Sunday, April 17, 2005

Foundations of hierarchy

I apologize that many of you will likely find this long and boring.

Luke often puts a thought-provoking quote at the top of his blog. It is currently this from recently-deceased radical feminist and anti-pornography crusader Andrea Dworkin:
Sexism is the foundation on which all tyranny is built. Every social form of hierarchy and abuse is modeled on male-over-female domination.

I have to admit that I find this a little absurd, but then I am no fan of Dworkin in general. I generally disagree with everything I've ever heard attributed to her other than the idea that women should be equal to men in consideration and she was hardly alone in that assertion. I think she is making the same mistake many radical feminists from decades past made: confusing patriarchy with oligarchy. Confusing men-over-women with men-over-everybody. Let me explain.

Men try to dominate. This is a fact, whether through the pressure of evolutionary selection or socialization. However, what the radical feminist perspective seems to ignore, in my view, is that individual men try to dominate everybody. Men have historically tried to keep women "in their place," of course, but more powerful men also try to keep less powerful men "in their place," too. That men in general have historically been in positions of power over women in general is not because the class of men dominates the class of women, but because even low-status men often have the advantage of brute strength over women, and this has in millennia since become institutionalized.

What is significant about this is that the pattern of male dominance (among males and over females) was established long before there were "men" and "women;" i.e., humans. All great apes have social structures in which males compete for status. They beat each other, they steal from each other, and they try to mate with as many females as they can. What I am saying is that the historical fact of male dominance over women is an unavoidable consequence of female nursing requirements and male physical strength in a time before men were capable of moral or ethical considerations. There was no point in time, literally or metaphorically, in which men and women were initially equal and then men took control. As a result, there could be no initial subjugation of women after which other hierarchies could evolve.

(Now, Dworkin believed that penetrative sex was an act of violence and domination in and of itself, so if in her quote above she meant only that penises evolved before culture, then perhaps this critique is irrelevant. I don't believe that is what she meant, however, for it would be a pretty useless observation.)

The dominance of the few over the many evolved right alongside the dominance of men over women, not as some social construction modeled on it. Would Dworkin suggest that evolution proceeded for billions of years and yielded a complex system of sexual relations, and then one ape got a bigger brain and instantly all was erased? If so, it is a remarkable coincidence that all major components of human social interaction, on broad levels, are present in non-human primates as well. So strange that we would begin with the proverbial "blank slate" and yet so masterfully emulate our evolutionary relatives. And related to this, just what evidence is there that there is a causal relationship between patriarchy and other forms of heirarchy anyway? Is it pure guesswork?

This is not a defense of male supremacy. Now that we are capable of moral and ethical considerations, the idea that men "deserve" to be in power over women is patently absurd. That something may be evolved does not imply that it is desirable. Cancer is "natural," but very few can honestly maintain that we should encourage it. None of this really matters, because we, unlike our more hirsute cousins, are capable of choosing not to perpetuate our historical inequities.

This whole topic is related to my general dislike of the word patriarchy as it is used in feminist discussions. I guess I just reject most "class" talk. I think, for instance, that Marx was essentially correct in his analysis of economics, but I think that his division of people into black-and-white proletariat and bourgeoisie was deceptive. People aren't poor workers for their entire lives and then, when they obtain capital through whatever means, psychologically change to want to perpetuate their power. The workers are poor in spite of their own aspirations to become the very people keeping them down. Likewise, I feel that the separation of patriarchy as a specific example of male dominance out of the general competitive nature (and I use the term nature here to include social explanations) of humans, especially men, to be counterproductive. I am not convinced that it is useful to address male dominance over women as distinct from male dominance over everybody else, because I don't think there is a distinction between the two in the minds of the perpetrators. I think that the same thing drives some men to "win at all costs" in sports, to "maximize profit" in business, and to "rule the household" in sexual relations.

What does all of this mean? Well, I think it means that the most productive way to achieve social justice is to stop thinking of ourselves as men and women, white and black, rich and poor, and to start thinking of ourselves as humans. The goal of eliminating, say, sexism is laudable, but not fundamentally distinct from the goal of eliminating other forms of oppression. For what it's worth, I think that most modern feminists, including radical feminists, understand that. Specializing in gender relations is one thing. Suggesting that gender relations are fundamentally more important than all others is another entirely. It is the idea - borne of biology but accepted only through culture - that one person has actual authority over any other person that underlies all forms of hierarchy and oppression, of which so-called "patriarchy" is only one example.



  1. One more thing real quick. There are probably two versions of this claim.

    The "strong" version: all heirarchy arose directly out of the example set by male dominance of women.

    The "weak" version: the fact that animals must compete for mates is the basis (along with limited food resources) of a lot of male competitiveness, leading to heirarchy in more intelligent animals including humans.

    I would agree with the weak version, but not the strong. I seriously doubt Dworkin intended the weak version. Maybe I'm wrong.

  2. Yes, but it's too bad the Bush cult is seeking to put an end to any idea that women are equals and should be treated as such.

  3. By the way, since we are essentially quibbling over details while agreeing on the important thing (sexism = evil), if you want to "agree to disagree" I won't take it as conceding! Or we can keep with the long comments . . . I do find the conversation invigorating.

  4. Gene-late-comer...

    On the original quote, I see it more as a useful metaphor rather than an unassailably accurate theory. The prison power-relationship "You're my bitch..." sums it up.

    About Marx's classes: as long as major differences exist (by whatever terms, health, income, education, etc.) then it is informative to analyse societies by classes, racial groups, gender, etc. Of course the ideal is a classless society, but how do you know what's busted if you don't lift the hood?

  5. You nailed it, Gene. As long as you're talking about a diagnostic tool, class-talk is fine. It is when you start to conceive of classes as being entities rather than agregates that I think you run into trouble.

  6. *Sigh*. I have to agree that we will disagree on that 5% that is keeping this discussion going. I have points to bring up about your more recent points, but I really don't have the energy. You know?

    I got a lot from this discussion. Thanks Ryan! As always, it was a pleasure.

    Oh and gene, great point!

    Take *that* anonymous!