Why has America changed so dramatically over the past fifty years?
“Suppose truth is a woman—what then?” asked Nietzsche with a chuckle.
His aim, in that opening line of Beyond Good and Evil, was to tell us something about truth. But in so doing he touched on some old assumptions about women: their inconstancy, their irrationality. The dogmas of the day, Nietzsche meant, were neither so fixed nor so reasoned as other philosophers believed.
That skepticism was a lit fuse that led to the destruction of many traditions, including, ironically, men’s traditional underestimation of the fairer sex. Women soon got the vote in Western countries. In one world war and then another, they entered the workforce en masse, and increasingly stayed there during peacetime. Slowly but surely, they took positions of influence, becoming doctors and lawyers, editors and producers, novelists and journalists, CEOs and politicians—even presidential candidates.
By 1985, a century after Beyond Good and Evil was published, more women than men were graduating from college in the United States—and that gender gap would keep getting bigger.
This relatively quick surge of women into public life has had some major effects on the US and other Western countries—or anyway it must have, though we hear hardly anything about those effects. Yes, women now often have to juggle motherhood and a career, and the divorce rate has increased, and both of those have their own knock-on impacts. But what about the truly big effects? If culture reflects the way that people think and act, especially in public life, and women tend to think and act differently than men, then wouldn’t their sudden entry into public life and positions of cultural influence have changed the culture—the culture that in turn influences all of us?
One of the more interesting cultural changes, I suggest, is that addressing such questions openly and honestly is now hazardous—it runs the risk of discovering politically incorrect answers. That may be why we hear so little about the subject.
But let me back up a step or two, and just recite some of the larger social changes that have occurred in the past fifty years in the US—changes that seem quite sudden in historical terms.
Widespread dependence on government: More than 100 million Americans now receive means-tested federal welfare benefits, which don’t include Social Security or veterans benefits. About 47 million Americans receive food stamps. Close to six percent of the U.S. working age population now receives payments from the Social Security disability fund, compared to less than one percent in 1960. In most states, welfare recipients can receive income well above the minimum wage equivalent. All in all, entitlement spending now absorbs about 70% of the federal budget, up from about 30% in 1960. However, the poverty rate is about the same as it was in 1965. Meanwhile the labor participation rate for men has been falling more or less steadily and is at all time lows.
Special legal protection of selected groups, via the Civil Rights Act, Affirmative Action laws, “hate crime” laws, the finding that the Constitution effectively bars state laws against gay marriage (and child rearing), the admission of women into combat units in the military, etc.
Special extralegal protection of selected groups, via the “political correctness” movement: In the 1980s PC was still dismissible as a passing fad on campuses. Now the joke is on those of us who refused to take it seriously. These days the New York Times and other MSM organizations routinely—and effectively—whip up outrage against perceived ideological miscreants. Some within the PC movement have even suggesting banning scientific research that could be used to justify bias against or harm the self-esteem of protected groups. Public figures invited to speak on campuses are now routinely shouted down or even disinvited, if enough people accuse them of having incorrect views.
A big bienvenido to immigrants from the developing world: In the early 1960s most immigrants came from Europe or Canada and thus reflected the ethnicities of the existing population. Later, immigration policies became much more liberal. Now the top five sources of immigrants are Mexico (dwarfing all others), China, India, the Philippines and Vietnam. The foreign born population in the US, as a percentage of the total population, is almost three times what it was in 1960. From 1960 to now Hispanics have increased their percentage of the population from 3.6% to 16.4%. The number of illegal immigrants in America is apparently between 10 and 20 million—equivalent to a medium-sized city’s worth of illegals per state. Some states allow illegal immigrants to have driver’s licenses and taxpayer-subsidized benefits.
A decline in the acceptability of military deaths and official executions: In all the years of US military activity in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan—which is to say, almost continuously from 1991 to the present—there have been only about 5,400 US combat deaths. And that has been scarcely tolerable, even though about 50,000 Americans died in Vietnam and 300,000 in World War II. Meanwhile capital punishment is clearly on the way out.
A nation of victims: Declaring oneself a victim of something terrible—even something self-inflicted—has become a major theme in American culture, closely related to the PC movement. In the 1980s and 90s multiple personality disorder and satanic ritual abuse were big stories, widely exploited by the media, until it became clear that the victims were mostly fantasists and frauds, encouraged by incompetent and dishonest therapists. In the 1990s and 2000s, a new badge of victimhood, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), became epidemic. Forests continue to be felled to make the trauma-tales books that sustain the PTSD industry, and this new cultural motif also saturates American fiction. How many popular novels in recent years haven’t had a victim of trauma as a protagonist? Meanwhile on campus, some consider any text a potential source of trauma on its own, requiring “trigger warnings” to protect the sensitive.
A woman’s touch in foreign policy: The US has always been evangelical about its ideals, sometimes to the detriment of relations with countries who would otherwise be allies. That is true more than ever today, but the “American ideals” being pushed on countries like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan and Kenya now include women’s rights and even LGBT rights. Since 1997, the State Department has usually been headed by a woman (Albright, Rice, Clinton).
Back to nature: From Rachel Carson to Global Warming and the anti-GMO movement, Americans have become energized about environmental issues as never before. The increase in environmental consciousness has been accompanied by an increasing preference for more “natural” foods and medicines. At the same, more and more Americans have been joining New Ageish, nature-oriented religions, such as Wicca, which is often described as the fastest-growing religion in the country. This rise in freewheeling nature-oriented religions has been accompanied by declines in traditional, hierarchical Christian denominations such as Roman Catholicism, Episcopalianism and Lutheranism.
New modes of public argument: Debate over public policy these days seems to have less and less to do with sober calculations of long term consequences, and more and more to do with dramatic anecdotes that make immediate appeal to our empathy: the poor immigrant yearning for a new start in the land of freedom; the inmate facing inhumane execution, who just might be innocent; the gay couple who want only to be treated the same as their straight-couple friends; the rape victims of Rwanda or the Congo, or the US Naval Academy. Those on the Left side of these debates are apt to demonize their opponents as “racists,” “homophobes,” “misogynists,” “making war on women,” and so forth. In American policy struggles there is also now a heavy emphasis on protests and marches, heckling, breast-baring, blood- and egg-throwing, ad hominem attacks and other non-rational tactics.
Empathy and compassion
Most of these changes appear to have been driven by an increase in empathetic compassion among Americans and their policymakers. In other words, America over the past few decades has somehow acquired more and more sensitivity to the needs and claims of the “traditionally disadvantaged,” would-be immigrants and illegals, and those who claim to have experienced trauma or injury. Although white males are sometimes said to be excepted from all this compassion, the breadth of today’s welfarism and victimhood suggests that society stands ready with open arms for just about anyone with a sob story.
How did this huge increase in sensitivity occur? It would be almost impossible to determine that conclusively. But a shift towards more empathy-driven policymaking is one of the more obvious changes that one would expect as women gain greater control over policy and the wider culture. A greater tendency towards empathy and compassion are among the most distinctive features of the female mindset. Even Aristotle, 2,400 years ago, noted that woman was “more compassionate” and “more easily moved to tears.”
This type of sensitivity presumably is a deep trait that evolved because it is adaptive for child-rearing. Certainly it is common for women to display that trait when raising a child, for example when shielding the child from challenges or risks to which a more coldly rational father is willing to expose him. (“Toss him in at the deep end; he’ll learn faster that way.”)
More recently the Cambridge University psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, who researches gender differences, has written: “The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems.”
Note that the empathy that moves one to compassion has a certain emotional immediacy: “I feel your pain.” It’s not a deliberate, logical weighing of long-term consequences—it’s virtually the opposite.
In many areas of policy we seem to have shifted from an emphasis on the latter (long-term logic) towards the former (short-term compassion). Immigration policy—to take one example—was once based on considerations of the long-term adverse sociocultural consequences to America of bringing in millions of people from Third World societies. That policy, now deemed racist, has been replaced by a policy that is to a great extent about the immediate needs and aspirations of immigrants. Ditto for welfare, where the policy tends to focus more on the claims of claimants and less on the long-range adverse consequences of overgenerous welfare (busting the budget, discouraging work, eroding families).
Another apparent example of this shift is the addition of women to military combat units, despite their relative lack of physical strength and stamina, and the predictable consequences—not very conducive to combat performance—of placing young men and women at close quarters in the field. Policymakers now seem guided not by the traditional, abstract, long-range goal of optimizing the military’s warfighting capability, but by the short-term goal of fulfilling the aspirations of female recruits.
I would be surprised if the new influence of women on American culture were the only factor in this shift towards more empathy-based policies. Television, for example, which spread widely into US homes beginning in the 1960s, has tended to bias debates in favor of the side that can muster more compelling visual images—and videos of people expressing strong emotions tend to be more compelling than, say, bar charts depicting long term consequences. But I wonder if TV’s influence could have been as great, had policymakers and persuaders not become so receptive to that influence—because they were increasingly female.
Environmentalism and witchery
Pregnancy brings out some remarkable instinctive behaviors that give us further hints about the “hardwired” traits of women. I am referring to the smell and taste aversions that appear mainly in the first trimester, and the “nesting instinct” that occurs in the second or third. None of these behaviors is deliberate and rational—that is what can make them so disturbing to the pregnant woman and her loved ones—but they appear to have evolved to help keep the baby safe from toxins, germs and other harmful environmental influences.
I suggest—that is all I can do at this point; there is little published research in this area—that these deeply rooted traits, which appear to be regulated by hormone levels, would also manifest to some extent outside pregnancy. They would show up, for example, in a tendency to be more concerned (than men are) about putative environmental threats.
Again, there is no definitive research on this question. But certainly there is evidence that women (compared to men) tend to put more emphasis on pro-environmental issues, are less likely to be global warming skeptics, and are more likely to choose eco-packaging. Women also are heavily represented in pro-environment groups such as Greenpeace and the anti-GMO movement.
Related to this “green” tendency may be women’s seemingly greater aversion (on average, compared to men) towards modern, industrially produced foods and medicines, and the recent, swift rise in popularity of “natural” alternatives—purchased mostly by women—that can seldom be proven to justify their costs.
The trend towards natural remedies appears to have contributed as well to New Age and witchcraft religions with their pre-scientific, eye-of-newt style systems of “healing.” These alternative religions obviously strike other chords in some women, and while I’m no expert on the matter, presumably one attraction is that the new religions give women more interesting and flexible roles than they would have had in traditional, patriarchal Christianity. (Would you rather be a celibate nun or a randy witch?)
The same suspicions of modern, technologically produced food and medicine appear to have encouraged the ongoing anti-vaccine movement, and the spurious “detox” intestinal cleansing fad, both of which have been largely female social phenomena, heavily promoted by female celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy and Gwyneth Paltrow.
Contagion, victimization, unreason
In the list of big social changes above, I included a trend towards the use of non-rational or even anti-rational tactics in public arguments: for example, the demonization and shouting down of opponents; the contagious, swarming, witch-hunt style attacks on the politically incorrect; and the demand to suppress debate and even scientific inquiry on key issues. I don’t pretend that America once had a Golden Age of calm, Spock-like logic in its policy debates. But we’ve all noticed that the country seems more polarized generally. And it seems to me that most if not all of this recent shift away from calm, reasoned debate has been pioneered by the Left, in particular the PC movement which constantly tries to attach terrible, ostracizing labels to people it doesn’t like, and to suppress their speech.
Am I blaming women for this too? Historically men have attributed to women greater compassion, but also less reason, e.g., Thomas Aquinas, who asserted that woman is “naturally subject to man, because in man the discretion of reason predominates.”
Aquinas may have been a casual misogynist like most other male authorities of the pre-modern era. But nowadays few dispute that there are gender differences in psychology, empathy being one trait that women on average display in relative abundance (meaning only that the peak of their Bell curve of empathy distribution is shifted to the right of men’s). Yet the notion that women are correspondingly less inclined to use reason—a notion that still hangs around as a sort of folk belief among many men, and some women—seems too incorrect, not to mention impolite, to have ever been investigated thoroughly and honestly by scientists. Who would get funding for such a study? Who would get funding for any further research, having ever proposed such a study?
We might question, though, whether “reason” is really all it’s been cracked up to be. Prominent anthropologists have suggested that it should be seen (in the context of human social evolution, at least) as merely another tool of persuasion, rather than a special route to the “truth.” I wonder that it has taken science until now to make this point, given that we as a species have long been in the habit of deploying logic and reason for dubious ends—just watch any trial lawyer in action.
A more neutral, anthropological perspective on “reason” might make it easier for us to accept the possibility that women in the course of human evolution have acquired (again: on average compared to men—think of two overlapping Bell curves) a tendency to use a distinctively female cognitive and persuasive toolkit: in which reason is heavily complemented by empathy and other non-rational methods: methods that may have developed as part of a mental “arms race” with men.
As for these non-rational methods, one of the most striking features of modern PC attacks is the way that they seem to spread contagiously—like witch-hunts of old. Are women relatively susceptible to such contagions?
Maybe they are, on average. If empathy is the ability to feel what others are feeling, then a more empathetic person is also more connected mentally to others. There is some evidence—much of it anecdotal, for not nearly enough experimental work has been done in this area—that women and girls, versus men and boys, are on average more susceptible to exogenous influences: They seem more likely to be affected by advertising, and more likely (about twice as likely) to be diagnosed with PTSD after trauma. They tend to be more interdependent and socially connected. They seem more hypnotizable and suggestible (and become moreso when pregnant). They seem more likely to confabulate false memories and participate in mass psychosomatic incidents of the kind that, for example, spuriously sicken anxious schoolchildren every year.
Women also have been initiators and principal transmitters of the most famous (or notorious) hysterical contagions in history. These include the original witch-hunts—the convent demon-possessions of early 17th century France, for example, and the later, much more lethal bewitchment-accusation craze in Puritan New England—as well as the hysterical neurosis syndromes that so captivated Charcot and Freud, and the related recovered-memory epidemics (“multiple personality disorder,” etc.) of recent decades. Arguably the new epidemic of PTSD belongs on the list. There is moreover a substantial anthropological literature on women’s use of “spirit possession” claims in premodern, patriarchal societies, apparently as a tactic of attaining status and influence vis a vis men.
Note that these contagions, across wide stretches of history and culture, have all been about victimhood, hinting that “playing the victim” might even be a latent reflex in the female psyche, ready to manifest in at least some women in the right circumstances, and ready to trigger the same reflex in other women. Let’s not hold our breaths waiting for science to weigh in on that question—but if such a reflex exists, and you combine it with women’s greater empathetic compassion and their newfound influence on the culture, then that could help explain why America is now awash in victims of something or other.
Could the rising influence of women be to blame for the increasing demonization and suppression of those who express incorrect ideas? Maybe I’m reaching too far here. Demonizing and suppressing opponents seems to be a feature of authoritarianism generally, including some self-consciously masculine regimes.