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What should it mean to be a man?
Finding meaning in sex and gender, without oppression
One of the great challenges of our time is to create shared meaning with oppression. What does it mean to be an American, to be proud without being nationalistic? What does it mean to be a man, beyond dominating women?
My go-to example of meaning without oppression is loyalty to sports teams. Even if the Yankees are the “best” baseball team, neither the Yankees nor their fans oppress others. Yankees fans and Mets fans each have a common identity and shared history that is not oppressive of the other.
College loyalties are another example: people are inducted into clans and forever identify with their alma maters. Of course, education is closely linked with wealth and class, so saying “I went to Harvard” carries a lot of baggage. But I wouldn’t say that Alabama’s Crimson Tide oppresses Texas A&M Aggies or vice versa. Ditto for fraternities and sororities.
I want to be part of the struggle against oppression. American-centric jingoism and the patriarchy should both wither and fall. But I worry that we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater. The bathwater is oppression, and it’s good that we threw that away. The baby is shared meaning, what it means to be part of a community, or to draw meaning from your identity in that community. It’s good to throw away male oppression, but I think we are also throwing away any communal sense of what gender means, especially what it means to be a man.
The typical framing is that, for men and women to have equal power, men must surrender some of their power. Resistance to feminism arises because men want to keep all the power. As a man sympathetic to the fight against oppression, I propose an additional possibility: that feminism makes it unclear what it means to be a man. In other words, some men resist feminism not only because they will lose power but also because they will lose identity.
My thesis is that men need to find an identity, a statement of what it means to be a man, that is totally decoupled from the oppression of women.
I’m not saying that men need some special dispensation in this new cultural order. I am suggesting that there is a deeper question: in a world where men and women are equal, what does it mean to be a man or a woman? Are these categories to be simply abolished? Should sex be a purely medical fact like blood type that has no social dimension at all? What about gender?
I ask these questions because I am a man who finds male identity confusing. My grandfather could be confident in his masculinity because he was the breadwinner and he had male friends and he liked manly things like boats. His wife kept the house and cooked the food and raised the kids. If he got angry and yelled, well, anger wasn’t a religious virtue exactly, but it was a sign of being a man, which was a good thing ipso facto.
Today, the picture is more confusing. For better or worse, womanliness seems to be associated with globally positive qualities like being nice to children. By contrast, manliness seems to be associated either with globally positive virtues that we think should belong equally to men and women, like strength and ambition, or to wholly negative traits, like being mean to children.
My guess right now is that gender should be like a moiety system. In a culture with a moiety system, everyone belongs to one of two groups, like clans. Members of one moiety can only marry people of another clan. In most of these cultures, children take on one parent’s moiety. The two moieties have some special role to play in the society, and the two moieties are equally valued.
For example, the Tlingit people of the Pacific Northwest have two moieties, Raven and Eagle. Each moiety is composed of many clans, so every marriage is across clans. Every clan has its own songs, traditions, and religious symbols. Children take on their mother’s clan. A child’s father is a kind and friendly figure but not part of their moral upbringing. The mother’s brother, who is in the same clan as the child, is the powerful, disciplinarian figure we associate with fatherhood in the West.
In Tlingit culture, the moieties make the clan structure reciprocal and cohesive. When clans fight, they are drawn back together by the father-child relationships that cross clans. When someone dies, their own clan is too beset by grief to prepare the funeral, so funerals are arranged by the father’s clan.
In the culture I grew up in, gender is like a moiety. At birth, you are assigned to one of two moieties. In day-to-day life, the moieties intermix and go about their business, but the closest platonic relationships tend to be within moieties. At critical moments, the two separate. During coming of age, boys and girls are separated to be initiated into sexual secrets. (When my fifth grade class was separated into boys and girls by our health teachers, the purpose was to learn about anatomy, but they did the separation by gender and not by anatomy.) You marry across moieties, that is, in opposite-sex couples. Bachelor and bachelorette parties are separate. Before birth, baby showers include only one moiety, women. The fact that men don’t typically have a separate event parallel to the baby shower is a sign of my overall point, that we don’t have a positive, affirmative view of what men should be in our new world.
This system, as it exists, has problems. It associates one moiety with childbearing and childrearing, which produces a crucial imbalance. It also doesn’t answer my crucial question: what does it mean to be a man? The best example of post-patriarchy fatherhood identity I’ve seen is that mom is nurturing and serious while dad is care-free and fun. If this meant an equal division of labor, I would go for it. Personally, I think I would fall more on the nurturing and serious side, but for me that’s OK. Moieties and shared meanings mean that not everyone will feel perfectly comfortable in the role that’s been assigned to you. I’m not exactly sure of the line between discomfort and oppression, but for me, emphasizing my serious and nurturing characteristics isn’t a deep violation.
Of course, this problem isn’t only about gender. The president of Iceland recently gave a talk at my college (which I’m fairly proud of, and I’m pretty sure not in a way that’s oppressive) about how Icelanders are trying to find ways to be proud of being Icelandic without being nationalistic, that is, oppressive. A claimant to the throne of Albania wants to reinstate the monarchy as a way for Albanians to have a sense of identity that isn’t strictly political or nationalistic.
I am hopeful that we can have a future without oppression but with meaning. A purely relativist and individualist society has no common center or goal. If and when we achieve an equitable society free from oppression, then what will we want to do? If we knew our answer now, I think we might be able to get more people on board.
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