Monday 27 November 2017

The Challenge of Soft Misogyny

Hickey Heart by Carolin.
By Emile Wolfaardt
Nature is often harsh, and the predilection for survival ingrained so deeply that if left to itself, it will be unacceptably destructive and unimaginably violent. Like humans, nature sometimes deceives in order to survive, and preys on weakness to target a good meal. Ask any carnivore. Consequently, we have local and international laws to protect the vulnerable and temper the arrogant for the sake of the common good.
Subtler, but just as inappropriate, is the misogynistic prejudice that typifies much of the patriarchal bias in society, modern or otherwise. Men may no longer be brutal, as in depictions of the Stone Age, but society has bought into a softer version of misogyny that has become the global norm. All over the world, women deal with inappropriate attention from men every day of their lives. How does it feel to grow up like that?

There is an equal drive in each one of us to survive. Along with nature we are all genetically tapped to survive at all costs. That is the circle of life and the pecking order of the food chain. However, we need to properly manage that drive, especially in our human interactions. When held in balance, our strengths lead to a healthy relationship of cooperation and mutual benefit. The stronger protect the weaker and all live together in peace and harmony. When unchecked, it leads to conflict, and the stronger dominate the weaker. From unwanted classroom sexualisation to workplace harassment, from demanding rights in the relationship (like access to e-mail and phone passwords, but not revealing his) to normalizing ‘bitch’ as an acceptable term, from date rape to intimacy that focuses more on his needs than hers, this malady is rampant.

This is the essence of misogyny.

The social commentator Gretchen Kelly wrote recently, ‘Maybe they don’t know that at the tender age of 13 we had to brush off adult men staring at our breasts. Maybe they don’t know that men our dad’s age actually came on to us while we were working the cash register. They probably don’t know that the guy in English class who asked us out sent angry messages just because we turned him down. They may not be aware that our supervisor regularly pats us on the ass ... these things have become routine … we hardly notice it any more.’ 1

What restrains most of us men is not primarily the richness of respect but rather the influence of expediency and consequences. Perhaps we have changed not because we have seen the light, but rather because we have felt the heat. In hidden ways that happen in secret fantasies, or in ‘guy talk’, or even unwanted sexual advances, we rob women of their value by objectifying them. It is not that being aware of beauty is wrong, or sexual attraction abnormal. Nor is it realistic to expect men to stop fantasising. But we must realise that it may come at the cost of objectifying women.

The misperception is that misogyny is only wrong if it expresses itself in extreme ways, like rape, or violence, or ‘pussy grabbing’, and so on. It may present simply as a devaluing bias in our minds. We mask this aberration because it is only palatable if we redefine it as normal, or masculine predisposition, or transfer the blame to those we victimise. But the uncomfortable truth is that, if unhampered, even soft misogyny is horrendous, as it causes many women to grow up with a warped sense of value, a lifestyle of de-escalation and protection essential to their security – because if they don’t, they could suffer rejection and possible violence. This silent onslaught on women is so egregious that it spans the circumference of the globe across the entire stage of history. 

Let’s bring it home. If I take even a superficial look at my own life, I am disgusted to see this soft misogynistic bias evident in me in countless ways albeit hidden behind the mask of managed professional congeniality. Sure, my desire is to honor all women generally, and my acquaintances and friends specifically. Nevertheless, there is an ego based bias that is ever present. While I may not be guilty of the hideous gropings and dehumanising physical assaults that tragically take place on a daily basis, the cause of those is the same bias in me – unmanaged. I share the responsibility for the systemic crisis, and for those who have had to grow up with defensiveness so deeply ingrained in their psyche that they live it out every day of their lives.

So – what am I calling for? I am asking my generation of men who identify with the challenge women in our world face to do the following …
Honestly evaluate our own life, and identify the areas we may have contributed to the crisis, even if only in the privacy of our mind. We, as men, are not simply a part of the problem, we are the source of it.
Recognise the challenge that every woman around us faces on a daily basis, and choose deliberately to treat them with respect and dignity. Listen carefully to their stories, and trust them should they choose to share their pain with us.
Show up as an Advocate. Speak for honour and fairness – and start to right the wrongs of misogyny. It may cost us something, but our silence has cost us much more. 
Honour women when we have the opportunity, both by celebrating their beauty, and uplifting their value. Make that a life norm, a social function we pursue with joy and pride.
We cannot change the world out there, but we can change the one we live in. We can choose to uplift the lives of those we have had the privilege of connecting with. Where our soft misogyny may have been silent in many ways, let our response be loud and clear. Let’s advocate for women, not at the expense of masculinity, but as an expression of it.

1. Kelly, Gretchen – THE THING ALL WOMAN DO THAT YOU DON’T KNOW ABOUT – The Huffington Post.


Tessa den Uyl said...

Dear Emile, Thank you for touching upon this subject. What I do not understand is why you call for men of your own generation to reflect, is the problem not ageless?

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

In my heart I feel that this is a compelling piece of writing. Philosophically, though, I feel a bit stuck. Human nature is A, but we ought to do B.

Emile said...

Hi Tessa. I think you are absolutely right - the predilection is ageless, and the challenge is systemic. I think your correction is appropriate - men of all generations need to step up and own the solution to this proclivity. Thank you.

Emile said...

Thomas - thank you for expressing what I struggled with throughout the contemplation and composition of this article. Not only is it intrinsic to human nature - it is fundamental to all of nature - aka 'The Selfish Gene' - Richard Dawkins. At the same time - that is why I feel it has to be addressed. The inner drive to better my position on the food chain requires that I ascend, normally at the cost of those around me, to the highest possible place in the eating order. It is that very nature that needs to be managed for it is that very nature that if unchecked leads to tyranny, abuse and violation of all sorts of rights

Innovator said...

Very well written & all very true. What impact do you think men like Hugh Hefner have had on this behavior of men?

Emile said...

That is an interesting question about the influence of others on society in general and on us individually. While I am not able to comment of Mr. Hefner's personal interactions with the play girls - it certainly did nothing to discourage objectifying women.

Innovator said...

Playboy fed this objectifying of women in men. Of course the men had a choice but Mr Hefner definitely made it "upper class cool, be like me". There were the women who participated, which did nothing to help this cause. Instead of idolizing celebrity men who are doing nothing but adding to the destruction of our society, people should turn to God and his principles. This is the only way change will happen in my opinion.

Emile said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

docmartincohen said...

Thanks for starting this discussion with your piece, Emile. Indeed EVERYONE at the moment in the UK is talking about women in the UK as a fragile species being treated in an awful way by the male of the species. Since there is such a consensus, may I be a bit contrary? I think you actually show a certain bias in your assumptions that men are strong and women are weak. They are different, yes, but is one 'stronger'? In many ways women are stronger, they live longer, they have more stamina, they may be psychologically more resiliant. If they are in general physically smaller and perform at a lower level in sports or weight lifting or whatever - why elevate these things like this? If men tend to dominate politics, let alone the military, why assume these areas are the most important?

I am really returning to the Chinese notion of yin and yang, yes there is a feminine principle, but let us not call it inferior, for it is clearly inseparable from its corollary.

Emile said...

Good input Martin - I absolutely agree with you that there are many areas in which women are generally stronger than men and, in specific instances, that may sometimes reference physical strength as well. And yes, I do think there is a feminine aspect to all men that western society is now only learning to recognize and legitimize as an authentic expression of masculinity. It has been long in coming, and we are fortunate enough to be a part of transitional history. But we have only just begun. For instance, research has shown us that by the age of four, a little boy has learned that he should not cry.
The challenge in misogyny is that the weakness it preys on is physical weakness. There is an abundance of examples throughout history and across most cultures of men preying on women in misogynistic ways, but very few examples of women praying on men in comparable systemic ways. Hence the reference to a specific area of physical weakness that is being exploited. But thank you for the reminder that this is not in any way suggesting that women are necessarily weaker in other aspects of their being.

Keith said...

Misogyny obvious manifests itself in many forms, as you’ve explored here. My first thought was that your essay nicely dovetails with one of the dominant news cycles roiling for months in the United States over accusations of sexual harassment in the workplace, involving prominent (and some unlikely) people across industries. As you’ve alluded to, such conduct was as much about — even more about — exerting dominance, power, and control in light of subordinates’ vulnerability than about raw sexuality. It will be interesting where, if ultimately anywhere, the national discussion leads in terms of behavioral changes — beyond the overly simplistic stereotyping of men as incurable knuckle-draggers and the overly simplistic stereotyping of women as inveterate victims. The issues in play are obviously far more nuanced than that, with the hope that the current narrative will translate to meaningful and sustainable social and workplace change.

Emile said...

Great thoughts Keith. I get the sense that the discussion will change things forever in the American marketplace. Because of iability potential, it will no longer make good business sense for companies to turn a blind eye to laxed policies. I would like to see the discussion turn to understanding how patriarchy has been bad for both women and men. It has been a harsh taskmaster for both.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Forgive me for the repost. I saw a couple of grammatical mistakes that did not bode well with me.

Emile, I enjoyed your article. We could benefit greatly from further clarification regarding your perspective on what makes for a safe and supportive environment for women. As Thomas pointed out, this subject appears to offer a conundrum much like the subject of racism: on the one hand, human attraction is very normal for both men and women; on the other hand, there is an enormous fear associated with unwanted advances and the general demeaning of women that occurs daily some of which honestly has to do with subjective interpretation. Please don't think that I am dismissing women's fears. I understand that they are real and legitimate. My question is how far do we take them.

Speaking from personal experience, I find myself often in a quandary because I love people and I find that I have a special affinity to women. They are easier to know and to talk with from my vantage point. In my opinion, women bring something unique and special to the world that adds enormous flavor and pizzazz to life. I want to be able to celebrate this uniqueness, but there is always the fear that my excitement or joy over women's uniqueness will be misunderstood.

A few years ago, I read French or Foe by Polly Platt. It is my opinion that Ms. Platt made an astute observation. In contrasting the differences between British and American and French women, Platt asserts that French women have an appreciation of their uniqueness in ways that British and American women have relinquished. Isn't difference part of the attraction?

Please keep in mind that my comments are not in any way related to the belittling and abuse that women undergo regularly as discussed by Ms. Kelly. I abhor that kind of mistreatment. Contrariwise, isn't there a line of demarcation that can be ascertained? I don't tend to stare unless a woman is extremely (exceptionally) attractive or well-dressed and even then I try to be inconspicuous. However, if I understood Ms Kelly correctly, I am left with the feeling that any show of appreciation for difference is taboo. I often muse walking down the street at how women refuse to acknowledge me when passing or when greeting. Not all men are predators.

While teaching secondary school in India, I also coached girl's basketball. It was a wonderful experience for me and for the girls according to them. However, I was often criticized for enjoying being with the girls too much and showing too much interest in them, but my intentions were completely pure. So where is the line?

docmartincohen said...

Of course, that's all true too. Alas!

docmartincohen said...

Thanks for your comment, Lynn. I think I agree with you if what you are hinting at is a cerain hypocrisy and contradiction in politically correct views of gender differences. Persoanlly, I think that the assumption that such differences are somehow 'bad' and need to be minimised is suspect - as I say above, why not treat male and female genders as two different aspects of one thing? And the differences then become more apprecaited for themselves.

Unknown said...

Example of women objectifying men:"gold-digging" or "monkey-branching". Some valid points here, but mere victimology with a singular point of view.

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