14 August 2019

Patriarchal Systems, or, A Call for Confession and Repentance

Where I find myself today

Today I am tackling patriarchal systems. I've recently wrestled with patriarchal systems in a way that has been especially difficult for me, and other people involved have had difficulty understanding how toxic masculinity, sexism, and patriarchy are operating in these contexts.

So, in this instance, patriarchy refers to the religious, social, cultural, and political power nexus that has developed in order to maintain the dominance of straight, cis, white adult men and subjugate women, children, and people of color. Patriarchal systems are so deeply ingrained in our culture that they organize almost every aspect of our lives. In some cases, manifestations of patriarchy in these systems are quite obvious (think of a CEO denying the intelligence or aptitude of women, for example), which makes naming and opposing them at the surface level a relatively straightforward endeavor (relatively).

The more insidious manifestations of patriarchy that we face, however, operate at subtler level. The most difficult personal experience I have had naming and attempting to dismantle patriarchy was in a relatively progressive context, where individuals often protested loudly against such overt expressions of sexism as my generic example above. Much like with racism, and patriarchy and racism are so closely intertwined, people find it much easier to publicly denounce examples of overt discrimination and vitriol while tokenizing members of oppressed groups than to engage in careful self-examination that would require vulnerability and humility.

In these contexts, patriarchy has been ingrained into cultures and systems at a very deep level. Recognizing the ways that white male domination has suffused society with the tools of suppression and control requires that we as people be willing to recognize our own participation in these systems, confess this sin, accept that existing systems need to be transformed or replaced, and follow the leadership of people already doing that liberating work.

How does patriarchy work?

Patriarchy is a manifestation of toxic masculinity, asserting dominance and control over people, things, ideas, nature, and ideas through political systems. Socialization and cultural conditioning are essential for the continued success of patriarchal structures; patriarchal structures are a form of "power over" (see VeneKlasen and Miller, A New Weave of Power), and as such are both rigidly strong and also vulnerable and brittle in their inflexibility. Their strength comes from cultural norms that discourage the questioning of authority, normalize secrecy, establish unquestioned protocols, and inspire shame in those who do not conform; people living in these systems are given false, misleading, or flawed reasons for why the system operates as it does and are not permitted to seriously question the system. Patriarchal structures are often organized through hierarchies that offer false promises of reward and upward mobility to those who can successfully navigate them. At the root of the desire to dominate and control is a deep sense of entitlement; that the individuals deserve to exert their power over others, either inherently or through a self-constructed idea of "merit" that allows them to say that they have "earned" their positions of power.

In order to sustain themselves, Patriarchal systems also require representatives of oppressed groups to invest in their structures, often providing small rewards to tokenized individuals who successfully navigate them. As these individuals from marginalized groups gather up the crumbs dropped from the table of patriarchy, they act as a buffer between those who truly hold power and the marginalized people who challenge these systems.

Patriarchy that feels its own vulnerability relies heavily on theatrical demonstrations intended to discredit its critics. These theatrics make a show of highlighting the voices of people who might object to whatever matter is currently at hand. The system can then nod its head and say "I hear you" before paternalistically guiding the group over which it has power back to the system's original plans and goals. Leaders within patriarchal systems use a variety of tools to discredit dissenting voices in a way that makes their broader audience feel comfortable with the patriarchy, including Othering the dissenter, disparaging the dissenters concerns, rendering the dissenter absurd through accusations of exaggeration, offering to address the dissenter's concerns if they just "go along with it" for now, etc. (there is a music history lesson about the neutralization of politically subversive opera characters in here, but that may be a little too far down the rabbit hole)

When the astute observer objects to policies or practices that continue to exert dominance and control for the continued benefit of those who have always held power, they are pointed back to the exercise where a dissenting voice was showcased, and then reminded that the group decided to approve or implement or affirm the policy or practice in question. Fox News has used this tactic frequently, highlighting the voices of Democratic leaders and pundits, only to steer their audience back to a far-right understanding of the world, and wasn't that Democrat just so crazy for thinking differently and don't we know better than that?

When confronted or challenged, Patriarchal systems react violently in attempts to undermine, discredit, and expel perceived threats to the power structure. Dissenters may be gaslighted in an attempt to undermine their sense of self and degrade their confidence in their own lived experience. The challenger's credibility or competency may be called into question, often ignoring their years of training and experience. A perceived threat may be ostracized by the community, perhaps in the form of being removed from decision-making processes or being excluded from social events in the community. The goal of the system is to neutralize any possible check on its authority through physical, emotional, social, or spiritual force.

What now?

You, whoever you are, have without a doubt been a participant in these patriarchal systems; there is no way to avoid it. Hopefully, that fact makes you uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable. It threatens to paralyze me, it works within me to undermine my confidence in myself and causes me to feel as though I am not worthy of participating in the liberating justice work of identifying and opposing patriarchal systems. That is a lie.

I need to reframe the discomfort caused by confronting my complicity in oppression as a divine pull (or push?) to get up and do something. The Christian tradition of confession and repentance reframes this feeling for me; I feel called to confess my complicity in sinful oppression and to repent (as in, turn and change my behavior). I need to use my experience of being a part of oppressive systems to inform and motivate my opposition to them. I also need to join in with others who have already been doing this liberating work and follow their leading. I invite you to do the same.

Thank you

I would like to acknowledge and express gratitude for the people who have helped me better understand these systems and my role in them, as well as my power to oppose them and to follow the leadership of others. Some I have been in close relationships with, others are acquaintances, and others I have only encountered through their written works. At the front of my mind today are my partner, Allison, Renee Kanagy, and Melissa Florer-Bixler, but there are so many more. I have done a very poor job of keeping comprehensive documentation of where I picked up and developed all of the ideas and the understandings I outlined in this post, and for that I apologize. If you as a reader want to share more helpful resources or feel compelled to fill in the gaps with specifics, please do so.

One resource I want to highlight is Peaceful at Heart: Anabaptist Reflections on Healthy Masculinity, edited by Don Neufeld and Steve Thomas. Peaceful at Heart contains thoughts and reflections from a variety of Anabaptist Men that seek to contribute to the conversation around what men can do to confront toxic masculinity and how men can follow the lead of others in this work.

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