Two Boxes, the Benedict Option, and The Self-Consciousness of Gender

Over the course of the last twenty-four hours, I have come across three articles that have left me shaking my head.  On the surface, the articles cover unrelated topics, but I think they are all at their core about the same topic.  That topic is the degree to which we are seeing the opening up of a broad and increasingly unbridgeable chasm between two identifiable "sides."  I believe this chasm is fundamentally an intramural divide among Christians, but given the fact that the U.S. is 70% Christian it also plays out in the broader culture as well.  The problem is not that the two sides don't agree on things; the problem is that they increasingly can no longer even relate to one another.  The two sides stare at each other with a look of mutual incomprehension.

1.  The first article is clearly the least significant--the ever-strident Fr. Dwight Longenecker's praise of "militant American Catholic men."  As I read the piece, my overwhelming thought is "you could not pay me enough money to attend one of these gatherings."  The problem is not men (I am one, and I like it very much, thank you), nor with a group of men getting together.  Those things are fine.  The problem is that events of this type are permeated with a self-consciousness of "being a man," which in my experience always makes the event insufferable.  In other words, the problem is not "being a man," or even groups of men together; the problem is groups of men intentionally trying to "be a man" together.  That mindset leads to endless posturing, such as when accountants from the suburbs try to talk about their "warrior ethos."  It leads to bad social dynamics, like constant one-upmanship.

When you strip away the posturing, lurking under the surface in these things is a desire to carve out social spaces that are free from the presence of women.  It's not so much that I think that impulse is wrong on some principled level; it's that I don't understand the point.  I understand, and have experienced, the value of a very small circle (3 people, maybe 4 at the most) of men who know each other very well and care about each other's well-being.  What I don't get is the attraction of groups of strangers or acquaintances all of whom are dudes.  My experience is that mixed gender social gatherings are basically always better than social gatherings consisting of nothing but guys.

If you look at the comments section to the piece, you see one guy praising these type of events as an opportunity to "really be himself," free of the constraints imposed by women (principally his wife).  Again, I don't get it.  In my experience, there are far more social taboos and hidden landmines in these self-conscious male gatherings than in regular mixed gender social situations.  What kinds of restraints is your wife imposing on you?  What would you do that you otherwise couldn't if women were around?  

Ultimately, my reaction to these sorts of events is a product of a fundamental disagreement with what it means to "be a man."  Frank from Letters to the Catholic Right said it best in his post "On Manliness and Joan Didion":

The point is that there are different ways of looking at manliness: in one view, manliness is what differentiates men from women; in another, it’s what separates a grownup (who identifies as a man) from a child. It’s adulthood, performed by a male-type person. In the first view, the manly thing to do if you find yourself in my position is not to braid your daughter’s hair, because that’s not what men do. In the second, the manly thing is to do it, because you’re a grownup responsible for a little girl, and this one little thing will make her day better. You can do it, so you should.

In case it’s not clear, I hold the second position. It seems to me a more valuable (the only valuable?) understanding of manhood, the one that makes manliness actually matter. More importantly, It doesn’t block manliness off from any part of goodness—like being nurturing or cooperative, which are characteristics useful in any grownup. Instead it makes manliness synonymous with goodness, with doing the right thing.

If "being a man" is a gendered manifestation of "being an adult," then all of this self-conscious construction of "being a man" is wholly unnecessary, and even counter-productive.  Most importantly, it does not require you, as the self-conscious version does, to define yourself in opposition to "women."  You can just be you.  Frank continues:

Think of the ways we talk about manliness: as making necessary sacrifices for those who depend on us, doing what needs to be done, choosing the ugly truth over the pretty lie. Leaving behind the comfortable, taking risks when they’re needed. In all of those definitions we’re still just talking about being good, brave, responsible. And if that’s what we mean by manliness, then we have to acknowledge the fact that women are now—and always have been—as good at it as men are. Which, in turn, means that men can, and ought to, learn manliness from women.

There's the chasm.  I don't need to go to some gathering of dudes so that I can be a man; I already am a man--or at least I try to live up to that bar.

2.  So, the Duggars.  As I have stated before, I find their vision of male/female relationships abhorrent.  And, it goes without saying, incestuous child molestation is really, really horrible.  What is striking about the story to me, however, is the degree to which the Christian Right has rallied to the defense of the Duggars.  I had assumed that the Duggars would be quietly put out to pasture by the conservative Christian establishment as an embarrassment, but that has not occurred.


In particular, the line of argument has been that progressives, both secular and religious, are hypocritical for picking up pitch-forks with regard to Josh Duggar.  When I heard this, I assumed that this was overtly politically-driven and self-serving.  Surely they aren't actually surprised that people would freak out about child molestation?

Well, Fred Clark's piece really opened my eyes.  It seems Clark basically had the same initial opinion that I did, only to be turned around by the writings of Libby Anne at her "Love, Joy Feminism" blog.  Libby Anne argues that these folks are 100% serious in seeing hypocrisy on the left hand side.  To explain this, she uses the Two Boxes theory.  In Box #1 is sex between a married heterosexual couple; in Box #2 is everything else.  Sex that fits in Box #1 is morally acceptable; sex that fits in Box #2 is not.  Libby Anne argues that if you are locked into this Two Boxes paradigm, there is no real distinction between anything that goes into Box #2.  Moreover, perhaps more significantly, a person using the Two Boxes paradigm views a rejection of an absolute, ironclad rule against non-marital heterosexual sex as an endorsement of all non-marital sexual behavior.  After all, if you think everything is Box #2 is basically the same, then endorsing one piece but not another is essentially arbitrary.  So, from that perspective, it is hypocritical to criticize Josh Duggar while praising the 30 year partnered gay couple.

Here's the problem--I think the Two Boxes paradigm is insane.  The rape of a child is not the same as two thirty year olds having pre-marital sex.  It's just not.  Even if you think that both of them are, at the end of the day, morally unacceptable, non-consentual sexual abuse is categorically worse than the pre-marital sex.  That last sentence is so self-evident to me that I struggle to articulate justifications for it.  It is so obvious that I can't really believe that people actually hold the Two Boxes theory as presented by Libby Anne, though I recognize that she's probably right.

Lest one thinks this is just an Evangelical thing, here's the first paragraph of a document on the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, entitled "Theological and Moral Reflections on child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church":

The analysis of cases of abuse shows that the link between pedophilia and celibacy is less
significant than the link between pedophilia and deterioration of the family environment. In cases of
abuse, a primary role is played by the male/female, father/mother relationship, one with the other
and with the other members of the family and the child. The crisis of the family debates the
exclusive character of marriage between man and woman and, consequently, the principle of
fecundity as well. The gender theory (negation of the male/female duality as characterising element
of the identity and of the maturity of a person), abortion (negation of the child’s life via his/her
violent elimination after conception), and pedophilia (abuse of power over a weaker individual, a
child, triggered by a sexual life disorder), all have in common the falsification of the meaning of
sexuality that leads to a systematic refusal of paternity, of maternity and of filiation. 

Catch that?  The boxes have been slightly re-defined (proper gender theory/bad gender theory as opposed to married/not married), but the concept is the same.  Not accepting a specific vision of complementarity is not of the same species as pedophilia, period.  And, if you insist that they are, then I don't really think I can have a meaningful dialogue about the issue of sexual abuse.  Once again, we are staring at each other across a vast chasm.

3.  My friend Jason directed me to this piece, suggesting that more conservatives are taking up the Benedict Option.  He had not previously been exposed to the idea of "the Benedict Option," and on first encounter he found it bizarre and incoherent.  I don't disagree.

One of the things Jason brought up was the question of what exactly is the plan for people embracing the Benedict Option.  It's one thing to go off and form separate communities out in the boonies.  It won't be the first time in America that has happened, and the U.S. is generally tolerant of that sort of thing unless they have excessive (for America, which is a lot) numbers of guns and/or molest children--contra the Branch Davidians and the FLDS.

But, instead, the model appears to be a form of resistance in place.  Here's how Linker says it:

There's no reason to presume that this implies Amish-style political quietism. Those who take the Benedict Option will presumably still vote and contribute to various public causes, especially those that promise to protect their interests. That might make politically active ultra-Orthodox Jews a better model — except that instead of a few hundred thousand members, there could potentially be many millions of conservative Christians across numerous denominations prepared to band together in communities aimed at cultural self-preservation and political self-defense.

Or, take another post from Fr. Longenecker, along the same lines:

What might a “Benedict Option” parish look like? The pastor and people would decide priorities based on the immediate needs of the parish members. As hostility grows from those outside the Church, relationships of trust would be developed within the family and parish. If an aggressive secular agenda is promoted in public schools, the parish school and religious education program will become a main priority. As classical education disappears, the parish school will become a repository for the ancient learning. As such, a “Benedict Option” parish would see itself as countering, rather than accommodating, the surrounding culture. Such a community would be distinctive, clear in its purposes and principles — even odd. Members might be distrusted by those outside the community — including other Catholics who have compromised with the prevailing culture.

I have no idea how that is going to work.  "Politically active ultra-Orthodox Jews" are a small subculture in a small, discrete part of the country (i.e. the greater New York metropolitan area).  Evangelical Protestants are a quarter of the U.S. population; Catholics are 20%.  Suppose only one-in-four of those folks are willing to embrace the Benedict Option--that's 10% of the total population opting-out.  For perspective, that's the percentage of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish population in Israel.  And it doesn't really work in Israel--most secular Israelis are basically fed up with the ultra-Orthodox.  A massive country of 300 million people that functions like Jerusalem on a Friday evening is not a sustainable model.

But that's not the real chasm involved with the Benedict Option.  Put aside the question of how Christians could separate from the rest of society--the real question is why would they.  And here Damon Linker's piece from yesterday, and the comments from Michael Coren, echo my basic conviction--Christians should not go off and abandon society because Christians are winning.  By which I don't mean that Christianity is triumphing in some sort of formal sense, or that folks are necessarily becoming Christians; I mean that modern society in the United States in 2015 is more consistent with the values proclaimed by Jesus Christ in the Gospels than any period in the history of the world.  At an absolute minimum, I am completely convinced that we are no worse off now than we have ever been.  I cannot subscribe to the notion that everything is self-evidently sliding down into the gutter.  I just don't see it.  I don't think it is true.

There is lots to do, no doubt.  There are new and difficult challenges, absolutely.  But at a core, fundamental level, if I may borrow a concept from the Jewish mystical tradition, tikkun olam contines apace.  I just don't understand the impetus to bail out now.  And that's the chasm.

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