Saturday, January 12, 2019

Tammy Bruce's Ode To Traditional Masculinity

Tammy Bruce, a guest on Fox & Friends, a right-wing political television show, gave such a brilliant example of everything that can go wrong when we debate concepts such as femininity and masculinity that I am going to dedicate a whole post to her utterances. (1)

The context of her remarks was a Fox debate about the publication of new guidelines by the American Psychological Association which suggest that

"Traditional masculinity -- marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression -- is, on the whole, harmful."

I am not going to address that quoted statement itself, because I am more interested in the devices Bruce used to criticize it.  This is how she began:

EARHARDT: Tammy, why is it wrong, why is it bad to be masculine

TAMMY BRUCE (FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR): Well, it's not, and this is what's so dangerous about this report. It's political theory, it has nothing to do with science, and it's also bigotry, right? There is a suggestion that masculinity, and that would mean all men, because you're dealing with the issue of testosterone, the nature of what it is to be male, are prone to violence, or homophobia, or sexual violence, or sexual harassment. Women involve those things as well, women can be violent, women do sexual harassment.

Note the way Bruce skates from the original topic into something quite different?  Note that even the question she answers has already begun that movement by not specifying that we should be talking about a particular set of masculine codes here, not general "masculinity."

First, she fails to acknowledge that the guidelines talk about a particular type of masculinity, a set of socially taught values about what it might mean to be a man.  And because of that she argues that the guidelines criticize all masculinity.

Second,  she glides from that (with a fancy pirouette which she didn't stick) to a world where masculinity means exactly the same thing as being a man.  Thus, the guidelines, according to Bruce, imply that all men are harmful!

If I were her skating partner on that ice, I'd be very troubled at that conclusion, too.  But that's not what the guidelines actually state.

Third, she then argues that all the different ways masculinity is performed in all the different societies are ultimately based on male biology, especially on the super-guy hormone testosterone.

Thus, we have now moved from criticizing one cultural interpretation of how men should behave to an argument that however men behave is completely innate.  Then criticizing any particular cultural interpretation of masculinity is  criticizing men for merely existing!

I am out of breath, even though I'm not the one skating on the ice with this topic.

But wait!  It gets better.  Bruce then moves onto rather weak ice where masculinity is defined as the complement of all the things women are or do:

Let me tell you the things that they are complaining about, if we didn't have men's courage, and aggressiveness, and focus, and determination, we'd still be living --
EARHARDT: And strength.
BRUCE: We would be living in caves right now. So, you have modern world is the result of the male framework of wanting to move forward and create things, and it is, I think, obscene, and everyone should complain that those attributes of men are being determined to be negative and something that is either a sickness, or a mental illness, or wrong, or even artificial.

So.  Our dear anti-feminist auntie, Camille Paglia, has also written that if women had been the dominant sex in history we would all still live in mud huts.

The above quote reflects the subtractive definition of masculinity or manliness:

Men are what women are not or what women cannot be, don't want to be or are not allowed to be.

The definition is subtractive because it sees most human characteristics (falsely, in my opinion) as either masculine or feminine but not both.  Because all those different good and bad characteristics are assumed to add up to a fixed constant in that definition,  men and women are seen as complements to each other.  What men do women don't do and what women do men don't do.

And that makes everyone happy, right?  Well, not quite so fast.  First, women, too, can exhibit aggressiveness, determination, focus and strength (2). Likewise, men, too, can exhibit empathy, love and altruism.  In other words, many of the characteristics the users of the subtractive definition put into separate boxes belong to all of us.

Not everyone has them in exactly the same amounts, and there are observed small average differences between men and women, at least in studies based on self-reporting.  To what extent those are innate and to what extent they are caused by cultural upbringing and the rewards and punishments societies give to boys and girls exhibiting them is unclear.  But my point is that such characteristics as "valor" or "tenderness" are not limited to just one biological sex, even though anti-feminists usually argue that.

So Bruce is wrong in the basic framework she has adopted, the subtractive definition (3).  But using it also has two unpleasant outcomes:

- If you see all the possible "masculine" and "feminine" "good" characteristics as a chocolate cake that societies are to divide between men and women (the subtractive definition), then one simple way of changing the power balance of the sexes in the society is by giving one sex much more than one half of the cake.

This is why I have always detested the anti-feminist and religious argument that women and men are equal, but only in the sense that they are complements to each other.  Even if complementarity were true (which I don't believe it is in the sense this post uses), nothing in the definition or in how it is used would guarantee that both men and women get exactly half of the total cake.

Because the subtractive definition of masculinity makes what "men are" unavoidably dependent on what "women are not", very patriarchal societies have always tried to limit women's lives to the smallest possible spaces which are biologically necessary:  As women are unavoidably needed for procreation, women should stay at home and focus on children.

-  The subtractive definition encourages the segregation of men and women in most areas of life.  Segregation is always ultimately incompatible with equality (4), and the more sex-segregated a society becomes, the stronger the stereotypes built into the subtractive definitions of masculinity and femininity also become.  If women are not allowed to play any roles in the military, to pick one example, it's not possible to test women's physical courage in warfare.  Rather, it will be assumed to be lacking.

Let's recap how Bruce finishes her long skating program on that cracking ice:

She tells us that without men (or their masculine characteristics), we would still be living in caves, because the modern world was created by men.

This is a common argument from the anti-feminist Men's Rights Activists, and I have written extensively on it in the past.  But let me just point out here that Ms. Bruce's ode to men ends, by necessity (because she employs the subtractive definition), in a giant insult to all women.

According to her, women have been nothing but cumbersome and annoying  passengers on this wild trip through history and prehistory.

We were wrong when we learned our history as a human endeavor.  It's just guys' adventures.  Here Bruce skates very close to the early (now abandoned) evolutionary psychology view that women never evolved at all.

So there you have it, my opinions on masculinity and femininity and even gender.  There are toxic types of masculinity, sure, and there are toxic types of femininity.  We shouldn't try to hang on to those or choose them as our music for the long program in political figure skating.

And if we want to create a more feminist future world, we should strongly interrogate (in both senses of the word!) all the theories which state that specific cultural definitions of masculinity and femininity or of cultural gender stereotypes and gender roles are purely innate and cannot be changed. 

(1).  Femininity is more rarely debated.

My guess is that we don't debate femininity as much for a list of reasons, but largely because it does not give a person wider social power.  Masculinity, however, can do exactly that.

(2).  The consequences of exhibiting aggressiveness can differ, because societies tend not to reward open or physical aggression in women.  Women compensate by employing indirect and verbal aggression.

Note, also, that when I write "strength" I am not talking about only physical upper body strength, but also about mental strength and perhaps even the strength of longevity.  Because so many characteristics are coded to be either masculine or feminine, it's sometimes difficult to spot when the "wrong" gender exhibits them.

(3)  Oddly enough, she makes one exception to that when she notes that women, too, can be homophobes or commit violence or sexual harassment.  That those are negative characteristics might explain why they are not coded as belonging to only one gender. 

(4)  Unless we accomplish segregation through two separate states with their own presidents, armies and so on.  I have tried to figure out how that would work in practice between men and women.  Babies would have to be a form of export/import, right?  — That would probably be a science fiction type of world, whether a utopian or a dystopian one I cannot really say.  But it would not be permanent.

Real world examples of sex-segregation are all extremely unequal.  Men and women may have their own spheres of activity, but men are the highest powers in women's spheres, too.