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Yes, the news is full of many disturbing things. But what has me thinking this week is the issue of how women are perceived and treated within our various societies. From gang rapes in India to honor killings in Pakistan to workplace double standards and sexual harassment to insulting and offensive remarks by Presidential candidates, one has to ask: from what point of view, using what modes of logic, do such attitudes and notions hostile to women derive?
First, let me state that I am a guy. From early childhood, women have fascinated me. Several have become of my closest friends. I admit that I do not have clear insight into the subjective experience of being a woman, as opposed to being a male. But, I do recognize that there is a difference. And science would seem to concur. Male/female differences show up in brain comparisons using a number of different evaluative techniques, from functional MRI scans to physical dissections to chemical assays. By my experience, women perceive and evaluate things differently than guys do. Not totally different, but subtly different. Sometimes in more colors of emotion. Sometimes in more harshly defined analytical terms. Scents seem more vivid and important to women. Guys seem more acutely aware of the visual. Again, science has observed such differences too. I’ve always taken those differences in point of view to be valuable and insightful, helping me to tune and more finely focus my own sensibilities. But not all guys appreciate women in that way. In fact, many perceive “womanish” differences to be inconsequential and irrelevant. And, some men perceive a woman’s differing point of view to be a threat to their own self-esteem and/or personal power. Either way, one has to conclude that for many men, closed minded irrational emotions provide significant foundation for their attitudes toward women. Which is ironic, given that men often accuse women of being overly emotional and irrational.
There would also seem to be a biological basis for men seeing and treating women differently than they treat other men. Women are the source of both sons and daughters. It is perhaps on that basis that women have been treated as possessions, as chattel. Controlling who women mate with helps to control the genetic purity of local clans, tribes, and ethnic groupings. In war, women are often seen as fountainhead for more enemy soldiers, a fountainhead that must be destroyed or, at least, significantly spoiled and polluted, as in rape. The focus of both demeaning controlling efforts would seem to be an attempt to control the prevalence of both “good” and “bad” blood. In other words, good and bad genes, as if genes alone were destiny.
One wonders if there would be any significant difference in such demeaning and controlling practices toward women if women were given more choice in the matter. It isn’t always men who carry out honor killings, you know. Mothers do too. And it is certainly women exercising their preferences when they choose birth control and abortion. The weeding out of bad genes from good would seem to be of equal concern for both sexes.
But, it isn’t just irrational emotions and biological imperatives that provide foundation for the way women are treated. Culture plays a role too. Think of culture as the stories we tell each other as to what is right and wrong, good and bad, desirable and not. Such stories are acted out on a daily basis by all the people around us, both within art and media and without. Those stories define pathways for us to follow. And for the most part, we do. We almost cannot help it. We might imagine a different pathway for ourselves, but actually meeting someone on the other end of that pathway just won’t happen unless there is at least some correspondence to customary expectations. With no meeting and pairing, our genes will die out, be they good genes or bad.
Culture is hard to change, though. Only with both sexes cooperating in the development of new cultural stories for each sex to follow will the current embarrassingly unsavory way women are treated within many of our societies change to something more equal, healthful, and mutually fulfilling.
Try writing a new story for how men and women could behave and treat each other. Then put it out there and see if it takes hold. The status quo is certainly not working for everyone. Maybe your ideas will help.
Friday, June 29th, 2012