I disagree with academic feminism a lot — with those vague oppressor stories about the patriarchy, with the strange unwillingness to admit inherited-gender differences and with the tone of faculty lounge militancy. But academic feminism is right about the big thing.
The big thing is that for thousands of years, social thinking has been dominated by men — usually alpha men — who saw life as a place where warriors and traders went out and competed for wealth and power. These male writers were largely blind to the systems of care that undergirded everything else.
These male-dominated narratives created a tunnel. Everything that extolled competition, self-interest and independence was celebrated, and everything that celebrated relation and intimacy was diminished. As Niobe Way, Alisha Ali, Carol Gilligan and Pedro Noguera argue in the introduction of “The Crisis of Connection,” a new anthology they edited, the stereotypical masculine culture values “self over relationships, individual success over the common good, the mind over the body, and thinking over feeling.”
When children are young, they grow up unaware of the tunnel. At age 9, girls are sophisticated and expressive about their own feelings. But then as they get into adolescence they become aware of the preferences around them. As Gilligan’s work demonstrates, they conclude that if they expressed their real emotions, nobody would want to be with them. They begin to hide themselves in order to fit in. “I never utter my real feelings about anything,” Anne Frank wrote in her diary. “My house is wallpapered with lies,” a girl in a Harvard research group observed.
Similarly, boys, as Way shows in her book “Deep Secrets,” are born with a great talent for emotional openness and a great capacity for deep and loving male friendships.
But then in adolescence they have to earn their manhood. They do that by differentiating themselves from girls and from their young “immature” selves. They often turn stoical, unemotional and tough. They seek to belong by being apathetic and independent.
In other words, as the editors of the anthology put it, the culture teaches girls not to talk and boys not to feel. Girls begin to say, “I don’t know.” Boys say, “I don’t care.” They’ve been pushed way from honest sharing and deep connection. As one of the characters in “The Breakfast Club” put it, “When you grow up, your heart dies.”
All of this was survivable when religion played a bigger role in national life, with its gospel of mercy, charity and love. But now we have an ethos of detachment and competition all the way down.
A study at the University of Michigan in 2010 found that college students were 40 percent less empathetic than they were in the 1980s. In a new piece in Foreign Affairs, Sylvia Mathews Burwell notes that 39 percent of college students in a recent poll reported symptoms of depression and anxiety. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 2006 and 2016, youth suicide rates rose 70 percent for white adolescents ages 10-17, and 77 percent for black ones.
This is raw carnage, caused by a culture that leads to self-isolation, conflict and a crisis of connection. What bothers me most on campus is not the assaults on free speech; it’s that some students are brutal with one another. They play games of moral one-upsmanship that leave others feeling desolated.
And if you think the crisis of connection is limited to campus, I invite you to the American political scene over the past two weeks, with Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Eric Holder lining up to present their pseudo-masculine, chest-thumping displays to show how much they hate the other side.
The good news is that, according to a study by More in Common, two-thirds of Americans are exhausted by the partisan charade. Furthermore, many people, including many feminists, are figuring out practically how to teach empathy.
One of the authors in “The Crisis of Connection” is Mary Gordon, who founded the Roots of Empathy project. Once a month, a parent and an infant visit a classroom of children and sit on a green blanket. The children gather around them to talk about what the infant is doing.
They watch the infant try to crawl to something or reach for a toy. They are learning to put themselves in the mind of the baby, learning emotional literacy and learning what deep attachment looks like.
In one class there was an eighth-grade boy who Gordon calls Darren who had watched his mother’s murder when he was 4 and was put into foster care. He was bigger than everybody else since he was two grades behind. One day, to everybody’s surprise, Darren wanted to hold the baby.
The mother was nervous, but let him, and Darren was great with the baby. He went over to a quiet corner and rocked the baby while the baby snuggled into his chest. Darren returned the baby to his mother and asked innocently, “If nobody has ever loved you, do you think you could still be a good father?”
There it was, Gordon writes, even in traumatised soil, a bloom of empathy.
© 2018 New York Times News Service