Misogyny: What the Hell? Okay, Let’s Do This.

So, I’ve been putting off writing this post. The reason is that I’ve been reading, reading, and reading some more. There are hundreds if not thousands of books on misogyny and countless more scholarly articles, never mind the (probably) millions of newspaper, magazine, websites, blogs, and other sources I can’t think of right now, that try to understand misogyny or point out it’s catastrophic consequences especially for women, but also for all of us. And there are original sources to be evaluated including religious texts, philosophical works, and ethnographies. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the literature in reading and teaching a course on love and sex, but there are themes that re-occur again and again so it’s not necessary to read every piece of writing on the topic. What I have read is depressing enough.

I want to say that I have no intention of offending anyone by writing these words today, but some people will inevitably take exception. That I cannot control. Like Copernicus, Galileo, and the more contemporary Charles Darwin (although I’m not in the same category of eminence as they are), I must write what I see as the truth based on decades of study and reflection. That said, let’s do this.

As I wrote in my last post, misogyny started when the animal became the human. Of course, we’ve always been animals, subject to all the vagaries and uncertainties that that entails including the challenges associated with survival, including getting enough to eat and drink, protecting ourselves from threats (floods, droughts, volcanoes, rock slides, predators etc.,) as well as replenishing the species by making babies. However, when we evolved sufficiently to become self-aware, which took millions of years, we were able, with our now bigger brains, to try to deny that we were ever animals in the first place. Or rather, we didn’t specifically deny our animality, we just tamed it by making it subject to control by our ‘self’.

Language has long fascinated me and there is plenty of evidence in our languages of the attempted denial or taming of our animality. If I say to you: “My body is really sore from that workout yesterday,” to what does the ‘my’  in that sentence refer? What is it that can claim ownership of the body? This linguistic turn had profound impacts on humanity long before English evolved. Virtually everywhere I look in the anthropological ethnographic literature, we’ve determined that ‘we’ are in fact not just our bodies, but ‘we’ are much more than that. We’ve managed to convince ourselves via our dreams (awake and asleep), our growing imaginations and probably through trances brought on by drugs, dancing or fasting) that we must be a very special animal indeed. This process led Ernest Becker to argue that it’s our ingenuity and not our animality that “has given [our] fellow creatures such a bitter earthly fate.” (EFE, p.5) As we developed selfhood and  our brains grew bigger and more capable, we convinced ourselves through ritual that we were able to control heaven and earth. We invented rituals and projects like the zodiac to convince ourselves that the heavens were in constant intimate relations with us and we read chicken entrails and runes to determine how we might control natural forces that threatened us. We created culture to oppose nature, as Becker argues, and our cultures are more or less elaborate and sophisticated projects to deny our animality and, consequently, our death.

We always knew that animals died and we were not oblivious to the fact that we all eventually meet the same fate. What to do? Oh, what to do? Well, the ‘forces of nature’ were always overwhelming and difficult to handle but we determined that if we pursued the right rituals, we could affect the course of our lives and of nature. We began to bargain with the forces of nature. “You back off and give us good crops and we’ll sacrifice a bunch of sheep to you. Sound fair?” But the forces of nature (gods) were never satisfied and needed constant reassurance that we would feed them. Kingship developed as a way of having a god present at all times to take our gifts and keep us safe. We, however, the weak, vulnerable species that we are also needed constant reminders that we mattered and that the gods were paying attention and were on our side. So, we split our societies into ‘moieties’ or (literally) halves so that we might have someone to compete against to show the gods how worthy we were. That process is still extant in modern society. We tirelessly set up competitions to prove our worth, our value and we do it most frequently for the glory of our God (gods) or, now, our secular god, our country, that institution that ensures us survival beyond our animal lives. Religion has always promised us eternal life. Why else would it exist? Thousands of religions over the course of history have given people thousands of ways of gaining eternal life. Problem is, in a competitive world, if my way to eternal life promised by my religion is the right way, your’s cannot be. Sorry about that.

Now comes the part where the most momentous invention ever to come from the human species was wrought. That’s the notion that if our bodies are mortal, then the only thing we can do is deny them their due. Because we were now connected to the forces of nature we could pretend that we had an inside track on immortality. Gods were immaterial and immortal, we could be too. If we performed the rituals just the right way, we could ensure our eternal survival. Our rituals became increasingly aimed at chastising the flesh, piling corpses upon corpses to assuage the gods. We needed to put emphasis on our selves, our souls, that immaterial aspect of ourselves that would not die if we performed the proper rituals at the proper time. Our bodies became our enemies. The body became associated with death, the spirit with life. Norman O. Brown states that in fact, the earth is the devil’s domain. Disease and death became the twin pillars of evil for us. Life on this earth was transitory, just a preparation for the immortality we could achieve upon our corporal death if we lived right, did the right things. Our denial of death led to our denial of our bodies and our lives. So, in order to live eternally, we were prepared not to live fully in our animality.

So, why do we associate faeces with dirt? Why must we avoid getting dirty? “We read that the men of the Chagga tribe wear an anal plug all their lives, pretending to seal up the anus and not to need to defecate…The body cannot be allowed to have the ascendency over him.” (Becker, The Denial of Death, p. 32) The Chagga men’s denial is our denial. In another post, I address this fact more fully, but for now, what of women?

Well, women were never the primary class of people who presided over ritual. They were much too busy having babies and being domestic. The first class divide then is between men and women, a mostly natural divide to start with, but with time, the most important class divide was between most men and the priestly class. Women need not apply. Not then, not now. (Yes, you can contest this point if you want.)

In fact, for men, their bodies are traitors to them because of their animal nature, their death instinct. When men and the priestly class came to dominate human societies, women were increasingly seen as the epitome of animality. Men ‘othered’ women for their sexuality, their attractiveness to men, for dragging men into a depraved and animal world. Sex became dirty unless it was sanctioned by the priestly class using the proper rituals. Sexual attraction had to be denied at all costs so that it couldn’t infect men’s spirits, their souls. Problem is, of course, we are a species that reproduces sexually so there was a need for a massive investment in ritual to ‘cleanse’ women especially during menstruation and in the regulation of the female being, of the female world which by it’s very nature condemned men to death. Sins of the flesh are a great way to eventually find yourself in hell. (Of course, things are changing and I’ll deal with that too in another post.) Dante’s hell isn’t as present as it used to be in Abrahamic consciousness but we have other ‘hells’ to replace it.

Enough for today. I will follow this set of blog posts with a list of the materials I used in researching this topic, at least the most important ones.

Without getting into too many specifics, my next post is about how women have been treated throughout history and labelled unclean and a threat to men’s ascension to eternal life. For that we need to visit the Old Testament, especially Leviticus, but other sources as well, including Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas and others partly through Jack Holland’s work, but also through many others including Ernest Becker, Norman O. Brown, Otto Rank, Umberto Eco, Uta Ranke-Heinemann and Carol F. Karlsen. Simone de Beauvoir also figures prominently here.



Misogyny: What the Hell?

On this International Women’s Day, it’s a good time to introduce my next series of blog posts. I don’t intend these short posts to exhaustively cover the topic, but to serve as an introduction and to stimulate discussion and dialogue. In a future post I’ll explain the title above. Much of the significance of this post and those that follow on this topic is summarized in the title.

I’ve scanned a significant sample of the anthropological, historical, sociological, philosophical and theological literature and I’ve done so over decades and there is this stark truth that consistency reveals itself therein: There is no time in history that I can uncover when women were not treated as inferior to men. There is no time, nor place. Oh, there have been matrilineal, matrilocal, and matrifocal societies, but no matriarchal ones, nor have there been ones where women and men have shared power equally other than in Marx and Engels’ concept of primitive communism wherein women had supremacy over domestic life and men over social life, hunting and defence. If it did exist, it didn’t last long.

In response to the pervasiveness of this uneven relationship between men and women, some people might argue (and have they ever) that women are naturally inferior to men and should just accept their place in creation. In fact, this notion has dominated many treatises on the nature of humanity over history. It’s probably more common, even today, than some of us would like to admit.

I reject this notion out of hand, of course, because it’s patently false and the evidence is before our eyes every day. Constitutionally, women are not inferior to men any more than poor people are inferior to rich ones. Differences between the sexes exist of course but they are not grounds for discrimination or prejudice. As Simone de Beauvoir writes in The Second Sex, women have been ‘othered’ not because of any inherent weakness, but because of what they represent to men.

Women have inordinately suffered at the hands of men in history, of that there is no doubt, but many men would argue that women have inflicted their share of suffering onto men too. I’ve known some men who have expressed a profound hatred of women. They seldom can give reasons other than that they were treated unfairly, taken advantage of, abused and rejected. Still, it’s rare to read that a woman has killed her husband or partner during outbursts of domestic violence, while it’s common to read of men killing their wives or partners in the same situations. Men kill women much more frequently than women kill men.

However, for this blog post, I’m not primarily interested in exploring the individual, idiosyncratic expression of misogyny. Rather, I want to explore misogyny as an ideology of very deep-seated human institutional experience, experience that rules our lives as humans of whatever sex and determines to a large extent how we relate to one another in groups throughout history.

Misogyny is defined, for the purposes of this post, as a systemic, overarching and deleterious characteristic of human relations. It divides us. It denies us. It obviously has consequences for all individuals. None of us can escape it’s reach. Women can even be as misogynistic as men (for reasons I will explore later). Men who resist misogyny have a tough go of it because it reaches into every pore or our cultures. It will not be ignored. Still, for humanity to enter a new phase of history, one not characterized by brutality and ignorance, misogyny will have to give way. In the next few thousand words, I explore why that’s the case.

From the time the animal became the human, women have been paying dearly for our flight from death and our longing for immortality. This idea is from Norman O. Brown’s Life Against Death, but it is repeated by other authors in various publications. It’s not often stated in these terms and some explanation of what Brown means here is necessary. Strangely, women are seldom included explicitly in analyses of the human condition and the statement by Brown above is unusual. For Brown, to be human means to be an animal that knows death in a way that no other animal does. Of course animals have a fear of death, that’s very easy to ascertain from simple observation, but animals, unlike humans, don’t make a fetish of it. If they face death as in a predator bearing down on them with intent to kill, they experience fear and flee. If they survive, it takes them very little time to go back to their routine life and the threat to their life is forgotten. Not us humans. No, we carry that fear around, relive it, dream about it, let our imaginations expand on its every detail and we, above all, need to explain it. So far, we haven’t done a great job explaining it. Instead, we’ve spent a great deal of our collective energy denying it, ‘it’ here meaning the death that inevitably catches up to each and every one of us and we’ve been very creative in our denials.

So, at the moment (maybe it took thousands of years) when our ancestors finally ‘became human’ and became self conscious, they realized that their wonderful tummies and the amazing sensations that they felt could not possibly come to an abrupt end. They faced danger on many fronts from predators, natural disasters, feuds and illnesses. They found their loved ones crushed by boulders during a landslide or drowned during a flood. Their bodies were obviously their weakness. They needed a way of transcending their main weakness, their bodies, to convince themselves that they, in fact, did not die although their bodies obviously did. Oh, their bodies might be toast, but not ‘them.’ So they set about creating any number of fantastical immortality-projects to convince themselves that even if their bodies rotted away that ‘they’ would not because they were not just their bodies, not even essentially their bodies, that they had within themselves an immaterial self that survived the end of their bodies. The anthropological literature is replete with descriptions of the incredible number and richness of ways in which peoples have imagined their immaterial selves. These imagined selves are the Yanomamo hekuru and our common variety soul. “Sure, body, you go ahead and rot. I’ll be around forever though. I don’t need you.”

So, what this leads to is essentially and inevitably the systematic cultural denial of the body. As Becker says in Escape From Evil, disease and death are the twin pillars of evil for us. Disease prevents us from enjoying life fully and death cuts it off permanently. Now, that’s no fun.

But what of women in all of this? Well, I’ll get to that in my next post. Suffice it to say here that a major part of our bodily lives is our sexual lives, procreative or not. For men who want to emphasize their immaterial, immortal selves, sex represents a big problem for them. It’s all about body, the great traitor to our immortality strivings. Men could eventually convince themselves that women were essentially body but that they were essentially soul. Now what are the consequences of that?