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 hekuruĀ 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?