By their nature, worldviews are difficult to change, writes Allan Johnson, author of The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy, a new edition of which came out this fall. “We tend not to be aware they even exist or how complex they are. Expose one part to scrutiny and doubt and you cannot help but bring others into question, from who you think you are to childhood heroes to feeling safe to national identity and pride.
“When I consider why it is so hard to change a worldview—whether someone else’s or my own—I find that it depends on how it came to be there, what authority is behind it, and how ‘centrally located’ or interconnected it is in relation to the rest. My worldview, for example, includes the belief that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. That bit of reality got added in when I read about it somewhere. I don’t remember where or when it was, but I do know I adopted this piece of information because the source was identified as science and, as with gravity, my worldview includes a general trust in what scientists claim as true, knowing all the while that it can change as new evidence comes to light.
Adding this to my worldview happened in a particular moment in a particular way and from a particular source, and I could have decided against it or withheld judgment for one reason or another, as I sometimes do.
“What I take to be real about the speed of light is a simple and isolated piece of my and many other people’s worldview. It is not connected to other beliefs that matter to me and has little effect on
my life, so I don’t really care whether it’s true and would not hesitate to give it up if scientists came out and said it was no longer so.”
It is a very different matter with something like the patriarchal definition of manhood that is acquired without our knowing it, being almost literally in the air we breathe from the moment we are born, repeated and affirmed over the years in stories and images and what people say and do. As it becomes embedded in an expanding web of belief, values, experience, and feeling, it acquires so many connections to other parts of our worldview that it can seem to originate from everywhere at once and to have been for all time, giving it an authority far more wide and deep than any particular source. Instead of being the belief of a person or a group or even a society, it appears as something beyond the reach of mere evidence or opinion or time and place, not a belief at all but intuitively true, undeniable, obvious, the way things are, what everybody knows, ordained by God, an immutable fact. So it is that the core principles of male dominance, male identification, male centeredness, and the masculine obsession with control come to be embedded in and indispensable to contemporary worldviews, providing generation after generation with a lens through which to perceive, interpret, and shape what is taken to be real.
The idea that women and men are inherently different is one piece of this complex constellation of belief. Unlike adopting an idea about the speed of light, we do not decide one day that from now on we are going to believe that men and women are inherently different. To the extent that we believe it, it is because we grew up knowing it to be so, a knowing connected to ideas not only about how women and men differ but how they should not be the same.
Men, for example, are still widely considered in the United States to be most desirable to the extent that they are aggressive, forceful, independent, and competitive, while women are valued for being
yielding, emotional, and focused on relationships. Such views lost some adherents during the tumultuous 1970s and 1980s but since then have remained remarkably widespread and resistant to change.
This is in spite of the strides women have made toward gaining access to positions of power and influence, although such progress slowed to a crawl more than twenty years ago.
At the heart of the patriarchal worldview is the male-identified obsession with control that shapes every major social institution, and it is here that we also find the cultural mythology about men’s violence. This mythology is especially resistant to change because the emotional, cultural, and political investment runs so deep and across so many generations, and without our even knowing that’s what it is.
Its deepest and most sacrosanct expression is to be found not in the daily depiction of heroic men with guns in television shows and films and video games and the news but in parks and village greens in every town and city in America. It is embodied in the monuments, statues, and cemeteries erected to honor the loss of men who have died in war beneath the weight of other men’s violence.
There are women who have lost their lives as well, but the place of these monuments in the national mythology is not about women or womanhood.
Nor is it simply about the individual men who have died and will continue to die as long as patriarchy continues. On a deeper and more powerful level it is about violence itself and the national mythology of manhood that gives it meaning and purpose. These men’s sacrifice happened only through their participation in war, a patriarchal institution whose sole aim is victory through campaigns of mass killing, for which these men were trained as part of a role they were encouraged to accept from an early age. Whatever the reason given for a particular war, the fact of their deaths is the result of their being unable to kill other men before being killed themselves. And those other men were only trying to avoid being killed themselves, with the ones who failed memorialized in towns and cities in nations around the world.
Obscured by the noble words, the historical accounts, the patriotic displays, and beneath the grief of those who suffer loss, war memorials are monuments to men’s violence and the patriarchal mythology of nationalism, manhood, and control that makes it happen.
Some will object that this does not distinguish “good” violence from “bad,” that it does not allow for the difference between what it takes to win a war and what Adam Lanza did on that morning in Newtown, including the taking of his own life. And I suspect they would not state their objections as a simple issue of fact but with some emotion, as in “How dare you?”
What makes the juxtaposition of war memorials and Adam Lanza so difficult, so objectionable and disturbing, is that it forces us to confront a deep ambivalence arising from the patriarchal worldview
of men’s violence and the version of manhood that embodies it.
On one side of this ambivalence is a profound identification with manhood and the exercise of manly control, including the use of “heroic” violence. This includes the man who stands alone against impossible odds, the only one who can save us from certain doom.
Or the enraged hero or coolly detached professional “just doing his job” who believes he is paying out revenge or enacting justice or combating evil or breaking through the enemy line in defense of
national honor, pride, and freedom, acting from what he believes not only to be right but his right as a man in a society identified with men and manhood.
On the other side of our ambivalence is the man, also enraged or calmly professional, also believing in his claim to the use of violence in setting right what he believes to be wrong or unfair or not his just deserts or a threat to what he considers his own, the man who beats the woman who has dared to defy him one more time, or blows up a building as an act of political protest, or takes revenge on those who have deprived him of a living or issued the restraining order or ruled against him in court or caused injury to his honor and dignity.
Or there is the man who feels so broken or tormented or humiliated by what he has done in the name of manhood, or failed to do, that he turns the violence on himself. Put the one side of our ambivalence in your left hand and the other in your right and hold them up and ask what truly separates them in that moment when a man—whether he be the president of the United States or an unemployed factory worker—exercises what he has been taught to believe is his manly right to control, to decide when violence is called for and not, in that moment when he gives expression to the forceful, independent, aggressive manhood that is so widely expected and admired in a patriarchal world.
The point is not that the two sides of our ambivalence are the same. They are not. The point—as history and the daily news make so painfully clear—is that we cannot have the one without the other. The only way to see this is to bring the two together and allow ourselves to feel the depth of the ambivalence.
We cannot celebrate and idolize a male-identified obsession with control without also elevating, privileging, and celebrating men’s violence as an instrument and expression of it. And in a culture that associates the idea of manhood with ideals of autonomy and independence that authorize “real men” to decide when and how to enact their manhood, we do not get to pick and choose the results before the damage has already been done.
The act of stepping back to examine the dominant worldview in any society is both necessary for change and full of risk. Even when we manage to do it, as many have in the past and continue to do today, the way forward is a difficult road. The reason for this lies in the nature of worldviews themselves, the core of which originates outside and prior to the individual.
That core is a legacy passed down across so many generations that it can appear to have no origin at all but to have always been so. Because of this, it is easy to feel that we lack authority as individuals to call into question what appears to be reality itself. This is especially powerful because even those who disagree with the dominant worldview tend to assume that most other people do not. And so, to a lack of authority we must add feelings of ostracism, exclusion, isolation, and alienation that can be particularly
painful and disempowering. It is not surprising, then, that in the face of this, so many people may not see what is right in front of them or realize what they are looking at.
None of this makes change impossible, but it does call on us to begin the journey with an awareness of what we are up against and what it will take to sustain ourselves as we set out to discover how to make a difference.
Voice Male contributing editor Allan G. Johnson is a nonfiction author, novelist, and sociologist who has devoted most of his working life to understanding the human condition, especially in relation to issues of
social justice rooted in gender, race, and social class. His books include The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy, from which this article is excerpted, and Privilege, Power, and Difference (both in new editions). His novel, The First Thing and the Last, was excerpted in the Summer 2010 issue.