Women, Deceit, and Disorder: Gender and the Spiritual Grammar of the West

Catherine M Wallace

In the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings, Republicans on the Judiciary Committee barged straight into every woman's nightmares. By insisting that Dr. Ford's accusation was a desperate, sleazy ploy by Democrats determined to destroy Judge Kavanaugh by any means possible, they in effect attacked Dr. Ford herself. For generations, women have rightly feared being attacked for reporting an attack. And for good reason: sexual misconduct is, by its very nature, commonly without independent witnesses. Women's complaints have been brushed aside for centuries for because victims cannot provide "objective proof." Demanding such evidence provides systematic protection to predatory men: freely attacking women in private situations can be the iconic "male privilege."

            And then the Republicans refused to call Dr. Ford's alleged eye-witness to testify in public and under oath. This was an extraordinary display of very deep-seated cultural patterns that I have studied and written about for decades. I could not believe my eyes.

            I was most astounded by how transparently some of these men appeared to be  psychologically desperate if not personally threatened. Lindsay Graham's remarkable outburst, like Judge Kavanaugh's belligerent "search and destroy" accusation, sounded like wails of wounded privilege: "how dare she accuse these things and how dare anyone listen to her?" Kavanaugh's outrage, his defensiveness, his tears, his slippery misrepresentations, and his struggles to keep his composure were in effect a peculiar gender-reversal with the clearly nervous but solidly, stoically poised Dr. Ford. She came across to me as having far more of the "judicial temperament" than he did.  

            Such behavior becomes far less puzzling if we keep in mind that the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings were not about sex. They were about power and the abuse of power. As countless observers have repeatedly explained, sexual assault is always about power not sex. In sexual assault, a man asserts his physical ability to dominate a woman. He momentarily reclaims or enacts a male-dominance superiority that the culture itself no longer offers him (except on the Religious Right). Similarly, our responses to allegations of sexual assault reflect our own engagement with the complexities of power and social status. Most people are unlikely to be fully conscious of how that complexity works in Western culture. That's what I want to unpack here.

             #MeToo, like #BlackLivesMatter, testifies to profound and rapid changes in a cultural paradigm or model that has been called "the spiritual grammar of the West" (James C. Edwards, The Plain Sense of Things). This paradigm permeates and informs Western culture at its foundational levels. Even a brief sketch of how this model functions will offer some useful, practical insight into the concepts and the language that shape our perceptions of power, gender, race, and morality. They are a code, or something like a code, that can distort our perceptions if we fail to recognize the ancient cultural dynamic that is in play.

            The Republicans didn't recognize any of it. Most of the Democrats did—or at least they were not so visibly, painfully clueless.

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            Here's the cultural backstory, sound-byte version. From the time of Aristotle—and it wasn't news then—the West has tended to divide reality into what Aristotle called A and Not-A, the thing and its opposite. Shades of gray were discarded or at least disregarded. Paradoxes were to be stomped down into self-contradictory statements and set aside as irrelevant. "Aristotelian" A/ not-A propositional logic is an extraordinarily useful strategy in some ways or in some situations, but it has major drawbacks if its serious limitations are not managed wisely. Some of its most important limitations and distortions were on florid display in those hearings and in the subsequent uproar. That's what I want to unpack. As briefly as I can.

            At its very simplest, most accessible level, this binary model organizes simple logical opposites into two columns. Many of these simple oppositions are built into the grammatical structure of English by adding one of the negating prefixes like "im" or "in" to the beginning of a word. Over time, that will come to matter: items in the right-hand column have always in the West been conceptualized as a deficiency or negation of what's in the left-hand column. It's a zero-sum arrangement, just as the Republicans in effect framed the dispute between Ford and Kavanaugh in ferociously zero-sum terms.

 

capable

incapable

consistent

inconsistent

permanent

impermanent

predictable

unpredictable

rational

irrational

perfect

imperfect

 

Furthermore, in the spiritual grammar of the West, qualities on the left are both morally and intellectually superior to their counterpoints on the right: Western binary thinking is explicitly hierarchical.

            This hierarchy becomes more visible if we add the explicit value-judgments and moral judgments that also belong to the table. Consider these:  

 

good

evil

prudent

greedy

courage

cowardice

strong

weak

steadfast

fickle

safe

dangerous

honest

dishonest

smart

dumb

"saved"

"damned"

hard-working

lazy

responsible

irresponsible

 

Adding in the explicitly moral distinctions underscores what most of us will see as the appropriate cultural dominance or prestige of qualities listed on the left over qualities listed on the right. "Good" people seek to develop the virtues listed on the left; "bad people" succumb to the vices listed on the right.

            On the face of it, none of this looks particularly problematic. The only interesting issue is clear evidence of the Western theological assumption that virtue is inherently associated with rationality, consistency, and rational intelligibility: because God is supremely rational, supremely good, and supremely loving, morality is not some arbitrary system of rules. It is both logically and theologically derived from key principles like justice, compassion, loving your neighbor as yourself, and having a "good heart" or an "undivided heart." The theo/logical derivation of moral norms is a distinctly Western intellectual tradition, but that's the point here: this is the spiritual grammar of the West. Other traditions ground their morality in other ways.

            But here it gets complicated, useful, and fascinating in equal measures. Enormous trouble emerges when gender, race, and sexuality get layered atop this binary system of right and wrong, good and evil, rational and irrational—that which should dominate because of its inherent moral perfection and that which must be controlled, dominated, and all costs kept subordinate because of its inherent intellectual deficiency and moral depravity.  

 

men

women

heterosexual

everybody else

logic

emotions

mind

body

public

private

"Us"

"Them"

"white"

"black"

Northern European

everybody else

 

Please read back over the right-hand column from the first two tables, everything from "incapable and inconsistent" to "lazy and irresponsible." These familiar accusations are the classic, paradigm-derived cultural associations attached to all women as fallen daughters of Eve, she through whom came death into our world.

            In the spiritual grammar of the West, a woman who is in all ways submissive, deferential, and attentive to male needs is a good woman. A bad woman is one who moves from private life into public life, and especially a woman who moves into successful competition with men. She has violated the natural order of things. She is now structurally guilty, and so all of the negative associations of the entire right-hand column accrue to her. In particular, she is both dishonest and disorderly—a dangerous threat to public order. That was the central accusation made over and over again against Dr. Ford's testimony and against those who supported her right to offer such testimony for public and civic consideration.

            Needless to say, all of the same profound liabilities accrue to any black person—any non-European whatsoever—who displays leadership, intelligence, initiative, moral self-possession, and a willingness to stand up to or compete with white people and especially white men. That is the case because as Europeans began their predatory colonizing of other peoples in the 1400s, non-Europeans were easily assimilated to the long-standing inferiority and morally suspect character of women: white-male dominance was presumed metaphysically crucial to the moral order of society and hence the proper governance of "primitive people" in the colonies.

            This cultural model is thousands of years old and deeply embedded in Western discourse at many levels. Its pervasive character explains why the success and prominence of talented women will inevitably strike some people as simply and profoundly wrong. They may accept it as settled fact, but they don't like it. And their resistance may show up in unexpected ways, especially if it's largely unconscious.

            I thought senior Republicans on the Judiciary Committee would be fully conscious of of women's anger about #MeToo and persistent sexism in American. I thought they would be exquisitely careful to modulate their behavior in politically astute ways during the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings. These are senior politicians, after all. I thought they'd know better. What I saw, what we all saw, instead took my breath away.  

            Let's stop here for a minute. Please take a breath and reflect for a moment upon the metaphysical "wrongness" of teenage women who are too smart, too capable, too clearly endowed with natural leadership qualities, too much of anything celebrated in that men-only left-hand column. They are apt to be condemned on all sides (by other women and by men alike); they are apt to be called "arrogant" and "intimidating" because the power they so visibly possess is not gender appropriate. Above all, they will become targets for insecure young men who feel they have something to prove about their own talents or their own masculinity—and, correlatively, a deep need to put down such women or to put them "in their place." Into what place? Into their inferior locale in the overarching cultural model.

            Young women are especially likely to become targets if they are in any regard shy, uncertain, introverted, or anxious, and thus less likely to fight back in the moment or make trouble afterwards. And women will always be blamed for the attacks they elicit. Always. "Good women" and "good girls" by definition don't get into trouble with men. Those who do get into trouble are by definition "bad girls," and so what happened was all their fault. They brought it on themselves. It's a catch-22 of blindingly massive scope, something built into the spiritual grammar of the West at such a profound level that adolescents absorb such beliefs as unconsciously as they learn the grammatical rules for forming plurals.

            The scope of this catch-22 underlies Dr. Ford's steely self-possession and her uncommon efforts to be friendly, gracious, accommodating, smiling, and non-assertive. She was scrupulously avoiding any direct claim to power or authority, a non-assertion that resonated louder and more loudly yet with each of her quiet, simple, brief answers to the questions she was asked. She let her remarkable strength speak for itself, and it spoke volumes. Here was a strong, mature, poised woman who has learned how to pick her fights—which is to say she knows how to avoid carelessly provoking powerful males, especially when they are in full-preening mode. Her manner of self-presentation was as dramatically revealing as the quivering rage and scathing contempt of clearly unnerved Republicans.

            If you could read the hate mail Dr. Ford has received, I'm sure you would see how the various threats and accusations aimed at her reflect the "sinful" qualities in the right-hand column. Republican rants during the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings similarly associated Dr. Ford's testimony and Democratic sympathy for her with all of the negative items in that right-hand column. Dr. Ford's presence in the room constituted something like a metaphysical assault on their world-view, a world-view in which powerful men like them rule secure and furthermore deserve every ounce of the power they have accrued. That metaphysical threat funded their politically foolish rancor. It blinded them to what they were saying to women voters nationwide about the inevitable fate of any woman who recounts in public whatever some frustrated and insecure man did to her, or tried to do to her.

            I'm making big claims here about the cultural patterns that I saw played out in the Ford-Kavanaugh hearing. I realize that. Let me stop, then, to offer some quick amplification of the spiritual grammar I'm sketching. This is material I discuss with proper footnotes and from various angles in my three books exploring different aspects of this issues at hand: For Fidelity (1998), Selling Ourselves Short (2003), and Confronting Religious Denial of Gay Marriage (2016).

            In the ancient world, there were serious intellectual debates about whether women had souls—whether we were fully human, whether we counted as "children of God," whether we were capable of "salvation" or whether, like farm animals, death would be the end of us altogether. Those debates reflected the reproductive biology of the ancient world: women's lack of a penis was regarded as a birth defect arising from the insufficient "male heat" of her father's ejaculate when her mother became pregnant. Women were seen as morally defective, intellectually feeble, and consistently rebellious—qualities that legitimated our domination by men. As these attitudes were culturally developed over time, we get to Milton's Paradise Lost (1667), where in a very famous passage Milton portrays sin itself as a woman. Milton's portrait is grotesquely pornographic, savagely violent, and psychologically panicked. But Milton was by no means unique or alone in his systematic misogyny: take a look some time at Felicity Nussbaum's The Brink of All We Hate: English Satires on Women, 1660-1750.  Even when attitudes toward erotic desire change, as they certainly do at times (and as I have explored at length), the fact remains that women must above all remain subordinate, secluded, and under male control.

——//——

            Here's the bottom line, here's what you need to recognize and remember. Some men are sexually self-confident. Others are not. Some men are secure in their own masculine identity despite profound social changes that have steadily diminished the traditional power, prestige, and status of men in Western culture. Some men are not secure. Some men are in fact profoundly threatened by massive cultural changes in the public status of women, just as some white people (men and women alike) are threatened by changes in the public status of non-Europeans (especially those whose ancestors were slaves). But threatening an insecure male is remarkably dangerous. And such men will defend one another to the hilt. That's the dynamic that was so visibly manifest in the Judiciary hearings: morally self-possessed men, charged by the nation with evaluating candidates for lifetime appointment to our highest court, would never have been so threatened by the quietly gracious Dr. Ford that they flubbed as much as the Republicans have flubbed, even to the point of not allowing one another to question Dr. Ford directly.

            On the other hand, men are not the only ones guilty of cultural cluelessness in these difficult matters. I wrote in detail about gender and the spiritual grammar of the West in Selling Ourselves Short, which was published fifteen years ago. On book tours in 2004 and 2005, I heard younger women assert over and over again that sexism was a thing of the past, that women were now fully equal to men, that their marriages were utterly untroubled by gender-role issues, and that culturally deep-seated bias against women had gone the way of horse-drawn carriages. I listened in quiet amazement as audiences assured me that I was old-fashioned and out of touch and nothing like that ever happened in the modern world we live in today. I wondered if I could move to whatever planet they inhabited. I worried about them. The #MeToo onslaught fifteen years later demonstrates the naivete of women who generalize carelessly from honorable men they know and love to all men everywhere in American culture. That's foolish.  

            Just as black parents give their children The Talk about white racism, women owe both our daughters and one another—along with our brothers, husbands, fathers, and sons—our own version of The Talk about the dangers posed by sexually insecure men who are threatened by women's competence, our intelligence, our fortitude, and every other left-hand trait that the spiritual grammar of the West attributes to men and men alone. We can't protect ourselves and others against threats we don't see coming. Good people can't support one another appropriately if we think any of this is a "personal problem" between the individuals involved rather than a systemic problem that involves all of us. Thinking that women are safe now that women have risen to prominence in many fields is like thinking that black people are safe now that a black man has been president of the United States.

            Culture is not that simple. Culture exerts a profound influence on all of us, for better for worse. And cultural currents in the present moment are particularly roiled: as I have explained in other blog posts, Republicans have spent the last fifty years fanning both racial and gender insecurities for political gain. Fundamentalist white evangelicals and rigidly conservative Roman Catholics, who together dominate the Republican "base," remain steadfastly committed to an ideology of unquestioned and unquestionable male superiority. Secular white supremacists, ethno-nationalists, and neo-Nazis—the armed militias that marched in Charlottesville—are worse by far, a reactionary fringe that Donald Trump has repeatedly welcomed into the mainstream. What used to be called the "Republican establishment" has now reaped the whirlwind that Kavanaugh accused the Democrats of sowing. The irony of that moment in the hearings was almost physically painful.

            I find it simply extraordinary that astute, sophisticated, well-educated men who are undoubtedly not brute misogynists in their personal lives can nonetheless make such large and primitive mistakes as what we saw from hysterical Republicans in the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings. But even very smart people can be blind-sided by cultural structures so large, so ancient, and so pervasive that they are hard to see clearly. There's further hazard when these cultural structures overlap either with personal sexual insecurities or with the need continuously to feed the fundamentalist, sexist, and racist trolls within the Republican base. Republicans on the Judiciary Committee walked right into the wall of woke feminine solidarity manifest by millions of women wearing pink hats and marching together nationwide to protest a president who had boasted about his repeated success in sexually assaulting women.   

            The Republicans have a week to figure this out—maybe more, if common sense and public opinion prevails. Whenever they do get to a vote. the women will be watching. And good men everywhere will have our backs.