A Developmental View of “Men’s Liberation”

[This is a response to Integral Life’s recent blog post, “The Need for Men’s Liberation,” a summary of the talk between Dr. Warren Farrell and Ken Wilber “about power, oppression, and the urgent need for men to begin redefining their roles for today’s world” (accessed 25 feb 2010, http://integrallife.com/node/68177). In this response, I do not attempt to evaluate or critique Dr. Farrell’s work nor his dialogue with Wilber (especially since my multiple attempts to access the audio recording resulted only in an error message). Nonetheless, being familiar with both liberation and integral perspectives, and moreover, being committed to these, not merely as intellectual pursuits, but as orienting principles that guide my ethico-political work, I felt moved to respond.]

“The Need for Men’s Liberation” points to the negative impact of sexism on men. Indeed, sexism—the systemic imposition of a presumed male superiority (at the intersubjective/cultural level) and the systematic oppression of women by men (at the objective/institutional level)—does have very negative effects on boys and men in our societies, especially at the personal level (physical, mental, spiritual and emotional aspects of being). Some of the examples shown in the embedded “The Daily Show” video clip, in Dr. Farrell’s audio response to the show (interview with Integral Life’s Corey W. deVos), and in blogged comments posted by men illustrate how we, personally, experience individual limitations as a result of our socialization in, and acculturation into, the prevailing cultural norms regarding gender identity. These examples include how we, as men, are hurt by societal messages, like “Real men don’t cry” nor otherwise express vulnerability, and that we are expected to be the primary household providers and be successful in the public arena, to name just a few.

From what I can tell from my admittedly limited exposure to Dr. Farrell’s position on this topic, his work shared in the Integral Life website brings to light evidence of men coming into the “resistance stage” of male social identity development. The resistance stage, Hardiman & Jackson’s social group identity development model (1997) tells us, is the third of five developmental stages. The first, the “naïve” stage, is where as very young children we have no awareness of gender differences and, therefore, have not yet developed an identity as a “boy” or “girl.” The second stage is “acceptance,” where we psychologically internalize the prevailing social norms regarding gender within the dominant culture thus accepting or taking on ideas, beliefs, attitudes, behaviors and values of maleness and manhood as part of our core identity or self system. [By the way, during the acceptance stage, both boys and girls internalize ideas, beliefs, attitudes, behaviors and values concerning gender that are “acceptable” within male dominant society.] This stage continues throughout childhood and, typically, into adulthood.

As we mature, we may face events that make us aware of contradictions between how we were raised and how what we now think, believe, and feel, or begin to ask ourselves about what it means to be a man. We may enter the “resistance” stage when our social group identity, in this case as men, develops to where we are capable of realizing: “Hey! Just wait a minute here! I know that this is what I learned about being a man, and this is what is expected of me as such by family and friends and employers and community and institutions and society at large. But this is NOT really or totally who I am! No! I RESIST!”

This developmental stage is what I see being addressed here by Ferrell.

The resistance stage, however, presents some significant and difficult challenges. The first one is that this realization tends to get us men pissed off. And getting angry, a normal and healthy (neurophysiologic) reaction to perceived or imagined danger, causes us to contract emotionally, withdraw relationally and, too often, to prepare for battle (among other things). This emotional contraction also comes with its cognitive counterpart, which in gendered social contexts tends to be that we, as men, get stuck in the “me,” in our individual experience, and in our individualized perspective. If these felt experiences and partial perspectives are combined with a lack of emotional and social intelligence to address that which triggered these feelings [after all, in male culture, we are not encouraged to examine and manage our feelings], it is not difficult for us to arrive at the “logical conclusion” that “Hey, I am the victim here.”

Now, with time, as we become aware that it is the women that are, in fact, the primary and intended victims of this social power arrangement, we then become capable of realizing that “Well, I, too, have been hurt by sexism.” As our consciousness within this stage of resistance to dominant culture develops further, and we also begin to perceive, recognize and understand how the ideological and behavioral patterns of socially constructed manhood are played out in and around us, we then may become more fully capable of a profound insight: “We, men, collectively, all of us, have been hoodwinked by sexism, male supremacy and patriarchy! Just like women, though quite differently!” [Indeed, very differently in any number of ways and degrees, but that’s another conversation.]

I believe Farrell’s work, unwittingly, alludes to the resistance stage in the process of male gender identity development and, to some extent, brings attention to a men’s movement in the US that goes back at least 30 years.

However, in what is expressed in the Integral Life posts, presents another major problem. That problem is in confusing or mistaking men’s felt sense of “powerlessness” with “oppression.” To be clear, when feminists (and other anti-oppression scholars and practitioners) define “power,” they/we try to be very explicit in the difference between “personal power” and “structural or institutional power.” [Notice that in using “we” here, I have contextually expanded my perspective to include both my social group identity as a man AND my social role identification as an “anti-oppression scholar-practitioner.”] So, when we make statements such as “Women are the victims of sexist oppression of men,” what we are stating is that an overarching historical pattern—a general rule and operating principle within our society—is the women collectively have been excluded, exploited, underserved and misrepresented by the systems and institutions that were created and are controlled, to this day, by men as a group, collectively. What is being named in analyses such as this one is that sexist oppression is the dynamic of institutional power that overwhelmingly has benefited men at the expense of women. It is certainly NOT about women’s personal power as individuals to resist the psychological internalization of their presumed inferiority to men nor about their collective power as a movement to struggle to change institutional practices that perpetuate inequitable outcomes for women as a social identity group.

So, when as men we experience a felt sense of “powerlessness” it is important that we clearly examine what we’re really talking about. Are we talking about how we are limited and hurt by the culture of male dominance and our own participation with sexist oppression? Or are we talking about how, in spite of the privileges conferred upon us by virtue of being male, that we still may not enjoy full participation, access and power in society to get our needs met—but by virtue of being poor, working or middle class, or because we also happen to be a man of Color, or that we are gay or gender-non-conforming, or because we are Muslim, or of our membership in one of the other subordinated, and truly oppressed, social identity groups? The complexities of social group identity are enormous. So, before we start making statements like “Men are being oppressed,” let us take a serious look at what words like “power,” “powerlessness,” or even “empowerment” really mean.

Of course, we can attempt to redefine what “power” means and, perhaps, as men, we can dare to redefine what “feminism” is, or maybe even try to instruct women on the true quality, nature and meaning of their experience. After all, a key pattern of men’s cultural dominance and institutional power has been, precisely, to define reality and, then, redefine it as is convenient to our purposes of maintaining power and privilege. But, as a sociologist, Dr. Farrell well knows that he cannot actually get to singlehandedly redefine these important sociological concepts. Not even with a little help from his friends.

Actually, I don’t believe Farrell, or Wilber for that matter, needs to redefine power in order to have men move to the next stage of social identity development (or a “higher” stage of consciousness development). That next stage of social identity development is, by the way, the stage of “redefinition.”

Having resisted and rejected the definition imposed collectively onto us as gender-identified beings, and after collectively coming to deeply understand just how we as men figure into the complex dynamics of social and institutional power, we can begin to move into the redefinition stage of social identity development. The clearer we are about just how we have been hurt—and in some measure, dehumanized—by cultural sexism and by our unconscious and unintentional participation in the sexist oppression of women, then we can effectively and positively and collectively move toward redefining what it is to be “a REAL man.”

And while, surely, this is a process to be undertaken and led by men, given the unconscious nature of our internalized sexist patterns of thought and behavior, it is absolutely necessary that we undertake this process with the strong support and wise guidance of women who have also travelled the developmental process of healing from internalized patriarchal oppression.

Through our struggle with other men in redefinition and our intentional relationship to conscious and truly liberated women, we can move to the internalization stage. In this fifth stage, a new definition of men and new patterns of thought, feeling and behavior in relationship to women and to other men, become progressively below conscious awareness to become second nature (true nature?). Not that we cannot and will not slip back to old sexist patterns; remember, to transcend means to embrace the old and include the new, and all of it is ever-present. Yet, this new way of being is more readily available to us.

I believe that understanding social group identity development, social power and oppression at all levels, stages, perspectives, perceptual positions and dimensions is a centrally important, and sorely overlooked, aspect of integral theory. I believe understanding gender, race, culture, class and other social power dynamics can facilitate movement into integral consciousness. Actually, I suspect our development into second tier ultimately depends on it.

More importantly, however, the major issues of our times—all of them—from personal health issues to health care issues, from the US economic crisis to the global climate crisis, from local politics to foreign wars are either caused by oppression in its many forms or are compounded by it. Without a doubt, viable and sustainable solutions to the problems of humanity, and to our survival, cannot be reached and implemented without true liberation from oppression and the radical transformation of human culture as we know it.

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