Pt I: Can gender ever be discussed rationally?
I started this essay in 2018, but got sidetracked. Despite the Pandemic the questions discussed here haven’t changed fundamentally; only intensified.
Gender in all its variety is seldom out of the popular press, but not because it’s an inescapable part of everyone’s life. That’s not ‘newsworthy’; it’s ordinary. I won’t argue whether gender is a social construct as some would have us believe. What’s newsworthy are the views about gender, that have been changing radically in recent years. Broadly speaking, the change in thinking is the topic of a 3-part post, of which this is Part 1.
Most of the news stories and commentary about gender concern victims of violence, prejudice, abuse and injustice, usually caused by men in privileged groups, e.g. media producers, corporate executives, church leaders, and police. One hugely influential case involved a young gay man, Matthew Shepard, who was horribly beaten, murdered, and hung on a fence in Laramie, Wyoming, in 1998. Sadly, as often happens, the case was incorrectlty interpreted, with the result that the victim became a poster child for gay press. The story has recently been corrected by a long-time reputable (and sympathetic) investigative reporter, Stephen Jimenez, whose 2013 book – The Book of Matt – is summarized in this 2014 article from The Guardian. It brought lots of angry reactions, understandably, but the report won’t change the murder convictions, nor should it. Even so, Jimenez argument is effective; and I’m convinced it’s correct.
Given all the abuse by rednecks and homophobes, since the 21st Century started, the idea that men might need advocacy groups sounds ridiculous – even twisted. But this did happen in the ’60s and ’70s, when men’s movements developed in parallel with women’s movements of the time. “Men’s Liberation” groups felt that common attitudes about gender were as restricting to men, as they were to women. Some of these groups soon faded, however, becoming almost redundant and unnecessary, because their goals were for practical purposes the same as the women’s, and were expected to be accomplished when (if ever) fair practices and legislation regarding women were achieved.
However, the ’90s saw a renewal of men’s movements – our 2.0 – illustrated in books by Robert Bly’s Iron John (1990), and developed further in Moore and Gillette’s King, Warrior, Magician, Lover (1990), Sam Keen’s Fire in the Belly (1991), and John Gray’s Men are from Mars; Women are from Venus (1992). Each of these groups got together for discussion, self-help and putting their views about masculinity into practice. Keep in mind the difference between groups, that are small and often by invitation only, and books that present various views about men and their societal roles to the public. The latter were met with lots of opposition – mostly by feminists – which we’ll look at in Pt III.
Early versions of men’s movements were broadly about gender roles, but the aims of some groups were incompatible – even antithetical – to those of other groups, while approaches of some goups changed over time. In 2018, Chicago’s Goodman Theatre ran a successful play called Support Group for Men, about dissent in a middle-age men-only Wrigleyville group, with the theme “The world’s changing, Bro”.
Similar changes of approach, diversity of members, and even contradictory goals have marked the history of women’s movements. This was especially evident in the ‘Women’s march’ protests that attended Donald Trump’s inauguration, and were ongoing through his presidency.
A lack of unity in these men’s and women’s movements is neither surprising nor bad in itself, but it makes talking clearly about them harder. They developed in a particularly chaotic period of societal and political polarization, at home, and around the world. This time of cultural unrest continues, shown in many examples – all of them including America. We have seen: military interventions – often in reaction to the ‘cold war’ (and newers versions of that); various proxy ‘hot’ wars; proliferating multi-national business; controversial policies regarding trade, patent regulation, money exchange, etc; world-wide recession; private and public aid programs, aimed at education, health, poverty, housing, race discrimination; and more. All these factors have often negatively impacted economic growth and internal politics of third-, second-, and first-world countries, producing radically different outcomes for rich and poor, white and non-white, celebrity ‘somebodies’ and everyday ‘nobodies’, in other lands and in America.
Adding to the complexity and tension, the cultural mythology of American ‘exceptionalism’ has become even more intense since the (1989) fall of the Soviet Union – especially the belief that America has always won its wars, including the war with Russia, and stands ready and willing to make the world ‘safe for democracy’. No doubt this all makes understanding and improving gender relations even more difficult, in practice and politically . So does all the misinformation, disinformation and propaganda about gender relations in places involving U.S. political, military and corporate activities (especially Muslim cultures like Uganda, Morocco, Egypt, Israel’s West Bank, Pakistan, the Persian Gulf (Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates), and the 20 year fiasco of Afghanistan, which just ended with its takeover by the Taliban.
In the last three (including the present) U.S. Administrations, the Military has become more politicized, and at the same time less in the public consciousness. Citizens are ‘sheltered’ from what’s going on, in terms of news, costs or anything that would properly concern them, so they could decide if the intervention was worth it. This can leave soldiers feeling betrayed and abandoned, as explained in this (firewalled) Time article. It includes a 5 min video by Marine Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Scheller, prompted by the terrorist bombing in Kabul last week that killed 13 soldiers. Scheller was immediately discharged, thus sacrificing his promising career and family income. That’s how betrayed he rightly felt.
If we look at America’s many war efforts more objectively, and less by what the public is led and wants to believe, we have not normally made the greatest sacrifice, nor come in gloriously at the end like the White Knight to save the day. “White Knight” is poorly put, since fighters are disproportionately Blacks, Hispanics and poor whites. Yes, America did enter both WWI (“War to end all war”), and WWII (“Your good war”) late, because the public didn’t want more war. Europeans were the principal players, winners and losers, but U.S. myth makers give America credit for any positive results, and unthinking citizens willingly accept the stories. The Marshall Plan saved Europeans financially – but disproportionately for the wealthier nations – and it left many American companies (military and corporate) better off in the process, starting the era of American dominance. Nor did “we” beat Soviet communism; it imploded from internal causes. American forces did win one small war promptly, with aid from 6 Carribean countries. In violation of international law and against the U.N, they invaded Grenada in 1983, to supplant the government we didn’t like, which was supported by the Soviet Union.
Despite the popular myths about our destiny, the picture of ‘America the Savior’ looks faded. 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 moguls who support it. This Stealth Bomber – B-2 Spirit, built by Northrup Grumman cost over $2 B. Twenty are in service. All are kept at Whiteman Air Base in Missouri.Instead of seeing America as a bastion of freedom, and the chief representative of democracy in the world, an objective observer might think it’s presently in some sort of chaotic void, without good leadership, or fruitful ideas of where to go next. Here’s a description of this unhappy state by Andrew Bacevich who has presented his arguments convincingly in many books, interviews and articles. In the same vein, Bacevich’s associate Tom Engelhardt, has well-researched books and blog posts about America’s Endless War. Lastly, this Naked Capitalism article, dated 9/7/21 argues that the U.S.A. has no intension of a global military retreat, despite Pres. Biden’s promise.
Rather than being the United States, we seem increasingly disunited, composed of tribe-like groups of all sizes, who look at outsiders with suspicion and negative feeling (Us v. Them). But even inside each group, natural jealousy and competition can lead to chaos and violence, at which point, they turn on some innocent victim to blame or even kill . (Rene Girard showed this clearly in his lifetime of research on Scapegoating). But democracy was intended to control such disruptive behavior with its principle of universal participation in public decision making, and respect for the neighbor. That has never been realized. But now even a pretense of collaboration seems to be disappearing, among politicians and in the voting public, despite many rhetorical appeals for unity and love of our neighbor.
I would say this ‘spirit of polarization’ began in earnest in the ’70s, and is especially bitter today. This is well exemplified by the common belief that value is measured in terms of money, by rich and poor alike, together with the (seldom recognized) condition that one person gains only if others lose. (Think credit and debit in the money economy). 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 not hard to see which master controls most of our society today – those who control the money system.
Returning to the topic of men’s movements, it’s hard to know how to categorize their purpose and activity. What they call themselves doesn’t give a clear picture, because group thinking involves strong emotional connotations (as Freud explained so well in his 1921 Mass Psychology). We often don’t truly know ourselves – something ancient Greeks thought vital for happiness – and we don’t even determine our own names. Our given name comes at birth. But even what we choose to call ourself depends on what others are willing to call us at any time. There’s no such thing as a private name. It is a ‘social construct’.
This Wikipedia article puts men’s groups into 5 types: ‘mens liberation’, ‘masculism’, ‘pro-feminist’, (Christian) ‘Promise Keepers’, and a later Jungian ‘mythopoetic’ group, made famous (and infamous) by Robert Bly’s book Iron John (1990), and others mentioned above. The Grimm Brothers discussed the story of Iron John, it’s origins and meaning. Iron John is gigantic (big enough to pull armed Knights into the lake he inhabits), with iron-tough skin, but he’s also helpful to the prince who discovers him. It’s a coming of age story for a young noble. (Once again, the class and wealth advantage.)
All these ideas of legal rights, fairness and political activism are primarily Western developments, which isn’t surprising, since they are basic concepts of liberal democracy, at least as idealised during the past 350 years.
Activists, politicians and marketers know well the importance of expressing their ‘message’ or ‘meme’ in the right terminology. But the message has no regard for truth, or concern for the neighbor, or the public good. ‘Success’ isn’t measured in those terms today. So not many modern political or business leaders would appreciate the first advice Confucius thought leaders should follow – 2500 years ago – i.e. ‘speak the truth’. He called it “rectifying names”, which means ‘say what accords with reality’. He asked everyone (especially leaders) ‘Who are you really, and what is your obligation to society?’
I believe in truth, and am very sensitive to lies, deceptions and spins which are increasingly displacing it to the great harm of society. (Can we even still speak of ‘society’ today?) Confucius’ society was a feudal system, which doesn’t fit with the spirit of democracy. But here’s a thoughtful contemporary source that upgrades the benefit of ‘tell it like it is’ for our time.
To conclude, Pt I examined many pitfalls threatening any discussion of gender, and how we can understand men’s movements only in relation to women’s movements. Pt II will try to summarize the development of the latter by setting them in the context of civil rights. During the last 100 years, civil rights began with no concern for women, but increasingly developed a lot of concern, and protests, around the world; in this country there were improvements, but much remained to be done.