Trying to publish a book about contemporary society is a risky proposition, as conditions change so quickly that the book may be obsolete before it is published. Nevertheless, every now and then a book comes along that not only provides a snapshot of a society at a certain point in time but also illuminates the past and points the way to the future. Such a book was The Lonely Crowd; a Study of the Changing American Character, by David Riesman (with Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney). The book came out in 1950 but remains relevant today, and though it does not deal with the gender war, if offers many insights into the rise of feminism.
In essence, the thesis of Riesman’s book was simple. He divided societies into three types:
1) The Traditional Society has not been the norm in western society (aside from ethnic enclaves such as Hasidic Jews and the Amish), arguably, since the Renaissance, though it has been the norm throughout most of recorded history. Now it exists mainly in the Third World, where birth and death rates are high. In essence, people in such a society follow the rules that have always existed in their society. No social engineering needed. Our society ain’t broke, so why fix it? If it was good enough for our ancestors, it’s good enough for us. Falling away from traditions invites shunning and shaming by one’s peers. Obviously, even in a Traditional Society, things do change over time, albeit slowly and perhaps imperceptibly to those who belong to it.
2) The ethos of the Inner-Directed Society coalesced during the industrial revolution, a time of rapidly growing populations. According to Riesman, this inner-directedness “is implanted early in life by the elders and directed toward centralized but nonetheless inescapably destined goals.” (Think Protestant Work Ethic.) Riesman compares the inner-directed man to a gyroscope that, once set in motion, remains in motion. Such a man is productive, goal-oriented, and capable of going it alone when necessary. The inner-directed man doesn’t really care about what his peers think, so he cannot be shamed (thought he might be disappointed in himself if he fails to live up to his own expectations). He may act “conservative,” but he is not dependent on traditions. Indeed, his mission in life may be to bring about change on a Promethean scale. A number of inventors (e.g., Nikola Tesla, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers) were inner-directed types. So were the captains of industry (e.g., Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone) and the railroad builders (e.g., Charles Crocker, Henry Flagler, Jay Gould, Edward Harriman, Mark Hopkins, Collis Huntington, Leland Stanford).
3) In contrast with the inner-directed man, the other-directed man is far more interested in the opinions of his peers, than the values of his elders. He may not have a gyroscope, but he has “radar” that picks up on what other people are thinking, feeling, and doing. He not only picks up signals from other people, he seeks approval from them; his lifestyle is more important than his work; what he does is not as important as what he consumes. All but predicting the rise of social media, Riesman observed that other-directed people are “capable of a rapid if sometimes superficial intimacy with and response to everyone.” The other-directed man may be more flexible than the traditional or inner-directed man, but he also suffers more from anxiety because the sands are always shifting and he’s never sure of his footing. For that reason, the members of an other-directed society are much easier to manipulate than those of the traditional or inner-directed societies. The Other-Directed Society is marked by material abundance and population decline.
Well, as you might have surmised from the title of this article, MGTOW men would be most at home in an inner-directed society, while the contemporary other-directed society is almost custom-designed to accommodate the nature of women.
It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition, however. Even in the most other-directed societies there are pockets of inner-directed types, largely male, who just didn’t get the memo. On the other hand, female other-directedness is always present, even as an undercurrent in the traditional or inner-directed society.
Over the last 150 years, technology has opened the gates wide to accommodate the female herd instinct. The telephone literally gave voice to women (hence the old joke about the three dominant forms of communication: telegraph, telephone and tell a woman). Email, texting, and social media amplified that voice.
Before Alexander Graham Bell, communications were face-to-face, which greatly limited female influence. Aside from newspapers and public speaking (both the province of the privileged few), there were relatively few ways to influence people. Think how long it used to take to spread gossip over backyard fences as opposed to merely sending out a single message on Twitter today.
Imagine how frustrated women must have been by the difficulty of simply keeping in touch. While many legends have sprung up about the toughness of pioneer women, it is often overlooked that many of them cracked up from the isolation of frontier living. (A recent Tommy Lee Jones movie, The Homesman, is a rare western dealing with this topic.)
Those hardscrabble days are long gone, however. Perhaps the development of other-directedness was an inevitable outgrowth of the technological progress spawned by inner-directed inventors. One could make the case that other-directedness took root in the 1920s with increased affluence and the rise of advertising. By the 1930s, affluence was just a pleasant memory, and during World War II, consumer goods were rationed, but postwar affluence gave the other-directed society a high-dose booster shot.
The dark side of other-directedness is envy. People look around and perceive that others have something they don’t…a TV with a bigger screen, a nicer house, a better car. They see people no better than they are (at least so they think) supposedly doing better than they are. Hence a sense of entitlement; hence, among other phenomena, feminism. The notion that men might have something women don’t is anathema in an other-directed society.
Riesman did not predict the rise of feminism, but it should be obvious that the other-directed society he described in 1950 prepared the seedbed for the second and third waves of feminism. As inner-directedness trends towards other-directedness, the emphasis shifts from production to consumption. As focus shifted from production to consumption, the power shifted to women. Today consumer spending is clearly the province of women, give or take 70% of the total, depending on your source. So, aside from higher levels of debt, what hath female other-directedness wrought?
Other-directedness is in synch with the female herd. There are no ultimate rights and wrongs, only what the collective deems in or out of fashion. Morals, manners, and customs are not derived from authority or from some internal moral compass, but are like a weathervane, always subject to the winds of social change. In other words, an other-directed society is an amoral society. Consensus and teamwork (come to think of it, you could probably make a pretty good case that the popularity of team sports is an inevitable development in an other-directed society) is more important than your inner voice or the chorus of tradition. Responding to persuasion is the preferred means of compliance, but if you don’t respond to persuasion…“step out of line, the men come and take you away,” as surely as they would in any society (and as Buffalo Springfield sang in “For What It’s Worth,” released in 1967).
The other-directed society grew along with social sciences and the rise of public opinion polls which have become more sophisticated over time. Such polls are often touted as scientific, but one might have reservations about that claim. Numbers, of course, are every bit as malleable as words, and in an other-directed society, they can be employed to persuade people to go in any number of directions.
Supposedly, public opinion polls were developed to assist politicians and corporations in determining what the public wants. Now the individual is likely to consult such polls to determine whether his opinions place him in the mainstream, a tributary, or a backwater. Falling too far away from the mainstream indicates maladjustment, a serious psychological flaw in an other-directed society. Contemporary parents often lament peer pressure on their children but worry even more if their children aren’t well-adjusted.
In 2015, a MGTOW man could certainly be perceived as being maladjusted. He fits the jocular definition of a right-wing extremist: someone who has the same values his parents had. He won’t change…he won’t “grow.” By standing in the same place, however, he goes against the flow, offering pushback, albeit minuscule, against other-directedness. Like a pebble in a stream, he is of little consequence, but a critical mass of pebbles – even if they are not acting in concert – can divert the stream. And if the number of pebbles gets large enough, something like a dam can result.
Now I’m not going out on a limb and predict that MGTOW spells doom for the other-directed society, though it is obviously a burr under the saddle of the establishment. A trend towards inner-directedness would place MGTOW men in the curious position of being both retro and advance guard. I don’t think that’s likely, though I do believe other-directedness is in its end stage. I suspect that our age of abundance, which fuels other-directedness, will collapse due to increasing levels of debt, decreasing birth rates, or both.
So what comes next? If MGTOW doesn’t lead us back to inner-directedness, how about a postmodern Mad Max meltdown and the reign of neo-warlords? Either route would lead away from feminism.
However it goes down in the future, social scientists will be scrutinizing the zeitgiest for clues. Even as I write, there may be a budding David Riesman out there, agog with anticipation about the next big thing, sociologically speaking, and poised at his keyboard to provide explication and perspective.
I may not live to see it (I was born the year Riesman’s book came out), but I can’t help but be curious about what happens next.
Photo by Grumpy Old Man