Humans are of two genders. This diversity provides for procreation and many other rich human interactions. It also fuels the eternal battle of the sexes. Must we accept fragmentation along gender boundaries, or is their a way to benefit from this diversity and create a wise world?

Impact Statement

Gender differences can be used as a basis for fragmenting the people of our world. This can be one of the many causes preventing the wise world we want from emerging.

Solution Approaches

(Essay by GC member Ronnie Hawkins)

A deep, gendered shift in our global consciousness is in the works, I believe, a shift that will be needed to restore the balance between humanity and the rest of the biosphere and chart a sustainable course on into the future for Life on Earth.

But the kind of shift I'm talking about is not at all a matter of simply substituting women for men at the tops of our present social hierarchies; it is a matter of changing the way we humans organize ourselves into societies, and changing the goals we pursue collectively as members of those societies, that is as stake here.

Men need not fear the change of trajectory that lies before us; indeed, it will benefit men every bit as much as it does women. The needed shift has less to do with the sex of an individual than with the orientation of a person, or a society, toward otherness; instead of approaching our surroundings with aggressive yang, we must learn to open ourselves to them with receptive yin.

But first--just to lay the groundwork, to get the historical and current "facts" out on the table--it must be admitted that, anthropologically speaking, the vast majority of human cultures around the world, for at least the last 5,000 years, have been patriarchal in organization; one or a small number of men have basically called the shots for a much larger number of subordinate individuals, some of whom have been induced to lend physical support to maintaining the power of those at the "top," and males, at least partly because of the imputed superiority of the gender of these dominant individuals, have generally been valued more highly over females, even within families far from the nexus of power. The small number of women who have also exerted influence within such hierarchical systems only serve to prove the rule: in broad outline, male has been dominant over female, and toughness over gentleness, for so long in humanity's memory that it constitutes part of the water in which we swim.

To press the point further--and my apologies to the many individual men who do not fit the stereotype, please be aware that you do not have to identify with this "statistical" characterization--evolutionary psychologist Stephen Pinker, even as he argues that, overall, violence has decreased within human societies in recent years (an optimistic view that I'm afraid overlooks expanding military arsenals), flatly states, "men are, of course, the more violent sex" (The Better Angels of Our Nature, 2011, p. 517). In every society, he continues, they are more given to "play-fight, bully, fight for real, carry weapons, enjoy violent entertainment, fantasize about killing, kill for real, rape, start wars, and fight in wars" (p. 517). "Social dominance is a guy thing," he observes, and "men, the more dominance-obsessed gender, have stronger tribalist feelings than women, including racism, militarism, and comfort with inequality" (p. 525). He documents "gender gaps in overconfidence, personal violence, and group-against-group hostility," and gives a "qualified yes" answer to the question as to whether things would be more peaceful if women ran the world (p. 526), apparently even without taking into account changes they might make in our overall social organization.

That said--and I offer it in order to "make the water we swim in" visible to us so that we can better appreciate the extent of what needs to change--I will return to the shift of orientation that I think needs to occur in both men and women to bring about a rebalancing of our human trajectory on the planet. The following is a list of dualistically opposing pairs of characteristics commonly cited in distinguishing the Taoist polarities yang and yin (there are, of course, many more); I would maintain that, throughout our several-thousand-year-long recent past, most human societies have, implicitly or explicitly, valued those in the left column over those in the right, and that an inversion of this valuation is what is needed now to effect the necessary shift in our collective worldview.

yang
yin
male
female
active
passive
hard
soft
toughness
gentleness
aggressive
receptive
light
dark
manifest
hidden
focused
diffuse
Several years ago my attention was drawn to the similarity of these contrasts to two other lists of polar opposites, the first drawn up by the late ecofeminist philosopher Val Plumwood to illustrate what she called a "set of interrelated and mutually reinforcing dualisms which permeate western culture," forming a "fault-line which runs through its entire conceptual system" (Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, 1993, pp. 42-43), and the second from Anne Harrington, delineating the characteristics that have been ascribed to the left and right hemispheres of our brains, respectively, ever since the late nineteenth century (Medicine, Mind, and the Double Brain, 1987, p. 100).

From Plumwood's list:
male
female
culture
nature
reason
emotion
mind
body
rationality
animality
self
other
master
slave
civilized
primitive

From Harrington's pairings:
male
female
left hemisphere
right hemisphere
humanness
animality
white superiority
nonwhite inferiority
consciousness
unconsciousness
intelligence
passion/emotion
reason
madness
Much feminist philosophy has been critical of the way we have culturally trained ourselves to value one side of a dualism over the other, and I think it's instructive to consider the ways in which, and the degree to which, we have been expected to do so with respect to the three lists of opposing pairs above.

I would characterize our left-hemisphere cognitive style, which seems to correspond in certain ways to what Plumwood outlines as the dualistic logic of "the master" (1995, pgs. 56-57) and that forms the core of what she criticizes as "rationalism" (and distinguishes from an ecologically sensitive reason; Environmental Culture, 2002, p. 18), as excelling at linguistic construction, linearly logical analysis, and abstraction, but also prone to having a narrowly focal point of view that neglects much of what's on the periphery and how it's placed in larger context, thus failing to "grasp the big picture," and then confabulating to cover up its huge blind spots (see William Hirstein, Brain Fiction, 2006). Our modern educational establishment's overemphasis on this particular cognitive style just might be related to our continuing accordance of ontological priority to the abstract realm of economics over the concrete reality of planetary systems, and to the way that, as Searle says, linguistically constructed institutions "lock into human rationality" and provide "desire-independent" reasons for action (2010, p. 102), even when there are good desire-dependent reasons why, in some cases, we should not obey their supposedly commanding "deontology." And, while it would exceed the scope of this brief essay, I think it will be warranted to carry out a more thorough investigation of the possible connections between our currently lopsided way of thinking and what Mary Midgley identified as "this huge uncriticized emphasis, this indiscriminate, infectious corporate overconfidence, this obsessive one-way channelling of energy" (The Myths We Live By, 2002, p. 164), which I see as a manifestation, currently gathering steam, of what I'm calling yang.

One thing I would like to propose, as part of our incipient gendered shift in consciousness, is that together we begin to alter our perception, away from the yang monovision that employs what Marilyn Frye terms "the arrogant eye," into a yin orientation, a way of seeing with what she calls "the loving eye," a receptivity that tries to understand the other instead of aggressively plowing into it, taking from it, or trying to exterminate it. The arrogant eye is the eye of someone who "believes that the world is made for him to have dominion over and [that] he is made to exploit it," someone who sees what is other to him only in terms of how it can fulfill his demands, and whose ontology/metaphysics follows along the lines of believing the reductive mantra that "a usable universe is an intelligible universe is a simple universe" (The Politics of Reality, 1983, p. 71). The loving eye, on the other hand, "pays a certain sort of attention" to the other: "It is the eye of one who knows that to know the seen, one must consult something other than one's own will and interests and fears and imagination," the eye of one who "knows the independence of the other" and finds the alterity and complexity of the other endlessly fascinating, having no desire to dominate it or to absorb it into the self (p. 75). This is the kind of perception that we need to utilize in forging a new and more accurate worldview, and, fortunately, it is the kind of perception employed in most of the up-close examinations of reality made by scientists and other academics who practice their professions with integrity and who are coming to accept, as an overriding aim, that we must get humanity back onto a sustainable course again. With the loving eye we can take a good look at how our very complex planetary system functions, and simultaneously we can see how many of our human activities are bringing about malfunction in the system. We can also begin to see ourselves with "loving" reflexivity, understanding how we have constructed a "human world" within the larger biosystem, and come to think of it as somehow detached from that system, wrongly believing that we are able to act upon it "causally" without experiencing a proportionate reaction back from it in the material realm, and that we are able to import into our human world, from "mindless" nature (a category which also sometimes gets stretched to cover certain subsets of human beings, as illustrated in the lists above), whatever we want while similarly denying the possibility of reciprocity in the moral realm.

A crucial part of the gendered shift we must make will consist of rejecting the large, centralized, hierarchical social structures that concentrate power towards the "top," reorganizing ourselves into more egalitarian, horizontally "democratic," decentralized structures--a move that will in some respects parallel a shift from the chimpanzee toward a bonobo pattern of interaction, where females are at the helm. To help bring this on, however, I think we would do well to consciously start to shift the positive feedback with which we reward certain characteristics from the items on the left side of the lists above toward those on the right side, both in our child-rearing and early educational practices and in the way we deal with one another on a day-to-day basis. Why do we tend to have more respect for that which is aggressive and tough over that which is gentle and receptive? One might deny, on an individual basis, that such a tendency exists, but I will maintain that it remains the norm, in a general sense, in most of our human cultures today. Why are those who promote and pursue war still followed and favored over those who advocate peace? Please, we can't continue on, with these mutually reinforcing "male" properties hurtling us faster and faster along a most dangerous trajectory--it's time for us to start reining in the yang!

Resources for further study

  • The Better Angels of Our Nature, by Stephen Pinker
  • Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, by Val Plumwood
  • Medicine, Mind, and the Double Brain, by Anne Harrington
  • Environmental Culture, by Val Plumwood
  • The Myths We Live By, by Mary Midgley
  • The Politics of Reality, by Marilyn Frye

Organizations working toward solutions


A call to action

I think we would do well to consciously start to shift the positive feedback with which we reward certain characteristics from the items on the left side of the lists above toward those on the right side, both in our child-rearing and early educational practices and in the way we deal with one another on a day-to-day basis. Please, we can't continue on, with these mutually reinforcing "male" properties hurtling us faster and faster along a most dangerous trajectory--it's time for us to start reining in the yang!