Friday, 19 October 2012

An Evolving Masculinity

The spiritual evolution of what it means to be a man, is about the evolution of the psychology of being a man. This is no small feat. We are talking about billions of years of environmental conditioning. We are talking about thousands and thousands of years of social conditioning.

It's important to break the issue down into these two aspects because it makes it easier to understand the challenge of an evolved masculinity. In recent years, the whole notion of gender has been thrown into question. It has become accepted and also fashionable to view gender as largely a socially conditioned contingent influence on individual identity.

That is, the impact of gender biology on the human character is not a necessary feature of human identity as a whole. It has more to do with culture than it does biology.

However, it would seem things are not so simple. One might say that gender norms are socially conditioned, and therefore contingent. But it seems clear that brain structures and biological drives differ across the physical gender divide. What this new culture of awareness around gender exposes however, is the fact that the distinctions of psychology and biology are very subtle, and indeed they vary not just across gender biology distinctions, but within this context they also vary according the how a culture develops such distinctions, and how an individual distils these cultural ideas and behavioural blueprints.

The idea that we are coming down to some crude either-or, polarised nature/nurture debate about gender is very archaic. In fact, a framework of this kind seems very Patriarchal.

  1. Environmental Conditioning
One feature of Patriarchal thinking is that all things can be reduced to an either-or paradigm. Man or woman, good or bad, body or mind, your land or my land. Patriarchy is a paradigm of hard and fast distinctions, because it is a paradigm that grew out of an unevolved relationship between human and environment.

The most fundamental relationship is not between man and woman, the sisterhood and brotherhood of humanity. It is between human beings and their environment. It is the relationship of consciousness itself, to the world of matter. And the first glimmers of that consciousness and how primitive human cultures dealt with the phenomenon, determined the next forty thousands years of human culture as a whole.

With the birth of complex awareness, what we call consciousness, was the birth of the 'I' – the ego. With this comes humanity's banishment form the garden. The Eden myth could be said to be the symbolic retelling of humanity's growing awareness of its own distinctness from its ecological surroundings.

From this, we can trace the birth of the cultural ego. We can trace the development of our ideas of property, identity and even culture itself.

  1. Property – humanity's relationship to its environment evolved out of the relationship between consciousness and matter. Once we became complex enough organisms to even have a self-concept, the self by its nature, defined its own presence as distinct from the objects of its perception. That is, we evolved from the animalistic mentality of an instinctual relationship to our surroundings, to a more sophisticated problem-solving relationship with our environment. This is when you start to get the consciousness of being able to impact the environment through our considered will-power, the dynamic of thinking and strategising, and from that, executing a strategy. Survival became a sophisticated process, and the rational, problem-solving capacity marked the supremacy of the human mind over the animal mind. This experience of having impacted the environment through conscious will, I think, is the point at which ownership and property started to become a part of human culture. It's articulated almost perfectly by John Locke's idea that one owns an object when that object has come into contact with out labour. Of course, it is far from full-proof as theory, but it captures the basic intuitions at the heart of the idea of property.

  2. Identity – From this very same process, the development of an awareness of a distinction between the thinking being and the surrounding ecology, between ego and environment, you get the notion of identity. Identity is really just ego, the idea of being a separate unit, manifested in the world of action. Here is the birth of the idea of otherness, and perhaps more fundamentally, the dualistic paradigm that you could argue characterises western thought. In this psychological moment in evolution we find the birth of a whole host of problems, all of which can be reduced the notion of 'self as opposed to other.' The internal mind, as opposed to the exterior world. Man versus nature. Soul versus matter. Even right and wrong can be explained away in this notion, particularly if one accepts Nietzsche's point that right and wrong, good and bad, guilt and innocence, are themselves reducible to culture clashes. You don't have to accept Nietzsche's whole thesis to understand the influence of cultural contingencies on our ideas of morality. However far you choose to take it, it's not unthinkable post-Nietzsche, to entertain the idea that our ideas of morality come from the birth of 'self as opposed to other.'

  3. Culture – this really follows on from the issue of identity, it's just taken to a more global extreme. 'Self as opposed to other,' then, becomes 'Us versus Them.' Man versus nature, becomes the struggle of society to exists in the face of attack and natural disaster. Herein you find the whole dialogue of political philosophy, from Plato right through to Hobbes and onto Rawls. The relationship between the individual and society really gets reduced down to imperatives taken from the 'self as opposed to other,' paradigm. The argument usually running along the lines of – as individuals our lives are governed by fear and terror, but as a collective our lives have a better chance of resisting the impact of an unpredictable environment and a wrathful God.

How these points affect our idea of masculinity comes down to how we consider the relationship between human life and life as a whole. The next step in our cultural enlightenment is surely to understand humanity as an ecological concept. This will throw into question many of the assumptions inherent in this process of conscious distinction we developed between self and other. It will involve throwing out a fundamental dynamic of human consciousness that has determined our relationships since the birth of self-awareness itself.

  1. Social Conditioning

This leads us on to a vast area. It involves the anthropology of masculinity – how various cultures have tempered and harnessed the masculine drive. The masculine drive is really just the unequivocal desire to survive. It knows no gender distinction. I have mentioned it before, but Whitman captures it perfectly in Leaves of Grass. 'Always, always, the procreant urge.' It's beyond the basic idea of survival. It's about the constant biological imperative to maintain life. Life is not a virtue or a value. It's an imperative. It's not up for debate.

Now, how that imperative is manifested across gender distinctions is complex, and ultimately rather arbitrary, and this is where all the arguments about gender identity being contingent forms of conditioning, come into play.

Patriarchal conditioning created a distinction based on physical strength. It is really that simple. Broadly speaking, men had more muscle bulk than women. Therefore, the business of survival was divvied up according to that bulk. Men did the grafting – the hunting the building, the killing the agricultural work. Women did the nurturing, the mothering, the gathering and the strategising.

However innocent this arbitrary sharing of survival tasks was, it fed off the more fundamental 'self as opposed to other,' dynamic that we have already looked at.

How these survival tasks were shared may even have differed across cultures and tribes dramatically. Our cultures are contingent upon our environments. You could argue then, that the gender norms of our culture are dependent upon our relationship to our environment. The fundamental relationship between genders has everything to do with humanity's relationship to its environment.

The ultimate point I am trying to make here is that gender as a concept is both biological, but also contingent. It's an evolutionary concept. It's not a myth, but it's not an essentially defined notion either. The issue around gender then is not whether it is nature/nurture, essentialist or existential. It's a biological reality, but not a fixed reality.

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