I want you to imagine an acorn.
We will come back to it soon.
Because we are talking about patriarchy. Or, perhaps, we are talking about power and privilege. Or, maybe we’re talking about happiness.
Regardless . . . This is a conversation that’s important to have.
Important because I think so much of the discourse on patriarchy is rooted in a myth so pervasive that it’s invisible. A myth so potent that it colours the conversation in a way that does not liberate men to their fullest.
I just read an article that basically stated that men are increasingly finding themselves in a lower social position as women ‘climb the ladder’. And so that men are disempowered and need to get there act together to avoid this catastrophe.
And it lifts up the thorny topic of patriarchy and male privilege, which isn’t so simple as it might seem.
I mean, clearly, the majority of major political posts are still held by white men. Every president of the United States (except one!) has been a wealthy white male. Men still, somehow, make more money per hour than women for the same work. The work of staying home to raise a child is still not economically counted. While men experience abuse (sexual and physical) it’s far less than women. Even in an activist scene that is full of women–many of the positions of power are held by men.
This balance of power is shifting as more women come into “positions of economic and political influence”. But there are so many ways, big and little, that men still hold onto the reins of power.
I think it’s good to step back and remember the bigger picture. The past thousands of years have seen women being oppressed–witch burnings, no right to vote– women seen as chattel. It’s easy to forget that, in the USA–women only won the right to vote in 1929.
But despite all this–I rarely hear feminists (even the most hardcore) saying men should now be oppressed. Just that we should stop oppressing and devaluing women. That everyone deserves to be heard. And that seeing those who’ve been ignored in positions of power–those who’ve been most impacted by oppression–is a good thing. If you want to help the people who are most affected by environmental and social injustice–why not put them in charge? Why not let them set the direction. They probably know what they need better than we ever will.
And men ARE becoming less ‘dominant’. Which is a wonderful thing. As a feminist I know said recently, I’m working for the liberation of men AND women.”
We’re coming out of a time of tremendous power imbalances. Men and women being stuck into traditional gender roles that don’t always work for them. People not feeling free to express themselves for who they are.
The coming out of these roles is not simple, easy or straightforward. There’s a lot of learning and healing for everyone involved. There’s a lot of, ‘who am I now? what’s my role? what does it mean to be a man–if not this?’
As a man, I can attest to there being a tremendous amount of confusion about “how to be a man.” The mixed messages we receive about “be more sensitive” but “don’t be so sensitive.” or “don’t be so passive” and then in the next moment, “don’t be so aggressive,” an encouragement to “make good things happen” and yet, “why are men always in charge.” None of these are mutually exclusive–but the balance isn’t easy.
At a summer music festival, I find myself talking to a young woman of colour for whom feminism matters deeply. She tells me she noticed this hard edge she had where she would look at men who were clearly interested in her and think, ‘if he doesn’t have the balls to approach me then he’s too weak for me.
That struck me. Not because I think she shouldn’t think that. It’s likely an accurate assessment of the situation.
What struck me is the seemingly conflicting message progressive men receive of, “Don’t hit on women. I’m tired of being hit on. Don’t objectify us.” with, “If you don’t approach me and you want to, you’re too weak for me.”
There’s no actual contradiction here. You can approach people in a way that uplifts or in a way that has them feel terrible. There are ways that are fun and authentic and ways that feel creepy and slimy. But for some men today, it’s hard to know the difference.
Another friend of mine (a man) dates a woman (a feminist) and when he goes to share his feelings with her she accuses him of being “a woman” for being so sensitive. On one hand he’s getting academic and political messages about not essentializing gender or participating in a heteronormanitive discourse, he’s getting messages from the queer community about letting people be who they are and identify how they identify–and here’s this woman accusing him of “being a woman” (in a shaming and condescending tone).
This isn’t simple.
I’m in Vancouver talking to an old friend. She’s young but been an environmental activist since high school. She tells me she doesn’t want to date activist guys anymore. “They’re too passive. If we go to rent a movie, they’re all, “no, you choose”. Have a fucking opinion. And when we get back to my place–they’ll sit on the other end of the couch and if I want to make out I will have to initiate every single step of it. Ugh.”
Imagine a progressive male having learned the importance of respect and consent and not objectifying–but not having also learned the power of honesty and forthrightness.
Case in point: I have a friend who’s a model. Let’s call her Jane. I’ve been shameless in expressing my attraction to her ever since I met her and she appreciates it. I know she’s seeing someone but I know she feels more relaxed around me knowing I’m not smuggling an agenda. And I feel more relaxed too. Recently, she confided in about a huge project she’d been working on that had come to an end. Why had it ended? Her business partner had been in love with her. She’d been expecting to make the project go and he’d, secretly, been hoping she’d been his girlfriend despite her seven year history with her partner. She didn’t appreciate his lack of forthrightness about what he was really wanting from the relationship with her. He used (consciously or not) the project as a way to get close to her.
We all do this with each other. We smuggle in agendas. We don’t really see people–we see them through the haze of our hopes. A friend of mine called it “hopium.” And it’s addictive. He might actually have been giving her clear signs of his interest that she couldn’t see because she wanted so badly to make this project happen. And he might not have been able to see her lack of signals because of his hopes.
As I typed those words, I was aware of the ever present part of me that wanted so badly to position myself as better than this fellow. To use that example to say, “I get it and he doesn’t.” And I want that so that I will be more attractive to women. And I want to be more attractive to women because . . . well that’s a whole rabbit hole to go into. Because I genuinely enjoy the company of women and feminine energy in my life. Because I’m scared. Because I’ve been attacked by feminists before and I’m scared of that happening again–so if I show that I “get it” enough–maybe they won’t attack me. And if I demonize another man–then I get to show that I’m an ally. I win and he loses. Self-protection.
Another story: I’m at a fundraiser for the Otesha Project in Toronto. A youth run bicycle tour of parts of Canada. Amazing. One of the lead members went up to share his words. I was sitting at a table full of women. All of whom I would characterize as politically progressive or radical. And I listened to them objectify this man and talk about him like a piece of meat. It was kind of funny and I totally noticed myself start comparing myself to him, “Was I that hot? If I were up there would they be talking about me in the same way?” (I hoped so, but doubted it).
What struck me most was if it had been a table full of men and there was only one politically radical woman where I sat–she might have been enraged at the kind of objectification.
The other day I was hanging out with two women I would consider incredibly empowered. They were talking about their new favourite TV show and how it kept finding a way to get the main character (a male) topless every single show. “I think they’ve finally figured out that women’s libido is just as high as men’s and if you show a topless hottie like that–we WILL watch it.”
A shocking story: I ask a feminist activist what advice she would give a young progressive man who’s scared to approach girls. She ends up giving a great gem, “he should create an interesting life that he loves so he’s not devastated if she isn’t into him” (brilliant). And, on the way to this, she says, “maybe he should go to a sex worker to build up his confidence first.”
I was struck, not so much at the suggestion, though it caught me off guard, but at how I know so many feminists who consider prostitution the worst thing in the world–and yet here is one suggesting a practical use for it. It reminded me of an article I read where two feminists were debating the practice of creating feminist porn. One was for it and the other hated anything to do with the porn industry.
Some women I know are deeply anti-pornography. They find it objectifying, dehumanizing and just a terrible thing. Other women I know are huge fans of it and declare themselves to be proudly “pro porn”.
Some women love the kinds of sex they see in porn–others don’t (as is beautifully illustrated on the website Make Love Not Porn).
Who’s analysis is a man supposed to follow?
Story: I’m in Cape Cod, Massacheusetts hanging out with one of the most beautiful women I know. She’s deeply steeped in tantra and the spirituality of masculine and feminine energies.
“I’ll tell you something,” she says. “Many of us women talk about in these circles for conscious change. We’re surrounded by sensitive new age men and what we really want sometimes is a man who could just bend us over the couch. Yes, we want men to be more sensitive. But sensitive to US as women. Sensitive to our needs and desires and body language. Not overly sensitive and taking everything personally. I need a man who’s solid in himself enough to notice what’s happening over here–not someone who’s obsessed with himself and what other people think of him.”
It’s clear, of course that women want to be respected and honoured. What’s also clear is that they are wanting something else. Something that progressive men, for the most part, are not able to bring them.
The point is that, for many men–these messages feel confusing. It’s not always clear how to be a man. How to relate with women. How to be a brother to other men.
We’re all unlearning the old and relearning something new together–creating it together even.
On one hand progressive men are told that, “There is no binary gender. It’s all cultural construction. Every single person is unique. You can’t fit everyone into some heteronorminative idea of who they should be based on their sex.” And so we nod and say, “Yes, that sounds wise.” But the next moment we hear these same women identifying as a gender. They preface their statements with, “as a woman I’d like to say” or “I stand by her as a sister”. What happened to no heteronorminative sense of gender?
Another friend of mine who teaches women’s studies is a hardcore feminist–but not a hippie. She dresses like a 50’s movie star with an apartment to match. She’s a wonder. But because she dresses as she does the “activist” crowd was less than accepting. When she tried to join a campus activist group she was called “princess” by the male activists. Here she was expressing herself in the way that felt best for herself as a woman–but still not being accepted by men who professed to be feminist themselves.
A painful story: A friend of mine starts to study the art of “pick up”. As in “how to pick up women”. He gets visciously attacked by a feminist friend of his, who says that she knows many men who are attractive to women because of their deep integrity and respect of women. And he feels devastated. He’d spent years being respectful and careful–and was never considered sexually attractive by women. He was always ‘the friend’. So, he tried to learn how to shift that the only way he knew how –and got slammed for not being as amazing as the other men she knew. Not only were her words not helpful or useful in any way–they were shaming, comparing and devastating to him. It took him years to recover.
Many women criticize the “pick up” movement (as if it were a uniform, homogenous movement any more than feminism is). But what if they had a younger male cousin who was a great guy but felt too terrified to every approach a girl? What would they say? What advice would they give?
In fact, to make things more confusing–while one half of the feminist scene is his town attacked him visciously (often privately and behind his back) others secretly admitted to him, “tell me if you’re doing another one. I know of some guys who could use this.”
I remember myself going through a time of almost deifying feminists. And people of colour. And queer, woman of colour led to a distinct feeling of needing to impress them. There was nothing more I wanted than for her to pull me aside and say, ‘Tad, all of these other white men are crazy . . . but you? . . . You’re different.’
Whatever they said was infallible. Same went for their ‘allies’. If a white male positioned himself as an ‘ally’ to them then his word was gospel as well.
It took me years to notice the ways that certain activists and feminists would position their perspective on reality, gender and politics and the only one. The true one. And if you disagreed? You were a stupid, oppressive douche. You were dismissed. You were attacked and villified. You were made an example of. And i really believed it. I believed that they knew the truth and I didn’t. I believed that my own experiences, feelings and needs weren’t valid. And sometimes this was encouraged.
Now, a lot of the time, the politics were on point. Really solid and important points were being made. Good learning was happening for all involved.
And it took me years to notice the ways that I had my own self worth wrapped up in having their approval of me. It took me years to begin to see that they weren’t always in integrity. That some of them (like all of us) had deep anger issues, or lived in a worldview of punitive justice where they believed themselves to be the judge, jury and executioner of the value of other people. “He’s a good guy.” or “He’s a douche.” It took me years to see that some of them (like all of us) could be deeply manipulative.
It took me years to see that not all women agreed with each other. Or with the feminists. And that not all feminists agreed with each other. It took me years to see that not everyone in the anti-oppression scene viewed training the same way. Some trainings would have participants leave feeling uplifted, inspired and more connected to the world and their place in it–and some of them would leave having people feel shut down, ashamed and small.
It took me years to see how very, very complicated all of these conversations about gender can be.
It took me years to see that I could honour myself and honour others at the same time. That I didn’t need to leave myself– or anyone else–behind.
Another story: A dear friend of mine became a part of a network of high level change makers who would meet once a year to discuss how to create more change more quickly in the world. It was a diverse group of people with a commitment to growing in diversity.
But the leader was a white man. A white, upper class, privileged male.
The group began to explore the dynamics of race, class and power in the group and the leader announced to the group he was going to step back from leadership so that more women and people of colour could step in.
But something felt off.
So my friend spoke up. She said, “I hear what you’re saying. And I’m concerned about where it’s coming from. I get that it’s the politically correct thing to say but I don’t want you to be left behind in all this.”
Within minutes the leaders’ repressed anger at the situation showed up. “Why can’t white people have a role in leadership? Where am I supposed to contribute?” He was so deeply hurting. But he’d shut that part of him down to do the right thing.
The conversation continued and a transition did indeed happen. But one that didn’t leave him feeling like he was a worthless, privileged roadblock to be removed.
But to step back a bit . . .
Perhaps the most damaging myth of patriarchy is that it, ultimately, works for men.
I recall a friend of mine saying, “Well, every day is men’s day.” In the big picture (economically and politically) this is true.
But emotionally it is not.
Imagine an acorn.
It lives in a castle, on a hill.
Each day it is put onto a pillow where it is washed, cleaned and dried.
And the people who walk by admire it.
On one level this acorn is privileged. But in a far more profound way–-its growth is being held back by that privilege. In its separation from nature––it is not allowed to root itself and to grow into a oak tree and give back thousands of acorns to the world. As this acorn on the pillow all it can do is demand and consume resources and care. This is not good for the world. It’s not good for them. It’s not natural.
Being in a privileged class does not just hurt those being exploited––it hurts those in the privileged class.
Being pampered and told you are special and better than others is not medicine for the soul–-it’s poison. It leads to the acorn, eventually, being spoiled and rotting to death on its pillow, dying alone–having given nothing to the world. And this is its last thought. “I have died of old age, and given it back no youth. I have taken, without returning. I had the seeds of a thousand forests in me–and they are dying with me today.” It’s tiny acorn body dies. And is tossed into a plastic trash bag and put in a landfill.
Not that the oak tree doesn’t die.
It does. Eventually, the sap no longer runs up its body and it dies. Its trunk begins to rot until one day a strong wind cracks it–or a fire consumes it. But its last thoughts are different. As it dies it knows it is going back into the Earth. It is returning to its source of life. That, in its life it has given and given and given. And now, even in death, it gives its body back to the creatures of the woods as food.
It dies as a part of the world, not apart from it.
We are made wise by the number and depth and diversity of our relationships. And to live in a system that has us living in monocultures we becoming myopic. Less wise. And I’m not just talking about the monoculture of only hanging out with other rich, white privileged males in positions of power. Not just the loss of meaningful relationships with people of colour, indigenous people and women. I’m talking about the loss of intimacy with nature, with animals, with the stars, with the elements.
The world becomes reduced to resources to consume rather than relatives to learn from.
To quote Thomas Berry, ‘the universe is not a collection of objects–it is a communion of subjects.’
Men are less mature, less deep and less real for these privileges. We don’t fight for justice and equality for women alone–we do it for ourselves, our own hearts. Unconscious hierarchy hurts us all. Believing that we are better than others hurts us.
So, this is the myth: That patriarchy ultimately benefits men.
That because men are economically and politically privileged that this system is a good thing for them. Of course, when we step back and look at the big picture–this comes into question.
We see before us a generation of men who are disconnected from their hearts and bodies. Men who were never initiated into their manhood –but feel trapped in a permanent adolescence. Men who have never learned of what a woman’s world is. Men who feel ashamed for all the things that make them a man. Men who have no real sense of brotherhood with other men. Men without direction. Men who are afraid of women. Men who are afraid of other men. Men without purpose. Men not initiated into their greater purpose of making a difference in the world. Men so obsessed with the penetration of sex that they never learn the ways they can penetrate each moment with love.
We see one of the first generation of men raised without fathers or positive male role models. As their old role of dominators and heads of the house hold fall away–they are left with no clear sense of what to replace it with.
So many mixed messages from the world saying, “this is what it means to be a man.”
If you were to sit down the average progressive male and ask them, “What are the gifts that women and the feminine bring to the world? What are the gifts that sexism, patriarchy and oppression have blocked the world from receiving?” The list would be long. Of course, there are dangers of conflating women and the feminine together directly–these lines are often not so clear. One can be in a woman’s body and deeply masculine and vice versa. But still, the list would be long. The gift of birth. The gift of their cycle. The gift of nurturing. Deep intuition and sensitivity. An amazing capacity for depth of feeling. The way that women are often the ones to carry a community–often the invisible giants on whose shoulders a community rides.
But if you were to ask the same man, “What are the gifts that the men and the masculine energy brings?” You would often see silence. And shame. Answers come but . . . not as readily. There’s a deep sense, in this culture, that men are a bad animal. A sense that “we don’t need men’s protection–we need protection from the men.”
“Look at all the wars in the world.” we are told. “The pollution. The devastation. And look who’s in charge! This would never happen if women were in charge.”
And many men have drunk this down. Swallowed it. And it comes out in small jokes about how stupid men are or how women are better. But sometimes those jokes have an edge.
Another friend of mine is attacked for his “masculine, direct style of communication” (by another male activist). And it makes me wonder-when did the term “masculine” become a bad thing?
We have come to believe that patriarchy and masculinity are the same things.
I was reading a blog post by Christine Agro, The Metaphysical Feminist. She wrote:
When I look back at the Women’s Revolution, I see a necessary fight; one in which the internal fire sparked revolution, sparked change, sparked an awakening. But I also see a continuation of fighting within the Masculine Principle, an energy in which I believe no one will ever have true equality because it is an energy that forces us to constantly choose “fight or flight”. So I propose a new equality, one that is based in the Feminine Principles. The Masculine Principle is the energy that has influenced our way of being since at least the Caveman era. It is an energy dynamic that is linear, outward focused, power-over, controlling and fight or flight based. It has influenced everything from religious doctrine to the laws of the land and in its influence has arisen a world in which we have and have-not, in which divide and conquer is the status quo. There is no room for the truths of many, there is only room for the truth of the most mighty, the most powerful . . . we should not accept law or doctrine that has been created within an energy structure that supports the few and views us as somehow less than.
And so masculinity has become synonymous with hierarchy, oppression and patriarchy.
Imagine how that might feel to the men in your life to read that.
To grow up scared of yourself. To think that the only answer is to become more feminine. That our masculinity is something to be scrubbed clean from us.
This is the point that must be challenged.
Patriarchy is not authentic masculinity. It is the shadow side of it. It is the toxic mimic we have come to accept. That there are ways to be a man that don’t require being dominant over women–but in partnership with. We are re-learning how to be powerful as men–but a power with–not power over.
But when the two get conflated–and men are challenged on their privilege–bad things can happen. This is a core challenge in the anti-oppression scene. How to address men’s privilege?
I asked a friend of mine in Vancouver who did a lot of men’s work about this. He said, “You know what? I totally get you on the male privilege piece and that’s been a lot of my journey. And my experience is that the best way to address that is not to hit it directly on the head but to build community, build up men’s worth and inner strength. To build community and safety.”
When they have that they tend to be so much more open to hearing these things and absorbing them. They can actually integrate it all. They’re less defensive. I find that the best way to open them to issues of justice is to honour their lived struggles and experiences.
If we jump right into anti-oppression work that can be experienced by many men as saying that their struggles are totally invalid in the face of what women experience daily. It can seem dismissive and shaming to them like they shouldn’t ever complain. and to ask men to give up power with nothing to replace it usually puts them in a place of fear. They’re scared.
I want an activist community where there can be really deep listening and deep honesty on both sides. Sometimes men act in hurtful ways and sometimes women do too. I see my role as helping to grow into a place where the way they engage with work for change is uplifting and inspiring for everyone involved. Where they can be powerful and creative allies to women AND to other men.
A movement where no one is left behind–regardless of level of privilege. a movement where everyone has a place and belongs–a movement where everyone’s struggles are honoured instead of compared. I think that’s the foundation for a movement where genuine power imbalances can be questioned–where hard conversations can happen.
We absolutely live in a world of imbalances of privilege–and that’s often along lines of race, class and gender. And I think a strong men’s movement is a part of healing that.
This culture’s media denigrates the authentic feminine and trivializes the authentic masculine.
The old ways are unraveling and something new is being born. In all of us. Every day. I predict it will be clumsy and awkward–but beautiful.
As men’s roles are shifting–more men are getting involved in men’s work, joining men’s circles and learning how to relate with more honesty to other men and women in ways that uplift everyone.
Here’s to a future of genuine partnership between genders–and space for those who think the whole binary gender thing is bullshit. A future where people are free to be who they are. A future where everyone’s voice is valued.
You may also like these posts on The Good Men Project:
|White Fragility: Talking to White People About Racism||Escape the “Act Like a Man” Box||The Lack of Gentle Platonic Touch in Men’s Lives is a Killer||What We Talk About When We Talk About Men|
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