essays
The triumph of the maternalists

The triumph of the maternalists

How paternalism has been feminised.

In the fourth in spiked’s series of essays on paternalism, Nancy McDermott looks at the cultural assault on masculinity and the rise of a new phenomenon: ‘maternalism’. 

Nanny and Sammy followed their mother’s instructions without a murmur; indeed, they were overawed. There is a certain uncanny and superhuman quality about all such purely original undertakings as their mother’s was to them. Nanny went back and forth with her light loads, and Sammy tugged with sober energy.’  (From ‘The Revolt of Mother’ by Mary E Wilkins (1)).

The idea for this essay began percolating about a year ago, when I reviewed Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men. She made the case that women are achieving parity with men and even surpassing them in a number of important ways. Although I didn’t quite buy all her explanations, I liked Rosin’s book and was sorry to see so many reviewers dismiss it in what seemed like a rush to reiterate the persistence of women’s oppression. I thought her observations were reasonable, but more importantly they seemed to throw the contours of something else into relief, something beyond gender roles. It was only when I began to look at the question of paternalism that it dawned on me what this might be.

Paternalism has emerged as the dominant form of authoritarianism in our society. Across the world, policymakers are quietly working behind the scenes to save us from ourselves, nudging us towards Jerusalem with smaller fast-food cups, architecture intended to make us climb more stairs, and maternity wards that encourage bonding and breastfeeding. These policies are seldom debated or even noticed. When they are, the routine argument is not whether they are a good idea but how ‘hard’ or openly coercive should they be. Why value autonomy at all when people, left to their own devices, continually make poor choices that foil their aspirations and create a social burden in the process?

This denigration of human rationality is sobering for anyone who believes that autonomy lies at the moral, intellectual and philosophical centre of our humanity. But it is also interesting that this new, nudging paternalism takes the form that it does. This is not the direct, father-knows-best style of paternalism of earlier eras. It is indirect and manipulative. It has nothing to prove and no one is claiming moral authority. On the contrary, paternalists are decidedly non-confrontational and anti-ideological. They seem almost reluctant to assume a moral standpoint; their interventions are merely ‘evidence-based’.

It is a modus operandus that can hardly be called ‘paternal’ at all. To use the metaphor of the traditional family, the contemporary paternalist’s style is more akin to that of a wife, who defers to her husband publicly while quietly managing every aspect of her family’s life behind the scenes. This new style of paternalism – let’s call it ‘maternalism’ – is part of a peculiar state of affairs, characterised by the declining fortunes of men, the emergence of ‘zombie feminism’, and a widespread cultural denigration of masculinity.

The end of history - or men?

The rise of ‘feminine values’ is usually presented in a positive light. Finally, society has awakened to the feminine ideals of cooperation, nurturing, inclusiveness and flexibility. At last we have realised that women know an altogether better way to run the world. But this view is as skewed as it is ahistorical. Even a cursory glance at the history of civilisation shows that human beings are not one-dimensional creatures with masculine or feminine values. The legacy of Western civilisation in particular celebrates the virtues of temperance, prudence, justice and fortitude, which are arguably ‘feminine’ by today’s reckoning and virtually all articulated by men. In truth, no sex has a monopoly on these qualities and men and women both adapt to their historical circumstances.

No one could accuse Joan of Arc of being inclusive or flexible in her beliefs, or of being peaceful or nurturing. Likewise, Thomas Jefferson could not be accused of inflexibility or exclusiveness when he penned the words: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’

But if society is not embracing feminine values, what is going on? I believe this is not the end of men and the rise of women. Rather, what we are seeing today is the dismantling of the historic gains of the Enlightenment in the name of The Mother.

In the modern era, political and social authority has been grounded in the values of the Enlightenment: universalism, freedom, reason, equality and progress. Men embodied this authority in their capacity as citizens, and women aspired to embody it, too. In a sense, the struggle to change society in line with these ideals has been the driving force of modern history. But today there is good reason to believe this struggle to realise Enlightenment ideals has come to an end.

In 1989, Francis Fukuyama published his famous essay, ‘The End of History’, in which he argued that ‘the total exhaustion of viable systemic alternatives to Western liberalism’ would lead to the ‘end of the history’. With the triumph of liberalism, he argued, the struggle to build a world based on the inherent equality and worth of human beings would become superfluous. The ‘willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal’ would give way to ‘economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands’.

Fukuyama was not far wrong. But two decades later, in the era of brain-based education, CFL light bulbs and ‘mayonnaise boutiques’, it is Western liberalism that seems exhausted.

In the absence of any alternative social system, even one as degenerate as the old Soviet Union, and without a notion of anything to aspire to except more of the same, society has turned in on itself. Few people have the stomach to defend Western cultural and political ideals, even in the face of violent, nihilistic outbursts like the 9/11 attacks. Instead, key sections of the elite have embraced emotionalism, difference, authenticity and sustainability.

The struggle for universal human values capable of transcending the particulars of individual experience has given way to a demand for recognition as members of cultural groups, be it on the basis of lifestyle, ethnicity, gender or even the experience of trauma. Any expression of universals is potentially offensive. Even Christmas, once a largely secular holiday celebrated by millions, now provokes discomfort or defensiveness in those who celebrate it, and resentment in those who do not.

Progress has been reduced from a human-centred project to mere scientific and technological achievements which are not valued in their own terms but deployed in the pursuit of one agenda or another. Moral and political problems become narrowly technical so that poverty is recast as problem of ‘weak brain architecture’ and violence as a product of too much testosterone.

Freedom of speech and freedom of the press have become especially problematic. Once considered the most important liberties of all, now press freedom and freedom of speech are almost always discussed in terms of the harm they will do. Feminists routinely campaign to ban offensive speech on campus and in social media. And in the UK, campaigners want to restrict freedom of the press to those deemed worthy of it: licensed journalists and peer-reviewed publications.

Likewise, today’s obsession with inequality masks an attack on equal standards and equal rights. According to some campaigners, equality under the law merely obscures the societal discrimination that persists as a legacy of oppression. This means, therefore, that members of protected groups should be treated differently to combat this historical oppression. So when there are accusations of rape, alleged victims should be entitled to special treatment, such as a right to anonymity and even – as is now the case in California – the right to refuse interview, deposition or discovery requests made on behalf of the accused.

The new maternalism is evident in many different forms of authoritarianism. It has so imbued the culture of American college campuses that students accused of sexual misconduct are routinely deprived of their rights, considered guilty until proven innocent, deprived of representation and not permitted to give evidence on their own behalf. The Office of Civil Rights, the US government’s oversight body governing Title IX (the provision that banned discrimination on the basis of sex), recently praised the University of Montana’s definition of sexual harassment, which was so broad it included verbal conduct regardless of the intention of the speaker or whether anyone was offended. The Office of Civil Rights called this a ‘blueprint’ for other policies around the country.

The need to protect the public from dangerous or offensive material is now viewed as common sense. Swedish cinemas rate films for gender bias. In Britain, retailers take it upon themselves to conceal the front covers of men’s magazines. Campaigners have even called for the removal from shops of newspapers with photos of topless women and magazines spreading spurious new-agey health information. And they usually get their way with little or no opposition.

In this climate, the motivations of men, especially white European men, have become deeply suspect — almost by definition. Men are unable to personify social authority in the way they once did. Women may not enjoy exactly the same power and prestige that men have in the past, but their status appears higher by default because the old ‘masculine’ style of authority is on the wane.

Mother doesn’t know best

As the shifting status of men and women plays itself out across society, it is all too easy to attribute men’s changing fortunes to some natural defect of masculinity, as if economic stagnation and decline was a natural phenomenon, like a comet hitting the earth and sealing the fate of the dinosaurs. It is equally tempting to believe that women are prospering because they are better suited to today’s conditions. Neither case is true. The tragedy is that no one benefits from the end of men and all that it implies: not men, not women and not society. What appears to be an equalising of men and women’s status is really the degradation of the human potential of both.

For men, it’s not merely that they no longer personify authority; their masculinity itself has become inherently problematic. It is blamed for everything from rape and violence to the lack of development in Africa. At best masculinity is said to make men too inflexible, at worst it creates dangerous emotional automatons cut off from themselves and one another, prone to see women as objects and predisposed toward sexual violence. Masculinity is increasingly regarded as something young boys must be educated out of: they must be taught not to rape.

By contrast, women are deemed inherently vulnerable. They are always at risk, be it of date rape by men who use alcohol as a weapon, or of developing an eating disorder brought on by images in fashion magazines.

These caricatures of men and women destroy the basis for equal partnership and mutual cooperation. When men are seen as useless or dangerous and women are thought likely to be undermined by men’s privilege, is it any wonder that marriage, the institution though which a life-long partnership between men and women took place, has become more trouble than it’s worth?

The only people who seem to benefit at all from this state of things are a new generation of zombie feminists. As the name implies, their ideas are not new or original – they are essentially rehashing crass academic ‘gender feminism’ popular 30 years ago. Their message - that masculinity is the problem – articulates the cultural elite’s ambivalence about its own liberal past. It is no accident that feminists are at the forefront of attacks on the historic gains of the Enlightenment, the right to free speech, freedom of the press and the rights of the accused. They go largely unchallenged, not because the majority agree with them – in fact, polls show that many women actively disassociate themselves from feminist activists – but perhaps because they do not wish to be accused of being ‘anti-women’.

In the end, unless women use their newfound authority to challenge the degradation of masculinity and the humanist tradition it represents, it will be left to maternalists to step in to save men from themselves and women from men. In this instance, ‘mother’ does not know best.

Nancy McDermott is a writer and mother based in New York.

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Footnotes and references

(1) ‘The Revolt of Mother’ by Mary E Wilkins, included in A New England Nun and Other Stories, Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1891