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Power, Powerlessness, and the Myth of Oppression

August 13, 2009 14 comments

Power and powerlessness both lay at the heart of our ongoing cultural discussion of equality among the sexes.  Too often we perceive this as a somewhat binary distinction—one group as the oppressor, the other as the oppressed—and thus one gender’s power tends to be defined by another group’s powerlessness.  Typical of this line of thought is the claim that men have held the majority of the power for millennia, which has made women powerless by default.   However, this oversimplification of sex and gender can be counterproductive in many important ways.  Considering women to have been at the brunt end of oppression for all these years is actually both insulting and demeaning to the female gender.  While there are certainly many genuine cases of both men and women being violently oppressed throughout history, we must avoid the temptation to think of either gender’s history as merely one of oppression.  History is not a story of men oppressing women for thousands of years, and then collectively waking up to the folly of our ways.  Men and women were both being oppressed—by each other, and more importantly, by the challenge of survival in a mysterious and hostile world.

In order to get a full grasp of this complex and fairly volatile issue, we must consider two different types of power and powerlessness, one type belonging to men, and the other to women.  Since the very first waves of feminism, women began comparing their public roles to those belonging to men, and began to perceive a very real imbalance of opportunities for women to excel in the workplace.  This, many people claimed, was testament to the outright dis-empowerment of women everywhere.  A man’s success was viewed as the only power that carried any real currency in society, and so a movement was born—or rather multiple movements, each building upon the triumphs and trappings of the last.  Women’s liberation allowed women to suddenly move into the workplace, more than ever before in history, and is now viewed as one of the most remarkable victories of the human spirit.  Together, men and women began to view the public sphere as the arena of power itself—where all the gaps between oppressor and oppressed ultimately dwell, and the only place where they can be resolved.  As a result, the “invisible power” of women was often devalued, if acknowledged at all.

However, once women began moving en masse into positions of social authority, many began to realize that men’s ostensible “success” in the public sphere was not necessarily a product of male power, but rather of male powerlessness—one of few highly disposable roles that society offers to men.  These roles often require a considerable sacrifice of time, energy, and happiness, as well as frequent abandonment of interest in things like music, poetry, dance, and other artistic expressions.  Such material success often requires men to cut themselves off from all the qualities that are commonly associated with female power—namely love, connection, and compassion—and often replace them with the sort of hyper-masculine pathologies perceived as necessary to ensure financial prosperity such as callousness, ruthlessness, and an unhealthy predisposition to avarice.  These traits started to define success for a great many people, traits that were in actuality a portent of how little power men really had.

When trying to weigh the distribution of power between men and women, we might suggest a very interesting metric: life expectancy.  For example, we can point to the significantly lower life expectancies among African Americans when compared to Caucasians as a valid measure of dis-empowerment—it could be surmised that because African Americans tend to have notably less societal power on average than Caucasians, they are subject to more stress and hardship throughout a lifetime, leading to more exhaustion, illness, and thus reduced life-spans.  But the fact that men of all races can expect considerably shorter life-spans than women is not often regarded as symptomatic of this same sort of power imbalance, despite the fact that there appears to be no real biological reason why this should be the case.

Of course it is entirely too simplistic to say that, since women tend to live longer lives, they therefore have more power—but we might be able to infer that, of the power men and women do already have, women’s power may be more healthfully wielded.

Just as we might look to life expectancy as a measure of male vs. female power, we might also consider suicide rates as an indicator of overall powerlessness.  Here too we find a tremendous imbalance between male suicide rates and female suicide rates, which predict that adolescent men are as much as four times more likely to kill themselves as women—and the ratio only becomes greater with age, with elderly men being more than one thousand percent more likely to commit suicide than women of the same age.  Just as a woman’s power can be characterized as being “invisible” and therefore all-too-easy to overlook, men’s powerlessness has become invisible to the majority of society, even while it is being confused for his power.  Again, it would be simplistic as to think that, since men kill themselves more often than women, they are more powerless than women.  But perhaps we can suggest that the lack of recognition of this powerlessness is what causes so many males to prematurely end their own lives.  The case could be made that the expectations for males to conform to the rigidly defined societal pressures of sexuality, success, and service are much greater than they are for females.

Which is certainly not to say that women do not have their own sets of societal pressures bearing down upon them from all angles, often coercing women to adopt identities they are not at all comfortable with—but these pressures tend to carry different sorts of consequence in the public sphere. This brings us to one of the most universal and fundamental misconceptions in virtually all of feminist thought, what we might call “the myth of oppression.”  In order for one group of people to be truly oppressed, at least one of three possibilities is true: they are either dumber, weaker, or fewer in numbers than their oppressors.  It is doubtful that we could find any sane person, male or female, who would suggest that women have ever fallen into any of these categories—and yet the myth of oppression lives on, a grim parody of the real oppression that men and women have both experienced throughout our shared history.

It is crucial to emphasize the following: though we may find it necessary to reframe our popular conceptions of male/female oppression, debunking the myth of women as perennial victim, at no point are we diminishing the very real experiences of oppression women encounter every day, all over the world.  At every moment women are being demoralized.  Her identity is being commodified, packaged, and sold for a quick profit.  Her sexuality is either being forced upon her or ripped away, her soul ravaged by senseless acts of physical, emotional, and spiritual abuse.  There is no denying that oppression exists in this world, that countless instances of exploitation and inequity persist to this very day, and that women are too often the victims of this oppression. It obliterates my heart whenever i open myself to even a fraction of the full severity of women’s suffering, if even for just a moment.  And it is clear that men everywhere need to recognize these genuine instances of violence, find a way to collectively “man up” and take more ownership and responsibility for his gender’s behaviors, and begin to consciously redefine the male identity, just as women have been doing for generations.

But when trying to identify the source of this oppression, we must be careful not to allow ourselves to get swept away by the difficult emotions surrounding male/female oppression, or succumb to the glib oversimplifications presented by so many feminist thinkers: namely, the popular narrative that human history is one giant plot concocted by men to keep women under his thumb.  Make no mistake, men and women are both oppressed, by ourselves, by each other, and by the forces of history.  The dreaded patriarchy and all it is associated with—the sharp divisions between labor, gender roles, sexuality, temperament, etc.—men and women have created this mess together, out of sheer necessity of human survival, and both suffer under its weight.  Thus, a comprehensive approach to feminism would not frame the issue as a woman’s struggle to escape her historical oppression by men, but as both men and women together struggling to escape the oppression of history itself.

The weakness of men is the facade of strength, while the strength of women is the facade of weakness.  The goal, obviously, is to thoroughly understand power and powerlessness as they relate to both men and women, thus enabling both sexes to move beyond the often-constricting roles we have created for ourselves.  Some may consider it odd or disingenuous to have men discussing feminism—it is not unusual in academia to believe that only women should deal with women’s issues, and only men with men’s issues, as neither can speak to the experience of the other.  These rules of engagement have only reinforced the enormous divide between us, and it is only through self-awareness and inter-gender dialogue that we will strengthen our ability to honor and cultivate the brilliance inherent within both genders.  The fact remains that both men and women are in this together—we created the mess together, step-by-stumbling-step, all throughout history—and therefore such identity politics have no place in this conversation.  There can be no real progress for women without men’s own progress taking place right alongside, just as there can be no real progress for men without honoring and deepening the many victories women have created for themselves in recent decades.  We are defined only in relation to each other.  Only together are we whole, completing the most sacred circuit the universe has ever known—a circuit through which life continues to proliferate, consciousness continues to amplify, and history continues to whisper its secrets to future generations.

Originally published on Integral Life: Redefining the Relationships Between Men and Women. Part 3: Power and Powerlessness (w/ Warren Farrell and Ken Wilber)

Previously:

Redefining the Relationships Between Men and Women

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Redefining the Relationships Between Men and Women

August 11, 2009 10 comments

It is amazing to consider how much has changed in the past five decades in regard to sexual liberation and empowerment.  The woman’s role in today’s society is almost unrecognizable compared to the early 20th century, and would be wholly unimaginable in the centuries prior.  In America, attitudes toward sexuality and gender began to dramatically shift with the Boomer generation (and the newly emerging pluralistic values they brought with them), as birth control, free love, and several new schools of “second wave” feminism began to challenge the traditional attitudes that defined preceding generations.  Since the early sixties, there has been a tremendous amount of movement toward redefining ourselves as men and women—some forward, some backward, and plenty of treadmills with no discernible movement at all.  In the ensuing decades, we have witnessed the masculinization of women, the feminization of men, the neutralization of both genders, the roles of helpless victim set upon women, the witch hunts of fallacious prosecution set against men, genuine transformation of attitudes and behaviors of both sexes, the movement to procure equal rights for homosexuals, the advent of sex-change surgery, the rise of pornography as a multi-billion dollar industry, and the capitalization of just about every kink, fetish, and fixation imaginable.  And through it all, not surprisingly, men and women in the 21st century still seem to look at each other with the same bewilderment they did 20,000 years ago.

“It’s definitely true that men, as a rule today in industrialized societies, are basically where women were in the 1950’s, psychologically and socially. Part of what is keeping men there is being blamed for having power that is really a camouflage for the powerlessness. Real power is control over my own life.” – Warren Farrell

In order to come to any coherent definition of ourselves as sexual beings, we must take as comprehensive a view of sexuality as possible. Ken Wilber has developed a theoretical model known as the “Four Quadrants,” which, when applied to nearly any field of human knowledge, offers a very simple way to ensure that all bases are being covered and that nothing is being left out. The Four Quadrant model accounts for the interior and exterior dimensions of both the individual and the collective, yielding four major realms of consciousness: intentional, cultural, behavioral, and social (or “I”, “we”, “it”, and “its”, respectively, for those interested in tracking pronouns). All four of these dimensions are closely related, with each quadrant having strong correlates in the others—though none of these quadrants can be reduced to each other (despite the entire history of human thought being essentially an attempt to do exactly this.)

When applied to human sexuality, the Four Quadrants allow us to clearly see the respective roles of biological sex (male vs. female), interior sexuality (masculine vs. feminine), and sexual gender (man vs. woman, as defined by cultural beliefs and expectations), while also accounting for the various technological and economic systems all of these are situated in. By differentiating each of these important dimensions of sexuality, we are able to see how each is able to develop along its own trajectory, with its own history, without needing to confuse one’s sexual orientation with one’s sense of “manliness,” one’s secret desires with one’s cultural taboos, or even one’s gender with one’s genitals.

As previously mentioned, each of these major dimensions of human sexuality (sex, sexuality, gender, and sociological factors) grows through several distinct stages of unfolding. Just as the human body grows through stages of physical maturity—from fetal to infancy, to toddler-hood, to adolescence, to reproductive maturity—so do we grow psychologically, culturally, and socially. In fact, it is only toward the higher reaches of psychological growth that these sorts of important differentiations between biology, psychology, culture, and society can be made—and only from within a relatively advanced culture can significant strides be made on behalf of sexual identity, expression, and liberation. Both men and women evolve through ego-centric, ethno-centric, and world-centric stages of development, creating cultures that reflect these ever-deepening and increasingly inclusive values as they go.

A special note should be made in regards to our techno-economic development, which arguably has the most influence upon development in the other quadrants, for a variety of reasons. By looking to the history of economic production, we can find the history of gender roles themselves—in the earliest stages of civilization, men and women were able to produce food fairly equally, as men would hunt and women would gather, and even later when we moved into the horticultural stage and both men and women could use a digging stick to grow crops. Things changed, however, when we moved into agricultural mode of production, requiring the training of large animals to pull heavy plows through the fields. As men possess more upper-body strength than women, and women were much more susceptible to birth complications under this sort of physical labor, men and women both made the mutual decision to each tend to different spheres of life. This is we begin to see our first true divisions of labor, with men becoming responsible for the public sphere, and women for the private sphere. (And as an interesting footnote, most of the cultures from the early foraging and horticultural eras worshiped gods that were predominantly matriarchal or evenly split between male and female deities, as opposed to agrarian societies who typically only worshiped male deities.) In societies still struggling with survivalist needs, women became valued as humanity’s most precious resource, and men became valued for their disposability, and are expected to compete for the opportunity to protect these resources.

For the next several thousand years, men did what they do best: kill, compete, and construct rigid and elaborate patriarchies, in all flavors of tribalism, nationalism, religion, aristocracies, meritocracies, and steel cage matches. And, in these testosterone-driven social hierarchies, a woman’s proper place in the public sphere was all too clear: she had none whatsoever. And though modern and post-modern feminists can (and do) scoff at the unabashed sexual inequities within these patriarchies, the fact that this was an intentional, necessary, and mutually beneficial decision made by both sexes early in history is regrettably forgotten. Most men aren’t the oppressive beasts they are often made out to be, and most women aren’t the helpless victims of men’s oppression that they are often made out to be.

Of course, we are now in a completely different era of history, with modes of technology that have rendered many, if not all, of these prior decisions about labor division obsolete. Much of the physical labor men traditionally had to do has been replaced first by the steam engine, then by combustion, and now by the microchip. This is probably the single most important factor in terms of the rise of women’s liberation, and has brought into relief one of the most frustrating aspects of collective transformation: although the technology can change overnight, the culture is much more slow to adapt, often requiring entire generations to die off before real change can be enacted throughout society. Or, as Ken has bleakly joked elsewhere: “the knowledge quest can only proceed funeral by funeral….”

All in all, it is an amazing time to be alive—to be a man or a woman, male or a female, masculine or feminine, gay or straight. We are bearing witness to an entire new wave of individual and collective values, an Integral wave of development which, when it reaches the tipping point of its emergence, will make just as extraordinary a splash upon history as the European renaissance or the postmodern revolution of the sixties. And while each previous revolution has occurred only to steer the world away from the pathologies and excesses of what came before, the Integral revolution will be markedly different—while creating a space of personal and collective transformation that is radically and unmistakably new, Integral consciousness will also help to bring a tremendous amount of healing, stability, and sanity to the rest of the world, with the crucial understanding that everyone must start at square one before evolving to Integral consciousness. With as comprehensive a view of human sexuality as Integral consciousness provides, it becomes apparent that all of our old and apparently obsolete methods of relating to each other will always exist, and we must therefore allow them to exist on their own terms, while simultaneously liberating ourselves from definitions of sexual maturity that no longer seem to apply to us or our relationships, and finding new ways to relate to each other with more authenticity, more wholeness, and more erotic passion than ever before possible….

Originally published on Integral Life: Does Feminism Discriminate Against Men? (w/ Warren Farrell & Ken Wilber)

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