Human beings fight with one another because, largely, it’s in our nature, Valter Pahlad writes.
Men and women argue with each other. They quarrel and bicker and fight. We notice it all around us (and in our homes as well), and we read it in the comment section here at The Good Men Project. But, especially when it’s about sex, or other “hot” topics (abuse, violence, discrimination), it often goes from discussion to assault.
Like many others, I pondered about the reasons, and I have identified several issues at the root of this ancient phenomenon. Below is a list compiled with nine of those issues.
Beforehand, I’d like to state some basic assumptions:
- There’s no “better” or “worse” gender, no “good” or “bad” sex: women and men are just different. It’s easy to say, harder to let go of all the prejudices against this.
- Any gender’s fault has some kind of equivalent in the other.
- You may like one better than the other, you may notice a gender is usually more skilled in some trade … but, on a global perspective, there’s no objective “best.” Again, it sounds obvious, but if it was obvious AND everybody believed it, there wouldn’t be so much arguing.
- Sexism, thinking one gender is “better” or “worse” than the other, is a sort of racism. It’s prejudice. And, like with any kind of racism, from the outside we know it’s just stupid but, when it’s us who has that kind of belief, we stick to it and we resist to question it.
- If we (theoretically) agree with the above, but we happen to utter a “Yes, but …,” usually that means we take something personal and we give it a global meaning (see “Confusing experience with reality” below). Obviously there are exceptions for everything, but the exception doesn’t change the average.
Therefore, everything I say now on will be equally valid for both genders.
1. Lack of objectivity
First, we must be aware that everybody “distorts” reality somehow; our beliefs are always subject to personal perceptions and interpretations. Being fully objective and impartial is almost impossible, almost “inhuman.”
Ironically, the most objective person is the one admitting his or her own biases; those thinking “I have no bias!” are usually heavily biased.
2. Confusing experience with reality
Our personal experiences shape the way we see reality; our emotions shape our beliefs. The problem is that reality is so much wider and deeper than our limited experience. Alas, we instinctively believe our experience represents reality at large. And we cling to what our emotions tell us (“Women are liars!” “Men are cheaters!”), because we hope to avoid the same wounds from happening again.
In other words, we confuse the Personal with the Universal. But “my reality” is not reality; we should be able to tell one apart from the other.
3. Being different
Since men and women differ in countless aspects, this makes it harder to understand the opposite gender; what’s unfamiliar to us is more difficult to grasp.
Especially where genders have different takes on something (say sex, or porn), this difference easily creates conflicts; the other’s point of view is “alien” to us and seems unfathomable or absurd.
4. Favoring our kin
We instinctively have a positive bias towards who’s close or similar to us, or with whom we feel a belonging: our partners, children, friends, teams, fellow citizens, and, usually, on some level, those of our gender.
We’re much fonder of “We” (whatever we include within the “We”) than we are about “Them.”
5. Fighting reality
Some things are just the way they are, just facts of life (you know, rain, taxes … it’s inevitable). Fighting them is an exercise in futility. Yet, when we don’t like those facts, we often attack them, in the vain hope that our will could change reality.
Men want lots of sex (even for the sake of it); women are attracted by “alpha males”; everybody is fascinated by beauty. These are true for most people. Like it or not, that’s just plain old reality. Fighting reality is like Don Quixote fighting windmills.
When we have a blaming attitude, we tend to deny our responsibility, and we put the blame on others no matter what.
Some people learn this blaming attitude from family, some develop it as a kind of shield, but one thing is for sure: blaming doesn’t solve anything. It’s kind of a childish way out where one sees oneself as “innocent.” Guilt is always out there in the world.
But in most problems, every party involved holds some responsibility. Only in acknowledging that responsibility do we become able to contribute to a solution.
On the other hand, when everybody blames others, there can be only pointless squabbling.
We all have many expectations (often unstated). These expectations usually come from our “roots” (family, teachers, culture) and are largely never inquired: “Men should always be strong and tough,” “Women should be submissive,” “Men should make the first move,” “Women should clean the house,” and so on.
When someone disappoints our expectations, we have a strong reaction, because we believe it’s kind of contradicting what should be a given—the way the world is (or should be). Actually, an expectation is just a belief in our minds; it’s just a set of rules, and everybody has his or her own set.
We have expectations about the world and about our partners and about ourselves, but we seldom express them openly—and, often, the untold expectations are the strongest. “You will give me all the sex I need,” “You will make me happy forever.” Not questioning them, we don’t come to realize they’re often unrealistic.
When we become disappointed, there’s often a sense of betrayal: “But we should be …” or “You were supposed to …” Maybe the other broke a promise, but maybe he or she didn’t even know a promise existed (thus how some expectations reside in our minds).
When we ferociously argue about something, or when we attack someone with no apparent or insufficient reason, maybe the real cause is not the matter at hand. Maybe all the fury and intensity come from some resentment underneath.
It might be resentment we accumulated with that person previously that’s now just spilling over. It might be something older, related to other people or events, that is “triggered” by the current situation. Maybe this event is reminding us about an old pain, maybe this person resembles one who harmed us.
Our own pain makes it difficult to clearly discern. It clouds the mind. When our wounds are very deep, we could even be resentful towards a whole category of people, be they men, women, an ethnic group, a nation. The pain can blind us and make us believe anybody resembling the offender is our “enemy.”
Idealization means putting someone on the pedestal, thinking this person is perfect, or at least better than he or she really is. Think about sport fans and how they usually idealize their team(s). It seems to me that even the smart Hugo Schwyzer falls for it, when he idealizes women (and therefore blames men).
The problem with idealization is that it distorts reality, and it makes everything else look worse: if my team is the best, then the others must suck. Besides, when you idealize someone, you become oblivious to their faults: if women are flawless creatures, then every problem must be men’s fault. In a way, patriarchy has been about idealizing men, denying their weaknesses and thus often putting the blame on women (“Men are not lustful, it’s the women seducing and tempting them!”).
Another problem with idealization is when it crumbles (and it does, sooner or later, because nobody is perfect). When the “idol” falls, the idolizer feels deeply disappointed, bitter, even resentful.
It’s you and me and everybody
I compiled this list focusing especially on men and women, but most of these issues can be present in every disagreement. It’s just human nature.
Even when we’re able to rationally acknowledge all the issues I pointed out, we still instinctively tend to cling to our beliefs and subjectivity. In a way, that’s what makes us human. Only a machine is capable of always being objective and detached. But this inherent subjectivity is a potential source of trouble as well.
If the reasons for fighting are many and understandable, why do we keep fighting? Why do we cling to these issues?
- Blaming is easy and comforting: it makes the blamer(s) feel more innocent.
- We are largely blind toward our own limits and biases. We’re immersed in our own beliefs and prejudices, and it’s difficult to notice them, recognize at them from “the outside” and become aware.
- Prejudice makes one feel “certain,” and avoiding uncertainty is comfortable. It’s frightening to think anybody can do anything because it implies a loss of control and an innate difficulty in predicting behavior.
“It is harder to crack a prejudice than an atom.”
That human beings are not fully rational and objective means we can’t easily overcome all the issues above. In part, this makes life and relationships more interesting.
What we can do, is become aware of those issues in ourselves; the more we are aware of our biases, the less they will distort our perceptions.
I think being a “good man” means this, too: questioning myself, trying to drop my biases and prejudices, being less bickering and more understanding.
The main remedy, I think, is seeing others just as they are (instead of the way we’d like them to be), and then accepting them that way. Even when we don’t like it.
After all, we would like to be treated that way, wouldn’t we?