Forrest Cameranesi Geek of all Trades

Degendering Feminism and Patriarchy

An essay on gender dichotomy and equality, terminology, and cooperation. (2014)

There is without a doubt institutionalized sexism pervasive throughout the world and throughout history, and a need for a social movement to combat it. But characterizing that problem as "patriarchy" and the solution to it as "feminism" only combats half of that problem, at the cost of exacerbating the other half of it.

The reasoning underling the institutionalized sexism seems to be thus:

It begins with the innocuous truism that men on average are physically stronger and tougher than women, and conversely women on average are physically weaker and more vulnerable than men.

From there an invalid inference is made to the conclusion that men as a class are more capable and less needy in general than women as a class, and that women as a class are less capable and more needy in general than men as a class -- introducing a prejudicial overgeneralization that is the start of the problem.

From there an inference of debatable validity is made, from the forgoing plus the debatable premise that capability dictates responsibility and conversely that need dictates entitlement, to reach the conclusion that men, being presumed more capable, are to be held more responsible not only to and for themselves, but to and for women; and that women, conversely, being presumed more needy, are entitled not only to their own product, but to that of the men responsible to them. The initial prejudicial overgeneralization thus growing into a prescription of social roles: men must protect and serve women, because it is presumed that only men are capable of attending to the needs presumed of those women.

From there a reasonably valid inference is made that as responsibility demands commensurate rights of liberty and authority to do what one is responsible to do for those under your care, and entitlement demands commensurate duties to support the behavior and obey the commands of those from whom one is entitled and upon whom one is dependent, men must have rights of liberty and authority over women, and women must have duties to support men's decisions and obey their commands.

And likewise, a reasonable inference is made from the forgoing that as with capability and responsibility comes recognition, both positive and negative (liberty and authority exercised to good ends earns honor, while exercised to bad ends earns fear), and conversely that with need and entitled dependency comes no recognition, neither positive nor negative (insolence and disobedience elicit scorn, but no real fear; and support and obedience is merely expected, nothing to be honored), men may prove themselves either honorable or dangerous by their actions, whereas women regardless of their actions are at best unremarkable in their achievements and generally presumed helpless and innocent.

Thus from the initial prejudiced overgeneralization of the sexes, and a debatable premise equating ability and need with responsibility and entitlement, we arrive by otherwise valid inferences at the traditional gender roles: men as strong, tough, generally capable and self-sufficient beings, upon whom the heavy responsibilities of the whole world rest, who thus command the liberty and authority befitting such responsibility, and the honor, or fear, that their ability and its use to good or ill demands; and women as weak, vulnerable, generally needy and powerless beings, consequently entitled to the care and protection of the whole world, who must thus support and obey those upon whom they depend, but who are held as harmless, and unremarkable, as their powerlessness would suggest, whether they uphold those duties or not.

These dichotomous roles, note well, are not only placing men above women, but below them as well, both constraining and sheltering them from all around: women are held down, but also held up, and men are free to soar, but also free to crash and burn. Men not only enjoy the authority and honor, but suffer the burden of responsibility and the threat of vilification if they don't live up to it. Women conversely are not only burdened with the expectation of obedience and the relegation to a support role taken for granted, but also enjoy the presumption of innocence and the entitlement to be taken care of and gone easy on regardless of their actions.

I am not in any way defending this gender dichotomy as a good or just thing, but merely making the point that to characterize it merely as men oppressing women is inaccurate. It is an unfair division of the sexes and an unjust impingement upon individual liberty, but it is a two-way street: men enjoy rights, but also bear corresponding responsibilities; women bear duties, but also enjoy corresponding entitlements. Under such a dichotomy, women are protected... inside a cage; and men are free... to fend for themselves.

Neither am I saying, however, that the harm inflicted in either direction is necessarily equal. No doubt selfish people on either side of that arrangement would try to exploit it to their advantage wherever possible, to enjoy the benefits of it while shirking the burdens of it, and if there were any kernel of truth to the initial prejudiced overgeneralization that men are more capable than women, then it would not be surprising if men more often succeeded in such attempts at exploitation.

Note well however that if such a kernel of truth exists – about which I levy no opinion – while it would not justify the exploitation of the sexist arrangement, it would, to the degree it exists, justify that arrangement itself. So arguments that appeal to the generally superior power of men as a class to explain how men could exploit such an sexist arrangement to their sole benefit, in doing so, inherently justify the existence of that sexist arrangement in the first place (though not its exploitation).

That is, unless they also attack the premise equating capability and need with responsibility and entitlement, which is a broader political topic with far-reaching implications well beyond gender politics. Should people be responsible to give according to their ability, and entitled to receive according to their need, or should each individual have the same rights and responsibilities, entitlement and duties, regardless of their ability or need? Debating that question is beyond the scope of this essay, but it is worth noting that the latter answer would invalidate the dichotomous gender roles regardless of the truth or falsity of the sexist prejudicial overgeneralization that started it all.

To the extent that a successful exploitation of that gender dichotomy does exist, "patriarchy" makes a fine name for it, and a movement to counteract it and return balance to the arrangement is warranted, for which "feminism" makes a fine name. But to complain merely that the gender dichotomy is being unfairly exploited is still tacitly to accept that, if kept properly in balance, it would be a fair and just arrangement, and thus to tacitly accept the sexist prejudiced overgeneralization that underlies it: that men as a class are generally more capable than women as a class, and women as a class are generally more needy than men as a class.

The movement that has been labelled "feminism" is composed of many individuals with diverse and often differing views on what the purpose and methods of that movement are, but most of them seem at least nominally interested not merely in preserving a fair balance in an arrangement between presumedly capable men and presumedly needy women, but in eradicating that presumption entirely. Feminists in general at least nominally oppose not only the exploitation of such an arrangement, but the existence of it in the first place, and the assertion of the prejudicial overgeneralization that underlies it.

That is a cause that I can get entirely behind. But "feminism" makes a bad name for that cause, and "patriarchy" makes a bad name for either the sexist arrangement or the sexist overgeneralization underlying it. "Feminism" vs "patriarchy" paints a picture of a struggle solely for the benefit of women as a class, against oppression solely by men as a class. Many self-described feminists will argue vehemently that that is not an accurate description of feminism as they know it, and I support their brand of what they call feminism, but dispute that that is an apt name for it. If "patriarchy hurts men too", the implication is that men are oppressing themselves. And if "feminism seeks to liberate men too", the implication is that that gender-role liberty for men is somehow an inherently feminine thing. The mere language of it suggests – even if it is not the intention, as I accept for many it is not – that freeing men and women both from oppressive dichotomous gender roles, from the "patriarchy" presumedly imposed solely by men, involves the feminization, and consequent emasculation, of men, implicitly vilifying masculinity and naturally driving away men who might otherwise agree with equality between the sexes. It is thus not a terminology conducive to inviting men and women alike to work together to dismantle the gender dichotomy, the so-called "patriarchy", as many self-described feminists would rightly like to do.

Furthermore, though self-described feminists such as discussed above would dismiss them as "not true feminists", there exist other self-described feminists who, while nominally pushing to dismantle the sexist gender-dichotomous arrangement and discredit the sexist prejudicial overgeneralization underlying it, in practice only push half way there, and in the process end up enacting exactly the kind of exploitation of the sexist arrangement (which they nominally oppose) that would rightly be called "patriarchy" if it were in the other direction. That is to say, while they rightfully advocate for women's rights to the same liberty and authority as men, and the elimination of women's duties to support and obey men, they also oppose the abolition of women's entitlements and men's corresponding responsibilities; and while they rightly advocate for women to receive the same honorable recognition as men for their accomplishments, they perpetuate and even exacerbate the sexist perception of men as inherently powerful and dangerous predators, and women as inherently helpless and innocent victims. "Feminism", as a word, is a better inherent match to, a more clear descriptor of, this kind of misandrist push for women-over-men than it is to the true egalitarianism discussed earlier. Given that people who hold this view do apply the word "feminist" to themselves, and that "feminism" as a label is actively counterproductive to and misleading about the egalitarian variety discussed earlier, I say let the misandrists have that word, and let the egalitarians adopt another.

Some nominal egalitarians more concerned with how the gender dichotomy affects men have, for these sorts of reasons, begun forming their own "men's rights" groups separate from even the truly egalitarian "feminists", to address those sorts of issues free from attacks from the misandrist strain within the "feminism" umbrella. But those groups -- describing themselves as they do with male-favoring connotations just as "feminism" has female-favoring connotations, and frequently opposing as they do "feminism" with the understanding of that meaning the misandrist type or at least a broader umbrella happy to tolerate the misandrists amongst them -- have in turn begun to attract their own share of people sullying the name of their own movement. As misogynists eager for an opportunity to attack women and establish male dominance that would rightly be called "patriarchy" rally to the "men's rights" banner, and even many true egalitarians under that banner attack "feminism" as a whole for its misandrist elements, so too meanwhile misandrists eager for an opportunity to attack men and establish female dominance that would aptly be named "matriarchy" continue to thrive under the "feminist" banner, and even many true egalitarians under that banner attack "men's rights" as a whole for its misogynist elements. And two movements both with the nominal goal of gender equality, who seem like they should logically be natural allies, attack each other and breed more radical and divisive elements within each other, counter to either of their stated aims, rather than working together toward their nominal common goal of equality. And much of it, I sincerely believe, largely due to little more than the confusion sewn and allowed to fester by misleading and inaccurate terminology.

I call for the truly egalitarian people within both movements -- the ones who want men and women both to be not prejudged on the basis of their sex but judged each on their individual merits, recognized positively or negatively according only to those merits, and all of them enjoying, and burdened with, the exact same rights, responsibilities, entitlements, and duties, even regardless of those merits -- to come together under a common banner to fight a common problem, and to name themselves and that problem in terms which makes it absolutely, unambiguously clear that divisive discrimination is the enemy, not either sex as a class or any movement advocating for that class; and that equality is the only goal, and neither misogynists nor misandrists of any flavor are welcome in any way. The terms to use seem obvious: if the problem is a discriminatory division of the genders, then "gender dichotomy" or "gender discrimination" is the obvious name of the problem; and if equality between the genders is the goal, then "gender egalitarianism" is the obvious name of the movement.