Just Another National “Moment”?

The latest revelations about Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, and a succession of men who occupy positions of power in all manner of fields send me back to the time about 25 years ago, a few months after our first child was born, when I was home watching the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings unfolding on TV as my baby son napped. I watched with horror as Anita Hill was vilified, minimized, and, of course, not believed by the roomful of men judging her worthiness to speak truth to their power. On top of it, the Congressmen implied Hill was responsible for bringing such unmentionable, crude matters as Long Dong Silver and pubic hairs in Coke cans into American living rooms, as if she was the one–not Clarence Thomas– who had been inflicting this pornography-inspired subject matter on the people he worked with. The Senators were killing the messenger, circling the wagons, and making sure that this ripple working its way into public consciousness would not make a real dent in the patriarchy.

It was obvious to me, and many others that Anita Hill was speaking the truth and did  so at her own peril only because, as an accomplished lawyer and law professor, she knew how high the stakes were when a man who behaved the way Clarence Thomas did could be nominated to a lifetime appointment in the nation’s highest court. You cannot reach adulthood as a woman in this country without having experienced, at the very least, sexual harassment at work, from professors, leering and groping men on subways and buses, and menacing neighbors, or at the neighborhood muffin store. Unfortunately, many women experience far worse than harassment and groping, in the form of assault and rape. But what I remember is that the takedown of Anita Hill was so effortless. The men in Congress didn’t lose any sleep over how they were treating her and what lengths they were going to in order to both discredit her but build up Thomas’s believability. And that included Joe Biden, who colluded with committee Republicans Arlen Spector and Orrin Hatch to quash several female witnesses who could have supported Hill’s allegations. The message that was transmitted so clearly was that Anita Hill was insignificant, a tiresome woman–there was a whispering campaign that she was probably a spurned lover!!– making a fuss about nothing–and, anyway, that nothing hadn’t happened in the first place, because the men said it didn’t. In all likelihood, they were living in glass houses and didn’t wish to throw stones at Clarence Thomas.

So the Hill/Thomas hearing was a national “moment,” and it didn’t amount to much. Little of what has been written in response to the current revelations of sexual violence and harassment address what is at the root of the behavior we’re discussing yet again: a patriarchal system that feminist writer Bell Hooks explains is like any system of domination. It relies on socializing men and women alike to believe that there are inferior and superior parties in all relationships. This patriarchal system requires boys and men to see themselves as superior to women and to do whatever is necessary to remain in control of women. Nothing will change until we reject the idea that patriarchy is somehow the natural order of things, part of human nature, and start talking about how we got to a place where, as Masha Gessen notes, the power imbalance allows some men to take women hostage using sex.

How can this be changed? Punishment will only deter a few. No, the change has to come from the roots and move forward. Hooks said that parenting is political, and she challenges us to be willing to change the way we raise our children because that is the only way to make real, long-term change. For many years when my boys were young I worried about how to raise them to respect and value women and not be afraid to show vulnerability–without at the same time putting those boys in the crosshairs of schoolyard bullies and adult shamers if they weren’t “manly” or “hard” enough. I had vivid childhood memories of elementary and middle school bullies beating up and taunting other boys, and no adults intervened. The issue became less academic and more real when our older son entered elementary school, at which point whatever we modeled as parents and however many times we read Ferdinand to him, we could not control or change how other children and adults reacted during the school day. If a boy is perceived as too “soft,” it will not go well for him. I remember worrying if the boys cried “too easily” and wondered what would happen if they did so at school. As a mother, I wanted to encourage my boys to fully express their feelings and to feel safe doing so, but I knew that if they did so in public, they’d be bullied and shamed. It seemed to me that mothers are forced to walk a fine line, nurturing their son’s so-called soft side, but not so much that they couldn’t “fit in” with other boys, and eventually, men.

Maybe things are better now than they were in the mid-1990s, but what I saw at my son’s elementary school was disquieting. I went on all his class trips from kindergarten through third grade because he might need an insulin shot while away from school and there was no one to do so on a trip, so  I had the opportunity to hear children taunting other kids on the bus, to hear kids who were only 8 years old telling others about sordid, sensationalist scenes from the Sallie Jessie Raphael TV talk show they’d watched, and one boy in particular called other boys a “faggot” many times inside the bus as well as shouting it out the window at random passersby. None of this elicited any response from the busily chatting teachers in the front of the bus. I’m sorry to say that at the time I was following the unwritten rule of never speaking out to someone else’s kid. That was something the teachers were supposed to do, but it never happened.  I can’t say the behavior I witnessed was the sole reason we decided to leave the public school and send our sons to a Quaker school, but it certainly played a part in the decision. Sure, Quaker schools have their own craziness to contend with, but it is the kind of crazy that at least errs on the side of making efforts to address the more awful things that go on between kids, especially in middle school, when parents and teachers tend to look the other way and say, “Let them sort it out themselves.” That’s fine if your kid is not the one being bullied and taunted.

In “The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love,” Hooks points out that how men are raised (and let’s not forget that women are heavily involved in how boys are raised) has a tremendous impact on the lives of both sexes. The patriarchal system demands of all males that they systematically kill off the emotional parts of themselves until they grow into men who are closed off, unable to understand their feelings, and eventually unable to feel at all. Men who are unable to examine their emotions, feelings, and anger are unable to feel any empathy or care about another person and that makes it easy to do what they want to them in the advancement of their own demands and needs. From a young age the patriarchy teaches men that it is their right–natural, in fact–to use  violence and aggression to get what they want–from women and men. A man should take what he wants; if he has to ignore boundaries to subjugate and win at all costs, that is his right. The woman across the desk or room is not an individual with needs and rights equal to his own, so he can act as  he wants to. And the inability to connect with others carries with it an inability to assume responsibility for causing them pain, Hooks points out. When I read the apologies most of the men in the news are writing–if they apologize at all, since Louis C.K. “acknowledged” that he had indeed forced women to watch him masturbate but he did not apologize. The wording of these apologies often states, “I apologize IF the women were injured, IF they feel they were hurt. If, if, if.  In other words, I’m so sorry IF I’ve offended you, others might not have been offended when I did the same thing.

If men are this cut off from their feelings, their ability to discern boundaries, to care about another person, how will they be available emotionally to their girlfriends, wives, and children–something the majority of women say they want from their husbands and lovers. Carl Jung said that where the will to power is paramount, love will be lacking. Men can’t dominate women and still truly love them, like them, or respect them.

Writing recently in Rolling Stone, Carina Chocano said that Harvey Weinstein’s pattern of behavior is emblematic of a patriarchal system that runs on power differentials. “It’s not just Weinstein, or Hollywood,” she notes. It’s corporate America, the legislature, everywhere you look, because it’s based on patriarchy: a system of oppression in action.    “Flexing power to coerce sex from the less powerful isn’t natural, it’s abuse,” Chocana says.  “And abuse is not natural, it’s cultural.” Abuse flows from a socially-sanctioned sense of entitlement that emanates from a patriarchal belief that men are entitled to more control over everything and all women.

Patriarchy has no gender, Hooks reminds us. Children come into the world with an ability to love and be loved, she says, but we shouldn’t assume that they do not need to learn how to love and receive guidance from adults in the ways to express love and respect others. Just because a boy might be raised by his mother, it doesn’t mean that a mother doesn’t have a patriarchal mindset. We women have absorbed the lessons of the patriarchy about masculinity and how it’s acted out, and as mothers we reinforce its dictums that to “be a man” or a “real man,” a boy or young man must not be soft and give in to his feelings. We tell boys not to cry, that it is better to be indifferent to their feelings and be strong and silent. But if you take that far enough, do it often enough, that boy/man will eventually not feel anything. And we’ll be having this same conversation in another 25 years.


5 thoughts on “Just Another National “Moment”?

  1. Wonderfully done and elegantly written! One of the “few” good things about the “chaos” in our news cycle is that the sexual harassment issue ( like the shootings of young african males issue) are coming from the shadows of our culture to the daylight in the media.

    On a personal note….I always hated the “faggot/Pussy” terminology. It was used among young men in my era from their own insecurities and seemed to be almost a “bridge” to being abrasive and disrespecting females.
    When I was 17 playing in an unlimited “age” ( men from 21 to 35) Summer Basketball League in Fort Green and Bed Stuy in Brooklyn….I always remember our coach would parcel out wisdom when he deemed it appropriate.
    He said….I forget the exact verbiage but it went like: “real men don’t talk like that. Respect yourself and others, stay focused in this game and in life”….his other favorite was: ” Fame is a vapor, Popularity an accident, and money takes wings….the only thing that endures is character” ….that one I remember verbatim.

    Sorry for the trip down memory lane….but THANK YOU for sharing your thoughts!

  2. I like your mention of Joe Biden. I think liberals are too willing to forget all the horrible compromises he’s made during his career.

    And I love the Bell Hooks quote, “Parenting is political.” If you can find the whole quote, please share it.

    I enjoyed your analysis of the “IF” phrasing used in the apologies of all these famous abusers. And now Matt Lauer has been added to the rogues gallery.

    Make sure you watch “Alias Grace”, a 6-episode original Netflix series. It is amazing how timely it is in light of the present sexual harassment scandal. And it is good! Adapted from a Margaret Atwood novel about a true event.

    Oh, and another AMAZING, AWESOME show that is TOTALLY in line with this blog post of yours is “The Handmaid’s Tale”, a Hulu original. You can get a free trial week from Hulu and watch the whole series. You won’t believe how good and scary it is. It’s ANOTHER Margaret Atwood book adaptation. I’m sure you’ve already read the book. I just reread it before watching the series, and I was surprised at how on top of feminism Atwood was in 1988 when it was written. This is an amazing time for Atwood! She was a major advisor for both shows and a new generation is reading her great novels!!

    • We watched the Handmaid’s Tale too and thought it was amazing. I read it back in the 80s not knowing how prescient it was! Pence is more frightening than trump in many ways! Also saw Alias Grace. I will send you the bell hooks info.

    • Talking of Anita Hills abuse at the hands of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Jane Mayer (with Rebecca Traister on Fresh Air yesterday) suggested that Biden didn’t want to be responsible for blocking a black supreme court justice. Would that we could have Thurgood Marshall back instead.

  3. When the flood of women coming forward first pushed upon the national scene, I thought that it felt like an older generational event, where we were in some purge, and in time we would move past this behavior. But working in high tech, I’m well aware that the systematic repression and abuse of women in the work place is still very much alive. And although my experience is that amongst the worker-bees, at least in the white-collar world, progress has been made, I don’t have the same sense that entitlement of men in power has substantially changed – even the young startup CEOs, same same. How does a subordinate hold men in power accountable, where with a word they can cast you to the ditch? How do we even have this discussion when our president is the gold standard for bad behavior? And the congressional glass-house boy’s club hasn’t evolved much since Anita Hill’s lynching (and agh, thank you for reminding me of Biden’s role in holding the rope, preventing the other women in the wings from testifying in support). I’d like to think that we won’t be having the same conversation in 25 years, but until ‘real men’ at the top are able to lead the male-mob mentality through the door to an equitable ground, it’s hard to image much progress being made. But I do think there’s a lot of great media material coming out on that is pushing the issues around – and heartening that much of that material was generated before all this, and now acts as a lens to intensify the dialog. Thanks Jackie, great post!

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