Monday, July 21, 2008

Review: The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love

The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love by bell hooks

Interesting feminist perspective on how patriarchal societies are bad for men. The central argument is that patriarchy is a "dominator culture" - where all must struggle violently for power, so as to be able to dominate those weaker than oneself, and avoid the domination of those more powerful. bell hooks argues that this ethic teaches boys to strangle their emotional intelligence from a young age, to harden their hearts so as to be better able to dominate and avoid others' domination. (See martial culture, with examples like military life or gangsta rap.) Since violence is used as a tool of domination, and our species displays a fair amount of sexual dimorphism so men tend to be bigger and more muscular, women are pretty much left on the sidelines of this dominator bloodsport. The best they can do is attempt to become the wife of a strong, dominating man - and maybe exercise a little domination herself with her young sons. Or, if she's a wealthy woman, she can play the dominator game pretty much on par with men.

I have to give bell hooks respect for including class in her feminist perspective. She notes that the system we live in is patriarchal, imperialist and capitalist - and all of these elements go towards explaining why men's humanity is sacrificed: to produce the violent, emotionally crippled soldiers for a dominator society. hooks' is a holistic perspective, and she places blame where blame is due: not on individuals, but on systemic pressures on individuals, or on economic/cultural systems themselves. This is why her perspective is far deeper than the "white feminists" a friend of mine complains to me about, and hooks calls "reformist feminists":

"Reformist feminist women could not make this call [for boys and men to join feminist movement so that they would be liberated from patriarchy] because they were the group of women (mostly white women with class privilege) who had pushed the idea that all men were powerful in the first place. These were the women for whom feminist liberation was more about getting their piece of the power pie and less about freeing masses of women or less powerful men from sexist oppression. They were not mad at their powerful daddies and husbands who kept poor men exploited and oppressed; they were mad that they were not being giving [sic] equal access to power. Now that many of those women have gained power, and especially economic parity with the men of their class, they have pretty much lost interest in feminism."

The author's focus on patriarchy as the enemy reminded me of a book I read back when I was in the Marine Corps OCS (perfect instance of an institution devoted to crushing the last strands of emotional intelligence that have managed to make it past adolescence). It was called "Eve's Seed", and while I don't know anything of the critiques of the book, its theory was that prior to the advent of sedentary, agricultural societies, most human tribes lived within a matriarchal power structure. Women's work, gathering food and practicing low-intensity, small-scale agriculture, accounted for the lion's share of total economic production: and with economic power has always gone political power. It was only when males' greater muscle mass became truly powerful - in that it assisted in economic production (plow-based agriculture) to a greater degree than women's - that most humans began living in patriarchal societies. And, these being patriarchies, we all know how the switch from hunter-gatherer nomadic societies to mass sedentary agricultural societies went down: genocides. (Also, after the "civilized" peoples slaughtered off the "barbarian" tribes, the brilliant civilized people killed themselves off by dessicating their environments through agricultural overproduction and the destruction of ecological life support systems - I think this is the argument in Jared Diamond's "Collapse".)

Anyway, the only disappointing thing about the book was that hooks hasn't grappled at all - it would seem - with evolutionary psychology. What of millions of years of evolution, that in all species has created a divergence in sexual behavior and drive between the sex that spends more time caring for zygotes to the point that they can fend for themselves, and the sex that spends less time or doesn't at all? (I'd just write "male" and "female", but there are a few species where the female gives her eggs to the male, and he inseminates them and takes care of them.) Sure, it's impossible to disentangle the contribution nature and nurture make to create the fucked up men and women of patriarchal societies - but I'd be very interested to read hooks examine the contribution made by nature, not just nurture.

One last thing - hooks makes an interesting observation I had never thought of before. That as they grow up, girls learn to overvalue whatever they interpret as male love from their emotionally stunted fathers, and so in relationships end up settling for whatever attention males are able to give them. Additionally, in a dangerous dominator society, it pays for women to pick a mate who can protect them (by dominating other would-be dominators). "He wouldn't hit me if he didn't love me," etc. - explained! Also, this example shows how interconnected and self-reinforcing social systems like patriarchy are - because men also learn that women seem to like men that treat them poorly, and so tend to model themselves after misogynistic men in order, ironically, to attract women.

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