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The Gender of Global and Philosophical Violence: A review of Betty Reardon’s Sexism and the War System

Essay in Memory of Betty Reardon, Professor of Peace Education at Columbia University, New York City.

In reading Betty Reardon’s Sexism and the war system (Syracuse University Press, 1996, 112-pp.) I cannot, undeniably, at the onset distance myself from the fact that I am a male brought up in an Eastern tradition of patriarchy, schooled in a male-dominated system and went through an American education system at the college level, tying to unlearn the excesses of male chauvinism. My training in the last ten years, and contributions in teaching have been in the field of neuroscientific principles of teaching; teaching creativity, critical thinking, ethics, and futurism somewhat in the context of peace education and critical pedagogy. My intellectual explorations have been in the field of political economy, normative approach to politics, humanistic psychology and philosophy, neuro-linguistic programming, and of late, mind-body integration in the existentialist religious tradition as well as sociology of the future.

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Having confessed briefly my potential biases in my “first impression” of Reardon’s book, I now turn to the critical and creative analysis of Sexism and the war system. I will first discuss Reardon’s main thesis that the root cause of socially and structurally sanctioned violence (i.e. militarism in its broadest sense) lies in our learned sexist perspective. Next, I will elaborate Reardon’s idea of androgyny as a necessary and idealistic configuration of our psyche and relate this to selected cross-cultural perspectives. I will finally close this review with a synthesis of the author’s thesis with the pedagogical possibilities of social transformation via education, within the context of an emerging framework of holistic education; the Ying and Yang and the brain-mind integration of learning.

Thesis on Violence 

Reardon’s main thesis is that there is an interdependence of structural violence in virtually all spheres of human living with the mindset of sexism we have constructed. Our world is ordered as predominantly patriarchal, an excess of the positive masculine psyche and that the inability of one to recognize the oppressed nature of this condition, i.e. the subjugation of the female within is the excess of the positive feminism in us. When these excesses are translated into the concept of militarism and the war system (“structural violence”), they rear their ugly heads in such forms as authoritarianism, the war mentality, and the urge to dominate, and to rape.

This bastardization of positive masculinity has its roots in the traditional socialization of the female who allows such a condition to prevail. Thus, imperialism, environmental destruction, arms build-up, xenophobia, and other forms of threats outgrowth of the male psychic distortion, Reardon contends, is similar to the threat inherent in rape; which is “essentially [the] forcing of … person or persons into submission and accommodation by the threat or use of force of violence.” (p.39) International politics is claimed to be male-centric, technological sophistication and advancement a male enterprise and research conducted within the quantitative paradigm is male-oriented.

The essentially masculine-ordering of things has thus historically explained the state of affairs our world is already in: injustices against women, global distributive injustices, economic wars, arms build-up, authoritarian regimes, and of late the impending global financial crises. In the later chapters, Reardon calls for a convergence of the male-female positive energies into its rightful androgynic mindset and to use the vehicle of education to engineer transitions and transformations. This can be achieved at the organizational, research, and ecumenical levels through the collaboration of peace research and movements centered around world order values. It should be interesting to analyze the pluses and minuses of the author’s thesis.

It must be commented at the onset that Reardon’s idea of linking feminism with the war system is an intellectual excursion from many a lowbrow feminist-analysis of the male-female dichotomy and power relations. One may find in the latter, arguments which most predominantly center on the attacking the “physical male” sexual in undertone rather than the ideological or psychological as what Reardon had done. It is not the intention of this review to dwell into an expose of such paralyzing excursions and sub-cerebral arguments on masculinity and feminism. Instead, let me begin with looking at what’s lacking in the speculative narrative offered in Sexism and the war system.

Critical View 

Reardon failed to satisfactorily draw instances from cross-cultural perspectives in analyzing the root cause and manifestations of the “battle of the sexes”. She mentioned a great deal of masochismo in the Kanachi tribe (studied by Francis Fornori) whose power as a terrifier is measured by the number of heads chopped off and delivered to one another in the event of an impending war. Reardon relates this aptly with the modern concept of the global balance of terror through the number of nuclear-warheads in the stockpiles of the Superpowers especially during the Cold War period. Should Reardon have tried to draw examples from the different cultures of the world, she would have to engage in a postmodernist task of explaining the logic behind certain rational necessities of the male-female discrimination. In the traditional societies, untainted by Rostowian, Malthusian, or Friedmanian economics, the male must play the role, not necessarily dominant, of toiling in the fields, hunting and risking life in the jungle, or fishing for weeks in tempestuous conditions in open seas whereas the females must be tending the home and family in a safer environment. Such is the nature of trade-off in the traditional societies, at least from the Southeast Asia perspective.

By modern-day analysis, which of these roles can we say to be more oppressive, given the mode of production historically relevant then? Indeed, females bear children a great many but the ontological relevance in such a period is legitimized when one considers the influencing force of religion and tradition which hold families together. The concept of kinship and moral economy of the peasant society must be taken into consideration. It is indeed a complex analysis if we look at the phenomena within such a historical context using a Marxist feminist or world order value lens, perhaps. To further highlight the postmodernity of the argument initiated by Reardon, let us for example look at cases in point as such in Islam, the most misunderstood religion, perhaps when we take the male-female discussion as analysis. Although at face value the female may seem to be analyzed as oppressed, perhaps (via interpretations brought about by cultural distortions of the interpretations of the religion), women’s rights and feminism is never an issue.

The mother, female, is highly regarded to the extent that the child is forbidden to raise his/her voice at her as this will demonstrate utter ingratitude especially considering the fact that the mother, the female, carried the child in her pregnancy, for nine months and ten days with all the joys and pain of delivery which went along in order to bring the child to life. Ingratitude to the female in this context amounts to castration by God, in accordance with Islamic tradition. Paradise, in Islamic belief, lies beneath the mother’s feet and one must honor such respect to the female in order to be granted paradise. When a child is born, he/she takes the name as “—- the son/ daughter of (the father) “ but when he/she dies, the “priest” or imam will, during the last sermon paying his last respect, help the male or female return to Eternity with his/her mother’s name attached. Such is an honor given to the female. A wife can ask for divorce if the husband commits adultery or fails to provide material and sexual needs rightfully accorded to her. If the husband leaves her for more than three months without providing such needs, she is then free to seek divorce through the religious court. And for the last illustration to highlight the subjectivity of the male/female issue, the husband cannot lay hands on his wife in times of disputes, as this is a vow taken when he takes her hand in marriage. Should this happen, the wife is again guaranteed the right to bring the husband to the Islamic court.

Apart from the two criticisms on Reardon’s analysis nonetheless the “pluses” are to be further explored within the context of our global effort in understanding and transforming the anarchical world system. I will confine my discussions to the concept of “androgyny” and the educational imagination. This will synthesize Reardon’s notion of collaboration between feminism and the world order models project which she discussed a great deal in the sexist debate of the world systems. Reardon’s concept of androgyny, i.e. the full realization of the balance between the male-female, masculine-feminine dichotomy which has been historically and psychologically eroded, bastardized, and adulterated is consistent with the idea of “mind-body” and “whole-brain” thinking currently dominating the psyche of many a Gestalt thinker.

Limitation of the feminist perspective?

It must be remembered that Reardon’s Sexism and the war system was originally published in 1985 by arrangement with Teachers College, Columbia University. Her work can thus be interpreted as a culmination of her ideas on feminism perhaps developed decades before. Mind-body perspectives, neuroscience, transpersonal psychology in the contemporary and avant garde genre, and the analysis of androgyny in human thinking are fairly recent bodies of literature, which has become dominant only within the last two decades.

Thus, Reardon’s feminist perspective is an important precedent to any discussions on brain laterality and mind-body juxtapositioning. Hers should not be looked at within a Kuhnian shift in perspective but rather as an evolution; from looking at holistic thinking from a male-female “outer-layer” analysis to one of a left-right brain hemispheric “inner world of the three-pound universe” in nature. Reardon asserted that much of our failure to become and being androgynous is historical and grounded to a particular historicism. She quoted scientific justifications for her claim that our psyche has been conditioned to the fear within and in turn conditions our phobic behaviors particularly within the domain of the war system. She wrote:

Research does indicate that most of the behavioral differences between human males and females are the consequences of socialization and education. The artificial differentiation thus imposed on man and women leaves in its wake a very deep sense of fragmentation and loss, perhaps even a sense of being wounded or traumatized by a rending of one set of characteristic from every human being at the time of birth – a cleavage I refer to as the primal wound. A sense of trauma and pain can be one source of what has been designated as natural aggression. What is important here is to recognize the common emotional roots as well as the structural inter-relationships between sexism and the war system. (p. 8)

Consistent with my pedagogical inclination to look at Reardon’ claim concerning “the primal wound” within the context of brain laterality, I assert that the violence and aggression can also be explained, in collaboration with her thesis, within the context of brain development. Higher intelligence, through the development of the cerebral cortex, is a desirable goal of any educational framework modeled after the demands of current research findings in brain science. A positive, well-developed brain is a precondition for the development of holistic thinking. A whole-brained, holistic thinker, whom Reardon may call an “androgynous being” can be able to successfully and harmoniously juggle the inner workings of the analytical and the creative, the mathematics and the music, the concrete reality and metaphysical dreams, the systematizations and the imaginations, the subconscious and the wide-awake consciousness, and all the dualism inherent in an ontology of thought-governing, Ying and Yang in character.

A person as such then fits Reardon’s ideal for an individual who mediates between the excesses of the positive and constructive traits in the masculine and feminine. Reardon’s androgynous being can then not only discriminate between good and bad but also can nourish, care, and provide. The wisdom of discrimination (the masculine within) can be used not to dominate, imperialize, terrorize, build weapons of ultimate terror, or most significantly to utilize and monopolize technology for destructive intentions. The wisdom to care, nourish, and provide (the feminine within) on the other hand, can be used not to be overly protective, excessively emotional, rampantly creative, or most significantly to create and innovate better and more sophisticated technologies for destructive intentions too. Today we have the rise of killer robots and Artificial Intelligence as a post-post-informational Age’s reincarnation of the early 19th. century Mary Shelley’s monster, Frankenstein.

From this speculation of androgyny and the danger of male-female excesses in our psyche, it is not difficult to explain how we have evolved as human beings that have contributed to the chaos at every modern epoch. We have perhaps ignored our moral responsibility to planet Earth in that the knowledge we acquire has been used to develop faster and better means to oppress Nature and the meeker among our species. We develop technology not in a morally surrealistic way to make representations of the powers within us in our quest for self-knowledge, but instead to further celebrate and advance our aggressive instincts.

The “primal wound” within

I believe that the “primal wound” as Reardon alluded to is one we inflict upon ourselves because we may have failed to see the worth of living through our life we have failed to examine. As Socrates once cautioned us, “the life unexamined is not worth living”.Not only must then the human species urgently find remedies to heal this “primal wound” but also look inwards to diagnose what cancer of the soul is destroying our attempt “to be and to becoming” within the parameters of what constitutes being a human. This may well be an important step towards our creative and moral evolution, or in the language of some religion, the necessary progression towards the realization of our dharma, our sacred duty; to the attainment of Nirvana; to the realization of the true meaning of our existence as an image of God; or to realize that we are Vicegerent of the Supreme Being entrusted to seek for Knowledge and Love so that we may ultimately find God if we conduct our life on Earth according to the moral principles laid by our Creator.

The masculine arrogance in us has raped Mother Earth of whom we are morally obliged to live in harmony and symbiosis with. Our masculine technicist frame of mind have used sophisticated inventions to deforestate, build steel and concrete structures to alienate each other, design phallic-looking missiles to terrify one another, govern others through masochistic forms of dictatorships, create trade blocks to render millions economically deprived, write up canons, laws, and treaties to define each other as less than human. We thus had to invent a United Nations to contain any possibility of mass annihilation. We have thus created the most violent century at the eleventh hour of our appearance on this planet.

What then could possibly be an educational framework which can emerge from the synthesis of Reardon’s analysis, world order model project, and the growing body of literature on mind-body integration which can perhaps give hope for our children who need such humane and transformational leadership?

What next for peace education

I would propose the urgent introduction of peace education at all universities around the world as a core subject to begin with. This should be one which would integrate women studies, peace research, creativity, critical thinking, and futuristics which would allow aspiring leaders in all spheres of human activity to begin building scenarios and to help realize utopias based upon our most humane principles of learning and living. Transdisciplinary approaches linking this core course with other disciplines can be designed in order for business studies to not be divorced from ethics, or military science not to be separated from peace education, for example. Morality and philosophy as once powerful disciplines should be raised to its rightful degree of prominence.

In many developed and developing countries for example, role models and heroes are corporate leaders, politicians, military chiefs, rock musicians, and macho-men from Hollywood instead of poets, writers, peace activists, and Nobel laureates. We have been conditioned to be masculine in our choice of such models. The international system is too tied up in an entangled mix of military-industry-politics that the powerful international media, the fourth estate, is but a means to help mask such tripartite controlling interest so that society, in the Orwellian and Marcusian analyses can become one-dimensional. The world is a “global marketplace to be made safe for democracy” and to be explained using the language of the war system: “corporate jungle”, “guerilla marketing strategies”, corporate strategies and positionings”, “business intelligence”, “corporate raiders and warriors”, “acquisitions”, “economic blockades” “head hunting” and the like.

Ancient texts on war such as Sun Tzi’s The Art of War or The Military Secrets of Attila the Hun are fervently studied by corporations so that the world can be viewed as an economic war zone to be fought in a deadly zero-sum game. Such is our global economic ordering of ideological landscape devoid of moral-philosophical underpinnings. Peace education is thus needed. Our mindset, as Reardon hopes, must undergo a radical reconfiguration.

We may perhaps have to begin at home by first eliminating toys which mystify and glorify violence: our GI Joes, Mortal Kombats, Doom Patrols, and those which may train our children to become more violent than current world leaders of that breed who we wish to dispose but do not have the capability to do so. We can next analyze what our children are watching on television; the powerful technology which tells us what and whose reality we should believe in. We can continue to proceed with such transformational steps until we can help the children of the next generation live with leaders who will rule not with guns, guts, and glory but with love, life, and liberty. Such is a big challenge. In concluding this review, it must be said that Reardon’s perspective on feminism and the root cause of violence is a powerful and refreshing analysis.

When integrated with the analysis of our brain as hemispheric and lateral, with the notion of holism in education, it becomes a potential fertile ground for further research on peace studies. Given enough cross-cultural perspectives added to Reardon’s discourse, it can become a theoretical basis for other feminist movements globally to understand the war system, and to engineer systematic and concerted movements towards complete disarmament. Or as she concluded Sexism and the war system brilliantly within the concept of androgyny:

[a]s male and female genetic material converge in the conception of an individual life, so must masculine and feminine perceptions, modes, and participation merge into a conception of a truly human society. This conception can be politically symbolized by taking on as one goal the two major transformative tasks of our generation: achieving equality for women and complete disarmament. (p. 97)

Indeed, these tasks have become not just a choice but an imperative for men, unless we wish to establish a world for our children that is based on androgyny and the peace system.

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DR AZLY RAHMAN grew up in Johor Bahru, Malaysia and holds a Columbia University (New York City) doctorate in International Education Development and Masters degrees in six fields of study: Education, International Affairs, Peace Studies, Communication, Creative Non-Fiction, and Fiction Writing. He has written more than 350 analyses/essays on Malaysia. His 30 years of teaching experience in Malaysia and the United States spans over a wide range of subjects, from elementary to graduate education. He is a frequent contributor to scholarly online forums in Malaysia, the USA, Greece, and Montenegro.

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