choice of either submittinf an affadavit or being subpoened to go to Chicago to divulge the same information. The latter was a much more demanding alternative. The affadavit would not, she was assured, be made public.

    Let me say that in a series of unfortunate enounters in professional contexts, i’ve seen the following sort of interchange:
    Speaker one to speaker two: smith has lied a number of times on subject X.
    Speaker two (later): speaker one has said that smith was lying a number of times on subject x.
    Speaker one: i never said Smith lied, and speaker two is really a bad person for saying otherwise.

    I think all sorts of things can lead to these sorts of conflicts, and of course sometimes people say they have been told things when they haven’t. But I do think some people have been very quick in supposing they understand claims surrounding HL’s affadavit.

    Finally, we do have confidential discussions about issues like the ones you’ve raised. I doubt we ever reach unanimous views about anything. I’m not at all clear about the soundness of the view that we should make such things public.

  23. I’m not going to say very much about this. But I will say this: FP bloggers are not a hive mind, and we disagree quite strongly with each other on many issues. This is one of them. I (and others) disagreed with what Heidi did, though I understand that she felt it was what she needed to do. I should also note that the composition of this blog is not static, and that while I have no intention of posting a list of bloggers a quick search will reveal that it’s been quite some time since Heidi posted anything here. I am now closing comments on this post, as there are lots of issues of confidentiality, trust, and legality that it would be a huge mistake to air in public.

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