"The Patriarchy causes oppressive gender roles" is as verifiable a claim as saying that the Illuminati caused the 2008 Housing Crisis.
Whenever I invite comparisons between the Patriarchy and the Illuminati, the reactions I get are usually silent offense. The most common is something like “you don’t REALLY believe…”, which is a non-reply. It’s a non-reply because it questions your confidence in the assertion, but does not give a reason to disbelieve the assertion itself. The endgame is that if I say “yes”, you call me stupid, and I’m supposed to fear that situation so much that I’d believe your theory to avoid it.
I suppose the reasoning goes like this: surely professors at universities would not teach me a theory that is not rigorously proven? Except professors do that all the time; you just haven’t noticed. Psychoanalysis is still extremely popular in far too many colleges, and it’s regarded by cognitive scientists in a way not too different from how medical scientists regard Deepak Chopra. Non-empirical aesthetic definitions of “good art” are still widely taught in philosophy programs, and even believed by a good number of professors, even in the light of Neuroaesthetics. The only thing that’s required for a discipline to exist is for a university board to approve the granting of Ph.D.s in a subject, and for journals to publish material from those who have those Ph.D.s. A discipline’s existence is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the legitimacy of claims produced by that discipline.
In other words: yes, you had to drudge through a lot of verbose papers to understand and apply a theory. You then received an “A” or “B” for doing this, which the reward centers of your brain quickly associate with legitimacy. This is a great way to make people accept propositions without questioning them, but it’s a terrible way to evaluate the legitimacy of theories.
Unless your claims are specifically contingent on the identity of a person, like “I am Barack Obama” or “I was born in the ’80s”, the truth of your claim is probably not altered by who you are. The truth of 2+2=4 is unaffected by who states that 2+2=4. Or in our case, the truth of the Theory of The Patriarchy is not strengthened because a professor said it. It’s a claim about something true existing in the external world; claims about the external world are judged by empirical methodology — so at the very least, statistical methodology a la Psychology or Political Science — and not the kind of person making the claim. In other words, the methods a claim uses are major factors in the truth of that claim, not the medium by which those claims are delivered.
One of the most common criticisms of someone who addresses patriarchy theory (or feminism in general) is to say that they have misrepresented the theories they are addressing. Whether the representations of those theories are right about that or not, this kind of complaint is completely unsurprising given feminism’s political component. Words like “democracy”, “terrorism” and “freedom” are some of the most disputed words in the world due to their political components. Patriarchy isn’t anywhere near those, but it nonetheless does have political components, so the usual response to criticism is to switch between definitions and say that you haven’t gotten their claims right. This is done by appealing to one with less variables when your one with more variables fails to hold water.
But accurate representation does matter, so it helps to familiarize oneself with common definitions. The standard sociological definition of patriarchy is something like “a society where men hold more power than women.” While you could argue about the degree to which men hold power over women, this is an extremely defensible claim — ctrl+f “II. demonstrability” and refer to (0).
Merriam-webster offers an equally inoffensive definition: “social organization marked by the supremacy of the father in the clan or family, the legal dependence of wives and children, and the reckoning of descent and inheritance in the male line.” Countries like the United States are strongly departed from this kind of social structure today, so this is “old” patriarchy. It does not describe the kind of definition that is used to make causal claims, like “patriarchy hurts men.”
I am not concerned with those definitions. Rather, I am concerned with defining The Patriarchy as a causal agent, which is implied when feminist activists and bloggers will say “patriarchy causes x,” “x is a result of the patriarchy”, and so on. If you believe, for example, that women cannot be sexist because of what patriarchy is, your definition is closer to the one I am addressing here. This definition might deviate from the standard sociological definition in its pure form. You could argue that these activists and bloggers have gotten the definition wrong; I’m sure some of them have. This wouldn’t be surprising. But far too many people believe it, so it’s worth addressing.
This is because while “men hold more power positions than women” is an empirically demonstrable claim, “the Patriarchy causes x” is not an empirically demonstrable line of reasoning as it is usually applied. Here are demonstrable, patriarchy-related things:
- “x is a patriarchy” (old definition of patriarchy, e.g. Saudi Arabia)
- “x has patriarchal characteristics” (characteristics resembling said old definition)
Here are not-demonstrable claims (at least with existing methods), and the ones you see most on tumblr:
- "The Patriarchy causes x"
- "We oppose The Patriarchy"
- "x is oppressed by The Patriarchy"
- "x is a symptom of The Patriarchy"
Whether the above four claims use the standard definition of patriarchy is up for debate. They could be using the standard sociological definition, or they could be referring to something else. They could have the definition completely wrong. Nevertheless, they clearly imply a patriarchy theory that a lot of people believe.
Let’s unpack these.
The first set of claims deals primarily with definitions: does some societal structure or person meet some criteria. You can define criteria however you want, so this isn’t controversial. I could define the hypothetical “Americocracy” as “government by Americans” and then the USA, tautologically, would be an Americocracy. With respect to societal claims like these, definitions/semantics usually only matter when you’re trying to expand or narrow a word to include or exclude things normally associated with that word, like broadening the definition of “rape” or narrowing the definition of “murder”, both of which carry societal implications. So you can define patriarchy in completely descriptive terms, a la “patriarchy is a society where men hold more power positions,” and that’s a non-issue. The issues happen when you turn it into a causal force.
The second set of claims makes claims to things that actually exist, and not only does it make claims to things that actually exist, it posits a connection between said things and some thing you’re facing on a day-to-day basis. Theoretically, this is OK. The problem comes when you try to causally link these things with little or no methodology and even smaller amounts of evidence.
So, let’s take a grand theory that posits a global phenomenon that actually exists — evolution. It’s fine to say that evolution exists now, because society has enormous amounts of evidence to back this assertion. What’s more questionable is whether evolution is linked to your rejection at a nightclub, or someone’s promotion in a job. Interestingly, feminists hate this style of reasoning, and with good reason: it’s speculation, and you don’t have any basis to make that kind of causal connection. But those same feminists will turn around and say “[person] is reinforcing the Patriarchy” or “x is a result of Patriarchy” without the slightest sense of irony.
And by the way, I’m doing Patriarchy theory a good deal of favors by comparing it to evolution. It does not have the benefit of a standard definition like evolution, nor do its proponents adhere to the same rigor of evidence. Saying “large-scale theories like evolution and the patriarchy” is not unlike saying “publications like Reuters and Star Magazine.” They are included because they share a technical commonality, but one drastically overshadows the other in both legitimacy and prominence.
"The Patriarchy" posits a large-scale societal system that is oppressive to women. (If you’re really advanced, replace "Patriarchy" with "Kyriarchy" and women with "the marginalized." But this critique should hold either way.)
There are several things at work when I say “a large-scale societal system”:
1. It is singular. Which is to say, you are saying “the patriarchy” and not “the patriarchies.” There is one patriarchy. It’s a system. This is important because you are connecting smaller things to a larger system and vice versa. If an organization is oppressive toward women, you would call that “patriarchal” but not “a patriarchy”; it’s taken to be part of a larger unit.
2. It’s a social system. Which is to say, it’s organized by humans, spontaneously or deliberately; it is not naturally occurring in the sense that a volcanic eruption is naturally occurring. This is important, because ‘oppression’ does not naturally occur. Oppression is human-created inequality. Naturally created inequality, such as inherent strength differences in men and women, is just called ‘inequality’.
3. It exists. It can be opposed; you can talk about “fighting the patriarchy.” This is important because you can measure how and to what degree it exists.
If The Patriarchy stopped here, that might save it. But it doesn’t.
Let’s quickly list off the positions of adherents of Patriarchy theory:
(0) Patriarchy is a system where women are disadvantaged compared to men.
(1) Patriarchy (/Kyriarchy) is a large-scale societal system responsible for the oppression of women (/the marginalized).
(2) This is a system which is responsible for the creation of gender (/societal) roles, which oppress men and women. Which is to say, those roles cannot be created through some other means independent of the patriarchy.
(3) When seemingly oppressive results exist, they are the result of oppression, which is the result of Patriarchy (/Kyriarchy). Which is to say, oppressive phenomena cannot be the result of some other cause. A person reviewing applicants can’t simply have power-independent bias against a candidate; that bias is oppression, which is caused by Patriarchy.
I’ve listed (0) as independent from (1) because (0) does not have demonstrability issues. To prove (0), that there is a societal system where women are disadvantaged compared to men, all you need to do is establish a measurement for that disadvantage and then cite that measurement. Any common measure of inequality will do, such as the gender inequality index. So if (0) is how you define patriarchy, we have no issues. And I suspect (0) is precisely how some of you do define patriarchy.
Proving (1) is where feminists start to lose the battle. This is the most important sentence in this entry, so it gets its own bolded line:
The existence of variance from perfect 50-50 distribution does not indicate oppression* and the existence of oppression does not indicate a societal system furthering that oppression.
*unless interests and aptitudes are equal
If variance from perfect 50-50 distribution was always indicative of oppression, this would mean that all instances of such variance were cultural, and there weren’t other factors (biology or chance) influencing decisions. This is not even close to true.
But suppose you modify your claim and just say “most” variance from 50-50 is oppression. That’s better, but still weak, and a number of alternate explanations exist. For example, the gender distribution of violent prisoners is overwhelmingly male. Is this because the patriarchy constructs gender roles that hurt men and cause them to act out in aggressive ways? Possibly. But then why do some men act more aggressively than others? Are they just more patriarchy-affected? There is already an explanation for this, and it holds a lot of water: testosterone plus stupidity. Very high or very low levels of testosterone are associated with risk tolerance, and stupidity is associated with violent crime; more men are at the lower end of the intellectual curve due to greater variance, and more men will be more likely to have high testosterone.
This is one particular disparity that can be explained by a number of factors. But patriarchy theory, as it’s usually applied, attempts to be an umbrella explanation for all such disparities. Not only is this ridiculous, but evidence doesn’t support it.
The evidence, after all, is what proves a theory true or false. Evolution is demonstrably true due to the titanic weight of its evidence. What is the evidence for Patriarchy, then? When I’m on blogs and ask someone “how do you prove the existence of patriarchy?”, the most usual answer is something utterly disappointing like “look around you.” But occasionally you’ll get replies like this one from askphilosophers.org which attempt to demonstrate patriarchy via measurement of the number of women in power positions.
The measurement of women in power positions may be a measurement of inequality, but it is not, standalone, a measurement of patriarchy nor even always a measurement of oppression. This is because for it to be a measure of patriarchy, you have to connect the power positions beyond a reasonable doubt to some oppressive force preventing women from obtaining those power positions. Without doing that, the departure from the perfect 50:50 ratio can be caused by other factors, and you don’t have oppression.
The connection-to-patriarchy element is also absent from “patriarchy hurts men too” reasoning inherent in the “patriarchy creates gender roles” claim of (2). It’s provable that gender roles can be responsible for a problem that men face. In fact, it’s probably true that a great deal of these roles are constructed by societal influences. But it’s a leap across a causal chasm to go from “caused by societal influences” to “caused by oppressive forces” to “caused by a system of oppressive forces” to “caused by a system of oppressive forces that disadvantage women more than men, the existence of which is indicated by the ratio of women:men in power positions.” Here, we get to the “Illuminati caused the 2008 housing crisis”-style explanation from the introduction. You are introducing a ludicrous number of extra assumptions: “jack is male, so he likes video games and pizza” is inherently less probable than “jack is male, so he likes video games” because the former contains an additional variable.
But sometimes when you’re pointing things like this out, you’ll get hit with a study that attempts to disprove you, once and for all, by showing how patriarchy can exist on an individual level by demonstrating some kind of bias. They will insinuate, as mentioned in claim (3), that if some act of oppression exists, that act of oppression cannot be the result of anything but patriarchy.
This is silly. It’s very possible to demonstrate the existence of bias against women: take a set of applications that are of equal merit, and look at the weight judges give those applications. There’s a problem with this, though: people tend to prefer that which is like themselves. So you control for those things, too — the characteristics of the judges, in particular. You happen to find that these judges prefer men more than women for some reason, whether or not they judge is actually male or female.
That’s interesting. It demonstrates bias.
It still doesn’t demonstrate patriarchy as a causal force though.
To demonstrate patriarchy’s causal elements by demonstrating bias against females, you’d need to connect the bias to a large-scale system of societal oppression that disadvantages women and show how the bias could not be the result of something else.
This doesn’t happen.
One obvious reason is because bias can be the result of some brain mechanic that all humans have, like pattern recognition, and doesn’t need to come from a societal system. It would only have to come from a societal system if differences between men and women were entirely societal, but that view isn’t tenable: we saw earlier that testosterone influences risktaking, for example. So in a profession where risktaking is valued or looked upon as a kind of confidence, judges of applications may associate femaleness with lack of risktaking and look at females negatively compared to males.
A situation like that is bad, I agree. But it’s not evidence of a system of oppression. A system of oppression is organized, either spontaneously or deliberately. Humans being humans and stupidly creating patterns based on differences that arise due to circumstance is not a system. It’s chaotic. And if you abandon the element of organization from patriarchy, it’s no longer a system and unclear whether you’re talking about patriarchy theory at all. But if you insist to still do that, your task becomes even harder: proving that disconnected instances of oppression form part of some larger, whole phenomenon.
Finally, there’s the historic objection. This states that because x was historically disadvantaged, this is the cause of x’s disadvantage today. To some degree, this idea holds merit. Women have been historically disadvantaged, so it’s not impossible that some holdovers of that still exist today.
But there are two problems with this: (a), in the case of gender roles or gender bias, this is essentially impossible to connect — more so than connecting to patriarchy — and (b) even if a historical system of disadvantage did exist, the existence of disadvantages similar to historical ones do not mean they are remnants of that system, and the existence of remnants of that system do not continue that system of disadvantage. Slavery does not continue because racism still exists, for example.
(b) needs some further explanation. America has a number of mentalities which could be described as “Puritan.” Whether or not you believe this is beyond the point; a number of thinkers exist who have connected American tendencies to Puritanism. Most famously, works like The Crucible connected Puritanism to McCarthyism, and a lot of people believe McCarthyism is a remnant of a particularly Puritan tendency. Whether it is or not, you don’t have a way of connecting it reliably. You could even make a case that “white guilt” is connected to Puritanism, and you’d still be speculating similarly to how the guy who blames his nightclub rejection on evolutionary tendencies is speculating. The idea that something is caused by an event because that thing comes after that event is called post hoc, ergo propter hoc, and it’s usually the kind of error made here.
But suppose I’m wrong, and you proved beyond a reasonable doubt that McCarthyism is a result of Puritanism anyway. Does that mean America is currently under the influence of a Puritan system? Not really. A post-industrialist one? Sure. A capitalist one? Undoubtedly. But a Puritan system? That’s an unjustifiable conclusion.
Much like “The Patriarchy causes oppressive gender roles.”
Some people will read this and think that I am attempting to dismantle feminism entirely, or say that male-dominated societies don’t exist, or that gender bias doesn’t exist. None of these things are true. You can agree entirely with all of what I wrote above and still be a feminist; I’ve talked with analytic feminists who would suggest as much.
It remains true, though, that a lot of people who call themselves feminists treat The Patriarchy as a causal force, as evident by phrasing like “x is the result of the patriarchy” or “the patriarchy causes x.” If you talk about “standards of attractiveness created by the patriarchy,” you are doing this, and there are numerous such examples. So whether or not you think that feminist theory as interpreted by a particular academic aligns with patriarchy as characterized above, there are still enough people treating patriarchy as described above to make it worthy of refutation in its own right.
This is because there are a number of claims you can make about society: that gender roles influence behavior, that certain things can be called “patriarchal,” that bias against women exists, and even that a society is “a patriarchy” depending on how you define “patriarchy.” But The Patriarchy, as in “x happens because of The Patriarchy”-style Patriarchy, has demonstrability issues. To demonstrate it, you’d need to make a number of causal leaps which are either not possible or made without adequate evidence. This theory is passionately advocated on the internet considerably, and especially on tumblr, but it does not warrant its popularity. Compared to other explanations for the phenomena it tries to explain, it fails. And compared to theories of a similar scale, patriarchy theory does not have even close to the same weight of evidence. As a theory, it is untenable.