Women's Tears Win in the Marketplace of Ideas
How belief in the blank slate plus residual gender double standards create "cancel culture," and the difficulties of fighting back
Having mentioned the concept a few times, many have been encouraging me to write a Substack on the feminization of political life and its connection to free speech issues. Noah Carl beat me to it, and the idea has also been picked up by no less an authority than Tom Edsall at the New York Times. I’ve already written about the overrepresentation of women in HR. We can understand the decline of free speech as a kind of female pincer attack: women demand more suppression of offensive ideas at the bottom of institutions, and form a disproportionate share of the managers who hear their complaints at the top.
What is left to contribute on the question of how feminization relates to pathologies in our current political discourse? First, I think that the ways in which public debate works when we take steps to make the most emotional and aggressive women comfortable have been overlooked. Things that we talk about as involving “young people,” “college students,” and “liberals” are often gendered issues.
This doesn’t always show up in the data, and many may not want to discuss anything controversial without having numbers they can refer to, lest they be accused of everything they say being a figment of their sexist imagination. Nonetheless, I think that anyone who has spent time paying attention to politics, journalism, or academia, or wherever people debate ideas, will understand what I’m talking about.
Second, I think there’s a certain weirdness to the arguments made by both sides of the gender issue. To simplify, you have the left, which leans towards the blank slate and opposes gender stereotypes but demands women in public life be treated as too delicate for criticism, and conservatives, who believe in sex differences but say to treat people as individuals. But if men and women are the same, or are only different because of socialization that we should overcome, there’s no good reason to treat them differently. And if they are different and everyone should accept that, then we are justified in having different rules and norms for men and women in practically all areas of life, including political debate. How exactly this should be done is something worth thinking about. Finally, I argue that much of the opposition to wokeness is distorted and ineffective because it avoids the gendered nature of the problem, which also makes fighting it difficult.
Rules of Male Vs. Female Debate
Heather Heying has recently written on the differences between male and female competition and the difficulties that result when both sexes are put in the same environment and told to play by the same rules. It’s a valuable read, but her discussion is at a mostly abstract level. It’s worth thinking about the specifics of what debate (or “debate”) between the two sexes looks like in the real world.
For all our talk of equality, our culture treats violence, incivility, and aggression towards women much more seriously than the same towards men. This creates a difficult dynamic, in which if a man disagrees strongly with a woman, he has to tread very carefully if he is not to be judged harshly by observers.
I recently watched the full Yale Halloween costume video for the first time. For those who weren’t paying attention or are too young to remember, here’s a summary of what happened. If you haven’t seen the video, it’s worth checking out.
In fiction, like in the Netflix series The Chair, whenever there’s a mob of students coming for a professor there’s always a gender balance. But in the Halloween costume video, you see poor Christakis go through a gauntlet of sobbing women. Occasionally a man makes a comment amplifying what the women leading the charge are saying, but the guys are mostly spectators.
At about 13:40 in the video, after Christakis has made yet another woman cry by his unwillingness to apologize, a tall black sociology student somewhat aggressively gets in his face, and plays the role of white knight (yes yes very funny pun). Then another guy jumps in, looking and sounding less menacing, and says he wants to talk to him about his experiences.
After a minute and a half, Christakis and the first black guy shake hands and hug, after which the professor is told that he should stop smiling. Having established his dominance over the cowering old Greek, the black guy moves on. Christakis then goes on to keep getting yelled at by young women for another 15 minutes before the video ends.
One sees a similar dynamic in a discussion between the Georgetown administration and the school’s Black Law Students Association relating to the recent Ilya Shapiro “scandal.” Over the course of the 24 minutes, among the students I count one man and seven women who spoke during the event. And the one man quickly makes his point and moves on, while the young women raise their voices, talk about how exhausted they are, bring up other incidents they’re upset about, and ask follow-up questions. Maybe because these are law students instead of undergrads, they’re much more composed than the Yale mob, although one again sees that this is an event driven almost exclusively by female concerns. It’s not like no men show up to these things, but those that do are mostly wallpaper.
What makes these cases difficult is that male versus male argumentation just has completely different rules, norms, and expectations than male versus female. Going back to the Yale video, if one of the men acted like the more hysterical women, at some point he and Christakis would either have had to shake hands, walk away, or come to blows. This is basically what happened, before it even got to that point. A man can’t just yell in another man’s face for 5 or 10 minutes about how he’s hurting his feelings. If a man does behave this way, bystanders are more likely to feel disgusted than join in or play the role of white knight. The man at the receiving end of the abuse is at some point going to have to escalate towards violence, or back down and say something about how this is beneath him. Depending on the situation, observers may assume violence is a distinct possibility, and get between the two sides.
None of these options are available when getting yelled at by a woman. You certainly can’t make an implicit threat of violence. Raising your voice will turn everyone against you, and even walking away can look heartless.
If one man seeks to aggressively silence another through brute force, it naturally creates a certain reaction. If cancellers were more like the tall sociology student they would be less effective. One can think of antifa, which punches people it disagrees with, as a more masculine form of cancel culture, and it’s generally less effective than the more feminine HR class in shaping our politics.
Conservatives can call antifa terrorists, use traditional methods of law enforcement against them, and even coordinate right-wing media attacks against professors who support their ideas. Stories on antifa professors and their outrageous antics have been a staple of outlets like Fox News, which regularly try to get them fired. But men tend to be puzzled by how to handle getting yelled at by women, and most will try to end the conversation as quickly as possible on whatever terms they can get. Conservative media is much more eager to personalize the enemy when it’s a man who wants to fight than when it’s a woman feeling emotionally vulnerable. There’s nothing noble or heroic, or even much enjoyable, about standing up to such an enemy. When college “snowflakes” are attacked, they’re targeted as young people or liberals, not as women.
Of course, most women do not cry over hurt feelings or scream in men’s faces when they’re angry. Rather, it’s the loudest minority, being able to indulge their passions in ways that men cannot, that drive most of the censorship we see. How many women were behind the Yale Halloween costume controversy that became the center of American intellectual life? Like 10? Imagine at least one crying woman in every board room, newsroom, faculty meeting, and government office, and you can understand the decentralized force that has led us to this point.
A More Realistic Marketplace of Ideas
While most women don’t go around cancelling people, it’s clear that many do value protecting feelings over free speech. Given these realities, I think we have a few options for how we treat public discourse. The first two are
Expect everyone who participates in the marketplace of ideas to abide by male standards, meaning you accept some level of abrasiveness and hurt feelings as the price of entry.
Expect everyone to abide by female standards, meaning we care less about truth and prioritize the emotional and mental well-being of participants in debates.
Instead of either of these options, I think we’ve stumbled upon a hybrid system, where
We accept gender double standards, and tolerate more aggression towards men than we do towards women. We also tolerate more hyper-emotionalism from women than men.
Option (2) is what I think most people mean by the feminization of intellectual life, but Option (3) is actually worse, because it also introduces double standards we see everywhere in our culture.
Late night comics make fat jokes about Chris Christie, but not female politicians. Men in public life are just trolled online, while women face “harassment” and “abuse.” Women openly discuss how some idea or another made them cry, while even in liberal spaces, men crying over ideas is generally not accepted. Even conservatives behave like this, and will “own” the left by attacking liberals for saying something “sexist” against a female public figure when they would fail to notice a similar attack against a man.
I’m often amused when reading stories about “students” or “millennials” crying in class or at work. Whenever I find such a story, I have made a habit of carefully going through it and seeing if the writer mentions the sex of who is doing the crying. I’ve found very few cases of an author doing so. Take a look at this article about the controversy at Basecamp last year.
It was in that exchange that several employees decided to quit Basecamp, I’m told. Two employees told me that they had found themselves crying and screaming at the screen.
Or how about this article, about the American withdrawal from Afghanistan.
In interviews with POLITICO, State Department staffers describe having been “manic” or suffering “a complete mental breakdown” at the time of the evacuation. They spoke of the need for mental health support in its aftermath. One official reported that colleagues continue to meet on occasion for breakfast “just to cry.”
Obscuring the gender of who is crying appears to be the norm in the mainstream press, though conservatives may be becoming more honest about what’s going on. Nate Hochman writing at National Review informs his audience that it was a female law student who asked for a room for her classmates to cry in during the Georgetown event already referenced, which can be verified in the video above.
Some evolutionary psychologists argue that we’re naturally hardwired to care about women’s suffering more because “eggs are expensive, sperm is cheap.” I’m a bit skeptical of this, given how most cultures throughout history have treated women, and because it seems to assume a mechanism based in group selection. Whether or not the tendency reflects a rule of human nature, it is unquestionably true that the modern West prioritizes female well-being.
There’s a funny Hillary Clinton quote that couldn’t demonstrate the point more clearly: “Women have always been the primary victims of war. Women lose their husbands, their fathers, their sons in combat.” If the gender ratio of COVID were reversed and women were more at risk than men, all we would ever hear about would be the “femdemic.” Even the way we judge fiction reflects our bias towards caring more about harm done towards women. If you include the battle scenes, Game of Thrones probably killed off hundreds of times more male than female characters, yet we had to suffer through an endless number of think pieces on the show having too much violence towards women.
What’s strange about (3) is that we have these rules while we’re supposed to be against gender stereotypes. Chivalry was justified on the grounds that the sexes were different. Liberalism officially believes in equality and sameness, but the implications of that are so absurd and contrary to human nature – treating male and female tears equally – that not even those most committed to the official ideology live by it. There are “Men’s Rights Activists” who do seek sameness and wish they could get away with things women can, but I don’t think these types are worthy of calling themselves men.
This is the hypocrisy of the left. But there’s also a hypocrisy of the right. Actually, it’s more a hypocrisy of centrists, who will present studies showing that, believe it or not, men and women are different, but then argue that we should “treat everyone as an individual.”
Think about how strange this is. We don’t say this about other group differences. “So what if on average children are more impulsive and make worse decisions than adults? Some children are more mature than adults, therefore abolish all age requirement for voting, sex, etc. and treat everyone as individuals.” If an alien species came to earth and was found to significantly differ from humans on nearly every important cognitive trait, it wouldn’t make sense to expect them to assimilate to human institutions and not fundamentally alter how they work.
At the same time, the argument against giving in to more emotional women is that truth is actually pretty important and if feelings get hurt on the way there, too bad. But of course I’d think that. I’m a man, and one at the extreme tail ends of both disagreeableness (high) and neuroticism (low). If I was the type who responded to difficult ideas by “literally shaking,” I could well have a different opinion. But it would be the job of the rest of society to steer me away from thinking too hard about political or philosophical issues, and towards private pursuits where my hypersensitivity would do less harm.
Public Discourse as a “Male Space”
As long as men and women are treated differently by society, they cannot engage in public debate with each other in a fair and consistent way. And because of human nature, society will always treat men and women differently, as it should. So what should we do?
Given that (3) is so horrible and basically gives a veto to hysterical women over all public policy, we have to choose (1) or (2). I have no doubt that public discourse as a male space works better. That doesn’t mean women are barred from voting or discussing politics. They can participate in the public arena but as soon as they start crying over a Halloween costume or talking about “online abuse,” most people should roll their eyes and understand that someone without the emotional stability to even participate in the marketplace of ideas isn’t going to have the traits necessary to contribute much to it. I think we were closer to this ideal 20 or 30 years ago, but we’ve moved away from it under the pressure of civil rights law and women becoming more prominent at higher levels of important institutions. This is basically the way we treat men already; a male journalist crying over mean words instantly loses credibility, and rightfully so. The public space should be regularly purging people, and we can’t care if the purges have a disparate impact.
Of course, we’ll never treat the sexes completely equally in political debate, or anywhere else in life. Just as how individuals differ and one might be less rude to a man who is more sensitive, all psychologically normal humans have a natural aversion to treating the sexes the same. There should always be an ideal of prudence or even gentlemanly behavior; the problem is when it co-exists with a fake belief in equality that everyone must pay lip service to but that no one deep down believes in.
Extreme maleness, i.e., violence, is already stigmatized, and we have developed rules, norms and institutions to deal with “Big Man” behavior. These include not only prisons, but anti-bullying campaigns, international laws of war, and the social stigmatization of violence more generally outside of accepted outlets such as sports and military service. At the same time, society has not yet begun to address the distortive effect female tears have on public life because it’s something relatively new and harder to deal with. Crying during a political debate should be just as stigmatized as throwing a punch, as both make open discourse impossible.
When public discourse operates according to male rules, women become more likely to select out of it. They focus more on career, children, hobbies, and family. This is why leftists have a point when they say that concepts like objectivity and free speech work to favor male voices. But while these concepts provide a male advantage if applied to areas like journalism and academia, we’re all better off when society cares more about truth and less about the emotional well-being of a small and hysterical minority. In other words, a world that valued truth and objectivity over feelings would have fewer female executives, senators, and journalists, but be better for everyone because it would have more economic and technological growth, while not encouraging women’s worst instincts (more female representation in high status careers does not appear to have done much good for women’s mental health). It might have more war too, but, as mentioned already, society has been pretty good at recognizing the harms that come from the excesses of masculinity. We haven’t even begun to think carefully about equivalent pathologies stemming from traits of the other sex.
The idea that the far left has a point when it says that Western institutions are “sexist” was a theme of my review of Jonathan Rauch’s The Constitution of Knowledge. The centrist likes male rules, but doesn’t like the fact that institutions that subscribe to them will be predominately male and offensive and scary to many women. So Rauch pretends that they’re not actually male traits and ends up in effect clinging more closely to the blank slate view of sex differences than most feminists do.
Imagining a Male Enemy as a Cope
One thing I’ve always disliked about the struggle against political correctness or wokeness is that it tends to exaggerate the oppression coming from the other side. Conservatives make jokes about being sent to “gulags.” Coleman Hughes just released a rap video where he is put on trial for writing for Quillette, among other crimes.
I’ve always found such talk to be hysterical, on par with liberals complaining that “words are violence.” In fact, it’s insulting to real victims of totalitarianism. Yes, the system is oppressive, and conservative gripes are more legitimate than the completely made up stuff liberals complain about, but keeping your mouth shut because you’re scared of the HR lady or people yelling at you on Twitter is not the same as being taken to a concentration camp.
I’ve thought a lot about what’s behind this bizarre LARPing. I used to think that it was just about trying to make excuses for cowardice. Liberals have imposed “soft totalitarianism,” and conservatives have folded in its face because they just want to grill and are unwilling to suffer the least discomfort to stand up for their beliefs. So they pretend that they’re facing “hard totalitarianism,” and they’re just as powerless as peasants under Stalin.
I still think that there’s some of that going on. But I also believe that, to a large extent, conservatives wish they were facing a more masculine form of authoritarianism. Men know what to do when other men try to oppress them. They resist and fight back. But who wants to participate in a struggle where women’s tears are what you need to overcome? Men can feel invigorated after a fistfight with another man, even when they lose! Nobody feels that way after arguing with his wife.
This can also explain the weird melodramatic way in which conservatives understand foreign policy. Why were conservatives, who have basically been pessimists about the state of their society and where it has been going since the 1960s, such enthusiastic supporters of foreign adventures in places like Vietnam and Iraq that meant absolutely nothing to the future of the United States? Why are so many who think they’ve lost their country still desperate for an existential struggle against China?
There’s even a strange tendency in the right-wing echo chamber to connect the CCP to BLM and political correctness more generally. I’m including links because this is so stupid it may be hard to believe that anyone actually makes such arguments. Many would like to believe that all the ugliness they see can be traced to a grand plan thought up by some evil pudgy Asian man in Beijing, rather than being the result of nobody wanting to stand up to women crying. This is similar to the anti-Russia obsession among many on the left, who want to believe that Americans only care about kneeling during the national anthem, pronouns, and riots in the street because of Putin’s propaganda.
I think national populism, with its disproportionate focus on male capitalists, has a similar psychological appeal. This movement directs its attention towards businessmen who comply with anti-discrimination laws instead of the largely female administrators and employees who most zealously make use of them. Others blame male postmodern philosophers, tracing everything liberals are doing today to something Foucault or Gramsci said a long time ago. If you want to make a connection between philosophers and left-wing public policy, you would have a stronger case if you talked about Catharine MacKinnon, whose radical ideas about relations between the sexes were to a large extent adopted by the federal government as the basis for sexual harassment law.
This is what makes effectively fighting wokeness so difficult, especially for the half of the country that actually believes that accepting sex differences is normal and healthy. I’m not sure exactly how you do it, but one has to begin by understanding the problem and being on alert for distractions and false narratives regarding where it comes from.
The strength of any anti-wokeness movement depends in large part on the strengths of its antibodies to a certain kind of female emotionalism. Jonathan Rauch and most classical liberal types avoid the difficult questions. Religion works better because, like liberalism, it disproportionately appeals to women and provides an alternative model for how the sexes should relate to one another. Relying on religious dogma also frees one from having to intellectually justify arguments that most anti-wokes are uncomfortable explicitly making.
Getting the diagnosis of what has happened to the culture right is only the first step. If it doesn’t provide a clear path forward, it at least gives some guidance regarding what not to do.
Great essay! It's funny that there actually has been some pushback to tears in public discourse, and it came from the woke left themselves. They frame it as "white women's tears" because appending "white" to "women" is a loophole that makes them a valid target.
Oh boy, I'm a chick and couldn't agree with this fascinating essay more. Look at the crazy and obscure corners of the 'female-dominated' world - yarn & hand knitting, children's literature, etc. They've all become woke and if you do not abide by their orthodoxy you are mobbed into non-existence. Moreover, as a New Yorker of 35 years, I've been ghosted by most left-leaning pals in the name of whatever I don't know. And although I was born and raised a Massachusetts Democrat, at this point I am much more comfortable on the right, where folks just seem more fair, even-handed and just plain sane. Studies have shown that women tend to be 'neurotic' more than men and if this period doesn't display that in its full glory no other time will. We are experiencing 'Victorian-Woke-Vapors'. I used to be very open about making friends with whomever I met, but now I find myself not so open and I absolutely do not want to befriend Jewish women in New York who are the worst - very intolerant and even psychologically abusive (disclosure: my husband is Jewish and I raised my daughters Jewish - I have discussed this intent with them). I just won't deal anymore.
An aside about 'crying': A male friend, an admitting physician at a local hospital, recalled that during the height of the Covid pandemic, female personnel were so over-wrought with the carnage that a room had to be set aside for them to cry in. Some were even capacitated to the point where they couldn't calm down enough to work. He's been on the hospital floor for decades and was rather appalled by what he considered a lack of professionalism. However, when I discussed this with other female friends, some politically conservative, they thought this was okay under the circumstances. I am not so sure. Both of my grandmothers were nurses and they were professional and no-nonsense. There seemed to be an understanding back then, that you had to keep your shit together and just get on with the job, male or female.
My daughter was assigned to read the book "Masculine Toxicity' at graduate school (Columbia U). So, I asked her if she'd be reading about 'Feminine Toxicity'. She looked at me as if there could ever be such a thing. Women are not in a good place and need to rethink what 'being female' is all about at this juncture.