Stories We Will Spend A Lifetime Outgrowing: On Gender Stereotypes and Humanism

Stories We Will Spend A Lifetime Outgrowing: On Gender Stereotypes and Humanism January 4, 2020

Ben Kerckx,, CC0 Licensing

Let’s begin with a story. This one is Toni Morrison’s, from Song of Solomon (1977): It’s Lena’s memory of her little brother, Milkman, urinating on her. This wasn’t a spiteful act so much as one done carelessly, and all throughout Song of Solomon, Milkman is tasked with learning similar about how he’s moved through life: how, even as he has been wronged by many, so has he incuriously wronged in turn. Lena shares this memory to explain how he’s especially taken the women in his life for granted. How he’s been pissing on his older sisters and mother ever since he was a child, dismissing their desires as either frivolous or burdensome while taking for granted their care of his own.

Lena, for my male-identified readers, is a common character in women’s discourse about gender relations: The Put-Upon Woman. The Woman Who Endured. The Good Sister/Daughter/Wife. The Woman Whose Constancy Might Yet Save The Fallen Man.

And that makes Milkman: The Thoughtless Man. The Man Helpless At The Altar of His Impulses. The Man Who Does Not Question His Entitlement To Others’ Care. The Man Smothered By Woman’s Expectations of Some Higher Good In Him.

But what’s especially frustrating about Lena’s speech is how, even at this moment of reckoning, this moment when she states plainly how awful her brother has been to his family, how much he’s taken for granted, and how much he’s damaged… even this reckoning fits perfectly within tired stereotypes.

She becomes… The Woman Who Nags.

And he becomes… The Man Who Quietly Endures This Nagging Without Changing, Treating the Fact of Being Nagged As Punishment Enough For Past Misdeeds.

Goodness, though: is it not ever a nuisance of a thing, being sentient at the level we humans are, in the age of knowledge we presently inhabit. To be so aware of our biochemistry, our primatology, and our sociology… and still not able to break easily from harmful behaviours to ourselves and others. To be able to see, say, that we’re about to be piddled on… and remain unable to course-correct.

To still so often end up (figuratively) with a hot, stinging-wet sensation on our legs.

The Conversations Tougher Than Religion vs. Atheism

Today is my 34th birthday. I’m out of my “Jesus year,” which started on a rough note. Only in the last few months, though, did I really start to confront some of the causes of that rough note, because I’ve been wholly embarrassed to be playing out such a ridiculous–and long-known-to-me–set of stereotypes like the ones I mentioned above. To have poured so much time and care and resources into someone who will… maybe text me a happy birthday message? And dollars to doughnuts, if he does so, do so while expressing amazement that he remembered it at all?

Talking about religion and atheism is, unsurprisingly, seen as a tough and worthy gig around these parts–but it’s also often a rather superficial conversation. It skims the surface of how cultural stories shape our ability to handle crises in the world, without ever fully confronting the deeper crises themselves.

However, it’s not the only discursive realm that favours “skimming.” Have you ever tried, for instance, talking about interactions between feminized and masculinized persons without the conversation turning to How Men and Women Just Are? If not, I recommend the experiment. Talk with someone of any gender identity about your recent frustration with someone of the opposite biological sex… and see how long the conversation goes before someone generalizes about “men” and “women.”

Because this is one arena in which we secular folk haven’t made much greater progress than religious folk.

And partly, that’s because thinking about gender politics as “men” vs. “women” is just as simplistic as thinking about cosmologically moored morality as “religion” vs. “atheism.”

Power-Seeking and Atheism

Most atheists, after all, can rattle on for a good hour about how often religious approaches to gender harm society. (“Purity” and “modesty,” for instance, are two spiritually laden words that can go die in a ditch as far as I’m concerned.)

But even when prominent New Atheists took up arms against religion (especially Islam) on behalf of “women’s rights,” signs abounded that their personal views on gender remained heavily uninterrogated. And yet, what about New Atheism ever suggested that personal views would be interrogated? When taken as a movement predominantly framed by debate circuits and self-congratulatory anti-theistic publications, when did that phase of public atheist discourse involve anything more than power-plays between differently charismatic men?

Answer: It didn’t, because the aim of all that reading material and debate-circuit training was to arm yourself against other arguments. Everything was fodder for the fight against others’ irrationality, not for inner reflection.

I remember first reading Nietzsche, for instance, in grade seven, and being struck by the horrific discourse in Thus Spoke Zarathustra about women (which was quite the opposite of John Stuart Mill’s philosophical trajectory, as a contemporaneous atheist who advocated strenuously for women’s rights). My real lesson in Nietzsche came later, though, when a great many young, atheistic men in high school also discovered his work, extolled the virtues of this text, and… could not remember what it had said about women.

Either that meant they hadn’t actually read Nietzsche (possible!), or else that they were so interested in what the text would say to critique religion that they’d let every other cultural claim pass through them uncontested. Somehow it was obvious to all of them that religion was a poison… but all the junk they took for granted, say, about gender roles, especially ones that assured themselves more prominent standing in political and literary discourse… was somehow above reproach and re-consideration?

Even when those ideas* arose within a society built on the religions they were often the first to argue “ruin everything”?

Well, sure, of course the personal was above reproach: Where’s the social power, after all, in acknowledging that strident debate is still emotional? That all rationality is, in practice, still tethered to feeling and guided by one’s social context?

What possible personal benefit would Dawkins and Harris have reaped, for instance, if their early ’00s activism had pushed beyond a critique of spiritual cosmologies to scour secular power structures for religious-styled moral faults?

If they, like PZ Myers and other Atheist+ advocates, had been as openly sceptical of the nationalistic, racial, and sexual detritus of religion (and deeper tribalist proclivities) still present in everything from our understanding of nation-states to multiculturalism to gender politics… would they still have garnered the same overwhelming popularity?

*Nota Bene:

There’s way too much to get into here about gender nonsense, but I’ll offer one example. It’s still widely assumed today that men are more sexual by nature, and therefore cannot help but struggle with monogamy… but you need only skip a few centuries back to find that the medieval world had a different view. Women were wanton lust-seekers, and men needed to control women’s desires through marriage–to girls still young enough to be guided, of course!–because, left unchecked, women were at the mercy of demonic sexual influence.

This approach to women’s sexuality goes right back, too, to the Church’s treatment of seven-demon-plagued Mary of Magdalene as a prostitute, even though there is zero textual evidence for the claim, save that she had a “bad” name! Oh no! A “bad” name! Could it be from gossip or cruelty? Nope! Must be from the lustiness of all those cunty lasses!

So, yes, we’re swimming in givens about gender that are not facts; religious history underpins their persistence in the secular realm; and our supposedly secular science is often skewed by those assumptions, as most famously noted when the Bateman principle blew up during recent attempts at replicating his… 1948 fruitfly study? Yes, you read that right: A fruitfly study was credulously used for decades to explain male-human promiscuity. Ugh. Empiricism is sound, folks… but the people using it, decidedly less so.

A Well-Known Discourse on Power

In Song of Solomon, Lena observes a similar hypocrisy in Milkman, who thinks himself better than his father. She says to him, “You think because you hit [father] once that we all believe you were protecting [our mother from him]. Taking her side. It’s a lie. You were taking over, letting us know you had the right to tell her and all of us what to do.”

Nor is Lena / Morrison alone in that observation about the nature of power and its transference–rather than dispersion and diminishment–through shows of resistance. I was in high school as New Atheism first exploded in popularity, and at the time I was reading (among scads of others) Doris Lessing, Iris Murdoch, and Margaret Drabble: three British writers who depicted radical political movements and counterculture from the 50s to 80s. Different books, different styles, and yet… a common thread was the presence of male leaders who spoke of anarchy and resistance, communism and egalitarianism, while female members fed, tidied, and tended to day-to-day administration of their movements and cults.

In other words, discourse on the superficiality of power-shifting in counterculture movements has been alive and well for, oh, decades if not centuries.

Where Critiques of Atheist Sexism Go Wrong

And yet… as already noted, speaking stupidly about gender is a pretty universal affair. There’s a current social-media meme I particularly despise, in which women who are suffering in relationships with selfish jerks are advised to “Throw the whole man out” and linked to garbage-disposal-related imagery: dumpsters, garbage trucks, incinerators.

Along with this meme, too, is a habit of wives venting about wanting to “murder” their husbands–to which women on the internet sympathetically message to agree that the OP has everyone else’s swords/axes if she would like to avenge, say, the yarn bag that hubby spilled coffee into that morning.

Which, ha ha, is apparently A-OK because everyone knows that crime stats resoundingly affirm that the wife is way more likely to be murdered by her husband when push comes to shove (…comes to loaded gun bought “for protection”). Apparently it’s funny to joke about murdering a man because there’s… far less social power behind such a statement? It’ll always be “just venting” until the stats for domestic homicide even start to approach parity? Gee, what a red-letter day to look forward to.

And yet, it’s difficult for a feminized person even to mention strongly disapproving of women talking about murdering men, or wishing that men didn’t exist, because doing so tends to give a certain subset of human beings license to fixate on that issue to the exclusion of all others. Instead of this awful behaviour being seen as yet another symptom of a far bigger social problem, pointing out that women also reinforce gender divides is treated as if it cancels out sexism elsewhere.

In the atheist world, of course, we see this most clearly when trying to navigate, say, safety issues for female attendees at atheist conventions, or pushback against prominent New Atheists chastizing Western women for being gender-critical when they could be living in far worse cultures for female autonomy.

Because, remember: that New Atheist club we feminized persons want equal standing within… is still a movement predicated on the performance of power. Will society intrinsically be better off the moment 50% of predatory CEOs are women? Will a movement predicated on condemning religion without unpacking the detritus of religious thought in other secular institutions suddenly become a bastion of moral superiority once membership stats perfectly reflect real-world demographics?

Or are women, as people, flawed and ever-growing people… not a little like Milkman, too? Wronged, yes, by quite a few awful cultural views enacted on gendered lines, but also not entirely off the hook when their/our path to restitution involves reaching parity in systems that exploit other people, too.

Chasing the Wrong Prize

It’s not easy to overcome both biological irrationality and socially reinforced stupidity. I should certainly know. For around a year and a half, I fell prey to a very frustrating human behaviour: the sunk cost fallacy. This lapse was even more frustrating because I thought I had just gotten over sunk cost fallacy when I walked away from an awful PhD programme experience. But nope! Here’s how sunk cost fallacy especially works in relation to human interactions: If you do something for someone else, and the recipient doesn’t do something for you in turn… you’re actually more likely to do something else for them, instead of walking away.

Why? Because you, as an intelligent being who certainly only ever makes intelligent decisions, now have to rationalize why you did the first thing for someone who did not reciprocate. And so you tell yourself, this is a worthy person. I did something for this person because they were worthy. And if they were worthy then, then they’re worthy of even more now.

Meanwhile, a person used to receiving without needing to reciprocate is only going to come to take that interaction set for granted. Becoming a “Milkman” is easy, in other words–and becoming a “Lena” is, too.

But one of the worst outcomes of framing this issue as one simply of gender, say, is that it keeps us from a fuller and more critical interrogation of how human beings, far more than being “truth” seekers, are “power” seekers. How many of any of our counterculture movements are truly bereft of that latter drive?

I want, of course, to believe that humanism, as a philosophy of empirically moored empathy, has the ability to underpin a different sort of social movement. After all, we humanists already don’t centre debate-circuits and as much antagonistic writing in our performance of personal beliefs. So that’s a start, right?

But we do have to go further (the religious and the secular among us equally) if we want to avoid becoming just another personality cult in a long line of tribalist movements. Rather, we humanists, in order to face up firmly to the fact that a) biology informs our behaviour, but also b) specific cultural contexts often misrepresent how biology informs our behaviour, need to c) cultivate more suspicion in relation to foundational premises.

And not someone else’s foundational premises: Our own.

We can–and must–recognize that we’re going to have to spend our whole lifetimes outgrowing the stories we were born into. The stories about gender, yes–and about ethnicity, and about class, and about national pride, and about other forms of tribalism that guide our day-to-day decisions and perceptions from the shadows.

Because the stories themselves are still with us, all of them. Whether or not we’ve unpacked them before, they’re tools of social power that we have ample experience using (and seeing used to establish others’ social power), which means there’s still a chance of them rearing their heads in every conversation where you want simply to talk human-to-human… yet find yourselves, without really meaning to, breaking those same human beings into tribes.

(This is not the same thing, by the way, as simply recognizing that the people we live and work alongside belong to a wide range of demographics. There’s a different kind of power-seeking entirely that comes from pretending that one doesn’t “see” race or gender, whereas we humanists have a responsibility to include in our analysis of the world a full awareness of how prejudice manifests within it. So, no, you see race and gender, among other traits, and you understand the political ramifications of both, and you try to move with decency and mutual respect through a world that you know others are experiencing from different sociopolitical subject-positions.)

The Take-Away

I suppose, then, that it would be too glib for me to close by saying to feminized readers “quit joking about murdering men.”

But I would like to challenge secular humanists to think of our current conversation around “men” and “women” as so utterly superficial as to reinforce the same underlying status quo, even as we strive to upend it.

As with “religion” versus “atheism,” after all, it’s not sufficient to tackle the names of things, and the surface-level institutions associated with the subjects of our complaints. In the cosmological camp, that approach gave us New Atheism, and with it a generation of atheists by and large raised to arm itself against others’ irrationality instead of looking within, and rooting out secondary cultural beliefs that (whether reinforced by religion or by basic human tribalism) will continue to exacerbate human suffering even if “religion” were ever eradicated on whole.

Likewise, it does not help us come to terms with the actual behavioural traps underpinning our failed relationships (with friends, family, and coworkers as much as lovers) if we simply fixate on gendered “natures.” Sure, we have whole histories of prejudice informing our decisions as “female” and “male” persons in the world, so there’s a great deal of structural sexism (and racism, and nationalism, and other -isms) to be corrected in our politics and social attitudes.

But on an individual level, it also helps immensely if we can recognize that the grand stories of our lives… aren’t always just fodder for some grand war between two or more power-seeking “tribes.” And yes, maybe this is a touch easier for me to see as a bisexual person–because I’ve done the whole “sunk cost fallacy” thing with women in the past, too, so I know that there are also incredibly selfish feminized persons happy to absorb whatever time and energy you give them. People are people.

However, it also clearly wasn’t easier for me, because I spent much of the last year ashamed of myself for falling into the sunk cost fallacy and some attendant gender stereotypes. I was afraid to talk about what I needed to heal from, too, because I knew I was going to meet with a great deal of bullpucky about Men and Women if I did.

But, ah well, live and learn.

Such is the silliness of being a self-aware and ever-striving humanist. Being a critical thinker, after all, does not preclude you from also simply being… human.

There’s always this coming year, though, I suppose–for all of us, though on my birthday I’m going to be a little selfish and also just say “me”–to try to get the balance a little better.

May nuclear war be staved off just long enough, at least, for us to try.

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