As I write this from my New Jersey residence, on the eve of the arrival of Hurricane Sandy, one thing is crystal clear to me: our culture remains sexist to the bone. What is worse, its sexism is of a particularly invidious variety, i.e. the misogynistic type.
Universally, the reaction to Sandy has been one of unmitigated fear, the same fear with which we would respond to word of an invasion of the inhabitants of another planet. Invariably, this exhibition of raw nature has been characterized in adversarial terms, a threat to our way of life from which we need protection.
This, though, is what we should expect from an incorrigibly patriarchal civilization. You see, the terms in which Western Man has described nature are the same terms that he has reserved for his vision of Woman. Anyone who doubts this claim should consider that, for millennia to the present day, the dominant image of nature is unmistakably feminine in character (e.g. “Mother Nature”).
This is no accident.
The idea of nature as something that is distinct from and antagonistic toward “civilization” is inseparable from the idea of woman as something distinct from and antagonistic toward man. In turn, these ideas inform another, namely, the idea that, respectively, nature and women need to be tamed.
The western world within which we live is as logocentric (literally, reason-centered) as it is sexist. Its values reflect the prejudices and biases of the men—the white men—who spawned it. Had Western Man’s obsession with rationality not blinded him to the fact that his scheme of values is as parochial a phenomenon as the dialect with which he speaks, perhaps there would have been no harm done. But as is the case with all forms of zealotry, Western Man’s preoccupation with rational inquiry rendered him oblivious to the very possibility that the world just might consist of people who weren’t interested in taking up his cause.
As a result, through his philosophy and religion, Western Man universalized his values. Yet this in turn resulted in his carving up reality—or his vision of reality—into a series of dualisms, binary oppositions in which everything that he associated with himself is privileged above those attributes that he associated with women. Indissolubly conjoined with his man/woman dualism are the dualisms of civilization/nature, reason/emotion, mind/matter, good/evil, etc.
As ecofeminist Marti Kreel observes, Western patriarchy has viewed nature and women as things to be either broken or exploited.
The first image is that of “the beast,” the “symbol for all that is not human,” “evil, irrational, and wild.” The Beast is that which must be conquered and/or destroyed if civilization is to prevail.
The second image, which Kreel traces back to Plato and Aristotle, is that of mindless matter. Mindless matter is not so much irrational as “nonrational,” not so much a thing to be conquered and eliminated as much as a that “which exists to serve the needs of superior, rational ‘Man.’”
The first image promotes violence against nature, women, and every other “Other” that Western Man defines against himself. The second, while promoting violence “in its own way,” is more subtle.
As Kreel explains, Aristotle, with whom she associates the latter, thought that there is “a natural hierarchical ordering to the world, within which each being moved toward fulfillment of its own particular end.” This is significant, for “rational contemplation” is the highest and best end to which any being can aspire, but only “Man” was capable of doing so. This means that “the rest of nature” is “conveniently ordered to free ‘Man’ to attain this contemplative goal.”
It isn’t just ancient Greek philosophy that perpetuates the objectification and subjugation of both nature and women. Christianity—Western Man’s dominant religious tradition for the last two centuries—is just as guilty. Kreel writes that the “Jewish-Christian tradition has also contributed to an instrumental and hierarchical conception of nature” through its insistence that at creation, God gave “‘Man’” dominion” over all living things.
Our reaction to Hurricane Sandy shows just how environmentally insensitive, and sexist, Western Man—and, tragically, Woman—remains. But perhaps we can use this opportunity to defeat our bigoted fears and view Sandy, not as a beast to be slewed or a force to be mastered, but as part and parcel of the same nature of which we are parts. Perhaps we can recognize that, ultimately,Sandy is us and we are her.
And while we are at it, maybe—just maybe—we can finally begin to alter the misogynistic intellectual landscape—the ecology of erroneous and hostile assumptions—that accounts for the systematic oppression to which women continue to be relentlessly subjected.
Neither Mitt Romney nor Barack Obama will dare to speak to the inextricable connection between the mistreatment of nature and the mistreatment of women. But if they did—if they even recognized it—they would realize that, philosophically, there is no difference in the motivation that leads us to reject Sandy as a “monster” and that which leads us to pay women 72 cents of every dollar paid to men.
One final point: if you haven’t yet realized that I don’t believe a word that is written in this article, then you haven’t read anything that I have ever written in the past. I just thought that everyone could stand to benefit from a little levity as Frankenstorm is about to crash into the Northeast.