Friday, April 28, 2006

Emotional Discipline

At brunch today, we were discussing, in connection with the rise of sentimentality, the decline of passion and true romanticism. It seems to me that people are no longer willing to assume the emotional risk of deep romantic passion, that intoxicating distraction that comes with giving your heart completely to another. The danger undertaken here is the shattering loss suffered when that love is not returned, or when love returned is suddenly withdrawn.

The hardest task, however, is not just this level of emotional commitment, but the even deeper effort required to refuse to pass blame to the beloved when the relationship fails. To hate what you once loved is to hate a part of yourself, to cut a piece of yourself out and throw it away. In the United States, acrimonious divorces seem to be the rule; it seems much more common in England for couples to part on good terms. Much of this may be due to the litiginous tendencies in America. The urge to turn a profit on a failed relationship is too strong. But the lawyers who urge this course (or curse) upon their clients are doing them a profound disservice. Love makes two people one; to hate the one you love is to sin not only against them, but against yourself. Resisting this easy solution of passing the blame requires emotional discipline. That which does not kill me makes me stronger. But to turn your heart against your lover is to become less than you were. Pain is part of love. Take it like a man.

I have often been in the company of men who denigrate women--fortunately, not too seriously--as the architect of all their woes and heartbreaks. I like to point out to them that they chose to fall in love, knew the risks, and the risks were worth it. Women are not from Venus, they are not alien creatures, only the extraordinary power of men's emotions elevates them to the status of the arcane temptresses. Yet this skewed perception of women, usually mild and even comical in our own society, is held with rabid ferocity in the third world. The belief in the almost diabolical power of women to control men's emotions is countered by an attempt to strip them of all other power. In Guatemala, machismo reigns supreme, with rape squads chanting "death to bitches", and innocent teenage victims being butchered while the police paint these victims as whores. In the Middle East and India, daughters are saddled with the honour of their families, and are subjected to honour killings when they diverge in any way from their families expectations. Meanwhile, Muslim women are required to wear elaborately concealing garments, attacked if they refuse to wear them, and are instructed to kill themselves if they are raped. In all these cases, the atrocious behaviour of men is projected onto their victims. The men are maintained in a vicious, undisciplined, and perpetually infantile state.

A similar situation once existed amongst the Irish, where girls who became pregnant out of wedlock, or who were raped, were condemned to the Magdalene Convents. In North America, the Irish were once considered the lowest of the low; even during the period of slavery, when the Irish moved into a neighbourhood, the blacks moved out. The strongly misogynistic views of the Catholic Church played a large part in this, but in North America, the Catholic Church was a lesser power. This did not change until Irish women got fed up, became bread winners themselves, and laid down the law to the men. The men were forced to grow up. The empowerment of women civilized the men and pulled the Irish out of the slums. This did not happen in Ireland until the decline of the Catholic Church, making Ireland the new economic power house of Europe.

Lest this be viewed solely as a patriarchal plot to dominate women, it must be noted that while men fight physically, women fight socially. The Madonna/Whore vision of women is useful to women who are on top of the ladder, allowing them to establish a pecking order by denigrating other women. What they do not seem to realize in this situation is how quickly the tables can be turned on them. Being caught alone once with a single overenthusiastic suiter, even if he were not a brute, is enough to destroy a woman's reputation and cast her down into the gutter, a fall that other members of the society, both male and female, are only too eager to participate in. Victorian morality worked very well for Victoria, but not for many other women. This, by the way, was an aspect of what intellectuals despised and called bourgeois morality, now largely extinct, a far more vicious version of the mild social one-upmanship we now have in middle class society. In the late nineteenth century, when social mobility was possible but the social scale extended from the aristocracy down to disease infested slums, social standing could mean the difference between life and death, and mere association with those of poor reputation could have a profound affect on your prospects. The European bourgeoisie climbed over each other like rats fleeing a fire.

It is not that women in these societies have no power, but that they give it up too easily for short term, localized gains. The first step in getting someone to hand over their power is to convince them that they don't have it. Men may have the advantage of strength, but brute force will soon fail in civilized society. What has failed in all these cases is civilization itself, particularly the civilization of men. Religion plays a part in this, particularly when the religion is governed entirely by a male clergy with little experience of women. It is curious to hear clerics warn that a man cannot be expected to control himself when subjected to the sight of a beautiful woman. Such raw biological determinism, which reduces expectations of men to no more than slavering brutes, is quite incongruous coming from the very authorities who insist that humans are entirely separate from animals and akin to the angels. No neo-darwinian would ever stoop to so crude a claim.

Yet an equal part is played by the conditions of upbringing. If a boy has no experience of a male role model, he will take his role models from immature adolescent males. Male commitment to marriage helps, but this is only half the battle, and may not count for much in some circumstances. For that matter, the man need not even be the father. The man must be present and engaged in the day to day task of rearing the children. In cultures in which rearing the children is considered women's work, and a distant father merely trots out his children on holidays to boast, the father might as well be absent. The father as distant master of the house is another mere caricature to his children. I suspect that this is the situation which exists in many Muslim households headed by a wealthy man with a harem of wives. Osama bin Laden, for example, had no significant relationship with his father, and was largely raised by a brother not much older than himself.

Irshad Manji is exactly right--providing women in the third world with economic empowerment is the first step in transforming those societies. Men won't learn to take no for an answer unless they hear it often enough, and women won't be able to say no unless they have some mad money. If diamonds are a girls best friend, it is because women, who traditionally had little power of their own, could exchange diamonds (which they wore, and so could depart with at a moments notice) for safe passage, food, and shelter. Or, if women do decide to stay with their slacker men, let them wear the pants for while. In some Muslim African countries, the wife may be left alone at home while the husband heads off to the city to party and maybe pick up a dose of aids to share with her. The woman is not allowed to leave home without the escort of a male family member, which may mean she is not allowed to leave the house at all. There may be a room full of food which is locked, so that the women and children cannot eat what the husband intends to sell. So the wife and children are left to starve, without recourse. Give her the key to that room, rather than the husband. She is usually the one that grows and harvests it anyway.