A clutch of synonyms is making the rounds of the media these days: populist, nationalist, traditionalist, right wing, alt-right, authoritarian. Pundits choose one, but it doesn’t really matter which. They’re all substitutes for the one word they don’t care to use – patriarchal.
The March edition of The Atlantic quotes a pair of male researchers who have concluded that ”alienation and fear of civilizational collapse have eroded . . . faith in democracy, and created a yearning for a strongman who can stave off catastrophe.” Sociologists like the term “strongman” for its perceived moral neutrality.
Patriarchy – the cult of the strongman – has been trying to hide itself for the last fifty years or so.
In white western cultures, it has been shamed, repeatedly. Banned from making jokes at the expense of wives, mothers-in-law, unmarried women past the expiry date, patriarchy has hung its head in shame and acquiesced to more respectful speech and behaviour.
Despite male attempts to shame the shamers by dismissing respect as mere political correctness, respect has gained some ground. It’s not okay to grab women’s backsides in the office anymore. And demanding that white men show respect for women has led to further demands: respect for people of ethnic minorities, and the disabled, lesbians and gay men, and now “queer non-binaries”.
The multi-headed monster that is patriarchy is not happy. It has been shifting just under the surface in its multiple hiding places. A mere 70-odd years after the second world war, the logical culmination of unadulterated western patriarchy, some of its heads have broken the surface and discovered other heads. And they are communicating in chat caves online.
And the rest of us have to face the horrifying reality that what we thought had been diminishing had only been growing out of sight.
To take a word out of the plate, when people talk about wanting a return to traditional values, what they mean is a return to a more brutal and unashamed patriarchy.
I think there’s a lack of understanding of what patriarchy actually is. Most people seem to believe it’s simply a system that prioritizes men, or that regards men as superior to women. That’s true as far as it goes, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Unfortunately this is the patriarchy we’ve been attempting to eradicate since first wave feminists fought for the vote.
Almost all gains made for women – the vote, the right to work, the right to credit, the right to divorce, the right to sign contracts, the right to work free of sexual harassment, the right to reproductive control, the right to education – have been levelling measures, edging women closer to equality with men.
The equilibrium is unstable, with various of these rights under threat. That’s because the deeper layers of patriarchy have not been addressed.
Patriarchy is not just about a claim that men are superior to or more valuable than women. It’s a larger claim that “masculine” characteristics are more important and superior to “feminine” characteristics. The former are those qualities needed in a militaristic societies, in which men kill other men to claim their property, which includes their women. Think of the qualities of a fighter, think of the qualities of gang leaders who, along with their followers, are still living this kind of life.
In patriarchal societies at their most brutal, only men are allowed to possess strength, greed, lust, leadership, power. Men who don’t are weeded out quickly. Women are expected to acquire those qualities needed by male fighters, which include compassion and tenderness, the willingness to breed and to have sex on demand, to cook, sew and clean.
So far the fight against patriarchy has been limited to allowing more women to enter the male world of striving, competing, earning. It has become more acceptable for women to be strong, decisive, partners with men in the public realms. American television shows us exactly what men are willing to accept – police shows, law shows and doctor shows all show us women acting pretty much just like men. The men themselves have not changed. And the women continue to be sexually desirable, their “femininity” on full display.
The most distinctive attribute of patriarchy is hierarchy. Men create ladders of achievement and require other men to know where they stand on the ladder. They reward those at the top with status, and the accoutrements of status, which include wealth and the “best” women.
Democracy, the leveling out of the hierarchies, is antithetical to patriarchy.
Given that men created democracy, this may come as a surprise, but the history of western democracy is a history of power shared as little as possible with the smallest number. First the most powerful men, often the monarch and his closest allies, were forced to cede power to those just below them in wealth and status and strength. After the powerful landholders gained power, those immediately below them, the bourgeoisie or the rising mercantile class, demanded a share of power. Eventually all landholding men got representation, then all men, then, in America, black men and finally women. The sharing of power, by way of the vote, never came easily or without a struggle.
Democracy is, in fact, a “feminine” force. It presumes that all people in society are of value, regardless of wealth or status. In that way it is an expression of compassion and of communalism. It takes great magnanimity of heart to give the least among us a voice in how we all live.
Those who are expressing a longing for a return to a more brutal and open patriarchy are giving notice that they have lost the heart to care about their neighbours. They are willing for the weak and vulnerable to be oppressed. They are willing for women to be the property of whoever has the force of arms to possess them. If they think the “strongman” will protect them, they are dead wrong. In primitive patriarchies, the weak are the losers and they’re treated with the contempt the winners think they deserve.
Life under unapologetic patriarchy has always been brutal for the majority, so brutal that patriarchs have invented religions to bolster the case for their power. They’ve conceptualized the Creator of all life as male, a disembodied representative of toxic masculinity who punishes those who don’t obey. Fear of the afterlife is required to subdue the masses of oppressed.
Human beings have not yet had anything that comes close to civilization. Male anthropologists have been happy to refer to the empires of the Mayans, the Aztecs, the Persians, the Romans, the Chinese as great civilizations of the past, but each has been a brutal patriarchy that relied on mass slavery, murder and fear of the afterlife to prop up a handful of the ultra-wealthy. A few works of art and architecture don’t make a civilization.
The current nostalgia for the cult of the strongman ignores thousands of years of history. The winners will be the wealthiest and their cronies. And they won’t share. Far from saving civilization, unapologetic patriarchy will destroy it, as it always has done, over and over, as long as people have lived under the thumb of “strongmen”.