Rethinking Gender, Power, and Ideas

Last week I went to a hustings in West Dorset. Four parliamentary candidates (the three main capitalist parties and a Green) had been invited to a church hall to discuss foreign policy specific to the Middle East, which, notwithstanding the confusing inclusion of Afghanistan, almost exclusively focused on Israel and Palestine. I don’t mean to delve into that subject here, but suffice it to say the event was a delightful distraction. On the one hand, the Labour candidate combined a thoroughly lacking analysis with an equal measures hilarious/worrying naivety –so that the audience frequently rocked with a silent laughter borne of disbelief. On the other hand, pretty much everyone in the hall (even including some of the politicians) held similar opinions on Israel and Palestine. Indeed, it was refreshing to see the incumbent Tory MP get served by an articulate firebrand in the audience. Even more refreshing was the wave of applause that met her speech.

However, as much as I crave a good polemical tour-de-force, this example of the church hall ‘debate’ is problematic. So too are most of the debates, both formal and informal, that we take part in every day.

Whilst I remain infinitely reluctant to contribute an iota more to the Boar’s repugnant fetishisation of the Facebook phenomenon, I do see the ubiquitous social networking site as illustrative in this instance. In recent months a lot of appreciation groups have sprung up inviting us to become fans of some witty phrase or other. (“Then God created Saturn, and he liked it so he put a ring on it” sums up the mood of these groups rather nicely.) I suppose they’re clever in their own way, but beyond the banalities of pop culture, some touch on valid sociological points. There are dozens of such groups dedicated solely to the social phenomenon of ‘realising you’re wrong half way through an argument, but continuing to argue anyway’.

Freedom Inc

Emancipaintory

This warrants some analysis. Certainly we’ve all been there. But let’s go further: how many times have you ever come into a debate or argument with a pre-formed opinion and left with it utterly transformed? Now, I’m not talking about when you sit in a lecture hall and listen to someone, an expert in her field, exploding various amorphous assumptions you may have already held. Why? Because this is not an interactive process in the sense that you are voicing your opinions back. There is no exchange in which you must put yourself on the line and risk public humiliation.

This is the crux of the matter. Very few of us are willing to argue passionately about something, and then in due course concede to the empirical or analytical superiority of our opponent –and not simply be befuddled into tautology or self-contradiction by the other’s rhetorical skill, for that is no more than aesthetics, smoke and mirrors.

We have developed a culture -to draw on the language of gender for an analysis- which valorises the supposedly ‘masculine’ qualities of being (or at least appearing to be) right first time, strong in opinion and adversarial in approach. Feminine qualities are therefore seen as subordinate: notions of weakness, emotional volatility, poor judgement, requiring direction etc. In short, all the ascriptions to gender that underpin the basis of ‘separate spheres’ arguments.

Under the current cultural regime, in argument we seek to establish a hierarchy of right and wrong. To be right is to exert power over the other in a zero-sum game. We often argue to the bitter end because to admit defeat risks being lauded over and imposes an informal power relation in which we are disempowered. The relationship is, however, falsely dichotomous, and merely reflects and reproduces relations of domination that are of no good to society.

Allow me to unpack that a bit. The Facebook group is an amusing appendage to a worrying cultural trend. By way of another example, a common, and related, complaint –mostly levied towards men, who are by and large the principle proponents of this kind of social masculinity- is that guys refuse to ask for directions when lost. In that situation, the man who asks for directions is admitting his lack of knowledge. This is a cardinal sin in a culture that requires him to be right, and certain in his knowledge in order to fulfil the heteronormal understanding of what it is to be masculine. To ask someone else is to put himself in a submissive position. It requires him to admit that he is uncertain, literally lost, and in a manner of speaking, lacking in masculinity. To ask another man for directions reaffirms his status as feminine (the pejorative in the binary) and therefore submissive. To ask a woman for directions would be even worse…

Arguably, as part of a broader re-evaluation of the gender norms that underpin our society, we must take a look at how we engage in argument. Argument has the capacity to be a process of mutual learning, where the ideas in discussion are played with and refined. Ideas are currently commoditised and made into just another aspect of individual, private property. TRIPS laws and anti-file sharing laws represent the legal side of this, but even on a conceptual level we just don’t seem to view ideas and information as a social good. Instead they continue to be wielded in adversarial power plays, and as one more device for reasserting gender values and hierarchies. This is surely odd when most people would give anything for a peaceful solution to conflict. This is surely odd when open, constructive debate is generally accepted to be a good way to hold ideas up to the light, and critically judge their social value.

Most of our debate, argument and everyday interaction is not constructive however. It remains adversarial, where the goal is to display strength and to be right –thus, to display masculinity- rather than to further a socially desirable agenda.

It is all very well to venerate the political and social power of debate, but it remains useless unless we first address the gender norms of our society. We must cease privileging certain ‘masculine’ characteristics, and reject the hierarchy that portrays the feminine as weak and submissive. A new gendered evaluation must allow a person to be wrong without this being seen as weakness. Certainty is after all the sign of a closed mind. To be receptive to convincing ideas, even if they are opposed to those you previously held and argued, is vital. Ideology cannot dictate what we emphasise and what we disregard. Our ideologies must be reflexive, and they must be constantly in dialogue with the competing truths (or better, subjectivities) around us.

If you made it through the last paragraphs of awful postmodernist language –well done- then you may well ask ‘how can such power relations ever be absent?’ The short answer, I believe, is that they never will be. But we must make a distinction between hierarchical and horizontal power relations. Hierarchical power relations, -or the idea of my ‘power over’ you or whoever- are what I have been describing as ‘masculinist’. They are socially not that useful and, among other things, disincline us to admit we are wrong. This is bad, as argument should be a collaborative moulding of thoughts rather than adversarial exchange.

A non-hierarchical, or horizontal relation of power rejects this masculinity. It is the hallmark of a number of feminist and women’s movements, and a key part anarchist organising. It also offers a positive re-conceptualisation of femininity. The process is not one of domination over another, but of empowering everyone. Power is not absent in our relationships with other people, but neither is it codified in structures and offices that put some in positions of power over others.

I would argue that aiming towards the latter configuration of power in day-to-day life is the first step towards dismantling a series of gendered values that, despite of their prevalence and persistence are of detriment to society.

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