Saturday, January 27, 2018

Tentatively walking into the "beach" of the turbulence between men and women

When Earle Birney told an audience of grade twelve students in an auditorium in northern Ontario back in the 1970’s, when commenting on the dangers of pollution, “We’re going to drown in our own shit!” (although the mic died on the last word) he was making a literal statement, in his prophetic voice.

Not only has that specific risk not abated, but now we risk drowning in the “effluent” of our own culture war. The notion, previously considered nearly sacrosanct, that one’s innocence must prevail until his guilt is proven and he is given some ambiguous and dying concept known as “due process” is in grave danger.

Having been raised in a home that was fraught with physical, emotional and psychic violence perpetrated by my mother, I know something of “not having due process”…and also something of the wrath of the female psyche. The fact that she hated her father, and by extension her spouse was not then, is not now and will not be in the future any responsibility of either my sister or me. Nevertheless, her venomous behaviour, today considered extreme abuse, was kept hidden from the public in a small town where most people knew more than a little about everybody.

Accusations, based primarily on what can now be seen as her own psychosis, her self-loathing, projected onto both her father and her spouse and then onto her children, were both viscious and unappealable. Of course, other family members were familiar with the abuse, but were afraid of the repercussions from the perpetrator if they should dare to report her ‘to the authorities.’

So, we buried our anger, our resentment, our fears and our revenge motive in silence, and in over-achieving in the misguided belief that somehow we could satisfy her illicit expectations, imposed as they were, both viscerally and indirectly. We simply never knew what would ‘set her off’ again so lived with the prospect everyday that she would “explode”.

Statistically, our family was hardly alone, in that physical punishment was employed and tolerated, accepted and considered somewhat normal in our generation, especially as compared with today.

This story, however, pales in comparison with the decades of physical, emotional and sexual abuse perpetrated by males on females over centuries of silence. Male dominance, linked inextricably with female recessiveness, has plagued human culture from the beginning. Dominant influences on this pattern, including male and female archetypes, comes from the early Christian church, from the military, from the Roman Senate and the Greek public square, spreading like ink from  a spilled bottle into the blotter of succeeding cultures, including writing, historical, philosophical and literary, as well as all other forms of artistic expression. A few women even took male names, as pseudonyms, to mask and achieve their access to publishers and readers. Not a few women even went so far as to wear restrictive garments, and to perform both domestic tasks and sexual favours for their partners, with barely a whisper of complaint, and certainly without “going public”. There were, for centuries, no technologies that facilitated public flow of information, except by word of mouth. And public morality centred around such large chunks of unacceptable behaviour like treason. Wife-swapping and family loyalty was, for a long time, “resolved” by individuals taking action on their own behalf and much blood was spilled and many lives were lost. Male dominance, including the shame of the cuckold husband, was permitted, even expected, without retribution from the state. Traditions developed such as courtly love,* one of many dances/cultural norms that grew up around the always potent, unpredictable and untameable relationship between men and women. For many male nobility, including kings, princes, potentates and even modern presidents, “affairs” outside of and contiguous with a public marriage were considered normal, and multiple forms of intrigue were designed and deployed to “protect” the secret. For many women, power and the symbols of power, have been, and continue to be, magnets attracting them, especially away from what they considered weak, spineless, inept or simply embarrassing male partners.

Poetry, concertos, plays, operas and art works have all been created as expressions of love, requited or not, by men whose sensibility and creativity exceeded the social norms and boundaries of respectability, and public morality. And the female “objects” of these works basked in the light of their own magnetism for the artists, writers and composers.

Of course, no specific social system or religious dogma, even the monastic orders of chastity, ever fully succeeded in preventing or eliminating behaviour that centred on human biology and sexuality. The church tried vainly and valiantly to bring this raging impulse under ‘control’ by forbidding sexual relations outside of marriage. Not amenable to either legal or religious dogma and enforcement, humans continued to behave “irresponsibly” and most of the irresponsibility was laid at the feet of men, who throughout history have exhibited an aggression and a sense of identity that included one or more female “trophies” that has usually not served anyone very well, especially the perpetrators. Of course, the inverse is also true for many women, whose pursuits were deemed more sophisticated, subtle and less openly aggressive, especially when compared with the male dominant physicality. Men “rape” women; women “seduce” men. And the difference is not incidental; it is monumental. The former is a crime; the latter is a much less dangerous and therefore tolerable(?) 'norm'. Men, almost all men it would seem, are vulnerable to the active, vigorous, sensual and persistent pursuit by a woman whether the situation “fits” with social norms or not, while women, on the other hand, are much more disciplined and restrained in their emotional vulnerability to the advances of most men. Today’s vernacular speaks often about the nuclear option, in political terms. And throughout history, the ‘nuclear option’ operating both under and frontally on the radar screen of history has been, is, and will continue to be the tensions, frustrations, anxieties, disputes, conflicts, and life and death struggles over relationships between men and women. And this pulsating energy gives “life” to many individuals, while also serving as a temptation nearly drowning for others.
Learning about “love” is one of, if not the most troublesome learning curves humans try to master. And, beginning in the family of origin, models of each gender tend to be simplified into stereotypes at first, and then, over time, and various experiences, morph into the complexities that require intense scrutiny, discipline and commitment by both partners.

Women have learned some basic, perhaps debatable, yet nevertheless indisputable expectations of men: they want only one thing; they are easily offended, proud, even hubristic, and ambitious and highly inarticulate, even clumsy and awkward about their emotions. And within the parameters of such a paint-by-number drawing of their prospective male partners, (they also wanted to procreate) women learned how to please, appease, and how to give “him” space, and how to find support and comfort from other women. Men, at the same time, were busy hunting and gathering food, building their little (or not so) empires as testament to their ambition, and their potential for being responsible. Above all else, women sought responsible men with whom to have their children, given the enhanced prospect of a stable, secure and profitable family life with at least the bare necessities.

Neither gender was either willing or able to become fully familiar with the deep and profound complexities of the other, except through the lens of a few basic line drawings that omitted more than they revealed. Ignorance, bitterness, silence, and a kind of dialogue of the deaf (in the sense that two very different emotional, spiritual and even intellectual agendas, as well as characters) talked almost past each other, if they bothered to listen to each other.  Mostly, what conversation was held, and considered to be effective was about the duties, chores, bills, and basic needs of the children. As a common focus, children offered a ‘third party’ on whom to focus, since, from different point of view, each parent has a different perspective of the child’s needs and their own facility in trying to meet those needs. And, sadly and too often, an open or masked competition erupted between the parents for the child’s attention and affection. Children too, quickly learned to “play one parent against the other” as they easily and deeply absorbed each parent’s likes, dislikes, biases and blind-spots, and hot buttons.

Helping to determine a parent’s need for attention/affection from the child is the degree to which the respective parent feels OK, worthy, self-content, “comfortable in his/her own skin” as the vernacular has it. And that variable is also dependent on the level of love and support the parent received from his/her parents in the previous generation. Similarly, the concept of “man” and “woman” are derived in part, and first, from the picture of the parent of each gender. Parents who were absent at school, at war, at some vocation, are naturally unavailable to their children, and the missing gap is one lives for generations.  “Umbrella” parents also encumber their children with over-protection, and a level of personal insecurity that  was barely even known only one generation back from today. Most of these encounters between parent and child, however, are not documented, discussed or perhaps even noticed for their long-term implications.

And it is the continuum of dominant/recessive that continues to play out in various scenes, cumulating in a gestalt of how each child “sees” members of their own gender and that of the opposite gender. A gentle, compassionate father, for example, engenders both support and trust in the child, whereas as domineering, cold and punitive mother engenders fear, distrust and a sense of worthlessness in the child. Of course, that is only one of many models of parenting, Yet, if it is the initial model, it has a lasting impression that takes decades to overcome. Similarly, a dominant, abusive father, leaves a lasting wound on both sons and daughters, and an over-compensating mother, in that situation, merely exacerbate the problem. These early experiences tatoo their vibrations into the psyche of the children and many of the future entanglements can and are often sourced back to the family or origin.

Of course, these extreme models need more time, patience and professional counsel to overcome. Nevertheless, gender definitions, roles, expectations and their implications play themselves out in personal experiences, many of them fraught with pain, more distrust, revenge and self-sabotage, on the part of both men and women.

Models such as “the rescuer” (whether male or female) will tend to take on a person of the opposite gender, especially if they appear very needy, as a worthy and all-consuming project, to transform into a self-respecting person with dignity. (Henry Higgins model extended to the psyche, far beyond the vocabulary and the status and the wardrobe!) Another model, the self-righteous warrior, seeks revenge on unsuspecting targets for wrongs they, or their close friends, have endured. Such revenge, while perhaps unconscious to the perpetrator, is hardly ever recognized as a motive in public and legal discussion of cases of gender warfare.

Several decades ago, women began to speak out loud to address their conviction that not only are they not a subservient gender, but that they are actually, and ought to have been for centuries, equal to, if not in some ways superior to their male counterparts. While the ‘movement’ scratched the surface of the injustices being imposed on western women, they did not make a significant impact on their goal of achieving full equality with men. And the movement generated, at first a bemused smirk among too men many, and then some deep anger that their world was being shattered, with good reason.

For their part, men, generally did not take the opportunity to evolve into a consciousness that welcomed their own anima (the feminine part of the unconscious) as had women embraced their animus (the male part of their unconscious). In fact, it has been articulated argued that many of the open conflicts between men and women are really battles of the unconscious Shadow, including the anima/animus. From the public perspective, it seems that women have embraced their animus through successfully entering and executing senior positions in mega-corporations, governments and ecclesial institutions, without fully abandoning their feminine side. However, men are still, for the most part, walking blind or perhaps more dangerously, defiantly, rejecting all attempts by many different voices to invite them to embrace their anima.

Holding on to their victim/bully archetype, however, only perpetuates a cultural phenomenon that has long since passed into antiquity, whether men are willing to acknowledge its demise or not. And when the male victim/bully rears its ugly head (it is the only head it knows or has) and seeks and reeks havoc against a female, as a mis-directed target of his anger, (or vice-versa, when a female’s victim/bully seek vengeance against a male) the results are ugly, tragic and irreconcilable in many cases.

The political/social/cultural/historic moment in which we live is fraught with the multiple tensions including:

·        around fear of survival of the planet,
·        fear of loss of human rights (women’s rights ARE human rights),
·        tectonic shifts in economic stability and security,
·        instant global crowd sourcing, and
·         a vacuum of trust in all public institutions and that includes an impatience with those institutions that were once trusted to deliver the needed remedies for correction and amelioration of social injustices
·        Political/social/cultural ‘movements’ such as “Occupy”, #MeToo, #TimesUp, and certainly in Canada, a mountain of public shame over the  hundreds of missing and murdered aboriginal women waiting for justice
·        Political leaders whose dedication to objective and verifiable facts and truth is virtually non-existent
·        And impatience that “justice” can or will come from those institutions traditionally responsible for its delivery

Nevertheless, many of the now barnacled stereotypes of masculinity and femininity, while openly competing with evolving models of both genders, continue to rear their ugly heads only now with a vehemence, a vengeance and an impatience that borders on frightening. The contempt for men, that I grew up with as an adolescent, is now raging across North America, unleashed as a force rivaling the tsunami power of mother nature, for which adequate preparations have not been made.

There are no break walls, no levees, no courts and no norms on which to base any attempt to redress the wrongs against women that have been a silent “cancer” in denial for centuries. There are no ‘schools’ (in the formal sense of that word) in which to enroll successive generations of men, to school them in the discipline of respectful relationships with women. There are no churches prepared to undertake spiritual direction programs to reconcile the explosive and dangerous nuclear ‘spills’ that stomp across the front pages of our dailies each day. The courts, themselves, are facing a growing number of charges of sexual misconduct, assault, and rape, in numbers and complexities for which they are ill-equipped. The screams of injustice, legitimate and overdue, are generating waves of public media, including the cover of Time, with photos of the women complainants and the over-arching title, The Avengers.

Previously prominent men are being emasculated, just as the women seeking justice and revenge believe they were defamed in secret for too long. There is no doubt that women have “found their collective voice”….and yet the voice of the male cohort of this moment in history is struggling with how to affect the changes needed both to the relationship culture and even to what we previously considered the “hard wiring” of both genders.

Men’s voices, for the most part, will continue to be singular, and without a cohesive, collective “movement” like that of  #MeToo and #TimesUp. Men are much less willing or able to enter into circles of support, and much of the evidence of male-initiated sexual abuse pouring across our screens is indefensible anyway. The time and the patience required to investigate and to detail the charges, including the costs to the public purse, are neither available nor able to be mounted in time to address the legal principle of habeus corpus. Guilt is already imposed by the news media, and the employers of those men whose reputations lie in ruins, in the ash heap of twenty-first century cultural history. Their woman accusers already have been imbued with the kind of impunity expressed by Andrea Horvath, Leader of the NDP in Ontario who uttered these words this week, in reply to the phrase “Ontario Justice System:” “two words, Gian Gomeshi” …because in her view the legal system has failed the women of this province.

The “facts” that the justice system that heard the Gomeshi case found a verdict with which Ms Horvath disagrees is not justification for slandering the legal system. There were witnesses and there was evidence and a judge listening carefully to both in that case. And when our political leaders, in this case one aspiring to become the premier of the province whose legal system is the equal to, if not the better of, most, publicly defame what protections are still extant, for both men and women, we are already sliding down a very slippery slope into a kind of chaos that could provide little or no “justice” in the “restorative” sense of that word, for anyone under a cloud of suspicion.

Earle Birney likely did not envision a drowning in our own shit, of this kind or proportions in North America, back in the mid-70’s. And yet, without both men and women coming to a forest of tables together, airing the legitimate grievances of women, and designing an individual and a societal redress of those grievances (reparations are hardly a legitimate response) and seeking to grow a culture in which both men and women mutually agree to address grievances, (in a manner modelled by the Good Men Project) we are in for a very long, very cold and very embittered winter of our shared discontent.


*A highly conventionalized medieval tradition of love between a knight and a married noblewoman, first developed by the troubadours of southern France and extensively employed in European literature of the time. The love of the knight for his lady was regarded as an ennobling passion and the relationship was typically unconsummated (From Oxford Dictionaries)

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