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What Has Patriarchy Ever Done for You?
Being honest, seeing the harms, and getting to the root
I’m still new to this, this type of public writing, and it might not surprise you to hear that at times it’s a struggle. As a somewhat obstinate person the feeling of “forcing myself” to write sometimes provokes an inner reaction where I’m rebelling against the deadlines I set for myself. At a slightly deeper level it’s probably a bit of rebellion against the feeling of pressure, pressure to build this platform, build an audience, rebellion against the fact that these thoughts are commodified in any way and the pressure I feel as a result of that. In particular, ever since I started getting a little more personal, weaving anecdotes from my life in a few weeks ago something shifted. The writing felt more powerful, but I began to feel a pressure to bear my soul (or something), and now that’s been added to the mix I find myself rebelling against. Ever since I started having an online platform I never really wanted to make it about me, for a bunch of reasons, and now that that’s changing I have some complex feelings about it. I won’t continue to write a lengthy excuse for why this newsletter-ish publication of mine has been a little more inconsistent the past few weeks, but I figure if I’m going to make it more personal I might as well be as honest as I can be. And I’m having trouble writing today’s piece, and simply sharing what I’m feeling often allows me to get started with my writing. Normally I might delete some of this part and keep the good stuff that comes after, but today I think I’ll keep it, and you might see why I chose to do that as this little essay goes along.
About three weeks ago I shared a piece about alternative ways to be a man, in light of the Andrew Tate story and because it’s a topic I’ve wanted to write about for some time. That piece was really just the start, opening the door for me and maybe for some of you, and inviting men and others to think with me about letting go of many of the ideas around masculinity. And, I also hope it started to show the possibility of other ways men can act, other aspirations we can have in our relationships and in the way we carry ourselves, beyond what’s prescribed to us by patriarchal norms that encourage anger and dominance and coldness as ideals.
But, there was something missing. I mean it was admittedly just a start, so there were probably many things missing, but the one specific thing I’ve thought of several times since then is a conversation I had over a year ago with a few friends and acquaintances that marked a shift in my thinking about these issues of masculinity and patriarchy and gender etc. It was a nice October night in New York, maybe the middle of the month. The group of us were sitting around outside, some of the folks in the circle probably having a beer while we chatted. Somehow the conversation got around to the topics I’m writing about right now. And it was a member of the group up from Philly, visiting and largely the reason the gathering was convened, who said something about the importance of alternative masculinities, alternative models what masculinity could look like, caring and thoughtful models and examples and how they are vital for men and other people to see and experience. I found myself replying, somewhat to my surprise, by questioning idea of masculinity itself.
To be precise, what I questioned in that conversation was masculinity as a measuring stick. When we arrive at alternative masculinities, I think we are in many ways doing something good. To say that masculinity can and should look like caring, like thoughtfulness, like a calm and stable and loving presence rather than what we grew up believing is a good thing, I think. But that night I found myself wondering out loud why we should continue aggregate all those qualities under the label of some type of masculinity. Why should we tell young men, and ourselves in many cases, that practicing all these attributes in a certain way amounts to doing masculinity right, instead of just encouraging those same young men, and myself and others, to practice these qualities simply because they’re worth practicing in and of themselves. To put it simply, why wouldn’t we just have thoughtfulness and care and love as the measuring sticks, instead of continuing to use versions of masculinity as the way we measure ourselves. And when I asked that question, to a groups of people who, by my estimate, had thought about gender and sexuality and patriarchy and feminism and more a whole lot and are extremely thoughtful about it, I didn’t get any answers that satisfied me.
There is one pragmatic response that came up, which is that if we want to move men away from the often cold and emotionless dominant conception of masculinity, that often bursts into anger and sometimes violence, we need to frame our argument with alternative conceptions of masculinity. And I do think there’s lots of truth to that, but I also think it’s just one step in the process. It can be a complicated and difficult step, yet that alone doesn’t mean we should set our eyes just on reforming masculinity. What I’m ultimately going to ask for, in this second essay of mine on the topic, is for folks to look at this radically. I’m thinking of radical here as it’s definition of, “getting to the root.”
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The question of what the root is here, of what the underlying causes of patriarchal violence, a masculinity that is intertwined with dominance, and men and boys’ difficulty breaking free from these structures are isn’t easy to define. In part because there are multiple roots, in part because these ideological and material systems have been rendered normal, been rendered as simply the way things are rather than constructs built over time to subjugate and oppress. In The Will to Change bell hooks writes about how patriarchy doesn’t even register for most men. She says, “Most men never think about patriarchy—what it means, how it is created and sustained… The word ‘patriarchy’ just in not a part of their normal every thought or speech.” And while this is still largely true, the term has proliferated somewhat since the book was published in 2004. But, she addresses men who do know the term or encounter the term as well, writing, “Men who have heard and know the word usually associate it with women’s liberation, with feminism, and therefore dismiss it as irrelevant to their own experiences.” Fortunately, in the last twenty years the number of men who dismiss patriarchy altogether has declined, but we’ve also seen an increase a reactionary anti-feminism. The popularity of overt violent masculinities has jumped, with misogynistic influencers reaching millions of young men and affecting far too many of them.
This sort of response might be inevitable when we seek to change or eradicate any ideology or system deemed normal, thought of as fundamental to the fabric of society. I’ve written a little before about the idea of psychic equivalence, where disruptions to core beliefs can feel just as threatening and destabilizing as real world danger. And I think there’s an element of that here, where challenges to the power of patriarchy are cognitively distressing to men, even when it doesn’t actually threaten us. This is the aspect I often see foregrounded, and have probably emphasized myself at times, the idea that overcoming patriarchy is mostly a matter of men overcoming internal misconceptions and beliefs. But, if we want to really tear down the systems that oppress women and other folks, and hurt men as well, we also need to look to the material realities of patriarchy, the ways it preserves men’s power and wealth and therefore the ways it needs to be addressed through concrete actions simultaneous with changing beliefs and attitudes.
In some ways this part might be pretty obvious, but the material benefits of patriarchy are substantial, and an approach to changing or moving past masculinity that ignores this is going to miss the mark. To be radical, to get to the root, means examining the material basis for patriarchy as well as it’s ideological basis, and seeing how they’re intertwined. In a 1896 speech Clara Zetkin declared, “The contrast within the family between the husband as proprietor and the wife as non-proprietor became the basis for the economic dependence and the social illegality of the female sex.” In other words the capitalist arrangement of power extended and often still extends into the household or into romantic relationships. Patriarchal dominance and control is evidenced by husbands not only having more economic power, by in their control of their wives economic capacity. So when we see men attacking feminism, it can be helpful to realize that this is in part due to how feminism and the changing earning power and economic role of women has undermined male dominance of the economic sphere as it undermines male dominance of women. We see some of the worst of patriarchy’s response to these changes in Tate and others who don’t just encourage an abstract misogyny, but are actively pushing violent control of women for profit with sex trafficking and other coercive and exploitative schemes.
Simultaneously, seeing the intertwined natures of patriarchy and capitalism allows us to see how we need to work against both. Instead of, say, being harmful and violent and breaking every moral code in addition to countless laws in order to violently exploit women for profit under capitalism, young men can embrace both feminism and an anti-capitalist approach to work towards a world where women and men and other folks can all have enough without attempting to dominate others. This is one of several reasons bells hooks speaks about white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy. It’s a gangly, awkward phrase, but knowing that these systems are intertwined and must all be addressed simultaneously is invaluable. If we are to get to the root of what ails us, we need to dig down to where these systems lock arms and conspire together to oppress people of every identity and background. And the world we build when we address the problems at the root level will truly be a better world for all of us, men included.
That last part can be tough for a lot of us, or at least was tough for me. To acknowledge that our conceptions of masculinity, and the various ways patriarchy is enforced hurt us too required confronting some inner fears, requires honesty about some stuff we’re taught to be silent about. And at the same time there are currents of thought that are essentializing and anti-men to the point where some of us have thought that working towards a world where we too are happier and better off was wrong, was misguided. A hatred of men as a response to patriarchal violence is understandable, yet that level of generalization does little or nothing to get us towards a better world. bell hooks talks about this much better than I can, which is one of the reasons I recommend her book The Will to Change. More vitally for this essay, she expresses in her work a faith in men’s ability to grow, to see past the lies and stunting efforts of patriarchy, and to join in the struggle against this system that harms us as valuable contributors. And this is where I have landed, for now. This is where I invite men to explore and learn. How can we dismantle patriarchy? How can we overthrow it and create ways of being that don’t harm others, and allow us to be fuller people as well?
I talked in my last piece on this topic about some of the ways the most embedded conceptions of masculinity have hurt us. And I really do believe that if most men look inside honestly it doesn’t take long for us to see the truth about these harms. bell hooks writes about something very painful, yet real and persuasive, which is how by forcing a stunted emotional life on boys from a very young age patriarchy hurts our ability to love. I’ve experienced that. I’ve seen men experience that and watched the relationships harmed or ended and the people hurt in the process. So I guess this is my final pitch, for today, as to why we should get to the root. The more we dig, the more we uproot the harmful masculinities and patriarchy holding us back, the more we get to love. I know it’s not some simple one-to-one equation, but if we can move in that direction of experiencing and giving love more fully, what’s better than that? Not much. So I hope you’ll join in this tough process of getting down to the foundation, and then building something new. - Josh
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