Warren Farrell - Power and Powerlessness
September 24, 2008 14:08

Does Feminism Discriminate Against Men?  Part 3.  Power and Powerlessness.
Warren Farrell and Ken Wilber

Written by Corey W. deVos

In the third installment of this provocative conversation, Warren Farrell and Ken Wilber explore the nature of power and powerlessness as experienced by both men and women, discussing why it is that one gender’s power does not necessarily translate to the other gender’s oppression.

Power and powerlessness both lay at the heart of our ongoing cultural discussion of equality among the sexes.  Too often we perceive this as a somewhat binary distinction—one group as the oppressor, the other as the oppressed—and thus one gender's power tends to be equated with another group's powerlessness.  Typical of this line of thought is the claim that men have held the majority of the power for millennia, which has made women powerless by default.   However, this oversimplification of sex and gender can be counterproductive in many important ways.  As Ken Wilber has pointed out, the only way a group can become oppressed is if it is fewer, dumber, or weaker than another, three qualities that could not possibly be meaningfully applied to women as a whole.  By the same logic, considering women to have been at the brunt end of oppression for all these years is actually both insulting and demeaning to the female gender.  While there are certainly many genuine cases of both men and women being violently oppressed throughout history, we must avoid the temptation to think of either gender’s history as merely one of oppression.  History is not a story of men oppressing women for thousands of years, and then collectively waking up to the folly of our ways.  Men and women were both being oppressed—by each other, and more importantly, by the challenge of survival in a mysterious and hostile world.

In order to get a full grasp of this complex and fairly volatile issue, we must consider two different types of power and powerlessness, one type belonging to men, and the other to women.  Since the very first waves of feminism, women began comparing their public roles to those belonging to men, and began to perceive a very real imbalance of opportunities for women to excel in the workplace.  This, many people claimed, was testament to the outright disempowerment of women everywhere.  A man's success was viewed as the only power that carried any real currency in society, and so a movement was born—or rather multiple movements, each building upon the triumphs and trappings of the last.  Women's liberation allowed women to suddenly move into the workplace, more than ever before in history, and is now viewed as one of the most remarkable victories of the human spirit.  Together, men and women began to view the public sphere as the arena of power itself, where all the gaps between oppressor and oppressed ultimately dwell, and the only place where they can be resolved.  And in so doing, the "invisible power" of women was often devalued, if acknowledged at all. 

However, once women began moving en masse into positions of social authority, many began to realize that men’s ostensible “success” in the public sphere was not necessarily a product of male power, but rather of male powerlessness—one of few options available to the highly disposable roles society offers to men.  These roles often require a considerable sacrifice of time, energy, and happiness, as well as frequent abandonment of interest in things like music, poetry, dance, and other artistic expressions.  Such material success often requires men to cut themselves off from all the qualities that are commonly associated with female power—namely love, connection, and compassion—and often replace them with the sort of hyper-masculine pathologies perceived as necessary to ensure financial prosperity, such as callousness, ruthlessness, and a tendency toward avarice.  These traits started to define success for a great many people, traits that were in actuality a portent of how little power men really had.

When trying to weigh the distribution of power between men and women, Warren suggests a very interesting metric: life expectancy.  For example, we can point to the significantly lower life expectancies among African Americans when compared to Caucasians as a valid measure of disempowerment—it could be surmised that because African Americans tend to have notably less societal power on average than Caucasians, they are subject to more stress and hardship throughout a lifetime, leading to more exhaustion, illness, and thus reduced life-spans.  But the fact that men of all races can expect considerably shorter life-spans than women is not often regarded as symptomatic of this same sort of power imbalance, despite the fact that there appears to be no real biological reason why this should be the case.  Of course it is entirely too simplistic to say that, since women tend to live longer lives, they therefore have more power—but we might be able to infer that, of the power men and women do already have, women's power may be more healthfully wielded. 

Just as we might look to life expectancy as a measure of male vs. female power, we might also consider suicide rates as an indicator of overall powerlessness.  Here too we find a tremendous imbalance between male suicide rates and female suicide rates, which predict that adolescent men are as much as four times more likely to kill themselves as women—and the ratio only becomes greater with age, with elderly men being more than one thousand percent more likely to commit suicide than women of the same age.  Just as a woman's power can be characterized as being "invisible" and therefore all-too-easy to overlook, men's powerlessness has become invisible to the majority of society, even while it is being confused for his power.  Again, it would be simplistic as to think that, since men kill themselves more often than women, they are more powerless than women.  But perhaps we can suggest that the lack of recognition of this powerlessness is what causes so many males to prematurely end their own lives.  The case could be made that the expectations for males to conform to the rigidly defined societal pressures of sexuality, success, and service are much greater than they are for females—which is certainly not to say that women do not have their own sets of societal pressures bearing down upon them from all angles, pressures which themselves directly impact a woman’s identity—but they tend to carry different sorts of consequence in the public sphere.

As Warren poignantly states, the weakness of men is the facade of strength, while the strength of women is the facade of weakness.  The goal, obviously, is to thoroughly understand both power and powerlessness as they relate to men and women, thus enabling both sexes to move beyond the often-constricting roles we have created for ourselves.  Some may consider it odd or disingenuous to have two men like Warren and Ken discussing women's issues as they do in this dialogue.  It is not unusual in academia to believe that only women should deal with women's issues, and only men with men's issues, as neither can speak to the experience of the other.  These rules of engagement have only reinforced the enormous divide between us, and it is only through self-awareness and inter-gender dialogue that we will strengthen our ability to honor and cultivate the brilliance inherent within both genders.  The fact remains that both men and women are in this mess together—we created this mess together, step-by-stumbling-step, all throughout history—and therefore such identity politics have no place in this conversation.  There can be no real progress for women without men's own progress taking place right alongside, just as there can be no real progress for men without honoring and deepening the many victories women have created for themselves in recent decades.  We are defined only in relation to each other.  Only together are we whole, completing the most sacred circuit the universe has ever known—a circuit through which life continues to proliferate, consciousness continues to amplify, and history continues to whisper its secrets to future generations.


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