Recently I’ve had a couple of experiences which have both validated certain strongly held beliefs of mine and also led me to think about things in a new light. As I think the truths contained therein are important, and because I can’t seem to stop thinking about them, I will narrate these experiences and accordant thoughts for whatever usefulness of entertainment they might provide the reader. It may seem like I am defending myself in the course of this article, and I wont deny the presence of some psychological baggage on my part in writing it. Of course you are free to make your own judgments, but I do hope that the reader focuses more on what these story tell about the process of drawing conclusions than on any specific conclusions you might draw about them.
The thread that ties these experiences in my mind is a belief I hold that it is philosophically untenable to criticize another person’s decisions when they concern difficult or complicated life situations. Indeed, I tend to think that any kind of criticism of another person’s decision making is rather tenuous, except for those cases where the reasons for the particular decision in question are both fully known and understood. So, for example, according to my view if someone says “I want to go to college,” it may be very difficult or nearly impossible for another person to discuss that person’s decision. This is because the reasons for them wanting to go may be very complex. The reasons could be so deep and complex that the individual does not fully understand why they want to go to college or is unable to fully articulate their motivation. Sometimes we have a gut feeling about something and we are compelled to dress it up in logic because someone asks us “why?” If someone says “I want to go to Harvard because they have a good reputation,” this statement encloses a thought process with a conclusion based on logical reasoning. It is easy, as a friend or adviser, to help that person understand their own reasoning and examine the premises that led them to the conclusion ‘go to Harvard’. It could be, however, that their real reason lies elsewhere, and that reason may be permanently or temporarily inaccessible even to them.
This has to do with what I call “reporting on the body.” When someone says that they want to go to college, they are not necessarily reporting the logical conclusion of a discrete line of reasoning. If there is one message that I want to get across with this article, it is that it is incorrect to assume that a person who reports to you a message encoded in a format that mimics logical reasoning is indeed actually reporting the results of an intentional logical process. It is equally incorrect to assume that a person reporting on a feeling is actually disguising the conclusion of a logical thought process. I’ve had many people tell me that I can, in fact, learn math, and that I only think I can’t because I’ve decided that I can’t. The idea that someone who is not me could go inside my own body so easily and discover reasons for my difficulties that I myself was blind to has always seemed absurd. It has been suggested by experiment (no citation, sorry) that an individual may be deceived by his or her own body into thinking that they made a decision consciously, where in reality the decision was reached by his/her own body before conscious thought was initiated. The main point is that when someone reports on their body, we must take it at face value. The body is a fundamentally diverse entity with complex emergent behaviors of which our linguistic consciousness is only one part. When we try to determine the causes and complexities behind someone’s decision making process it is like using the principles of simple machines to describe galaxy formation, the tools are unfit for the job.
I therefore consider it generally true that a person who confides in another person about a problem or a situation is much more helped by the process of confidence itself than by any kind of advice or criticism offered by the listener. It could be, and I personally hold it to be true, that advice is more often than not incorrect and sometimes even could be harmful on account of our general inability to get into the body of another person and understand the real motivation behind a certain action, particularly when that action involves complex and difficult situations involving the interaction of reason and emotion.
All this is very abstract, so let us examine the two instances where this line of thinking was brought most strongly to my mind, and see how it applies to real life. The first instance occurred on a comfortable summer’s day. There were flowers blooming everywhere and there was sunshine pouring into the yards of my ancestral home on Cape Cod. I had just recently come from China to visit my family for a month, and a good friend of mine from college came to visit me. Now this friend had just moved home permanently after living in China for about four years. We had lots of stories to share, and our conversations were therapeutic on account of the similarity of our experience and the fact that our friendship was very trusting and we could talk openly with each other about all of our experiences.
It just so happens that my friend was on the verge of making a rather large decision. He had moved home and his next move would involve either breaking up with his Chinese girlfriend or arranging her move to America. I will not go into details, but in his descriptions of their relationship it seemed rather clear to me that the relationship was on its last legs, and it would be best for them to break up. I did not, however, suggest that he do so, and I did not, as far as I remember, voice much of an opinion at all. One thing in particular that he said was to my knowledge a very typical sign of a doomed relationship, but even this I did not point out. This is because of the line of reasoning I outline in the first paragraphs of this article which, the reader would be reminded, is a strongly held belief for me: I am fundamentally unable to comprehend my friend’s relationship, and it is also possible, from my point of view, that his negative analysis on that day could have been due to a mood that had swept over him that week or a discomfort in the bowels which had affected him since that morning. The point is, there are too many unknown factors for me to make an analysis of such a complicated situation, so I didn’t.
In addition to this belief which leads me to view the situation in this way, there is another, perhaps simpler way to look at this problem. My friend is in a much better position than I am to make decisions about his own relationship. If I yield in giving advice, I leave the decision up to him, and I trust, because he is a smart guy, that he will make the right decision. On the other hand if I give him my opinion on the matter I run the risk of creating an influence and tipping the balance one way or another and potentially making myself responsible for a wrong decision. Either I don’t speak and my friend probably makes the right decision, or I do speak and thereby potentially implicate myself in a disaster, whether that be ending true love or sustaining a false one. Maybe I am overstating the influence I have on my friend, but if this is so then it means that my advice is useless anyway and there is no point in giving it at all, except to satisfy some egotistical urge to explain to someone their own life. As it turned out my friend soon broke up with his girlfriend, which is exactly what I expected to happen.
The second event happened not long afterwards. That same summer another good friend of mine came to visit me for a couple days and we had a nice time together. He seemed to have a particularly strong impulse to give advice, to the point where nearly everything I said invoked some sort of suggestion, interpretation, or potential plan of action from him. I do not intend to criticize him on this front; his advice is often sound, and as I was in a rather tattered state that month I suspect that my condition did more than enough to elicit this kind of behavior from someone already inclined to give it.
The second event, like the first, had to do with issues of the opposite sex and in particular the problem of breaking up. I was in the middle of a relationship that was going quite well when I moved to China, and I was faced with the problem of how to deal with it. I have had the experience in my own life of a girlfriend moving far away and failing to make any kind of statement to me about conditions or expectations for the relationship now that it was long distance. Being an optimistic and rather naive sort, I always assumed that things would continue on normally even though the other person was hundreds or thousands of miles away. Well, in every case I ended up being hurt in some way or another, either by being broken up with or by being forced to break up with someone who was already physically and emotionally absent.
Because my relationship was good I did not want to end it, but I also wanted us both to be able to move on if that’s how we felt the long distance problem would best be resolved. If I wanted to move on, I did not want to have to break up over skype after forcing my girlfriend to “wait around” for me, nor did I want her to have to do the same if she felt the situation was unacceptable. The way I expressed this to her was by saying that it would be OK with me if she were to date when I was away.
Now when my friend heard this, he immediately decided that I was being “controlling” and “patriarchal” by “letting her date”. Now I think in human communication there’s a difference between expressing feelings (it’s OK with me if…) and giving permission (you can do…) I could be gold-plating my own actions in my memory so lets ignore that point. This matter is a bit tricky, and I wont say that his analysis is fundamentally wrong, but there are a number of problems with the way it was carried out and it is precisely those problems that I wish to discuss.
When we hear the word “patriarchal” we know we are in the realm of a field commonly referred to as women’s studies. This field got its name in the sixties during the so-called “second wave” of feminism. Nowadays there a lot of guys who are resentful about and annoyed with feminism, and I think this has to do partly with a lack of understanding of feminism on the part of men but also with a lack of understanding of sociology on the part of people who espouse themselves as feminists.
Sometimes you’ll hear guys bringing up men’s issues. They’ll go on about how the supposed inequality of men and women is a farce, and that there are plenty of social problems that men have to deal with, so women should stop whining etc. It’s easy enough to point to the obvious ignorance of certain historical, legal, and social issues which might produce such an attitude. Men do not, of course, have to put up with groups of female legislators determining whether or not they can get a vasectomy or whether or not prostate examinations should be covered by insurance. But what is less discussed is the legitimate reason why this attitude might exist, and it has to do with intersectionality.
Intersectionality is a relatively recent idea, and in my opinion it is one of the first unique, universally applicable and useful mental models produced by the women’s studies folks. It was developed by people who, like the men I mentioned above, listened to white women talking about their issues and felt like the conversation was one sided. Unlike the men, however, these people were less privileged than the women they listened to, whether they be bi-sexual black-Jewish women or homosexual black women or women in jail, they felt that white women were actually pretty privileged, that is, compared to them.
I don’t know the exact story behind the genesis of intersectionality, but the idea goes something like this: an individual may be modeled as a point on an intersection of different lines of oppression and privilege. A homosexual black man, therefore, may have certain privileges if he is born into a wealthy intellectual family. That same man, however, will have to deal with certain kinds of oppression never felt by a working class white man. The working class man may live a rather poor life compared to such a black man, but he might be let off by the police if he is caught with drugs, whereas the black man may have to endure being arrested for no reason at all, or be subjected to serious penalties for minor infringements. My example here is hypothetical, but plenty of anecdotal evidence exists for this kind of phenomenon.
Intersectionality not only reveals the complexity behind oppression and privilege, it also reveals the complexity behind society itself. And this is why I say that it is “universal”: women’s studies may be seen as a branch of sociology, and while much of women’s studies has concerned the right’s of women, intersectionality has enabled all of us to think more complexly about everybody. Indeed, ageism can now be modeled alongside other social forces as a line of oppression affecting different people differently, and that line will have different characteristics for men and for women depending on where they live.
When we use the tool of intersectionality to look at society it becomes obvious that it is absurd to state that men exist in a space with no lines of oppression. We have expectations, gender roles, and behavioral criticisms leveled on us from an early age in the same way that women do, or any other person who is a part of a society. The question becomes more related to the number, strength and nature of those lines, as well as the legal and social (that is, institutional) forces buttressing them. It has been said that patriarchy is harmful to men, and it is undeniable that the molds that bind men are just as harmful as the molds that bind women insofar as they are both normative molds enforced by a network of institutions and behaviors. Anyone who says that men are exempt from gender roles and normative behavioral models is either ignorant, not a man, or in denial. That being said, it would be at least equally absurd to state that the extent, diversity, and strength of the lines of oppression that affect men are equally as severe as those that affect other groups of people. The lines of oppression fall lightly on men.
I used to say that I have angels protecting me. Nowadays I think that at least half the time it was not angels protecting me but my white male privilege, which simultaneously exempts me from certain limitations and offers up complementary benefits. On the other hand, as a fairly meek, somewhat effeminate man, I have had a number of women tell me that I was in fact not a man, or that I should change my personality so that I can “be a man”, an experience which was definitely traumatizing and potentially generative of sexist (or at least embarrassing) behavior as I tried to bend myself to fit into the “man-mold” constituted by the expectations of certain American women. So when I say that some feminists lack an understanding of sociology, what I mean is that there is a tendency to use the lens of oppression to analyze society, where the real starting point should be the rich complexity of society itself, which often defies simple analysis, and out of which the dark and mysterious patterns of institutionalized racism, sexism, and classism naturally emerge. Perhaps some would reply that complexity is self-defeating where political or legal struggle is concerned, but I am not learned enough to comment on this, and it is not my main point.
So getting back to my story, what was wrong with my friends critique? The first problem has to do with the issue I raised way back at the beginning of this article. I suggested that human beings are fundamentally complex organisms with limited ability to explain their own actions and beliefs. This is why we may seem crazy or stupid when we try to form relationships; we have a hard enough time figuring ourselves out when we are alone in bed at night, let alone when we try to harmonize our amorphous, contradictory selves with each other based on inaccurately articulated “thoughts” and “feelings”. It’s an oversimplification to explain behavior in terms of gender relations in the same way that it’s an oversimplification to say that “women are oppressed and men are privileged”. Simply put, my friends explanation presupposes that I dealt with my relationship in the way that I did because I felt that as a man, it was my role to control the status of the relationship. It ignores a highly complex cluster of emotions and memories, that cluster which forms such a large part of my psyche, of the times a woman left me and I didn’t date because I assumed our relationship status was unchanged. How freeing it would have been if, before their departure, they told me that it was OK, that they would understand, if I continued to live my life freely, the way children should live before they have found a partner who will stay by their side until death. I was simply telling my girlfriend what I wished other people had told me in the past. Whether or not my method was right or wrong, you may see that it may be presumptuous to suggest that there’s a causal relationship between it and my gender. The important point is that it would not be a surface analysis that could determine such a causal relationship.
This leads me to the second problem. The second problem is easily identifiable using the tool of intersectionality. Now me and this girl are both white, educated, creative folks. Both of us were raised by families who nurtured our interests and encouraged us to pursue the arts. She was probably the most “like me” girlfriend I’ve ever had. There was one big difference, however, which was our age. At the time, she was in college and I had just finished graduate school. She had only been in a couple of relationships, whereas I had been in a number of serious long-term relationships, some of which came to an end on account of long distance. So while gender may have played a role in the asymmetry of our relationship, the biggest factor contributing to our power dynamic, if there indeed was one, was probably age and experience.
So I, the elder of the relationship, on the cusp of a life changing move, had to figure out what I thought was the correct way to deal with my relationship. As I said the relationship was good, and as with any good relationship you believe it can continue on in the future. But my experience had shown me the problems that can be created when long-distance relationships are managed poorly. My friend interpreted my control of the situation in terms of gender, but if we really wanted to do a surface analysis it could just as easily be attributed to an asymmetry of age and experience. Dealing with this situation was one stepping stone in my life, and like all stepping stones it was prepared for with great care and calculation but executed in total blindness.
So next time you have a friend who is in a difficult situation, unless there’s something really obvious that they are doing wrong, just be a listener. We gain so much just by attempting to express our ideas to another person. We may often fail, but the effort is valuable. Pay attention to the way your friends tell their story to determine whether or not they want or need your advice. And before you criticize someone you should try to understand them better. Human beings are terribly complex things. The complexity of our behavior far exceeds the complexity of our understanding of our behavior. That means our opinions about our friends and family will frequently be wrong. So listen more, give advice less, and only criticize when you are absolutely clear in your understanding.