The venerable Boy Scouts are now going to admit girls. The organization’s quest to make young boys into men slowly has been chipped away by a combination of legal pressure and the influence of the dominant, liberal culture. It was worn down by litigation and only a few years ago agreed to allow the admission of homosexuals both as members as scout leaders. Then it was transgendered “boys” only in January of this year. Now the Boy Scouts are admitting girls. I’m reminded of Flannery O’Connor’s concept of the ultimate liberal institution: The Church of Christ Without Christ.
The stated reasons for this change aren’t completely important, and I expect there is more than one. But whether it’s financial, to accommodate parents who want “one stop shopping” for kids’ activities, misguided attempts to expand membership, or to allow the coveted title of Eagle Scout for girls, single sex organizations, particularly for boys, have been in jeopardy for a long time.
This is unfortunate. The Boy Scouts began, in part, out of a desire to address the consequences of urbanization and the related disruption of family life that these changes entailed in the early 20th century. Boys, previously working alongside their fathers on the farm, would now be ensconced in factory-style schools, with less exercise and fewer opportunities for adventure.
The Boy Scouts’ founders feared a less masculine and heroic generation in an environment where authority figures were exclusively women and life was less strenuous than in the recent past. They understood that the combination of these trends had the potential to create a society of timid, weak, confused and risk averse men. Scouting, with its emphasis on survival in the outdoors, was supposed to teach character, responsibility, and individualism. In the current age of the millennial—exemplified by the Obamacare propaganda campaign’s “pajama boy”—it appears the Boy Scouts’ founders were onto something. Pajama boys are not the kind of men who create, protect, or renew a civilization.
At the time of its founding, over 100 years ago, the fact that the Boy Scouts was a self-described boys organization was not controversial. Men and women had more distinct roles and expectations in society. “Co-educational” institutions were rare. But even as society and the economy evolved to include more blurred roles for men and women, there remains value in single sex organizations.
Teenagers in particular live in a sexually charged atmosphere, where competition for mates persists, even if the end result is less often marriage. These organizations remove this potential distraction. Boys and girls also have different physical capabilities; if judged by the same physical standards, boys would win the vast majority of awards and girls may become demoralized. Further, the possibility of sexual relationships undermines the camaraderie of mixed sex groups and opportunities for friendship. Mixed groups, frankly, are simply never as cohesive as single sex organizations for this reason. Thus fraternities and sororities and single sex colleges and activities persist. Both sexes want them.
Feminism, while persistent, seems to miss this point. It invokes sexism as if it were the same thing as racism, but no one thinks of it as such, at least not in situations like this one. While much of racial discrimination was motivated by hostility and self-proclaimed superiority, much “sexual discrimination” is simply another word for chivalry or the creation of single sex spaces to form friendships.
Separate but equal water foundations appear cruel and ridiculous. Single-sex bathrooms, by contrast, are totally familiar and not seen as demeaning to either group, who, after all, are in numerical parity. The same is true of single sex dorms, schools, sports, clubs, and activities. Indeed, there is a very successful organization called the Girl Scouts of America, and it is understandably critical of this decision, as a mixed-sex Boy Scouts promises to poach a significant cohort of their potential members.
This decision will have predictable consequences and culminate in the diminishment of the Boy Scouts of America. There are at least two reasons for this. First, whenever an organization aims for equality explicitly, that goal begins to overshadow all other institutional goals. We have seen this in police departments, the military, educational institutions, and in many other important institutions of our society.
This diminishment flows from the concept of “institutional” discrimination, which condemns the continued use of legacy standards. Those old standards come to be deemed discriminatory because they often produce different results noticeable to those keeping score by race or sex. Standards previously used with no discriminatory purpose whatsoever, and, indeed, which form part of the group’s pride and notions of excellence, become problematic when the demographics of the organization change. The demand for equality becomes all-consuming to the point of organizational transformation.
For example, if women fail to make up more than 5 percent of all Eagle Scouts, will there not be soul searching about the Boy Scouts’ “toxic culture of masculinity,” patriarchal assumptions, and the mix of activities that are designed to match traditional boys’ interests? This will be deemed unfair and discriminatory. Will there be new merit badges for activities now absent and in which boys, over the years, have shown little interest? And will this strenuous attempt at self-reflection and institutional change not stop until at least 50 percent of Eagle Scouts are women?
Here is a news flash: boys and girls are different. Boys like getting dirty and camping and and taking apart engines and climbing through junk yards and rough-housing. Some girls do as well, no doubt, but far fewer. Mostly the two groups are different, and this was obvious to everyone 20 years ago, has been obvious from the ridiculous ways Title IX has impacted schools and colleges, and now this “common sense” regarding the most basic of sex differences is becoming a “hate fact.”
Yet there is second reason this is a bad decision, and it is more subtle. Becoming a man is, in a way, a process, and a tenuous one at that. Masculinity is more fragile in some ways than femininity. It has long been steeped in ritual. It is not simply a matter of age but of expectations of behavior, independence, and physical courage. Young boys and men are exhorted to “Be a man,” as if it were possible to fail. Part of what makes an activity distinct for this purpose, at least for most boys, is that girls don’t or can’t or aren’t allowed to do it.
In the best of times, these rituals are supervised, recognized, and tied to real achievement. Think of a boot camp graduation or a Bar Mitzvah. In the worst, they’re mere hazing and, in certain communities, include pathological milestones, like your first night in jail. But either way they’re important, they are sought out, and young men who exemplify the Boy Scouts’ code are in need of such ritual for many of the same reasons that they were at the beginning of the 20th century.
We have a fragmented, physically weak society. characterized by disorder and irresponsible behavior, both within and without. Far from an age of political crisis, ours is characterized by a crisis of morale and a crisis of authority. No one knows how to behave any more. Moral behavior depends foundationally on distinctions of what is true and false, of what one owes and to whom. A boy is not a man, and a girl is not a boy. It’s too bad the Boy Scouts—of all groups— have forgotten this.