Scott Adams has me frustrated

A number of people have criticized Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams for his rather offensive recent blog post arguing that "Powerful men have been behaving badly, e.g. tweeting, raping, cheating, and being offensive to just about everyone in the entire world" because "society is organized in such a way that the natural instincts of men are shameful and criminal while the natural instincts of women are mostly legal and acceptable."

Adams seems to be offering a classic "boys will be boys" defense of inappropriate male behavior. I agree with his critics that his comments are nonsensical, but I think the critics have actually failed to notice the most nonsensical parts.

First, the critics seem not to have noticed that Adams is confusing different aspects of what he calls "behaving badly." I think it's true that society overly stigmatizes human sexuality (in women as well as men). This isn't exactly a new insight. In Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud points out that the benefits of civilization comes with a price, namely the obligation that we repress some of our impulses in order to get alone with one another. Unlike Scott Adams, Freud understood that society expects us not just to repress sexual desires but also impulses to commit violence, to steal, to play when we are expected to work, etc. This makes us discontented sometimes. Unlike Scott Adams, Freud also understood that this discontentment is imposed on men and women alike, and he understood that sometimes those impulses escape the restraints we try to impose on them. Many of the "scandals" that we see in the news occur for precisely this reason.

However, there is an obvious difference between the different types of impulse-driven behavior. Anthony Weiner's online flirtations, for example, are simply not in the same ballpark as some of the other offenses that have been in the news lately. His underwear tweet was a bit creepy but actually did very little harm to anything other than his own reputation, career and marriage. Weiner's behavior was simply not in the same ballpark as the French economist who stands accused of physically assaulting his chambermaid, and it's silly to equate those two offenses. On the scale of badness, moreover, none of of the above-mentioned sexual offenses is anywhere near as "bad" as any number of non-sexual crimes that have happened recently, such as for example the violent repression in Muammar Qaddafi's Libya or Bashar Assad's Syria. For that matter, the drinking and driving by "Jackass" star Ryan Dunn offers a recent example of impulsive behavior that ended two lives without any discernible sexual element whatsoever. By focusing on bad behavior that involves sexuality, therefore, Adams is simply revealing the selective bias of his own preoccupations.

Adams also contradicts himself. In one paragraph, he writes, "If we allowed men to act like unrestrained horny animals, all hell would break loose. All I’m saying is that society has evolved to keep males in a state of continuous unfulfilled urges, more commonly known as unhappiness." In the very next paragraph, Adams asks us to "Consider Hugh Hefner" and goes on to argue that because marriage hasn't worked out for Hefner, his story presents another case where "Society didn’t offer him a round hole for his round peg. All it offered were unlimited square holes."

That's an odd juxtaposition. Regardless of whether Hef's marriages have worked out, when I consider Hugh Hefner I see a man who has lived as far as it is possible to live from "a state of continuous unfulfilled urges." To the contrary, Hefner seems to have fulfilled just about every sexual urge that ever entered either of his heads. 

There are voices in the feminist movement and also on the religious right who believe that Hefner is a bad influence for this reason. Maybe they're right and maybe they're wrong, but society certainly didn't stop him. Moreover, I don't see any indication that "all hell broke loose" simply because Hefner has lived like an "unrestrained horny animal." Whatever we think of Hef's lifestyle, moreover, he seems to have pursued it without needing to rape chambermaids or engage in the other bad behaviors that Adams seems to think are inherently tied to the very nature of being male.

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