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27.6.04

Does A Man Need A Man?

In what may be the first post someone else has written entirely in response to me, Hugo Schwyzer elaborates on his frequent contention that men need emotional intimacy with other men. This post is a response, but it's not a rebuttal per se -- it's more a clarification of where I think our perspectives diverge.

The crux of Schwyzer's argument rests on the distinction between sympathy and empathy, and the fact that we often need the latter (though of course the former is useful in its own way). We get a certain special kind of help from sharing our problems with someone who has shared that kind of experience. In principle, then, we agree. The disagreement is over the extent to which gender is decisive in determining the possibility of empathy.

He uses the example of his friend "Craig," who came to Schwyzer for help after cheating on his wife with a stripper. Schwyzer claims that his experience as a heterosexual man means that he can empathize with Craig's situation more than a woman could. In the comments, Lynn Gazis-Sax backs Hugo up by pointing out that, while she can empathize with the temptation to cheat, unlike Schwyzer and Craig she doesn't understand the temptation to cheat with a stripper (as opposed to, say, an old flame).

Total empathy is impossible, because no two people have had exactly the same experience in all details. While Schwyzer can empathize more with Craig than Gazis-Sax can, he can't totally empathize, since unlike Craig he's never followed through on his temptation. But imagine if Craig had a second potential confidante in addition to Schwyzer -- a woman who's never been tempted by a stripper, but who has actually committed adultery and had to repair her marriage afterward in the way that Craig is trying to do. Assuming that for whatever reason Craig can only go to one of them for help, it doesn't seem prima facie obvious to me that "tempted by stripper, but hasn't cheated" is more similar to Craig's situation, and thus more conducive to empathy, than "not tempted by a stripper, but has cheated."

I also wonder how much the experiences of the genders diverge. I'm a man like Craig and Schwyzer, but I find myself better able to empathize with Gazis-Sax's temptation to cheat with an old flame than Craig's temptation to cheat with a stripper. It's hard to make a quantifiable scale of what types of people individuals are tempted by in order to see how uniform men's versus women's experiences are. But I tend to see the diversity within genders as greater, and the boundary as fuzzier, than Schwyzer does (or at least, I focus on the diversity and fuzziness more).

Last but not least, there's the old nature/nurture question. I won't deny that people today may often need the help of someone of their own gender, but my instinct is to see such cases as socially constructed. Our highly gendered society foists certain classes of experience on men but not women (and vice-versa), leaving people with only their own gender as a source of empathy. Obviously there's some small set of empathy topics that are naturally gender-specific (no man will ever be able to empathize with the issues surrounding menstruation, for example). And perhaps a fair number of topics would continue to be roughly correlated with gender in any society. Where Schwyzer and I disagree is on the strength and significance of gender as a determinant of the possibility of empathy, now and in the future.

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