The following are some further thoughts, following on from my post on men and shame. The issue of the relationship between women and men’s shame should be addressed more closely, because there is an awful lot going on there.
I noted in passing that the popular feminist narrative of ‘the Patriarchy’ is marked by a blindness to the immense power that women wield in human society. Of course, if you focus narrowly upon power in its more overt and direct forms, as feminists are inclined to do, then clearly men are the far more powerful sex and, in a vision of the sexes that generally ignores natural differences, also clearly oppressors. Men are physically stronger, more agentic, naturally enjoy more autonomy and independence on account of their less demanding part in procreation, and are able directly to impose their will upon the world and society to a degree that women cannot. Practically every dimension of the material, technological, institutional, and political structure of practically every human civilization was primarily established by men and is still dominated by them, even as our societies go to considerable lengths to fight against this. While there has been plenty of male tyranny over history, this difference in the capacity for subduing the world and exercising dominion over it does not ultimately arise from tyranny, even if in certain respects it has often been accentuated by it. However, this is far from the full picture.
The fuller picture is one in which the overwhelming majority of men are deeply concerned about what women think of them. Although they exercise more direct power, men’s power has always been exercised largely in order to attract women’s attention, to please them, and to get their approval. As some have wittily remarked, the man may be the head, but the woman is the neck that turns him.
The immense yet indirect power that women wield is an essentially good power, a power that God designed them to have. It enables women to motivate, direct, and inspire men. Through this power, women can bring out the best or the worst in men. They can inspire men to virtue and noble deeds, they can draw them into sin and error, or they can crush them with shame and judgment. Beauty has the power to tame beasts and overcome dragons. Through their influence over them, women can take the dangerous powers of men and direct them towards that which is good, giving men purpose, motivation, and a focus for their God-given energies.
On the other hand, as Proverbs frequently reminds the young man, there are few fates worse than having to live with a nagging wife. If you marry a contentious woman or you act in a way that is displeasing to your wife, she can and probably will make your life a living hell. If you choose wisely, though, the picture will be very different: a gracious and wise wife who is joyful and thriving will be the glory and crown of her husband. As Paul reminds the Corinthians, the married man is naturally heavily preoccupied with concern about how to please his wife. And, if he isn’t concerned about that, he is a fool who will likely suffer dearly for his folly.
1 Esdras 4:13-32, while apocryphal, expresses a viewpoint that strongly resonates with scriptural teaching and narrative on this matter:
Then the third young man, Zerubbabel, who had spoken of women and truth, began to speak: “Gentlemen, isn’t the king great, aren’t men abundant, and isn’t wine strong? Who is it, though, that masters them or rules over them? Isn’t it women? Women give birth to the king and to all the people who rule over the sea and land. From women they all are born. It was women who brought up those men who plant the vineyards from which wine is produced.
“Women make men’s clothes. They bring men honor. Without women, men aren’t even able to exist. If men gather gold and silver or any valuable thing, and then see a desirable and beautiful woman, they forget everything to gaze at her. With mouths wide open, they stare at her. All choose her over gold, silver, or any other valuable thing. A man leaves his own father, who raised him, and his own country, and clings to his own wife. With his wife he departs this life, with no memory of his father or mother or country. Therefore, surely you must recognize that women rule over you!
“Don’t you work and labor, yet you bring everything and give it to women? A man takes his sword, goes out to travel abroad to raid, steal, and sail the sea and rivers. He faces lions; he walks in darkness; when he steals and robs and plunders, he carries it back to the woman he loves. A man loves his own wife much more than his father or mother. Many men have lost their heads over women, and have become slaves on account of them. Many have perished, stumbled, or sinned because of women.
“Now don’t you believe me? Isn’t the king great in his authority? Don’t all countries fear to touch him? I once saw the king and Apame his mistress, the daughter of the eminent Bartacus, sitting by his right side. She took the crown from the king’s head and put it on her own head, and slapped the king with her left hand. At this the king would stare at her with his mouth wide open. If she smiles at him, he laughs; but if she should get angry with him, he humors her so that she may be reconciled to him. Gentlemen, aren’t women powerful, since they can do such things?”
The woman is the glory of the man. She is the one who captivates his heart. In her commentary on the Song of Songs, Cheryl Exum observes the way in which the man expresses the woman’s power over him: he has been overcome and captured by her. He is awestruck by her, and no longer in control. Of course, none of this is foreign to the experience of twenty-first century men.
The power of women over men is something that we see from very early on in Scripture. Adam unquestioningly follows his wife in eating from the tree and is judged by God for listening to the voice of his wife over the divine command. God also frustrates the woman’s desire for her husband. This desire is not, I believe, necessarily an evil desire to control him—although it can often be used in such a manner—but a desire to possess his heart. This is a good and proper thing in principle—women should exert powerful influence over their husbands—even though Eve used such power for evil.
Throughout the rest of Scripture we see the power that women have to direct the hearts of men. The wives of Solomon draw his heart away from the Lord. The power of Jezebel over Ahab placed all of Israel under tyrannical rule. Esther’s beauty and her captivation of the heart of the king saved her people. The importance of this dynamic is one reason why Wisdom is personified as a woman in Proverbs and opposed to the woman Folly. It is also why the search for Wisdom is treated in close parallel with the quest for a wife, and why the whole book culminates in a declaration of the wise wife, who brings together these two themes. As a man, you are going to give your heart into the hands of your wife, for good or ill. If you want to pursue wisdom, the choice of the woman to whom you give your heart is perhaps the most important one of all. If she is not a wise woman, any pursuit of wisdom you seek to undertake will be immensely difficult.
Men’s need to gain women’s approval makes them extremely vulnerable to their judgment. Consequently, men’s sense of self-worth is generally closely related to how they appear in the eyes of women. The judgment of male peers matters a great deal to men, but women are still the most powerful arbiters of their persons and character. A chronic fear of women is commonly found among young men, because such men seem to feel that the entirety of their being is being placed in the scales of Woman’s judgment whenever they approach an individual woman. They can’t see beyond the archetype of ‘Woman’ or ‘women’ as a group to the particularity of the person in front of them. Overcoming that fear of rejection requires a degree of differentiation of the individual from the group and the archetype, without ever fully separating them.
More generally, healthy groups of men care about how women regard them. They may no longer be teenagers performing tricks on their skateboards to get the attention of a girl they fancy, but they are still profoundly alert to how their stock in female approval is faring. And men’s concern on this front means that they will very frequently side with women against their male peers. If a man challenges a woman, there will often be other men that will come to her aid against him. The desire to be pleasing to women in general and certain women in particular is a powerful force that acts upon men’s behaviour.
This is also one of the reasons why men often find it harder to be weak and vulnerable with women than they do with other men (and a further reason why the loss of deep male community and the dependence of men upon marriage for the overwhelming majority of their close human companionship can be so devastating). A man who shows his weakness to women may often be met with a maternal kindness, but he will generally be less likely to be treated as an attractive partner. In other cases, he may not even be so lucky, and may simply face ridicule, revulsion, and rejection.
Bringing this all back to the subject of shame, the power over men’s shame is disproportionately held by women. Good women know how to use male shame to bring out the best in men. They do this by holding men to a standard of honour, treating them with respect and expecting and enabling men to live up to the high expectations that they have of them. In such an approach, the aversion of shame is merely the shadow cast by a vision of honour that a woman sets before a man. The aversion he feels to shame doesn’t drive him down into abjection, but draws him up into honour. Other women, however, hold men to a standard of shame, using guilt and blame to control men, render them abject, and conform them to their wishes.
This is one of the ways that feminism has gained so much ground in society, while driving men down. Men care deeply about what women think of them. So, if socially influential women advance the myth that the history of our civilization is overwhelmingly one of unrelenting male patriarchal oppression, a great many men will find themselves unable to object. Especially if such an opinion is dominant in women’s circles, few men will dare openly to gainsay it. In such a manner, feminism has advanced less by strength of academic argument than by shaming of men and the marginalization of female critics. Its arguments, while definitely not without some merit, simply aren’t strongly tested. Few would dare to do so.
The power of the narrative of the patriarchy is found in the ways that guilt and shame breed abjection and impotence. The best many men feel that they can do is, like the accused at a communist show trial, completely to assume the blame and responsibility that is directed at them. They cannot question or dispute any of the accusations levelled at their sex, but must unreservedly concur with the prosecution. Men who take upon themselves the shame and blame of their proclaimed status as patriarchal oppressors and start to bemoan the evils of their sex can be accepted by the revolutionaries, rehabilitated in their emasculation.
It will be impossible to understand the power of the social justice movement more generally without appreciating the power of female judgment and men’s vulnerability to being controlled through their shame and need for approval. A great number of men will forfeit any masculinity, rendering them unattractive to women and pitiful to themselves, merely in order to avoid shame. That is how powerful shame can be. Few decent and respectable men dare to argue publicly against viewpoints that are openly held by the most influential women in society. If they do so, they might find themselves thrust out of polite society and many men will, at women’s behest, rise to condemn them.
Gender theory and transgender ideologies, for instance, have not gained cultural cachet through intellectual credibility and philosophical rigour, but principally through men’s susceptibility to shame before female judgment and women’s fear of social ostracization by the most powerful women in society. As Peterson has observed, the herd-like dynamics of critical theorists—the way in which they all employ the same turgid jargon and reference the same few scholars—are driven in large measure by fear of sticking out, as the person who stands out will be eaten. The women who stand at the heart of a culture can be the most powerful people of all: ultimately, they are the ones that everyone will be trying to please.
It is interesting to notice how rapidly a man’s professed values and beliefs can change when he starts trying to please a particular woman. A woman’s power over the heart of her man can be used to lead him into all sorts of specious rationalizations in order to defend her. This is one of the reasons why gender dynamics in the contemporary public square are such a challenge, now that men and women are integrated. Dynamics of discourse in all-male groups are held at arm’s length from the force of female influence. When men interact with other men in such contexts, they tend to do so combatively, forcefully testing the strength of each other’s viewpoints. Such male codes of interaction have tended to set the terms of discourse in academic and public life until recently.
When women are included in such contexts, things become much more complicated, however. The first problem is that women’s typical forms of interaction are much less direct and combative, but are indirect forms of relational antagonism. Rather than directly challenging each other, women are more likely to attempt to leverage peer pressure against opponents, to ostracize their opponents from the group, to attack opponents’ reputations, to get third parties to intervene against them, etc., etc. These are all dynamics that we are currently seeing surrounding the social justice movement, which is itself associated with contexts that have become heavily female. While many, many women can readily adapt to more direct combative styles of discourse, the more women are found in a group, the more likely it is that more typically feminine modes of interaction will start to become prominent.
The second problem is that, when a number of women enter a group of men, the entire discourse of the men tends to change form by virtue of their presence. This effect can often be mitigated by those women functioning as if honorary males, but even in many such cases, men’s need to be pleasing to women will make it much harder for them to speak uncomfortable truths or voice controversial beliefs. An unpleasant minority of men will adopt a different approach, singling out women for particularly vicious attacks. As they feel that the shaming powers of women employed against them (even unintentionally) are a more personal form of attack than male counter-arguments, they can be cruel in their treatment of women.
Our culture likes to pretend as if gender can simply be wished away, as if we could all function as rule-governed neuters. But gender is still the elephant in the room. It is a force that we all act under and which determines so much in our society. Women’s mere presence in public discourse makes it incredibly difficult to challenge the sacred cows of progressivism without finding oneself frozen out. We have yet to discover anything approaching a solution to this problem. The norms surrounding the public square and public speech have been fairly gendered in most societies and they have been so for a reason. This definitely doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t aim for a more inclusive yet truthful public discourse, nor that such a form of discourse isn’t possible, but it is deeply naïve to think that it won’t require some pretty ingenious social choreography.
When the sexes are heavily integrated, what tends to happen is that the minority of men who have the will to resist the narrative of blame sustained by key influential women in the culture tend to gather around the few brave women who are prepared openly to dissent from the opinions that are most influential or established in female groups. Such women tend to come from the margins as dissenters in core cultural institutions would be unlikely to be able to speak up without being cast out. Consequently, most women just keep their heads down. The few women who stand up provide a measure of cover for men, which they would not enjoy if they openly spoke out themselves. Unless they had a few brave women by their side, their reputations would be savaged by the more influential women and most other women, even if they had sympathy for their opinions, wouldn’t dare approach them, lest they be ostracized. Other men would either attack them or carefully keep their distance.
Due to deeply instilled gender etiquette, honourable men aren’t permitted forcefully and combatively to confront a woman. If a woman advances unreasonable or irrational positions, honourable men really can’t act against them in the ways that they can act against other men, at least not without losing their honour in the process. Other women have much more power here, but, as Peterson observes, sensible and grounded women probably have better things to do with their lives than arguing with psychologically unbalanced gender theorists and the like.
All of this discussion, however, raises the issue of dishonourable and shameless men, of whom there is no shortage. There are a couple of things to note about such persons. First, there are some men who can get what they want from women easily, or who want little from women in the first place (I doubt that it is accidental that someone like Milo Yiannopoulos is gay). As Mark Regnerus argues, when sex is ‘cheap’, men will feel much less pressure to be of marriageable quality. They will still care about what women think of them to some extent, but if there are women who are prepared to hook up with them, that may well be enough. And there is no shortage of women to whom men of poor character can enjoy at least short term sexual access. Indeed, as many of these men’s male peers may lament, when many decent men are emasculated by shame and expected to be meekly compliant, shameless bad boys may enjoy the benefits of the natural attractiveness of manly traits, despite the fact that they are exercising them in a toxic form. Other men simply adopt misogynistic attitudes and turn their backs on women altogether, preferring to enjoy the sorry freedom of an isolated autonomy and authenticity than risk the prison of shame.
Second, when shame has been weaponized to gain power over men, shamelessness will be favoured as a sort of resistance. Without the weaponization of shame by the progressive left, it is highly unlikely that we would have President Trump in the White House. The appeal of Trump was, in no small measure, a result of the fact that he was the only candidate shameless enough to break the power of those shaming Americans into their oppressive vision for society.
When shame is so weaponized, people—and men in particular—need to develop the power to resist shame if they are to speak the truth. However, it is imperative that men don’t reject shame altogether. We must learn to be open to truthful shame—the shame that moves us in the direction of honour—and to be immune to the sort of shame that will bring us into bondage. Once again, this depends in no small measure upon listening to and caring about what women say, yet being exceedingly carefully and critically selective in determining which women’s opinions one should particularly concern oneself with. We must learn to be little concerned—though not entirely unconcerned—with the opinion of most women in society, while caring very much about the judgment of wise and godly women who know us well and watch us closely.
Women have a huge part to play here. They are the ones who are best situated to attack the error advanced by other women. If men do so, they risk being shamed as misogynists and being socially marginalized or attacked by other men who come to women’s aid. Women’s encouragement and support mean an immense amount to decent men, who care about women, but who also care about speaking truths that may alienate many. Especially in many online contexts, where boundaries between realms of formerly gendered discourse have collapsed, women who will openly speak out against popular and influential women who use the power of shame to twist conversations in their favour are tremendous sources of strength to men.
On other occasions, however, women’s recognition of their power in such regards should involve their standing back and giving space to men, withdrawing their power, or using it to encourage candour so that the rigorous testing of truth should not be undermined by the God-given strength of their influence over men. Sometimes this may be a matter of carefully refraining from exercising their power of shame even when they could employ it to gain an advantage. It generally should involve honouring men who are committed to speaking truthfully, even when they may disagree with them or say things that they don’t want to hear, while holding flatterers in low esteem.
Still other times it may mean abstaining from certain conversations altogether. This is one of the reasons, I believe, why Paul was concerned that the ‘glory’ of women be ‘veiled’ in some manner in worship, and why he challenged the participation of women in such things as the act of judging prophecy. This will be a hard word for many, especially in a society that champions unfettered individual opportunity and hates the notion of our genders placing unchosen limits upon us. However, these are limits imposed so that the power that women have been given can be used for the benefit and building up of all, rather than, in a drive for the maximization of personal influence and power, harming the community and its commitment to truth.
 Indeed, exercising such tyranny would have been nigh impossible were it not for the existence of such a natural difference in the capacity for the exertion and development of direct power in the first place (not just in the form of physical strength).
 This, incidentally, is one reason why a society with many unmarried men can be a very volatile place.