Forgiveness in a Cultural War of All Against All

Last weekend, weary of the "war on women" theme, I flipped open the Wall Street Journal to discover Peggy Noonan's editorial, "America's Real War on Women." She says there is one:

[T]he real war is against women in American public life, in politics and media most obviously, but in other spheres as well. In this war, leaders who are women are publicly demeaned and diminished based on the fact that they are women. They are the object of sexual slurs, and insulted in sexual terms. The words used are vulgar, and are meant to tear down and embarrass.

Noonan provides examples, some quite repellent. She thinks the "Wild West" freedom of the internet—where "anyone can say anything, and anyone will"—has coarsened our public dialogue.

Andrew Klavan, over at PJ Media, isn't so sure:

I enjoy Noonan's column a lot, but I can't agree with her here. It seems to me, in fact, that there has been an ongoing and wickedly offhanded war against men for the past forty years at least. The war has been waged in . . . subtle and disgraceful ways . . .

Klavan also has examples. I agree with him that popular culture has sought for some time to downgrade the value of men, and that it's disgraceful. I also agree that women entering the work world on the same footing as men have to expect much the same rough-and-ready treatment men often accord each other. But Klavan may lose some readers with a passage like this one:

A lady was an elevated personage precisely because she kept out of the workaday fray. She exhibited greater gentleness and generosity in the full knowledge that men would provide the muscle and money to protect her—and for that protection she returned deference and respect. You may say, well, then it's a good thing women aren't expected to be ladies anymore. Fine, but everything comes with a price.

That's really the heart of the matter. What is the price, and how defensible is it for champions of either sex to insist that a price must be exacted?

Consider the gutter image essayed by Matt Taibbi in referring to a prominent female conservative columnist: "When I read her stuff, I imagine her narrating her text . . . with [male genitals] in her mouth." The columnist in question is undeterred and hasn't whined about it. She has kept her end of the being-tough bargain. But I don't think very many men would make the case that this particular sort of vulgar attack—the kind Peggy Noonan writes about—is merely an analogue to men's dealings with each other: something women should simply expect to suffer if they write for the public.

There's understanding that you will have to be tough, and there's the separate issue of treating people with contempt. For me, the central issue with Taibbi's attack is the latter. Showing elaborately vicious contempt for others is not "what men do among themselves," in the work place or anywhere else. (I should mention that I worked for twenty years almost exclusively among men, in one of the most ingeniously profane professions on the planet.) Being egalitarian in terms of blunt and even goading speech—including common vulgarities—is one thing; being insidious and pointedly vile is quite another.

Meanwhile, as superficial as it might initially seem, there is a case to be made that the subtle jabs administered to men in much of our popular culture today—TV shows, commercials, movies, news coverage—are in some ways analogous to the culture's destructive cynicism about women. I've lost count of the number of commercials I've seen in which a man is depicted as stupid, incompetent, or henpecked. I have even made mental notes not to buy products that are advertised with these gimmicks (and clearly, I'm not alone). Similar depictions are common in popular sitcoms, while male types in the movies tend to range from callow and snide to brittle, faithless, and undisciplined.

Most women know that men don't stick around to engage in dialogue over these unflattering depictions. Men are likely to simply go away and look for a more congenial atmosphere elsewhere—which only reinforces gaps in amity, communication, and commonality of social purpose that have already been widened by the attacks made separately on women.

But just as most men would not defend Matt Taibbi-type attacks on women, so most women would not defend pejorative depictions of men in the vehicles of culture. Women don't feel empowered or vindicated by negative depictions of men.  Nor do most women want to see men pillaged by the state, or robbed of their dignity, or discouraged from exercising the energy and drive that men have in particularly masculine forms, and that constitute a powerful force for good.

3/25/2012 4:00:00 AM
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    About J. E. Dyer
    J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval intelligence officer and evangelical Christian. She retired in 2004 and blogs from the Inland Empire of southern California. She writes for Commentary's CONTENTIONS blog, Hot Air's Green Room, and her own blog, The Optimistic Conservative. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.