Monday, November 29, 2010

Patriarchy, Kyriarchy and Men

So some idiot’s long and rambling editorial over at the Chicago Tribune sparked what I think is an interesting discussion over at Feministe. The interesting confab was not on the article itself, but on Julia Serrano’s (cited by Jadey) definitions of traditional sexism and oppositional sexism

traditional sexism
Sexism that is rooted in the presumption that femaleness and femininity are inferior to (and only exist for the sexual benefit of) maleness and masculinity. It targets those who are female as well as those who are feminine (regardless of their sex).

oppositional sexism
Sexism that is rooted in the presumption that female and male are rigid, mutually exclusive, “opposite” sexes, each possessing a unique and non-overlapping set of attributes, aptitudes, abilities, and desires. It targets those who do not conform to oppositional gender norms. A number of previously described categories of sexism (e.g., transphobia, homophobia and cissexism) fall under the umbrella of oppositional sexism.

Essentially, the interesting argument is whether what Serrano calls “traditional sexism” should applicable to men to or said differently whether women have any institutional power over men.

This argument points out what I consider to be the fundamental flaw inherent in many strands of feminism. They look at the world from the single lens of the oppression of women. I know, I know…that was what feminism was created to do: to provide equality for women. I completely agree on the rationale for why feminism was created. I just disagree on the value of that perspective.

But there can be no equality as long as one person is unequal, as long as one person lives in a world that oppresses.

Looking at the world from the single lens of the oppression of women provides a distorted view of the world. Decades ago feminist philosophers charged the ivory tower academics with failing to solve problems because they have a myopic view of the world. Feminism has a myopic vision of power as binary and men as the holders of that power.

Power is not always binary. It’s so obvious as to be ridiculous, but at least in the US there is no cabal of men who get together on Sunday afternoons to determine how best to oppress women and how to maintain the existing power dynamic. Indeed, there isn’t even an unconscious consideration on the part of *men* in general on how they should alter their actions to further oppress women. In the US, men are not simply the Oppressors and women are not simply the Oppressed. Power isn’t necessarily controlled by one group and exercised for the purpose of oppression.

This isn’t to say that the view of power as binary isn’t reasonable. Indeed in some situations people do consciously and purposefully collaborate to harm or oppress others. I’m sure we can all think of at least a dozen examples. Although even in those contexts there are oppressive forces working on those exerting power. The problem is it isn’t the only way in which power oppresses and when we limit ourselves to a oppressor/oppressed (“or/ed”) paradigm it is far to easy to ignore the oppression experienced by people who we label as oppressors even though they too are victims of oppression.

The men are oppressors. If men are oppressors in the or/ed paradigm then Serrano’s definitions of traditional/oppositional sexism make sense. Men oppress women both institutionally and through gendered norms. Men oppress other men who fail to meet gendered norms. In all cases men are the source of the oppression.

It falls in with Jadey’s comment (@ 98) that:

“So short = bad also encompasses feminine/female = bad (and it should be clear where this sucks for short guys), but it also intersects with conformity = good, so short women = conforming to the idea that women are short (and also bad), which is good, and short men = failure to conform to the idea that men are tall (or taller than women, at least!), which is bad. And also they are (or could be) “feminized”, which is also bad, both because non-conformity is bad and being female/feminine is bad.”

But it falls apart when we look more carefully at the idea implied but not expressed by Jadey that masculinity=good.

Let’s take a look at one of the common characteristics of masculinity: stoicism.

Stoicism. I maintain that generally speaking one of the characteristics of masculinity in USian society is stoicism, the repression of emotion and indifference to pleasure or pain. I also maintain that overall in USian society stoicism is generally considered good. We admire the football player who “walks it off” or otherwise “takes it like a man.”

But before we write this one off as part of the masculinity=good category let’s examine it in other contexts like relationships. Men are often accused of not being able to share their feelings. And I use the word “accuse” on purpose. This is not a good thing. This is the subject of countless sitcoms and innumerable made-for-TV movies. Not being able to communicate emotion=bad: bad romantic partner, bad son, bad sibling, bad father.

Stoicism has systematic effects. Women and girls are sometimes afraid or unwilling to report their sexual assault experiences because they face disbelief and scorn.

But men and boys often have those same experiences when they report rape or even domestic assault. How many times have you heard that “men can’t be raped”? Additionally, men are less likely to seek medical treatment and even psychiatric care (a problem exacerbated in times like these when so many are facing the consequences of PTSD).

The value judgments attached to stoicism are not merely about gender conformity. They are about the faults we see in masculinity and how we judge masculinity to be both good and bad or helpful and harmful.*

Back to the Or/Ed paradigm. If masculinity isn’t universally preferable to femininity then there is a fundamental flaw in the paradigm. Who is forcing men to take on “bad” behaviors? I suppose one answer might be to maintain the paradigm and suggest that women oppress men (which I think some people in the feministe thread were trying to argue) but this argument fails on exactly the same grounds. Women as a group are not getting together on a Sunday night to figure out how we can oppress men. What is broken is not who gets labeled as the oppressor and the oppressed, but the idea that power and oppression are a downstream process rather than a collective one.


This is why the word kyriarchy is so powerful to me.** In my mind it shifts us away from the binary, downstream view of oppression and lets us examine the problem as a collective creation, collectively enforced.

One of the central functions of the Or/Ed dynamic is it gives the oppressed a target. The oppressors are the ones causing us harm. If we can just wrestle power away from them, it will be all good. The problem of course is that even if the oppressed rise up, if their sole goal is to achieve power, oppression will still exist merely in another form. To steal a phrase from The Who…meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

To quote my SO “while the particular form of oppression, such as who is being oppressed and the manner in which they are being oppressed might change, oppression itself remains functionally persistent. The haves and the have-nots will remain locked in the same vicious, pointless, endless game of musical chairs until we realize that when we stop trying to grab two chairs, you know, just in case something happens to the one we’re sitting on, there are enough seats for everyone.”

Real change comes with the end of oppression and the end of oppression comes when we each acknowledge our individual roles in the oppression of others. When we each acknowledge and empathize with the pain experienced by others, when we each accept that oppression is the enemy, not other people, only then can we begin to make real strides toward real solutions for every member of society.

*Leaving aside for the moment the arguments about “good” value judgments being as potentially harmful as “bad” value judgments….but just for a moment keep in mind the old trope of “Asians” being good at math.

**As an aside, I may not be using the word as intended by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza