Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Sons, lovers and destroyers: The myth of male privilege

In Sons and Lovers DH Lawrence captures the double bind of young men in an economic context. He also beautifully illustrates the politics of the traditional household, the divisions of labour between man and woman, and the gender-sectarianism that occurs as a result. Morel is a man whose sole purpose in life is to bring home the money. Mrs Morel lives vicariously through her children, she accepts responsibility reluctantly, especially with the Lawrentian dramatis persona – Paul. 

There is a wonderful description, and a perfect illustration of the alchemical and near shamanic genius of Lawrence, where Mrs Morel gravely confronts the reality of her duties to this new child. We get in the mind of young mother, the conflicts, the resentments even, and the terror of knowing she has brought a son into a world of men she despises. The writing uses the phenomenology of a disappearing sun at dusk, to illustrate the turmoil of a mother-son relationship in its earliest crystallisation. 

You know, even though the character is yet to be developed, that this exchange of sensitivities captured in the moment described will form the temperament of a young man, and will govern the nature of relationship between Paul and his mother. He is not the favourite, the eldest. But he is in her eyes, the most vulnerable, the most likely to suffer. Something of her own sense of grief, of her loss of class and freedom and the dissolving of her own personal romances has been transferred to the child.

'Mrs Morel looked down at him. She had dreaded this baby like a catastophe, because of her feeling for her husband. And now she felt strangely toward the infant. Her heart was heavy because of the child, almost as if it were unhealthy, or malformed. Yet it seemed quite well. But she noticed the peculiar knitting of the baby's brows, and the peculiar heaviness of its eyes, as if it were trying to understand something that as pain. She felt, when she looked at her child's dark brooding pupils, as if a burden were on her heart.'

In that moment is born an artistic sensitivity, a conflicted connection to the mother, one of hate and love, need and suffocation. It will come to define Paul's spirit, and his ambivalence towards women, his need for them and his distaste for intimacy.

Walter Morel, the father, embodies the pathetic irony of masculine privilege. Like most men of his generation and class he is fond of asserting his superiority, reminding the family of how hard he works, how much he sacrifices, feeling very sorry for himself and drinking away the self-loathing. He is only satisfied when he has soul grinding work to do, when his existence is consumed with toil.

The self-hatred that is so vital to his character finds a beautiful summary early in the book, when Morel is lying in self-pity and resentment following an outburst of violence directed at his wife.

'When Mrs Morel went upstairs towards four o'clock, to put on her Sunday dress, he was fast asleep. She would have felt sorry for him, if he had once said, 'wife I'm sorry.' But no; he insisted to himself it was her fault. And so he broke himself.'

Morel's sense of superiority is laughably captured by Lawrence, but also tragically exposed for its delusional destructiveness. As much as Morel tells himself that he is the man of the house, the fact is he plays somewhat of a servile role, alienated and mocked, silently resented and unloved. His sole sense of self is as a breadwinner, and his self-esteem is asserted through aggressiveness and buffoonery in equal measure.

'And Morel sitting there, quite alone, and having nothing to think about, would be feeling vaguely uncomfortable. His soul would reach out in its blind way to her and find her gone. He felt a sort of emptiness, almost like a vacuum in his soul. He was unsettled and restless. Soon he could not live in that atmosphere, and he affected his wife. Both felt an oppression on their breathing when they were left together for some time. Then he went to bed and she settled down to enjoy herself alone, working, thinking, living.'

The power games between man and wife erode the intimacy and shared support. Both sink into a need for self-esteem and meaning by investing only in their social roles, each of them becoming hollow in themselves, living to work, living to provide and quietly resenting those that they love.

Morel, the perfect embodiment of working class male bravado, gruff and sturdy, plain spoken with a physical authority, and at times a humour bordering on tenderness. However, he becomes ever more pathetic, ever more aware of his own place in the family as an outsider, a workhorse denied a share in the remaining warmth of the family relationship. His self-affirming narrative is that of all men of his class and time – he is the man, the breadwinner and as a result the head of the household. In reality he is pathetic, spiritually wounded, and imprisoned in his ridiculousness by the strength of his pride. 

A number of things need to be done away with in the current orthodoxy, the orthodoxy that we have been subjected to as a result of grossly exaggerated feminist norms. The first of these is that men and women are essentially the same. That there is no distinction between the two genders, that gender itself is 'just' a social construct. 

The roots of this idea are understandable enough. The pressures suffered by women have their origins in the idea of distinctiveness. Men must work, and women must mother. This distinction became politicised, as it often does, and when it came to challenging the orthodoxy, the very movement to challenge it was itself politicised as a result.

It's worth looking at that. The new politics of gender has its roots in a dubious imperial politics. It is common now to talk of male privilege, as if all men, across the board, are necessarily at a political advantage to women. The very foundations of patriarchy theory are this assumption. In the given context of the prevailing social reality, men are advantaged, and women have an uphill struggle. This is just how it works.

This is nothing more than over-simplistic drivel when it's examined. The existence of transgressive masculinity should be enough to demonstrate that the traditional feminist concept of male privilege is not something has a factual correspondence. Certain men yes. And certainly in traditional 'patriarchal' societies, masculinity was almost always a necessary requirement.

Where we have to start breaking down this orthodoxy, however, is in its assumption that being a man is somehow a sufficient characteristic to warrant acceptance into the elite. You only have to consider how many men died in the name of another man's ideal, or how many generations of men slaved and maimed themselves and perished in dark hovels with black lungs to support the energy demands of an imperial society, to realise that having a penis was by no means a guarantee of privilege.

So where does this idea of male superiority come from? Actually, the ironic thing here is that it originated in a male narrative constructed to soften the blow of a class limitation. In order for these men, who in reality belonged to the bottom crust of society, to feel better about themselves they had to construct an idea of their own privilege.

The same can be said of racism. In fact, Bob Dylan's song 'Only A Pawn In their Game' is one of the few penetrating insights into this phenomenon. The song tells the now well-known story of the death of civil rights activist Medger Evers in 1963. The thrust of of the song, puts the death of this man in its social context, illustrating the fact that whoever killed Evers had been poisoned by a culture that played on false notions of racial class and superiority. The social superstructure of this idea of privilege is one that seeks to quell dissent through dividing the population against itself. If the poor white man hates the blacks, he will not hate the government. So hatred and political divisiveness, in a perverse irony, maintains social peace. The most resonant line of the song is: '..you got more than the blacks don't complain.'

It is common to analyse the gender relationship as being one of social class A (men) oppressing social class B (women). This is a nonsense, of course but has now become an accepted truth even among male thinkers, who use the language of patriarchy theory to describe their own position. All aspects of this cultural myth point only to one thing – that men are inherently dysfunctional, desiring the oppression of women for its own sake. As with all crude 'conflict theory' interpretations, they rest on the false logic of essential evil. Not all men are the same, the line goes, but men are bred to oppress women, one way or another. Our culture is essentially misogynistic  and to deny it is simply proof that it is so. (Great argument that one.)

However, the simplistic class oppression analysis doesn't work. There are just too many examples of men subjugated in the name of their own liberation to give such a moronic and actually damaging rationalisation any credit.

What we can accept, however, is that the illusion of male privilege was indeed a very powerful and useful political tool. It was, as with all notions of privilege, a way of brainwashing a servile class into accepting their servility. Like the whites of the American south, the idea that a man might have some superiority over women, gave him a narrative by which he could embrace his social and cultural chains, and even see those chains as signs of his power and his freedom.

Common to all imperial strategies is the creation of a social class of oppressed people that are ever so slightly above the rest. The truth of the matter however, is that that very class tends to be as oppressed, if not more, as the rest of its occupied brothers and sisters.

The same crude 'essentialism' that acts as the fuel of this delusional class distinction of false privilege, has now been reversed. Instead of men being the superior class, it is now women. The mark of a failed revolution is almost always the moment when the deposed class is replaced by another ruling class, a class that uses that revolution to reinforce the slavery, servility and obedience of the same class of people that were oppressed in the first place. That is what has happened with the feminist revolution. It has failed because it has been usurped by a class of slaves seeking to become slave masters.

You may object, but take a look around. The language of essentialism is everywhere in pop culture. Women are no different from men in what they can achieve. But men are essentially violent, essentially prone to oppressive and destructive tendencies. I know that you will object very strongly on this, but your argument comes down to nothing more than 'not all x's are like that.' It's not an argument. It's an evasion of the point. Just listen to any Beyonce song from the last ten years and you will see how much the language of essentialism and privilege has seeped into our immediate and popular culture.

So the political foundations of the idea that the gender distinction is a 'cultural construct' come from the politics of divisiveness that acted as the foundation of imperial socialisation. The overemphasis on gender distinctions to support the false self-fulfilling narrative of male superiority, have been reacted to with the same level of political and chauvinistic emotional charge. On the one hand, men and women are the same. There is nothing that a man can do that a woman can't do. However at the same time, men are essentially dysfunctional.

It's not my argument that's conflicted here. 

The language of essentialism always leads to confusion, contradiction, and hypocrisy. It did under patriarchal culture, and it does now in post-feminist culture. The reason for this is that it is the very same social dynamic, just in reverse. It's not a revolution but a coup d'etat. The culture of imperialism by another name, founded on the same mythology of social privilege and class distinction. 

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