The other day, Jerry and I attended an event bringing together people whose professions circle around religion. There were ministers, scholars and theologians in academic departments, of Religion or Theology, students in seminaries and nuns in street clothes. (Nuns don’t seem to wear habits any more.) Also members of the lay public drawn to a very contemporary topic that glided with ecumenical ease from one religious tradition to the next.
After each panelist had spoken, during the Q & A, one young woman asked disapprovingly how they could even begin to explore their topic as long as there were disparities of power: for example, between men and women.
The question, with its freightload of controlled anger, sailed to the front of a rather full auditorium, circled the panelists on stage and became the dominant question pretty soon.
It brought to my mind a similar moment, years ago. A theologian, for whom I have a lot of personal and professional respect, was giving a talk on “Holiness” in his religious tradition: how to recognize it and what forms it took. Suddenly a young woman stood up to ask, in an accusing tone,
- “Why are you giving such prominence to patriarchy?”
The normally fluent speaker was immediately taken aback, apologetic and stumbled through an answer.
What is going on in such incidents? How does it concern women? On its face, it shows the rhetorical power of the weak, the authority of the acknowledged victim.
The underdog has flipped the script and become —
however briefly or protractedly —
In the recent instance and the earlier one, the speakers hoped to soothe the top dog, but failed. The accusing woman who was being placated only grew angrier.
On her side, if she could have been appeased by some diplomatic manoeuvre or offer, she would have betrayed her cause.
What was her cause? Was it to drain the landscape of its yin and yang topography? If that was it, what did she want put in the place of the immemorial polarities?
Power: a unisex concept.
The anger cannot be assuaged because power can’t be seized if the one who seeks it falls for “diplomatic” appeals to the social niceties. It’s not true that these necessarily reinforce the status quo. But it is a fact that the person whose exclusive focus is on augmenting and wielding power can’t at the same time deal in another coin.
There’s one other reason why the banked anger will only augment, not subside. The more men roll over for moral blackmail, the less impressive they will be as males. If you like men, or you want one, you’ve frustrated yourself. I think the same goes for any group one targets in that style. If the group gives in to the anger of its alleged victim, it has lost its nerve and form. In that case, it’s hardly worth defeating and its assailant is frustrated.
In the early years of feminism in this country, I knew some of its leading figures socially. We weren’t pals, but I would meet them at gatherings. Some had rich husbands, who paid for their Park Avenue penthouses and stayed invisible. Some had lovers from the hood who beat them.
Their slogans proclaimed that a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle. Meanwhile they were going far afield to get the yang into their lives.
Getting it from guys who wouldn’t be afraid of them. Or getting it in the old-fashioned form of money. Never mind how powerful sisterhood is. No woman is going to look down on me if I’ve got a guy who will pay for all this.
If life isn’t all about “power,” what could it possibly be about? Long ago, Socrates led his Athenian friends through a conversation about “justice.” A character named Thrasymachus burst into their circle, interrupting the discussion to claim that there is nothing more to “justice” than the power to get what one wants. (Interestingly, the panelist who most agreed with the young woman in the audience said exactly the same thing! It was classic and time-honored back then in Athens, and it still is.)
Socrates, unfazed, drew a distinction between brute power (say, the strength to smash your Greek vase) and functional power (for example, the art that can design your Greek vase).
What kind of power did the young woman in the audience wield? The power to dominate the scene by playing on the implied guilt of the speakers? And what kind did she lose? Wasn’t it the power to discern the actual themes in play in that intellectual arena, in order to extend or refine or correct their reach? In other words, intellectual power. She lost that.
There was another filament of power that our young woman lost. Erotic power. There was a field of forces in play. The panelists, mostly men, were wielding their mental instruments, into which their energies of desire were funneled, automatically and without thinking about it. Insofar as their contributions were honest, they were not trying to fool anybody or drain power from someone else. They were trying to find and use their own power to speak to the point.
Whatever one wants to contribute, as Q and A in such a scene, it ought to include the message that the primal energies of humankind will be safe in the space one shares with others.
This belongs to
the basic chivalry of social life.
To translate all the transactions of life into the language of brute power is to impoverish them rather sadly.
Over the ground where that horse travels
no grass will grow.