Posts Tagged ‘culture’

Philip Zimbardo on the Lives of Boys

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011

Philip Zimbardo, professor emeritus at Stanford University, gives his take on why boys are struggling:

I think he brings an interesting and valid perspective, but obviously there are more factors as to why boys are struggling in school and in finding a job.

Some of them may be:

  • Schools aren’t adapted to the learning style of boys.
  • Society has a negative view on men.
  • Boys living without their father (and there are many of them) have a hard time finding male role models, especially in school.
  • We lack a vision of what positive masculinity could be in a postmodern world. And when there’s no vision – you may as well play computer games and watch porn.

Individuals and Structures

Friday, March 12th, 2010

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.

Equality Need not Mean Sameness

Friday, March 20th, 2009

These days there’s a lot of confusion around what gender equality really means. Will we have reached gender equality when half of all CEOs are women? Or will we have reached gender equality when women and men are exactly the same except for their reproductive organs?

Unfortunately both of these criteria seem to be prevalent when judging whether the sexes are equal or not, and policy makers – at least in Sweden and many other countries – tend to think that the sexes will remain unequal until half the CEOs are women and both sexes behave in the exact same way. 

Since we haven’t reached that point, affirmative action for women is seen as more or less acceptable. However, these “sameness criteria” have nothing to do with authentic gender equality, and instead introduce an element of confusion when discussing this subject.

Assuming that equality means sameness is inherently problematic since if you want men and women to make exactly the same career choices, family choices and lifestyles choices, then you are basically trying to fit individuals into your own preconceived notion of reality.

A Better Definition

Equality between the sexes simply means that men and women have equal rights, responsibilities and opportunities. According to this definition we need to remove all legal discrimination as well as break down stereotypes that prevent people from leading the lives that they want. Everyone should have equal access to education, the labor market, government grants, and so on. If you believe in this definition of equality, then all kinds of affirmative action are rejected, since affirmative action is a form of discrimination.

However, achieving this kind of gender equality need not mean that men and women become the same!

Men and women may very well continue to make different choices when it comes to work, family and hobbies – while still being perfectly equal. In fact, it is irrelevant to gender equality whether men and women make the same choices, as long as each man and each woman is truly free to choose whatever path seems right to him or her.

By dropping the criterion of sameness, gender equality becomes much more achievable, and does not limit individual freedom. Gender equality needs to be about giving women and men more choices, not imposing new stereotypes of how each sex should behave. And claiming that men and women can and should become completely similar is nothing but another kind of stereotype.

My Personal Opinion

We all know that men and women make different lifestyle choices, and this is generally seen as a sign of cultural programming and gender stereotypes having their way with individuals who are out of touch with their true desires.

I agree that cultural programming influences the choices of men and women in a very real way, however, I disagree with the assertion that all gender differences are culturally constructed. Research has shown that biological differences between the sexes exist, and in my opinion it would be naive to assume that men and women would start making exactly the same choices, even in a society that is completely open minded.

But you know what? I don’t even care if you agree with me on the biological differences between the sexes. As long as you defend the notion that equality means equal opportunities, rights and responsibilities – while rejecting affirmative action and other forms of discrimination – then we are basically working towards the same goal.

However, I will say this: I cannot help but find it offensive that many branches of feminism claim that all gender differences are culturally constructed. By saying this they basically claim that most people are out of touch with what they really want out of life, and that people allow themselves to be shepherded in whatever direction that stereotypes dictate.

Do you personally feel like your own life is 100 percent controlled by stereotypes and cultural structures, or are you able to make choices that go against that which is expected of you?

Gender and Biology

Sunday, March 15th, 2009

Whenever gender roles and gender issues are discussed, one of the most controversial questions is whether biological hardwiring affects the behavior of men and women. Are gender specific neurohormonal factors significant enough to affect the everyday behavior and choices of each sex? Are men’s and women’s brain constructed differently, or are the differences negligible or even completely absent?

There are a few different stances that people tend to adopt when discussion biology and gender issues, and unfortunately most of them are pretty polarized:

Biological determinism. This is the belief that human beings are animals who are basically controlled by instincts and hormones. Let’s forget about the higher functions of the human brain, at our core we are simply animals who are preoccupied with survival and reproduction.

Sociocultural determinism. Everything is a cultural construction, you were born as a blank slate and then your upbringing and your culture formed you into who you are today. This is a seductive stance since it gives you a very “clean” worldview of gender issues. You remove a lot of complexity by making everything culturally constructed, and that is an attractive option if you want fast results.

Paying lip-service to multiple factors. Some people pretend to take both biology and sociocultural factors into account, but it’s obvious that they have chosen sides pretty emphatically. These people will say things like:

“I believe that biology may affect human beings in some ways but it is completely out-shadowed by our upbringing and cultural programming”.

“Of course we must take culture into account, but at our core our choices are determined by biological hardwiring”.

Seeing the truths of all research fields. In my opinion this is the only defensible stance for anyone who believes that academic science is a good thing. There is undeniable research that demonstrates the importance of sociocultural programming in shaping gender roles. On the other hand, there is undeniable research that highlights the differences in brain structure and function between men and women (and how these differences affect choices and behavior). So who is right? Both are. We are biological creatures living in a culture and environment that shapes us extensively.

Pros and Cons of Acknowledging Biology

Even if we ignore the scientific findings, proof stares us in the eyes. When looking at gender roles in different cultures we see a myriad of differences and some universal features. The differences represent sociocultural factors and the universal patterns represent biological programming. This kind of simple cross-cultural overview is a direct demonstration of how culture and biology co-create the fabric of a community or a country.

Many progressives want to avoid addressing the whole issue of gender specific biological differences, since they feel that it limits constructive social reform by sowing doubts about whether change is truly possible. After all, if there are biological differences in the brains of men and women, isn’t that then an argument to preserve stereotypes? It certainly can be, and people who want to preserve traditional gender roles often do use biology as an argument for keeping men and women trapped in very constricted life conditions.

In light of these potential downsides to acknowledging biological differences between the sexes, what are we supposed to do? How do we deal with this fairly new information that has come to us through the huge strides that science has made in the past 20 years? Do we suppress it or bring it into the gender discourse? Let’s have a look at the pros and cons…

What are the pitfalls of acknowledging biology?

  1. Neurohormonal differences between the sexes can be used as an argument for reverting to traditional gender stereotypes. As we just saw, this is already being done.
  2. Even nuanced thinkers can easily over-emphasize the influence of biology and forget about the huge importance of the sociocultural factors. This is unfortunate since we can change culture and make it more friendly for both sexes, while it’s much harder to manipulate biology.
  3. The research about biological differences could lead to pre-judging individuals, for example those who are looking for a job.

What are the consequences of banning research and pretending that biology doesn’t exist?

  1. This would be intellectually dishonest and overly controlling. I wouldn’t want to live in a society where scientists are controlled in such a way by the state!
  2. If we do not pursue this avenue of research, we will miss precious opportunities to develop better drugs to treat neurological and psychiatric diseases.
  3. Trying to change sociocultural trends while denying a key variable is likely to be unsuccessful. Paradoxically we will probably be more successful in transcending gender stereotypes if we acknowledge brain differences. If we instead perpetuate the myth that men and women have identical brains, then the reforms will automatically focus on eliminating gender roles completely, and having 50 percent men and 50 percent women at all workplaces. Such a vision is almost certainly incompatible with biology, and we shouldn’t waste time and money on trying to achieve an impossible goal. 

My Own View

I believe that it’s our job to create a society where we’ve transcended gender stereotypes, and where everyone is allowed to make the choices that they want. Truly allowing each kid to play with the toys that he or she wants, and truly allowing each young adult to purse the career (or homemaker) path that he or she wants, will be a difficult challenge – but it’s nevertheless what we need to achieve.

Biology will take care of itself, and once stereotypes aren’t as dominating (their influence is already receding), gender differences tied to biology will shine through. Then and only then will we know the exact relative importance of biological differences between the sexes.

The Culture of Victimhood

Sunday, February 22nd, 2009

Once upon a time it was considered morally desirable to be a person who took responsibility for your own actions. This was before we reached a cultural awareness of how prejudices, roles and external structures affect the lives of different groups of people. Once we gained insight into the ubiquity of these external structures, and how we are all influenced by them in different ways, we seemed to forget the concept of personal accountability.

Contemporary culture has a real tendency to assume everyone to be a victim, in some way or other. We live in a veritable age of victimhood, where people portray themselves as hapless and powerless individuals who don’t have any impact on their own lives.

“I cannot be successful at work because I’m a woman”
“I’m too old to be hired”
“I get bad grades because my teachers don’t understand me”
“My upbringing prevents me from having a good relationship”
“My genes prevent me from losing weight”

As you can see, victimhood goes way beyond being the victim of cultural structures, you can also be the victim of parents, genes, teachers, etc.

What to Do?

I believe that it’s fully possible to reclaim our lost sense of individual responsibility, while still seeing how we’re affected by cultural constructions and external circumstances. In fact, I believe it’s vital that we do this, since being stuck in a victim mentality means that we become passive and increasingly bitter about the perceived injustices surrounding us.

Individual responsibility does not mean that we are to be blamed for the existing external structures and prejudices! Being responsible is simply a recognition that all human beings are moral agents, who influence the world according to their own standards and beliefs. The world may influence you, but you also influence the world.

Regardless of what societal patterns are holding you down or working against you, you have the potential to implement change, and to do the best you can in any situation.

I’m not specifically talking about people who truly are victims of irreversible conditions, such as being born with a physical handicap. Still, you can always do your best given the circumstances you’ve been given, and within those limits you are completely responsible for your own life.

Feminism and Personal Accountability

So how is all of this related to the gender debate? The most obvious connection is the claimed victimhood of women that feminist discourse has never been able to transcend. Perhaps more than any other group, feminist women talk about how victimhood is at the core of their experience.

Somehow feminists haven’t been able to reconcile the claim that women are victims, and the claim that women are strong and perfectly capable individuals. I believe that this internal contradiction of feminism is due to two factors:

1. Feminism fails to distinguish between the personal and the political, instead claiming that “the personal is political”. However, this stance makes it difficult to see that you are always accountable and have significant power on a personal level, even if societal structures limit you in certain ways.

2. Feminism holds men personally responsible for the structures that oppress women, instead of recognizing that these structures have crystallized into being due to survival instincts and biological differences between the sexes. This second failure to see the difference between the personal and structural, leads to women feeling like victims on a personal level. After all, if men are personally responsible for having oppressed women, are women then not personally responsible for having accepted this oppression?

The feminist conflation of the personal and the political, keeps a lot of women from seeing what I believe to be a core truth: there is no contradiction between fully exploring how your gender role has kept you from living the life you want, and accepting full responsibility for your own life!

Future Gender Warriors

It’s also very important for men not to fall into the “victim trap”, once we start seeing and exploring how societal structures and our gender role have constricted or even oppressed us, simply because we are men. Even as we are mapping out how the traditional male gender role is limiting, and how feminist theory has added new ways of keeping men down, we can still retain our sense of agency and trust in our ability to effect change.

Men and women alike who are aspiring to move beyond the rhetoric of feminism, need to avoid making the mistake that feminism made regarding personal accountability and victimhood.

As long as you’re accountable you can also change your circumstances, but as soon as you label yourself a victim you can only endure your circumstances. This is a key distinction! Needless to say, no constructive social change has ever been implemented by people who act or think like victims.


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