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October 08, 2014

Masculinity and Aggression

Jonathan Chait has written a magnificent piece about male aggression (and football!). The Editorial Staff found these passages particularly thought provoking:
Time strongly implies that high-school football is a uniquely dangerous activity. “Eight people died playing football in 2013, the highest toll since 2001, when there were nine, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research at the University of North Carolina,” the magazine reports. “All were high-school players. During the 2013–14 academic year, no other high-school sport directly killed even one athlete.”

Those statements are all factually true. The implication is false. The same organization cited by Time found that, over a 30-year period, football is not a uniquely deadly sport for high-school athletes. It is not even the deadliest sport. High-school football has a fatality rate of 0.83 per 100,000 participants. This is actually lower than the rates of boys’ basketball (0.92), lacrosse (1.00), boys’ gymnastics (1.00), and water polo (1.3). There were three heartbreaking deaths of high-school football players last week, each of which attracted wide media coverage the way that tragic low-frequency events often do. But the unusual cluster of unfortunate deaths does not indicate a broader trend any more than the crash of an airliner signals an increasing danger associated with air travel.

And this:

Perhaps we’d all be better off if boys could be guided into totally peaceful pursuits, but not all teenagers are cut out for chess club. Football channels boys’ chauvinistic belligerence into supervised forms, shapes them within boundaries, and gives them positive meaning. These virtues, like those often attributed to the military, can feel like clichés imported from an earlier era — and yet discipline and directed ambition are, as every social scientist knows, the bedrock of success in adulthood. And also like the military, that other bastion of social authoritarianism, football has actually changed with the culture — its disregard for player safety and its misogynistic conflation of weakness with femininity have shrunk from the norm to the hoary exception. To cite just one example, over the last dozen years, the program Coaching Boys Into Men, which uses coaches to teach male athletes to respect females, has flowered nationally. Football has fallen victim to the paradoxical dynamic by which liberal culture’s awareness and sensitivity have succeeded in reducing violence but in so doing made the problem of violence seem even more anachronistic.

Over the last generation, the social experience of American youth has rapidly liberalized. The cultural mores of my school life largely resembled those of my parents’, but the socialization awaiting my children has transformed beyond recognition. Rather than allowing kids to “settle their differences” — i.e., allowing the strong and popular to prey upon the weak and vulnerable — authorities aggressively police bullying. Schools are rife with organizations to support gay students, something unimaginable not long ago. Nerdy and cool, once antithetical terms, now frequently describe the same things, like affinity for comic-book characters or technological savvy. American schools have mostly moved beyond a world where football players (and, correspondingly, cheerleaders) embody the singular hierarchical ideal of their gender. This is entirely to the good, a triumph of egalitarianism.

In fact, it is a sign of this advance that American society is now questioning whether football has any role within it at all. But it also marks a point where the advance of social liberalism has swung from the defensive (creating a place of respect and value for those who have long been excluded) to the offensive (suggesting that only a world conforming closely to down-the-line-liberal values is worth living in).

The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has argued that people naturally gravitate toward competing notions of morality. Some of those, like fairness and caring, are associated with liberalism. Others, like loyalty and respect for authority, are associated with conservatism. Football is obviously not just for conservatives, but it does embody the conservative virtues. The backlash against it is a signpost of a new social system unwilling to consider that the worldview of one’s political adversaries might have any wisdom to offer at all and untroubled by the fear that, perhaps, football exists because it channels a genuine, deep-seated impulse. In this case, that discipline might be a helpful response to impulses of aggression, and not just a false-heroic myth used to legitimize and justify brutality.

Theodore Roosevelt is remembered today for his populist economic sentiments, but the more coherent theme of Roosevelt’s life is a way of thinking about strength, honor, and violence. As a boy, Roosevelt fanatically built up his sickly body and developed an obsession with athletics, danger, and war. This is one of the many things that we love about him — and yet it is an attitude about self-­mastery, aggression, and courage that is completely alien to the way we think of coming of age today. Any good contemporary liberal could reuse, with modest syntactical changes, Roosevelt’s speeches assailing greed or exhorting the rich to accept social obligations. But his beliefs about masculinity could not be repeated without embarrassment. “A coward who will take a blow without returning it is a contemptible creature,” Roosevelt wrote in a 1900 essay, which naturally ended with a rousing football metaphor: “In short, in life, as in a foot-ball game, the principle to follow is: Hit the line hard; don’t foul and don’t shirk, but hit the line hard!”

Though we don't agree with everything in Chait's essay, there is much to ponder. It made us go looking for an old post that we had lost track of on the same subject - a sort of time capsule we shall repost separately.

Of all the changes in our life over the past three years, we miss the loss of time to think and write the most. Here's hoping some of you will be inspired.

Posted by Cassandra at October 8, 2014 08:00 AM

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Interestingly enough, I have read in reputable sources, that the most dangerous High School sport is----wait for it---Cheerleading. Yup.

Posted by: CAPT Mongo at October 8, 2014 09:27 AM

And yet if you think over the teenagers of your friends and acquaintances who have come to serious grief, you'll probably find that overdoses and car wrecks are the real killers.

About Cass's point in this and the later post: My upbringing is much like hers, and definitely didn't involve girls settling things by fisticuffs. Really, even boys didn't settle things that way much, to judge from what I saw and heard at the time. That seems to have been unusual, and I don't know how to account for it.

When I was very young, all the kids played together outside, boys and girls, usually in an kind of all-day game of chase that ranged all over the block and over fences and rooftops. Now and then there were fights; I remember learning quite young that it was a faux pas to bite, so I guess we imposed limits on our violence.

When we got to a certain age, suddenly the boys shot up in size and strength. Once or twice they'd try to resolve an altercation with me by force. I appealed to my parents, whose attitude was that I wasn't supposed to engage in that kind of contest at all, so they didn't want to talk about how I might learn to fight back.

In response, I joined a karate club at the local rec center. Nothing ever came of it, though. It's not in me to fight unless I'm desperately threatened; I simply would not settle an ordinary dispute that way, any more than I would think of settling it by using a knife, or arson. It's not just that I'd obviously be at risk of losing a physical fight against a man, since I could even those odds with a weapon. It's just that I don't resolve disputes that way, or expect others to resolve them that way for me--unless, again, we come to the point of genuinely threatening violence. I like to think that I'd shoot to kill an intruder, and I'd be grateful to anyone who got to him first.

I don't claim this is a defensible life strategy. It's worked well for me only because I live in a remarkably violence-free society, a bubble, really.

Posted by: Texan99 at October 8, 2014 11:24 AM

Having come of age in a time when "nerdy" and "cool" were decidedly antithetical terms, I had more than my fair share of bullying. But I also came of age shortly after the days when if the Coach caught you fighting, he was likely as not to arrange the fight and let you and the other guy "work it out". Instead we were in that weird grey area where "he swung first" was an acceptable defense for punching back and detention was a more likely punishment for fighting than suspension. I can't say it was a "better" time, but nor will I say it was worse.

Posted by: MikeD at October 8, 2014 11:34 AM

Interestingly enough, I have read in reputable sources, that the most dangerous High School sport is----wait for it---Cheerleading.

In the early 90s the Spousal Unit ended up being the advisor for the cheerleaders at the USNA and you're right. It's dangerous for males (all that tossing of women is hard on the shoulder joints, and guys need to be tremendously strong to do it) and the women who are flying through the air and doing splits.

I partially dislocated my left hip in HS doing Chinese splits. I still wince, thinking about it :p

Posted by: Cass at October 8, 2014 11:42 AM

Tex, it's uncanny how much your comment aligns with my experiences.

Posted by: Cass at October 8, 2014 11:43 AM