After being arrested for battering his son, Vikings running back Adrian Peterson explained that corporal punishment had helped him become a successful athlete. Ex-Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice slugged his future wife inside an elevator. Singer Chris Brown pleaded guilty to felony assault charges after attacking then-girlfriend Rihanna. An anonymous opponent of video game critic Anita Sarkeesian emailed Utah State University, where she was scheduled to give a speech, and promised a “Montreal massacre style attack” if she were allowed to speak.
These are all unrelated incidents, but they do combine to raise two questions: Is male aggression on the rise or retreat? And if the latter is the case, will nice guys finally finish first?
By every metric, it appears that a certain kind of in-your-face aggressiveness is already on the way out. There are 1.5 million men in prison, as against 110,000 women. A majority of these men are indeed violent, or at least have been adjudged so: 55% of state inmates were put there for violent crimes such as murder, manslaughter, and rape. Prison, then, can be viewed as the first prong of a vast civilizing movement that is removing objectionable conduct from public view.
Widespread disapprobation has been brought to bear on men who are angry, who are jerks, who are violent.
And it’s clear most people want to be sheltered from such ugliness, given how the media has rushed to denounce the violent outbursts of celebrities such as Peterson, Rice and Brown. Only a handful of against-the-grain commentators, such as former NBA power forward Charles Barkley, are willing to mount even token resistance in the face of near-universal scorn. Peterson and Rice, moreover, play a punishing sport that has itself come under scrutiny for the toll exacted on the bodies of the athletes involved on it.
Finally, Anita Sarkeesian—she of the “Feminist Frequency” videos examining the shopworn gender tropes used in many video games—has launched a tentative assault on the last redoubt of male aggressiveness: the Internet. Given that it’s now an indispensable service used even by our great-grandparents, it’s easy to forget that the world wide web was once a poorly arranged, poorly designed and quite secretive community of mostly male users. Serious “gamer culture,” recently provoked to action by Sarkeesian’s largely innocuous videos as well as a supposed game-rating scandal, has remained a well-insulated pocket universe with many of the combative, dysfunctional features of the no-holds-barred mIRC/4Chan culture of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Its angry reengagement with the rest of the world calls to mind nothing so much as the forceful reopening of the Korean “Hermit Kingdom” by Western powers at the end of the 19th century.
What is happening appears to be a general civilizing of the culture.
The hateful response to Sarkeesian, whose videos are about as controversial or groundbreaking as an episode of The Big Bang Theory, is perhaps the most telling. Threatening to destroy the career or outright kill someone who points out that “damsels in distress” is an overused video game storytelling conceit does little to rebut her claims and may even reinforce them. As one astute commentator noted, the gaming community, at its worst a “shit pit” in which some of humanity’s most violent vicarious fantasies have played out, is such a fragile ecosystem that it can’t bear even the slightest criticism.
None of this should be read to mean that life in the United States is improving for women (it certainly isn’t improving on a worldwide scale; at that remove, it might be worse than ever, or at least as bad as always). Although women now constitute a majority of degree recipients from four-year universities, they remain clustered in a handful of careers that are gender-coded “female” and still earn a fraction of what similarly situated men do. Instead, what is happening appears to be a general civilizing of the culture, consistent with the macro-level trend toward diminishing violence examined by psychologist Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature.
As that process occurs, many traditional institutions face uncertain prospects. Individuals accustomed to older forms of conduct are left to navigate this brave new world with inaccurate or even useless maps, to predictably unpleasant results.We’ve all heard the lamentations for a supposed bygone age in which men were men and women, well, weren’t: “I can’t even watch football without you social justice warriors getting on my case?” “I can’t even hit my kids without a police investigation?” “I can’t even mow down an entire airport full of people during a Call of Duty mission without some geeky gender studies person telling me I’m a dangerous sociopath?”
Those questions are made up, but remarks like “Feminists have ruined my life, and I will have my revenge” (the motive for the recent threats against Sarkeesian) are all too real. Once upon a time, I’d have shrugged this off as an exaggeration. I’d tell her and others to develop a thicker skin. But even though I’m a total nobody, I receive nasty e-mails and tweets in response to stuff I’ve written online (“a shit head former fashion queen who needs to get tossed cause he was shit” remains my all-time favorite, since it was written by a fellow professor, though “you girls need to leave our video games alone” was pretty good, too). At least a half-dozen times a week, I’m told to kill myself by anonymous players during games of DOTA 2 and League of Legends…and when they’re not doing that, I can watch them make lame rape jokes and screw one another over for no reason at all.
Widespread disapprobation has been brought to bear on people who are angry, who are jerks, who are violent—at least in public, anyway. Many of these offenders, regrettably, have turned out to be men—men, for example, who are blithely unaware of the people discomfited by mindless micro-aggressions like leg-spreading on public transportation. This is, all things considered equally, a welcome development. If the world of the nice guy proves to be one with fewer gunfights, child beatings, football player concussions, and online hate manifestos, then sign me up for it. Life will never be perfect, but it’ll likely be a bit better once we’re all shamed into acting less rotten and uncivil toward one another.