Over the past week we have heard the events of 9/11 described in
many ways. One of the most significant "spins" on the
events comes from the government: initially the events were described
as "a terrorist attack," but not long after they became
an "act of war". We have been told that what occurred
is not a crime to be addressed by punishing the perpetrators, but
an attack on a nation-state which requires us to take up arms against
the enemy. Why does this shift in conceptualizing the events matter?
Acts of war as opposed to acts of crime call for different responses:
in war procedural safeguards (e.g., innocent until proven guilty)
are suspended, civil liberties are curtailed, the death of innocents
is justified. Crimes against humanity unite us as human beings in
response to the horrific acts of individuals; in contrast, attacks
on nation-states call for an identification of "the enemy"
as other nation-states. I've been asked: does anything about this
have to do with gender?
The United States is a proud country. National pride is a good
thing. The attacks not only wounded people, it wounded our national
pride: how could "they" have done this to "us"?
How dare they? Men and women learn to respond to affronts differently,
however. Women often have their pride wounded by those who hold
more power, so they are not in a position to respond with a display
of greater power to prove their worth. Those in subordinate positions
have to look for other ways to restore their pride, e.g., they turn
inward to re-establish their own intrinsic worthiness, they look
for ways in which they may have provoked the affront, they seek
more effective ways of communicating with those in power to establish
a better and more respectful relationship. Men, when positioned
as powerful, can simply demand respect and threaten those who hesitate.
Demanding respect in this way is seen as a sign of (masculine) strength.
But those of us who have lived on the receiving end of these demands
know that they may generate fear and even cooperation, but this
is not the same thing as respect. Demands backed by force may be
effective but they are shallow; they are grounded in sheer power
and not in a demonstration of what deserves respect.
Terrorism may be effective in generating fear, but it is shallow
in that it does not demonstrate the value of the cause. Threats
of war may be effective in generating cooperation from other nations,
but people who already suspect that the United States is a bully
intent upon controlling the Arab world will have their suspicions
confirmed. Those threatened by war may understandably coalesce into
an "enemy" in self-defense. In order to restore our pride,
our self-respect and the respect of others, we should ask: Are the
values of democracy and freedom made manifest in our actions? Are
we demonstrating the power of law and reason and the value of the
individual? Is it our values that we are acting on, or are we simply
reacting to a threat in its own terms? Such concerns may seem naïve
when dealing with others who are willing to resort to atrocities.
But even in the face of atrocious criminals weshould respond in
a way guided by principle that accords them humanity. The rhetoric
of today, however, directs us to prove our power against the "barbarians".
Is this not a kind of masculine response?
Of course, to say that it is a "masculine" response is
not to say that it is a response that all men will endorse, just
as to say that something is feminine is not to say that all women
exhibit it. Nor is it to say that this sort of response is "natural"
for men, or is biologically determined in some way. Quite the contrary.
As we all know, some men are quite feminine, some women masculine.
Yet, in their daily lives, men and women are guided by very different
social codes and negotiate very different social pressures. As previously
suggested, in a social context where men tend to be more powerful
than women and where women are expected to be deferential, women
have had to develop different strategies for dealing with wounded
pride than men. It is important to note that others in subordinate
positions, e.g., people of color of both sexes also employ the strategies
I've been casting as "womanly" (as have wise people throughout
history). Yet it is common to associate strategies employed by the
vulnerable with women and to regard the accompanying traits as "feminine"
even if they are exhibited by both men and women; men of color,
also being vulnerable, are sometimes lumped with women and are regarded
as "feminine" too. What we have to consider is whether
because those in power are men, they resort to masculine strategies
even when these are not the most appropriate, and whether women's
strategies offer us valuable resources for building new global alliances.
It may seem ironic that calling for a response that upholds the
values of law, reason, and the humanity of each individual is being
cast here as more "feminine" than "masculine".
After all, aren't reason and individualism masculine? What this
demonstrates, I think, is that masculinity and femininity symbolize
opposing values, but exactly what values are being opposed depends
on context. How exactly the oppositions shift is complicated. But
it appears that masculinity often tracks the mechanisms of power.
In a context where the status quo is secure, the rules that define
the structure of social relations are imposed on individuals: reason/masculinity
governs, and emotion/femininity is the threat that must be controlled.
In a context where the status quo is insecure, the masculine response
is not to talk, consider alternatives, to understand and move beyond
the conflict, but to exert force to reassert dominance. Masculinity
calls for patriotic identification that eclipses the individual
and overrides democratic institutions and rational debate (so much
so that death in battle is honorable); it is feminine, then, to
consider the individuals who may suffer, the points of view of the
"enemy", to govern one's actions by the values of democracy
There are many things that Americans can be proud of in the aftermath
of the attacks: the heroism, the compassion, the dedication of so
many people. As I see it, there is nothing intrinsically masculine
or feminine about the values we hold dear. Some things we regard
as masculine are good, some not so good; and the same holds for
the things we regard as feminine. I hope there will be a day when
it makes no sense to interpret a particular response as masculine
or feminine. But my worry is that the judgements and decisions of
our leaders are clouded by gender expectations and gender insecurities,
and that in these difficult times a masculine show of force will
lead us to betray our own ideals. Instead, keeping in mind the humanity
of even the worst criminals and the goal of a world governed by
mutual respect, we should take what might ironically be considered
in this context the more feminine or womanly approach: rather than
resorting to war and violent attempts to destroy the enemy (be they
individuals or states), we should rely on international judicial
institutions and international human rights law as far as possible
to bring those responsible for the attacks to justice.
Are our leaders strong enough to respond to the attacks in a way
that might be considered feminine? To cast an approach as feminine
is, typically, to devalue it. But how we understand both the content
and the value of masculinity and femininity can be changed. Can
we refuse the devaluation of women's responses, expose the hollowness
of the masculine, and find a space where we can affirm justice for
all of us-not retaliation, not justice for "us" in the
United States, but truly justice for all?
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