Untimely Observations

Vulnerability as a Virtue

The elevation of silly girl talk to the level of mountain top wisdom must surely be one of the signs of our coming Oprah-tastic Western apocalypse.

Marie Wilson, author of Closing the Leadership Gap: Why Women Can and Must Help Run the World , recently posted some silly girl talk, praising the virtue of vulnerability to The Huffington Post. In her piece Wilson uses the example of an oil rig where masculinity was artificially "re-shaped" to create an environment where "men, for the sake of safety and productivity, were encouraged to abandon the bravado, risk taking, and denying failure associated with tough jobs like these and make themselves, vulnerable." She muses that perhaps it would be better for everyone if the world were more like this oil rig, and brazenly incites women to collude to maintain a status quo that keeps "man-ly men behaviors in place."

The idea that "vulnerability can be strength" is the kind of feel-good self esteem building group hug talk parroted by women who are looking for ways to prove that traits associated with women are somehow better than traits associated with men.

"Vulnerability is strength," coming from some eccentric Asian in pajamas, could be interesting in the way that it is head exploding Zen-like nonsense, an obvious contradiction that forces you to examine reality from a different angle. This can provide short term benefits because it forces men to examine their own behavior and assumptions. It can show what is working and what is not working, and possibly reveal new opportunities or ways of seeing a problem. But the sensei in pajamas doesn't really sing the praises of real vulnerability, because that would be absurd. There's a difference between checking behaviors that are contributing to damage in a particular situation, and advocating a status quo where men and women alike are all "risk-smart cooperative, vulnerable and open to admitting our mistakes and failures."

This inversion of values serves a feminist purpose, because by officially denigrating masculine assertiveness and holding up feminine prudence, women can level the competitive playing field. For instance, if you cite safety concerns and force everyone to "team lift" something that most healthy men should be able to lift by themselves with a little effort, you can more easily find less able "persons" willing to do work that is half as hard and half as risky at a (presumably) lower pay rate.

However, this also prompts me to ask why anyone would want to work on an oil rig in the first place, if not at least in part because there is a certain risky badass-ness to it. In this way isn't it a bit like crab fishing in Alaska or working on a SWAT team or any of the other dangerous and dirty jobs that draw millions of wide-eyed viewers to popular shows on the Discovery and History channels? If you wanted to do something where risk is almost non-existent, you would just work at Target, right?

We could, perhaps, accept that a desire for greater safety is reasonable, even good. But is this really about safety? There's something bigger happening on Wilson's oil rig that Matthew B. Crawford gets at in Shop Class As Soulcraft. He writes about the increasing trend to see managers as therapists, because jobs are becoming increasingly idiot-proofed, and workers are becoming more interchangeable. Evaluating a worker becomes more a matter of assessing how they fit into the corporate "culture," and how much of a "team player" they are. Instead of relying on the competency, integrity and will to power of men...

Scattered craft knowledge is concentrated in the hands of the employer, then doled out again to workers  in the form of minute instructions needed to perform some part of what is now a work process. This process replaces what was previously an integral activity, rooted in craft tradition and experience...

...It is a mistake to suppose that the primary purpose of this partition is to render the work process more efficient. It may or may not result in extracting more value from a given unit of labor time. The concern is rather with labor cost. Once the cognitive aspects of the job are located in a separate management class, or better yet in a process that, once designed, requires no ongoing judgment or deliberation, skilled workers can be replaced with unskilled workers at a lower rate of pay.

Competent, courageous, skilled men make the managers dependent on them. Mere "workers" are dependent on managers.  That's really the end result of what Wilson advocates-the reduced independence of individual men, based on the idea that finger-wagging, therapeutic (and it is to be assumed, increasingly female) managers know what is best for the interests of the company and the world.

Men who are concerned with their own interests do not praise "vulnerability" as a value, because vulnerability is by definition openness to attack or injury. Men are generally concerned with eliminating or minimizing vulnerability, not celebrating it. And by pushing themselves to be stronger, instead of more vulnerable, they raise the bar for other men and create a stronger civilization. That a civilization would even entertain celebrating vulnerability as some sort of virtue exposes it as sick, suicidal and self-hating.

There's nothing wrong with promoting reasonable workplace safety standards in a high risk environment, but promoting "vulnerability" as a cultural value of its own on par with strength is pure ressentiment. And while it might be done in the name of saving workers, the people who will benefit from an increasingly vulnerable, emasculated and dependent population in the long term are those who hope to exploit manage them.

I doubt Marie Wilson sees what Crawford refers to as "the degradation of blue collar work" as a problem. I doubt she cares if men really get any sense of fulfillment out of their work, if they enjoy the challenge of risk or take pride in facing it. Uppity feminist church bazaar busybody types like Wilson want to child-proof the world. The problem with that is the more you treat men like little boys, the harder it will be to find men who are willing and able to be men when you really need them to be.