Chal­leng­ing ex­treme mas­culin­ity

The fall of Har­vey We­in­stein should make us re­flect the abuse of power and priv­i­lege that so many men re­sort to

Gulf News - - OPINON -

he movie mogul Har­vey We­in­stein was de­scribed by the New York Times as a se­rial sex­ual ha­rasser. Last week, the New Yorker ran a fol­low-up story by Ro­nan Far­row (the bi­o­log­i­cal son of Woody Allen, who has re­pu­di­ated his fa­ther for his treat­ment of his sis­ters), ex­pand­ing the charges women have made against We­in­stein to in­clude sex­ual as­sault. We­in­stein de­nies any non-con­sen­sual sex.

Un­der­ly­ing all these at­tacks in­deed is a lack of em­pa­thy, a will to dom­i­nate, and an en­ti­tle­ment to con­trol, harm and even take the lives of oth­ers. Though there is a good ar­gu­ment that men­tal ill­ness is not a suf­fi­cient ex­pla­na­tion — and most men­tally ill peo­ple are non­vi­o­lent — mass shoot­ers and rapists seem to have a lack of em­pa­thy so ex­treme it con­sti­tutes a psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­or­der. At this point in his­tory, it seems to be not just a de­fect from birth, but a char­ac­ter­is­tic many men are in­stilled with by the cul­ture around them. It seems to be the pre­con­di­tion for caus­ing hor­rific suf­fer­ing and tak­ing plea­sure in it as a sign of one’s own power and su­pe­ri­or­ity, in re­gard­ing oth­ers as worth­less, as yours to harm or elim­i­nate.

Or per­haps it’s an ex­treme ver­sion of mas­culin­ity that has al­ways been with us in a cul­ture that gives men more power and priv­i­lege than women; per­haps these acts are the re­sult of tak­ing that to its log­i­cal con­clu­sion. There must be ter­ri­ble loneliness in that fail­ure to per­ceive or value the hu­man­ity of oth­ers, the fail­ure of em­pa­thy and imag­i­na­tion, to con­sider one­self the only per­son who mat­ters. Car­ing about oth­ers, em­pathis­ing, lov­ing them, lib­er­ates each of us; these bereft fig­ures seem to be pris­on­ers of their selfish­ness be­fore they are pun­ish­ers of oth­ers.

It’s the au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism of vi­o­lence that seems too of­ten over­looked, the acts that are the op­po­site of the demo­cratic ideal that all peo­ple are cre­ated equal, with cer­tain in­alien­able rights. There is no greater au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism than that of some­one who vi­o­lates the will, the body, the well­be­ing, or takes the life of an­other. The crimes in ques­tion, from sex­ual as­sault to mass killings, seem de­signed specif­i­cally as as­ser­tions that the per­pe­tra­tor has the power of a god, the vic­tims are pow­er­less.

That pow­er­less­ness of oth­ers seems to be de­sired and relished in these cases. It’s time to talk about the fact that many men seem erot­i­cally ex­cited by their abil­ity to pun­ish, hu­mil­i­ate, in­flict pain on women — the sub­ject of a lot of porn.

We’ve also re­cently had a host of obit­u­ar­ies for Hugh Hefner. Some in­cluded the ar­gu­ments that Hefner and his mag­a­zine were harm­less or lib­er­at­ing. But they in­sisted that women were for men to use if they met a nar­row def­i­ni­tion of at­trac­tive­ness, and to mock or ig­nore if they were not. While of­ten por­trayed as part of the sex­ual revo­lu­tion, the mag­a­zine and Hefner were in­stead part of the coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion, fig­ur­ing out how to per­pet­u­ate women’s sub­or­di­na­tion and men’s power in a chang­ing era.

The young women who lived in — and some­times de­scribed feel­ing trapped in — the Play­boy man­sion were there to please the old goat at the cen­tre of it and his friends, and not the other way around. Some of the play­mates ended up dead. News an­chor — and Roger Ailes vic­tim — Andrea Tan­taros said of the Fox net­work, “be­hind the scenes, it op­er­ates like a sex-fu­elled, Play­boy man­sion-like cult, steeped in in­tim­i­da­tion, in­de­cency and misog­yny”, which is not an en­dorse­ment of the Play­boy man­sion.

Dom­i­nat­ing and harm­ing

There is a so­lu­tion, but I don’t know how we reach it, ex­cept in a plethora of small acts that ac­crete into a dif­fer­ent world view and dif­fer­ent val­ues. It’s in how we raise boys, in what we de­fine as erotic, in how men can dis­cour­age each other from the idea that dom­i­nat­ing and harm­ing women en­hances their sta­tus. Per­haps it’s in young men in power learn­ing from the fall of Ailes, Bill Cosby, Bill O’Reilly, and now Har­vey We­in­stein — and myr­iad Sil­i­con Val­ley ex­ec­u­tives and more than a hand­ful of aca­demics — that women have voices and, some­times, peo­ple who lis­ten be­lieve them, and the era of im­punity might be fad­ing from view. Though the change that re­ally mat­ters will con­sist of elim­i­nat­ing the de­sire to do these things, not merely the fear of get­ting caught.

In Dar­ren Aronof­sky’s film Mother!, Jen­nifer Lawrence plays a young earth de­ity of a woman restor­ing her poet hus­band’s house to the best of her abil­ity, alone, while he ig­nores her re­quests to have some say in what does and doesn’t hap­pen, who does and does not en­ter their home. It’s a film for our time and one I can only hope cap­tures a moment that will pass, be­cause I want the ideals of democ­racy to be at last fulfilled, be­cause it’s past time to talk se­ri­ously about the poi­sonous lack of em­pa­thy and imag­i­na­tion that lies be­hind the corpses and the night­mares and the ev­ery­day fears.

Rebecca Sol­nit is a noted Amer­i­can writer. She has writ­ten on a va­ri­ety of sub­jects, in­clud­ing en­vi­ron­ment, pol­i­tics and art.

Hugo A. Sanchez/©Gulf News

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