Friday, September 25, 2015

Parsing manhood and womanhood

There's been a cold war going on between Doug Wilson and the Mortification of Spin over the nature of complementarianism. Denny Burk is another participant in this debate. The flashpoint of the debate was an answer that John Piper gave to a question about policewomen. 

Todd Pruitt made the mistake of using Doug Wilson as a bad example. I generally like Pruitt. He's usually a good culture warrior. He stays informed. But he's no match for Wilson's wit and rhetorical prowess. That exchange went badly for Pruitt.

A better match-up is between Wilson and Trueman, both of whom are witty and rhetorically nimble. But that's not the level at which we need to conduct the debate. This isn't a test of literary panache. There are very serious issues at stake, which require serious analysis. Not just clever repartee. 

One of the tragedies of the slavery/segregation debate is that the right people were wrong and the wrong people were right. By that I mean many of the more orthodox spokesmen were on the wrong side of the issue while many of the less orthodox people were on the right side of the issue.

Problem is, when the most orthodox people are derelict in addressing a social issue, they allow that issue to be defined, by default, by the wrong people. By people with the wrong frame of reference. They will fill the vacuum, and they will misdefine the issue. 

Trueman, for one, suffers from intellectual impatience on this issue. He doesn't want to be bothered with it, beyond a very sketchy position on marriage and church office. But that effectively delegates to secular social engineers all the detailed answered when it comes to society at large. If conservative Christians don't make the intellectual effort, then masculinity and femininity will be defined by feminism, the manosphere, transgender movement, &c. The secular extremists, at various ends of the secular spectrum, will dominate the debate. Extremists (e.g. feminism, transgenderism) and reactionaries (e.g. manosphere). 

In fairness, Trueman is right to be critical of an approach that makes men and women painfully self-conscious about when they are doing, constantly second-guessing their actions, "Is this the manly thing to do?" It's not about making a long list of rules, of do's and don't's. 

Men and women have many overlapping physical and psychological abilities. The question is where the distinctives come into play.

But complementarians of the MOS variety can't successfully oppose the excesses of the patriarchy movement if they are too intellectually negligent to present a concrete alternative. It's incoherent to say "Don't do that!" unless you can say "Do this instead." You can't beat something with nothing. 

Now that may not be Trueman's skill set. But if so, he should recognize his own limitations rather than making his limitations the yardstick.  

However, the approach of Trueman trivializes the issue, as if Christians don't need to give serious consideration to the sociopolitical implications of gender essentialism. Let's block out some of the issues:

i) In defining manhood and womanhood, what's the frame of reference? In complementarianism, manhood and womanhood are to some degree mutually defining. Men have some distinctive masculine virtues, women have some distinctive feminine virtues, and these were meant to supplement each other. Without the moderating influence of each sex, a nature virtue, carried to an extreme, becomes a vice.

By contrast, it's my impression that feminism tries to define womanhood autonomously, without reference to men. The very concept of womanhood is independent of the other sex. 

That's a very different approach, with very different consequences. And, of course, you have vicious internecine wars within feminism regarding the true definition of womanhood.

ii) Another issue is what Robert Bork dubs "coercive equality." This involves the twin notions that women can do whatever men do (or vice versa) and, what is more, women should be doing it at the same rate as men. If not, then this must be due to sexism and discrimination. 

It's not enough to have equality of opportunity, you must have equality of outcome. And if disparity remains despite equality of opportunity, then we must even that out by any means necessary. Demoting qualified men. Promoting unqualified women. Lowering standards. Having quotas. 

iii) Apropos (ii), suppose more men have a natural aptitude, or take a natural interest, in math and science, than women. But, of course, you have exceptions on both sides of the equation. Women who are good at math and science, men who are bad at math and science.

One policy is to give people the freedom to pursue what they are good at, pursue what they find interesting or personally self-fulfilling. 

But that won't satisfy the radical egalitarians. You have feminists who can't grant the possibility that if women are "underrepresented" in certain positions or majors, that's by choice. They refuse to honor the spontaneous preferences of women.  

iv) More controversial is whether some occupations are inherently more suitable for men than women, or vice versa, due to physical differences, psychological differences, or both. 

Christians who believe in gender realism (as Christians should) will draw some lines in that regard, at least in principle. Stock examples include the coed military. 

v) Another example is official hostility towards stereotypical male behavior. From what I've read, the NEA imposes a feminist ideology on education. This results in persecuting boys for thinking and doing what comes naturally to boys. And, more subtly, this stigmatizes girls for thinking and doing what comes naturally to girls. 

vi) On a related note is the question of whether we should have coed team sports and coed contact sports. Likewise, games are typically competitive, which is a stereotypically masculine trait. Not surprisingly, educators who operate with a feminist ideology are opposed to competitive games. In its place they substitute the stereotypically feminine trait of cooperation. Conflict resolution. 

Should Christians op-out of that public policy debate? Retreat into the home and the church? 

vii) It is, moreover, naive to think radical egalitarians will allow Christians to privatize their faith. The social engineers will invade the home and the church. Dictate to parents how they are allowed to raise their kids. 

viii) Although the debate tends to focus on the role of women, what should be the priorities of a man? For instance, many men are very career-minded. How should that be prioritized in relation to their duties as a husband or father? 

ix) Another issue is whether feminism results in a permissive justice system. Consider CA Chief Justice Rose Bird's refusal to uphold capital punishment. Is that an isolated case? Or take jurors. Consider the Menendez trial:

All six women jurors in the Erik Menendez trial voted to acquit him of the murder of his father (all six males voted guilty of murder). A virtually identical breakdown by sex took place in the Lyle Menendez trial for the murder of their mother. The women all had compassion for the brothers despite their confessions to the shotgun murders of their parents. 
To say that the human race needs masculine and feminine characteristics is to state the obvious. But each sex comes with prices. Men can too easily lack compassion, reduce sex to animal behavior and become violent. And women’s emotionality, when unchecked, can wreak havoc on those closest to these women and on society as a whole — when emotions and compassion dominate in making public policy.


  1. The last paragraph of the quote is the epitome of why homosexual relationships never last.

  2. I'm glad to see you address these issues. I myself had much the same reaction to what Piper said as I think you do: What he said may have been somewhat of an overstatement, but he was doing something that badly needs to be done, which is attempting to give cash value in real sociological issues to a _moderate_ complementarianism. The extreme patriarchalists are certainly happy to give concrete recommendations, and theirs really are problematic. E.g. All young women should live under the authority of their fathers unless they get married, even if they are forty. A more normal complementarian position is obviously desirable, but it won't help if we're literally afraid to discuss the kinds of issues Piper was discussing and confine our complementarianism only to the bedroom and the pastorship. I was shocked to find some of my friends on Facebook who call themselves complementarians (!) but literally said they didn't think there were _any_ intrinsically masculine jobs in the world and even questioned what could possibly be unfeminine about heavy-contact mixed martial arts in which women are literally beating the heck out of each other. That's not complementarianism as far as I'm concerned!

    You were asking the good question about what our complementarianism should mean for men. I would bring up another point: I think complementarianism means that a man who is seriously dating a woman should be expecting to support the family. He shouldn't be _assuming_ that his wife will work long-term or that they will just "work out" some arrangement in which they share childcare. He should be at least _attempting_ or _aiming_ for a situation in which he is the breadwinner and his wife can have children and stay at home with them. Yes, there may be a transitional period before this becomes possible in the marriage, for economic reasons, but it should be the goal. It's astonishing how many nice, young, Christian guys are functional feminists and do not want that responsibility. And then occasionally one runs into a guy who does want that responsibility but is, unfortunately, a creepy hyper-patriarchalist. Is there no middle ground anymore?

  3. " And then occasionally one runs into a guy who does want that responsibility but is, unfortunately, a creepy hyper-patriarchalist."

    Money-shot comment! :0)

    Bill Gothard would not be amused...

  4. Of course Bill Gothard epitomizes creepy hyper-patriarchalism.