Male privilege is an ugly cultural trope

So I am talking with a friend, whom I know to be intelligent and fair-minded about Mr. Kavanaugh and Dr. Ford, and I am caught by surprise.  He says first that Dr. Ford has been too inconsistent in her testimony about who was in the room when she was assaulted (she hasn’t), so that he cannot believe her. Then he says the incident is not big deal because he as a teenager tried to “cop a feel” many times, thereby equating perhaps overly aggressive making out with forceful isolation and capture while trying to strip the lady (I heard this too many times when I worked with sexually aggressive youth).  Finally he says the #Metoo movement has gone too far because simply accusing a man ruins his reputation.  Geesh!  If he had ever expressed concern over the centuries old culture of men abusing women with impunity I could give him a break on this one, but he has not. We talked a good deal about his views mostly to no purpose and I have since wondered about the lacuna in his moral outlook and how it is that what we call ‘male privilege’ is inculcated mentally and then so strongly affects perception, action, and judgment and the male seems unaware of the effects.

One analogy here is our accent when speaking. We learn early on to speak with a regional and familial accent; we can recognize speakers from Boston, the Midwest, and different parts of the South.  Our accents can change incidentally when we move to a new region or on purpose as when some train their voices for media work.  Further, we make judgments about people based on their accent.  I lived all over the USA and graduated high school in Japan.  My accent was a conglomerate of family and different regions. Some years after high school and having lived in North Carolina for 12 years, I ran into an old girlfriend.  We had been talking for a while when she said that she knew I was smart but that I sounded so dumb with my southern accent. Who knew?  And after long holidays in Ireland and Scotland I find, and friends remark on it, that my accent has picked up a little of their lovely lilt.

Accents different from our own can be hard to understand and put people off. My mother grew up in south central Virginia.  She left there in the mid-1940s with my father who joined the Air Force.  In 1960 we moved to North Dakota.  In those days you went through an operator to make a long distance call.  When my mother tried to call home, i.e., Petersburg VA, the operator could not understand her and she could not understand the operator, who spoke and listened with the Norwegian rooted accent native to that area.  My sister stepped in to translate.  When we visited family the next summer, her sisters said my mother sounded strange to them and talked like a ‘Yankee’.  Oh, my.

I use this analogy only to highlight the incidental, mostly unconscious learning of specific cultural facets.  A deeper and broader facet would be sex/gender roles, e.g., boys don’t cry, girls do and that’s ok except that it indicates their lack of rationality. “Boys will be boys” and so much misbehavior, some of it quite serious in its violation of another person, is excused, and aren’t all men really boys at heart so give all of them a break, please. I have posted several times before about gender bias and sexual harassment/assault.  As a clinical psychologist I worked with many young males who had been sexually aggressive.  They wondered what the problem was or thought their actions were completely ok and justified.  The complexity of full consent was unknown to them as it is to many males in many cultures. Why?  Because full consent, in the view of many males, does not apply to them—this is the rotten core at the heart of male privilege.

We go from being young children with instincts for empathy, intimacy, fair play, helping others, & revulsion at seeing others hurt to (especially men now) feeling entitled to catcall and comment on a woman’s appearance, privileged to touch her without either explicit permission or, more commonly, mutually established trust and intimacy, and holding opinions that women do not want powerful and responsible positions because they are too fragile or just prefer someone else to do the heavy lifting.  And opining that the questions raised about a man’s behavior when a women alleges that he has been inappropriate are being handled unfairly, while showing little concern about the incredible numbers of women who endure sexualized mistreatment silently because they are only too aware that speaking out will compound their mistreatment by those who loudly carry forward male privilege.

When we consider how our brains are acculturated in this way, how we inculcate assumptions in our habitus about the rules of social behavior, and how our Empathy Central or EC (that’s ToM or Theory of Mind to most of you) operates with the moral lacunae of male privilege, when we consider such phenomena, our lack of knowledge about this neuropsychology is plainly seen.  But we do know some things; go back a couple of posts and read about Decety’s model of empathy (see post 9/9/18) and Iacoboni’s ideas about existential neuroscience (see post 9/16/18). The latter discusses the centrality of mirroring and mentalizing about others in social behaviors.  Male privilege can be seen as both a defective mirror that distorts the resonance with another (females are so different from us, huh, guys?) and inaccurate algorithms that provide errant empathetic suppositions about the other (she can’t rationally object to what I the man think).  Decety’s model includes the failure to mirror and resonate accurately and fully and he also adds 3 other systemic difficulties [from that post]:

  • Confusion as to the agent of thoughts and feelings. They think their own thoughts and feelings are also the other’s and they may fail to process accurately social feedback when the other tries to disagree or otherwise present their own perspective (familiar, ladies?).
  • This leads to problems with perspective taking. They may assume that their perspective is shared by everyone [males assume females share theirs]
  • Poorly developed emotional regulation presents difficulties for staying on mental task and intent as well as for responding with empathic concern for the other—instead they act upon their own egoistic anxiety and fail to engage socially in an adequate manner

Male privilege is a cultural trope that has maintained its bias through many iterations for a long, long time.  Such bias is inculcated while young in various ways with different forms according to one’s sex/gender, family traditions, social class, and educational level.  Like a linguistic accent, our social behaviors and attitudes have a ‘privileged’ accent.  Many operate with this accent, i.e., bias, without any cognizance that something is different, indeed that something is wrong.  Some do learn to operate socially and morally with a different accent, i.e., they reflect consciously on their attitudes, evaluating their accuracy and fairness, and change the bias acquired earlier in life.

As I posted in January about Oprah’s wonderful speech at the Golden Globes: “Oprah’s promising vision of a world where girls and women meet respect and justice is one beautiful flower of this moment in time and cultural egress leaving a stultified domain of male privilege and entering one refreshed by the inclusion of females in a new and refreshing view of their humanity, the acknowledgment of their personhood and the refusal by everyone to abide by any violation of this inalienable right.” The change needed to fulfill this vision is, given the long history of cultural biases, enormous.  Indeed, it is in a way utopian, but it is also already evident in the cultural path of our civilization.  We are not alone in refusing to go forward with male privilege. That’s a good thing because the heavy lifting necessary for progress has gotten a bit heavier this past week or so. Travel on.

Ah, the darker side extends its shadow

I have been inundated the last few days with news of our inhumanity, specifically of our proclivity for sexualized violence and how we really do not only blame the victim, but also castigate the victim with virulent hostility.  Such stories bring to mind Oprah’s great speech accepting the DeMille award at this year’s Golden Globes that I discussed in a post on 1/9/18.  Remember Oprah talked about the promise of a world where women and girls were not sexual victims and where if they were, it was not accepted by anyone.  A world where sexual behavior by mostly males is not used to violate the social mores of intimacy in order to instrumentally boost the perpetrators’ sense of their own power to the detriment of the female’s and society’s. And I made the point in that post “that male usurpation of female personhood is long standing and that, I imagine, a case can be made for its entrenched place in our human [culture] based upon the biologically driven male aggression.”

But I also doubted then if today’s male usurpation of female personhood actually stems from a sociobiological concern about paternity, which means that what we are seeing today is an inhumane development of our culture, i.e., without any good rationale and created/enforced by a certain class of males to defend their own power and privilege.  Even if some men are lower down in the pecking order, at least they have the power and privilege to abuse women.  (Sounds all too similar to racist attitudes, doesn’t it?)   Whether there exists a biological root for such assaultive behaviors deemed permissible by our culture matters little—we must assert the higher principle and deeper root of democratic equality.  As I wrote on 1/9/18, we must cherish “Oprah’s promising vision of a world where girls and women meet respect and justice [as] one beautiful flower of this moment in time and cultural egress, leaving a stultified domain of male privilege and entering one refreshed by the inclusion of females in a new and [just] view of their humanity, the acknowledgment of their personhood and the refusal by everyone to abide by any violation of this inalienable right.”

BUT THEN I READ THE NEWS TODAY, oh no!  A brief report from India where a young girl around 6 or 7 years old was raped by a gang of males with a broomstick.  (And putting a condom on that stick does not count as progress.) This story is one of many incidents in the world where girls are punished for being girls, where they are expendable property, where their bodies can be mutilated to enforce male dominance, where their education is denied by acid in the face, and the list goes on.

Then I read an astounding and brave article by Elizabeth Bruenig in the Washington Post about a teenage girl in Texas who was raped (do I have to say “allegedly”?) by two athletes at a party.  She was a good student and a cheerleader, but it seems she was not of the upper crust and she was after all, just a girl.  She did the right thing and got help and reported it to the police, who investigated and found physical evidence like her clothing abandoned at the scene, a medical exam that documented severe trauma to her genitals and anal area, and DNA evidence linked to one of the athletes.  And then some ugly aspect of cultural inhumanity rose up and the athletes were not prosecuted and were even defended as she was ostracized at school and in town in ways that are nauseating to read about, unimaginable to experience.  This is a difficult article to read as the intrepid reporter documents that denigrating the victims of sexual assault is a cultural institution, even to the point where some district attorneys in the region refused to prosecute rapists, even in one instance when the rapist was identified through DNA evidence, took pictures of his actions and sent them to the victim.  No, not even then.  As one official told the reporter, he tells victims not to look for closure and healing through the justice system, a damning understatement if ever there was one. And on a side note:  while I read stories about athletes assaulting females with impunity (don’t forget Baylor football and its president, Ken Starr), where are the similar stories about kids in the debate or science club, or heaven forbid, the latin club?  That absence says something else quite loudly about our culture and where our inhumanity finds sustenance.

And this brings me up to Dr. Ford and Mr. Kavanaugh, and how many senators follow this tradition of cultural inhumanity with fervent, self-righteous enthusiasm.  Even with the documentation of the earlier lynching of Anita Hill and the profound insurgence of the  #Metoo movement, these moral cretins continue to protect the power and property granted them by male privilege and their political class.  I thank Dr. Ford for opening the door so that a little fresh air might clear away some of their sordid smoke and I want everyone to protect her and all the other victims who courageously endure the holy hell visited on them because they dared speak out.

I generally write about the beauty of what grows from our biological roots of empathy and symbolization because I think our evolution and history speak to ongoing progress.  But sometimes I have to wonder how something so ugly grows from these roots, even resurgently in spite of the power of Oprah’s and our dream of a better world.  The material power of inhumanity concedes nothing without a fight.  Travel on and keep your powder dry, as our ancestors counseled us when fighting the oppressive shadow.

PS  I hear the cynical statement echoing in my mind, “Every nation gets the government it deserves,” and I suppose there is some truth to that.  There is also some truth in saying we get the government the rich and powerful want us to have.  And then there is the truth that we can use the power of democracy to move towards justice, if only we VOTE for moral candidates.


on the occasion of misconceptions expressed by some leaders during this election: the candidate thought check edition

A few years back I had a delightful after dinner conversation with a group of fellow travelers. At one turn in the topic I said what I thought was obvious and so, well known, that male and female brains were different. Two college students then contradicted me, saying the brains were the same, but I went on successfully to explain about differences in development, hormonal response, laterality and other such notions. When I recited Jaak Panksepp’s idea that there are actually 4 sexes (male body+male brain, male body+female brain, female body+female brain, female body+male brain), our group leader, an art historian and archeologist, wondered if in fact these categories were not as discrete as perhaps we might think, and that maybe, given the ‘messiness’ of biological systems, such notions of male/female are more on a continuum. I had to agree that was probably so. Our discussion went on to affirm that determining one’s indeterminate sexual mosaic of a body and brain was not as important to one’s social role and relations, love and marriage as mutual regard, common interests and a consensual relationship.  One’s sexual self should also be irrelevance for one’s intellectual and professional work.

Still, most peoples of the world operate with two categories, male and female, which they consider firm and true, biologically based or god given (actually both of these are firm, but only one true). And sociobiologists, anthropologists, and others who study humanity can give some reasons why the control of female sexuality and reproduction is important to males. The question “Who’s your daddy?” has been around for long time. In my thinking, though, going from biological differences and the importance of choosing a fit mate and on to the cultural mores of power and control is important enough to think patiently through what we know (and what we don’t).

I just read that the Bronte sisters, Emily (Wuthering Heights), Charlotte (Jane Eyre), and Anne (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall) were not allowed to check books out of the public library because they were female. The brother Branwen stepped in and checked out books for them but still? The ladies originally published their novels and poems using male pseudonyms. Ah, 19th century England, and women had difficulty owning property (except Queen Victoria) because they were property. They were denied admission to universities; even the 20th century author Virginia Woolf, one of the most brilliant and innovative authors ever, from a highly educated and upper class family (mostly) could not attend university. Not as extreme perhaps as fundamentalists attacking Malala and other girls for going to any school but many notes, same melody.

As I consider the brilliant work of ethologists and biologists like Frans de Waal, I have learned that conspecific interactions are importantly defined by power relationsips and that power may come from many directions. Male chimpanzees and gorillas use brute strength in the old alpha male model. Female bonobos use coalitions and friendships to exert control. The important point for we humans in 2016 is that many sorts of power exist along with many ways of interacting and that, by and large, we have made what little progress we have made by restraining the use of power in over-ruling another’s consent and by making others’, e.g., females, consent and rights, e.g., property, education, voting, etc., valid. This is the true genius of democracy, the only valid authority the government has comes with the consent of the governed.

So the other side of power is consent. If you have been unawares of the amount of sexual coercion and assault in our culture and other cultures around the world, I hope you have been listening to the discussion engendered by Donald Trump’s comments about sexual behavior where consent was irrelevant to him (but surely not to those around him).   Of course, females, or those identified by society as such, suffer the brunt of such coercive behaviors but look up the statistics of how many males have been abused and try not to be surprised.

To pass over the non-consensual features of any coercive behaviors as ‘locker-room’ talk or ‘boys will be boys’ (even at age 69? Really?) shows a lack of integrity; it shows distorted thinking in 2 ways: it pretends to be biological when it is not and it relegates the great power and virtue of consensual behavior to irrelevancy. As a psychologist, I worked with sexually aggressive youth ages 4-18 and some adult offenders, and I heard these misconceptions from virtually every single one. We would used the phrase “stinky thinking” when we heard such statements, so now I hope a fresh breeze powerfully clears the air of such misconceptions and their rotten stench. Consensual relations based upon proper empathy is, after all, our real biological mandate.

Oh, and please vote.