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Archive for the ‘men and women’ Category

To anyone who tries to observe accurately, men are clearly the privileged gender. However, this observation is likely to generate a hostile response from certain types of men, because they do not feel privileged. They have heard their right to privilege questioned, and seen their privilege somewhat diminished in the last few decades. The diminishment does not go nearly as far as it should, so far as I am concerned, but, because their privilege forms a major part of their identity, the change is resented out of all proportion to its effect. To far too many men, being male is a major part of their identity, which is particularly difficult because the traditional roles no longer work.

In the last century, traditional masculinity took two blows it has never recovered from. First, in North America and Europe, two generations were decimated several times over and warped by the loss of millions of men in the two World Wars. Some of the survivors returned home handicapped or suffering trauma, others eager to put their experiences behind them and become an economic success.

Neither of these attitudes made many of the survivors ideal role models for their children. As a result, several generations of men had to re-invent masculinity for themselves.

Lacking examples, many stalled in adolescence, which is often a time of exaggerated and over-simplified gender roles. Instead of learning responsibility for their dependents, the use of their physical strength for others, or any of the other expectations that could sometimes make the traditional masculine roles acceptable, they focused on the superficial – swearing, drinking, watching sports, and domination without responsibility.

In particular, as adolescents often do, they developed a negative identity, defining themselves primarily as not being women. A negative identity is always a shaky basis for anyone’s sense of self, but what made this identity particularly unstable was that the necessities of war time had also caused women’s roles to change as they actively helped the war efforts. The result was that the basis for many men’s identities shifted. Add the reduction of domestic work due to automation, and the liberalization of many laws, and by the 1960s, many women realized they no longer needed to depend on men.

Since male identity depended on a disappearing view of women, the change in the female gender role suddenly left many men with no sense of who they were – a problem that many men still struggle with today. Rather than adjusting to the changes, they prefer to lament them, evoking a view of traditional masculine roles that the men of the past would probably openly despise. Rather than learning from the example of feminists and starting to examine their own roles, they obsessively blamed women for destroying their sense of identity.

Those men who escaped these dead ends have done so mainly by building identities that are not based on their gender. Their senses of themselves are based on their accomplishments or sense of ethics. Rather than viewing themselves primarily as men, like feminists before them, such men have struggled to identify themselves as humans first, and to consider their biological sex as a detail only relevant in one part of their lives. Unlike the Men’s Rights Activists, they have tried to develop an adult sense of themselves, one that is self-contained and not dependent on women’s roles.

There are many advantages to this new definition of masculinity, not least of which is the possibility of actual friendships with women. However, to men who invested so much in a distortion of the past and in not being women, this new definition is unacceptable. They call men who adopt it effeminate, as though the old insult has any power over those whose identity is self-contained. The truth is, they have too much invested in their confusion and resentment to move beyond it into anything healthier.

They would rather condemn or attack, and assert their own psychosis than consider any other alternative – and, unfortunately, there is no easy way to make them re-evaluate themselves. A few learn flexibility as they realize that their wives and daughters benefit from feminism, but for the most part, they continue the confusion and the hurt by passing their perceptions on to other generations, condemning their own sons to a distorted and corrupt perception of themselves, ensuring that their self-inflicted misery will continue.

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Lately, I’ve been disturbed by an unexpected event. The event was trivial in itself, but every now and then it nags me like a piece of tin foil trapped between my teeth, raising questions about the everyday interactions of men and women.

The event was a brief encounter with a woman who had been a colleague of sorts several years ago. I had questioned her approach to collaboration, coming to believe she had used me when I was vulnerable as a recent widower. She responded condescendingly. It was not my proudest moment, but I became unspeakably angry. For a couple of years I publicly criticized her several times when doing so seemed relevant.

Learning that we would be at the same conference, I tried to make a gesture of apology. It was rebuffed with unnecessary rudeness, but I had become embarrassed by my past behavior, so instead of growing angry again, I simply decided that I would ignore her at the conference. In fact, twice, I dodged her in the hallway to avoid conflict.

I was at a talk of mutual interest, sitting midway in the audience, on an aisle seat. A few minutes into the talk, I noticed that the woman in question was sitting in the back, near the far wall, with half the audience separating us.

For the first twenty minutes, I kept my face mostly to the front. However, when the panel asked for questions, members of the audience spoke from a microphone just behind me, and I turned to face them.

The woman took a couple of moments to notice me, but when she did, she rose hurriedly and left. She did not exactly run because of the crowd at the door, but she looked as though she would have liked to.

I would prefer to think that she was rushing to another talk, but the next sessions were at least twenty minutes from happening. Her departure might have nothing to do with me, except that she looked panicked, even scared — even though being either seems out of all proportion to the event.

Her reaction gave me no satisfaction and no sense of power. Instead, it made me feel both small and imposed upon. I felt like I had been silently condemned as a bully or worse, yet I could not tax myself with anything worse than anger and the occasional sniping. My criticism was never as severe as it could have been, and I had said far less than I might have– as little as the woman is likely to believe that. Even here, I am leaving out details that might identify her.

Nothing was ever said in so many words, but I suspect that I have been press-ganged into her private psycho-drama, playing in her mind a stereotypical man disappointed that I could not have a relationship with her. Nothing to justify that view had ever happened or been said – so soon after my partner’s death, I had had no wish for any new relationship – but my impression was that the woman was reacting to images in her mind and past experiences, and hardly at all to anything I had said and done. So far as she was responding to me, she was slotting my words and behavior into pre-defined categories rather than viewing them independently. Given my views on the typical man, the idea leaves me even more insulted.

Ordinarily, my first instinct in such a situation would be to talk to the woman. However, after seeing her apparent flight, I am reluctant to increase her panic or fear now that I am aware of them as a possibility.

Anyway, I suspect an intervention would never work. It would simply reinforce her interpretation. As much as my reflex is to help, her view of me has such a limited connection to any reality that it is clearly something she has to work out for myself. All I can do is hope that she becomes indifferent to me as quickly as possible; at this point, I can hardly expect her to start viewing me as human.

Meanwhile, in what world is such behavior reasonable? I am left wondering: are relationships between women and men so toxic that other women would react the same way to such a minor series of interactions? I remind myself that the woman has run from at least one female antagonist, so I would like to believe that other women – if not most women – would react differently. But I am left wondering if male-female relationships could generally be as tangled as this, and whether my belief in the possibility of friendship or mutual respect between the sexes is naivety on my part.

Unfortunately, though, I have only fragmented answers. All I have is an uneasy guilt at having unintentionally hurt someone I have sometimes respected, mingled with a sense of being insulted and unfairly accused, and the frustrated conviction that the only action I can take is no action at all. It is a situation that has no effect whatsoever on a daily basis, but it annoys me because it seems so baffling.

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No, I haven’t been watching When Harry Met Sally recently. But in the last month or so, I’ve been thinking now and then about the question of whether men and women can be friends without any sexual feelings interfering. About a month ago, a woman accused me (incorrectly) of having an “inappropriate” interest in her, and I was so deeply insulted that I haven’t been able to forgive the affront. The idea that men and women can be friends and nothing more is very much a part of me, and I have proved the fact to my satisfaction so many times that I was unprepared for someone who holds the opposite view. How, I wonder, could such a discrepancy of viewpoints come about?

I don’t deny that heterosexual men and women are always aware that someone is a member of the opposite sex. That is as true as the fact that a straight man can hardly have another man – especially a stranger – move into his personal space without an unconscious feeling of rivalry.

But what I do deny is that such awareness is automatically the defining feature of a relationship. Although I have no idea whether awareness of another person’s gender is biological or cultural (although I suspect a little of both), I don’t believe that it has to dominate a relationship — unless you let it.

Over the years, I have been in several situations in which either I was strongly attracted to a woman or she was strongly attracted to me, yet our relationships were about work or common interests. The attraction may have been difficult at first, but soon became irrelevant, if not always disappearing altogether, for the simple reason that I and the woman involved had decided, generally without any mutual discussion, that it would not be acted upon. It was really no more complicated than that.

However, I am thinking now that not every man can be friends with every woman. Those who can, I think, are largely those who do not define themselves primary by gender, but consider themselves people first.

If you are a man for whom your sexuality is primarily about your own predatorship, or a woman who believes that men see you primarily as prey, then I suspect cross-gender friendships are unlikely. The same is true, in more complex ways for some feminists (I regret to say), who condition themselves to see all interactions in terms of gender politics, or male supremacists brooding over the supposed wrongs that women have done them. In all these situations, the awareness of gender is too strong to be relaxed. Consequently, the people involved can never relax, either.

In their different ways, such people have all come to be obsessed by gender. Instead of gender being only one of many characteristics, for them it has become the dominant one. In fact, for many such people, it has become the only characteristic. At times, gender seems to be all they can see.

By contrast, those of us who can be friends with the opposite sex tend to see gender as important only in certain circumstances. The rest of the time, it is part of the background, either ignored or not considered primary. We don’t generally say things like, “Men are like that” or “Well, you know women,” because we don’t see people mainly in terms of male and female. Instead, we are likely to consider other people in terms of shared goals or common interests. For us, any initial awareness of gender generally fades as other aspects of a relationship become more important. That tends to happen even if the other person is strikingly good-looking.

In my own case, this outlook was strengthened for many years, because I was a well-known monogamist. One of the advantages of being happily married is that – unlike many single people – you don’t think about the availability of a person of the opposite sex when you meet them.  Instead, you are freed to talk about what matters to you. That holds true whether you are with your spouse or alone.

But, whatever the reasons, throughout my adult life, I have had at least as many female friends – both straight and lesbian – as male ones. By seeing women as people first, I have learned more about humanity than I would have otherwise.

That’s why, when someone declares through their actions or words that men and women can’t be friends, I always feel sorry for them. I always suspect that their experience is too limited, or too framed by popular movies and fiction, or perhaps too conditioned by a traumatic experience. I consider them narrow people, and take their insistence on their world views as a personal insult. So far as I am concerned, they are denying both my beliefs and experience – all without knowing what they are talking about.

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Last weekend, I had coffee with a woman I hadn’t seen in six months. Well, actually I had a milk shake and bagel, but you know what I mean: we were eating and drinking in a public place as an excuse to talk. She was unemployed, and the doubts she was having about herself demonstrated, very concretely, one of the reasons why feminism is still important.

This woman, you should understand, is someone who could only be called accomplished. When she was young, she not only traveled around the world by herself, but lived in the Middle East and Japan. She is a mainstay of one social advocacy group, and worked for poverty wages to set up another from scratch. At times, she assists a leading civic politician. Intelligent, occasionally rowdy, committed and well-read, she is very much the sort of person I would like to be like more often, but whose example I can only occasionally match (if that).

She was just back in town after three months away, and having trouble finding work. But, where a man would probably blame the economy and try harder, she was convincing herself that the fault was hers. She had been ousted from the group she set up by office politics, and had a reputation in some circles as overbearing and aggressive.

Having worked with her a couple of times, I am in the position to say that this reputation is in no way deserved. Yes, she is business-like when organization needs to be done. But she never gives needless orders, and the way that she always pitches in with whatever work needed doing is proof that she doesn’t let authority go to her head. If she were a man, you’d say she was a competent and efficient leader.

All the same, I know the gossip that circulates about her. More to the point, I know the type of people who spread the gossip. One that comes to mind (who probably isn’t the one you’re thinking of if you’re familiar with the situation I’m describing)  is a middle-aged man who compensates for living in his mother’s basement by trying to convince everyone how important he is. Another (who probably isn’t who you think, either) is a male geek with a soccer ball for a paunch who is always getting into arguments because nobody is as impressed with his views as he believes they should be.

Both are the sort of men who not only act as though they are single (even if they happen to be married), but give the impression of not having had a date in some time. They are men who are made profoundly uneasy by women, and feel threatened by any woman who does not value them at their own estimation, and who deals with them on her own terms.

Knowing those responsible for the woman’s reputation, I suggested that the problem was theirs, not hers. That was not just a bit of coffee shop philosophy, but literally true. The sort of men I describe are rarely in positions of influence – in fact, that is one of the reasons for their bitterness and for their envy of women who succeed.

But the woman I was talking to only said, “That would be easy to believe.” She went on to describe the difficulty of getting a recommendation from the group she had setup.

Realizing that I would not persuade her easily, I said no more on the subject, not even to mention that she was exaggerating the difficulties. Sometimes, people just want to articulate their worries, and don’t want to hear suggestions. As she went on to wonder if she had made the city unlivable for herself – obviously contemplating a move elsewhere – I realized that this was one of those times.

Inside, though, I was full of indignation on her behalf. Nearly forty years after feminism’s second wave began, this smart and independent woman was blaming herself – never mind that the only alternative was to conform and to hide her talents and kowtow to those whose only claim to superiority was their sex. How dare those petty-minded men take out their own insecurities in spiteful whispers against her? And how stupid are we as a culture, that we raise such obstacles against the capable, solely because they happen to be female?

For all the progress of the last few decades, the woman I was talking to, despite her abilities, had been so worn down by the gossip about her that she was assuming blame in exactly the stereotypical way that women are supposed to do. Nor is she the first capable women whom I have seen act in this way.

Often, of course, feminism is about helping the helpless, from the working mother who needs day care to the victim of abuse. However, it seems to me that feminism is also about enabling the talented, about making sure that talents aren’t crippled by an agony of frustration by the roles that women are still expected to play.

Yet, at that moment, all I could do was provide a sympathetic ear. And let me tell you, I didn’t feel like I was doing nearly enough.

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Near-freezing conditions in December always remind me of my decision to move out of my parents’ house. I didn’t actually move out for another eight months, but I made the decision after my visit to a high school friend in Saskatchewan.

I’d met her in Grade 12 when she attended my high school for half a semester. I was infatuated with her, and, although she didn’t reciprocate, we kept in touch when she returned home after Christmas. Since then, other love-interests had crept into both our lives, but, after five straight semesters of university, I was ready for an adventure. Somehow, travelling to see someone was more appealing than heading somewhere on my own.

Even so, the trip was an adventure to me. I was green, and knew it. But, eager for experience, a few days after my last exam, I boarded a train in the cold of early evening. I could hardly believe my own daring.

Traveling as cheaply as possible, I didn’t book a sleeper car. The trip was supposed to take 36 hours, and, being young, I didn’t see any trouble with staying up all that time, and maybe napping for a few hours if I started to flag.

Right away, I found myself thrown into a world of strangers. Seated across the aisle from me was a thin, unshaven man, obviously an alcoholic, who had a great fund of stories about working as a logger and at other manual labor. Across from me was a fat First Nations woman missing a front tooth, who suggested that I sleep first while she kept watch – a comment that made me so nervous that, when I slept, I made sure that my wallet was on the side closest to the seat so that nobody could pick my pocket when I slept. For a while, too, I shared my seat with a young army cadet. He was a year younger than me, but he seemed so fully of worldly experience that I felt about fourteen in comparison.

The train was still in the Fraser Valley when we hit snow. As we inched through the mountains, the train employees kept upping their estimates of how long the trip would take. By the time we reached Boston Bar, we were already a couple of hours behind schedule. I remember waking and descending from the train to take a couple of cautious steps, ready to bolt back if the train started moving, just so I could say that I had. It was my adventure, and I was determined to get the most of it.

We hit the Rockies just in time for sunrise – a sheet of blinding light spreading from behind craggy peaks that I can still see if I stop and remember. Another night, and we were in Edmonton, where I stepped off the train again to stretch. I thought of a penpal I had in Edmonton, and thought of calling, but concluded reluctantly that she probably didn’t want a call at 3AM on a Sunday.

In Edmonton, at least one passenger left to take a plane to Toronto. The alcoholic across the way said that the average trip across Canada took longer now than it had in the 1930s, a fact that one or two train officials confirmed.

By the time we reached Saskatoon, we were fourteen hours behind schedule, and I was cramped, and crabby from lack of sleep. Even so, I looked around the train station with undisguised awe, looking at signs promising departures to Le Pas and Churchill Manitoba that had previously only been names on a map to me. These places were real, I suddenly understood, and people could travel to them.
I found a cheap motor hotel, and got in touch with my friend. She still had exams, so, for much of my days, I was on my own. I explored the city on foot, especially the campus of the University of Saskatchewan, and even fantasized about transferring there long enough to make a couple of appointments with the advisors.

I even had the thrill of stopping by the office of a magazine that was publishing a poem of mine, and answering a question that arrived in a letter shortly before I left. Yes, I definitely meant “wondering,” not “wandering,” I told the editor from the doorway. “Oh, I was just wandering,” she replied.

At night, I ate at the restaurant attached to the motor hotel. If my friend was busy, I stayed in my room and wrote poetry. I felt very grown up, writing poetry in my hotel room, and more than a little self-consciously dramatic.

The last night of my stay, my friend invited me after dinner. We went for a drive out on the prairie, and I remember the impossibly bright stars and the seemingly endless miles of dark, flat land around us that left me disoriented and dimly frightened. As we drove, we had one of those long talks that seem so important when you’re a young adult, and she told me she was seeing someone else. Finally, she drove me back to my hotel. We held hands for a while, and I felt like telling her that I didn’t need sympathy, but for a long time I kept holding her hand anyway, enjoying the feel of her chubby fingers when she squeezed mine.

The next day, I took a taxi to the train station for the journey home. Moving to Saskatchewan was probably out of the question, I thought. But if my friend could move hundreds of miles to go to university, the least I could do, I decided, was to move out on my own. I couldn’t do much with a new semester about to start, and I needed a summer of work if I was going to pay rent, but, eight months after I returned home, I did move out. Nor, except for two weeks when I was between semesters and apartments, did I ever move back.

Somehow, after that late night car ride, I never did get back in touch with my friend. I didn’t seem to have anything more to say to her.

A few years ago, she called me unexpectedly after she had found a trove of some of my poems, wanting to apologize for having treated me shabbily. But I felt embarrassed talking to her with Trish nearby, and, anyway, I still didn’t have anything more to say. I listened and made non-committal noises, sensing that what she wanted was less my forgiveness than an opportunity to forgive herself.

I was unable to tell her that, so far as I was concerned, she had done nothing to forgive. She’d given me the opportunity for adventure, and given me an example for doing what I should have done at least a year earlier – and each of those was a gift that she could hardly have equaled even by asking me to spend the night with her.

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Do gender differences exist?

Many people wouldn’t dream of asking this question. From puberty, if not before, the main source of most people’s identity seems to be whether they’re male or female – not just in sexual matters, but in every aspect of their lives. So, I realize that, in asking this question, I haven’t a prayer of getting out alive.

So what makes me the exception who does ask? Maybe it’s the fact that I went to school with a number of intelligent girls, or that I further confused the already confused time of puberty by reading feminist writers. Or possibly, having been dismissed as slow simply because I had a speech impediment in the first six years of my life has left me with an innate dislike of being labeled myself or of labelling others.

Possibly, too, my mental tendencies play a role. I know from other circumstances that my ability to recognize patterns is far better at detecting similarities than differences is involved. Nor is there much doubt that I’m often a contrarian, particularly where popular wisdom involved. But I’d like to think that being observant has something to do with the matter, too.

Oh, I know that men and women behave and speak differently. I’m not denying that. But how do we know that these differences aren’t only the result of circumstances?

Because we know, says the chorus of popular wisdom. The truth is, gender differences are an explanatory principle in modern industrial culture, just like gravity. When someone’s told that an object falls due to gravity, few ever go on to ask about the mechanisms of gravity. In the same way, once you invoke gender differences you no longer have to probe for deeper reasons for someone’s behavior: she gossips because she’s a woman, he likes sport because he’s a man.

The difference is, we have reliable proof of gravity and how it functions. But do we have equally reliable proof of gender differences? Differences in male and female brains have been charted, but I’ve yet to hear these differences related to mental differences, any more than scientists have explained the importance in the design differences in avian and mammalian brains.

We also have thousands of studies that purport to prove differences between male and female – or, at least, reports of such studies in the media – but most of us, including me, hear only their results. We don’t know that these studies were validly designed to eliminate the possibility of bias in their results or their interpretation, so how do we know that they are pointing to real differences? or that the weak correlations and tentative conclusions haven’t been exaggerated by sensation-minded, scientifically weak reporters?

(Because we know, says the chorus).

In any other area, this sort of sloppy thinking would soon get rejected. When the primate language studies of the 1970s showed too much bias, it took the tightly-designed studies of Irene Pepperberg and years of working with Alex, the African Gray who was her main subject, to make the study of animal language acquisition respectable. But nobody minds having their deepest beliefs reinforced, so dubious gender studies go unchallenged.

In fact, I’ve yet to hear of a single study that began by questioning whether gender differences exist. Probably, such a study would have trouble being funded. Instead, they all seem to start with the goal of articulating gender differences, assuming from the start that they’ll find some.

Personally, I’ve never been able to answer the question with any certainty. The idea that you can generalize about roughly half the population makes little sense – unless, of course, the generalizations are so high level or so qualified as to be useless. Not that this bit of logic makes any difference to any of the thousands of self-appointed experts who chatter away about male and female differences in the popular media.

All I know is that, in seven years of university instruction, I had the chance to see thousands of young male and female minds developing. I saw plenty of differences in attitude and perception in individuals. Sometimes, I observed cultural differences. But not once did I see any pattern that suggests differences attributable to gender. Behavioral differences, yes. Intellectual differences, no.

It’s not as though I’m completely disposed to say there are no differences. I simply wonder how so many other people can speak so knowledgeably and comfortable about what seem to me are exaggerations at best.

However, socially, I’m careful to keep this heresy to myself. Inwardly, I may wince when my fellow men try to drag me into a discussion of hockey, or a woman talks about how all her female friends are addicted to chocolate, but, outwardly, I’ve learned to keep my composure. I play the anthropologist trying to ingratiate his way into a strange tribe, and remain non-committal until I can change the subject.

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