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The Problem with Armchair Anthropologists

August 11, 2014

This is my first piece I’ve put on the blog in a while. I wish I could say my absence was due to work or lack of interest, but the fact is that I have had better things to do–TV, video games, suburban hang-gliding. Recently, however I have missed fooling myself into thinking I’m doing something useful the intellectual stimulation that comes from blogging, so I’ve taken it up again. I don’t know how long this will last. Keep your fingers crossed.

Photo: Don't you just love the public exposé of trumpet-tone biblical illiteracy?

      This little gem from Rachel Held Evans illustrates a popular view among Millenial Christians–that normative gender roles are an illusion, and a nasty illusion at that. The idea of “gender as a social construct” has migrated beyond Leftist academia and into the Christian intellectual world. Hundreds of young Christians, inspired by that one Anthropology class they had sophomore year, are taking to the barricades to defend against the assumption of anything close to fixed gender roles. More often than not, the target is masculinity. The phrase “act like a man” is occasion for scorn. Pastors who try to talk about men’s issues are typecast as chest-beating gorillas. The general attitude was summed up in a comment a friend made to me: “Masculinity is a social construct used to marginalize the unsuccessful.” Another friend put it even more simply: “The whole idea of ‘becoming a man’ is stupid.”

Of course, after he said that I ripped his arms off with my bare hands and then fed him to these wolves.

     There’s nothing wrong with critically investigating cultural concepts like “manliness”; My target in this piece is not real anthropologists or sociologists. Rather, my target is with the people who rattle off a cliche like “manliness is a social construct used to marginalize the unsuccessful” as if it were groundbreaking wisdom. The scorn heaped upon “social constructs” (manliness or otherwise) has three main flaws to it. First, it misunderstands the nature of social constructs. Second, it misreads the concept of masculinity. Third, it is grounded in a “Cartesian” view of the self which does not reflect actual, lived experience.

 Social Constructs: Good For You, Good For America

Gender is socially constructed. This is not just true, it’s banal. Many of our ideas about what it means to be a man or a woman are part of our cultural context. For example, in American society, it is expected that women wear skirts or dresses and men do not. This is not a given–men in traditional Scotland wore kilts, which look like skirts to American eyes. There’s nothing morally wrong with wearing a kilt, nor is there anything inherent in being a male that makes wearing a kilt “unmasculine.” The decision to not wear kilts is pretty much arbitrary. And all that being said, there’s no way that you’re going to get me to wear a kilt in public.

While it’s true that the idea “men should not wear skirts” is fairly arbitrary, the fact is that, in American culture, a man wearing a kilt signifies something very different than what it would signify in Scottish culture. Armchair anthropologists talk of social constructs as if they were completely arbitrary, things that we can jettison at will. Don’t like this aspect of society? Get rid of it.

The problem is that we live in a social world. Social constructs may be “arbitrary,” but that doesn’t mean they don’t have any force. They are deeply embedded in the culture, and interconnected with other social constructs. For example, I often hear girls complain that the “system”  makes men the  exclusive initiators in romantic relationships. Thus, there is a bias against women asking men on dates. This is socially constructed, and it’s rather arbitrary. But this social construct is also deeply embedded in our “social imaginary.” If a woman asks men on dates, she runs the risk of seeming “desparate” or “too forward.” Whether this is good or bad is neither here nor there–the point is that at no point can you step outside your context and pick and choose which social constructs everyone should get rid of. Peer pressure is equally as ephemeral as social constructs, yet it does no good to tell people “don’t give in to peer pressure.”

There are many things in our world that are social constructs–handshakes, traffic laws, table manners–and we can’t simply ignore those things because they are “arbitrary.” Holding out against handshakes because they are “socially constructed” may seem like a noble goal, but don’t expect your much more thought-out custom of touching noses to catch on.  Asking a girl to coffee is a cruel joke at Wheaton College is fairly arbitrary (as Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting noted), but it is important because of what it signifies. Asking a girl to the state hog-calling contest will produce a different reaction (though if she says yes, good for you man). part of the “social imaginary” that we inhabit.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that social constructs are “thick.” They’re not just arbitrary inventions imposed on us by the patriarchy, Hollywood, or a horde of mutant lizard aliens. They arise out of certain historical-cultural conditions and they become “embedded” into the social imaginary, such that one cannot easily get rid of them without creating ripples. Anyone who says that social constructs aren’t important is probably playing dumb; like the kid who wears black leather in the summertime and then gets mad when his parents tell him he’s trying to be a rebel.

“That’s all well and good,” you say, “but what about social constructs that are wrong or evil? Aren’t Christians supposed to resist those.” Yes, of course. Just because social constructs are deep-rooted doesn’t mean that they’re all good. Sometimes ripples need to be made.  But…

Misreading Masculinity

…I propose that masculinity or “manliness” isn’t one of them.

Academic types always tell us to “nuance,” and they’re right. If we don’t nuance, we run the risk of creating a straw-man fallacy. Here, we need to nuance our concept of “masculinity”. Occasionally I hear a Leftish person use the word “masculine” as a smear word (If they’re more academically-minded they’ll use the word “phallic”). Whenever I hear that, I get a bad taste in my mouth.

Here’s why. Readers of ancient or medieval literature will remember that the word “womanish” or “effeminate” is a smear-word in most older texts. The Roman Stoics, for example, often used the word to describe the behavior that a good Stoic would avoid. There was even a genre in medieval writing, posthumously labeled “Antifeminism,” where men would rant and complain about how bad women were.  Feminism has made a good effort to balance the scales, arguing (rightly) that women and “womanly” qualities were not less than men. Important work was done to show how “Women’s ways of knowing” were as valid as man’s ways.

But, as always, the pendulum was swung too far in the other direction. The word “masculine” began to take on a negative connotation, associated with violence, individualism and the Republican party. If the person attacking masculinity is not thinking, they often create a straw man masculinity to attack, a cartoonish mix of John Wayne, Ernest Hemingway, and 1970s Hercules films. This kind of lazy thinking assumes that when a church leader says “act like a man,” he really means for us men to run through the jungle beating our chests, clothed only with an American Flag loincloth, looking for skulls to crack (in other words, a typical afternoon for me).

“Do you think I got where I am today through reading Rachel Held Evans and listening to Pedro the Lion? Forget about it!”

It is defensible to attack a cultural aspect of “masculinity”; nay, it is glorious. The notorious “double standard” for men and women–“he’s a stud; she’s a slut”–is something that we should get away from. But it’s wrong to attack masculinity by pretending that masculinity is encapsulated perfectly by Conan the Barbarian.

Classical masculinity has had many different permutations. The saying “real men don’t cry” didn’t apply to King David or Achilles, both of whom famously cried after the death of their best friends. In some contexts, sexual conquests are highly valued; in others, like Stoicism, “real men” keep ahold of their passion. Masculinity is a big tent; and condemning all of it is a bit naive.

Even if one boils masculinity down to its most basic form, one still comes up with something fairly neutral. Anthropologist David Gilmore boiled down the almost universal (!) code of manhood to three principles: Protect, Provide, and Procreate. These could be fulfilled by a father who protects and provides for his family, or by a drug dealer who protects his turf, makes good money, and sleeps with a lot of random women. It’s important to remember that there is a difference between “being a good man and being good at being a man.” A person could be manly, but evil. But they could just as well be manly and good. Strength (in the broad sense) is a prerequisite for salvation, but that in turn does not mean that we should seek to be Weenies for Jesus.


Effeminate Aryan Jesus asks you to give him your life, but only if it’s not too risky or dangerous, or would cut down on League of Legends time.



You Are Not a Thinking Thing

In Introducing Radical Orthodoxy, James K. A. Smith argues that the faulty politics of modernity (liberalism), results from a faulty epistemology, which is in turn based on a faulty ontology. Following Smith, I argue that the criticism of the armchair anthropologists is the result of a flawed view of human nature and knowledge. It is grounded in a modern overconfidence in knowledge, and a” Cartesian “view of the individual.

Despite being characterized as “postmodern,” Millenials still tend to fall Christian square-glasses types still tend to think of themselves in Cartesian terms–I am a thinking thing, separate from the world out there.Thus, I can step away from this world of “social constructs” and enter a “higher” view. The subject [i.e. the college student] floats uncontaminated over the deluded masses. By critically viewing their own society, the subject thinks he has actually transcended it.

This false view of the self results in a false view of epistemology. It views knowledge as primarily discursive and individual. In other words, knowledge is made up of propositional statements that you and I and Uncle Bob have in our minds. Although many Millenials would brush up against this claim (“How dare you accuse me of believing in an Enlightenment model of knowledge!”), they still live by this model of epistemology. In fact, an academic context that privileges the research of “experts” tacitly teaches this belief about epistemology.

The world outside academia, however, is quite different. In the real world, knowledge is mostly intuitive and mostly communal. It is quite right to say that we know more than we can say. F. A. Hayek says,

The peculiar character of the problem of a rational economic order is determined precisely by the fact that the knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess.

The first thing this quote shows is that F.A. Hayek’s Twitter feed would have been absolutely scintillating. The second thing is that knowledge is “spread out,” as it were. No one individual can ever know enough about anything (not even Batman). But many individuals can know things that one individual can’t. It irks me to no end that Christian Leftish Millenials can recognize the systemic aspect of human society when it comes to racism–and then treat humans like atomistic individuals in every other context. Just as tacit ideas or attitudes about race become embedded in a culture through the disparate actions of multiple people, so other ideas and attitudes (good or bad) develop as well. Jonah Goldberg writes

But here’s the thing: concepts, traditions, customs, and habits are also huge storehouses of knowledge. For instance, we don’t know all the reasons we do all of the things that fall under the rubric of “good manners.” We just do them because we should. Handshakes probably originated in the need to demonstrate that you weren’t holding a weapon. That rationale has vanished, but the handshake still has great value — but it has no price.

The difference between a tradition, like the handshake, and an a substitute created by an expert, like nose-touching, is that the first has a long history of trial-and-error behind it. Customs formulated by individuals rarely catch on. This applies even to relatively recent customs Freshman year I had an idea that my nickname should be “Eduardo Valdez”; it never caught on (“Maybe that was not the best example”–Greek Chorus). Facebook’s original purpose was to allow users to see whether other users were single. Now, it’s common practice to not put your relationship status on Facebook. No one told anyone else to do so; it just sort of happened. Similarly, no one decreed that Myspace should be vacated by anyone except for child predators and the undercover cops who love them. Rather, millions of users all had intuitions about the website, intuitions that couldn’t be accurately boiled down to a single “fact.”


An alternate theory is that Mark Zuckerberg was commanding a band of ninjas involved in a covert mission known only as “Operation Myspace Sux”

This is why the college sophomore who comes home and tells Ma and Pa that he’s a feminist is so darn annoying. He may know a lot of (atomistic, propositional) facts about gender. But he’s not only fighting against Ma and Pa, but Grandma and Grandpa, and their parents and so on. The collective knowledge about gender, encapsulated in stories, stereotypes (!), jokes, and so on. The reason why normal people often don’t listen to feminists isn’t necessarily because they’re boneheads. It’s because they know things that feminists don’t know,things that can’t be learned from books. One anthropology major may be smarter than a given cisgender working-class male, but five cisgender working class males down at the machine shop will know things that the anthropology major could never learn while studying at his  Midwestern Christian liberal arts college

What does this have to do with social constructs in general, and masculinity in particular? For one, it means that we can’t just dismiss masculinity as a conspiracy to “marginalize the unsuccessful.” Nor can we address the current interest in Christian masculinity as a purely cognitive issue. Walk into any Christian bookstore and you’ll find about ten-to-fifteen books if you’re lucky about Christian masculinity. Obviously this is touching a nerve. The people reading these books know something that the feminists and professors don’t know (even if we should bring their knowledge to bear on the topic). Social constructs are not arbitrary conspiracies imposed top-down, but evolve bottom up from certain historical conditions. Even if the social constructs are evil (like the systemic racism mentioned above), it is still important to know how they function in their context. For more benign constructs (like masculinity), it is important to look to see what role they are playing in the world, and whether they need to be modified. Normative gender roles can be argued about, but they can’t be dismissed. It’s not the manly thing to do.

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