suspect teleologies and the depersonalization of men

suspect teleologies and the depersonalization of men March 10, 2016


A recent article in Crisis, “The Collapse of Gender Sanity”, by Rachel Lu, opens with this statement: “Men were built for fighting. Women were built for childbearing. It’s interesting to note how stubbornly true—even obvious—these statements remain, despite aggressive efforts to bury them.”

Actually, it is more interesting for me to note how Catholics, even educated ones, readily accept the premises of imperfect secular civilizations, just so long as they’re premises that have been around a while. “Modern people have a penchant for denying obvious things,” Lu writes.  I am presuming she means post-modern, since technically we’re no longer modern, but it is true. It is true of us, it was true of them, it was true of pre-modern people as well. It is true of all people, because original sin blinds us to reality. Previous generations were woefully blind to the obvious fact that black persons are equal to white persons, that children shouldn’t be forced laborers, that people shouldn’t be killed for religious difference.

Lu’s assertion about what men and women were “built” for is not new, but we have grown so accustomed to hearing it that perhaps we can’t see how deeply wrong it is. So let’s talk about this.

First of all, the assertion is actually a reiteration of a relatively new idea, associated with the modern liberal invention, the nation-state, to which men owe service in war, and women owe service as breeders. This was not the classical aristocratic (i.e., true conservative) ideal, in which different social ranks bestowed different roles. Nor is it in any way the radical Christian view which sees human persons as ends in themselves: thus the church’s defense of those rebel women who refused marriage and chose to keep themselves for God; thus the great religious orders of the Middle Ages.

The idea that men were made for fighting, women for childbearing is also a category error. If we can presume that biological activities presuppose teleology (and scientist friends have informed me that it’s not as simple as we humble philosophical types think) then it is not valid to compare childbearing, an innate biological process arising from the organs and functions that allow us to identify a woman as female, a process of which men are intrinsically incapable, with fighting, an external activity involving no inherently male attributes, an activity of which women are perfectly capable – even if, as many have noted, women in general are less adept at it on a basic physical level than men in general. A more valid comparison would be to the biological processes of producing sperm, achieving erection, penetrating a female, and ejaculating.

This common category error involves an age-old confusion of telos (we’ll ignore our scientist friends and act like there is such a thing) with tekhne. Telos pertains to an intrinsic orientation of a thing towards a specific proper end, whereas tekhne refers to the sphere of human artifact, performance, and production. A human person may be presumed to be teleologically oriented towards relation, knowledge, love, and ultimately God. It violates personal dignity to impose on the person any usage that diverts her from achieving these ends. Chopsticks, on the other hand, have a use, imposed on them in the sphere of tekhne, but there is no violation of their intrinsic dignity should one choose to use them to secure one’s hair, instead of to eat food. These are utterly different types of ends.

Secondly, even granting that childbearing is more intrinsic to women than fighting is to men, it does not from this follow that this is what women are “for.” That would imply that women have in some way failed to achieve teleological fulfillment should they happen not to have children. As mentioned above, the Christian view of the person rejects and attempts to reduce a person to a tool, a use. The same utilitarian, liberal, capitalist social structure that originally valued women as breeders later had to adopt abortion to satisfy its wholly non-transcendent ends of production, development, expansion, and power. A religious sister, a consecrated virgin, a single woman, an infertile woman – these are not individuals somehow failing to complete their proper ends.

But now on to the most worrying element of this dichotomy: the elevation of fighting to the natural order of childbearing, and the reduction of the male person to a mere tool for destruction.

When I was pregnant with my first child, I was managing a bar, and one of my employees was a former Navy SEAL who enjoyed telling stories of what were, essentially, war crimes. He told us of one time when he and his companions threw several captured Iraqi soldiers into shark-infested waters, and then watched the feeding frenzy. I have no idea whether these stories were true or not. And I have known many other military persons who have always behaved with honor and dignity. But my bartender said something once that I have never forgotten: one day I came waddling in with my pregnant belly preceding me, and he grimaced, and said, “I think pregnancy is disgusting. I’ve always found killing more natural than giving birth.”

Now, death is natural. But in detective fiction (that most moral of genres) there is invariably a stark recognition that the person who has been killed “did not die a natural death.” And T.H. White, in his wonderful novel The Once and Future King, points out that while other animals kill for food or protection or in competition, no other species makes war as humans do. How have we been so confused by sin as to imagine that war, a mechanism of the state, at best only occasionally legitimate as a “necessary evil,” is somehow on a natural and moral level equivalent to the birth of a child? The broad term “fighting” which covers anything from a domestic spat to martial arts practice to fist-fighting to sword-fighting to drone-striking civilians itself obscures moral distinctions.

And why are we so accepting of the idea that men are reducible to tools of the state, that it is acceptable to send men out to fight, to destroy, to be horribly wounded, to kill, to be killed? Lu and others are writing in response to the idea that women might be drafted into military service, and their concerns are justified – but what no one seems to notice is the moral questionability of drafting men in the first place. “Not my daughter” one man writes. But, then, why his son? Are men of so little value?

A common suggestion for dealing with the refugee crisis is that we allow women and children to come over, but send the men back to fight. This horrifies me. It suggests that males are expendable, that their utility as fighting-machines is more important than their bond with their families, that families should simply accept the loss of brothers, sons, fathers, and husbands, for “the greater good.” And yet, these are often the same people who raise an outcry about the necessity of fathers, whenever single mothers or non-heteronomative families are under discussion. I hope the implication isn’t that only white middle class western fathers are valuable. I hope we can see the importance of all fathers. There may indeed be situations in which war becomes unavoidable, in which men (and women) agree that fighting is the only option. I am dubious about this, but I respect the freedom of conscience of those who believe that a just war is still possible. But there is an enormous difference between an individual making a choice to defend something he or she holds dear, and the use of an individual as part of the war-machine, the state.

Much has been written on the art of war, and there are certainly modes of fighting that deserve the name of “art.” But in the mythology and glorification of war we often easily forget its reality. We forget the underlying meaning of “chivalry.” In George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, the terrifying scarred warrior Sandor Clegane tells the young romantic Sansa Stark: “What do you think a knight is for, girl? You think it’s all taking favors from ladies and looking fine in gold plate? Knights are for killing.”

Male strength, harnessed by kings or nations, becomes a vehicle for killing, but life on the farm makes one appreciate male strength in so many other ways (female strength, too) – ways that involve preserving and sustaining life, not destroying it. We forget, too, the many men who are not particularly physically strong, and who would fail miserably in a true warrior ethos, even if some of them dream of warlike masculinity in comfortable offices. I get the idea sometimes that unwarlike men who dream of war sabotage themselves and deny their own value, unwittingly, rather the way women who clamor of female submissiveness undermine their own dignity.

The nation-state solidified an unnaturally sharp divide between the oikos and the polis, sundering men and women from each other, depriving men of the opportunity to flourish more fully in the domestic space, and of women to flourish more fully in the public space. This divide has always contributed to the denigration of women (as well as, of course, the pedestal phenomenon, which is also a form of denigration, and which is only reserved for special, pretty, white, inspiring, muse-like ladies). But we should think more about how our attitudes about utility and “natural” roles denigrate and harm men, too.

Not my son.

image credit: wikimedia

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