Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The problem with women

One of my most recent sources of alarm has been a sudden realization that modern literature has been, to put it in rather bold terms, almost completely emasculated. While browsing through several bookstores, especially within large chains such as Chapters, it has become evident that one can no longer find significant sections dealing with erotica for men, with relationships between men and their mothers or even between men. There is very little literature dealing with men’s anger or sadness, except as these relate to “women’s issues”. There are clearly marked sections for erotica, but these are almost all feminine erotica, unlike several years ago. The situation is only slightly better on francophone book stores. The only major section where serious treatment of men’s issues shows up, making this one of the more interesting subgenres in today’s book culture, is that of adolescent literature.

While contemplating this situation, I came across a recent compilation of material by Canadian academics dealing with precisely this subject, which they call “Misandry” in parallel to “Misogyny”. The first book in what is projected to be a three volume sequence, called “Spreading Misandry” (Subtitled "The Teaching of Contempt for Men in Popular Culture", authors : Paul Nathanson and Katherine K. Young), documents the extent to which men are subject to a growing antipathy that has resulted in their systematic exclusion from certain sectors of society, using empirical data to support their arguments. The second volume of this series addresses the international scope of this growing problem.

Having grown up immersed in feminist literature and having spent much of my life as a professed “feminist”, albeit of the masculine variety, this realization has come as rather a shock. I have long believed that the feminist movement had as much to offer to men as it does to women. But over the past few years, although I still believe there is much in feminism that is relevant to men, I have become aware that there is a silent part to the unfolding of relationships between men and women that is actually avoided or shunned within feminist writings, in the eagerness many appear to have to “blame men, and male oppression” for every major ill of our society.

This reflection dovetails with another recent preoccupation I’ve developed, over the role of women in early childhood. Beside the Canadian writers mentioned above, the only other significant writer about men’s issues is Robert Bly, the American poet. Bly is careful to frame his issues as that of “absent fathers”, which is, of course, a real issue for children, or has been over the past several decades. However, there is a flip side to this discourse which is not stated by Bly, but implicit in his books, and which is central to men’s experience of the world – the problem of “invasive mothers”.

The whole issue of motherhood still suffers from an “angelic glow”, an inability of our society to effectively address this more or less taboo subject. Motherhood is assumed to be, essentially, a strength, with very little downside. If there is a downside, it is assumed that certain women are unable to be “good mothers” for reasons of character or circumstance, as if motherhood were inherently “good”. Indeed, motherhood is revered in our society, and throughout much of the world. It is accepted as perfectly normal that mothers should have privileged, even sole access to children under the age of about two or three – fathers are still largely excluded from playing a dominant role during this period of a child’s life. Today’s fathers are certainly more present than they were decades ago, but they rarely play the dominant role.

There is a whole constellation of issues that support this state of things. Romantic love, still widely present in our cultures, focuses on the adoration of women. All things female are considered sacred within this purview. Feminism also argues in favour of women’s control over early childhood. It is assumed by feminism that men are more or less inapt to take on any major responsibility over very young children. Either they are a source of danger, due to the widespread assumption that men are “incestuous” or that there is always a danger of that, or that they are not “multitasking enough”, that they are cognitively inapt to take on the roles effectively. I believe that men may also be afraid to assert themselves in this area – indeed, part of the emasculation of men with regard to their role in society may be rooted in fear. More on this later.

Violence is decried, and masculine violence in particular. In fact, to some extent, physical violence is almost equated with masculine violence – when it shows up in women it is assumed to be aberrant. When it shows up in men, it is assumed to be normal. According to this view, men are somehow biologically predisposed towards physical, and sexual, violence, while women are implicitly victims but not perpetrators of violence. Although it is often suggested that those who exhibit violence were themselves victims of violence, the debate around this issue also tends to leave men carrying the major part of the responsibility of engendering violence. Hence not all violent individuals exhibit evident history of family violence, while the majority of perpetrators of violence are men, leading once again to the idea that men are, somehow, inherently violent. And when women are violent, the idea that victims of violence become perpetrators of violence is used to cast the blame back on men, again.

Women in today’s world have a kind of “superiority complex” with regard to men. This is true even in cultures where men still have much of the hold on economic power. Women assume, among themselves, that they are obviously superior to men. Morally, cognitively, even biologically.

What is going on here? Can it be true? Are men inherently prone to violence, and not women? How are men inferior to women?

Either these statements are true, or there is a major source of cultural imbalance that is not recognized. It is my contention that there IS such a major source of imbalance, and that if we don’t correct, we will continue to construct a society built on inequality.

To understand this, let us return to the characteristics that determine masculinity and femininity. At their most simplest level, femininity is about extending boundaries, while masculinity is concerned with marking and maintaining borders. This is counterbalanced, in the paradox of being, by the receptive nature of femininity in contrast to the active nature of masculinity. The feminist movement has made much of this latter distinction, and much of the feminist movement has been concerned with regaining a more active perception of women, without having them give up their receptivity. On the other hand, feminists have focussed very little on the first pair of characteristics – if anything, they have invested a certain amount of energy extolling the virtues of the former over the latter.

Indeed, the argument that proposes that motherhood is inherently good is based, in part, of the assumed superiority of the idea of expanding one’s boundaries. It is widely recognized that one of the roles of parents for young children is to serve as an “external regulator” – that is, the child relies on the “parent” to regulate their experience of the world until such time that they can develop their own self-regulation. The ability to expand the boundaries of the self to include the child within the self is part of what makes such external regulation possible.

Furthermore, the feminist movement has decried the tendency of men to close in upon themselves, to hold their emotions in check, to be unable to seek outside help for their states of distress. This “inability” on the part of men has been seen to be a weakness, an example of how men need to become more “like women” to improve their effective ability to function. In addition, women have become increasingly present in the world of business, and have “feminized” to some extent how business is conducted. On the other hand, women in business have learned to be more “emotionally controlled”, not necessarily by shutting emotion out but rather by using it in more controlled ways. This is again promoted as a success on the part of women.. their ability to “out-business” their male business counterparts.

The focus, throughout these debates, is therefore always towards the “superior role” attributed to the expansion of boundaries, and the inferior role attributed to their control or reduction. The feminist movement, indeed, may be viewed as one that has expanded the boundaries of attainable behaviour on the part of women, rather than as a movement that has provided much in the form of control or regulation of women.

There is a counterargument, but its voice is not always heard. It has been recognized by psychologists that fathers play a critically important role in the raising of children. This is particularly evident when raising girls. Fathers help a girl find her own boundaries, especially as their presence in relation to the mother may be difficult to define. Obviously, fathers also serve as important role models for boys, and may also help keep overly involved mothers from overcoming the important personal space that children need. However, it is assumed that this boundary definition role only comes into effective play after the child reaches a certain age, when the child is struggling to define his or her own identity. Hence the exclusion of fathers from playing any dominant or co-dominant role in early childhood.

Furthermore, another insidious model supports the exclusion of men from early child raising. This is the idea that a child enters the world as a tabula rasa, a blank slate on which one may write what one pleases. In the classic nature versus nurture argument, this is the pure nurture point of view. Of course, it has now been demonstrated that a child enters the world with a certain predisposition, and certain abilities pre-programmed, but there is still a great deal of controversy surrounding the question of the extent to which such genetic predetermination may be present. Even language acquisition ability is still controversial. It is clear that children learn language at an astonishing rate, and that some genetic predisposition must exist, but the debate still rages over how much. The idea that children are born with a clear personality is still in the realm of mysticism as far as the scientific debate goes.

If a child is, indeed a blank slate, then the expansion of the care-giver's boundaries to include the child, irregardless of the child’s own need to maintain a distinct personality, is risk-free. If, however, the child has a distinct sense of self before birth, then this early period of total dependency on the care-giver, usually the mother, is fraught with risk. The external regulation argument, presented earlier, assumes, indeed, that the child develops a personality sufficiently quickly to be able to exploit such a mechanism for its benefit early in the process. It seems likely, therefore, that enough personality has developed relatively early to form a distinct individual, perhaps even before birth.

This is therefore a source of worry, especially so in a society which does not even recognize that there may be a problem here, and values the expansion and softening of boundaries over their regulation and control. What we are talking about here, therefore, is a form of relatively extreme, yet completely silent and unacknowledged, violence. A kind of "identity violence", an a par with other forms of incest or, for that matter, rape. That is the danger – I am not suggesting it happens all the time, certainly not that it need happen. For it not to happen with anything like a high frequency, however, would need a widespread social recognition that a baby has “identity needs”, that when the baby is entirely dependent on the parents, the latter need to be very sensitive to the latter’s need for distinctiveness. It is all too easy to use the need to feed and console the other as grounds for incorporating the other within the self to the extent that no self in the other is given any space to exist – especially given our own left-over need for fusion based on our early encounter with our mothers.

Given the nature of human beings, and the obvious widespread presence of violence in its many forms, this early form of violence is unlikely to be rare. On the contrary, indications are that it is prevalent in most cultures today. In almost all cases, it will occur unremarked – and its effects will only show up years later, once the individual begins to interact with others outside the circle of the family. Although the responsibility for its occurrence is shared between the sexes, ultimately the source of the problem is the over-rating of the value of boundary expansion and extension over boundary control and regulation. When this value shift is achieved, the “superiority complex” among women is revealed to be bogus. Women will always be more effective than men at enlarging their boundaries, but in a society that values the regulation and control of boundaries as much as their extension and enlargement, women are no longer “naturally superior” to men – on the contrary, they must work together with men to make a society that is functional.

Furthermore, the source of extensive forms of violence is our society is now revealed to be equally distributed between men and women, albeit in different forms. As a society, we have called on men to take responsibility "in the now" for our violent behaviour, to interrupt the vicious circle that leads to its continued transferal from one generation to another. The same moral imperative exists for women. It is time to recognize that the much vaunted ability of women to support and sustain other people has its dark side, and one that is very dark if no attempt is made to even recognize that there is a problem with it.