Realms and Manners of Experience / Deceiving Tyrants

Hannah Malcolm posed some helpful questions in response to my opening post in this discussion. A few comments in response:

First, there are areas where realms of experience are completely non-overlapping. For instance, I have no experience whatsoever in what it feels like to have a menstrual cycle and have no reason not to take a woman’s word for it. By contrast, I have extensive experience and knowledge of my male friends. On the basis of this experience and knowledge, I have a plausibility framework for their actions. If a woman comes to me with an accusation about one of them, I am unlikely just to trust her without asking several questions first. While a woman can experience interactions with my friends that I cannot, I am unlikely to allow her experience to override my experience without closer investigation. And this is not necessarily a bad thing: even though they need to be open to change and adjustment, it is healthy not to abandon our plausibility structures on the mere basis of another person’s say-so. Both of us have limited vantage points and experience: we need to triangulate between these to get a clearer sense of the character of the friend.

Second, this issue is exacerbated when women make claims about things that lie outside of their direct experience on the basis of that experience. For instance, in the post around which our first discussion here was built, Jen Wilkin wrote about the frustrating interactions that women can experience with male leaders in the Church. However, she did so by speaking about the way in which men perceive women. Clearly, Jen has no immediate experience of this, while I have had extensive experience of interacting with women as a man and am well acquainted with some of the difficulties that can exist on the other end of such interactions. On the basis of this experience (coupled with my close acquaintance with many pastors), I question certain of her suggestions about the perceptions that drive men’s treatment of women. I do this without needing to question her account of how it feels to be on the receiving end of such treatment, or the need of addressing it. The difference between trusting someone’s account of the facts of an interaction and trusting their interpretation of that interaction also can be immensely important here.

Third, the trust that Young’s article focuses upon is trust of women’s feelings. This goes deeper than trust of women’s reporting of events. It is rather about trusting a particular manner of experiencing, perceiving, processing, and responding to the world. It is less about the content of experience than it is about the form. Differences between the sexes can often play out on this most fundamental of levels, as our differing biochemistry and differing bodies give rise to differing tendencies in manners of being in the world (this radio show is an interesting series of accounts of how testosterone can play into this most basic character of experience), differences that can be exacerbated by gendered modes of socialization. While there is always much more that men and women share in common than what they do not, we are often insufficiently cognizant of the significance of such differences. The closest analogy here might be that of trusting neuroatypical persons’ accounts of their experience. While men and women can relate to much about the manners of experience of persons of the other sex (and, no, there isn’t one single sexed manner of experience for men and women, but there are, I believe, sexually-weighted tendencies), there will often be dimensions that will appear rather unusual to us, making it more likely that we will reserve judgment or find it difficult to trust perceptions on certain matters. This isn’t easily resolved, not least because not all manners of experiencing, perceiving, processing, and responding to the world are equally reliable in each and every context.

Finally, a note in response to Graham’s post, on the exegesis of Genesis 1-3 and 1 Timothy 2. I don’t believe Paul is misreading Genesis, although the proper application of it is a question for another day. A key to the Eden story is that, although both Adam and Eve came under it, only Adam directly received the commandment concerning the tree, before Eve was created (2:16-17). Note that when God refers to the commandment later, he addresses Adam alone and uses the singular ‘you’ throughout (3:11, 17). Eve could be deceived because the serpent played off information that the text suggests she received directly from God (3:1-2; cf. 1:29) against information that she only had second-hand from God through Adam (as with Hebrew reported speech more generally, Eve’s reporting of the commandment in 3:3, where the plural ‘you’ is used, should not just be presumed to be a de dicto rendering of God’s words: here it seems rather to be a declaration of God’s commandment for them revealed through the words spoken to Adam alone). Adam appears to have been close by while Eve was tempted (3:6), without intervening, increasing her confusion and the likelihood of her deception. Adam alone committed the trespass because he alone knowingly went against what God had said.

It should be noted that the deception of Eve by the serpent—and Adam!—introduces a theme of poetic justice that runs throughout the biblical text, where tyrants and unfaithful men are deceived by faithful women. Sarai deceives Pharaoh (Genesis 12:10-20) and Abimelech (Genesis 20). Rebekah deceives Abimelech (Genesis 26:1-11) and Isaac, who was about to go against God’s will and bless the wrong son (Genesis 27:1-29). Rachel deceives Laban (Genesis 31:19-35). The Hebrew midwives deceive Pharaoh (Exodus 1:15-22) and Moses’ mother, sister, and Pharaoh’s daughter all play a part in deceiving Pharaoh to secure Moses’ safety (Exodus 2:1-10). Rahab deceives the men of Jericho (Joshua 2). Jael deceives Sisera (Judges 4:17-22). Michal deceives Saul (1 Samuel 19:11-17). Esther deceives Haman (Esther 5-8).

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“Those clanging words”

Alastair’s post to begin this topic was really helpful, and identified the key issues regarding trust. He concluded with a set of questions. The one I want to speak to is the second question: “What are some of the ways that men can change their behaviour and attitudes in order to trust women more?”

In her response (which got picked up by the Huffington Post), Bronwyn, I think, hit the nail on the head, referring to the biblical texts which cause so many problems for gender discussions:

1 Peter 3 refers to wives as “weaker vessels” than their husbands, and then there are those clanging words of 1 Timothy 2:14 where we are reminded that it wasn’t Adam who was deceived, it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. (And, I am struck by the fact that Adam is named as an individual-not-blamed, while Eve-as-individual is not named… it the more generic “the woman” who was deceived… as if Adam as an autonomous agent is an exception, but all women are innately deceivable.) Are these not hints, then, that even in God’s economy, women are less able to act, less able to discern, just…. less able? In other words, are there theological reasons for women to be considered less trustworthy?

I haven’t met many willing to own this statement outright, but it seems to me that it lies as an undercurrent beneath some of the discussions about women in leadership in the church. Being prone to being busy bodies and gossips as they are (1 Timothy 5), and being deceivable and weaker (the Bible says so) – surely then women should remain silent?

The hermeneutical challenges of these passages (and other passages often cited and used as “clobber texts”, like Eph. 5:22ff, 1 Cor. 14:34-35) are immense, and hard to cover in a single post (so I won’t even try). Several questions swirl in my mind when I read these texts. Most egalitarians will immediately go to historical context, and suggest a greater level of cultural influence than complementarians are comfortable with. These are canonical texts, accepted by the Church as inspired (what that means in terms of infallibility/inerrancy is far beyond the discussion at hand). We assume that the authors were guided by God in the composition of these words. Did Paul (or whoever wrote Ephesians & 1 Timothy in Paul’s name, depending on your slant on this topic- also beyond our scope right now) bring some still persistent patriarchal bias into the composition? In Romans and Galatians we don’t see anything like what we see in 1 Timothy. So, was there something unique about the behaviour of the women in Ephesus and Corinth? Did Paul have a lack of trust for all women, or just the specific women in these particular places/congregations? Given the praise he heaps on the women mentioned in Romans 16, can we identify a tension in Paul’s own mind which the Spirit is coming up against?

Without getting to deep into the exegesis of these passages, I just want to work out some things we can take away from them in response to Alastair’s question. A surface reading of these texts can easily reinforce male mistrust of women. As Bronwyn noted, it could be read to mean women in general follow after Eve and are deceivable, weaker, and as such, untrustworthy as witnesses. Yet, as Bronwyn helpfully pointed out, Jesus was certainly willing to trust women. So why were Paul and Peter seemingly reluctant to do the same, even with the Holy Spirit guiding and inspiring? Do we have to reread Jesus? Paul & Peter? All of the above?

Several commentators make helpful observations about meanings of words, like the fact that “weaker” can mean something more lack lacking access to resources, or simply that it refers to physical size making women vulnerable. So, in a patriarchal culture, weaker vessels is not a comment on women’s abilities generally but a statement about cultural assumptions and the treatment of women; i.e. Christian men must act as advocates because of the restrictions and dangers Greco-Roman social structures place on women.

Interestingly, on 1 Timothy, Luke Timothy Johnson takes Paul to task for his poor exegesis of Genesis 1-3. He states that “the warrant for the injunction [excluding women from leadership] is, in fact, a faulty reading of Torah.” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The First and Second Letters to Timothy [The Anchor Yale Bible]. New Haven: Yale, 2001. p. 211). More could be said on how Paul reads the Genesis accounts and what he’s trying to demonstrate. But I will simply say that the ease with which Eve was deceived is certainly matched by Adam, and in Romans and the Corinthian letters, responsibility for sin is placed exclusively on Adam.

Obviously we can dig deeper and deeper into the exegesis of these texts, but don’t have space right now. But, in terms of Alastair’s question about what man can do to alter their behaviour to reduce the mistrust against women, one important answer is to read with greater nuance. One of the phrases that I read from rigid complementarian writings in “plain reading of Scripture”. If we read more critically (both in reading the texts, and ourselves, noting our inherent biases) we see far more at play than simply reinforced patriarchy. Egalitarians still have to wrestle with this too of course, and not simply dismiss 1 Timothy as not authentically Pauline and therefore not authoritative (even if it is pseudonymous, it’s still accepted as canonical) or chalk it up to cultural influence or situation specifics and ignore it. I’d love to pretend certain passages aren’t there. But I always have to ask myself, even if this is specific to Ephesus in the 1st century, what does it mean for me in 21st century Canada? I live in culture with significant immigration from places where patriarchy and low views of women’s value and trustworthiness are alive and well. Even among Westerners, the problem is still there. How do I do ministry in an environment with a plurality of views on gender?

My own behaviour as a pastor with egalitarian views speaks volumes to the culture I am in. But do I keep silent, and hold these views as private, and non-binding on others? How much of my understanding of the trustworthiness of women related to my egalitarian views? If I claim I trust women, how do I influence others and demonstrate this trust in a way which proves to be a positive influence on others, even if the others continue to hold to certain patriarchal or “hard” complementarian views? Can patriarchy still endorse trusting women’s testimony or do the underlying assumptions inevitably undercut any stated level of trust?

I am under no illusion that only egalitarian men trust women. That would be rubbish to even suggest. But is there a connection between what Paul seems to say about Eve and assumed gender roles and a lack of trust shown to women? Given the Genesis declaration that male and female are both fully and equally in the image and likeness of God, what makes males assume men are more trustworthy than women? Do we tend to overemphasize generalized differences between the genders, to such an extent that the shared likeness is downplayed? Isn’t a mistrust of females a mistrust of humanity?

“Really? Are you sure he meant it that way?”

Alastair’s response to this article was particularly helpful in teasing out the reasons behind a lack of trust being formed – especially with an article that relies heavily on generalizations as to male and female behaviour. One thing I’d like to draw out further is the concept of different ‘realms of experience’ for men and women.

Can we gender space and perception in this way, and does it explain a male lack of trust? Clearly, there are ‘gendered’ experiences – otherwise large parts of this conversation would not be necessary. But is it right to say that it is partly a lack of shared experience which leads to male disbelief, or does that simply cover up a deeper problem?

As subjective beings, all of us perceive life differently, and will be confronted with different experiences which other people will not be able to relate to, regardless of their gender. For instance, I don’t know what it’s like to be married, be physically disabled, have a parent die, be bilingual, be African-American, etc etc. And yet if someone tells me what that is like, or what his or her personal experience has been, my inclination has to be to trust it, because I don’t have any personal knowledge that could counteract what he or she says. And I imagine that goes for men hearing from men, too –if it is a man who shares a different experience, particularly one of being poorly treated, he might be taken more seriously.

In all this there are of course other factors which touch on much broader issues of social privilege and trust – the lower down any kind of social ladder you are, the less likely your complaints are to be taken seriously (see this article for an interesting perspective on whether our desire to view the world as ‘fair’ has anything to do with this) but I suppose I’d like to ask whether we can really put male disbelief of female experiences down to a lack of knowledge, or whether it is a case of finding it easier to believe that such problems don’t exist – particularly if you are of the ‘not all men’/’I would never do that’ camp. Or, worse, a much more deep-rooted/historical lack of trust in female witness, which is much more difficult to break – thanks to Bronwyn for drawing attention to that in reference to Easter Sunday!

If, however, it is the case that a lack of shared experience leads to a lack of trust, then surely we need to seriously challenge our own empathetic abilities. We should not have to rely on trying to draw male experience into female oppression in order to provoke sympathy (e.g. that is someone’s daughter/wife/sister) but learn to have true compassion, sorrowing in another human’s experience without needing to reference our own.

Why Do Men Fail To Trust Women?

In a recent article on the Huffington Post website, Damon Young asks why men don’t trust women. He argues that, even though we may trust women’s character, promises, and opinions on many matters, we don’t trust their feelings. When a woman comes to us annoyed about something, our instinctive assumption is that they are overreacting, even though we may go along with them. While this failure to trust women’s feelings is a problem, Young believes that it gives rise to far more serious issues. In particular, the belief that women characteristically overreact causes men to distrust their testimony on far more serious matters. Young writes:

But, this distrust can be pervasive, spreading to a general skepticism about the truthfulness of their own accounts of their own experiences. If women’s feelings aren’t really to be trusted, then naturally their recollections of certain things that have happened to them aren’t really to be trusted either.

This is part of the reason why it took an entire high school football team full of women for some of us to finally just consider that Bill Cosby might not be Cliff Huxtable. It’s how, despite hearing complaints about it from girlfriends, homegirls, cousins, wives, and classmates, so many of us refused to believe how serious street harassment can be until we saw it with our own eyes. It’s why we needed to see actual video evidence before believing the things women had been saying for years about R. Kelly.

You should read the full article: it raises some important issues, many of which I won’t get into here. Rather, I would like to identify a few factors that I suspect are often involved in men’s failure to trust women. I would be interested to hear others’ thoughts.

At the outset, I think Young’s emphasis upon men’s failure to trust women’s feelings is an unhelpful narrowing of our focus. For one, even when feelings don’t seem to be part of the picture, women will still often find themselves unfairly distrusted by men. Another problem is that feelings are often untrustworthy: they can lead us to react, rather than respond; they can distort perceptions; they can overwhelm our powers of reason; they will often lack a sense of proportion. It is one thing to take feelings seriously (we really should be doing this); it is quite another to trust feelings (we really shouldn’t be doing that).

A more fundamental issue here, however, is that men don’t give much weight to their own feelings. Throughout our upbringing we are taught to develop greater distance from our feelings—’man up’, ‘take it like a man’, ‘he didn’t cry, like a brave little soldier’, ‘grow a pair’, ‘don’t be a sissy’, ‘don’t be so sensitive’, ‘can’t you take a joke?’, etc., etc. Emotional continence—but perhaps even more often emotional constipation—is something that we tend to develop as a result. The rougher interactions that typically come with male socialization require thicker skins. Even if we presume for the sake of argument that no natural tendencies are at work here, women seldom have the same degree of socialization out of emotionality. The result is that men and women will frequently have very different processes of subjectively perceiving and experiencing the world. This, I believe, is the first obstacle to men’s trust of women: to trust women we will often need to trust persons with a form of perception, experience, and processing of the world that is rather different from our own. This can require a considerable—but necessary—exertion of sympathetic imagination. We might even learn something about the value of our own feelings in the process…

A second obstacle to trust is the fact that women have realms of experience that do not overlap with our own. They see and experience things that we don’t. It is very easy to forget how our vantage point can obscure our vision of certain realities. For instance, we typically overestimate how representative our friends and acquaintances can be of the general population and make very poor judgments about the general population as a result. The men that I know may overwhelmingly be upstanding and moral individuals, but in many respects they are a highly unrepresentative sample of the population. And even here women will often know things about these men’s characters that I may never discover. When women have spoken to me of experiences of sexual abuse or of experiences of street harassment, I have sought to keep these facts at the forefront of my mind. We need to be much more aware of the extreme limitations and parochial character of our vantage points.

A third obstacle that can exacerbate the previous obstacle is that of the confidence gap. On account of the confidence gap, men are frequently over-confident in their perspective, while women are under-confident in theirs. The result can be that a more assertive and confident—yet wrong—male perspective is more convincing to the public than a female perspective that is more hesitant in its expression, though right in its perception.

A fourth obstacle to trust in cases of abuse is that some of the psychological and behavioural effects of abuse can make victims appear untrustworthy. Compared to her abuser, a survivor may lack social standing, seem dysfunctional (drinking to excess, being openly promiscuous, taking drugs, etc.), emotionally imbalanced, have unreliable memories and testimony, and behave in ways that lowers their credibility in the eyes of the public (not reporting the abuse to the police immediately, remaining in an abusive relationship, etc.). In such cases it is worth asking ourselves where the psychological and behavioural effects came from: rather than weighing against the credibility of the victim, they may be the smoking gun of the abuse.

A fifth obstacle to trust in cases of abuse is that we have a profound disincentive to believe certain people are abusers. Upton Sinclair once observed that ‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.’ The same principle holds when it comes to the survival of your self-image, marriage, family, or church, the reputation of a friend or family member, hero, or idol, favourite TV show, etc. One of the basic reasons why people found it so hard to believe that Bill Cosby was a serial rapist is because they didn’t want to live in a world where Cosby wasn’t Huxtable.

A sixth obstacle in such cases is that even when people have no choice but to acknowledge that the abuse took place, they can stubbornly refuse to accept that the obvious consequences should follow, seeking to give the perpetrator some special pass. It ‘wasn’t rape-rape’. ‘It was a different time’. ‘He clearly regrets it’. ‘Freedom to fracas’. ‘We shouldn’t allow the world to be robbed of this talent’. And so on. David Cameron’s statements about Jeremy Clarkson are a good example of this perverse dynamic in effect. The survivor, on the other hand, can be deeply resented. There is an instinctive sense that, in bringing the abuse to light, they have violently attacked something that was valuable to us. For instance, the woman who reports pastoral sexual abuse is instinctively felt to be responsible for the implosion of the church that follows. The resentment of victims is increased by the fact that they seem like nobodies compared to the people who brought about their own downfall by abusing them. The victim is treated as the perpetrator.

I think that it is important to mention a seventh and final set of obstacles here, even though they aren’t as primary as the others. Victims of abuse can be distrusted because the people advocating for them have often not been trustworthy and, in their well-intentioned desire to emphasize the genuine importance of the issue, have spread misinformation, provoking unnecessary resistance and ideological polarization. The principle of ‘just believing the victim’ has broken down in prominent cases where the stories of supposed victims—which put the safety, careers, and freedom of innocent persons in jeopardy—have been proved false in critical respects under analysis. The huge initial prominence of a number of these cases has been driven by advocates for rape victims operating on this principle (a lower standard of taking all rape accusations with extreme seriousness wouldn’t create such a problem). False rape accusations are exceedingly rare, but the desire to make the problem of rape appear as great as possible will lead people to focus upon extreme cases, the very cases that are most likely to fall apart under critical examination. A similar desire to magnify real problems has led many to circulate unreliable statistics that grossly exaggerate their scale or to make bold claims that most of the evidence points clearly against (e.g. ‘the growing epidemic of violence against women’). There are several statistics that are popular among feminists and women’s advocates, precisely because they make a problem seem huge. When even a moment’s thought could reveal the falsehood of popular claims (e.g.) that have been rattling around for decades in various unsourced iterations (another problem), the credibility of those bringing forward the claims is thrown into question, as is that of those they represent. Similar problems can be caused by an ideological drive to hyperbolize, project extreme pathology, and malign intentionality in a manner that will produce resistance from persons who could otherwise be friendly to the cause. Some of the more extreme forms of language and analysis surrounding the discussion of ‘rape culture’ might be an example here. In addition to often being more accurate, a softer case will probably win more over. A dogged and conspicuous commitment to truth will make our advocacy much more powerfully credible.

I would be interested to hear everyone’s thoughts on these. Here are a few questions that I think arise:

  1. Can you think of any additional reasons why men fail to trust women?
  2. What are some of the ways that men can change their behaviour and attitudes in order to trust women more?
  3. What are some systemic and institutional changes that will encourage a greater trust of women, especially in instances of abuse?
  4. How can we be the best advocates for survivors of abuse and raise the profile of these issues in an effective and principled way?