Saturday, January 06, 2007

Robert Jensen's faulty template

Here's a story with a happy ending. Back in October a professor of journalism by the name of Robert Jensen wrote a column for the San Francisco Chronicle attacking masculinity:

We need to get rid of the whole idea of masculinity. It's time to abandon the claim that there are certain psychological or social traits that inherently come with being biologically male. If we can get past that, we have a chance to create a better world for men and women ...

Of course, if we are going to jettison masculinity, we have to scrap femininity along with it. We have to stop trying to define what men and women are going to be in the world based on extrapolations from physical sex differences.

Why would Robert Jensen take such an attitude? Jensen claims that in his twenties he was an apolitical journalist:

Then I went to graduate school and studied, among other things, feminism. And feminism politicized me ...

Why would a feminist oppose masculinity and femininity? One reason is that feminism follows some of the assumptions of liberalism. One of these assumptions is that our humanity is contingent: that we only become human when we create who we are from our own reasoned choices.

Since women's lives were traditionally defined more by a biological role (motherhood) and by the emotions (love and marriage) rather than by a sphere of rational choice (careers and formal study) this seemed, under the terms of liberalism, to make their role inferior to that of men.

So from quite early on there were thinkers who were keen to "defend" women by asserting that women were "equal" to men; to do this they had to deny that existing sex roles were natural, so they claimed that such roles were the product of a social custom designed to artificifically perpetuate a male dominance.

So there are some basic liberal assumptions which lead on to the negative view of masculinity and femininity as oppressive social constructs.

Is the way that this issue is framed by liberalism helpful? I think the answer is clearly no. The liberal framework distorts the discussion of gender in several ways.

First, it forces us to define equality as sameness. Equality can't be defined as men and women being valued equally in their distinct roles. Instead, there is only one "human" role (the male one) which men and women must occupy to the same degree in order to be considered equal.

Second, it means that motherhood and marriage, which were once considered core human activities, are relegated to the non-human realm - to the animal realm of biology and the emotions.

Thus we find feminist Betty Friedan telling us that the traditional female role is to be rejected because:

Women are human beings, not stuffed dolls, not animals. Down through the ages man has known that he was set apart from other animals by his mind's power to have an idea, a vision, and shape the future to it ... when he discovers and creates and shapes a future different from the past, he is a man, a human being.

A woman giving birth to a new life is no longer regarded with awe by Friedan, as this is not our intellect acting on the world to shape things according to our individual reason and will.

Third, the idea that masculinity and femininity aren't natural defies both everyday experience and modern science. Anyone who has been in a serious relationship knows that there are important, deeply grounded sex differences. Modern science has confirmed that sex differences are caused, at least in part, by hard-wired, biological factors.

Fourth, even though the masculine role is assumed to be the human one, it has its legitimacy undermined by the idea that it's upheld artificially as an act of domination over women.

For liberals, what matters is our will to act in any direction. So the power to enact our individual will becomes critical. If one group in society appears to have more power (more political power, money or status), liberals readily interpret this as an illegitimate power grab at the expense of an oppressed group.

At this point, we can return to Robert Jensen, as he very clearly thinks along these lines. Jensen speaks of masculinity as a "project of dominance" in which men,

seek to control 'their' women and define their own pleasure in that control, which leads to epidemic levels of rape and battery.

(It's no surprise that Jensen is also a "whiteness theorist". He observes that American whites live in a majority white culture and concludes that this makes them privileged - which, by his logic, makes their position illegitimate.)

Fifth, the liberal view that sex differences are artificial and unnatural runs directly against heterosexuality. In practice we don't want our future spouse to be androgynous; we're attracted by the more appealing qualities of the opposite sex.

In short, Robert Jensen is following a faulty political template when he attacks masculinity. This template generates a whole series of negative consequences, each of which invites serious criticism.

Which brings me to the happy ending. Robert Jensen's attack on masculinity didn't go unanswered. A female columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle has penned an excellent reply, drawing on several of the points I've outlined above.

I'd like to give her comments some space, so I'll leave her reply to Robert Jensen till tomorrow.


  1. There is a distinction drawn in pretty much all thought on these subjects between gender and sexuality. Gender is defined as the socially constructed roles given to different sexes. Sex is the group of biological differences which distinguish between male and female.

    Gender roles have to be socially constructed otherwise there would be little to no explanation for the cast difference we see in gender roles throughout varoius cultures. That physical and biological difference plays a part in the construction of these roles is not in question, but to assume that they are solely contributive to gender is to ignore thousands of years of cultural development that places women in different roles in different cultures.

    Essentially to assume that feminine and masculine roles are solely biologically defined, as seems to be the case in this post, is to be a cultural imperialist, ie assuming that western gender roles are solely definitive of femininity and masculinity. It is this obscuring cultural imperialism that makes masculinity as a biologically defined concept so useless

  2. typo correction, read vast instead of cast. should really proof read.

  3. Chris, there are a number of mistakes in your comment.

    1) You write "That physical and biological difference plays a part in the construction of these roles is not in question".

    In fact, until recently it was commonly claimed by liberals that the only difference between men and women was in the shape of the genitals.

    I've noticed some liberals now beginning to give some ground and to admit that there might be some biological influence.

    However, this insight is then overlooked in what is subsequently argued: that gender difference is merely a construct which can be abolished.

    I provided a quote to this effect from Jensen himself who wrote that:

    "It's time to abandon the claim that there are certain psychological or social traits that inherently come with being biologically male."

    2) The distinction between sex and gender is not made as carefully in the literature as you claim.

    Furthermore, it's not possible for me to follow this distinction. You say that sex is the group of biological differences which distinguish between male and female, and gender is the socially constructed roles.

    What then do we call the non-socially constructed roles - the ones based on the biological differences?

    And anyway, it's not possible to clearly distinguish the influence of biology and culture in forming these roles.

    Is the motherhood role of women based on biology or culture? Obviously biology has a major influence, but culture often helps provide a more exact ideal which might vary a little from culture to culture.

    3) Which brings me to another criticism of your comment. Masculine and feminine roles are remarkably similar in the world's cultures.

    It's not as if there are vast tracts of the world in which women traditionally play the warrior role while men stay home to care for young infants.

    There are cetainly variations on a theme, I grant you, but little that is really likely to surprise a Westerner.

    4) I never in my post claimed that feminine and masculine roles are solely biologically defined.

    I never, in fact, tried to delineate the relationship between biology and culture, which is complex.

    My argument was against those who believe that male/female differences are created as an oppressive social construct and can therefore be abolished.

  4. BTW, I liked this response to Jensen's article which was posted on an site:

    "Take away a man's competitiveness, his stoicism in the face of life's crap, his ability to stand up for himself effectively, his willingness to try to solve his own problems instead of spreading them onto others, and so on, and what do you end up with?

    A man no woman would touch with a ten foot pole. And a woman complaining about how there are no "real" men anymore."

  5. Leftists like Jensen are wildly inconsistent. The idea that gender roles are socially constructed, that there are few innate differences contradicts the feminist insistence that women are naturally more
    peaceful, more cooperative and less competitive, better at consensus, more nurturing, and so on. The whole idea behind 'diversity' both on a racial basis and sexual/gender basis is that there are differing traits, deriving from biology. If you deny those, then what's the point of 'diversity', seeing as we're really all the same, except for externals?
    Leftists/liberals just want to have it both ways.

    And it's odd that Jensen speaks of 'evolving' beyond masculinity. I would bet that he believes homosexuality to be innate, but he would never ask homosexuals to 'evolve beyond homosexuality'. After all, why be a prisoner of genetic determinism? Aren't we supposed to choose to self-create, according to leftists?

  6. Using enough logical fallacies, everything can be described as ‘socially constructed’. The criteria that is used to describe the sexes as ‘socially constructed’, can be used to describe the behaviour of any living thing as ‘socially constructed’: If something is interpreted or affected by anything else, it doesn’t ‘really’ exist.

    One of the many problems with that theory is that ‘social construction’ itself is largely a biological imperative. Cultures are different mainly because human biology is different. If any ‘social construct’ clashes with a people's biological reality, it simply doesn’t last long. That’s why all liberal social experiments and theories need to be constantly reinvented; they keep failing. That’s their (anti)nature.