Power, patriarchy, and is idealism the problem?

Today I read an article entitled “Men, Feminism, and Men’s Contradictory Experiences of Power” (which I accessed through this blog post, linked to by Becky). I have been thinking quite a lot lately about men and power, so it was a welcome find for me.

The author suggests that the power afforded to men growing up in a traditional, patriarchal social system comes at the cost of some serious issues for them (aside from the issues it causes for women!). The stereotyped male role may be idealised in their minds:

“… the absence of men from most parenting and nurturing tasks means that the masculinity internalized by little boys is based on distance, separation, and a fantasy image of what constitutes manhood”.

They then inevitably fail to live up to the unrealistic ideal of a man who is all-powerful, invulnerable; they find they have needs and feelings that are incompatible with this ideal, and these needs cause them pain and fear. This then feeds back into the appetite for power:

“… the more we are the prisoners of the fear, the more we need to exercise the power we grant ourselves as men. In other words, men exercise patriarchal power not only because we reap tangible benefits from it. The assertion of power is also a response to fear and to the wounds we have experienced in the quest for power.”

What interested me is how this seems to make sense of the often non-constructive (or much worse) behaviour of such men. Of how it is that men in the most patriarchal societies seem to be the most controlling over the women in their lives when they already have all the power anyway. It also helps me understand how the kind of egotistic barriers to intimacy and empathy that result can eventually produce men that are willing to harass women, as is commonplace in the streets of some of the world’s cities. I understood that this was about power, but I hadn’t come across this explanation for the desperate hunger for power that can express itself in such ugly ways. Not that this excuses any of it, or makes it any less sinister.

“By losing track of a wide range of our human needs and capacities, and by blocking our need for care and nurturance, men dampen our emotional common sense and our ability to look after ourselves. Unmet, unknown, and unexpected emotions and needs don’t disappear but rather spill into our lives at work, on the road, in a bar, or at home. The very emotions and feelings we have tried to suppress gain a strange hold over us. No matter how cool and in control, these emotions dominate us.”

We have been passionately marching away from traditional gender roles and patriarchy in western societies and redressing the power balance and I would guess this has reduced the impact of these problems in our societies. Yet could it be the problem is fundamentally about, as this article suggests, unrealistic idealism? I honestly feel sorry for men who have grown up under intense pressure to be something they cannot ever be and to never, ever be able to express their fears and frustrations – to be unable to reach out except by clutching for control. Perhaps the problem is not patriarchy per se but the rigidity of a system in which neither women nor men have any real choices; a system whereby both genders are defined and hemmed in by neat stereotyped roles and characters.

If this is the case, then I wonder if the author’s hope for “demolishing gender altogether” (page 22) isn’t just another unhelpful form of idealism, one that is now becoming widespread in replacement of the former ideals. Women are supposed to work like men and have the same goals and ambitions as men; dads are supposed to be as in-tune with their children’s needs and feelings as mums. Every job type is supposed to have a 50/50 gender representation. We know the drill. None of this fits with the reality that I see around me. An example from my own work life: academic science seems to burn many women out; the majority drop out of academic research after the PhD stage, and a lot of people are scratching their heads trying to figure out why. I have seen several women finish science PhDs in a tortured state, wishing for a mundane job. There are frequently confidence-building workshops for women in science, yet no-one will dare talk about why we feel like fish out of water. Maybe it is all just a result of the history of male domination. But maybe it isn’t. How did such a disparity even arise? Doesn’t it stand to reason that evolution has programmed males and females with certain innate differences?

It seems to me this new type of idealism sends some people running right back into the arms of patriarchy – the growing numbers of western women that are converting to Islam, for example, many of whom feel actually liberated by the explicit permission to take on traditional female roles and priorities.

Without any ideals, and without other issues – such as the need many people have for the security and validation in carrying out prescribed roles – what would we be like?

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8 Responses to Power, patriarchy, and is idealism the problem?

  1. Julian says:

    I am sure you are right that evolution has bequeathed us sexual differences that feed into gender. Sure there will be a large amount of social construct involved, but you can’t just ignore those little X and Y chromosomes doing their thing. I am reading Paul Gilbert’s book Compassionate Mind at the moment and it is reminding me that evolution has no concern for our happiness or for constructing harmonious societies. It just, very effectively, ensures that the species reproduces itself, gradually changing in response to conditions. There can be no ideal life determined by nature in such a scheme (unless you reduce such an ideal to churning out as many offspring as possible). I don’t know the answer to your final question though. Perhaps rather than thinking in terms of ideals, we could think in terms of different ‘models’. A ‘model’ sounds less perfectionistic to me and also seems to recognise that many different ones can co-exist for the many different kinds of people there are. The problem with Islam for example is not that some people want to live that way, it is that it becomes a norm that is expected in certain societies. If a woman chooses that then I’d say good luck to her, as long as she is genuinely free to reject it too. I believe Oscar Wilde once wrote that ‘Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is expecting others to live as one wishes to live’.

  2. caraboska says:

    Praise the Lord. I present as female, I’m phenotypically female – but on the inside, I am about as non-gendered as they come. I have every characteristic ‘typical’ of both sexes – in more or less equal and extreme measure. I do not fit into other people’s little schemes, and there isn’t a whole lot of place for them in my life either. It is very true, in other words, that I pay a price in terms of ‘loss of community’ for being who I am. But the alternative – pretending to be someone I am not, just to ‘fit in’ – is so totally unacceptable that it is unthinkable to opt for it, regardless of the price of not doing so. So I focus on making as good a life for myself as I can with what and whom and in whatever capacity the Lord provides.

  3. susanne430 says:

    Interesting thoughts here!

  4. Doomed Lions says:

    When humans evolved they wiped off Homo neanderthals directly or indirectly via food resource competition. In the same way, for eons, men have practiced rape and polygamy. I do not see any problem with those things, as they are purely biological phenomenon, and I do not believe in Golden Rule, nor in any morality.

    Yes, diversity of opinions exist in this world. Many people do not seek peace as you do. I seek anarchy and violence, the very brooding environment of nature against which we evolved and continue evolve. Let’s keep our evolution going.

    • Sarah says:

      But didn’t compassion/morality, and the mechanisms for harmonious living in groups, emerge from the evolutionary process also? Nature isn’t all anarchy and violence… and even if it were, why should a person value that over human compassion?

      • Doomed Lions says:

        you are right. Compassion and altruism arose as a process of evolution too, but only for selfish benefits: survival of species. But I and many like minded have decided to not follow this compassion, and rather value violence more in our lives. Why should not a person value violence over human compassion?

        • Sarah says:

          I guess most people value that which promotes well-being and happiness because these states are inherently more rewarding than the alternatives. To me that is the logic behind valuing compassion over ruthlessness, cooperation over anarchy. And I guess this has been so rewarding for us throughout the history of our species that we have set up rules and laws around it and call them “morality”.

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