I’ve been thinking about and working on masculinity for the last year or two.  One thing that is at the center of these discussions is the nature/nurture debate, or more precisely, “essentialist” notions of masculinity.  That is, are what we think of as the essential characteristics of men and masculinity actually essential?  Are they rooted in nature, or biology, or evolution?

There is a long record of society thinking about them in this way.  In the literature that has come to be called “neo-traditionalist” in its view of men, some version of this essentialism is at the center.  But, it is in the received popular imagination as well.  One of the books I read this Summer was the recent history of the Fred Harvey company, Appetite for America.  It is suggested there that one of the things Harvey and his company did was “tame” the frontier by diluting its unbridled masculinism with the domesticating influences of taste, manners, and the “feminine touch” of his “Harvey Girls.”

In the neo-traditionalist literature on parenting and family, I’ve now run across, on more than one occasion, the following quote, attributed to James Q. Wilson:

“Every society must be wary of the unattached male, for he is universally the cause of numerous social ills.  The good society is heavily dependent on men being attached to a strong moral order centered on families, both to discipline their sexual behavior and to reduce their competitive aggression.”

That says it all.  And Wilson is a prominent voice.

The problem is, it’s not Wilson.  The original attribution seems to have appeared in Don Eberly’s (1999) book, The Faith Factor in Fatherhood.  On page 29, Eberly introduces this quotation this way:

“America is living with the aftermath of a massive social experiment that, among other things, ignored everything we know about men from just about every chapter of history.  James Q. Wilson, the noted social scientist, has said: “Every society…”

Eberly cites a 1994 Washington Post column by David Broder (titled “Beware the Unattached Male”), which includes this quote, but attributes it, correctly, to the Rutgers sociologist (and neo-traditionalist) David Popenoe.  And he does seem to be the source.  It is found on page 12 of  his 1995 book, Life Without Father, for example.

But the quote, attributed to Wilson, has appeared again and again in the intervening years, most notably in publications of Eberly’s organization, The National Fatherhood Initiative.

We all have nightmares of making mistakes like this.  And we all know of other examples.  So, I am sympathetic, but it got me thinking about why this happens.  It happens  because the quote is so good, so perfect, so fit-to-purpose.  This one provides a kind of naturalism to arguments about essential male-ness.  And, I’d have to admit that this view resonates with how many men think about other men (but not necessarily about themselves).  It evokes deeply-held received social wisdom, and thus just makes a lot of sense.   And, it would be great to have a major voice like Wilson’s behind it.

I went to Wilson before I went to Broder’s column, and found in his work a more nuanced and complex view than this, and one that does not actually take this kind of an essentialist view of who men are.  He prefers to think about the social and cultural forces that result in contemporary masculinity.  He is a neo-traditionalist, too, but the way he thinks about masculinity does not condense the essentialist idea in the way Popenoe does.  His work actually addresses the key conceptual problem with this kind of arch-neo-traditionalism.  That is the implicit contradiction in the idea that, on one hand, men are hardwired to be “trouble” (yes, referencing Butler) but on the other hand are amenable to domestication through something as ephemeral as moral education.  And, neo-traditionalists also wish to argue that there is a kind of naturalism and essentialism in the normative roles of fatherhood and family involvement.  They even like to quote the sociobiology that holds that there is a certain evolutionary function to domesticating men.  That is something well beyond moralism.  This is complicated.

This is important because in our work on masculinity, it is becoming clear that a more complex and nuanced view is necessary to explain the way men think about themselves in relation to social forces and contexts, including the two we look at: media and religion.

I’m sure there will be more on this.