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The modern emphasis on the individual has led to disaster for the relationship between men and women. The post-war emphasis on individual desire, and on the “self” has generated a type of human being that is detached from all bonds, duties, and history. The sense of meaninglessness that followed the two World Wars generated an untethered, existentialist subject. On the one hand, this generated a nebulous kind of “freedom” – the freedom to behave as if there were no limits and as if consequences were a thing of the past. On the other hand, this lack of boundaries has induced alienation, loneliness and a high suicide rate, particularly for men: in the UK, it is the leading cause of death for men under fifty. Freedom – from religion, community, family – comes at a high price. If you are not able to make your own meaning, or if life sends you disasters, there is little to fall back on, and no reason to go on.
The modern individual – egoistic, consumerist, free – is largely desexed. The modern subject is instead an interchangeable economic entity, whose sex is largely irrelevant to the vast majority of employment. Bar a few jobs that depend upon strength and risk-taking, and a few that require female sexuality, labour is open. Thus have we reached “equality,” though it is an equality on the terms of the market. As a culture, we have struggled to map formal equality onto irreducible sexual difference, and economics has stepped in to oversee an uneasy peace.
In fact, economic equality – its dream at least – has caused a kind of psychic crisis in the relationship between men and women. We have become too proximate. We are now more like brother and sister than man and woman. In this way we have reached an anxious togetherness: men and women are everywhere with each other, but the rules of engagement are usually only understood too late – that is to say, once they have been transgressed. MeToo amply demonstrated that the desire for extra-judicial punishment has not disappeared in the internet age: on the contrary, it has simply been virtualised. It is not wise to be flirtatious when your income is at stake.
At the same time, for all the complaints about “patriarchy,” we live in a fatherless and Godless world. Not only empirically, in the sense that many children grow up without a stable fatherly presence, but also spiritually. Our freedom came at this cost too, where we make our own rules and act like Gods in relation to our own desire; no one tells me what to do.
«Despite all the complaints about “patriarchy,” we live in a fatherless and Godless world.»
The great sexual realignment
The post-war subject is limitless, or aims to be. Sex, as in the biological difference between men and women, is minimised through economic and social mores. The liberal subject is not first and foremost male or female, because these realities appear as restrictions rather than possibilities for being in the world. Sex, as in the act, appears simultaneously as consequence-free. Sever the link between intercourse and reproduction, and everyone is free to behave like a cad. Feelings be damned.
«Sever the link between intercourse and reproduction, and everyone is free to behave like a cad. Feelings be damned.»
The idea that heterosexual women would be uninterested in casual dating apps – the claim originally made as the technology expanded from gay men to heterosexuals – proved to be untrue. Whether any of this makes men or women “happy” is a moot point. Would that humanity could remember that happiness means “luck,” and you can’t choose it. “Happiness” in its consumerist formulation exists only to make people unhappy, and to buy more. This image is radically at odds with the model of humility and other-directedness that persist in the major religions, whose popularity almost everywhere continues to decline. Quantity trumps quality; immediacy is better than delay; in the arena of romance, more sex for some, none for others. But little love, and no playfulness. The pornographic is the apex of Western representation; the mystery rendered in high definition, destroyed forever.
Thus we know everything, are too close, jumbled together, suffering annoyance and irritation. The very idea of “man” and “woman” is up for grabs, tenuous ideas floating in the ether. A man can be a woman if he says he is one, because womanhood has simply been reduced to a series of signs: high heels, make-up, skirts. Flesh is passé; identity is king. Whatever we say we are, we are. Women can disappear into the social fog – as many teenagers in particular desire to do – by declaring themselves “non-binary.” A great sexual realignment is under way where “who one is” is governed not by fate, but by the desire to appear, and to be desired as one thing or another. The flesh itself is reactionary, to be transcended. We may not ever get artificial wombs, but, my goodness, our Promethean tendency will try – the needs of children be damned.
Re-enchanting the relationship between men and women
Well, this is a depressing picture! Fortunately, reality has a way of reasserting itself. Despite the best efforts of various media to stoke resentment between the sexes, men and women do (occasionally) still get on. Our natural differences can become a source of wonder, even as we are shoved together as indeterminate beings. We can take a step back and refuse this saturated, imagistic culture. We can remember that there are many virtues that fall outside the circuit of immediate desire. Yes, it may be that these virtues are ultimately different for men and women, but only with the proviso that men and women are different yet still compatible in their difference. And there are many virtues, patience not the least among them, that we share. Men and women still – just about – want to get married and have children. So much else is just noise.
«Despite the best efforts of various media to stoke resentment between the sexes, men and women do (occasionally) still get on.»
A culture that pushes immediacy, action, desire and the self, clamours at us. But we do not have to participate. It is time to replace a selfish idea of freedom – the liberty to do what one likes on a whim – with a more embedded (and embodied) reality. We cannot choose our bodies, but we can learn to look after them and be grateful for our lives. We may not get what we want, but this too is also a lesson. Our imagination can be filled with our own thoughts and intuitions, as well as the wealth of human expression. Why would we hand this latter faculty over to the most debased forms of stimulation? We can re-enchant the relationship between men and women by stepping back and admiring the world, by improving ourselves – not the better to show off or to boast, but to find our small place in life’s human tapestry.
We do not have to like everybody, and we should not excuse antisocial behaviour – neither in others nor in ourselves. Yet, even this latter recognition prompts the idea that to be a better person, however slightly, is possible. This goes equally for men and for women. We should not fall into the trap of blaming each other for whatever is wrong in our lives. It is not your ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend’s fault that you find the world a sorrowful place. We are not each other’s scapegoat, and the battle of the sexes should not be violent. Rather, it should be playful. We take our losses on the chin; we try to understand what life is like for the Other. A tragi-comic attitude makes light of and accepts reality. Men and women, in any case, are going nowhere. It is better for us all to deal with this as best we can, and enjoy it while we may.