If society wants men to behave honorably, then it must provide public honor to those who do so. At the individual level, men have to rise above bad incentives. But if we want to change behavior at scale, providing public honor is critical. Individual purpose is not a substitute for public respect.
Why are these alternative influencers attracting huge audiences of young men while traditional institutions and authorities like churches and schools struggle to get a hearing?
It’s in part because the masculinity message of traditional institutions is off in important ways.
I want to illustrate an example of this in the form of a recent column by David French in the New York Times. I have my differences with French, but his writing on masculinity and men’s issues is above average. He’s correctly been interested in this topic for a long time.
This particular column gets a lot of the pieces right. In particular, French notes that a lack of purpose or mission in a man’s life is often debilitating. He highlights how veterans are often given large amounts of respect, yet can severely struggle after leaving the service due to a loss of a sense of purpose.
The true challenge to American masculinity is far upstream from politics and ideology. It’s not fundamentally about what ideological combatants say about men—that they have become “toxic” on the one hand, or “feminized” on the other. Rather the challenge is much more about a man finding his purpose.
A man needs to have a mission.
He also has a point when he says that the problem with treating respect as our ultimate driver then puts our feelings of satisfaction at the mercy of how other people treat us.
Yet there is a danger in the quest for respect. Finding happiness in another person’s regard is elusive and contingent. After all, we have little true control over how others perceive or treat us, yet when we’re denied what we demand, we’re often filled with helpless rage.
He correctly asks, “How much should a man’s self-worth depend on the respect or gratitude of others?”
At the same time, he does note that there’s some merit to the idea that men aren’t respected:
The demand for respect is a hallmark of much right-wing discourse about masculinity. In this narrative, too many women don’t respect their husbands and the culture more broadly devalues men. Parts of this argument have merit.
And, he correctly notes that there’s an aspect to service to mission.
To put it more simply still: What men need is not for others to do things for them. They need to do things for others: for spouses, for children, for family and friends and colleagues.
There are few better purposes than helping the people you love walk through life. Virtuous purpose is worth more than any other person’s conditional and unreliable respect. It is rooted in service and sacrifice, not entitlement. And those qualities bring a degree of meaning and joy far more important than the gifts that others—the “grateful” spouse who cooks dinner, the implausibly reverential children—can ever offer. What we do for others is infinitely more rewarding than what we ask them to do for us.
I don’t want to read too much into this, but the general pattern of rhetoric we see in this piece is that men a) should seek to find life satisfaction through purpose b) which consists in acts of “retail” service to other individuals such as their wife, children, or peers, and c) they shouldn’t necessarily expect any external respect, affirmation, or reward for doing this.