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Getting to the Root of the Problem

The following remarks were delivered at's "Young Voices" conference on June 24th, 2014.

The question that is on the mind of all feminists is why are we continuing to see such misogyny or hatred directed at girls and women and such inhumane behavior by boys and men when there has been such great work over the past two decades challenging misogyny and fostering the healthy resistance of girls and women and, more recently, boys and men.

A large part of the reason has to do with the fact that we keep on thinking that misogyny IS the deeper problem when, in fact, misogyny is only part of an even deeper problem. And until we tackle this even deeper problem, we will never truly disrupt our girl and women hating culture.

The deeper problem, according to the hundreds of boys I have interviewed over the past 25 years, is that the patriarchal structure is premised on the dehumanization of all humans and not just of girls and women. In fact, patriarchy can only be maintained if we are dehumanized or disconnected from our own humanity and the humanity of others. The system depends on us not recognizing our full or common humanity, in other words, because if we did, the system could no longer be upheld.

The patriarchy dehumanizes all humans by maintaining a hierarchical gender binary, which, according to Carol Gilligan, is "the DNA of the patriarchy." The gender binary asserts that, in essence, girls don't think and boys don't feel and that some of us, such as those who are Black, poor or Transgendered, don't think OR feel.

And because the binary is always hierarchal and gendered, thinking is not only split from feeling, thinking is put on the top and feeling is put on the bottom. Yet we know intuitively and from the neuroscience that humans think and feel and that feeling, the science shows us, enhances our capacity to think. Thus, if only some of us feel and only some of us think and some of us don't think or feel, then all of us are at best only part human and if we are only part human, we are, in fact, not human at all.

Misogyny is not only a product of this dehumanization process, misogyny also prevents us from seeing the deeper problem because while we are so busy trying to be on the top of the hierarchy where the masculine rests (or anything that smells of rugged individualism, autonomy, and toughness) and trying NOT to be on the bottom where the feminine rests (or anything that smells of the social or the emotional, the relational, or the collective), that we don't see that what we are doing is privileging a part human and thus non-human way of being in the world and demeaning that very part of our humanity that allows us to thrive. Or to put it another way, when we are so focused on achieving stereotypic manhood and on not being "girly or gay" (which for the boys in my studies means being emotional, having intimate friendships, and valuing relationships), we aren't able to see that our humanity rests precisely in our capacity to be "girly and gay."

Thus, the solution to the problem lies in the recognition and nurturing of our full and our common humanity. And by full and common humanity, I mean our common capacity to think and to feel and our common need to be heard, to be taken seriously, to be thickly loved and to thickly love, to be in deeply connected communities, to be safe from harm, to live freely, to be known, and to have our minds connected to our bodies and to control what happens to our bodies.

The research of Carol Gilligan and her former students, including Lyn Mikel Brown, reveal the damage the hierarchical gender binary - or simply the patriarchy-- does to girls and young women. My research with boys, as well as Judy Chu's work with young boys and Michael Kimmel's work with young men, reveal the damage the gender binary does to boys and young men. In my studies of hundreds of boys throughout adolescence, I find that boys' full humanity is still readily apparent during early adolescence. During this developmental period, boys speak openly about love, relationships, and wanting closer connections to male friends, mothers, grandmothers, and sisters. Then a shift occurs in their stories as they enter middle and late adolescence. Just when they are expected to become, in the name of manhood, only part human and thus not human at all, they begin to sound like gender stereotypes and the violent consequences of these gender stereotypes take hold.

Boys, during early adolescence, sound like David, Trevor, and D'Andre --- 13-year-olds in a 7th grade English classroom in an all boys' school in New York City.

In an essay about his "selfless love act"1 that he carried out with his younger sister, David writes:

The recipient of my selfless love act is my sister, Melissa. She is nine years old. I chose her because I have shown much selfless love to her. When I was between six and nine, we would play tag and run in the park freely, like wild elephants rampaging through the savannah. We would scream like crazy monkeys and speed across the sprinklers on our Razor scooters that showered us with water splashing as if we were out in a harsh rainstorm. When I was ten, playing with her wasn't fun. All her ideas for games seemed boring and we would rarely go to the park. When we did, I always sat on the benches alongside my mother eating ices, observing my sister ride her scooter through the sprinklers by herself. I wish we could do that again. Remembering it now, those were really fun times. She and I now barely bond together. I love her so much because she is the only sister I have. I should protect her and take care of her, but feel that I don't do that.

I plan to play with her for one hour, as my selfless love act, as I have observed that she enjoys playing with make-up and clothes. I have also noticed that she enjoys brushing, combing, and making different hairstyles with her hair. I think we will brush each other's hair and laugh with joy. After I play with her, I think she will be happy and proud that she has a brother who will play with her, even if it means putting on lipstick and trying to make weird hairdos.

Trevor's essay also reveals his humanity as he describes why he is choosing to do his selfless love act with his mother.

I truly love my mother because she is always looking out for me and is there for me when I need help. When I'm having trouble with math she helps me out because math is her specialty. My mom is an accountant who works near Atlantic Avenue. We don't get to see each other much except on the weekends because she works late. The time we spend together is valuable to me, so I try not to get on her nerves. My selfless act was for her because I don't get to see he and talk to her often. Also she seems stressed out of concerned most of the time and I hate seeing her that way.

The selfless act of love was to bake her a cake... As if on cue, my mom came through the front door. As soon as she came in, I hugged her and guided her into the kitchen. I told her that I loved her and she said the same. After saying that I had made a cake for her, her eyes widened. Really? She asked me. I could see it in her smile that this was a happy end to her day.

D'Andre writes about his selfless love act with his grandmother:

My relationship with my grandma is rocky, though it used to be great when I was younger. Once I hit double digits, we started to drift apart. The reason I chose her as the recipient of my selfless act of love is because I miss the bond and connection we had when I was a kid. My grandma is seventy-three years old and has had two knee replacements. She also suffers from serious arthritis, so she can't move too well. Yet, with all of her problems she tries her best to clean, cook and do the laundry for the household of five. My plan is to bake a cake for her and my sister since their birthdays are on the same week.

When I woke her up and brought the cake out that I had made. I was surprised when I saw and felt my grandma's reaction. I have never seen her cry so much in the thirteen years I have been alive and I have never been held tighter by her in my life. I was trying to stop her hysterical crying, but it was pointless. She was holding me so tightly that I started to cry. She asked me why I was crying and I pointed out to her that it was because she was holding me so tightly. She released me and I had a chance to catch my breath. She hugged me again, but I was pretty exhausted so I decided to go to bed. When I woke up she said that this was the kindest thing I have ever done for her and I didn't disagree. Then I got ready for school like usual and left.

Boys during early adolescence speak with great honesty about their feelings and their human capacity and need for love. By middle adolescence, their voices begin to waver as expectations about manhood --with its emphasis on rugged individualism, autonomy, and toughness - intensify. The open expressions of love fade and boys speak repeatedly about "needing to separate" from their moms and their grandmas. They no longer speak about their younger sisters. They discuss needing to "man up," not rely on others, or reveal their worries, fears, and vulnerabilities. While some boys are able to articulate their anger and sadness at their expected transition from being fully human to being only part human and the isolation that inevitably results, many boys appear to simply retreat into a state of numbness and say things like "I don't care," It doesn't matter" "and whatever" when asked questions about their relationships. They begin playing games such as do you want to marry, fuck, or kill her as they evaluate their female classmates. They also drop their closest male friendships in the name of not wanting to be girly or gay. It is right at this age during middle and late adolescence that boys, according to the national data, turn violent against themselves and against boys, and, of course, against girls - those on the bottom are always blamed for the problems of those on the top.

While there are many examples of programs, schools, and other public places where the humanity of one group or another is fostered, there are far fewer examples of places that recognize and nurture a sense of a common humanity across the socially constructed lines of gender, race, sexuality, religion, or any other social identity. Such anti binary activism is essential as, once again, it is only in the breaking down of the gender binary that makes us only part human at best and thus not human at all that we will begin to see and value our humanity, our common humanity. Once we begin to see and value our common humanity, it will no longer be possible to uphold a system of power that is entirely premised on denying such humanity.

Niobe Way is Professor of Applied Psychology at NYU, the Past President of the Society for Research on Adolescence, and the Co-Founder of the Project for the Advancement of Our Common Humanity. Her most recent book is "Deep Secrets: Boys' Friendships and the Crisis of Connection (Harvard University Press, 2011).

1. The "selfless love act" was part of a "love curriculum" in Ethan Podell's English Class at George Jackson Academy in New York City. The boys were asked to pick someone from home to whom they don't show enough love and to do something for them that would express their love. They were then asked to write an essay about the experience.


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