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Dr. Peter Breggin Headshot

Did You Know -- Conservative Men Doubt Their Masculinity?

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On August 19th the headline in my local newspaper the Ithaca Journal declared, "Threatened men more pro war, SUVs." The reporter asked the question, "What makes a macho man?" and then replied, "A simple threat to his masculinity could to the trick, according to Cornell University sociologist Robb Willer."

Doctoral candidate Willer used science to prove that male feelings of inferiority lead to Conservative political choices. He presented his findings this past week at the American Sociological Association meetings in Philadelphia.

Undergraduate students were first given a gender identity survey. They were then randomly told that they had a male or female identity. In the second phase of the study, the students were then asked a series of questions aimed at eliciting their political attitudes. The students "who were told arbitrarily that they had a feminine identity were more willing to buy a sports utility vehicle, showed more support the Iraq war and displayed more homophobic attitudes."

Basically he told these young male students that they weren't real guys and then watched them squirm. Not surprisingly, some of them compensated by voicing their support for conventional symbols of strength, power and maleness in our society. At least, that's what Robb says happened and it seems plausible.

You have to keep in mind that a Cornell researcher gave objective-looking tests to these young men. Based on this seemingly factual evidence, the students were told that their feminine identities had been exposed--scientifically brought out of the closet. Is it any wonder that they became defensive and espoused seemingly male values?

I'm a psychiatrist and a researcher but it doesn't take any special expertise to anticipate these results. Just go up to any ten-year-old boy and tell him he's a sissy and he'll try to punch you out--unless he is a sissy.

Let's imagine another experiment. Let's take another group of young college men and this time we'll make them feel that they are too masculine rather than too feminine. We'll tell them that they have "hyper-masculine identities," implying they should feel guilty about being men. How will they answer our questions about cars, war, and homosexuality? Out of guilt over their masculinity, some will explain that they look favorably upon small cars, anti-war sentiments, and homosexuality. Certainly enough of them will react in this defensive way to give us that scientific dollar sign called statistical significance. Does this prove that Liberalism results from guilt over a masculine identity? Hmmm...

What Robb Willer has done is to pathologize both masculinity and Conservatism. Masquerading politics as science, he's made masculinity and Conservatism into diseases. This has been going on forever in the so-called social sciences. Decades ago a book called The Authoritarian Personality earned fame for its authors by linking patriotism and religion to mental disorder. At the time I was young and Liberal and of course I thought it was wonderful science. Now I'm old and Libertarian and it looks like a corruption of science to me.

The newspaper article about him says that Robb's next research will involve testing men for their testosterone levels by means of a convenient spit test. In the 1990s my wife Ginger and I successfully defeated a racist federal program that, among other things, was going to test the saliva of inner city children to link their violence to testosterone. White academics have long suspected that black men have more testosterone than they do. Ginger and I wrote about the racist research on black children in The War Against Children of Color. Now we've come full circle. We're going to test young white men to see if their excessive hormones drive their Conservative sentiments.

What are you going to do with your hormonal technology, Robb? Use the spit test to screen for potential terrorists at airports? No, that's what people concerned about terrorism might think of doing. Your professors will use low testosterone levels as a qualification for acceptance into graduate school in sociology. They've been doing this for years without benefit of an objective test.

Robb found that young women were not as distressed by being told that they had masculine identities. As for why the young women weren't as threatened about having their femininity undermined, look at the sample--Cornell undergraduate women competing in that hothouse of pseudo-masculinity called academia, a world in which violence issues from the tongue rather than the fist.

Lest anyone doubt the liberal bias of both the press and academia, try to imagine Robb getting anywhere by conducting the alternative study that I have suggested--one showing that a young man who's made to feel guilty about his masculinity will adopt more Liberal politics.

Perhaps there is a formula: If you feel guilty about your masculine side, you tend to become a Liberal; if you feel ashamed of your feminine side, you tend to become a Conservative. And if you have no interest in your gender identity, you become a Libertarian--or stay out of politics? Perhaps the chicken and the egg are reversed: If you're Liberal, you learn to feel guilty about many of your masculine traits and if you're Conservative you learn to feel embarrassed about your feminine traits. Myself, I think it's very complicated and the subject of a book rather than a blog.

And what about torturing young Cornell students by telling them they have a feminine identity? Robb Willer should publish the consent form for his research. Does he warn the boys of Cornell in advance that as a part of the research project they will be lied to, deceived, manipulated, and ultimately humiliated at the core of their sense of self?

Gender identity is among the most vulnerable points in young men and women. Did Robb Willer consider the potentially disastrous psychological effects of threatening a college student's identity in the interest of promoting his own political ideology? Cornell is a hyper-competitive environment that's already infamous for having students throw themselves into its deep gorges.

Robb, did you eventually tell these humiliated young men, "We were only kidding"? You lied to them the first time. Why would they believe you the second time?

Shame on researchers who use fake science to foster their political agendas and personal careers at the expense of legitimate science and the emotional health of young students. Shame on sociology for so often feeding us politics as science. Shame on Cornell and its Department of Sociology for permitting it. Successful Cornell alumni, especially those with lots of testosterone, should rise up and call for an investigation.


Dr. Breggin's latest book is Medication Madness: A Psychiatrist Exposes the Dangers of Mood-Altering Medications (2008) and his revised and updated website is Breggin.com.

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