Aristotle suggested that virtue is located at the mid-point of two damaging extremes. This is, I think, a most profound and beautiful idea. Rather than thinking of selfishness as an unadulterated evil, with kindness the attendant good, isn’t it much more interesting to think of kindness being a virtue properly moderated by self-interest? At the most basic level, an act of kindness has more value when it is freely given, when the self interested and confident individual chooses to offer their time, support or attention to the needs of another. Kindness without any such element of self-interested choice becomes an act instead of obligation, where the individual serves because they must, where the motivator is not an eagerness to please, but rather a great fear of not pleasing. The giver disappears, and at some point kindness morphs into something much more like exploitation.
This idea can be applied to almost any of our easy dichotomies, and it came to mind recently when reading a vigorous and witty feminist response to the rather surprising news that Bono had been named one of Glamour magazine’s Women of the Year, and then again when a good friend suggested we need new words to replace masculine and feminine. And indeed I think of it every day watching my boys growing up, and noticing the virtues I instinctively cherish in them.
I don’t know much about feminism, certainly not in terms of its current scholarship, but as a teacher and a parent it’s impossible not to form opinions about the ways boys and girls are both enabled and constrained by the gender narratives we weave about them. I’ve been teaching for twenty six years now, and its clear that in this regard some things have changed for the better. In the seventies my older sister was told bluntly by her teacher that girls can’t do physics. At the time it wasn’t considered a controversial statement. Luckily she was a stubborn soul, and persevered anyway in order to fight her way into vet school. That doesn’t happen now. In fact, girls on average outperform boys academically at school level. I teach drama and it’s okay now for boys to want to sing and dance or play real emotions on stage without any of the self-referential irony that was compulsory for male performers when I was a youngster. We’re slightly less hideous towards the non-dominant sexualities, and this gives me some hope. And yet it’s hard not to think that in some ways we’ve slipped backwards.
The internet, which was meant to liberate us by exposing us to the widest possible range of ideas and perspectives, seems to have created instead an echo chamber in which points of view have hardened. The sad and fearful hatred of the anonymous troll has created a level of anxiety that encourages the young not to explore, but rather to conform, to keep their head down. Sexuality has been pornofied, and the curated online self has made a cultural lighthouse of the bragging of the insecure. There’s an awful lot still to do, and I do wonder what it is exactly that most keeps us from doing it.
Here’s two ideas, the first being a return to Aristotle. It seems to me that the zero sum narrative of privilege, that women could only begin to catch up at the expense of men, was at the very least bad marketing. The truth, I think, had we men been able to grasp it, is that there’s an awful lot for everybody to gain if we choose not to view the world through a feminine/masculine filter. That we (by which I mean men) didn’t see that was I imagine due in a large part to the normal resistance to change. We became fixated on what we might lose, and so missed the gains available, if not for us, then at least for our sons.
Given how huge those gains are, that’s a testimony to human stupidity, and reveals the great flaw in our tendency to think only in terms of oppositions. I speak of the lucky young men I see now who are physically comfortable in their world, who will drape themselves over the body of a male friend as they sit listening in class, who are not so terrified of their own sexuality that they will visit it upon their future partners in the form of aggression. I speak of the last seven years of my life devoted primarily to the role of fatherhood (and tears well in my eyes as I write this), of the beautiful connection to one’s children available to any parent with the time to offer. I speak of the immeasurable value of a relationship with one’s partner built first on a friendship of equals. Who wouldn’t want all that? Why exactly aren’t men demanding it?
And here, I suspect, my friend was right. We need new words. Men instinctively resist the virtues of their feminine selves because they fear this might somehow dilute their manhood. But what other words could we use? The best I can come up with, and their inadequacy is immediately apparent, is the assertive and immersive in all of us. We have both the capacity to compete, to be noticed, to demand that we be listened to, and the ability to empathise, placate, share and nurture, to lose ourselves in the world of the other. Aristotle might say the virtue is to be found in the middle ground.
The second idea stems from another field of philosophy, that of free will. Our western Christian tradition likes to think very much in terms of individual responsibility and choice, indeed our entire economic system relies upon the ongoing mythologising of this value system. There is much to be admired in the notion of personal responsibility, of course, but notice how quickly it transforms into blame. If people are free to do as they please, and they do things that are stupid and harmful, then that is their fault. And if it’s their fault, then the way to fix it is to tell them to stop being so stupid and harmful – loudly and repetitively. Until they get it. And as any school teacher will tell you, blaming and ranting doesn’t work (although it makes us feel better sometimes). If you want to change behaviours, you also have to alter the environment that causes those behaviours. Too much of the rhetoric surrounding gender is the rhetoric of blame, of identifying perpetrator and victim, and I’m not sure that leads easily to solutions.
If we don’t like the way men behave, and there are a bunch of good reasons not to much of the time, then the most productive thing to do is to think about how we might change this. If our society remains committed to an almost Victorian level of embarrassed secrecy when it comes to our sexuality, then the pornography industry will rush in to fill the void. And that’s our own stupid fault. All of ours. If we dress our boys in military camouflage and our girls as fairies then yes, they will come to think of themselves as profoundly different from one another. If the world our children grow up in is one where men mow lawns and women cook dinner, then the assertive and immersive will remain forever detached. Perhaps feminism, like charity, starts at home.
And now I hear my one year old son stirring in his slumber, and I must get ready to take him to school with me, for his mother is in Australia, and I rather hope she’s having a party.