On Minimization as a Patriarchal Reflex
Image: A chinstrap for children, designed by Moritz Schreber. Illustration from: D.G.M. Schreber: Calligraphy. Leipzig, 1858
On Facebook, I posted a brief note about starting to learn what is painfully obvious to women: patriarchy inflicts the stress of constant bodily vigilance at best and acute terror at worse.
The post took off and the comments were stunning. So many stood out, like those that reported on strategies for increasing safety in taxis. One commenter wrote that she always video-chats with a friend while she’s alone in an Uber, dropping details that signal to the driver that someone knows where they are. If men don’t know about this kind of defensive labour, they’ve got to learn.
One genre of comments sent me down a real rabbit hole. The commenter would start with congratulations about my sensitivity to this kind of thing, because the commenter commonly interacts with men who simply think they’re irrational, neurotic, angry or bitter.
But I could feel instantly that such a compliment was undeserved, because I know in my bones what minimizing the other feels like.
I’m an expert at minimizing, and I’ve used it with female partners in ways, often subtle, for most of my adult life, and I’ve only recently begun to listen to the call-outs on it, mainly from my partner, and also others.
My minimizing reflex is mobilized in an instant. The speed is a clue. My partner gives me feedback. Whatever the content is I instantly reframe it so I can feel like it’s either personal attack on me, or — and this is harder to see – as a problem that I am now responsible for, on behalf of someone who I instantly tell myself is overreacting. Both reframes are designed to render the incoming data dismissible. That data could be about real blindspots I have and real harm I’m causing, but I’m skilled at lumping it in with things I claim are insignificant, or flipping it into a character judgment on my partner. I’ve also done this with women I’m working with.
It all happens automatically. Changing it can feel like changing the way I breathe. This is part of the reason why, I believe, men can be so insulted by descriptions of this stuff. We’re being asked to deconstruct something that feels essential to the way we are in the world. What would be left if those defences were taken away?
How does that moment feel? Like I’ve been invaded and have to push out or strike back. My neck gets stiff with narcissism: I can’t let the other person have a legitimate problem without making it about me. I have to react instantly. I can’t pause, take it in, nod, reflect, try to differentiate the other’s feelings from my own. I can’t let it be, without fixing it, which really means casting it aside.
What do I do? Never anything that I couldn’t justify according to some arbitrary spectrum of “normal emotional responses”. Maybe a little exasperated sigh, a tiny smirk that no-one but a partner would pick up on (so it’s even worse), an eye-roll. Maybe I change the subject too quickly. I might squint my eyes and shake my head. If I get going a little, my voice becomes irritated or more emphatic. This all happens below the threshold of “conflict”, and within the realm of being able to pretend to be innocent. At least according to me. The net effect of all of these gestures, not to mention the verbal deflections I’m working up to, is to say that the problem my partner is bringing to me is hers alone. Past the conflict threshold, these things become more obvious.
What I’m getting at here is that the explicit minimizations I can verbalize are grounded in countless somatic reflexes that have been trained into me. I believe that before patriarchal gaslighting becomes an institutional strategy, it is a nervous response. A lot of the vibrant discussion out there focuses on changing behaviors, and that’s as it should be. I’m trying to see what drives the behavior.
I can hardly think of any men that I have these hair-trigger responses around (but more on that below); it’s a problem that almost exclusively happens in my relationships with partners. And if I track it to my immediately wider circle here and now, it’s of a piece with what the men at the community centre gym do when they talk about women.
The locker-room comments amongst my middle-aged cohort aren’t as sexually objectifying as they are gender-objectifying. When a woman partner is mentioned, there’s a general groan. There’s an expectation that a story of nagging or craziness is about to unfold. I get on edge when I feel this happen, because I know it will be hard to point to anything distinct to call out or in. It’s hard to call out a general feeling, as old as bone. If I’m feeling up for at least pretending to do ally work that day, the most I can say is “Well maybe she feels like x, because of y,” referring to some aspect of patriarchy that wouldn’t otherwise get discussed. This is always awkward, because I’m interrupting not only a discharge, but veering out of a well-worn groove.
I might feel superior about it in the sauna, but I’m no better. I know that groove from all-boys Catholic school, where it was hard-wired into me. It’s more like a drone, really, an underlying hum of misogyny, and it begins with belittling. Girls can be cute, but they’re not serious human beings. They waste their time with needlessly complex thoughts over petty concerns. They’re weak, neurotic, and will try to control you through seduction and emotional manipulation, which is all they have talent for. In other words, going to an all-boys Catholic school is like growing up in a politer, more disciplined or militarized version of a 4chan board. All these MRM losers these days are total lightweights in comparison. We made misogyny look good, upright, even liberal.
So the legacy confers an underlying, subconscious reflex to equate a woman’s (you can sub “gay man’s” or ‘transperson’s” here) voice or ideas with irrationality, anxiousness, or lack of understanding the real issues of life. This is the baseline emotional reality of heteronormative men that the #metoo movement is charging at on the open field.
It’s a vicious feedback loop. Dehumanization escalates to outright rape, and minimization – the most socially-acceptable dehumanization tool – neutralizes and silences the call-out of injustice. At the microlevel, when my partner suggests I take a cab at 3:30am, my ingrained response is to feel she’s infringing on my space. There are elements of personal and familial psychology at play for me here – some of them reasonable. But misogyny has hardwired me to belittle her concern, so that I can own more space.
In an instant, my response provides cover for rape culture: With a simple eye-roll, it says:
It really can’t be that bad. You’re exaggerating. I don’t believe you.
I don’t have to assault women to participate in the normalization of assault. My learned, default responses are participation enough. Without that participation, could assault really be so prevalent?
(Likewise, I don’t have to commit overtly racist acts to participate in the structures of racism. Have you heard about those studies that show white doctors consistently underestimate the levels of pain that POC are in, and therefore undermedicate them? Same type of minimization.)
Where does it all come from? I don’t know, but I chant this famous bell hooks quote like a mantra (quoting it for the second time in two posts shows that I don’t know much at all about her work):
“The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem.”
Why do I feel hooks is about 1000% right here? Because there’s only one other person in the world I know I have the reflex to belittle, who is not or has not been a female partner.
It’s my son, who turns five tomorrow.
When he gets the big emotions, something in my body wants him to stop, wants him to get over it, ignore it, shake it off, stop crying. It’s an ancient response. It goes back to Abraham and Isaac. I learned it from movie heroes, priests, music teachers, sports coaches, yoga teachers.
It’s amazing how quickly needing my boy to stuff it down slides into offering strategies for sublimating it. Barely consciously, I think:
You could learn to use those feelings to express power, instead of vulnerability.
Some days it’s like climbing a mountain to stop this reflex, to even begin to hold whatever he’s feeling, without trying to minimize or dismiss it. Or tell him he should use it for something else.
If I wasn’t climbing that mountain, I could easily wreck my relationship with him by the time he was ten. In place of listening, and against his mother’s gifts, I might give him the armor and belligerence that I learned to carry and wield as defenses against my own feelings, until I got lucky in this relationship, that therapy, this work.
I have to climb a mountain, forty years high, to look a little boy in the eye and tell him it’s okay to feel his pain and sorrow. To tell him it’s a good thing, actually. That it will help him learn to listen, and listening will help him let other people have their feelings as well.
(Happy birthday, bubby.)
I suppose you’ve received a ground-swell of responses and friend requests following your two fb posts addressing your part in the #MeToo movement. I’m among them! I was deeply moved by the nuance first of your own realizations and then of your ability to parlay that nuance so eloquently into words, images. I don’t think I’ve ever heard this kind of reflection from a man and my hunch is that most women who read what you’ve written are experiencing a similar jolt. I hope you continue on this theme because, at least at this hot minute, and it IS a hot minute, you hold one of the keys that could open that locked passage of non-communication between men and women, that could open the other dark chamber of fear and refusal in the minds and hearts of all men who feel threatened by vulnerability and, thus, by women.
In my forties I spent several years studying biology as I’d taken the decision to get my doctorate in neuroscience (a long story for another time, perhaps), and during that time I studied evolution – a subject that fascinated me to no end and to which I return unfailingly on a regular basis. I have an evolution-based theory about the current state of men and women and I feel quite sure that my hypothesis is right on the money. It’s rather simple, in fact, but in order to understand it, one must first understand that evolution is a process of such tediously slow change, that our minds cannot even conceive of the vast lengths of time each minute detail of that change requires. Scale, thus, is key… On the other hand, during the past 150 years on the planet, humans have created and experienced technological change far greater and more rapid than at any other time in our history, and this has revolutionized how we live and, moreover, how we relate to our environment. The catch, however, is that while men’s roles on earth have shifted dramatically as a result of this technological change, women’s roles have not been perceptibly altered. What has this to do with evolution? Everything.
Men and women have evolved differently in order to fulfill their evolutionary “duties” of survival through myriad, subtle adaptation to their environments. As we all know, men developed to be hunters and gatherers; male evolution favored muscles, fight or flight responses, reflexes that engender protecting, providing, dominion, endurance, and on and on. Vulnerability is not a male characteristic that was favored, evolutionarily speaking that is, for obvious reasons of survival. On the other hand, women have evolved to bear and raise children, to look after the hearth and home, and thus female evolution has favored compassion, reflection, tenderness, vulnerability in order that we fulfill our part in this evolutionary “duty,” in order that the species survive.
Thus, today, while women remain relatively at home and comfortable in our skin, in our roles, connected from our hearts to others and the world, men are living a lie because their bodies are geared up to do jobs that are no longer essential, that for the most part no longer exist. So, what are they to do with the heat that boils up ALL THE TIME – the heat of their sex drive, the heat of their anger, the heat of their desire to conquer, to vanquish, to dominate, to reign… This heat that once brought them glory, reward, pride in a job well done and pride in themselves has become in large part useless, extraneous, expendable. Men’s core strengths are no longer appropriate and all that once brought them joy and comfort, that brought them a SENSE OF THEMSELVES, has now become confounded with shame, with ignominy and, worse, with humiliation.
What I’ve written above is, of course, a generalization but as with all generalizations it’s based on a prevalent reality, and in this current reality, we cannot change in any marked way our evolution. Furthermore, none of us will live long enough to witness the biological changes that evolution will effect in the technological ages to come. We are living in precarious times in many, many ways, ALL OF WHICH have to do with hubris and the destruction wrought by this terrible humiliation, this evolutionary failing of male adaptability !!! On the other hand we do, men and women alike, have the power and saving grace, perhaps, as human beings to override our instinctual nature with our rational minds but, in order to accomplish this, we need the kinds of intelligence, like yours, that are capable of tickling our cognitive selves. Whereas gender discussion between the sexes so often fails as it descends into emotional flailing and sparring, what you’ve produced is a corridor of thought that is JUST BLAME FREE ENOUGH that other men will perhaps allow it entry through the tiny cracks of their well-fortressed consciousness.
I don’t think that my praise and my estimation of the importance of your writing is over-blown. I truly believe that you’re on to something rare and precious and I heartily encourage you to grow and spread your thoughts in any way you can far and wide!
Thank you for commenting and the kind words. Sorry to be so brief in my reply: it’s refreshing to see evolutionary biology cited by a feminist. That feels pretty rare these days.
@ Matthew, wow. Your text has kept me up tonight. Hashing and rehashing my whole life & how minimization has been a constant source of conflict with all men in my life. Sharing this piece with everyone I love. It’s eye-opening for just as much for women as it is for men.
@ Robin you also have the gift of eloquence. Thanks for sharing a piece of your life work. You’ve put in context bits of intuition & insights on the life I share with my partner who is a man. Where can I find your work? I want to support you.
Thank you for your kind words. I responded at length to Julia’s comment below and my response will perhaps give you a bit more information about my intuitions and insights… at least I hope so!
Kind regards, Robin
Thank you, Julia.
Surely not all generalizations are based on a prevalent reality. To correct a few: Jews are not pushy; blacks are not lazy; woman are not weak.
As for men and vulnerability, it is of course true that the gender tends to mask its vulnerabilities. But men without a developed sense of their vulnerabilities did not survive long enough to procreate. For one thing, it’s what told our ancestors when to run.
Wonderful article, Matthew. Love, Shambhavi
I think you’re on to something Robin but from my point of view you have the analysis twisted!
In my understanding of historical division of labor / gender roles there was two completely separate work cultures – men’s work and women’s work. I’m sure you’ve heard those terms before. To follow the route of useful generalizations you have laid out – men’s work was more physically demanding and dangerous (hunting, construction, etc.), and highly rational work (inventing tools/technology, writing rules/laws, etc.) whereas women’s work was about emotionally sensitive work (nurturing, homemaking, etc.), less physical/dangerous production (gathering, sewing/weaving/knitting etc.), and guaranteeing that resources are distributed fairly.
Over time as technology developed men’s work became exponentially more productive. By the time of the industrial revolution men’s work became synonymous with factory work. Men also made all of the business decisions. But there was still two separate work cultures, until as you point out, roughly 150 years ago when the worlds started to collide. Two work cultures became one by the end of WW2 and women had flooded the men’s work world en masse while the soldiers were away from home.
And here’s the tricky bit: the women were not at all comfortable in their skin being after being thrust in to the men’s work culture. And men were not comfortable accommodating them. So at first they were subordinated to the already established men’s work culture, which had no regard for feelings, only for results. Women missed their work culture, so starting especially in the 60’s they strived to transplant feminine work culture into masculine work places. Ever since there has been a drive to feminize men’s work culture, to soften it so that more sensitive employees feelings aren’t incidentally damaged. Especially in ‘white-collar’ work. (That’s probably why you see the movement into the future going further towards the feminine.)
There are pluses and minuses to this. Emotions are important to become aware of and make consideration for since they are more primal and powerful than rationality in terms of influence on our behavior. So that’s a plus. On the other hand, being masculinely blunt & honest about an employees subpar performance will likely hurt there feelings, but it’s necessary to keep the work quality high. Controlled competition, which women typically loathe participating in, raises quality to even higher standards. So I don’t see this movement towards increasing feminization of work culture culminating in anything positive.
We can’t put the genie back in the bottle now, traditional gender roles have been destroyed and the only way forward is to continue to debate the balance of masculine and feminine values in the workplace. I see the utility in a softening masculine work culture and incorporating understanding of human emotionality. To an extent!! But we absolutely cannot allow the masculine values to be completely discarded or else we risk degradation of rationality and efficiency.
This is the dangerous direction which it seems to me like you are envisioning. A continuing of the feminization of traditionally masculine workplaces and professions. It’s up for debate what the proper balance should be. I just wish the feminine perspective in this debate wasn’t rabidly anti-masculine.
As far as the automation of industrial/construction work… well this is a big problem, because the IQ threshold for entering into the remaining masculine fields like STEM is a lot higher. And while females tend to cluster near the center of IQ distributions, men have a much larger spectrum of deviation. Men are way more likely to be geniuses (in rational terms) or idiots. What will society do with the low IQ men in a technocentric future?
Well all of that assumes that society doesn’t collapse from natural disaster or war. If the power grid is decimated somehow you bet your ass traditional gender roles will come back real quick. Women will be hiding in the houses while men go out and do the risky, physically demanding work of rebuilding infrastructure.
While I hear what you’re saying about how the work roles got shaken up by WWII, which lead us to the incorporation of the feminine qualities into typically masculine jobs, I’d like to push back on your comment about the “anti-masculine” trend you see in this gender roles revision.
I think some people are stuck within the binary concept: If it’s not one, it must be the other. If we want to bring women into traditionally male roles, we must get rid of men and masculinity. That’s how I see some people talk about this issue. Why can’t we just embrace both?
The way I see it, the reasonable expectation is not to replace masculine qualities with the feminine but rather to allow people to embrace both of what we consider masculine and feminine qualities that allow each individual to be their most productive self in the workplace and at home. With this binary role division in the workplace, we still tend to give people grief for aligning themselves with gendered characteristics that we perceive as opposite to how we think they should be. For example: Women who assert themselves with confidence and speak in direct and frank terms receive negative reactions – “She’s bossy… She’s a bitch.” If a man exhibits the same directness, he’s just doing his job. Same issue with men who tend to listen more openly and show more empathy; their willingness to embrace their “sensitive side” makes them appear weak. People call sensitive men feminine derogatory names (pussy, sissy, gay [because gay men are still aligned with the feminine as a trend]) because our culture still minimizes the worth of feminine qualities. That’s what the original article touches on: our unwillingness to allow men to be in touch with their emotions not only impacts men but also the women in their lives. Our inability to let people express both perceived masculine and feminine behaviors without the dominant qualities aligning with the gender we assigned them to causes conflict.
There is worth in both masculine and feminine qualities. We need people who are assertive and sensitive, analytical and creative, rational and empathetic, physically strong and dexterous. Yes, there will still be some vocations that are better suited for people with “masculine qualities” and some for people with “feminine qualities.” That doesn’t mean the person with those qualities will always be the gender we typically associate with those qualities. If the person can do the job to the standard or exceed the standard, their sex or gender shouldn’t matter. That’s how I see it.
So how does your partner phrase it or “call you out” that has allowed you to listen, hear and consider the issue?
Thanks for asking. It was a long process, aided by therapy. A lot of pennies had to drop, and it was crucial to have someone intervene and ask me how I felt in my body during a particular kind of communication. It really wasn’t about my partner changing tone, but about my recognizing what my reflexes were doing. Of course I shouldn’t give the impression that it’s somehow all fixed; it’s not. In my experience, even small changes take a tremendous amount of work and luck.
Re. Robin’s response: I would like to point out that prehistoric women were also gatherers, and that long-term matriarchal societies have thrived in some parts of the world. It’s a teleological argument to say that men became ‘strong’ to provide for their families. We could also say that there is a spectrum of ways to provide – spanning from activities requiring physical strength to those that are nurturing. The same could be said for territoriality: a range of behaviors from physical violence to kindness that binds and bonds. It has been a long evolutionary span since brute force was a better requisite for survival than cooperation. In my thinking the continued selection pressure on ‘gender roles’ has been mostly because violence is so successful (for the aggressor) in achieving short-term gains. Clearly, continued war, rape, theft, domination etc. have long-range consequences that we are only now starting to consider.
Women are fierce and strong, men are gentle and tender. We carry the whole gamut of possibility within us. The feelings we experience, if we let them surface, remind us of the competing drives for personal gain versus collective well-being, or the desire to achieve a quick, clear ‘success’ rather than struggling endlessly to find a solution that works better for the group.
I’m inclined to reject the arguments of genetically inherited sexual dimorphism in favor of the experience that Matthew is expressing – a habitual avoidance of the hard work required to negotiate between better judgment and the limbic ‘quick fix’. I see this as being fundamentally about learning to resolve conflict without resort to violence, about embracing struggle as a mark of a life well-lived, and becoming more humane in the process.
yes, I bet if we taught boys from birth to de-escalate situations and do emotional caregiving the way we teach girls, we’d have a very different view of gender based social skills
Yes, thank you, Julia. There are so many holes in the theories proposed by previous commenters. As if being a mother and protecting your child does not require fierceness. As if these divisions of labour were inevitable, when we know that non-agricultural cultures are far more egalitarian. People cooperate and share, men are tender with children, etc. It looks to me like humanity has gone down a very destructive path with the adoption of agricultural societies. What can we do about it now? Perhaps recognize how current cultural norms are destructive to our psyches. Perhaps there is a way to restructure work and social life that has egalitarian qualities and that is not so rigidly hierarchical. Perhaps we can reject our identities as consumers. Perhaps we can discard labels – we have such a mania for sorting and categorizing! Perhaps we can quit mixing up education with institutionalization.
Thanks. Amazing stuff, so clear and honest. Thought you might like to read my response to the #metoo thing, Cheers Ed
Re: “I have to climb a mountain, forty years high, to look a little boy in the eye and tell him it’s okay to feel his pain and sorrow. To tell him it’s a good thing, actually. That it will help him learn to listen, and listening will help him let other people have their feelings as well.”
Is the little boy you are referring to yourself, or your son here? If the latter, you might try approaching the former little boy to heal your own wounds first. There are therapists and coaches who do deep, relatively brief work with neurolinguistic programming that can help with that (not me, but I’ve used the techniques with the guidance of said coaches to impressive effect) Good luck.
Thanks — it’s intentionally ambiguous, i.e., both. Yes, therapy has been essential for me, especially the work I’ve been privileged to afford through a registered psychotherapist who’s trained in EFT.
yup. The brain is gendered. To vastly generalize: the female brain (and some male brains) is wired for relationships. Women’s role as gatherer (also hunter, but less often if we are to believe the anthropologists) taught her to cooperate and negotiate
. The male brain (and some female brains) is wired for competition. We are not slaves to our historical roles or our hard-wiring. And yes it takes awareness, and practice (lots of practice) to notice, in and with our bodies, our reactions, to question them and to sit quietly and observe them before or instead of acting or responding in our usual knee-jerk way.
Thank you for putting into words the struggle for this “man” to be sensitive in the world without feeling weak and worthless. I am facing my own struggles with this throughout my whole life. I have been thinking my eyes were open as I have been seeking therapy for exactly what this article speaks of. But reading this has opened them further as I realize that I still have much to learn. I do the eye roll and I am quick to reject ideas from a partner in order to protect them from making mistakes I have already made. That is not my place I now realize. My heart has more to say but I am not sure how to put into words how I feel. The struggle is very real to me and I will continue on this path I have chosen to try and change my actions and reactions to be a better person in the world.
Thank you for your response. I’ll say right off that I couldn’t be more in agreement with you about our innate ability to take the high road in embracing struggle as a means toward conflict resolution as well as in your support of Matthew’s thesis, which is a lovely illustration of just that.
I am not an evolutionary biologist and my intention was never to draw gender-based caricatural portraits and certainly not to make any facile excuses for lousy behavior! Biology is as complex as evolution is tedious and we and the rest of the carbon-based world are the manifest proof! As a woman, I myself have unusual upper body strength and musculature, taking after my father who was a dancer by profession. I’m a mother but have never been married, run my own business and, following in my own mother’s tracks, have defied simplistic, gender-based stereotypes. As I stated in my text, I was making a generalization, not for the sake of arguing sexual dimorphism but simply to emphasize the obvious – that in the hundreds of thousands of years of human history, men and women have slowly but surely evolved differently, each with unique and defining physical capacities, unique hormonal responses, etc., and, generally speaking, somewhat different skill sets. Whatever the myriad reasons were for this, each sex is the biological result of a rather long and drawn out editing process.
My bigger point, however, and here perhaps I should have been more clear, was to address the relationship of these differences to the glitch of our times, that is, the rapid technological change that we humans have introduced in the past 150 years, which has not only radically changed our planet but also dramatically changed the ways in which we interact with our environment. Many of the “jobs” we’ve been evolutionarily “designed” to perform, jobs defined as much by the fruits of our environment as by our physical natures, have been rendered superfluous by machines; and the sea-change, literally and figuratively, disproportionately affects men. Ironically, perhaps, it’s also largely men who brought this change upon the world and upon themselves…
I am very much in agreement with you about the marvelous flexibility of human consciousness, about cooperation as a biological imperative without which human beings as a species could not have thrived. As such, I also agree heartily with you that we carry the whole gamut of possibility within us. To that end, I worked for about ten years as a facilitator doing conflict resolution in various groups, including work in prisons as part of Angela Davis’ ambitious program, Critical Resistance. In my work I was very much focused on the root causes of oppression of all sorts (all the “ism’s”), on the facile and cowardly knee-jerk responses that individuals make and groups institutionalize in an effort to deflect the discomfort of self-examination and to evade the profoundly uncomfortable destabilization that results from “truthing up” to the crummy habits that appear to lend an advantage. As Matthew not only defined but so eloquently and so painstakingly illustrated, this is the subtle and seemingly automatic process of “reframing.” I, myself, was only able to do this work after having done my own painstaking homework of exorcising my demons, an exorcism that spanned fifteen years and ultimately gave me a window into the complex machine of oppression. During that time, I routed the hideous and destructive feelings of unworthiness that I carried buried inside, feelings of humiliation so profound that suicidal thoughts were never far from reach, feelings that were planted by an “inheritance” (and I DON’T mean a genetic one!) of being on the target end of a long history of genocide. As a Jew, I was well instructed from birth during every day of my young life by the hundreds of thousands of familial signals, great and small, that tap-tap-tapped upon my soft young consciousness, coming from parents who had the same instructions hammered into them from their parents, and so on, all the way back – instructions that internalized the hard nut of anti-semitism – in short, that the world would be better off without them, without us, without me.
I now can say with pride and confidence that I am a master of and expert in humiliation, that I know it inside and out, and know it to be by far the most wretched villain, the most self-destructive motivation that any human being can experience for the simple reason that humiliation is, by definition, the denial of self, the denial of one’s very precious life. On the other hand, the plumbing of my depths and subsequent mastery of this humiliation has provided me with the equivalent of a doctorate in the politics of oppression. I understand intimately now that it is fear and not bad people that drives this machine. I also understand that a tacit, however unchosen, agreement is always set up between master and slave, between those on the non-target end and those on the target end of any oppression, and that neither party in such a bargain is fulfilled. The kicker, however, is that while those on the target end of oppression lose their power, those on the non-target end lose, by definition and without fail, their integrity – a fate, in my mind, that is far worse. It is truly the devil’s bargain in this sense! And just as a tacit agreement must be enforced for oppression to persist, a very different tacit agreement must be established for oppression to be deconstructed.
What we’re seeing, at this hot minute in the MeToo Movement, is women doing their part of this deconstruction by rejecting powerlessness in the face of male sexual abuse. Women are standing up in all of their power and humility, speaking out, refusing to be silenced by fear and shame. This remaking of agreements is exactly what will give men the “room” to face the almost unbearable introspection about which Matthew is speaking, for without women’s complicity in male oppression, sexism cannot remain standing. And with the delicate balance that Matthew has illustrated in his text, a balance that allows on the one hand for the necessary acceptance of responsibility by men for their offensive acts while, on the other hand, not clobbering them with blame and rejection, a new complicity of support is possible. Speaking for myself and for many women, we’ve been waiting a very long time for this opportunity!
ALL of this to say that in the long process of human civilization, a process which began with the invention of simple tools and the mastery of fire, a process that will perhaps end with the launching of nuclear warheads, biological warfare, and the destruction of the balance of nature and, thus, life on earth as we know it, the choices that men in general are making today are more at odds with their own survival than ever before in the history of mankind while women’s choices remain more or less aligned with evolution, that is, aligned with posterity, their own and that of others. And my hunch about all of this is that it’s harder and harder for men to feel proud of who they are, to live in the true comfort of their power, given that those strengths and skills which for hundreds of thousands of years defined their sense of masculinity, of gratification, of success, now only serve them in paintball matches, on stair-masters and rowing machines, and, yes, in the sexist belittling of women, children, minorities! Men have had the rug pulled out from beneath them and my guess is that the ignominy that’s lying just beneath their thin sense of masculinity feels like a menace that no woman has ever experienced. I have NO DOUBT whatsoever that men can step up to the plate of higher consciousness (as many do!), that they can muster the courage to be introspective, the strength to be generous, the masculinity to nurture and the muscle to care… That said, I also have no doubt about the mountain of terror that looms before them when they even glimpse such a tectonic shift. Matthew put it very well and succinctly:
“ It all happens automatically. Changing it can feel like changing the way I breathe.”
“How does that moment feel? Like I’ve been invaded and have to push out or strike back. My neck gets stiff with narcissism: I can’t let the other person have a legitimate problem without making it about me. I have to react instantly. I can’t pause, take it in, nod, reflect, try to differentiate the other’s feelings from my own. I can’t let it be, without fixing it, which really means casting it aside.”
“This all happens below the threshold of “conflict”, and within the realm of being able to pretend to be innocent. At least according to me. The net effect of all of these gestures, not to mention the verbal deflections I’m working up to, is to say that the problem my partner is bringing to me is hers alone.”
At the end of the day the problem is nevertheless a shared one; how do we play together well, share our toys, open up the black boxes, shed light on the shame and humiliation that prevents us from questioning those tacit agreements between oppressor and oppressed? We’ve already broken at least one cardinal rule, to never poop in the same room where we eat… will we break more? How will we ultimately get it through our thick skulls and agree that we cannot, that we will not survive on this great green earth without compassion, without the complicity of mutual understanding and true support.
I, for one, am ready to do the work and eager for answers.
“The locker-room comments amongst my middle-aged cohort aren’t as sexually objectifying as they are gender-objectifying. When a woman partner is mentioned, there’s a general groan. There’s an expectation that a story of nagging or craziness is about to unfold.”
A general groan at the mention of a female partner? Really? I have been male since 1953, and I have been in plenty of locker rooms, but that does not ring true, Matthew.
I appreciate the insights in your piece, which are won at cost, and I recognize much of what you detail here. Certainly men together without women engage in behavior that reinforces patriarchy. But nowadays (say, since 1980) it is communicated via means that are subtle and intelligent and insidious, not cornball and crude and moronic.
Outside of a movie or tv show, I never heard a “general groan” among grown-up males — about women or anything else. For one thing, we men don’t trust each other enough for that sort of unison. y.
You must know all the good places! Yes, there’s subtle stuff too. And you’re right I could have finessed that away from unison. It’s more like a sigh here, a tongue click there, a little snorfle…
I only frequent the finest locker rooms . . . .
Sorry I nitpicked, but the overall fineness of your insights (can I ever relate to those those somatic triggers you mention) makes hyperbole unnecessary.
Well thank you, it’s a fair point. I might even edit to suit. Be well.
Some exceptionally warm, open, sensitive men are solicitous and want very much to hear what women have to say and reflect on it without taking it personally. They will find it painful but they will grow from it. They too realize that they have suffered from the culture of John Wayne and toxic masculinity. They want to grow and they are willing to do the work.
A larger segment of men also abhor the routine mistreatment of women and want to think of themselves as enlightened men. In many important and overlooked ways they are indeed enlightened though they often have a hard time taking their own hurt feelings out of the equation. They too want to have nurturing, healthy relationships with women or other men. However, they don’t want to be blamed or misunderstood. The thinking is, “Why am I being attacked, I’M ON YOUR SIDE!!! I stood up for gay rights and women’s rights when it was unpopular and now I’m being criticized because I’m not doing enough or being conscientious enough? Why should I suffer and be painted as the bad guy when I agree with you and WANT to be on your side?’ This is the guy who finds it unbearable when men are spoken of in generalities. He thinks, ‘Why won’t you say ‘some’ men?’ Why won’t you judge each of us individually?’
Then there’s another segment of men who are more passive. They’re on the fence. Women’s issues are most often not in the forefront of their consciousness. Maybe they never will be. But they’re not bad guys. They’re not unsafe so much as unavailable and comfortable being complacent.
And then there are the other segments of guys who I won’t get into. Let’s just deal with the first three.
I live, most of the time, in the second of these three categories. And like many men, I probably go back and forth between them unconsciously. My concern with the national conversation between men and women right now is that we have elections coming up in 2018 and 2020. We don’t have to worry about the exceptionally open guys. But if you alienate the second and third of the three groups, then it’s very likely that we’ll lose these elections. Mind you the goal is not to win ‘men’ as a whole category but to peal off just enough votes from each segment to ensure victory.
Towards that end, I must say without any reservation that there is still a difference between killing one person and killing seven. That it is better to choose a leader who is sexist on Mondays then one who is sexist every day of the week.
I know that sounds awful but the stakes are so high. Can we really afford to have the Trump presidency extend through 2024? Women have lost so much in less than one year!
Thus, given the nature of male defensiveness, wouldn’t it be better to work around these male defenses? Wouldn’t it be better to gently persuade? To be a bit more indirect? To keep things a bit more abstract? Can we really afford negative push back from men who feel attacked?
Obama won because he convinced America that electing him would be evidence of a post-racial society. Subsequent events proved that ‘post-racial’ society to be a myth (I.e. Trump’s victory, police shootings, confederate statues). But please consider all the good that was done over the last eight years! It was built on a white-lie (no pun intended).
It’s highly like that we will only win the White House if we embrace a post gender-conflict society. It, too, would be a myth. But it would be a myth that allows us to deconstruct the patriarchy quietly when no one’s looking-sort of like the way Baltimore got rid of it’s Confederate statues in the middle of the night.
In sum, political correctness may be correct but it’s often not politically expedient. And given the choice between Trump and someone even marginally less awful, I’ll take expediency every time.
Thank you for writing a courageous insightful and thought-provoking piece and generously sharing it. Courage, being not the absence of fear but the willingness to feel fear and proceed inspite of it. Its resonance is evident from the responses and its value enhanced by those worthy contributions. Stay courageous and generous.
As a white woman who grew up in upper middle class comfort, when I sat with your piece, I realize I’ve been on both sides of this. I’ve had people nitpick my feelings and question my experiences as a person living in my female body. But I’ve also experienced the same somatic reactions when confronted with other’s perspectives and feelings regarding their own experiences with race and gender. To truly progress, it seems we all have to get better at sitting with discomfort and challenging feelings so that we can actually start to hear other people. We might also need to start reframing strength to include being able to hear/accept criticism without withering and lashing out.
Thanks for your writing!!
Wow–my sister just posted this on FB. Deeply appreciated–thank you!
I enjoyed reading your piece. I find a lot of validation for my own experience in your descriptions of the sense of yourself which hides all the subtle framework for our privilege. I can see it all so clearly in my daily interactions with others, and I too have an amazingly patient and compassionate partner who compels me to continue to push the bounds of my emotional intelligence.
The connection you make between your own emotional sovereignty and that of others in your interplay is a critical one by my reckoning and I hope that more men are able to fathom these intimacies as I continue to find an increasing sense of freedom and serenity from the work.
We should all be free from these shackles- perhaps beginning with the recognition that others are paying a far greater price for our conditioning than we are and they are absolutely justified in their level of vigilance. And equally justified in their level of outrage. No amount of minimization can quell it; such delusion only keeps us far below the curve.
Hi Matthew: thanks for your article. It comes in a perfect moment, when I am trying to get deep into myself to understand and work on my own machismo. I am a Peruvian writer living in Maine, and would really like to translate and share in my Facebook timeline the Facebook post you mentioned here. Is that something you Re ok with? I would the credits and mentioned your web and work. I really think a lot of people in Latinamerica will engage. I think we need to read more things like this.
I would be delighted. Thanks for asking.
Matthew, first — thank you for having the courage to be and become aware of your automatic responses.
What you’re doing is perfect. You don’t have to do anything different than exploring the way you’re exploring. And communicating out loud in a public way and letting people interact with your discovery? True emotional and intellectual courage.
And to add my two cents to your conversation — It’s worth noting that at least 60% of a human’s waking day is programmed/reactive. I love reading the MIT and other studies about cognitive behaviors and how much of our “choice” and “beliefs” are really just the things we have heard over and over and over again, and mostly what wins the day is the thing we’ve heard the most, rather than any conscious responses we might have.
In those awkward moments, when people are gossiping (and yes, that’s what your men friends are doing when they talk about someone who isn’t present), I do one of a couple of things: either a non-sequitur (did you hear about ____ ) or “I prefer to support my partner and not tear him down”. But I’ve developed the wlllingness to let awkward silences happen in favor of making a difference.
Thank you so much for the kind words, and the helpful vignette. There might be some courage on my part, but the larger work is really the feedback and forbearance of my partner, who has a bunch of ways of interrupting that wiring while staying connected.
I have a constructive criticism of this perspective and in that constructive spirit I will give my thoughts in the positive – negative – positive order.
First- I think most of the problems outlined by feminism generally, and in this article specifically, are totally valid and it’s great that they are gaining presence in mainstream discussion.
Brace yourself, this is the critical part – please bear with me while I support my reasoning and offer an example.
This article is self-admittedly an attempt to pierce the underlying drives of perceived maladaptive conditioning. Fair enough, that’s a noble aim; unfortunately the scope of the analysis is far too narrow. This is the fatal flaw of feminism: arbitrarily cramming every observation into an inherently limited analytical schema called patriarchy. The problem is that observations of practically universal human behavior are not properly distinguished from gender-specific pathologies. Everything is framed as a gender-specific pathology when in reality all people are equally prone to at least some of these pathologies. Feminists destroy the credit their own valid observations by misattributing them.
For example listen to this description from the article. This is a /perfect/ detailed description of how my most progressive, pro-feminist friends respond when I mention the topic of veganism.
“My minimizing reflex is mobilized in an instant. The speed is a clue. [Somebody] gives me feedback. Whatever the content is I instantly reframe it so I can feel like it’s either personal attack on me, or — and this is harder to see – as a problem that I am now responsible for, on behalf of someone who I instantly tell myself is overreacting. Both reframes are designed to render the incoming data dismissible. That data could be about real blindspots I have and real harm I’m causing, but I’m skilled at lumping it in with things I claim are insignificant, or flipping it into a character judgment…”
Happens. Every. Single. Time. Without the self-awareness of this process which this guy is displaying. From feminists who profess their ethical opposition to exploitation of others! Of course, like all groups, feminism is comprised of unique individuals. I’m sure some minority of feminists legitimately support animal rights. In fact one of those individuals influenced my eventual decision to go vegan. At the time I was just acting stupid and defensive, but their words stuck with me and slowly I began to question my own hypocrisy.
Point being, feminists attribute this defensive tendency to men exclusively, but when the tables are turned and the discussion focuses on ways in which they themselves actively support/finance gruesome harm to truly innocent, loving, sentient beings… well let’s just say I don’t see many of them ‘checking their privilege.’
The observation of a minimizing reflex is valid but the scope is too narrow – everybody has a tendency to reflexively minimize the (often unintentional) harm they cause. It’s not unique to men; to “patriarchy”. The good news is it seems like it can be transcended with concentrated effort. The key is not to fall into the same fallacious behaviour the author is criticising men of commiting – believing your own hype and hiding comfortably in like-minded groups so as to keep your vulnerable blind spot intact & safe from legitimate, constructive criticism.
To only discuss the particular problems attributable to men and minimize the particular problems attributable to women, while simultaneously tacking on all sorts of universal problems attributed to men exclusively… Not to mention the hysterical blame & shame games that go on far too often when somebody tries to disagree, no matter how reasonably… It’s no small wonder why so many people totally resist feminism on principle! NEWSFLASH! It’s not only for the reasons your narrow, fundamentally flawed analytical toolkit give you. Even if the conclusions are true you’re missing so much of the bigger picture.
Lastly- I particularly like how at the end of the article the author turned his focus to how uncomfortable people are with strong emotions and how that effects parenting of children. It’s always great when positive attention is brought to this issue. Unfortunately this point also suffers from the general lack of scope. I think that most people, regardless of gender, are quite emotionally immature. With feminine leaning people being on average a step or two ahead of the curve but with their own unique toxic baggage to handle. I think our culture can scarcely imagine the upper limits of emotional maturity. There aren’t too many reproachless spiritual masters walking among us. Point being we all still have a lot emotional/spiritual maturation to do.
It’s only very, very recently (in an evolutionary sense) that some societies have been prosperous enough that collective attention could be raised from the struggle for survival to collectively healing more abstract, paradoxical emotional problems. Who knows how many generations back these insidious emotional pathologies stretch. And there are almost certainly roots in the reactive ‘reptile brain’ we have inherented from eons of evolution.
Well my original point is that yes, I think it’s a great and healthy thing for us all to teach each other how to handle strong emotions with more maturity. Same way I support bringing more maturity to our reasoning and to our public debates.
Thank you for your brilliant observation. I couldn’t agree more.
My experience is similar to Matthew’s: minimization reflex in response to constructive criticism is hardly unique to men. It is a fundamental human pride issue common to men and women alike. If this type of response occurs more frequently in men, it is likely because their female partners tend to give more critiques. That’s not necessarily a bad thing about women, and it could be argued that men should give more feedback than they do. Doubtless everyone has room for improvement in how we give and receive constructive criticism.
Remembering a text I sent to a friend during a Wawadia event a few years ago, that I quite enjoyed, but I felt compelled to snark how the few men at the 60+ event controlled the discussion for the most part. I had really wanted to jump in but felt it was a game of double dutch too fast for me to steal the show from someone else. I guess I should give you one of those, as you wrote, undeserved compliments for this self awareness? It is exciting to read. My own husband is waking up to this right now too and I want to clap for him too for finally seeing and agreeing to step on the bridge I built
How do essays like this always start off being about the harms men do to women, but end up being about how it is really men and boys who are the real victims? You aren’t.
Wow…I love this. Thank you. I recently wrote a #metoo blog and then a few days later had a date rape experience. It’s been an interesting. And a male friend of mine just wrote a scathing post against the term “man-splaining.” I felt like this was very helpful in identifying the nuances of it.
While I admire Remski’s commitment to self reflection and and his willingness to examine his own self defense strategies that lead him to minimize the concerns of his partner, I am struck by the blindness of his male privilege. A privilege that he takes for granted and is blissfully unaware of, even as it insulates him from the most profound, humiliating, mind shattering experiences of those of us who are subjected to daily privacy invasions, gaslighting, and harassment by individuals who have the audacity to presume ownership of women’s bodies, minds, words, experiences, creations and voice. Unfortunately, patriarchal gaslighting IS an institutional strategy and it has been for a very long time. It happens in hospitals, prisons, police departments, courts, banks, retail establishments and in corporations. And if you are being targeted by a government agency, police department, or institution it will permeate your life. So while I respect Remski’s sensitive attempt at self reflection and empathy, I still believe that he has a long way to go before he will be able to understand the systemic structures and operating systems which are functioning in this very moment to oppress light, truth, and patriarchal dissent.
I am also struck by the fawning, gushing comments (and the pretentious intellectual posturing) from women on Remski’s web-site. When men make even the slightest attempt at self reflection and sensitivity the whole world falls at their feet. Unfortunately the bar can never be set too high for women who are challenging patriarchal values and beliefs. I find myself feeling envious of the ease and privilege that men like Remski are able to enjoy while activists who are asking the tough questions, and telling the unpopular truth are forced to work without a safety net. The rewards for bowing to the establishment are as vast as the abuse inflicted on those of us who challenge it.
If anyone is interested in a non-blaming, accessible book on the roots of patriarchy, how it operates, and how it affects both women and men, I highly recommend The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy by Allan Johnson (sadly, he recently passed away).
Thank you for this!
Hey Matthew, thanks for this thoughtful piece. As a guy myself, this has proven to be pretty illuminating. After reading this, I had a harrowing thought: what if men are so used to minimising and dehumanising their own human emotions and responses that align more towards the “feminine qualities” like the suppression of emotions that they reject these qualities as being human and do not recognise what it means to be human anymore?
I believe that being human means having the right balance of both “masculine qualities” and “feminine qualities”, and there should not be a distinction between these qualities based on gender. Instead, together they are simply human qualities that we should have, and are essential to our functioning in society. Once this balance is heavily skewed is when all the problems like a rape culture is borne out of. I do not think we should lose sight of the qualities that make us human.