Book projects – Whiplash: 11: Where then was the gentle man?

It’s interesting to compare our times with one of the most peculiar, and yet most intriguing, periods in English history, namely the middle three decades of the seventeenth century. Then, as now, the focus of the culture was dominated by a single issue: in their case religion and the right to rule, and in our case the respective rights of women and men – which, as issues, are arguably not that different. Both issues were the source for an extraordinary flood of books, some superb, many dire; both were the source of lasting changes, some of them worthwhile, many of them most definitely not. Then, the arguments led to a civil war, to the death of a monarch and his monarchy, and to an English republic – the Commonwealth – ruled by a Protector in a manner barely distinguishable from that of his predecessor; now, the arguments have also led to a chaos only one step short of civil war, and to the death of an imagined ‘patriarchy’ – and we watch as the new ‘femocrats’ replace it with a paediarchy barely distinguishable from its predecessor. What happens next? In that time, after the Commonwealth came the Restoration, throwing away most of the changes that were worth keeping, and restoring most of those that were not; and in our time… well, who knows? It’s up to us, perhaps…

One thing we do know is that, as the old proverb puts it, “those who do not learn from their history are doomed to repeat it”; so now, of all times, we need to look, to listen, and above all to learn before we act. Sometimes it is hard to see what effect a particular political choice would have: often, all we need do is to look back in our history to see the same choice and, all too often, its dénouement. Those who would argue for a defined ‘political correctness’, for example, need only look at the Levellers, the Puritan backbone of the republican army: they aimed, initially, to create equal rights for all, but eventually succeeded only in levelling down, leaving the poor as powerless as ever, and creating a new class of ‘party’ landowners whose wealth was, as before, based on dispower – or, bluntly, theft. [1] Far more interesting, and far more constructive, were people like George and Elizabeth Fox, founders of the Quaker movement; or Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers who, digging a common farm on the common land on Cobham Hill, put their ‘equal rights’ ideology into practice themselves – unlike the Levellers, who demanded that their ideology apply to everyone except themselves…

And there was one question that was frequently asked in those years of republican ferment, which still seems to be echoed these days, though in a somewhat different sense:

When Adam delved and Eve span where then was the gentleman?

To the republicans of that time, the answer to this biblical question was “Nowhere”: the ‘gentleman’ – the aristocrat, the squire, the priest – had not existed in Eden, and hence should not exist at all. And to the puellists of our own time, with their ideology based on the glorification of victimhood, the answer would also be “Nowhere”: men – and men alone – are violent by nature, hence a truly ‘gentle man’ can never have existed. [2] But that attitude is, as we’ve seen, a philosophy of hopelessness: if men – or women, for that matter – are by their nature always and only violent, no change is possible. Yet we know that change is possible: our history shows that. More useful, then, to think a little more clearly about what changes we actually want.

A better understanding of the relationship between power and dispower will help; so will a better understanding of the paediarchy that distinguishes much of what claims to be feminism, from that which truly is feminism – and likewise in masculism. In her book “Fire With Fire”, for example, Naomi Wolf tries to draw a distinction between what she calls ‘victim feminism’ and ‘power feminism’: but the distinction, as she describes it, doesn’t quite work. Her description of ‘victim feminism’ is accurate enough, showing many of the examples of the paediarchal delusions that lead to dispower; but her description of ‘power feminism’ often confuses power-with and power-over – she doesn’t distinguish, for example, between the power-with of a true sharing with everyone, and the subtle power-over of sharing only with a selected group of women, which still maintains the comforting but destructive myth of men as ‘the enemy’. [3]

But ‘victim feminism’ and ‘power feminism’ are useful terms; and we can see that an equivalent ‘victim masculism’ will definitely help no-one. ‘Victim feminism’ tends to drag everyone downward, and despite assigning these traits to men, is itself aggressive, humourless, puritanical, often fiercely anti-sex, anti-hope, anti-joy, even anti-life; whereas a true ‘power feminism’ acknowledges the distinction between power and dispower, and honestly, openly, and even joyfully admits to its failings. Above all, it aims to equalize upwards – ensuring that everyone is powerful.

Power is the ability to do work – in every sense of ‘work’ – as an expression of our choice. Having choice – and knowing that we do always have some choice – we know our own power; and knowing our own power – whatever it may be – we can take the risk to trust, and to be gentle. People whose power is real – is based on a true ‘power-from-within’ – can afford to be gentle; people whose ‘power’ is based on the delusions of dispower cannot afford to be gentle, because they – we – dare not let anyone know that this ‘power’ is an illusion, a sham. One of the saddest mistakes of feminism has been its inability to distinguish between power and dispower: ultimately, power is something that we want to encourage men and women to have – and to share.

So I believe it’s worthwhile looking at that question again, and understand that there is another answer:

When Adam delved and Eve span where then was the gentleman?

A better, and more truthful, answer is “everywhere; in everyone“. Here; now; in every one of us: if we choose it to be so. The choice is ours; and the power to choose is ours – is always ours.

If the biblical Adam and Eve represent every human possibility, the arrogant ‘gentleman’ so despised by the republicans was in them too: both of them – and also, of course, in the republicans themselves, as their subsequent history showed. Likewise the ‘gentle man’ – that part of ourselves, of men and of women, which is both powerful and gentle – is everywhere, and in every one of us. In times of violence, it tends – not surprisingly – to go into hiding; and these have been violent times. And the ‘gender war’ has helped no-one: as with every war, there are no winners, only losers. So it’s up to us to end the war, to end the violence: reach out for the ‘gentle man’ within us once more, and know that we are powerful.

To do this, we need to challenge paediarchy wherever we see it: gently, respectfully, but challenge it nonetheless. And we need to challenge it not only in others, but especially in ourselves: we need to be honest in facing our own immaturity – and not blame it on others. As Naomi Wolf puts it:

[Objectifying others] was not ‘masculine’ behaviour on our part. It was human immaturity. … All the sillier fantasies that some feminists, including myself, have castigated men for having about women are fantasies that inhere in all of us when we are tired of being grown-up. We don’t have to make social policy out of them; but we can look at them again with a compassion and fellow feeling that can help to heal the sexual divide. [4]

It’s time to put away the whiplash; it’s time to put away the war. “Time to put away childish things”; it’s time to grow up. It’s time to remember that beyond the pain of these past few decades there is the joy, the laughter of companionship; much has been said that should not have been said, much has been done that should not have been done, yet we are still here, not merely survivors but choosers in the life we wish to lead. We are powerful if we choose to be so: yet only powerful if we choose to be so.

Life is a weaving, an interweaving of choices within a wider dance, each empowering the other: with whom, and in what ways, would you choose to share it?

[1] The modern concept of the State, which derives from this time, is that it exists to protect the concept of private – as opposed to shared – property; and ‘property’ in this sense, as the old anarchist slogan puts it, is simply a polite name for theft. In many ways the English Civil War exchanged an aristocracy based on theft and occasional leadership, for an oligarchy based on theft and no leadership – a dubious improvement…

[2] This is the fundamental philosophy of Rosalind Miles’ “The Rites Of Man”; for a critique of its essentially circular reasoning, see Neil Lyndon, “No More Sex War”, pp.24-39.

[3] See Naomi Wolf, “Fire With Fire”, especially chapter 9, ‘Two traditions’; chapter 10, ‘Core mythology of victim feminism’; and chapter 18, ‘What we can do now’.

[4] Naomi Wolf, “Fire With Fire”, pp.241-2.

Related pages