After months of delay, Boys Scouts of America (BSA) is finally voting today to overturn its ban on “openly gay” scouts (though not scout leaders—those are still verboten.) The BSA has defended its discriminatory policy on the grounds that homosexuality is incompatible with the Scout Law, especially with the values expressed in its commitment to ‘morally straight’ and ‘clean’ living. But instead of twisting themselves into moral knots that encourage bigotry, the Boy Scouts would have saved themselves a lot of angst and controversy (and also done better by American boys) if they were more like…the Girl Scouts.
In their statement of purpose called “What we stand for,” the Girl Scouts explicitly reject discrimination of any kind and consider sexual orientation, “a private matter for girls and their families to address.” Noting their affirmation of freedom of religion, a founding principle of American life, the Girl Scouts “do not attempt to dictate the form or style of a member’s worship” and urge “flexibility” in reciting the Girl Scout Promise. (They are encouraged to substitute the word “God” for something that’s more in line with their own spiritual practice.) It’s an arresting contrast to the Boy Scouts of America, who in addition to excluding gays also refuse to hire non-believers. While the BSA employment application states unequivocally that atheists, agnostics and “known or avowed homosexuals” are in all cases barred from becoming Scout leaders, convicted criminals can rest easy that their record “is not an automatic bar to employment.”
But there’s more than discrimination at stake. The BSA’s clannish practices may harm heterosexual boys too. That’s because a body of research suggests that excluding people from groups who are different impairs creative problem-solving and critical thinking. The studies, ranging from financial trading and management practices to jury deliberations, have confirmed what most of us know intuitively: our decision-making is enhanced by a wide variety of perspectives, even from those with whom we may disagree.
Some will argue – and many have – that the Boy Scouts aren’t practicing discrimination, merely asserting, as a private institution, constitutionally protected values that have been upheld by the supreme court. And that’s correct, as far as it goes.
The problem is that these values reflect a constricted vision of moral development based on outdated stereotypes of masculinity that can keep young men from reaching their full potential as human beings, while the values of the Girl Scouts enhance moral and intellectual development. According to an article in the Atlantic, the two organizations started with similar aims but quickly diverged as the Boy Scouts affiliated with church sponsors and other elite power structures while the Girl Scouts went their own way. Girl Scouts started racially desegregating their troops back in the 1950’s (Martin Luther King Jr. was a vocal fan) and have long espoused a culture of inclusion, dialogue, and strongly independent thinking. In 2011, Kathleen E. Denny, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, analyzed the Boy Scout and Girl Scout handbooks and concluded:
The girls’ handbook conveys messages about approaching activities with autonomous and critical thinking, whereas the boys’ handbook facilitates intellectual passivity through a reliance on organizational scripts. Taken together, girls’ messages promote an “up-to-date traditional woman” consistent with the Girl Scouts’ organizational roots; boys’ messages promote an assertive heteronormative masculinity that is offset by facilitating boys’ intellectual passivity.
Contemporary life demands an increasingly elastic and collaborative mind, and the unfortunate truth is that American women, generally speaking, are finding it easier to adapt to a country of diverse people and ideas. One study found that female politicians make more effective legislators because they are better collaborators and less prone to show-boating (or going off on an Appalachian trail of personal exploration). They sponsor and co-sponsor more bills (an average of 26 more per congressional session) and they also bring more money to their districts compared to their male counterparts. (And we’re talking “real money” here: an average of $50 million dollars more per legislator.) The reason seems to be that women politicians are more skilled at the “deal-making” activities that result in legislative action.
Nearly all the essential academic skills identified by the Partnership for 21st Century Learning, such as creativity and innovation, problem-solving, communication and collaboration and civic literacy, are areas in which girls arguably have an advantage. However, there is no reason boys can’t excel in them too.
Many indicators are telling us that we have to do a better job of helping young men navigate early adulthood. The Boy Scouts have an admirable tradition of teaching boys to become men. But as men and women work, go to war, and raise families interchangeably, it no longer makes sense to idealize a stereotypic brand of masculinity, one that is ‘physically strong,’ and ‘clean’… whatever that means. The morally “straight” thing to do seems obvious: help all boys and girls become their better selves.