Radical Decency is a relational philosophy, challenging us to be in mutual and authentic contact with our self, others, and the world. For this reason, it impels us to be tireless detectives. Why? Because a deepening understanding of our feelings and motivations, and those of others, is essential if we hope to make better choices in the service of this goal.
Unfortunately, there is little support for this investigative frame of mind in the mainstream culture. Motivated by a competitive, win/lose mindset, we instinctually find a handful of stories that work for us and stick to them. I am a tough guy; or a nurturing wife and mother; or a hard working but unappreciated employee. You are funny and fun loving; or emotional and artistic; or hard driving and critical.
With these stories in place, we become progressively less open, curious and speculative about the enormous complexity of factors that inform our feelings and motivations — and yours. Instead, we cherry pick the evidence, noticing behaviors that support our stories, using them to deepen and harden these views. And what do we do with evidence that contradicts? In the typical case, since it doesn’t fit into our pre-existing frames of reference, it simply disappears from view.
Our gender stereotypes are an especially pernicious example of this phenomenon. Even though it is frequently left unsaid in our current, more politically correct environment, women continue to struggle with the assumption that they are overly emotional, and with as other stereotypes as well; e.g., assertive women are bitches; the Madonna/whore dichotomy.
Also prevalent are the stereotypes that men have to live with:
- They are insensitive, shallow, self-absorbed louts who need to be placated and handled by women – rather than met and understood.
- “Testosterone poisoning” makes them overly aggressive.
- They are sexual “dogs,” ready to “screw anything that moves.”
These stereotypes deeply hamper our ability to understand and empathize with the opposite sex. And since we tend to internalize the stereotypes assigned to our gender, they hamstring our self-understanding as well.
So how should we understand our similarities and differences as men and women? Here are a few orienting, context-framing thoughts.
- Our common humanity
Yes, we are different but not in the sweeping, judgmental ways that are our received cultural “wisdom.” Since both sexes experience the full range of human emotions — anger, vulnerability, sexual desire, empathy, and so on – it is implausible to assume that our different styles of emoting are hardwired and immutable.
More fundamentally, our differences are of little consequence when we remember the larger existential context we share. We are all, men and women alike, here through no choice of our own. We, and every one we love, are going to die. And with no agreed upon roadmap to tell us how to behave while we are here, everything we do – while we are here – is made up. Finally, and crucially, we know all this.
Like soldiers on the front line in a meaningless war, the need to deal with these unforgiving contextual realities shapes a commonality of experience that eclipses our differences.
- Gender-based differences; origins and implications
But there are gender-based differences and understanding why they exist enhances our ability to be more attuned, loving and empathic to the opposite sex – and to our selves as well. As I have explored these differences in my own life, and as a therapist, an overarching conceptual frame has emerged that explains many of these differences far more persuasively than the easy gender-based stereotypes that dominate in the mainstream culture.
We have existed as a distinct line of primates for 7 million years and as Homo sapiens for about 300,000 years. And for all but the last 10,000 years or so, we existed in small groups of hunter/gatherers. Not surprisingly, then, so much of what we have become through the process of natural selection evolved in the hunter/gatherer context.
Steven Stosny points out that, in order to use our energy efficiently, women evolved as the group’s early warning system, as the folks who scan for danger. Thus, even today, it is the woman who typically bolts up and bed and says, “I think I heard something.” And, since duplicating the women’s process made no sense, men evolved as reactors, not to the environment, but to women’s emotions.
Given this evolutionary division of labor, men and women developed different emotional sensitivities. Continually scanning for danger, women became especially susceptible to safety issues. Men, by contrast, molded in this evolutionary dance to respond to women’s needs, became more susceptible to the shame that results when they fall short as providers, protectors, and lovers.
This distinction explains a lot.
A couple comes into my office and she is upset. They hosted Thanksgiving dinner and, while he did the discrete chores she “assigned” to him, he seemed to shrug off her far more focused and intense concerns about how the house looked and whether the guests were being graciously attended to.
Why is this couple struggling? Because no one told them that the woman – wired to be more sensitive to safety issues – had an experience that is very different from his. For him, a few folks were getting together for dinner. For her, the warm and nurturing “safe” sanctuary that she is emotionally wired to create was being opened to her entire clan. So he, without any understanding of the gut-level depth of her feelings, thought his behavior was just fine while she felt unseen and unappreciated.
Needless to say, analogous situations happen in reverse. Wired to be a provider, protector, and lover, powerful feelings of shame come up for him when (for example) his competence at work is challenged. Now she is the one who doesn’t understand. Why is work so important to you? Why are you so withdrawn and preoccupied? He, in turn, feels misunderstood and alone – for reasons he only vaguely understands.
Notice also how this evolutionary artifact explains women’s alleged over emotionality. Challenges to a man’s core sensitivity – shame – tend to be discrete and boundaried. He loses his job. His wife is sexually disappointed. His competence is questioned. However, the events triggering a woman’s core sensitivity – perceived danger – are more diffuse and pervasive. So, perhaps, women aren’t more emotional. It’s just that we live in a world in which their triggering events are far more prevalent.
This evolutionary difference also explains why men avoid conversations about feelings. For women, an ongoing intimate dialogue is an anxiety reducer, allowing them to monitor the situation moment by moment; to confirm that all is well or, alternatively, that danger exists. For men, however, no such emotional pay-off exists. When his wife says, “we need to talk,” his evolutionary wiring signals risk only: The possibility of disappointment, judgment – and shame.
It also explains why men – when they get together – talk sports, exchange insults, and leave pizza boxes and crushed beer cans on the couch. Looking for surcease from the risk of shame, they are creating shame-free zones where nothing he does will be judged – unless of course he acts like a girl (hence, the far greater prevalence of homophobia in men?).
There are, of course, many factors besides this danger/shame dichotomy that shed light on our gender-based differences. Focusing on cultural influences, for example, Real and Gilligan explain how boys are pulled away from intimacy but are allowed their power, while girls maintain intimacy but are pushed to relinquish their assertiveness. Understanding these pressures, we no longer need to see either sex as inherently limited in the areas they are culturally pushed to relinquish.
Thus, for example, we can let go of the view that boys and men are hard-wired to be angry and aggressive. It’s just that for them anger and aggression are more socially acceptable than vulnerability and tears. In short, these are learned behaviors.
Similarly, men’s preoccupation with sex is more accurately viewed as an understandable pre-occupation with one of the few places where they can receive the hugging, stroking, and nurturing they learned to retreat from at such an early age.
With a deeper understanding of our gender differences, here is the hopeful news:
- Because we are dealing with learned behaviors, our culturally engrained habits and mindsets can be unlearned. Men and women alike can grow into more fully human ways of living; and
- An increased understanding of the true nature of our gender-based differences can naturally lead to a greater sense of understanding, empathy, acceptance, and appreciation for members of the opposite sex – and for our own gendered journey as well.
Radical Decency promises – and demands – nothing less.