Time Magazine’s Person of the Year for 2017 is not a single person, but hundreds of persons that Time calls “The Silence Breakers,” women and a few men who’ve refused to keep quiet any longer about the sexual extortion and rape that is a fundamental mode of oppression by America’s degenerate patriarchy, and all patriarchies everywhere, including the little fiefdoms in Hollywood, in Silicon Valley and all across corporate America and the military. And these women marched again in their millions in most cities in the country last weekend, echoing the Woman’s March on Washington a year ago, in what was not a “symbolic gesture” but a show of power to be reckoned with.
Patriarchy, or rule by males, is not god-given, not a law of the cosmos, nor even, I think, a symptomatic flaw of our species. It’s a cultural invention, very widespread through many cultures, but not some universal rule of life. Patriarchies are based on force, on animal size and strength and aggressiveness, but can be dismantled and replaced.
In America, a demolition of the patriarchy has been going on with particular pointedness and powerful moments of success since the 1950s in the form of the feminist revolution, which, Simone de Beauvoir once remarked, is “alive, well, and in constant danger.”
Invoking an old hero, Simone de Beauvoir, and thinking with her for a while about our era of outrage, predatory sexual violence, arch prejudice, stupidity, and arrested development, can fortify and empower one’s clarity of mind. De Beauvoir, the great French existentialist philosopher and author who died in Paris at age 78 in 1986, held up the absurdity of male supremacy like a rat hanging by its tail. When I first read her most famous and influential work, The Second Sex, in the mid-1970s, it felt to me like a revelation.
First published in 1949, The Second Sex is not only a work of philosophy but also of applied ethnology, examining one of the key operating systems of European and American culture. It showed male supremacy and the “inferiority” of the “second sex” to be myths and constructs, social roles guided by mere cultural habit that motivate behavior of those who buy-in to the fallacies of the patriarchy.
That the patriarchal myth is not grounded in a physical or supernatural reality can be seen by its vulnerability to opposition and its slow but inexorable decline as an operating structure in American life. #MeToo is a profound example of how the patriarchy’s self-defined sexual entitlements can unravel and slowly fall away through a revolution of the oppressed.
One of De Beauvoir great gifts to a generation of young women and men who didn’t buy-in to the patriarchy in the 1970s was the distinction she made between sex and gender. Sexual biology, and its reproductive differences, is a given in all species. But for primates, how they are interpreted is not a given. It is a system of historical choices that evolve into an act of cultural predisposition. That’s what De Beauvoir meant when she wrote that women (and men) are not born, but they are made, made by culture, not by their reproductive equipment, but by the gender roles they are acculturated to inhabit.
To me that is the fundamental insight that propels the feminist revolution out of the stratosphere of philosophic discourse and gives it a self-empowering chance to dismantle the bigotry, bias, and injustice of the patriarchal system. The patriarchy can be changed, and the people who are subjugated by it can be liberated just as in any revolution.
The opposite of the patriarchy comes with the realization that all people are humans first, persons next, and genders after that. When gender roles inhibit and obstruct human development and well-being, when they thwart the freedom necessary for a person’s evolving self-creation, when they demean a person’s human dignity and thwart their human rights, those gender roles have to be attacked and destroyed. I’ve seen, and I’m sure many other of my friends have too, what the patriarchy and its system of disempowerment does to people we love, to colleagues we admire, to a whole half of humanity that is forced to take second place behind what De Beauvoir says is the masculine biased “default” position of the patriarchy.
Males using sexual extortion to lord over women domestically and in the workplace is especially disgusting, as #MeToo is showing the world. And it furthers gender strife, as well, making the hatred many women feel for men in general seem more justified than ever. The patriarchy is bad for everyone, overwhelmingly bad for women, of course.
De Beauvoir supports her analysis of European gender culture and patriarchy in another influential work, The Ethics of Ambiguity. As an existentialist, De Beauvoir holds that human beings are inescapably free to make choices, free to reflect upon their own behavior, free to interpret the world as they want, free to be conscious of themselves and change themselves by their own choices and actions. But our freedom is ambiguous because we are also what she calls a “facticity,” an “object for others.” So we are both subjects and objects, subjective realities that struggled to maintain their inherent freedom against the views, the limitations, the prejudices, and other constructs projected on us by others. The fact that each subject also objectifies all other subjects they encounter doesn’t seem to act as a break on our projections. Culture exists in all of us, directing our freedom in certain directions. When culture changes in enough people, the new version disseminates itself through various means, including peer pressure.
Because freedom only has validity when it is expressed in action, De Beauvoir would, I think, see #MeToo as an immensely influential extension of the feminist revolution, one that has the potential to actually eliminate one of the most loathsome aspects of the patriarchal power structure.
In the ethics of ambiguity, the free person will always find herself in conditions that in some way work to distort or inhibit her drive to manifest her freedom of choice and action. The free person and her subjective reality is always engaged in working to adjust the external world to allow her freedom to flourish as she wishes, as long as it does no harm to others. That basic subject/object duality will never change. So it is incumbent on all free people, on all of us, to make sure that the world sees our freedom to choose, and to be as we will, as an inherent right, rather than as an errant anomaly to be obstructed through prejudice to maintain the status quo. That is why “the silence breakers,” and the #MeToo movement, have become a vanguard in the remaking of American gender culture, and why their actions lead to the possibility of a general liberation — for all of us.
*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it