Thursday, May 13, 2010

Patriarchy vs. sexism.

Patriarchy is, according to a certain contingent of Internet feminism, everywhere. It's like midichlorians; it's in the air and in every word we speak and it dwells within every human heart. You get up in the morning in a patriarchy bed and brush your teeth with patriarchy, then put on some patriarchy and head out the door to patriarch all day. And you can do all this without even knowing it.

Whereas sexism is a thing. Sexism is a specific action or attitude that people can have in different degrees. Maybe everyone's a little sexist sometimes, but the amount of sexism differs tremendously from "sometimes thinks unfair things but tries to correct self" to "women exist to destroy men." Sexism is detectable, it's variable, and it can be reduced.

Take the manager who sees his female subordinates as eye candy and potential sexual conquests, and manages his department accordingly. According to the theory of patriarchy, this guy is a product of the society that created him, and his attitude isn't particularly surprising. According to the sexism interpretation, this guy is a dickhole.

More importantly, under the patriarchy interpretation, there's not much that can be done about the guy. He's just behaving like every guy under the system, more or less, maybe he's just a little more open about it. You could stop working for him I guess, but it wouldn't do you much good, you'd still be living under patriarchy either way. Whereas if you see him as sexist, you can go to HR and ask them to smack his ass down, and they very likely will. Or if they don't, you can stop working for him and work for someone who really is more respectful.

The problem with "patriarchy is like air," is, well, what the fuck can you do about air? You can't stop the air. Whereas sexism--sexism is like bacteria. There's always a certain baseline level everywhere, but some things are just infected, and here and now, with the tools we already have, we can Lysol those fuckers.


  1. There's this patriarchy-culture meme floating around, nowadays, that seems to say, "All men have the potential to be rapists." Which just...ok, yes, in the sense that all men are sentient, all men have the potential to be rapists, yes. But I hate this interpretation so much! It seems like it normalizes rape! "He didn't know any better. He's a man. That's what all men do: ignore women's boundaries."

    ...No. He didn't do it because he's a man. He did it because he's an ASSHOLE. There's actually a difference.


  2. amen, lysol those fuckers, lol

  3. The thing that bugs me most about all the patriarchy/privilege buzzwording is that by applying the rhetoric of oppression to every instance of a person being born with an advantage, you severely damage the value of that rhetoric in public discourse.

    We have a President who, for better or worse, is a believer in many socialist principles. But decades of the right tarring everybody they disagreed with as socialists have turned that word into little more than a big eyeroll trigger. The left did the same with "fascist". And so many people have invoked the Nazis over every political disagreement that we have a formalized understanding that Hitler comparisons end a discussion; the greatest cautionary tale in modern history can barely be discussed because of all the wolf crying. I'd argue that the current trend of calling any opponent of the President's policies a racist is doing the same thing for that word.

    And this sucks, because there really _is_ racism in our country. Real, abusive, violent racism. And every time somebody angrily shouts down a "racist" for opposing big government entitlement programs, it takes away a bit more of the word's power and makes it that much harder to pick out the legitimate complaints from the noise.

    I get exactly the same thing from "patriarchy". The word's used so often to try to elevate abstract social biases to the level of coverture that I have to struggle to take seriously any person who trots it out. In a world where women sometimes face severe compulsory restrictions on their rights and choices, it's probably not a great idea to blow your ammo on cultural issues that may _influence_ people without _controlling_ them.

  4. Yeah, if you're going to drag out a useful term and try to use it to explain everything, at least drag one out that's up to date, like kyriarchy. That at least has a legit claim to describing the whole pile of ugly.

    I don't think this is specifically connected to feminist discourse, just to the general trend toward polarization in American politics (which, sadly, also tends to drive political debate the internet over) and the perception that any hint of compromise, flexibility or gradualism is treason, wrong, bad, and probably fattening.

  5. Elmo - Yeah. When people make arguments about "racism isn't just burning crosses," you know, that's very true, but people still burn crosses and I think we need to acknowledge that that's a little worse than someone who sometimes has a couple racist thoughts sometimes. Without setting up hierarchies of badness, and setting a lower threshold below which badness is mostly harmless, it's very hard to combat the worst badness. You also end up in a situation where the world sounds really awful and hopeless--"choose between poverty and spiritual death," anyone?--and I don't think that's true or helpful.

    Anon - Oh god, no, kyriarchy is even worse for the "it's everywhere and in everything, so you might as well fucking shoot yourself" factor. I like problems that I have some hope of seeing and fixing, not ones that flow invisibly through the world and permeate every blade of grass and drop of dew.

    I agree though about gradualism. Trying for world that's kinda racist but people are trying and overt discrimination is unacceptable is a whole lot better than saying "everyone is racist, don't think that just because you treat other races nicely you're not racist!" Because, yes, still racist in some vague subconscious ways, but that "treat other races nicely" caveat? REALLY FUCKING IMPORTANT.

  6. Without setting up hierarchies of badness, and setting a lower threshold below which badness is mostly harmless, it's very hard to combat the worst badness.

    I'd even take it a step further: even when dealing with non-harmless "-ism", it's still important to recognize _how_ harmful it is, and tailor your response appropriately.

    As a gun owner in New Jersey, I face some pretty serious burdens to my Constitutional rights. And the attitude that's lead to those burdens has a lot in common with bigotry (some gunnies do call it that). But if I come out swinging, insisting that anti-gun advocates are no better than Klansmen, I'll hurt my message for a lot of people who might otherwise have sympathized with me. The laws are harmful and burdensome, and have to change, but it's nowhere near the same level as worrying that anti-gunners in white sheets will show up to lynch my family.

    As a lifestyle polyamorist, my family doesn't have the legal protection that a monogamous family does. We don't even have the social recognition a gay family has; a liberal hospital that wouldn't dream of turning away a man's husband might very well refuse to admit one of my spouses. This is harmful and unfair, and needs to change eventually, but nobody's prosecuting us for adultery. We can mostly go about our daily lives living openly as a family. Bring out the rhetoric of oppression with that one,and again it does more harm than good for my goals.

    It's like putting a Hitler-stache on a bad President. Sure, them politics is srs bsns. But you ain't winning any converts that way.

  7. Simply: if you see something that needs changing below the "dogs and fire hoses" level of oppression, you need to choose between [a satisfying, indignant spleen-vent about the unfairness of it all] and [making some progress toward changing it]. You can rarely have both at the same time.

  8. Holly: No, I was semi-agreeing with you re: kyriarchy. I'm just saying that even for people doing what they're doing the Fasterites are well behind the curve.

    The "Oh god, it's everywhere, you might as well shoot yourself" factor is an interpretation - granted, it's a very prevalent interpretation, but it can be useful, if only as a vague category.

    But it's not very useful as a label. It's not without gradations and nuance. For me, the divide is like this: you can call attitudes and ideologies patriarchal or kyriarchal, but behavior is plain old racist, sexist, classist, etc. And if you change the bounds of accepted behavior, you can influence attitude and ideology.

    Gender theory is very often alchemical, not in that it's wrong, but in that it's groping towards later, more systematic, more rigorous methods we can only imagine right now. Use and abuse of outsize blanket terms is just part of the growing process. I think it's important to have the terms, but I share your trepidation about letting febrile idiots like Twisty Faster play with them, because for them it's all about reaffirming that They're Better Feminists Than Everybody Else, and so playing up the 'Shoot Yourself Factor' is a cheap way of aligning themselves as more committed than anyone else.

    I don't like to bring questions of moral or ideological purity into race and gender studies because it's useless and reduces genuinely important work to the level of in-group maneuvering that privileges whoever can yell and scream and poutrage the loudest over people who know activism, who know public policy, and can actually get shit done.

    Wow, that was long. I hope it was actually helpful to you rather than irritating.

  9. Patriarchy means sexism institutionalized, that sexism has a structural component. It emphasizes the fact that the problem is more than just some individuals choosing to be assholes.

    I wouldn't deny that it's a problematic concept in a number of ways - it has become vague and rather amorphous, and can easily lead to circular logic - but it's also useful. It's a structural theory, and structural theories always break down at the individual level. But on the macro level they have a lot of explanatory power.

    Personally, I think of sexism (and racism, and ablism, etc) less as something that one has, and more as something that one does (or says or thinks). No one is condemned to being "a sexist", but we're all capable of doing some sexist shit.

    I don't think "patriarchy" and "sexism" are exclusive. Patriarchy encourages, facilitates, and excuses sexism.

    The trick is to integrate the concept of "patriarchy" with an understanding of individual agency. Which I think a lot of feminists today can do successfully. The patriarchy is the context in which we act - it stuctures our behaviour and imparts certain meanings onto it. For example, patriarchy is why a woman who has casual sex is a "slut" and a guy who acts the same way is a "player" (do people still use that word?). Patriarchy is the nuclear family, which structures peoples life choices by making domestic labour and childcare solely the responsibility of the parents, eating up their time and confing them to the private sphere, instead of spreading such work across the extended family or broader community. Patriarchy is the law not recognizing marital rape.

    Note that these are all things that can be changed.

    The patriarchy structures our behaviour, by defining the paths of least resistance. But it is not determinative. We act within the patriarchy, but we can still decide whether or not to do sexist shit.

  10. ...aaaand Marissa just put it all together much more elegantly than me. Thanks!

  11. I think that saying we live in a "patriarchy" is a little like saying we live in a "police state." I.e., it could be true to say that some elements of a police state exist in our current society. It's sometimes possible for cops to shoot an innocent person with no repercussions, and cops can stop whoever they want, based on their own subjective judgment of who looks suspicious, & ask them a bunch of intrusive question. So a person might rightly point out there there are some instances where the police seem to have unchecked power. But on the other hand, the U.S. isn't remotely the same as a country where police can do whatever they want with no external checks. You'd have to be crazy to say that because the police can pull you over and give you an unfair ticket, police power is everywhere. So it is with "patriarchy." It can be useful to analyze some aspects of our society using that concept. But current first-world culture isn't anything like an unreconstructed patriarchy, a la the Bible, where God makes all the decisions and the oldest male around owns all his wives, children, & female relations. Women have of rights & protections under the law, that's just an empirical fact.

  12. Anon:

    "He didn't know any better. He's a man. That's what all men do: ignore women's boundaries."

    That's not what that meme actually says, though.

    He didn't do it because he's a man. He did it because he's an ASSHOLE. There's actually a difference.

    The "potential rapist" meme is about the fact that one can't reliably tell who's an asshole and who isn't, and it's not reasonable to expect someone to just *know* you're one of the good guys.