Outliers (2014)

Fat guy skinny guy boxing
“All men are created equal.”

Some of my fondest childhood memories are of muggy Saturday nights on Hungerford Common.

Year after year, most summer weekends, my auntie and uncle would drive me, my grandma and my two cousins to a pub just outside Hungerford. The grown-ups would sip shandies on the trestle table, while Jeff, Rich and I would charge off into the wilderness to climb trees, play torch tig (Americans: flashlight tag) and chase one another round the anti-tank pillboxes near the railway. My involvement in these outings ended in 1985; by the time I was 15, the appeal of bashing stinging nettles with sticks had begun to wane, and I was deemed old enough to look after myself on a Saturday night.

In August 1987, Michael Ryan, an unemployed 27-year-old local labourer, left home with an arsenal of high-powered weapons and embarked on an hour-long killing spree through Savernake Forest and the sidestreets of Hungerford. He killed 17 people before taking his own life. It was the first mass murder by a lone civilian in the UK (all prior atrocities were related to civil war or sectarian troubles). To the world, it was shocking. To someone who, while not having met Ryan or any of his victims, had nonetheless played in those fields, had trodden those streets, it was incomprehensible.

So for those who were wondering, that’s the reason why I’ve always taken a close interest in atrocities that, on the face of it, are none of my affair.

Ryan’s motives are not known. He left no note, and the only other person who might have offered some insight, his mother, was among those he killed. Speculation has centred on schizophrenia, his “unhealthy” relationship with his mother, the death of his father, an (unproven) obsessive interest in the Sylvester Stallone film First Blood and, of course, easy access to powerful weapons.

In this case, as with most mass shootings, the contributing factors were numerous and unique. So dashing off glib statements like “It’s the patriarchy, stupid” with barely a sideways glance at the facts is, in my opinion, deeply insulting to the memories of those who died.

I promised last time that I would attempt an alternative explanation of why so many of these slaughters are perpetrated by men (97%, or 94%, depending on your source); one that doesn’t involve “toxic notions of masculinity”.  And I suggested that the culprit was not social constructions of masculinity, but masculinity itself.

Now, to elaborate. I wrote a few posts a while back about the differences between men and women, but to save you shlepping through all that, here’s a summary: men and women are broadly – to a remarkable degree, in fact, considering the sexual dimorphism in many other species, including some of our closest biological relatives – very similar. There are a few minor peculiarities of anatomy, brain architecture and chemistry, but when it comes to capabilities, on average, there’s barely a hair’s breadth between us. If you plucked out any one woman and any one man from the populace and tested them, the chances are they would score comparably on a whole range of attributes, from intelligence to religiosity to tolerance for soap.

But there is an important difference. Males of most species, including humans, display greater genetic variance than females.

If you score groups of men and women on almost any ability or character trait, the men’s results tend to be spread more widely than the women’s. Think back to your maths class: chances are one or two guys were streets ahead of everyone else – and that most of the lowest-scoring pupils were boys, too. The girls tended to bunch in the middle. And it’s true across a huge range of characteristics, from cognitive ability to promiscuity to sprinting speed.

(There’s no universal consensus on why this should be so, but some researchers have theorised that traits linked to genes on the X-chromosome in women are “averaged” across their two copies of X, while no such averaging is possible in men, since they have just the one X-chromosome.)

How do we know this phenomenon is genetic, and not cultural? Well, a cultural bias either favours one sex or it doesn’t. If nurture, not nature, was creating some difference between the two, we would expect men on average to score higher, or lower, than women (see graph below). A systematic bias cannot simultaneously make some men better than most women and also make some men worse than most women. The patriarchy can’t promote one sex and undermine it at the same time. The variance must be underlying.

So while most generalisations are nonsensical, if not utterly false (“All men [as individuals] are more intelligent than all women”, and “Men are, on average, more intelligent than women”), there’s one generalisation that’s true of the sexes as a whole: men are more varied than women.

I shall use my beloved graphs to illustrate.

Almost congruent bell curves
The male and female bell curves for most stuff.

The y-axis (up) represents the number of individuals with a certain score; the x-axis (across) the scores recorded. The actual attribute being measured here could be almost anything, but for the purposes of this argument, let’s say it’s niceness, or conscience, or emotional intelligence.

The area under the red curve includes all the women in the world; the area under the blue curve, all the men. As you can see, the overlap is huge, and the majority of individuals of both sexes fall between the same range of values. But as explained above, the red curve rises higher than the blue, because women are more “bunched in the middle”; on the flipside, the tail of the men’s curve extends further in both directions. The men’s scores are more widely distributed than the women’s.

Overlapping bell curves
Result of cultural bias.

(For comparison purposes, here’s the graph you’d expect if cultural factors were at work. If men and women were born equal, a systematic cultural bias would improve all the results of one sex, shifting their curve uniformly along the x-axis; remove that bias, and the curves would overlap perfectly. But the cultural theory is totally powerless to explain the pattern in the first graph.)

There’s been a lot of discussion about the upper end of the scale; how the fat and thin bell curves could explain why there have been no female world chess champions, and why women are so underrepresented in boardrooms and the top tiers of academia. The outliers, it has been argued – the extreme high achievers – are more likely to be men purely because men are more varied. There’s a good blogpost (by a woman) about the top end of the curve here.

But high flyers are not our concern. We’re interested in the losers in life’s lottery. Let’s zoom in on that left-hand corner.

Left-hand intersection of bell curves
The outliers. The dots are … well, you know what the dots are.

Let’s assume that a minimum score for empathy (or social responsibility, or niceness, or whatever your chosen criterion) is required for you to be a decent, functioning, law-abiding member of society. Most of us are born with a high enough score that we’ll never be in danger of breaking the social contract and doing something horrific, no matter how shitty things get. Unfortunately, not everyone can be on the right or in the middle.

In the genetic lottery, we are all the result of several throws of the dice. It’s not that the dice are loaded differently for men and women, but that nature is rolling different dice.

Six-sided die and eight-sided die
One d6, one d8.

The exact values aren’t important, but I’ll pick some (low) arbitrary ones to illustrate the point. In setting a woman’s score for a particular trait, nature throws, say, six six-sided dice, with values from 1 to 6. When creating a man’s score, it throws the same number of dice, with the same average score, but with a wider range of values – say, six eight-sided dice, with numbers from 0 to 7. If you repeat this process seven billion times, 3.5bn with the six-sided dice and 3.5bn with the eight-sider, you’ll end up with a large majority of individuals, both male and female, with scores somewhere between 16 and 26. But some of those sets of die rolls are going to produce very low numbers, and because of the different dice used, men can get a lower minimum score than women. A desperately unlucky man (here, it would be one in every 262,000 men – not far, by freakish coincidence, from the proportion of men who commit mass shootings) would score a flat zero. But the unluckiest of unlucky women, because of her “safer” dice, can’t possibly score lower than 6.

Hence, even though men are not (necessarily) any more violent or lacking in empathy than women on average, when it comes to extreme events such as mass shootings, men are more likely to be the culprits. It’s only the outliers – those very, very rare individuals, the majority of whom, because of greater variance in the male genome, happen to be male – who are capable of the unthinkable, the cowardly, the contemptible.

My guess is that the true explanation for the 97% figure is a hybrid one. I think there’s something in this bell-curve stuff; I think the role-model theory I talked about in my last post is worth looking into; I’m even willing to concede that “toxic notions of masculinity” might play a part. But citing them as the chief cause, without a blind bit of regard for the evidence, is not helping anyone. I have no doubt that the patriarchy is responsible for all manner of society’s evils; I just don’t think school shootings are especially high on the rap sheet.

We need to approach this problem like the many-headed hydra that it is. We need tighter gun controls, better mental healthcare, and quicker identification and remedial action for potentially antisocial individuals. We need more responsible coverage from the media, less airtime and less reverence for these pricks.

And yes, Jessica Valenti and Anita Sarkeesian, while we’re at it, we could also address toxic masculinity issues – relieve the interminable pressure on men to be the biggest, the fastest, the toughest, the richest, the best. But remember, harmful ideals of manliness are not the work of man alone. Women have done just as much to foster unhealthy expectations: women who want bad boys, women who write “Only real men need apply” on their internet dating profiles, women who want to “feel protected”, women who value wealth and status and confidence and risk-taking and strength. This is still a world, after all, where an 80-year-old mass murderer has no trouble procuring himself an attractive 26-year-old wife.

Men and women made this mess together; we must unmake it together.


Is masculinity toxic? (2014)

Toxic Avenger with baby
‘Don’t paint me as the bad guy!’

“For every problem, there is a solution which is simple, neat, and wrong.”
HL Mencken

I’d better get my disclaimer in quick. You will notice that this post is directed at individual members of the same group. But this is not to say that I have a problem with that group as a whole. Yes, I’m a man, yes, I’ve written a lot about how being a man isn’t all rainbows and lollipops, and yes, I have on occasion received unfair treatment at the hands of a woman. But I don’t have an anti-feminist bone in my body.

I share most, if not all, of the goals of feminism. I passionately believe in equality of pay, equality of rights, equality of representation, equality of opportunity and freedom from harassment for women. And I think there are some fantastic feminist writers and thinkers out there: Laurie Penny deserves the Nobel Prize for Muscular Prose, Caitlin Moran deserves a knighthood, Bridget Christie is, frankly, a god, Simone de Beauvoir’s intellectual rigour is exemplary, and even Germaine Greer talks a lot of sense. I just think that a few isolated individuals are going about achieving these goals the wrong way. (I’ve also just signed this petition to deny poisonous pick-up artist Julien Blanc an entry visa to the UK, and so should you.)

Most moderate feminists are, as far as I (and, I think, most men) are concerned, pushing at an open door. But some of feminism’s more radical proponents have blown up the open doorway and are demanding to know why their way is blocked by a huge pile of rubble.

Feminism doesn’t give you a claim to rectitude any more than vegetarianism gives you a claim to moral supremacy. Some Muslims are pricks, some Christians are paedophiles, and some feminists need to be called out. (I’m willing to accept that the number of men’s rights advocates who need to be called out is considerably higher, but their views aren’t promulgated as widely and as uncritically in the liberal press, which is what I read.)

So, here goes. A couple of weeks ago, there was another school shooting in America. The fourth victim of the spree has just died from his injuries. The usual media shitstorm ensued, with the usual interest groups trotting out their usual lines, but two commentators were singled out for particular criticism.

Within hours of the news, Jessica Valenti, for her Guardian column, produced a piece entitled “Why are men so angry?” And Anita Sarkeesian, best known for her (heroic) role in the Gamergate affair, published the following tweets:

A huge number of the comments beneath Valenti’s column were removed by moderators, and Sarkeesian was deluged with vitriol from women as well as men. Many of the replies were were inexcusably vile; I wish they had been more measured, because the grievances in this case are, I believe, legitimate. I want to try to explain why.

1) It’s too soon
First, there’s the matter of timing. As I’ve written before, it’s not just insensitive to start speculating on the causes of an atrocity before all the facts are known (tantamount to saying, “If you’d listened to me sooner, this never would have happened”). It’s also counterproductive.

(By the way, rather than talking exclusively about school shootings, I believe it makes more sense to consider what the FBI calls “Active Shooter Events”, ie instances of people opening fire on multiple targets in public spaces. School shootings are just a subset of this wider category – they’re just especially popular, either because they have an emotional connection for the perpetrator, or because they offer the potential for a higher body count.)

As the FBI’s extensive research into these events indicates, each mass shooting is unique. Such events are too infrequent (thank goodness) for any cast-iron patterns to have been identified, but from the limited information available, it seems these tragedies have remarkably little in common. Each event is the result of a combination of factors.

But when people start hitching a tragedy to their own specific agenda, we come to associate that event with that agenda, regardless of whether they turn out to be right. When everyone’s clamouring, “We need to talk about gun control!”, “We need to talk about mental healthcare!” and “We need to talk about violent video games!”, it’s often the loudest voice that gets heard – and when the inquiry into the tragedy is complete and the full picture comes out, months or even years later, it’s often too late: the connection has been made. Shouting “We need to talk about the patriarchy” is just as tasteless, just as self-serving, and just as inappropriate.

2) It’s inflammatory and offensive
I would question the wisdom, three days after a mass shooting by a man, of writing an article attempting to explain “why men are so angry”. (The subeditor tried to spare Valenti’s blushes by inserting the word “some” into the headline; there’s no such qualifying adjective in the text.) You can practically hear Valenti folding down her newspaper, tutting, and saying, “Typical man!”

As a rule, people take exception to being tarred with the same brush as psychopaths and mass murderers. I can’t imagine the Guardian running a story with the headline “Why are all Gypsies thieves?” or “Why do all gays have Aids?”, so Lord knows who sanctioned this bullshit. Because bullshit is exactly what it is.

There’s a figure that’s been bandied around a lot in recent discussions of mass shootings. A few commentators, defending their argument that massacres are intimately linked with masculinity, have cited a study that found that 97% of of all (school) shootings were carried out by men.

(The study, it turns out, was carried out by a radical feminist, for her blog. She looked only at school shootings, rather than Active Shooter Events, and her only source was Wikipedia. Now, Wikipedia has its merits, but to give just one example of its pitfalls, “Davina Squirrel” found no evidence of school shootings in Australia, which a simple Google search would have rectified. The two FBI papers I’ve read, one on Active Shooter Events and another on Campus Attacks, give figures of 94%. Not a huge discrepancy, granted, but not a great start either.)

It’s a depressing truth that most human brains have an appalling grasp of statistics. It’s glaringly obvious, if you think about it for more than a second, that saying “All school shooters are men” is an entirely different proposition from “All men are school shooters.” But we don’t often think about things for more than a second. Those words – “all”, “men”, “school shooters” – get blurred. (The character of Val in Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room is probably guilty of making the same logical gaffe: from “All rapists are men” to “All men are rapists”.)

While any mass shooting is one mass shooting too many, they are still, when you consider the number of people on the planet, rare occurrences. The numbers vary according to the criteria used, but they are all of the same order of magnitude: one authoritative study estimated 116 ASEs in the US from 1980 to 2013. That’s 116 individuals who have set out to cause the maximum possible carnage in 33 years – out of a population of 316 million. Even if all those assholes were men (and they weren’t), that would mean that 0.00007% of all the men in America were mass murderers. One in every one and a half million. So if you nuked a city the size of Birmingham, or Chicago, you’d be lucky to take one out. Talk about #NotAllMen.

My point is that these are not “typical” men. If they were typical, the human race would be long extinct. They are the very definition of atypical. These men (and women) are not products of the system; they are rejects from the system.

That’s not to say that we don’t need to ask these questions, but it would help if we couched them more diplomatically. I realise that “Why are 0.00007% of all men so angry?” isn’t quite so catchy as a headline, but it wouldn’t alienate quite so many people.

3) It assumes a specific definition of masculinity
Much of the anger at Sarkeesian’s comments, if not Valenti’s, stems from a misunderstanding. Here’s one of Sarkeesian’s follow-up tweets:

A lot of men, then, thought she was saying, “Men are toxic” – when in fact she was trying to say, “Social constructions of masculinity are toxic.”

The trouble is, Sarkeesian’s definition of masculinity does not coincide with everyone else’s. Let’s take a look at some dictionary entries for “masculine”:

Free Dictionary:
1. Of or relating to men or boys; male.
2. Suggestive or characteristic of a man; mannish. See Synonyms at male.

1. pertaining to or characteristic of a man or men: *masculine attire*.
2. having qualities traditionally ascribed to men, as strength and boldness.

1. a) male; b) having qualities appropriate to or usually associated with a man

Collins offers only one entry – but note the “or”:
Masculine, adj: 1 possessing qualities of characteristics considered typical of or appropriate to a man; manly

And finally, the OED:
1. a. The state or fact of being masculine; the assemblage of qualities regarded as characteristic of men; maleness, manliness.

A surprising amount hangs on those a)s and b)s, on those little “or”s. Is masculinity 1) innate, something we can’t escape, 2) a product of cultural norms, or 3) a blend of the two? (Regular readers will know where I stand.)

The thing is, there is a hard core of feminists who simply cannot allow the possibility of definition 1) or even 3), because that would imply that there are fundamental differences, however small, between men and women. Despite hundreds of scientific studies to the contrary, it remains a cornerstone of their beliefs that there is no such thing as a human nature; that we are all blank slates, 100% the products of our upbringing and experiences. No feminist worth her salt would ever claim that “Men are toxic”, because it would bring her entire philosophical edifice crashing down. Because it’s a small step from saying, “Men are toxic” to saying, “Women can’t hack it as CEOs.”

I don’t especially want to open this can of worms at this point; just to point out that one of the fundamental precepts of this argument is far from universally accepted. But even if they’re ultimately proven right – if men and women are exactly the same, and masculinity and femininity are purely cultural artifacts – they have plenty more to do to convince me of their case.

4) It’s just … wrong
The way I see it, Sarkeesian and Valenti’s statements can be broken down into three separate assertions.

a) The behaviour of men is driven entirely by social norms and ideals.
b) These social norms and ideals are toxic.
c) These toxic ideals are a significant (possibly the most significant) factor in mass shooting incidents.

We’ve covered a). b) I don’t have much of a problem with: large parts of the patriarchy suck, for many men as well as for women. There are some terrible male role models out there, and there is sometimes unhealthy pressure on men to be stoic/tough/violent/sexually promiscuous. It’s c) that’s the real stumbling block. There isn’t a shred of evidence for it, and it doesn’t stand up to even the most cursory analysis.

  • If “toxic notions of masculinity” are the chief cause of Active Shooter Incidents, then why aren’t there more such events in societies that are more unequal, more patriarchal, such as Russia, China, Pakistan and Saudia Arabia ?
  • If “toxic notions of masculinity” are the chief cause of Active Shooter Incidents, why aren’t more shooters from ethnic minorities with more “traditional” gender roles (the majority of perpetrators are white)?
  • If “toxic notions of masculinity” are the chief cause of Active Shooter Incidents, how do you explain the fact that as society has become more egalitarian; as the figure of the “macho man” has come to be regarded with more and more ridicule; as male role models have become gentler and more metrosexual; as the idea of women taking on traditionally male roles and men taking on traditionally female ones has become more accepted – how do you explain the fact that the frequency of mass shootings is increasing?
  • One hundred per cent of all mass shootings have involved (duh) guns, but whatever else you think of them, the NRA are right when they say that guns don’t cause school shootings. (For the record, I think the second amendment is one of the dumbest pieces of legislation in history.) Of course there would be fewer tragedies if gun controls were tightened, but that’s a correlation, not a causation. Guns are a necessary condition for mass shootings, but not a sufficient one. Masculinity isn’t even a necessary condition, let alone a sufficient one, because not all perpetrators of mass shootings have been male.

So, Bodle, if masculinity isn’t to blame, what is?

Myriad theories have been mooted. As well as gun availability, weak correlations have been identified with violent video games, mental illness, bad parenting/abuse, psychiatric medications, bullying, population density, bad neighbourhoods, history of corporal punishment and sensational media coverage of previous such events. These factors all crop up, but none consistently. Nothing stands out as a clear-cut cause or warning sign.

The US authorities concluded in a 2000 report that there simply was no good profile of the sort of person who becomes a school shooter. Their reasons were different, their circumstances were different, and their chosen victims were different (mostly, in fact, they were random). They covered a wide range of ages, races and socioeconomic statuses; they weren’t all loners, they weren’t all from broken homes, and few had been clinically classified as mentally ill.

More promising lines of inquiry are opening up. There might be something to the “culture of entitlement” theory; the great majority of these events do after all occur in the US, land of the American Dream, where the citizens are taught that they can be anyone and have anything, but most find only a pot of piss at the end of the rainbow. The obsession with fame and conspicuous success, with making your mark on the world, are probably in the mix somewhere. (These are toxic notions, but not ones unique to masculinity.)

Some are looking into common psychological threads: many of the killers seemed to have experienced a feeling of powerlessness, of frustration that their voice wasn’t being heard. And many others, while not formally diagnosed with a disorder, had shown signs of developing “negative attributions of blame” when things went wrong in their lives: that is, they held anything but themselves responsible for their woes. Are men, for reasons cultural or biological, more prone to such externalising behaviour?

There have been suggestions that the media’s reporting of these events may be playing a part. There’s a good summary here of the things newspapers and TV should and shouldn’t say after a mass murder, based on the advice of psychologists, which most outlets routinely ignore.

Because humans are, it seems, copycats par excellence. Our skill at emulating others – also known as learning – has been central to our evolutionary success. And the people we like to copy most, perhaps not surprisingly, are those we regard as successful. This is why advertisers recruit celebrities to peddle their wares: most of us are sheep.

The flipside of this is that we also copy celebrities when they do bad things. Suicide rates increase after celebrities kill themselves. While mass murderers aren’t celebrities per se, they do gain notoriety – not something most of us value very highly, but to the desperate, a better option than remaining unheard and unloved. And there’s some evidence that mass shootings, especially when reported sensationally, beget mass shootings.

“The copycat phenomenon is real,” said Andre Simons of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit in September this year. “As more and more notable and tragic events occur, we think we’re seeing more compromised, marginalized individuals who are seeking inspiration from those past attacks.”

This angle offers a new insight into the gender bias of mass killings. We copy those whom we idolise. And who do we tend to idolise? People we feel kinship with; people we feel we could realistically become. People, usually, of our religion, of our own nationality … and above all, people of our own gender. How many (straight) people do you know with role models of the opposite sex to their own?

Therefore, once the first (or the first few) mass shootings have been carried out by a man, a precedent is created; a meme. Men have perpetrated mass shootings, therefore carrying out mass shootings is a thing that men do. Indiscriminate murder becomes almost a career choice. More men are inspired to do the same, which in turn inspires more, and more … You could explain the predominance of men in the field of mass murder in the same way we explain the predominance of men in senior management and engineering. There aren’t as many women in the business of massacring innocent people because there aren’t enough good role models.

That might go some way towards explaining the size of the imbalance – but it doesn’t, of course, throw any light on why the first such shooting was carried out by a man, or why it’s men who are responsible for most other violent acts.

The irony here is that I’m going to turn tail completely and declare that the first interpretation of the feminists’ argument – the one that caused all the offence in the first place – is the correct one. That man’s intrinsic nature is, at least in part, to blame. But because this post is already about 3,000 words too long and I have other shit to stir, that’ll have to wait until next time.

Appreciate the site? There are several ways to show it: 
• Subscribe to notifications
• Like the Facebook page
• Write a constructive comment (or a destructive one, if it’s funny)

Feasibility study (2014)

John Cusack in Say AnythingI’m working on a proper, clever, interesting post, but that’s a way off, so here’s a dumb poem to tide you over.

If I really pulled the stops out with Loretta,
Could I get ‘er?
Might one huge concerted effort win the day?
Tell me if a Grand Romantic Gesture
Would impress ‘er
And I’ll hire the backing singers right away.

If I worked as a financial speculator
Could I date ‘er?
Would absurd amounts of money turn her head?
Is a schmoozer or a grafter what she’s after?
Someone ask ‘er.
If so, I’ll go and earn myself some bread.

Is it animal attraction that she’s seeking,
Broadly speaking?
Would a six-pack be her aphrodisiac?
If I grew some finer features, maybe gained some
Might I then be sent to meet ‘er in the sack?

Perhaps the thought of dating a great writer
Would excite ‘er –
Like Tom Clancy. Would she fancy snogging him?
If I ceased to be an intellectual pygmy
Would she dig me?
Or are my chances fated to be slim?

Yes, this was written for and sent to someone. (Name changed.) And no, nothing came of it.


The science of dating