on patriarchy


excerpt from Ken Wilber’s “A Brief History of Everything.”

KW: …part of turmoil between the sexes nowadays is that while male/female differences are biological and universal — and therefore can’t really be changed very much — nonetheless masculine and feminine are in many ways the product of culture, and these can indeed be changed in at least some significant ways. And we, as a culture, are in the difficult and tricky process of trying to change some of these gender roles.

Q: For example?

KW: Well, while it’s true that, on average, the male body is more muscular and physically stronger than the female, it does not follow that masculine therefore must mean strong and assertive and feminine must mean weak and demure. And we are in a transition period where masculine and feminine roles are being redefined and re-created, which has thrown both men and women into a type of rancorous sniping at each other in various types of gender wars.

Part of the problem is that, whereas masculine and feminine roles can indeed be redefined and refashioned — a long-overdue and much-needed refurbishing — nonetheless male and female characteristics cannot be changed much, and in our attempt to level the differences between masculine and feminine, we are dangerously close to trying to erase the differences between male and female. And while the former is a fine idea, the latter is impossible. And the trick is to know the difference, I suppose.

[…] As we continue to investigate the differences between men and women, related to both sex and gender, there are indeed certain differences, even in the cultural domain, that crop up again and again across cultures. In other words, not only certain sex differences, but certain gender differences tend to repeat themselves cross-culturally.

It’s as if the biological sex differences between men and women are such a strong basic platform that these biological differences tend to invade culture as well, and thus tend to show up in gender differences also. So, even though gender is culturally molded and not biologically given, nonetheless certain constraints in masculine and feminine gender tend to appear across cultures as well.

[…] Men tend toward hyperindividuality, stressing autonomy, rights, justice, and agency, and women tend toward a more relational awareness, with emphasis on communion, care, responsibility, and relationship. Men tend to stress autonomy and fear relationship, women tend to stress relationship and fear autonomy.

Q: […] It seems that these differences are being used to demonstrate that men are rather inherently insensitive slobs and testosterone mutants who “just don’t get it.” The message is, men should be more sensitive, more caring, more loving, more relational. What you call the male value sphere is everywhere under attack. The message is, why can’t a man be more like a woman?

KW: Used to be that women were defined as “deficient men” — “penis envy” being the classic example. Now men are being defined as “deficient women” — defined by the feminine characteristics that they lock, not by any positive attributes that they possess. Both approaches are pretty ridiculous, not to mention demeaning and degrading to both genders.

The tricky part, as I started to suggest, is how to do two very difficult things: one, to reasonably decide just what are the major differences between the male and female value spheres ( a la Gilligan), and then, two, to learn ways to value them more or less equally. Not to make them the same, but to value them equally.

[…] Q: Now you said that our society has been male-oriented for some time, and that a certain balancing of the books seems to be in order.

KW: That is what is generally meant by the “patriarchy,” a word which is always pronounced with scorn and disgust. The obvious and naive solution is to simply say that men imposed the patriarchy on women — a nasty and brutal state of affairs that easily could have been different — and therefore all that is now required is for men to simply say,”Oops, excuse me, didn’t mean to crush and oppress you for five thousand years. What was I thinking? Can we just start over?”

But alas, it is nowhere near that ismple. There were certain inescapable circumstances that made the “patriarchy” an unavoidable arrangement for an important part of human development, and we are just now reaching the point where that arrangement is no longer necessary, so that we can begin, in certain fundamental ways, to “deconstruct” the patriarchy, or more charitably balance the books between the male and female value spheres. But this is not the undoing of a brutal state of affairs that could have easily bene otherwise; it is rather the outgrowing of a state of affairs no longer necessary.

Q: Which is a very different way of looking at it.

KW: Well, if we take the standard response — that the patriarchy was imposed on women by a bunch of sadistic and power-hungry men — then we locked into two inescapable definitions of men and women. Namely, men are pigs and women are sheep. That men would intentionally want to oppress half of the human race paints a dismal picture of men altogether. Testosterone or not, men are simply not that malicious in the totality of their being.

But actually, what’s so altogether unbelievable about this explanation of the patriarchy is that it paints an incredibly flattering picture of men. It says that men — who according to feminists are so hyperindependent that they shouldn’t be able to agree on anything anyway — nonetheless managed to collectively get together and agree to oppress half of the human race, and more amazingly, they succeeded totally in every known culture. As a man, I’m very flattered that some women think we can do this; it’s the nicest thing a feminist has said about men in quite some time. Mind  you, men have never been able to create a domineering government that lasted more than a few hundred years; but according to the feminists, men managed to implement this other and massive domination for five thousand – some say one hundred thousand — years. Those whacky guys, gotta love ’em.

But the really gruesome problem with the “imposition theory” — men oppressed women from day one — is that it paints a horrifyingly dismal picture of women. You simply cannot be as strong and as intelligent and oppressed. This picture necessarily paints women basically as sheep, as weaker and/or stupider than men. Instead of seeing that, at every stage of human evolution, men and women co-created the social forms of their interaction, this picture defines women primarily as molded by an Other. These feminists, in other words, are assuming and enforcing precisely the picture of women that they say they want to erase. But men are simply not that piggy, and women not that sheepy.

So one of the things I have tried to do, based on more recent feminist scholarships, is to trace out the hidden power that women have had that influenced, co-created, the various cultural structures throughout our history, including the so-called patriarchy. Among other things, this releases men from being defined as total schmucks, and releases women from being defined as duped, brainwashed, and herded.

…KW: […] what if the means of subsistence in your particular is horse and herding? As Janet Chafetz points out, women who participate in these activities have a very high rate of miscarriage. It is to their Darwinian advantage not to participate in the productive sphere, which is therefore occupied almost solely by men. And indeed, over 90 percent of herding societies are “patriarchal.” But oppression is not required to explain this patriarchal orientation. The evidence suggests, on the contrary, that women freely participated in this arrangement.

If, on the other hand, we fall into the naive and reflex action, and assume that if women in these societies weren’t doing exactly what the modern feminist thinks she should have been doing, then those women must have been oppressed, then off we go on the men-are-pigs, women-are-sheep chase, which is horribly degrading to both sexes.


2 responses »

  1. Pingback: Gender roles with sexist language & gendered pronouns « cyanide cupcake

  2. Pingback: Male privilege, so-called « cyanide cupcake

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