Is Bono a feminist?

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.

4 thoughts on “Is Bono a feminist?

  1. Burk says:

    Hi, Bernard!

    What a nice post. Let me be a devil’s advocate for a minute, though and suggest that the growing consciousness of transgender issues casts a new light on gender roles. For the point seems to be that our gender identification is not really a matter of being dressed in pink or camo, but is a deeper biological state which is not only present, but virtually unalterable.

    The way we feel about ourselves is culturally informed, but also biologically shaped, and the penchant that boys and girls have (conventionally) for their disparate and often stereotypical pursuits are likewise heavily programmed. This doesn’t mean that we can’t be open to the nature of each child, and also try to counter-program a bit in the interests of all kinds of important values, including feminism. But don’t be surprised when the roles most people end up in, after all the education and counter-education is through, turn out to be roughly conventional, if a little more understanding.

    For example, I recently read Lady Chatterly’s Lover, and thought it was wonderful- a breakout book for the canon. Sex-positive, but still trafficking in, and premised on, very conventionally-typed roles.

    On the other hand, you seem to not want to do away with gender, but open up each gender to its opposite virtues. Jung had a prominent theme on this front- the anima and animus. It has long been recognized as a potent issue for both sexes- how much to recognize, and to exemplify, one’s complementary character. Patriarchal societies are stunningly primitive in that respect, but that has been the cost of the military power / mindset by which we (some) have survived and succeeded in a crowded world, over the evolutionary span. We see it every weekend in American football.

    • Thanks Burk

      Indeed: biology constrains but doesn’t determine is the way I like to think of it, and the transgender example is an apt reminder that there is such a thing as gender identification.

      And, to state the obvious, there is a tremendous amount of flexibility in terms of how we then think about and promote those identities. You mention the clothing thing, and at some level it does feel like a trivial aspect to fixate on. Except that the costumes we wear do in turn influence the games we play, and the games we play determine which skill sets we most practise. I’m always struck in schools, particularly when teaching drama, how constrained girls often are by the clothes ‘choices’ they make, in terms of how they are able to move and present themselves.

  2. Hilary Bray says:

    Thanks for provoking thinking on this topic, Bernard. It’s important if we’re going to continue the progress you note in just one generation.
    I’m actually a bit frightened by the reach and prevalence of our tendency for binary thinking; how easily our thinking falls into, as you say, “oppositions” and “our easy dichotomies.”
    I understand the unassigned, ungendered and combining nature of your suggestions for replacements for masculine and feminine – “the assertive and immersive in all of us.” But, they’re still binary and opposites. What if we at least extend our fondness for that and apply a kind of algorithmic thinking to the issue. That way we need to look at the desired end point and find a way towards it.
    You describe a desirable, beautiful ‘end’, and ask why men are not demanding it. I think some are, and I think given the power men (only some of them of course) have had in our society, we would not have made the gains we have without their (only some of them again) sense of justice, decency and beauty. The Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill was published in the nineteenth century. His thinking didn’t take place in a vacuum.
    I think some young women are investing their energies and identities into the commodified version of life that is modern capitalism. What that is doing to the confidence and spirits of some young women is existentially pernicious.
    If we remember that it was Margaret Thatcher who said there’s no such thing as society, then we can see that there is great humanity in some of us, and very little in others, our genders notwithstanding.
    Maybe if we drop the genders and describe in our schools, in our social behaviour, when we vote, in our economic behaviour, the kind of society in which we can all flourish, then we might wonder at the great diversity of being that will make masculine and feminine nothing more than biological terms.

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