Friday, February 02, 2018

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos: The Eternally Feminine. Part Three Of My Book Review

Anna Maria van Schurman
By Jan Lievens - National Gallery, London, Public Domain,

Chapter 11:  Masculinity In Peril

If you, dear reader, feel as if I have already written far too much about  how women, the feminine and gender are treated in Peterson's book, fasten your seat belts!

There's turbulence in the air, because Peterson uses this second-to-last chapter in his book to pour out all his anger and resentment at postmodernists, at feminists and at all the other radical far left denizens who want nothing more than to create the next totalitarian state which will cause millions and millions of deaths.

According to Peterson, the attacks against traditional masculinity are what will cause us to slide and slip in the totalitarian direction, and Chapter 11 really is about the dire straits of masculinity today.  Indeed, it's packed so full of all sorts of gripes and grievances that reviewing it is quite difficult without writing yet another book.

But how tempted I feel to do just that!  Consider Peterson's argument that it's the feminization of culture that has created the rise of the far-right in Europe and the election of Donald Trump in the United States (10)!  As a backlash from properly masculine men, I presume, or as the return to the proper and biology-based gendered hierarchies.

Or consider what he says about the growing scarcity of men among university students:  He gives us the usual social conservative argument that fewer men attending college is catastrophic news not only for men, but also for women, because women, but not men, are assumed to possess a biological tendency toward hypergamy:  The desire to marry up in education, income and intelligence (11).  If women are the majority of university students, why, there's nobody left for them to want to marry!

Thus, uppity women need to choose between a family and a career.  But Peterson also believes that most women will prioritize marriage and, in any case, don't really want to make the kinds of sacrifices that climbing to the top of the traditional hierarchy would require (12).

As I noted, none of this is at all new, but just the usual conservative argument explaining why one kind of gender imbalance among college students (too few men) is bad news while the other kind (too few women) never really bothered them in the past.  After all, men are not assumed to have the tendency toward hypergamy.

Neither is Peterson different in arguing that the traditional flavor of schools is aimed at inculcating obedience which goes against the innate traits of boys, though Peterson, too, is silent about the fact that those schools actually were created for boys.  He is equally silent of the fact that the gender imbalance in universities looks the same in countries (such as Saudi Arabia and Iran (before the introduction of gender quotas)) where the feminization of the culture certainly cannot have played a major role in its creation (13).

But the following quote is where Peterson enters virgin soil, by creating a new "theory" to explain why learning seems to have become what "girls do":

Other factors play their role in the decline of boys.  Girls will, for example, play boys' games, but boys are much more reluctant to play girls' games.  This is in part because it is admirable for a girl to win when competing with a boy.  It is also OK for her to lose to a boy.  For a boy to beat a girl, however, it is often not OK — and just as often, it is even less OK for him to lose.


Boys can't (won't) play truly competitive games with girls.  It isn't clear how they can win.  As the game turns into a girls' game, therefore, the boys leave.  Are the universities — particularly the humanities — about to become a girls' game?  Is this what we want?

Now that is utterly hilarious, because the reasons for the types of responses Peterson describes in that quote are in the presumed inferiority of all things female, including girls' games!  If a boy already belongs to a more elevated male hierarchy, why should he risk his rung on that ladder by playing a game with some individuals from the lower female hierarchy?  If he wins, he has proven nothing (because he was, after all,  expected to win), while if he loses, he has lost face, and he now seems to belong to the lower hierarchy.

For a girl the situation is exactly reversed!  But I doubt that the examples Peterson gave (or my counterexamples) have much to do with intentional mistreatment of boys, but rather its almost exact reverse:  The belief that all things female are inherently of lesser value.

Peterson's "theory" has an even larger flaw:  If anything girls and women can do well becomes something that boys and men must avoid, then all life is a zero-sum game between the sexes (14).  For men to wish to study humanities at the university, women would have to be barred from studying humanities or talked into not applying in the first place!

Out of all riches in Chapter Eleven of the 12 Rules for Life I am going to pick one for closer analysis.  That is Peterson's scorn and contempt toward the concept of "patriarchy," clearly demonstrated in his YouTube videos by the way he spits the word out, with true venom.

Patriarchy can be defined in various ways:

1.  a form of social organization in which the father is the supreme authority in the family, clan, or tribe and descent is reckoned in the male line, with the children belonging to the father's clan or tribe. 

2.  a society, community, or country based on this social organization.

3.  a social system in which power is held by men, through cultural norms and customs that favor men and withhold opportunity from women: The corporate glass ceiling is one consequence of patriarchy in education and business. 

4. (often initial capital letter) the men in power in a society (usually preceded by the):  The Patriarchy is vested in maintenance of the status quo.
Patriarchy, defined as in 1. and 2., is a very common form of social organization, employed in all parts of the world in the past, and in several parts even today, whatever the actual laws of various countries might say.  It is embedded in the holy books of Christianity and Islam.  Even in the "postmodernist" West it is still visible in concepts such as forms asking for the name of the head of the household or in customs such as brides changing their last name to match that of the grooms' clan or tribe in marriage.

So does Peterson argue that patriarchy, as a form of social organization, has never existed, does not exist?

I doubt that.  Rather, his anger is aimed at the third definition in the above quote, though even then it is aimed at something deeper, perhaps something twisted (15):

His belief that talking about patriarchy is the same thing as blaming all men (dead and living) for its existence (16), and that it is the same thing as stripping all men from the right to feel pride in their achievements, given that patriarchy helped them achieve in the first place, and that it is the same thing as having to carry guilt for simply being male.

And he sets out to release men from those burdens using two devices:  The assertion that it is nature, the Terrible Mother, who really oppresses women, not patriarchy, and the assertion that what the feminists might call a patriarchy was really created by kind men to protect women from their own flawed nature.

The first device Peterson uses all through the book when he zooms in on any possible biological basis for men's higher positions in social hierarchies.  The second device he uses in Chapter 11.  Let's see how that benevolent patriarchy works in Peterson's world by joining him where he explains its benevolence:

Here's an alternative theory:  throughout history, men and women both struggled terribly for freedom from the overwhelming horrors of privation and necessity.  Women were often at a disadvantage during that struggle, as they had all the vulnerabilities of men, with the extra reproductive burden, and less physical strength.  In addition to the filth, misery, disease, starvation, cruelty and ignorance which characterized the lives of both sexes, back before the twentieth century (when even people in the Western world typically existed on less than a dollar a day in today's money) women also had to put up with the serious practical inconvenience of menstruation, the high probability of unwanted pregnancy, the chance of death or serious damage during childbirth, and the burden of too many young children.  Perhaps that is sufficient reason for the different legal and practical treatment of men and women that characterized most societies prior to the recent technological revolutions, including the invention of the birth control pill.  At least such things might be taken into account, before the assumption that men tyrannized women is accepted as a truism.
Emphasis is mine.

Peterson then continues to tell us about the male inventions which were clearly not created to keep women oppressed by their own biological nature:  the birth control pill, the first tampon, or the first use of ether in childbirth.

In this he reminds me of earlier work by Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs, though they use similar arguments not to prove that men are kindly disposed toward women, but to prove that men's superior creativity extends even to the most feminine parts of life.

Neither Peterson nor Baumeister and Vohs set such inventions into the historical and socials framework in which they were created.  For example, a man (rather than a woman) introduced the use of ether (and later, chloroform) in childbirth partly because by the mid-nineteenth century (the date of the innovation) childbirth was no longer something that midwives were alone allowed to tend to.  The new (and male) occupation of physicians had removed obstetrics from the hands of midwives which made it hard for women to introduce innovations in that field (17).

Let us return to analyzing Peterson's main argument for the existence of a benevolent patriarchy: Women's bodies are so frail, weak and flawed that a different legal and practical treatment of women and men can historically be justified as protecting women.

Some laws barring women from certain occupations or jobs can certainly viewed from this light.  If women working at night are in greater danger of violence than men working at night, then barring women from such work seems to protect women, though it also increases job opportunities for men, and barring women and girls from mining jobs, as was done in Victorian England, certainly protected their immediate health, though at the expense of their future earnings ability and possible death from starvation, and also benefited the men in mining who now had more work opportunities.

But it is much more difficult to explain how barring women from such occupations as the practice of law would protect women against nature, the Terrible Mother:

For much of our nation's history, laws regulating family and employment granted different rights to women and men at home and at work. The so-called maternal difficulty — that is, the supposed incompatibility between women's biology and certain roles in the workplace and public life — held that women were best suited to the home, allowing men to flourish at work. As Supreme Court Justice Joseph P. Bradley explained in 1872, rejecting the argument that the Constitution protected a woman's right to be a lawyer, the "paramount destiny and mission of woman are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother."

The same difficulty applies to the common past practices of barring women from higher education (and many other types of education, including that required for becoming an artist), from political power (through, for example, the Salic law),  from learned societies,  and, most importantly, from full rights of inheritance and the right to control one's own property and earnings (18).

Finally, it would be very difficult to justify why women's suffrage has historically taken much longer to achieve than men's suffrage, if the explanation is to be found in the benevolent patriarchal protection of nothing but women's naturally frail bodies.

Peterson titles the sub-section of Chapter 11 I criticize here as "Patriarchy: Help or Hindrance?"  That is a bold way of signaling his message, which is that patriarchy has been a benevolent institution, one that has helped women.

The correct answer is probably that the benevolent aspect of patriarchy has been fairly minor, and that its harmful impact has been far greater.

If my earlier arguments are insufficient to show that, consider the basic rule of patriarchy as it has actually been practiced:

Though both parents wield power over their children, it is the father who has the final say,  and it is the husband who wields power over his wife.

Such a system protects the children and wives at most only against others than the family patriarchs.  It does very little to protect them against the possibility that the family patriarch himself might wish to abuse them.  Rather, traditional patriarchies have often made it more difficult for children and wives to escape such misuse (19).

Concluding Comments

To conclude my (short?) book review, let us return to the title I chose for this series:  12 Rules for Life:  An Antidote to Chaos:  The Eternally Feminine.  That, of course, is not the actual title of Jordan Peterson's book; I added the last three words, "the eternally feminine," to the title he chose.

It seemed an appropriate addition, given that the book offers mostly men therapeutic psychological advice about how to make their lives better while telling mostly women that their chances of improving their lives are pretty much shot by their biology.

That distinction is good to keep in mind when we try to understand why Peterson's acolytes are mostly conservative men, and also when we try to understand what it is in his messages that makes the book so appealing to that focus group.


(10)  So what created the rise of the far right in Italy and Germany and other places before WWII?  I doubt that the culture was feminized in those days.  The current rise of far right elements in both the United States and Europe probably has much more to do with rapid and fairly sizable immigration (and the culture clashes it produces), especially when combined with the kinds of economic austerity policies many European countries pursue.

(11)  See this study and this survey of studies for evidence which suggests that what looks like innate hypergamy in women decreases when societies become more gender-equal.   The latter link also discusses some problems in the study Peterson appears to have relied on when arguing that mate preferences seem to show biology-based differences (so that women would always want to marry up, say).

For much more on the role of society and biology in the construction of all types of sex and gender differences, see this overview, especially parts six and seven.  The evidence is much richer and more ambiguous than Peterson argues in his book.

(12) Note that the sacrifices required from someone who wants to claw their way to the top of various professional hierarchies vary between men and women in a world where division of labor at home is rigidly gendered.

An ambitious man in a traditional marriage can dedicate his time to his career and still have children, hot meals waiting at the end of the day and family vacations arranged by someone else (his wife).  An ambitious woman in a traditional marriage can dedicate her time to her career with far greater difficulty, because she must give birth to the children, and even if she outsources childcare and household chores, she cannot outsource managing them, including organizing those family vacations.

Peterson ignores that distinction and so ignores the fact that it's partly the way he would like to see the world organized that makes those sacrifices larger for women than for men.

(13)  This is a good place for me to stress that I find the problem of boys' worse performance at school an important one to solve.  The situation is particularly dire for boys who belong to racial or ethnic minorities in the United States, and the schools, as well as the wider society  must address the problem.   But far too many social conservatives appear to see the question of educational success as a zero-sum game between girls and boys, lamenting the rise of women in universities, rather than trying to learn how to increase the success of both sexes at the same time.

(14)  This may indicate that his views about masculinity are based on the subtractive model:  Masculinity is defined by whatever women do not do or cannot do.  It's as if everything in the world is one cake of a fixed size, and if women take a bigger slice of the cake, well, then men are getting a smaller size.  This is regarded as bad,  even if the men's initial slice was much, much bigger. 

The subtractive model makes every advance toward greater gender equality a bleeding stab wound in the side of subtractive masculinity.  Those who hold this view of masculinity tend to see feminism as an attempt to oppress boys and men.

An alternative model would regard certain (well, most) fields of endeavor not as masculine or feminine but as human, something in which we can all excel.  Education is an excellent candidate for such a field.

(15)  The term, indeed, is used in thousands of different ways in the social media, and elsewhere in the online world.  It's one of those words like "freedom" which can be interpreted very differently by different people.

And, yes, some use it almost like an accusation, or an insult,  as they might use the terms "racist" or "sexist" to accuse someone.  But given the academic background of professor Peterson, my conversation here assumes that we are speaking about patriarchy in the terms the above quote defines.

(16)  Men (and women) living today are of course not the ones who created patriarchy and shouldn't carry guilt for its existence.

The explanation for patriarchy's origins is hidden in the mists of prehistory, though the biological differences in who gets pregnant and gives birth and who has more upper-body strength must have played some role, especially if the top positions in various hierarchies were gained by physical violence.

Environmental, economic  and technological conditions probably also mattered, because they influenced the scope and value of women's labor, especially the products of that labor which could be exchanged in the marketplace. Such labor has been shown to raise women's positions in social hierarchies and their value inside families.

It's not an accident that the most severely patriarchal societies were created by nomadic herding cultures where the constant moving made it impossible for women to tend gardens or to keep chickens, or to brew beer, or to engage in trade, and where even the most basic of female jobs, such as weaving, were made much harder.

Combine that with the difficulty pregnant women or women caring for infants would have had with helping in the herding, and it's not hard to see why such cultures would have placed women very low in the hierarchies.  Those, by the way, are exactly the conditions in which the holy books of the three Abrahamic religions were written. 

But once patriarchy, of various degrees in different places,  existed, later generations were born into it and absorbed its values in mothers' milk, and soon religious explanations (Eve took the apple!) were added to make patriarchy seem logical.  Thus, it's not at all obvious that all women in the past would have seen the arrangement as unfair.

Though it isn't necessarily the case, either, that all men would have regarded it as a fair arrangement.  Indeed, the early writers debating the mental and emotional differences between men and women (which have always been used to justify patriarchy) included many men we would today call feminists (and a few women as well), and anyone who has visited today's right-wing sites knows that there are many (well-paid) women who carry water for the patriarchy (!).

But whatever the original causes of widespread patriarchy might have been, the system, once it existed, certainly could be used to maintain itself, given that very few women in the traditional patriarchal hierarchies had any say about how the system should be changed, and given that it benefited the men on the top of the hierarchies (though not necessarily all men).

(17)  That male physicians took over the field was probably caused by their desire to increase their own incomes and the quality of care women giving birth would achieve.  Given that (female) midwives were excluded from the kind of training (male) physicians obtained, the quality argument made sense to many.  But note how it is also intertwined with the lack of opportunities for women.

(18)  Women, today, are banned from taking certain university courses in Iran, and China may be using hidden gender quotas and gender-based admissions scores to limit the number of women in higher education.  And even now inheritance rights vary between daughters and sons wherever the sharia is the basis for laws.

And despite recent changes in written laws,  several African countries still in practice use customary laws which can leave the widow of a deceased man with no inheritance share at all, even if she had worked the land with him and so on.

(19)  Children were assumed to belong to their fathers in, say,  ancient Roman law, in the Napoleonic code and in the English common law (which also operated in colonial America).

Under most interpretations of the sharia law fathers  even today are regarded as the natural guardians of children, though physical custody can go to the mother until the child reaches a certain age.

Such legal arrangements do not protect children against abusive fathers.  They also reduce the ability of women to leave their husbands without also leaving their children.

The history of  domestic violence also tells us that the legal right of the paterfamilias to "discipline" his wife and children have had few legal limits and that religious interpretations of male headship in families even encouraged the physical "correction" of recalcitrant wives.


For the first post in this series, go here.
For the second post in this series, go here.