Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Metaphors Enable the Patriarchy

Participant in 120,000 person march for women's
rights in Washington DC on 3/9/86
Jean Stimmell © 2018

The 1960’s shined a spotlight on systematic oppression in America, including illuminating my own shadow, etching away my innocence to reveal my glaring chauvinist complicity.  Since then I have considered myself a recovering, middle-class male.

That’s not to say, I am still not jolted by extreme examples of the patriarchy’s continuing influence, sullying as it does, all facets of our lives.

I had one of those jolts when I read a recent piece in the NYT: “The Perils of Mixing Masculinity and Missiles” by Carol Cohn1 She has a history working as a nuclear strategist and war planner, almost exclusively among men.

For her, ideas about masculinity and femininity are not trivial but have real, life-or-death consequences. 

She challenges the idea that President Trump’s sexually oriented tweets are merely impulsive and juvenile – like his recent one about having a nuclear button bigger & more powerful than that of his North Korean adversary.

Trump’s tweets remind her of how her male, war planner associates used sexual metaphors:
The human bodies evoked were not those of the victims; instead, there were conversations about vertical erector launchers, thrust-to-weight ratios, soft lay downs, deep penetration and the comparative advantages of protracted versus spasm attacks — or what one military adviser to the National Security Council called “releasing 70 to 80 percent of our megatonnage in one orgasmic whump.”   

Cohn gives clear examples of how gender roles have the potential to determine the outcome in war strategy. When her fellow planners discussed political leaders, it was often regarding whether they had “the stones for war,” suggesting that solving conflict through peaceful means would be unmanly.

“One white male physicist told me that he and colleagues were once modeling a limited nuclear attack when he suddenly voiced dismay that they were talking so casually about “only 30 million” immediate deaths. “It was awful — I felt like a woman,” he said.”

Carol Cohn does a masterful job of describing how our military planners follow, rather than logic, our culturally embedded code for masculinity: dispassion, abstraction, risk-taking, toughness; as opposed to, what she says, is our cultural code for femininity: emotion, empathy, vulnerability, caution.

Unfortunately, the patriarchy lives not just in the metaphors of military planners and President Trump, but in all of us.  And it is these metaphors, we often unconsciously use, that help sustain the patriarchy.

George Lakoff, in his classic book, Metaphors We Live By, delves deeply into the nature of metaphors, persuasively demonstrating their fundamental importance as the essential building blocks of our language: the cognitive mechanism determining how we think and act.

If Lakoff is correct, and I believe he is, it opens our eyes as to why the patriarchy is so difficult to confront: we have built patriarchal metaphors into the cultural categories by which we think.

In Lakoff’s book, ”Don’t Think of an Elephant,” he shows how the metaphor portraying our nation is a family can either strengthen or weaken the patriarchy depending on the type of parent we identify with: the strict father model which conservatives favor or the nurturing parent model for progressives.

The strict father family has a background assumption that the world is a dangerous place that has to be subdued by force.  Children are born bad and have to be made good. Trump is a good example of the strict father model.

The nurturant parent, on the other hand, believes that children are born good and should be kept that way. The two core ideas for the nurturing parent are empathy and responsibility – which should not to be equated with weakness.

In another example, illustrating how the patriarchy has been incorporated into how we think, Lakoff shows how we structure our arguments in terms of war metaphors:

“It is important to see that we don’t just talk about arguments in terms of war. We can actually win or lose arguments. We see the person we are arguing with as an opponent. We attack his positions and we defend our own. We gain and lose ground…It is in this sense that the ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor is one that we live by in this culture.”

Obviously, if we are going to make inroads against the patriarchy, we are going to have to make conscious choices about what metaphors to use.

For instance, Lakoff suggests trying “to imagine a culture where arguments are not viewed in terms of war, where no one wins or loses, where there is no sense of attacking or defending, gaining or losing ground. Imagine a culture where an argument is viewed as a dance,3” In other words: both/and rather than either/or.

Macho war metaphors in today’s postmodern world are dragging our country down in increasing conflict, both internally and externally, egging us on toward nuclear war, and shredding our democracy.

Our best hope is to radically revise our metaphor choices to promote equal and fair inclusion for everyone in our society – and around the world.

As Lakoff might say, we need to start a conversation and invite everyone to the dance.
xxx


Another photo I took that day in 1986,
this one of the NH contingent at the rally

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1 NYT Opinion: 1/5/18
2 Lakoff, George & Johnson, Mark, Metaphors We Live By. The University  of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1980. P. 4



Fear versus Faith on the Solstice

This essay was published in the Concord Monitor, 12/31/17
Photographing the solstice transition
from dark to light behind my house

These dark days of winter solstice pull me down, causing me to ruminate more than usual about the future of our country. I reflect on how, since 9/11, we have become consumed by fear: Fear of terrorists, immigrants, people who don’t look or vote like us; fear of nuclear war, climate change, epidemics, vaccinations, gluten; fear of almost everything. Given this fertile ground upon which to work, fear mongers and demagogues have weakened our democratic way of life, tilting us toward autocratic rule.
I ponder what gives my own life meaning and reason for hope. It dawns on me in the light of the approaching new year that what sustains me is my faith which continues to grow, the older I get. And, indeed, it is this faith that empowers me to confront my fears.
Choosing faith over fear is a remedy proven over the ages. As Alexander MacLaren has written, “Faith, which is trust, and fear are opposite poles.” If you have the one, you can’t have the other. Yes, it is the people with faith who dare to overcome their fears and make positive change by standing up to injustice.
Therefore, the essential question becomes, how do I strengthen my faith, how do I reestablish my trust in order banish resignation and fear?
 By way of example, I will share my circuitous journey toward faith, even though many may find it, at the very least, unconventional.
 Without doubt, I started my adult journey through life as a confirmed agnostic, dedicated to rational thought. Or, like the TV detective Joe Friday used to say, “Just the facts, ma’am.“
 Since starting out with unseeing eyes many decades ago, my faith has grown to the point where I can now glimpse the outline of what’s always been there, but I couldn’t see: What William Blake so superbly expresses with poetry:
“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower.”
 I think the most significant influence leading me toward faith has been my mentors; some known to me personally and others through books or the media. They have been shining lights in my life, modeling compassion, wisdom, and unbreakable faith, often forged through unspeakable tragedy and hardship.  I have especially learned, over the years, from my remarkable patients.
 Another positive influence is my meditation practice which I began while a graduate student at Antioch; it continues to this day although, I admit, on a haphazard basis. To me, meditation is an act of faith, like going to church. When I sit, after quieting my breath and cascading thoughts, a certain peace and calm envelopes me. Often, an unbidden smile lights up both my face – and my very being – coming from I know not where.  Except that I do know: I am in the presence of a greater whole, bigger than I am, that puts me in synch with the universe.
 A third influence is my Big Dreams. While I admit to having only a few in my long life, they have been quintessentially spiritual and sacred. In one such dream, I watching a little nun cross a raging river, beckoning for me to follow her to the other side.
 In another, I am wandering in a dark cave without beginning or end and stumble upon a Buddhist nun, tears streaming down her face, cradling her dead baby– which might, in fact, be me. In her grief, she is magnificent: fiercer than any warrior, more authentic than the Buddha. I sense that She is my guide, sent to lead me to the gate of real faith.
 Marion Woodman, well-respected Jungian analyst, tells us that in dreams, the Goddess often leads the dreamer into a deep cave: “Out of the darkness will come treasures and hidden riches… the possibility of something new.”1
 Many other influences have deepened my faith. Nature is a big one. Sometimes I can effortlessly merge with Her sacredness. Other times, it requires work like a long hike up a big mountain to achieve the effect. Hiking, hiking, …yet my mind will not stop distracting me with endless thoughts. Eventually, however, when fatigued enough, my mind gives up and stops: Then, gloriously, I find myself totally immersed in the wonder of the present. Like being wholly focused on chopping wood or carrying water, all I hear is the sound of my feet as they hit the ground. Free at last.
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From all the things I have ever heard or read, there is only one passage that perfectly resonates with my experience. It’s in a wonderful book, Bright Abyss, by Christian Wiman:
When I assented to the faith that was latent within me— and I phrase it carefully, deliberately, for there was no white light, no ministering or avenging angel that tore my life in two; rather it seemed as if the tiniest seed of belief had finally flowered in me, or, more accurately, as if I had happened upon some rare flower deep in the desert and had known, though I was just then discovering it, that it had been blooming impossibly year after parched year in me, surviving all the seasons of my unbelief.2
 To fight the fire of fear raging all around us – and through us – we must, of course, as good citizens, rise up and take positive action.  But first, I think, we should try to quell our fears with the faith that comes from nourishing that rare flower that lives, lonely and neglected, in too many of us.
xxx
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Marion Woodman, Dancing in the Flames: Shambhala: Boston, 1997
Wiman, Christian (2013-04-02). My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (p. 10). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.