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A man among men: An interview with Dr. Lionel Tiger

By Bernard Chapin
web posted March 1, 2004

We all know and use the phrase "male bonding," but this phrase was not always part of our lexicon. It was coined in 1969 by Dr. Lionel Tiger in his anthropological study, Men in Groups. Dr. Tiger currently holds the position of Darwin Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Dr. Lionel TigerHe is a prolific writer and has had numerous publications over the years. Many of our readers have undoubtedly heard of The Decline of Males: The First Look at an Unexpected New World for Men and Women. It caused considerable controversy when it was first released in 1999 and it remains in print. He is also well-known for other works such as The Imperial Animal and The Pursuit of Pleasure.

From what this interviewer has gathered, Dr. Tiger is not your average academic. Throughout his career he has stood for his convictions and not embraced whatever pseudo-scholarly fads happened to come along. He tells the story of his academic travails in the engaging essay, "My Life in the Human Nature Wars," [1] which, unfortunately, is not available online.

I also encourage our readers to examine Dr. Tiger's 1999 interview/debate with feminist Barbara Ehrenreich. To say he holds up his own end is an understatement as (in my biased view) he bests her throughout. This is by far my favorite part of their exchange:

EHRENREICH: You certainly got away from the issue of how you feel about it. See, I'm willing to say how I feel.

TIGER: I'm wholly uninterested in your feelings.

How many times in life does one yearn to make such a statement?

Dr. Tiger first experienced political correctness long before words like "server" or "ageism" had been dreamt up. While finishing his thesis in the early sixties he was told to edit out some offensive pages that simply dealt with primates and the role of biology in the social sciences.

This statement sums up the phenomenon that many have had to deal with since the eighties, "The most dispiriting feature of the delta of pressure toward political correctness is not its apparatchik banality but its scientific ludicrousness and its utter impracticality." [2] We need more scholars like Dr. Tiger, but my guess is they'll be a long time coming.

BC: The first question that I'd like to ask you about concerns men. Have we become the second sex? If so, what can do to change the situation?

LT: The question is too global. Certainly there are major changes in the manner in which men and women interact. But are all men in decline? Some are. For example, jobs requiring physical strength which were long a source of productive and reproductive security for working class males have become less numerous and less important. Overall, there has been a decline in male income relative to the whole pie but this is inevitable given that more women work for more years. A good question is, do men now provide less transfer-wealth to women in the form of family support than before? I don't know, but I suspect that in income received from men, women have declined.

There is certainly an attitudinal factor that I called in decline "male original sin" so that almost anything males do is ipso facto questionable, potentially dangerous, and often risible. The schools, also, have become rather anti-male, though the disastrous decline of male performance compared with female in schools is beginning to worry educators who are now even compelled to raise the question–perhaps the schools are responsible for this, not just the reckless naughty boys.

BC: In your book, The Decline of Males, you state: "All told, there is a significant shift from the past in the relative power of men and women. In the United States productive system in the mid-90s women earned 7.6 percent more than they did in 1979, while men earned 14 percent less than they did." [p.5] Some may gloat about this result, but, allow me to ask, is this not largely a function of state sponsored discrimination against men through hiring preferences for women? I've known people who claim that males will disappear from positions of economic power in a few decades time but does this not deny the qualitative differences between men and women? If males are more results oriented, and thereby less obsessed with process, do we not hold a competitive advantage over females in the workplace?

LT: State sponsored discrimination certainly affects some job categories, so that in Austrian universities no male should be hired to a department until it has 50/50 distribution based on genitalia. The result is responsible teachers tell male students interested in academic careers to forget it or leave the country.

Affirmative action has certainly put pressure on employers to find female engineers, architects, steelworkers, and the like. Sometimes it has an effect but sometimes not, perhaps because women choose the jobs they prefer not those the ideologues say they should prefer. Currently in major universities, there is a great push to get more women into engineering, science, math and the like but no one much cares that Eng lit or psych are disproportionately female. Why is engineering more meritorious than studying literature? Is the underlying notion that because a lot of males are doing something it must be better or more important? Who decided this?

Males will not disappear from positions of power if only because they are more willing to put out long hours and years in the labor force. Some women are entering elite levels as they gain the experience and scope the high level jobs often require. But the average woman heretofore has been out of the labor force for about 6 years, to raise children or care for parents, or whatever - the source of the famously fraudulent 77 cents on the dollar mantra because they lose average increments of 3-5 per cent a year. This is a formidable obstacle to the top for both men and women.

Many women and men don't want to struggle for those demanding slots in any event. The competitive reality is tough, and 'having it all' still means immense difficulty. But until making babies becomes a project for LL Bean and UPS the issue will remain. Countless women discover the baby/job conflict with great surprise as if it is complex and arcane. But it is real and passionate and appears clearly to affect women more than men despite what we may think of this. We remain sophisticated mammals after all, with long and demanding maturations. Meanwhile, unmarried and childless women earn some 98 per cent of comparable males do. Reproduction is costly, production is profitable.

BC: Another concept that you explore in The Decline of Males is that modern men are "alienated from the means of reproduction." Could you elaborate on that for our readers? I know they'll be interested.

LT: Until the 1960s the principal contraceptive was the condom which was social - if you didn't use it, you knew pregnancy was possible. The pill gave women the opportunity to control reproduction - as it should have. But it meant men couldn't know for sure if their partner was contracepted as she said she was or not. Therefore men become unwilling to marry pregnant chums - which had evidently happened between 30 to 50 percent of the time in the late 19th century according to parish records - and possibly to the mid-1950s. This was perhaps the first time in nature that one sex could exclusively control reproduction. Fair enough, but new, and with consequences for sure. One consequence was the legalization of abortion which followed the pill by ten years, and another the sharp growth in unmarried mothers - now a third of women in the industrial world.

BC: Paul Hollander had this to say regarding selective determinism: "All ideas about the mitigating social influences over individual behavior vanish when it comes to these so-called hate crimes, or certain groups of people. The feminist version of selective social determinism proposes that nothing about men is 'socially constructed' because that would 'let them off the hook, so men get heavy doses of essentialist attributes.'" [Discontents: Postmodern & Postcommunist, p.xxxi] Do you think that, amongst academics, males are believed to be morally inferior to females? Is it assumed that if men, ala Marilyn French, were to only behave more like women the world would be a much happier place?

LT: You can call a man macho but not a woman dainty. University administrations have largely accepted the notion that programs such as women's studies are wholly desirable even if their overwhelmingly female faculties wouldn't pass a single diversity review. They are often intellectual ghettos and politically activist to boot. But gender studies of an ecumenical style are very useful and fair.

Hollander's apercu is a little too complicated for me. Basically the groups involved are opportunistic and will take any position temporarily which supports what they perceive as their long-term goal. They are as well usually not among the leading students of contemporary biological theory.

BC: What do you make of this metrosexual phenomenon? I can definitely say that I've known more than a couple of them over the years. The television show, "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," seems to actively encourage it. Are the traditional male ideals like virtue, austerity, and self-sacrifice being replaced with consumerism and social conformity?

LT: The metrosexual business is another version of male original sin, because homosexual males do not suffer from it as drastically as heterosexual ones do. Heteromales are the last group it is acceptable to bash as a class. The homosexual fellows on Queer Eye seem to provide riveting hilarity to especially female viewers. What if there were 5 Swedes telling Kenyans how to live elegantly and fashionably? What if 5 Catholics told Jews how to dress, decorate, and court? The program is degraded and degrading, Cheap Shots for A Humiliated Guy.

But the basic economic issue is that men are marrying later and later if at all and therefore instead of providing resources and services to women and children they are evaluating velvet jeans. Women haven't fully comprehended the gravity of the situation and continue to blame men by accusing them of running from commitment. Obviously men don't enjoy being blamed by persons who appear to want to coerce their behavior. The matter is of course not so simple or so acrid. Nevertheless it reflects a fundamental shift in expectations among young men and women.

BC: Next I'd like to ask you about anthropology, which is your profession. What is it about anthropology that has made it such a stronghold for the academic left? Is there a reason why the field predominantly attracts so many individuals from one end of the political spectrum? Early anthropologists like Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Frank Boas were quite utopian in their thinking, could it be that a disdain for this nation and its culture is what propels undergraduates into studying other cultures (so they pronounce them superior to ours)?

LT: Not all but a prominent number of anthropologists have taken their fieldwork findings to make essentially political or socially critical comments about America. Margaret Mead did that when she alleged Samoans had no sexual restrictions at adolescence, which was an American perversion in her mind. She was deeply wrong, and not the last to be. Part of such commentary is fair - after you've seen other cultures at work you may be able to have some distance from your own. And anthropologists have occasionally been useful students of American self-absorption. As a group we are quite colorful but also often painfully self-righteous and earnest. The Anthro Association is forever passing resolutions against racism, inequality, meanness and the like which is sort of charming but beside the point of crisp cultural analysis.

BC: What's it like being a member of a university faculty when you're a man who has written sympathetically about other men? Did this make you a target with your colleagues? Were you exposed to any kinds of backlash? What words of advice would you have for politically incorrect students who want to become professors in the academy?

LT: My colleagues treat me well and my university, Rutgers, has treated me extremely well and I think fairly. I have received teaching awards and a named chair. If people dislike what I say, they keep it to themselves or do so with civility. Also, no small thing, I have tenure. Without it things might be different. However I console myself by saying that I had some controversial ideas which have turned out to be durable and useful. Like the male bonding concept - Men in Groups is having a third edition now 35 years after publication. The Imperial Animal has had a third edition. The Pursuit of Pleasure has been reissued in the United States - and in Chinese! In addition, I am stubborn and healthy and like what I do and how I do it. I am not a gambler but I don't fold easily.

BC: You are obviously an extremely patient and controlled individual as you sat at a restaurant in Manhattan and behaved most civilly to Barbara Ehrenreich for the course of your entire lunch debate (which is quite impressive as I lost my temper reading the discourse five years after it occurred). Here's a gem from the conversation:

"Margaret Mead said years ago that fatherhood is a social invention, and there you and I agree. We've lost, however, the notion that we should even maintain the fiction that it's desirable. In fact, there are lots of people trying to undermine it, so you have fatuities such as Gloria Steinem's 'a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle' -- a kind of tonal rendition of this entire story. The result has been an unprecedented speed of change in the heartland of human life, which is male-female relationships and the raising of children. I don't think one can avoid the responsibility to look at all possible explanations."

Do you think that fatherhood will make a comeback? Indeed, is it making a comeback at present?

LT: One comeback in fatherhood is by men who are beginning to protest the automatic assumption in countless cases that divorcing men are guilty, should lose their homes, pay child support beyond their capacity, and in general succumb to what has become a legal and psycho-official racket. The state is delighted to turn over the cost of welfare of children to fathers even if there are complex and often mitigating factors in the situation. But this is the slum of the matter. Many men love their babies and do an excellent job as fathers. Men who are good fathers are also very attractive.

BC: As far as chivalry is concerned, given the current environment, is it a pointless endeavor on the part of men to treat women chivalrously? If men are denigrated by society, does it make any sense to defer to women? Are we not hastening our own decline by doing so?

LT: Chivalry? What that? Men should shiver in the presence of women? It is kind of notorious, maybe even true, that women like sensitive men but prefer "real men." Women continue to prefer men slightly older and slightly wealthier than they are, which makes ultimate reproductive sense, and boytoys have a short sell-by date. Of course it makes no sense to defer to women or to anyone on programmatic grounds. It's neither fun nor dignified and never wins friends let alone admirers.

BC: I liked this line from your December 2002 speech at the American Enterprise Institute concerning the Human Nature Project. You said, "There is also always the danger the management of these needs will be co-opted by the always-hungry always well-meaning corps of concernocrats ready and willing to rummage in the lives of others." To me the word "concernocrats" sums up political correctness and what's wrong with the country in four concise syllables. People such as these are very elitist at their core. They don't believe that we're clever enough to make decisions for ourselves. In light of the recent lawsuits over fatty foods and proposed taxes on junk food, what do you think motivates these busybodies to structure our lives? Is it all related to power? Is there an innate human need to act self-righteously towards ones peers?

LT: The most threatening concernocrats are the faith-based types be they in Riyadh, Jerusalem, Rome, Salt Lake City, or Washington. Live your life and leave mine alone. Don't wave arbitrarily judgmental books at me even if they're elegant. Missionaries come home. But I think soft drink machines should be outlawed in schools the way cigarettes machines are. Lotteries and casinos should be closed down because they fleece the poor and statistically stupid. Registered Federal lobbyists should be forbidden in the DC area and should have to live in downtown Galveston. The word 'race' should not appear on the Census or any other Federal document. Cities should not subsidize stadia for bored sports moguls. Amtrak needs money. Not only the poor and sick but businesses now realize we need a national health system because they can no longer afford health care for their employees and be internationally competitive. Etc. See, I can be a concernocrat too. But I try to be careful to distinguish between private zeal and public policy. It takes all kinds, or should.

BC: Thank you very much, Dr. Tiger.

[1] Tiger, Lionel. "Human Nature Wars" Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 41, 4. Summer 1998

[2] "Human Nature Wars", p.482

Bernard Chapin is a writer living in Chicago. He can be reached at bchapafl@hotmail.com.

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