A Different Extremism… On the Rise?

Last week the U.S, government released statistics showing that for the first time women held more payroll jobs than did men. Not only that, but overall male unemployment was three full points [or roughly 30% higher] than that of women. Among blacks, the discrepancies were far greater, with black male unemployment rates being more than twice that of women. In addition, there’s a similar pattern occurring in education, where women are not only obtaining more collegiate level education, except in four areas of science and computers, but women are also winning a disproportionate amount of the scholastic honors, far more than in proportion to their enrollment.

That isn’t to say that some males aren’t excelling, because they are, but more and more, I’m seeing a pattern in both the statistics and in my own observations, and it’s simple. A small percentage of men are extremely high achievers, and so are a small, if somewhat larger, percentage of women. The remainder of the men tends to skate by (and at times, that’s an particularly charitable description), while a far, far larger percentage of women work extremely hard at what they do. In short, more and more, men seem to be choosing between the extremes of high achievement and effort and just “getting by.”

My wife has also noted this change among students, where a smaller and smaller percentage of male students devote themselves to their studies — even while test and ability scores indicate that the average intelligence level of these males is considerably higher than that of their predecessors twenty years ago, due in part to the fact that the university’s admission standards have tightened. On the other hand, a greater and greater percentage of the female students devote themselves to pursuing excellence. Most of the males have greater difficulty concentrating. Interestingly enough, what the males also fail to notice, or apparently don’t care about, is that the majority of the women aren’t terribly interested in non-motivated males, and they comprise the majority of the male students.

The other area of extremism is that of risk-taking. A far greater percentage of men than women take high risks, often in areas where the chance of success is not all that great… or where sooner or later, failure is inevitable, such as with the derivatives meltdown.

While it’s anecdotal, and I do tend to regard such with skepticism, I might also note that all those financial institutions which took huge risks and which continue to pay huge bonuses are dominated by males. I could not find a single large institution that failed and that was headed by a female CEO. There certainly may be one, but, even taking into account the far smaller number of large business organizations headed by women, the statistical discrepancy is noteworthy.

This difference may be biological in nature, in that women tend not to take extreme risks because doing so would jeopardize their offspring, or cultural, or both, but what I find disturbing is not that men tend to take risks, and that some take extreme risks, but when they take risks with other people’s money and capital. If a risk-taker wants to sky-dive, free rock climb, or the like, that’s his privilege and life, so long as it doesn’t endanger the lives and resources of others. But taking extreme risks with large amounts of the funds of others to bring in a higher rate of return in order to gain millions in personal bonuses, while threatening the entire financial system… that kind of risk-taking I find objectionable, self-centered, and disgusting.

Part of these masculine behaviors may simply be a reaction to civilization, and particularly to a high-tech culture. Proving that you’re the meanest, nastiest, and greatest risk-taking male in the world may have a large personal payoff in a low-tech culture, but that sort of behavior is a disaster in a world where everything is interconnected. As a result, society is creating more and pressures against such behavior. Some men just don’t respond well to such pressures, and, for better or worse, a disproportionate percentage of those types of males are represented in those who immigrated to the United States. I suspect that’s why we have so many “backlashes” against laws that restrict certain kinds of behaviors, from gun control legislation to restrictions on riding ATVs on public lands, to opposition to seat-belt laws, etc. This male reaction may also be fueling the popularity of “reality shows,” where the “rules” of civilization don’t apply.

Again, I have no problem with people watching “reality shows,” but I do have a problem with their proliferation, because when the media is over-saturated with such programs, the message the media sends is that extremism, plotting and scheming, and all manner of negative behaviors are to be applauded and rewarded. In short, extremism is a virtue under the reality show model, while hard work, dedication, and honesty are for losers.

We’re currently at war in two nations, battling extremism in its worst forms. Should we really be celebrating and espousing it here in the United States? Especially when it appears that it’s creating an even greater divide between men and women? Or is it that only “our” forms of extremism are the good ones?

10 Responses to “A Different Extremism… On the Rise?”

  1. Paige Bruce says:

    I'm a big fan of your Recluse series, but this is my first visit to your blog! It won't be the last.

    One point that I'd like to bring up about the difference between those men and women is that for the last 20 – 30 years, young women have been firmly told that they will need to work twice as hard to be acknowledged on the same level as their male counterparts. I'm not saying whether this is true or not, as I believe it depends a lot on context, but that's what they're being told – and that's where the motivation to work harder might be coming from in what you noticed.

    Along the same lines, I read an article recently about how women entrepreneurs are not only growing, but flourishing and may dominate in the next while. Symptom of the same issues?

    Either way, very interesting insight!

  2. j says:

    I'll add some anecdotal evidence and a general observation to this: through several years of teaching in higher education (at a variety of instutitions), I've noticed that both the very best and very worst students in my classes, the upper and lower 1%, are more likely to be male than female. (Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe that studies on intelligence have similarly found that males are more likely to fall at the extremes–though I doubt that this is the only reason for the phenomenon I'm describing.)

    However, the point you're making here, and which I've also observed, is probably more interesting. Namely, that the 'above average' or 'high achieving' students in my classes, those falling, for example, between the 80th and 98th percentile, seem more likely to be female than male. And that group is particularly important, because they are the ones who are going to be holding the largest portion of salaried middle-class jobs.

    I've also observed that females in that 'above average' group are more likely to meet with me after class for help, and seem to have more consistent and conscientious study habits.

    My personal opinion on these observations is that women in general tend to be more consistent and patient about their studies, and that men find study somewhat tedious, and are easily distracted by more active pursuits–unless they have some larger ambition or goal that necessitates achievement in school. In my view, society is no longer offering these 'above average' young men a persuasive higher ideal that would convince them to learn and to achieve everything that they can. I'm not certain that it is offering such a thing to women, but then, patience and consistency make ambition less necessary.

  3. Brian says:

    Is it any wonder? The pluck and luck meme from the Horatio Alger era has been derided and replaced with the wish fulfillment of instant success seen in Hollywood (e.g. American Idol and too many movie plots to mention). Six weeks of hard work is sufficient to expose and fully develop hidden world-class talent.

    At first, I didn't see the link between your two subjects, Mr. Modesitt. However, I think that the link is not so much extremism (in my mind) but the perversion of the drive for success. The normal passion for excellence which produces an character qualities such as diligence, persistence and a willingness to take "reasonable" risks.

    Evolutionary behavioralists will say that risk taking is a male characteristic developed to exhibit overall fitness (for reproduction) and that nothing breeds like great success. Well, when monetary success is labeled "evil capitalism" or where business men are reviled as oppressive capitalistic pigs, is it any wonder? How about the attitude that education is oppressive because it is propaganda? Even worse, that education is useless since only white men can benefit from it (see Bill Cosby's statements and the black community's response to him).

    American society seems quite dysfunctional: fragmented, obsessed with destroying itself, anti-work and completely passive.

    Has anyone really studied how men and women are differently portrayed in family situations in modern media? I'm talking about a serious academic study, not a partisan hack job or anecdotal observations. TV is an incredible force for shaping society, but I'm convinced that it is degrading rather than building the US.

  4. j says:

    I think my observations match with Brian's when it comes to what he calls 'the perversion of the drive for success.' If society at large has come to think of masculine success in terms of huge and undeserved corporate bonuses and athletic glamour, well, that kind of ideal is only going to inspire the most superficial men to work harder. The rest are unfortunately going to be more likely to abandon achievment entirely. We seem to have lost the ideal of the healthily productive businessman or artist or citizen and replaced it with this unhealthy ideal, both hated and admired, of the CEO risking huge quantities of other peoples' money for his own similarly huge profit, and then crying 'communism' when anyone proposes reforms. An unfortunate consequence is that, beyond just making himself look evil, the robber-CEO tarnishes the image of business in general, and makes young men skeptical about the value of success in the present environment. And when all the money only goes to the top and skips over the middle class, the 'above average' student sees that his consistent and honest effort isn't going to be rewarded.

  5. christoph says:

    One of the biggest reasons I quit college was that it seemed stupid to pay thousands of dollars per year to be "taught" that I'm inherently evil and violent because I happen to be a white male.

    Look at the Tiger Woods issue today. If his wife had been caught cheating and he'd chased after her with a golf club, would we be blaming her and forcing her to apologize?

    I think we need to band together and tell the disjointed cabal of neo-puritans, vocationally offended women, and self-hating men that we've allowed to determine what passes for ethical and cultural discourse in this country where they can go and what they can do when they get there.

    Misandry may be the single biggest problem facing the American psyche.

  6. Brian says:

    j notes the rise of the robber-CEO, which I didn't address directly. I was pointing out that anyone who is successful is seen as identical to the robber-CEO. However, our society has removed its own mitigating protections against the robber-CEO type.

    The drive for success will always produce hyper-competitive people, but the background ethos of helping society and restraining competition so that others are not harmed no longer appears to be present.

    We have seem to have lost the concept of wealth as a function of social network AND material gain. Underachievers mock material gain while psychopathic overachievers cast off moral restraint.

    Anecdotally, do you see the functional high-achievers as coming from family backgrounds that are very aware of the dangers of straying too far to either side (material vs. social wealth)? Do they consciously attempt to instill diligence in addition to social awareness? I would like to use the phrase "family values", but that term has become loaded with connotative political baggage.

  7. christoph says:

    A couple of other thoughts came up while rereading Mr. Modesitt's original post.

    First, as we have increasingly demonized and even criminalized largely harmless male behaviour, this has resulted in a situation where are very high percentage of boys are given mind altering pharmaceuticals so that teachers don't have engage in actual discipline. I think it is no surprise that these are often the brighter males, and that they end up at the university level having difficulty concentrating. Instead of treating them like normal boys and using discipline to train their minds to concentrate, we've called them "sick" and tried to get drugs to do the work which has only resulted in large numbers of psychologically damaged drones who are afraid to think for themselves for fear of being punished or drugged.

    And, secondly, what I have personally observed out of the sexuality of young women these days inclines me toward the notion that women are differently (rather than less) risky. The risky behaviour they tend to engage in is more behind closed doors and likelier to lead to psychological than physical damage, but it is there. They are, however, very adept at gaming members of older generations into thinking that they are the type that would never be that way.

  8. j says:

    I agree with Christoph's points. In modern academia, at least as far as the arts and letters divisions are concerned, I don't think that sexism against women is a problem at all. In fact, some of Mr. Modesitt's diatribes against sexism seem to me to belong to another time. But perhaps in some fields, such as finance, there really is still a problem. I don't know.

    All the statistics show that, in education, boys are struggling more than girls. As Christoph has diagnosed, it's not so much a problem of reverse discrimination per se as a problem of society forgetting how to teach boys. And, as Christoph has also said, it seems unwise and counterproductive to criticize men as such, when we could think instead about the best ways to improve their situation. Instead of villainizing aggression and risk-taking, society needs to find a way to channel them into productivity.

  9. Caitlin says:

    Sexism definitely is alive here in Australian universities although it is very subtle. I would not say as a student it is common although the experiences of a dean close to me indicate that working in academia it occurs often. In a particular subject I had questions answered in excruciating detail while my male counterparts get the direct response. If I spoke up in tutorials I received a puzzled expression or I was ignored.

    I dislike the constant pressure of sexualization on women present in the media but at the same time men are mainly not judged negatively for the same behaviour (i.e. women who have a succession of sexual partners are judged negatively while males are not unless they are previously committed). How many television shows do you see with promiscuous female characters that are witty and liked by the audience? An example given recently was the character Charlie from Two and a Half Men. It may be different in the US but I can’t think of a single show here with a female character like that.

    Nowadays you can escape with average, if you take the CEO example you get paid extra by just doing your job/being average. I think today there is no pressure on people to have outside interests or goals. Children are sent to school, go to university, get a job, etc. People might get asked what profession they want to undertake but I’ve yet to have someone come up to me and ask me what ultimate goal I hope to achieve in my lifetime. I think there’s a general dissatisfaction because people don’t have a purpose they just mindlessly work to pay the bills and the hobbies that would have occupied their time outside work are now eaten up by mindless television and video game playing.

    As for risk taking I think half the problem is that the risks in the modern age are ambiguous. Gambling with someone else’s money which you can see, touch, smell, taste doesn’t have the same effect as watching numbers roll by on a screen. I think the system at least over here encourages risks because there is always someone to catch you when you fall. An example could be taken from the bushfires here last year. People stayed in their homes because they judged the safety net they had in place would keep them safe (firefighters, living in a large town, modern technology). The day before the media reported that they expected it would be worse than Ash Wednesday (another bushfire with lives lost). So you have two extremes competing and no way for those people to accurately judge the risk for themselves.

  10. L.E. Modesitt says:

    I'm sorry to disagree, but I am very active in the arts and letters, both academically and professionally, and my comments are not diatribes, but observations on what is currently still occurring. Are matters better than a generation ago in the U.S.? Of course they are. They're much better,but there's still an incredible amount of sexism, and much of it is reflected more subtly and in the pay differentials between men and women. As Caitlin also pointed out,in general, women face far greater scrutiny, even in the arts and letters, when they go up for advancement than do men. What I've also found amusing, if bitterly so, is that most men don't even see it, insisting that there are "no differences."

    As for the very valid point about teaching boys… they're both right, but what is overlooked is that to teach boys requires both stringent discipline and the willingness of the school system to insist that boys learn to concentrate. Obviously, some will be incapable of the necessary concentration, no matter what the situation, but drugs are not the answer. Historically, the combination of vigorous and challenging physical activities and equally rigorous academics worked for the majority of males. This approach tends to have been largely thrown out, except at successful private schools and some charter schools because it isn't successful with a minority. No "system" is successful with everyone, nor can it be, but throwing out what works for most students in favor of experiment after experiment in a vain attempt to find the one one perfect system is institutionalized idiocy. Use what works for most students, and then try to find ways to deal with the others that are equally effective for them. One size doesn't fit all, and never has. Of course, this approach runs head-on into the reality that Americans in particular want easy and simple solutions that don't cost much, except, of course, for the ultra-liberals who believe that merely spending more and more money on the same unsuccessful approaches will yield better results.