It's a man's world, at least around my house. With my daughter off at college, it's just my husband, two teenaged sons, and me; even the dog and cat are of the masculine persuasion. Now, I've seen some majority-male households that have slipped toward caveman conditions, where underwear is washed by wearing it in the shower and dishes are washed by giving them to the dog. I'm determined that that won't happen here.
Rather than draw up a long list of rules covering tiny aspects of behavior, I've found that one general principle covers all circumstances. It's one my boys actually came up with on their own. The rule is (and this must be hissed in an urgent whisper): "Not in front of the chick!"
Yes, in my house, as far as I know, no one drinks from the milk jug. No one burps. Dignity and decorum rule the day.
The most obvious charge one could lay against this standard is that it's sexist, and indeed it is. The "Not in front of the chick" rule colludes in a tacit assumption that how men behave when they are alone together might be different from how they behave in feminine company. It presumes that men and women are different, men naturally devolving to a rougher state if given the chance. Women demand something finer of them: respect, protection, the kind of cherishing (St. Paul suggests) which men give to their own bodies.
This is a positive thing. When men don't feel an obligation to protect and cherish women, women get hurt. Men come to look out on a leveled world, and treat everyone the way they treat each other-- that is, pretty rough. The interaction of guys in my house tends toward broad insults, punches, and grins. They thrive on it, but the average girl would be crushed by it.
Recognizing the relative roughness of men blends well with the theory put forth by George Gilder in Men and Marriage, that men must be civilized by women. Men's natural impulse is to stray and play, he says, and it is due to women's influence that they settle down in families and contribute to a coherent society. Without this taming, men would wreak havoc.
Yet I've always thought there was an element of polite fiction to this formulation. Men seem to settle down into families willingly enough; at some level, it must be what they want to do. When they attribute their domestication to the fair sex's beguilements, it is flattering to both. The lady gets to be the fair angel of the hearth, whose purity and cleverness ensnared the savage beast. He gets to be a rough-hewn lusty fellow, whose caveman ways are barely held in check by the lady's silken cords. As he pushes the lawnmower on Saturday afternoon, the sun reddening his bald spot, he can think: I might look like Harry Homeowner, but inside I'm still a wildman. If I didn't have to fix the dryer, I'd be zooming down the California coast on a Harley.
Not that there isn't plenty of historical evidence for men being the sex that is most likely to wreak havoc. Women do appear to be more genteel. When we read a newspaper account of a gory crime, we're never shocked to discover that the culprit is male. As author Joel Achenbach says, we're accustomed to "Male Pattern Badness."
Yet women need improving, too. Their badness pattern is not as showy as men's, but it has its own distinctive malevolence. While boys are asserting rank by beating up the wimpy kids, girls are wounding their unattractive classmates with malicious gossip and humiliating practical jokes. Boys, at least, are direct. Victims of girl-style viciousness know that words can do more lasting hurt than sticks and stones. The tenderness females are famed for may go no deeper than the skin.
The problem with the caveman-and-angel scenario is that it gives too much moral credit to women. Women aren't intrinsically superior to men, nor are they programmed with better virtues. When a man falls, it can't be blamed on a wife failing to train him. Likewise, a woman's flaws can't be blamed on men. But in marriage, each spouse has a responsibility to help the other grow in character, now exhorting, now encouraging.
It may well be that women have a special calling to tame men, to refine the brutish aspects of their nature by holding them to a gentler standard. Even a mild reminder like prohibiting certain habits "in front of the chick" is a step of progress.
But men have a calling to tame women as well. Woman's vaunted compassion is the sunny side of a tendency that, on its darker side, makes moral evaluations based on emotion or what "feels right inside." What feels right is notorious for collapsing into what merely feels good. It may feel good to torment a girl in class, or to flirt with a boss and edge out a coworker for promotion. Whatever pleases me feels good, so I presume that it is good.
Men, for all their faults, are less likely to be confused by slippery emotion. Men's vilified judgmentalism is the darker side of a tendency that, on its positive side, makes moral evaluations based on objective right and wrong, that shows a hunger for fairness and balance. It is rightly suspicious of merely heart-driven ethics.Men need us women to soften them up, gentle and tame them; we women need men to remind us of the rights of others, to make us play fair, and to tame us as well. It's clear that we need each other. You'd almost think someone planned it that way.