Learning About and Dismantling Patriarchy
The word patriarchy is coming up more and more frequently but many people don’t understand what it is, what it looks like, or how it works. Some people don’t think it exists at all. Those people dismiss patriarchy as fictitious or claim that if it does exist it is a natural social order. Fortunately, generations of feminists, queer advocates, and social activists have worked hard to identify it’s structures and raise awareness of the damage it does to people. Patriarchy is real and it must be dismantled because of the many ways it hurts women, children, queer folk, as well as men and boys.
The simplest explanation of patriarchy is as a belief system that creates a social structure in which the most stereotypically masculine people have the most power and everyone else falls to a lower ranking. We can see this play out in popular culture, common expressions, professional sport, pornography, and even politics where men are portrayed as the natural leaders. Men are depicted as the kings of the hill: on top, in control, unemotional, physically strong, free from emotional or social connections, and capable of powering through any discomfort, hardship, or adversary.
Examples of these masculine stereotypes are easy to think of: Batman, James Bond, TV cowboys, John A Macdonald, sports heroes, etc. Although patriarchal perspectives depict men as powerful and natural leaders, the cost of that type of masculinity is violence, pain, and fragility for men themselves. That type of masculinity discourages men from growing emotionally, from being vulnerable, and in the end from developing healthy relationships. It pressures men to be competitive at any cost, to win, and to always be in control. This is an enormous burden. As kids learn on the playground, there can only be one king of the hill and failing to be on top is shameful. That foundation of patriarchal belief is repeated in countless other expressions: if you’re not first, you’re last; teach ‘em who’s boss; there’s only one winner, don’t be a bitch.
Patriarchy doesn’t believe in or create equality and men learn that the most important thing in life is to be on top at work, in sport, at home, at school, in public, and everywhere. It teaches men to fear and reject any weakness or vulnerability. If men are not ‘on top’ in these scenarios they’re likely to insult or reject the whole thing. Think about how often you have seen a man struggle at work, in school, or in a relationship before he denounces the boss as a jerk, school as stupid, or his partner as crazy. The pressure to always be in control isolates men and contributes to undiagnosed mental health problems, high suicide rates, and the manipulation of their partners in intimate relationships as they try to keep up the appearance of being a ‘real man’. When men posture and fight for their place on top of the patriarchy, women, children, and members of the LGBTQ+ community are disproportionately the victims of male violence.
Patriarchal beliefs are brutal but they can be unlearned. Locally, the Men’s Program of Grey and Bruce offers groups for men who have been violent or abusive. The 12 session program works to examine and shift the beliefs that make violence possible for individuals. It is important to remember that men are not inherently violent. The beliefs that make individuals violent are learned from the beliefs of the culture and system in which we live.
Patriarchy encourages men to be less than humane and gives us common phrases to justify their inhumanity. The phrases are so common that we ignore them as normal. Those ideas include simple sayings like that people ‘push our buttons’, that violence happens when we ‘lose control’, that male students will be ‘distracted’ by the outfits of female peers, and that having feelings is ‘unmanly’ and a sign of weakness. These expressions and countless like them teach men to suppress their feelings, look down on girls and women, and to avoid responsibility for the damage they might cause.
Men are not inherently violent, loners, or emotionally stunted but patriarchal expectations teach them to be this way. Boys learn that it is not okay to feel, to care, or to compromise when their childhood heroes fight their way out of problems and when the adults in their lives tell them that boys don’t cry and they should ‘man up’. Having learned not to care, it’s easier for men to exploit relationships for sex, status, and the emotional labour they didn’t learn how to do themselves. Before men can have healthy relationships, they need to begin to uproot and replace the patriarchal belief systems that limit them.
The Men’s Program can’t undo a lifetime of messaging in only three months and it doesn’t try to. Instead it works to give men the perspectives and tools they’ll need to challenge the beliefs that made their violence possible. Learning how to have healthy relationships is lifelong work. It requires men to question our assumptions, to connect with our feelings, and to practice expressing them and listening to others when they do the same. For more information about the Men’s Program and all the services it offers, visit http://www.cmhagb.org/programs/.
By Jon Farmer and Joachim Ostertag