For better or for worse, the traditional family unit has changed a lot since the 1960s. Once a cultural oddity amid an ocean of nuclear families, single-parent households have now become the norm in many segments of modern society. While stigma against divorce is slowly shifting, single parents are still facing many challenges. Beyond the economic burden of single incomes, single parents have long been recognized by public health specialists as being at a higher risk of poorer health, higher stress levels, and increased mortality. Most investigations to date, however, have focused on single mothers.
A recent study published by the Lancet Public Health sought to address this gap, and compared the health outcomes of 871 single fathers to 4,590 single mothers and partnered couples (16,341 fathers and 18,688 mothers) over an 11-year period. The results are alarming. Even after controlling for differences in lifestyles, age, and socioeconomic status, the researchers found that single fathers’ likelihood to die early was more than twice as high as that of single mothers or partnered parents.
The findings are alarming, but the real cause for concern may be more difficult to discern. A recent report on the study by the CBC—Canada’s most prominent news platform—was quick to package the story with such bold headlines as Men Don’t Take Care of Themselves as Well, and emphasize such dimensions as “binge-drinking” and “eating worse” while presenting men in general as “high-risk individuals.”
This negative bias in the portrayal of men is commonplace in the media and public health, but like other forms of implicit bias, it can be hard to recognize and overcome. Before identifying and addressing this bias, we should pause to consider the broader lack of public discussion surrounding men’s issues.
Public silence is consistently recognized by experts as one of the biggest challenges faced by the men’s rights movement. The what, you might ask? You read it correctly the first time. The notion that men’s rights constitute a non-laughable, legitimate cause of concern in 2018 may seem odd, or outright preposterous to many readers. This, experts argue, is part of the issue.
Robert Whitley, a Professor of Psychiatry at McGill and specialist on men’s mental health, points out that public attention is typically geared toward women’s issues (and increasingly, transgender issues) when questions of gender and equality are raised. In a recent study led by Whitley, McGill researchers found that Canadian news and media items focusing on mental health tended to portray women in a markedly positive light, while articles about men were significantly more negative. Articles that focused on men were much more likely to showcase stigmatizing content and emphasize violence. Those depicting women, in turn, were significantly more likely to discuss mental health interventions, quote experts, and promote key resources for recovery.
It may still be a surprise to many, thus, that men overwhelmingly fare worse than women in many key indicators of wellbeing. In addition to higher early mortality rates, men also experience much higher rates of suicide, incarceration, workplace accidents and workplace-related deaths. Government statistics confirm that men typically receive harsher sentences in both criminal and family courts, with only seven percent of them receiving full custody of their children. Domestic violence statistics also present a counter-intuitive story. Equal proportions of men and women report domestic abuse in Canada. In turn, moral panics about women’s educational achievements and underrepresentation in research and science also seem to miss the mark by far. Women now represent 60% of all university graduates across disciplines, while boys, particularly in Quebec, drop out of school before earning a high-school diploma at a rate almost double that of girls. Kay S Hymowitz, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book Manning Up, noted in 2011 that this trend reflected a general shift in Western countries since the 1980s, when considerable efforts and resources were invested to ensure that girls could ‘catch up’ with boys in schools, the workplace, and public life. By Hymowitz’s account, this important effort was largely successful….at the expense of boys in the next generation.
In a recent Psychology Today piece, world-renown psychologist Philip Zimbardo (father of the Heroic Imagination Project) identified an “empathy gap” surrounding men and boys’ issues. Zimbardo points out that this gap is most prevalent in schools and universities, in which training programs on the dangers of “toxic masculinity” have seen a rise in popularity. By Zimbardo’s account, the problem goes beyond the silencing of men’s issues. It is masculinity itself, rather, that is increasingly seen as a “risk” and a disease.
Shifting public opinion on the importance of men and boy’s issues is likely to remain an important challenge. Public and university screenings of The Red Pill, a documentary that showcases contemporary men’s issues, are almost invariably met or shut down by protestors. Men’s rights associations like the Canadian Association for Equality, similarly, are routinely targeted at public events by crowds of protesters and accusations of misogyny.
Why such polarization?
The feminist critic Laura Kipnis, who rose to recent controversy by raising concern over the culture of sexual paranoia on university campuses, once commented ironically on the increased tensions between genders following the feminist revolution of the 1960s. Wasn’t there a risk, she joked, that one of feminism’s darkest contributions may have been to redistribute domination equally among genders, so that couples could now argue equitably over dishes or who gets to go out at night? By the same token, and so particularly in the context of social justice wars and a rising culture of victimhood, the men’s rights movement may carry the risk of turning equality debates into competition for victim status.
I make no such claim or argument here. Oppression and victimhood are not naturally occurring features of the world. More to the point, it takes a cultural invitation to interpret the world that way. The problem, rather, lies in the all-too-common mental flaw of ascribing a simple essence to categories of persons (e.g., “high-risk”, “vulnerable”), and simplifying complex social processes to the actions of bad perpetrators and the passivity of good victims. Contrary to common claims, the public narrative has now heavily shifted toward negative portrayal of men and boys, and condescending portrayal of women.
In pointing to anti-masculine culture as a hidden risk for the health of men and boys, I speak as man, an educator, and a father raising two boys. But I also speak as an anthropologist and cognitive scientist, and as a human concerned with the species as a whole. My plea is for mutual recognition, respect, and dignity for all—all, as the now old-fashioned goes, regardless of sex, race, or creed.
We may be blind to our biases and to the cultural forces that modulate them. The next step after recognizing these forces is to work intentionally to change them.