“Why would anyone choose to live like that?” That was the question we raised, but didn’t answer, when discussing John Piper’s weirdly fraught prescription for how patriarchal “complementarians” ought to treat every single encounter between men and women.
The answer, I suppose, is that — as Mel Brooks said — “It’s good to be the king.” For Piper, every interaction between men and women is and ought to be shaped by the hierarchy he imagines to be normative. Men are above women. Women are below men. Therefore, women must defer to men and must seek happiness and/or meaning in their lives by deferring to men.
This sounds like a sweet deal for men. It means you’re in charge by virtue of having been born in charge, and hierarchy brings all manner of privileges. You get paid more. Your legal rights are better protected. Society is literally designed to meet your desires and appetites and emotional needs. Plus someone else is going to make you food, clean up after you, launder your clothes, and tend to your children. Being “above” and being deferred to by default is, all things considered, a pretty terrific arrangement for you. It’s good to be the king.
But you may also recall that Mel spoke that line in History of the World Part 1 while playing the part of the French king Louis XVI. And you may recall what happened to Louis. (“The people are revolting …”)
So guys like Piper aren’t able to just sit back, relax, and enjoy the privileges of hierarchy. They must, instead, be ever-vigilant and alert for any hint that they are not receiving the constant deference they imagine to be their due. Even something as simple as asking for directions to the freeway becomes an anxiety-inducing incident in which the man must be on guard lest he unwittingly allow some random woman to “compromise” his masculinity.
Part of this anxiety is just the bog-standard fear and resentment that any human comes to feel toward others they know themselves to have wronged or harmed or treated unfairly. The awareness, however dim, that patriarchal hierarchy is a sweet deal for men carries with it the recognition, however dim, that it’s a lousy deal for women and thus also carries with it — and here the dimness is deliberately chosen and tended — a vague sense of guilt. If that guilt isn’t permitted to produce the repentance and atonement it’s designed to produce, then it will fester into fear and resentment. That’s part of what we’re seeing in Piper’s fight-or-flight terror at the thought of asking a woman for directions.
But Piper also chose this illustration deliberately because of the way this particular interaction — a man needing to ask a woman for help that the woman is able and qualified to supply — threatens to undermine the hierarchy he seeks to preserve. Here the roles of king and subject are reversed, with the ruler approaching the commoner as a supplicant. “She has superior knowledge that the man needs and he submits himself to her guidance,” he concedes, warily. This is dangerous territory. It’s obviously true that this particular woman’s “superior knowledge” in this particular instance is not due to some innate superiority that she possesses or to any corresponding innate inferiority on the man’s part. Her superior knowledge is circumstantial and contingent, as is the man’s need here to invert the usual hierarchy and “submit himself to her guidance.” But now that the idea has been introduced — or acknowledged — that deference can be circumstantial and contingent, what’s to stop people from just galloping off into a chaotic world, unshaped by normative hierarchies, a world governed only by mutuality and reciprocity? Can you imagine such a thing?
Please note that this existential threat to the hierarchy doesn’t come from some uppity, unruly woman flagrantly disrespecting or disobeying some man. It just comes from her knowing things. If she knows things then there may arise a situation in which she knows something and he doesn’t and then our whole groundwork cracks, and the earth opens to abysses.
What is paramount, then, is that this interaction be shaped by a painstaking concern for the preservation of the hierarchy: “We all know that there is a way for that housewife to direct the man in which neither of them feels their mature femininity or masculinity compromised.”
Even when the man is forced by circumstance to seek a woman’s assistance, both are obliged to ensure that this assistance is provided in a way that preserves the framework of inherent deference. This requires not just the woman’s willing deference to the man, but her convincing performance of seeming to enjoy that compulsory deference. He knows that she’s possibly not enjoying it, but to ensure that “neither of them feels their mature femininity or masculinity compromised,” she’s going to have to act like she is. And that act has to be so good that it allows him to, at least briefly, pretend he doesn’t know it’s an act. While convincingly acting like she enjoys deference, it’s also hugely important that the woman must never, ever act in any way that suggests she’s enjoying any rare occasions when a man might be forced by circumstance to “submit” to her “superior knowledge.”
The layers of artifice and worry and anxiety here seem exhausting and unbearable — for “the king” as well as for his supposed subjects. Piper’s description of asking a stranger for directions to the freeway makes his complementarian hierarchy seem like a horrible place to visit.
Now imagine trying to live there. Imagine this is what your home was like — fraught, anxious, perpetually burdened by the worry that anything you say or do, or the way you say or do it, might “compromise” some fragile, abstract construct.
I say “imagine” there, but I’m aware that for many readers this will not require an act of imagination. I’m sorry for that. I’m sorry that you have lived there, or that you still do. And I don’t want to make you re-live any of that with the following discussion of the loathsome Steven Crowder and his abusive attempts to keep his masculinity uncompromised. If you’re someone who’s ever had to live in a home shaped by the minefield of an artificial, unsustainable, fragile masculinity, then don’t click on that link and please feel free to skip Part 3 of this discussion when we get to that post.