Pt I: Can gender ever be discussed rationally?
Gender in all its variety is seldom out of the popular press. Why? The fact that we all live life, and view the world, from the perspective of our gender is not newsworthy. It’s obvious and mundane. After all, each of us has some gender. It’s not just a ‘social construct‘. What’s newsworthy comes from conflicting views about gender, which have been changing radically in recent years. That conflict is why I’m writing about Men’s Movement 2.0, of which this post is Part I.
Most of the recent gender news and commentary deal with women who are victims of violence, prejudice, abuse, and injustice caused by men in privileged groups, like media producers, corporate executives, church leaders, and police. In this context, the idea that men might need advocacy groups is not well received. Yet this occurred in the ’60s and ’70s, when men’s movements developed together with women’s movements. These included “Men’s Liberation” groups who thought attitudes about gender were restricting men’s lives as they were women’s lives (though doubtless not as severely). Many of these groups soon faded, however, because their goals were effectively the same as the women’s, and would be accomplished when (if ever) practices and legislation regarding fair treatment of women were achieved. So they seemed like unnecessary effort, at best, and might easily be seen as competing with women’s efforts, which wasn’t the intention of most ‘men’s libbers’. Later, however, as women’s liberation began getting a lot of attention, antagonistic feelings grew among some groups of men.
In the ’90s a different kind of men’s movement started, and got lots of press attention, when Robert Bly’s best seller Iron John was published (1990). It was clarified and added to by other authors – e.g. Doug Gillette and Robert Moore King, Warrior, Magician, Lover (1990), Sam Keen Fire in the Belly (1991), and John Gray Men are from Mars; Women are from Venus (1992). The groups they inspired met for discussion, self-help and putting their views about masculinity into practice. They also received a lot of pushback – mostly by feminists – which we’ll look at in Part III.
Early versions of men’s movements were broadly about gender roles, but the aims of some groups were incompatible – even antithetical – with those of others; and their approaches changed over time. As I write this, Chicago’s Goodman Theatre is presenting a play (“Support Group for Men”), about dissent affecting a middle-age men-only Wrigleyville group, with the theme “The world’s changing, Bro”.
Similar changes of method, diversity of members, and even contradictory goals have marked the history of women’s movements too. This was especially evident in the recent ‘Women’s march’ protests that greeted Donald Trump’s inauguration, which are ongoing, and are planned for next year. Note the woman of color in the foreground whose message seems at odds with women behind her, who appear happy with cell phones and selfies.
A lack of unity in these movements is not bad in itself, but it does make talking clearly and rationally about them harder. Their complexity isn’t surprising, since these groups (both women’s and men’s) were formed in a period of societal chaos and political polarization, abroad and at home. For instance, there were American military interventions – often in reaction to the ‘cold war’ – and various proxy ‘hot’ wars; proliferating multi-national corporations; controversial policies on trade, intellectual property regulations and money exchange; private and public aid programs. These factors, and many more, greatly impacted economic growth and internal politics of first-world, second-world, and third-world countries, leading to radically different outcomes for rich and poor, white and non-white, celebrity ‘somebodies’ and everyday ‘nobodies’, in other lands and in the U.S.
Adding to the complexity and tension, the old cultural myth of ‘American exceptionalism’ intensified since the fall of the Soviet Union (1989) – especially the belief that America has always won its wars (including the Cold War with Russia), and stands ready and willing to make the world ‘safe for democracy’. No doubt this makes understanding and improving gender relations even more difficult. So does the common misinformation about gender relations in places where the U.S. military is involved (especially Muslim cultures like Uganda, Morocco and Egypt as here shown).
A more objective look would suggest that America did not win WWI (the “Great War”), or WWII, both of which it entered late. Europeans won both, but U.S. myth makers give America credit for the results, and unthinking citizens willingly accept the stories. Besides, it feels good to believe what Freddie Mercury sang, that “We Are the Champions; No Time for Losers”.
Nor did “we” beat Soviet Communism, which imploded from internal causes. Despite these popular myths about our destiny, ‘America the Savior’ looks faded to me. People in other nations, and many critics at home, see clear evidence of ‘America the empire builder’, bringing great harm to people here and around the world, by its never-ending, unwinnable wars, that obviously benefit the military/ industrial/ financial complex, and the politicians and media makers who support it.
Instead of seeing it as a bastion of freedom, and chief representative of democracy in the world, an objective observer might think America is presently in some sort of chaotic void, without good leadership, or fruitful ideas about where to go next. Here’s a description of this unhappy state by Andrew Bacevich , who has presented his arguments convincingly in books, interviews and articles. Bacevich’s associate Tom Engelhardt, writes well-researched books and blog posts specifically about America’s Endless War.
Rather than being the United States, we seem increasingly disunited – in fact tribal. It’s typical for primal tribes to look on outsiders with suspicion and negative feeling (Us v. Them), and when their natural competition leads to violent disorder, they turn on some innocent victim to blame and kill. Rene Girard showed this clearly in a lifetime of research on Scapegoating. But democracy was meant to control such disruptive behavior by means of its principle of universal participation in public decision making, respect for one’s neighbor, and the overarching authority of government. That has never been realized, but presently even a pretense of collaboration is disappearing, among politicians and in the voting public.
I would say the ‘spirit of polarization’ began in earnest in the ’70s, and is especially bitter today. This is well illustrated by the common belief that all value is measured in terms of money, by rich and poor alike, together with the conviction that one person can gain only if another loses. (Think credit and debit in the money economy and who owns them). I’m reminded of the biblical text, “He who is not with me is against me”. If it’s true that “no one can serve two masters”, it’s easy to see which master controls most of our society today.
As mentioned above, what to call these various men’s groups in order to understand and discuss them is problematic, because language is loaded with overtones of feeling. Especially when like-minded people join into groups that reinforce their thinking, emotions typically get multipled (as Freud explained so well in his 1921 Mass Psychology). Even if people name their own groups, prejudice still colors how they’re talked about. I’m not sure it’s even possible to be fair or objective in our critiques and arguments, but we should try.
Activists, politicians and marketing people know well the importance of putting your ‘message’ or ‘meme’ into the right language. But ‘well said’ has nothing to do with telling the truth, or concern for your neighbor, or the public good. ‘Success’ isn’t measured in those terms today. How many modern political or business leaders would take seriously Confucius’ first advice to any leader 2500 years ago – i.e., the “rectification of names” – in order to make them true, and describe reality? He wanted to ask everyone (especially the rulers) ‘Who are you really, and what is your obligation to society?’
Like Confucius, I believe in truth, and am very sensitive to the lies, deceptions and spins which are increasingly displacing it and harming our society. Confucius was in a feudal system, though, which doesn’t fit with the spirit of democracy. However, here’s a thoughtful contemporary view on the very real benefit of saying it right.
According to Wikipedia, men’s groups include ‘mens liberation’, ‘masculism’, ‘pro-feminist’ forms, Christian “Promise Keepers”, and the later Jungian ‘mythopoetic’ group, made famous (and infamous) by Robert Bly and others mentioned earlier. All these ideas are primarily a western development. This isn’t surprising, since legal rights and political activism are basic concepts of liberal democracy, at least as idealised in the past 500 years.
In Part I we’ve seen how full of pitfalls any discussion of gender can be, and how we can understand men’s movements only in relation to women’s movements. Part II will try to summarize the development of the latter, by setting it in a context of the historical development of civil rights, which started with no concern for women’s rights or interests, but gradually got to that point, mainly in the last 100 years.