Individuals and Structures

March 12th, 2010 by Pelle Billing

If you know anything about contemporary feminism, you know that the word “structure” is popular. Structures in culture and society explain why men and women behave the way they do. Oppressive structures keep women down, and maintain the integrity of the patriarchy. Free will barely exists, since we are all programmed by the structures surrounding us. The only time that individuals are emphasized in this kind of feminism, is when it comes to rebelling against these structures or to illuminate how individuals are hurt by said structures.

People who take issue with the radical feminist description of the world, usually want to switch the focus from cultural and societal structures to talking about individuals. After all, rights and responisibilities are individual, and therefore it doesn’t make much sense to talk about collective rights or identity politics. This is the argument usually put forward in Sweden when discussing whether to implement gender quotas in corporate boards of directors. The argument is that if we prioritize gender quotas instead of each individual’s right to be considered a candidate on his or her own merits, then we are putting identity politics ahead of basic individual rights.

While I agree with the view that rights are first and foremost connected to the individual, and not to groups, I think that anybody opposing feminism and feminist ideas without addressing structures ends up with fairly weak set of arguments. If the radical feminists are talking about individuals and structures, and the opposing side is only talking about individuals, then the feminist view of structures is the prevailing one by default.

At the moment, this is exactly what has happened around the Western World, and beyond. Whenever gender equality and structures are discussed, the seemingly self-evident assumption is that the current structures oppress women and favor men, meaning that women are the group we need to help. This in turn shapes everything from media coverage of gender issues, to policy making domestically and in Third World countries.

Denying the impact of structures is not only ineffective, it is fairly silly too. Whenever you meet someone from a different country you immediatly notice that they speak a different language, and have different customs and traditions. How can we explain this without acknowledging the importance of cultural and societal structures?

In the field of gender issues, this means that the only way to combat misandry and the prevailing perception that men are a privileged group that willfully oppresses women, is to describe how cultural and societal structures keep men stuck in their own kind of straitjacket:

  • It is a man’s job to keep society safe. This cultural expectation means that men are expendable in wars and in dangerous jobs.
  • Cultural expectations of men are narrow. Be successful. If you have a family make sure you support it. If you fail at these tasks, there’s no place for you in society. This in turn leads to men being 3-5 times as likely as women to be homeless or commit suicide.
  • The societal structure that is our educational system produces far more women than men who go to college and university.
  • Men’s harsh reality under the current structures leads large amounts of random street violence between men.

I could list more examples but you get the point. It is only when we dare to describe men’s situation in terms of being exposed to unhealthy structures that we can hold our own in a discussion with a radical feminist (or in a discussion with virtually anybody, since the basic views of radical feminism are embraced by almost everyone nowadays, without knowing where they got those views).

Many men are reluctant to talk about themselves in this way. Men don’t like being victims or abandoning their sense of self-reliance. In my opinion this is a good thing, and the strength of the men’s movement rests on this very attitude.

However, it is perfectly possible to describe the facts of men’s situation in neutral terms, without whining or abandoning individual responsibility for one’s own life. In fact, I believe that the only way to ever have men’s issues reach the political agenda is by daring to describe how men are hurt and suffer in the face of cultural and societal structures.

It is very hard for a politician, or for anyone wanting to come across as a decent person, to say that they don’t care about male suicides and male homelessness. Consequently, the very moment a critical mass of individuals start talking about structures hurting men, that is the moment radical feminism crumbles, once and for all.

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8 Responses to “Individuals and Structures”

  1. Lavazza Says:

    Structures are a bit like star signs. You might as well see other star signs or just individual stars in the sky. Just because someone has the “abiltity” (feminists calls it “insight”) to see one structure does not mean that you have the ability too see another structure, especially if it is your best interest to see one structure and not the other.

  2. Danny Says:

    It is very hard for a politician, or for anyone wanting to come across as a decent person, to say that they don’t care about male suicides and male homelessness.
    Which is why they won’t outright say they don’t care but will instead simply ignore or disavow the existence of such issues like male suicide and homelessness. (Or in some cases will try to redirect the conversation in order to make it look men are whining about something.) And that attitude ties in very well with this:

    Many men are reluctant to talk about themselves in this way. Men don’t like being victims or abandoning their sense of self-reliance. In my opinion this is a good thing, and the strength of the men’s movement rests on this very attitude.
    I agree that not wanting to be seen as victims all the time and to abandon self reliance (as well as personal responsibility) is a good things however what we have now is that that attitude has been taken so far that not only do people simply not regard men as victims but we see men taking on responsiblities that should not be on their shoulders and even expecting men to drop their own responsibilities in order put someone else’s first.

    So what you have a perfect mix of people not wanting to talk about how society harms men and men who don’t want to talk about being harmed by society. And that mix is what allows for anti-male sentiments to run so strongly and unchecked. Now that men are really trying to step up and say something you have people who are quick to fall back on those old notions of, “men can’t victims”, “its men’s fault that ____ happened in the first place” (I actually had a woman comment on my blog last week that men should be the ones to fight wars because men are the ones that start wars. I almost laugh now when I see people trying to call men out on the things they need to be doing but will then in the next breath attack the men that are trying to do those very things or ignore them.

  3. Karl Says:

    I’m sceptical about the useages of “structure”, or example, “structural discrimination”, it´s a very weak concept. The causes for “structures” to appear is as far as I’ve seen largely practical and factual. Immigrants are for example less likely to get a job because they’re often lacking in language skills, they have no references, their workmorals are on average lower, they tend to exaggerate their competence, workplace theft is more common, etc. They are for a number of sound reasons less attractive on the labour market, does that mean they are discriminated? Not really. The problem isn’t primarily the employers but the employees. The only ones that can really change that is the immigrants themselves.

  4. Jim Says:

    “Structures are a bit like star signs.”

    No, when we are tlaking about society we are talking about culture, and structures in culture are like rules of grammar in language, or the meanings of words. They change over time as individual speakers stretch or break them and othe rindividual speakers accept those changes, but they are not random ad hoc impressions that anyone can change or ignore at will. If you just decide to start putting all you verbs at the end of the sentence when you’re speaking English, you’re free to do it, but no one will have any clue as to what you are trying to say. And they are not likely to continue the convrsation either, as they edge away from you.

  5. Pat Kibbon Says:

    Feminists tend to focus on how structures build individuals while ignoring how individuals build structures.

  6. Pelle Billing Says:

    I agree, Pat.

    The challenge is to keep both perspectives open.

  7. Danny Says:

    Pat:
    Feminists tend to focus on how structures build individuals while ignoring how individuals build structures.
    I’m not sure its that cut and dry with them Pat. Notice how many feminists will selectively recognize how individuals and structures build on each other.

    If you take an instance like say how a man fires a woman over sexist reasons and gets away with it they have no problem seeing how the structure builds the individual (his ability to fire her like that is supported the supposedly patriarchy of male over female dominiation) and vice versa (he is supporting the supposed patriarchy by treating her this way). But that understanding seems to do out the window when its the other way around. For example with the way domestic violence is spoken of these days it is becoming increasingly easy for a woman to attack a man then call the cops and have him arrested. For some reason they are unable to see how the structure builds the individual (her ability to treat him like that is supported by a biased DV industry that presumes men are always guilty and women are always innocent) and vice versa (she is supporting the system by doing this and thus perpetuating the biased system).

    I honestly wonder if its just a matter of them switching back and forth depending on what conclusion they need at the moment. Kind of like deciding if a source of information if biased or not by checking to see if the information supports their arguments rather by checking the source itself.

  8. Jane McGillivray Says:

    Pelle: you write, “However, it is perfectly possible to describe the facts of men’s situation in neutral terms, without whining or abandoning individual responsibility for one’s own life. In fact, I believe that the only way to ever have men’s issues reach the political agenda is by daring to describe how men are hurt and suffer in the face of cultural and societal structures.”

    There is another way to have men’s issues reach the agenda. It is time to evolve the structures forward, and grow the capacities which have been atrophied, damaged and missing in either gender. This growth will take place not from the ground of a disempowered victim, but from the deeper truth of who we are, and what intention we are holding.

    Again, I would so encourage you and your readership to sign up for the ‘calling in the one’ tele-course, the next time it comes around. http://www.callingintheone.com/ As ‘corny’ as this might sound, this has been one of the most remarkable courses for me in learning how I have been generating the relationships that I have with others. “Life is not happening ‘to’ me. It is happening ‘through’ me.” And as I said before, I hope that you will have the opportunity to meet Katherine Thomas and Claire Zammit at the Integral Theory Conference. They are amazing, and the transformational work in which they are engaged is just so much what we need now…..

    I would love to see your blogs take on the evolutionary, transformational flavour of hope, non-victimization, and positive intention which start to envision not so much what is crappy and unfair, but what we do want to cocreate in a future where men and women deeply respect and love and care for each other. That we are at a place in history that this is possible for the first time in the history of the world is largely due to the feminists that have objected to the muting of women’s voices in the larger ‘structural’ sphere. I thank them and realize it is time to move on to what I really do want.

    Jane


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