Gentlemen, Patriarchy is Your Problem, Too
What I really mean to say is...
My partner and I were at a storytelling event at a local coffee shop a couple of years ago when a woman made a comment that has resonated deeply with me. She proposed that the skills that she developed to survive her family of origin were the very thing keeping her from intimacy as an adult. What was needed to survive a challenging and critical season (childhood) turned out to be her primary hindrance in life as an adult.
I've wondered how her sentiment applies to the story of humanity. It seems that much of what was (perhaps) needed for us to survive the Stone Age is now the primary source of suffering in our lives. War. Excess consumption. Xenophobia. And the patriarchy.
And while it's clear to many (who choose to explore it) that sexism and misogyny have devastating costs to women, it's important that we don't mischaracterize patriarchy as a "women's issue." Because it turns out that while the patriarchy's commodification and objectification of women is incredibly effective at granting men dramatic cultural, relational, and financial privileges, it exacts a horrific toll on the souls of all of us; women, people outside the gender binary, and the very men that counted (consciously or not) on sexism and misogyny to bolster them in life.
The Patriarchy's Demands on Men
Men who feel (consciously or not) that protecting the status-quo is ultimately in their own best interest have bought into a compelling lie. The benefits of participating is a sexist world loom large for men: easy access to dignity, respect, power, money, and authority. But the price that gets paid is dramatic.
Toni Morrison memorably described white supremacy's effect on white people as a distortion of the psyche, "a huge waste... a corruption... like a profound neurosis." Her words have haunted me ever since I came across them, and I suspect they apply well to all systems of oppression, including patriarchy. The misogyny that patriarchy demands from men is a sickness of the soul, and its effects are disfiguring.
My Liberation is Bound up with Theirs
Early on I struggled to articulate my stake in dismantling patriarchal systems. Women and nonbinary people were very rightfully skeptical of my presence, wanting to double check my motives. I felt shy referencing the overused quote from Murri (Indigenous Australian) activist Lilla Watson:
At the time, I had no words to articulate how my liberation was bound up with theirs, only a gut feeling. But the deeper I have gone into the work of deconstructing my role in oppressing others the more central and true this idea has become to me.
Patriarchy isn't a theory. It's a measurable force that has claimed the lives of north of 100 million women from our generation. It is objectively measurable in any way we can conceive; income, mental health, representation in governing bodies. It is a profound and invisible system that shapes almost all human lives on our planet.
In the same way that mosquitos can only exist due to the anesthetic they numb your skin with before sucking blood, all systems of oppression require a profound lack of awareness and attentiveness in order to be transmitted from one generation to the next. One of the central ways the patriarchy impacts all of us is that it disconnects us from reality. It demands ongoing willful ignorance. It enacts Toni Morrison's "distortion" and "corruption." It seduces us with the illusion of oppression as "common sense." Patriarchy justifies its warping of human lives with the explanation that men simply are one way, women simply are another (and everyone is male or female). It's the tautology that women are weak because women are weak, men are powerful because men are powerful. It short circuits investigation, experimentation, and authenticity.
I want to be extremely clear that I am not proposing that the patriarchy is equally harmful to men as it is to women and nonbinary people. There is no question that in matters of power, wealth, suffering, and all things related to justice, undoing patriarchy looks exclusively like dismantling male oppression in order that women and nonbinary people possess equal authority and dignity and humanity.
But what I have come to understand from listening to the voices of wise women and hard-working feminist thinkers is that this system of misogyny and violence towards women requires equal distortions of the soul for everyone involved. And like an unholy deal with the devil in a primal fairy tale, men absolutely lose a vital part of their soul in their Faustian bargain with patriarchy; immediate access to wealth and prestige and power in exchange for a warped humanity, stunted emotional life, and truncated intimacy in all of their relationships.
Women and nonbinary people, of course, bear equally horrific distortions of their core selves as men under patriarchy, in addition to the massive real-world tangible ways power and dignity are siphoned out of their lives and into the lives of men. But there's no question that dismantling the patriarchy is anything but an act of "noble charity" for men who choose to confront misogyny. Facing the ways patriarchy robs others and themselves of humanity is a vital step forward for any man who is committed to being alive and human and whole.
This is a Male Problem
Patriarchy warps the lives of all people. But the guilt of perpetuating it and the responsibility to dismantle it lies squarely at the feet of men.
The paradox is that men who want to identify as feminists as a way to ennoble themselves by helping "vulnerable" women are doomed to stay locked into the patriarchal system. The way forward instead lies in a tricky inversion; Men listening to the voices and lives of women and nonbinary people with humility and grief on behalf of the stewardship of their own soul. Men placing women's experiences and insight above their own on behalf of their deep longing to have more authentic experiences and insight themselves. Men committed to unraveling the horror of rape culture and domestic violence and street harassment as an act of just and humble penance rather than heroic nobility.
But, in another light, maybe it's not such a paradox. The cost to men for numbing themselves to other's feelings, experiences, and wisdom is a disconnect from their own feelings, experiences, and wisdom. The path towards living a three-dimensional and meaningful life is deeply linked towards valuing others as three-dimensional and complete human beings who's lives and experiences are meaningful and valuable.
Tucker FitzGerald is a father, partner, graphic designer, and student of social justice wisdom. He lives in Seattle.