Patriarchy is the Problem

Epistemic Status: speculative. We’ve got some amateur Biblical exegesis in here, and some mentions of abuse.

I’m starting to believe that patriarchy is the root of destructive authoritarianism, where patriarchy simply means the system of social organization where families are hierarchical and headed by the father. To wit:

  • Patriarchy justifies abuse of wives by husbands and abuse of children by parents
  • The family is the model of the state; pretty much everybody, from Confucius to Plato, believes that governmental hierarchy evolved from familial hierarchy; rulers from George Washington to Ataturk are called “the father of his country”
  • There is no clear separation between hierarchy and abuse. The phenomenon of dominant/submissive behavior among primates closely parallels what humans would consider domestic abuse.

Abuse in Mammalian Context

A study of male vervet monkeys [1] gives an illustration of what I mean by abuse.

Serotonin levels closely track a monkey’s status in the dominance hierarchy. When a monkey is dominant, his serotonin is high, and is sustained at that high level by observing submissive displays from other monkeys.  The more serotonin a dominant monkey has in his system, the more affection and the less aggression he displays; you can see this experimentally by injecting him with a serotonin precursor. When a high status monkey is full of serotonin, he relaxes and becomes more tolerant towards subordinates[2]; the subordinates, feeling less harassed, offer him fewer submissive displays; this rapidly drops the dominant’s serotonin levels, leaving him more anxious and irritable; he then engages in more dominance displays; the submissive monkeys then display more submission, thereby raising the dominant’s serotonin level and starting all over again.

This cycle (known as regulation-dysregulation theory, or RDT) is basically the same as the cycle of abuse in humans, whose stages are rising tension (the dominant is low in serotonin), acute violence (dominance display), reconciliation/honeymoon (the dominant’s serotonin spikes after the subordinate submits), and calm (the dominant is high in serotonin and tolerant towards subordinates.)

In each case, tolerance extends only as long as submissive behavior continues.  Anger, threats, and violence are the result of any slackening of submissive displays.  I consider this to be a working definition of both dominance and abuse: the abuser is easily slighted and considers any lèse-majesté to be grounds for an outburst.

Most conditions of oppression among humans follow this pattern.  Slaves would be harshly punished for “disrespecting” masters, subordinates must show “respect” to gangsters and warlords on pain of violence, despots require rituals of submission or tribute, etc.  I believe it to be an ancient and even pre-human pattern.

The prototypical opposite of freedom, I think, is slavery, imprisonment, or captivity.  Concepts like “rights” are more modern and less universal. But even ancient peoples would agree that to be subject to the arbitrary will of another, and not free to physically escape from him, is an unhappy state. These are more or less the conditions that cause CPTSD — kidnapping, imprisonment and institutionalization, concentration camps and POW camps, slavery, and domestic abuse — situations in which one is at another’s mercy for a prolonged period of time and unable to escape.

A captive subordinate must appease the abuser in order to avoid retaliation; this has a soul-warping effect. Symptoms of CPTSD include “a chronic and pervasive sense of helplessness, paralysis of initiative, shame, guilt, self-blame, a sense of defilement or stigma” and “attributing total power to the perpetrator, becoming preoccupied with the relationship to the perpetrator, including a preoccupation with revenge, idealization or paradoxical gratitude, seeking approval from the perpetrator, a sense of a special relationship with the perpetrator or acceptance of the perpetrator’s belief system or rationalizations.”  In other words, captives are at risk for developing something like Nietzsche’s “slave morality”, characterized by shame, submission, and appeasement towards the perpetrator.

Here’s John Darnielle talking about the thing:

“My stepfather wanted me to write Marxist poetry; if it didn’t serve the revolution, it wasn’t worthwhile.” I asked him what his mother thought, and he let out a sad laugh. “You have to understand the dynamic of the abused household. What you think doesn’t matter. Your thoughts are passing. They are positions you adopt to survive.”

The physical behaviors of shame (gaze aversion, shifty eyes, nervous smiles, downcast head, and slouched, forward-leaning postures)[3] are also common mammalian appeasement displays; subordinate monkeys and apes also have a “fear smile” and don’t meet the gaze of dominants.[4] It seems quite clear that the psychological problem of chronic shame as a result of abuse is a result of having to engage in prolonged appeasement behavior on pain of punishment.

A subordinate primate is not a healthy primate. Robert Sapolsky [5] has an overview article about how low-ranked primates are more stressed and more susceptible to disease in hierarchical species.

“When the hierarchy is stable in species where dominant individuals actively subjugate subordinates, it is the latter who are most socially stressed; this can particularly be the case in the most extreme example of a stable hierarchy, namely, one in which rank is hereditary. This reflects the high rates of physical and psychological harassment of subordinates, their relative lack of social control and predictability, their need to work harder to obtain food, and their lack of social outlets such as grooming or displacing aggression onto someone more subordinate.”

…The inability to physically avoid dominant individuals is associated with stress, and the ease of avoidance varies by ecosystem. The spatial constraints of a two-dimensional terrestrial habitat differ from those of a three-dimensional arboreal or aquatic setting, and living in an open grassland differs from living in a plain dense with bushes. As an extreme example, subordinate animals in captivity have many fewer means to evade dominant individuals than they would in a natural setting.

This coincides with the CPTSD model — social stress correlates with inability to escape.

The physiological results of social stress are cardiovascular and immune:

Prolonged stress adversely affects cardiovascular function, producing (i) hypertension and elevated heart rate; (ii) platelet aggregation and increased circulating levels of lipids and cholesterol, collectively promoting atherosclerotic plaque formation in injured blood vessels; (iii) decreased levels of protective high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol and/or elevated levels of endangering low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol; and (iv) vasoconstriction of damaged coronary arteries…In general, mild to moderate transient stressors enhance immunity, particularly the first phase of the immune response, namely innate immunity. Later phases of the stress response are immunosuppressive, returning immune function to baseline. Should the later phase be prolonged by chronic stress, immunosuppression can be severe enough to compromise immune activation by infectious challenges (47, 48). In contrast, a failure of the later phase can increase the risk of the immune overactivity that constitutes autoimmunity.

Autoimmune disorders and weakened disease resistance are characteristic of people with PTSD as well.

Being a captive abuse victim is bad for one’s physical and mental health.  While abuse is “natural” (it appears frequently in nature), it is bad for flourishing in a quite direct and unmistakable way.  Individuals are not, in general, better off under conditions of captivity and abuse.

This abuse/dominance/submission/CPTSD thing is basically about dysfunctions in the second circuit in Leary’s eight-circuit model.  It’s the part of the mind that forms intuitions about social power relations.  Every social interaction between humans has some dominance/submission content; this is normal and probably inevitable, given our mammalian heritage. But Leary’s model is somewhat developmental — to be stuck in the mindset of dominance/submission means that you cannot reach the “higher” functions, such as intellectual thought or more mature moral reasoning.  Prolonged abuse can make people so stuck in submission that they cannot think.

Morality-As-Submission vs. Morality-As-Pattern

Most primates have something like abuse, and thus I’d believe all human societies have it. Patriarchal societies have a normative form of abuse: if the hierarchical family is established as standard, then husbands have certain rights of control and violence over wives, and parents have certain rights of control and violence over children.  In societies with land ownership and monarchs, there are also rights of control and violence of landowners over serfs and slaves, and of rulers over subjects.  Historically, higher-population agrarian societies (think Sumer or neolithic China) had larger and firmer hierarchies than earlier hunter-gatherer and horticultural societies, and probably worse treatment of women.  As Sapolsky notes, stable and particularly inherited hierarchies put greater stress on subordinates. (More about that in a later post.)

To give a stereotypical picture, think of patriarchal agrarian society as Blue in the Spiral Dynamics paradigm.  (This is horoscopey and ahistorical but it gives good archetypes.)  Blue culture means grain cultivation, pyramids and ziggurats, god-kings, temple sacrifices, and the first codes of law.

Not all humans are descended from agrarian-patriarchal cultures, but almost all Europeans and Asians are.

When you have stability, high population, and accumulation of resources, as intensive agriculture allows, you begin to have laws and authorities in a much stronger sense than tribal elders.  Your kings can be richer; your monuments can last longer.  I believe that notions of the absolute and the eternal in morality or religion might develop alongside the ability to have physically permanent objects and lasting power.

And, so, I suspect that this is the origin of the belief that to do right means to obey the father/king, and the worship of supreme gods modeled after a father or king.

To say morality is obedience is not merely to say that it is moral to obey.  Rather, we’re talking about divine command theory.  Goodness is identified with the will of the dominant individual. Inside this headspace, you ask “but what would morality even be if it weren’t a rock to crush me or a chain to bind me?”  It’s fear and submission melded with a sense of the rightness and absolute legitimacy of the dominator.

The “Song of the Sea” is considered by modern Biblical scholars to be the chronologically oldest part of the Bible, dating from the 15th to 5th centuries BC, and echoing praise songs to Mesopotamian gods and kings. God is here no abstract principle or sole creator; he is a “man of war” who defeats other peoples and their gods in battle.  He is to be worshiped not because he is good but because he is fearsome.

But philosophers, even in patriarchal societies, have often had some notion of a “good” which is less like a terrifying warlord and more like a natural law, a pattern in the universe, something to discern rather than someone to submit to.

The ancient Egyptians had ma’at and the Chinese had Heaven, as concepts of abstract justice which wicked earthly rulers could fall short of.  The ancient Greeks had logos, a faculty of reason or speech that allowed one to discern what was good.

Plato neatly disposes of divine command theory in the Euthyphro : if “good” is simply what the gods want, then what should one do if the gods disagree? Since in Greek mythology the gods plainly do disagree, the Good must be something that lies beyond the mere opinion of a powerful individual, human or divine.

As Ben Hoffman put it:

When morality is seen as rules society imposes on us to keep us in line, the superego or parent part is the internalized voice of moral admonition. Likewise, I suspect that in contemporary societies this often includes the internalized voice of the schoolteacher telling you how to do the assignment. This internalized voice of authority feels like an external force compelling you. People often feel tempted to rebel against their own superego or internalized parent.

By contrast, logos and sattva are not seen as internalized narratives – they are described as perceptive faculties. You see what’s right, by seeing the deep structure of reality. The same thing that lets you see the deep patterns in mathematics, lets you see the deep decision-theoretic symmetries underlying truly moral behavior.

This is why it matters so much that theologians such as Maimonides and Augustine were so insistent on the point that God has no body and anthropomorphic references in the Bible are metaphors, and why this point had to be repeated so often and seemed so difficult for their contemporaries to grasp. (Seriously, read The Guide to the Perplexed. It explains separately how each individual Biblical reference to a body part of God is a metaphor — it’s a truly incredible amount of repetition.)

If God has no body, this means that modern (roughly post-Roman-Empire) Jews and Christians worship something more like a principle of goodness than a warlord, even if God is frequently likened to a father or king.  It’s not “might makes right”, but “right makes right.”

The abuse-victim logic of morality-as-submission can have no concept that might might not make right.

But more “mature” ethical philosophies, even if they emerge from authoritarian societies — Christian, Jewish, Confucian, Classical Greek, to name a few that I’m familiar with — can be used as grounds to oppose tyranny and abuse, because they contain the concept of a pattern of justice that transcends the will of any particular man.

Once you can generalize, once you can see pattern, once you notice that humans disagree and kings can be toppled, you have the potential to escape the second-circuit, primate-level, dominant/submissive paradigm.  You can ask “what is right?” and not just “who’s on top?”

An Example of Morality-As-Submission: The Golden Calf

It is generally bad scholarship to read the literal text of the Bible as evidence for what contemporary Jews or Christians believe; that ignores thousands of years of interpretation.  But if you just look at the Bible without context, raw, you can get some kind of an unfiltered impression of the mindset of whoever wrote it — which is quite different from how moderns (religious or not) think, but which still influences us deeply.

So let’s look at Exodus 32:34.

The People of Israel, impatient with Moses taking so long on Mount Sinai, build a golden calf and worship it. Now God gets mad.

7 And the LORD spoke unto Moses: ‘Go, get thee down; for thy people, that thou broughtest up out of the land of Egypt, have dealt corruptly; 8 they have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them; they have made them a molten calf, and have worshipped it, and have sacrificed unto it, and said: This is thy god, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.’ 9 And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiffnecked people.

“Stiff-necked”, meaning stubborn. Meaning “you just do as you damn well please.”  Meaning “you have a will, you choose to do things besides obey me, and that is just galling.”  This is abuser/authoritarian logic: the abuser feels entitled to obedience and especially submission. To be stiff-necked is not to bow the neck.

10 Now therefore let Me alone, that My wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them; and I will make of thee a great nation.’ 11 And Moses besought the LORD his God, and said: ‘LORD, why doth Thy wrath wax hot against Thy people, that Thou hast brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 Wherefore should the Egyptians speak, saying: For evil did He bring them forth, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth? Turn from Thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against Thy people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Thy servants, to whom Thou didst swear by Thine own self, and saidst unto them: I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have spoken of will I give unto your seed, and they shall inherit it for ever.’ 14 And the LORD repented of the evil which He said He would do unto His people.

Moses pleads with God to remember his promises and not kill everyone. He even calls the plan of genocide “evil”!  And God, who is here not an implacable force of justice but out-of-control angry, calms down in response to the pleading and moderates his behavior.

But then Moses comes down the mountain, and he gets angry, and he slaughters, not everyone, but 3000 men.

27 And he [Moses] said unto them: ‘Thus saith the LORD, the God of Israel: Put ye every man his sword upon his thigh, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour.’ 28 And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses; and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men.


Notice how, if you’re at all familiar with abusive family dynamics, God is the primary abusive parent, and Moses is the less-abusive, appeasing parent, who tries to protect the children somewhat but still terrorizes them.

Now, God is going to make sure the Israelites know how grateful to be for his mercy and should beware lest he does anything worse:

1. And the LORD spoke unto Moses: ‘Depart, go up hence, thou and the people that thou hast brought up out of the land of Egypt, unto the land of which I swore unto Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying: Unto thy seed will I give it– 2. and I will send an angel before thee; and I will drive out the Canaanite, the Amorite, and the Hittite, and the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite– 3. unto a land flowing with milk and honey; for I will not go up in the midst of thee; for thou art a stiffnecked people; lest I consume thee in the way.’ 4. And when the people heard these evil tidings, they mourned; and no man did put on him his ornaments.  5 And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘Say unto the children of Israel: Ye are a stiffnecked people; if I go up into the midst of thee for one moment, I shall consume thee; therefore now put off thy ornaments from thee, that I may know what to do unto thee.’

Note the mourning and the refusal to put on ornaments. You have to show contrition, you can’t relax and make merry, as long as the parent is angry. It’s a submission behavior. The whole house has to be thrown into gloom until the parent says your punishment is over.

Now Moses goes into the Tent of Meeting to pray, very humbly, for God’s forgiveness of the people.  And here, in this context, is where you find the famous Thirteen Attributes of God’s Mercy.

6. And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed: ‘The LORD, the LORD, God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth;  7 keeping mercy unto the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin; and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and unto the fourth generation.’ 8. And Moses made haste, and bowed his head toward the earth, and worshipped. 9. And he said: ‘If now I have found grace in Thy sight, O Lord, let the Lord, I pray Thee, go in the midst of us; for it is a stiffnecked people; and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for Thine inheritance.’

God is “long-suffering” because he doesn’t kill literally everyone, when he is begged not to.  This “mercy” is more like the “tolerance” that dominant primates display when they get “enough” appeasement behaviors from subordinates.  Of course, people have long taken this passage as an inspiration for real mercy and grace; but in context and without theological interpretation that is not what it looks like.

Now, there’s a long interval of the new tablets of the law being brought down, and instructions being given for the tabernacle and how to give sin-offerings. Eight days later, in Leviticus 10,  God’s explained how to give a sin-offering and Aaron and his sons are actually going to do it, to make atonement for their sins…

…and they do it WRONG.

1. And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. 2. And there came forth fire from before the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD. 3. Then Moses said unto Aaron: ‘This is it that the LORD spoke, saying: Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ And Aaron held his peace. 4. And Moses called Mishael and Elzaphan, the sons of Uzziel the uncle of Aaron, and said unto them: ‘Draw near, carry your brethren from before the sanctuary out of the camp.’  5 So they drew near, and carried them in their tunics out of the camp, as Moses had said. 6 And Moses said unto Aaron, and unto Eleazar and unto Ithamar, his sons: ‘Let not the hair of your heads go loose, neither rend your clothes, that ye die not, and that He be not wroth with all the congregation; but let your brethren, the whole house of Israel, bewail the burning which the LORD hath kindled. And ye shall not go out from the door of the tent of meeting, lest ye die; for the anointing oil of the LORD is upon you.’ And they did according to the word of Moses.

Not only does the appeasement ritual of the sin-offering have to be done, it has to be done exactly right, and if you make an error, the world will explode. And note  the form of the error — the priests take initiative, they light a fire that God didn’t specifically tell them to light.  “Did I tell you to light that?”  And now, since God is angry, nobody else is allowed to act upset about the punishment, lest they get in trouble too.

These are not abstract theological ideas that the authors got out of nowhere. These are things that happen in families.

Growing in Poisoned Soil

I don’t mean to make this an anti-religious rant, or imply that religious people systematically support domestic abuse and tyranny. It was, after all, the story of Exodus that inspired American slaves in their fight for freedom.

The point is that this pattern — abuser-logic and abuse-victim logic — is a recurrent feature in the moral intuitions of everyone in a culture with patriarchal roots.

Here we have punishment, not as a deterrent or as a natural consequence of wrong action, but as rage, the fury of an authority who didn’t get the proper “respect.”

Here we have appeasement of that rage interpreted as the virtue of “humility” or “atonement.”

Here we have an intuitive sense that even generic moral words like “should” or “ought” are blows; they are what a dominant individual forces upon a subordinate.

Look at Psalm 51.  This is a prayer of repentance; this is what David sings after he realizes that he was wrong to commit adultery and murder. Sensible things to repent of, no doubt. But the internal logic, though beautiful and emotionally resonant, is crazypants.

“Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” (Wait, you didn’t do anything wrong when you were a fetus, we’re talking about what you did wrong just now.)

“Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.”  (Yes, guilt does create a desire for cleansing; but you’re expecting God to do the washing?  Only an external force can make you clean?)

“Hide Thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities.”  (Um, I’m pretty sure your victim is still dead.)

“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise.” (AAAAAAAAAAA.)

Even legitimate guilt for serious wrongdoing gets conflated with submission and “broken-spiritedness” and pleading for mercy and an intuition of innate taintedness.  This is how morality works when you process it through the second circuit, through the native mammalian intuitions around dominance/submission.

It’s natural, it’s human, it’s easy to empathize with — and it’s quite insane.

It’s also, I think, related to problems specific to women.

If women are traditionally subordinate in your society — and forty years of women’s lib is nowhere near enough to overcome thousands of years of tradition — then women will disproportionately suffer domestic abuse, and even those who don’t will still inherit the kinds of intuitions that captives always do.

A “good girl” is obedient, “innocent” (i.e. lacking in experience, especially sexual experience), and never takes initiative, because initiative can get you in trouble. A “good girl” internalizes that to be “good” is simply to submit and to appease and please.

How can you possibly eliminate those dysfunctions until you attack their roots?

Women have higher rates of depression and anxiety than men. Girl toddlers also have higher rates of shame in response to failure than boy toddlers [6].  Women also have a significantly lower salivary cortisol response to social stress than men.[7] Blunted cortisol response to stress is what you see in PTSD, CFS, and atypical depression, which are all more common in women than men; it occurs more in low-status individuals than high-status ones.[8][9] The psychological and physiological problems most specific to women are also the illnesses associated with low social status and chronic shame.

If we have a society that runs on shame and appeasement, especially for women, then women will be hurt.  Everything we do and think today, including modern liberalism, is built on a base that includes granting legitimacy to abusive power.  I don’t mean this in the sense of “everything is tainted, you must see the world through mud-colored glasses”, but in the sense that this is where our inheritance comes from, these influences are still visible, this is the soil we grew from.

It’s not trivial to break away and create alternatives. People do.  Every concept of goodness-as-pattern or of universal justice is an alternative to abuse-logic, which is always personal and emotional.  But it’s hard to break away completely.


[1]McGuire, Michael T., M. J. Raleigh, and C. Johnson. “Social dominance in adult male vervet monkeys: Behavior-biochemical relationships.” Information (International Social Science Council) 22.2 (1983): 311-328.

[2]Gilbert, Paul, and Michael T. McGuire. “Shame, status, and social roles: Psychobiology and evolution.” (1998).

[3]Keltner, Dacher. “Signs of appeasement: Evidence for the distinct displays of embarrassment, amusement, and shame.” Journal of personality and social psychology 68.3 (1995): 441.

[4]Leary, Mark R., and Robin M. Kowalski. Social anxiety. Guilford Press, 1997.

[5]Sapolsky, Robert M. “The influence of social hierarchy on primate health.” Science 308.5722 (2005): 648-652.

[6]Lewis, Michael, Steven M. Alessandri, and Margaret W. Sullivan. “Differences in shame and pride as a function of children’s gender and task difficulty.” Child development 63.3 (1992): 630-638.

[7]Kirschbaum, Clemens, Stefan Wüst, and Dirk Hellhammer. “Consistent sex differences in cortisol responses to psychological stress.” Psychosomatic Medicine 54.6 (1992): 648-657.

[8]Gruenewald, Tara L., Margaret E. Kemeny, and Najib Aziz. “Subjective social status moderates cortisol responses to social threat.” Brain, behavior, and immunity 20.4 (2006): 410-419.

[9]”Threat, Social-Evaluative, and Self-Conscious Emotion.”Miller & Tangney, 1994


43 thoughts on “Patriarchy is the Problem

  1. “Historically, higher-population agrarian societies (think Sumer or neolithic China) had larger and firmer hierarchies than earlier hunter-gatherer and horticultural societies, and probably worse treatment of women… Not all humans are descended from agrarian-patriarchal cultures, but almost all Europeans and Asians are.”

    Women have, or at least once had more autonomy in hunger-gatherer and horticultural societies. Are they treated better? I think the answer is a resounding NO. Compare the rates of rape, assault, and murder in agricultural-patriarchal societies to those in horticultural and hunter-gatherer societies.

    You’ve got your finger on something real, but think of the impact it will have on men as well as women! Remember, they also have to submit. This is where ‘beta’ behavior comes from! Without this, both men and women will be more ‘alpha,’ more straightforwardly and personally domineering, because they do not have the structure to back them up and must instead rely on pure personal strength and assertiveness.

    Children will be more inclined and more well-suited to submission. Who are more neotenous, the children of the plow, or the children of the hoe and the spear? Where do you see the best behavior, the least rape and beating and murder?

    The alternative to the Great Father is a low intensity but constant war of all against all.

    I do think that there is dysfunction associated with this neotenenous comfort with submission… But to properly address it you need to divest yourself of this modern universalist-hedonism. You need to embrace the world nature has presented us – one where the meaningful distinction is between survival and extinction. Sometimes you improve your chances by inflicting pain, and this should be wholeheartedly embraced. You have circuitry for this – the capacity for anger, wrath, and pleasure derived therein.

    Your misdirected attack on patriarchy from the universalist-hedonist side – ‘think of the suffering!’ – is ironically the product of the patriarchy and its suppression of your wrathful tendencies, which provide you with the crucial distinction that you need to make between yourself and the Other. It makes you more like the child who bows their head and asks ‘can’t we all get along?’ rather than the adult who moves aggressively to seize and safeguard whatever is in play. In the modern West, clearly this has progressed to a pathological extent. This is made clear by the spiraling universalism and aversion to conflict.

    That which leads to survival is healthy. That which leads to extinction is pathological. Without this you drift unmoored into insanity.

    • Obviously, I agree with “survival vs. extinction”, and not the rest of your values.

      Patriarchy clearly has some survival value since it has existed for so long. Pre-patriarchal societies have existed for even longer, so they clearly also have some survival value. I agree that it’s only practical to concern ourselves with social systems that *can* exist in reality.

      At least in primitive societies, there may be tradeoffs between peace (and submission) and freedom (and war). I’m not convinced that the exchange rate is fixed, that some structures may not result in both more peace *and* more freedom.

      I am, actually, a very angry person. I am mostly angry about abuse.

    • I appreciate the clarity of your perspective, but really, the thing I’m trying to learn and master is how to give people like me the tools to overcome people like you.

      • Patriarchy clearly has some survival value since it has existed for so long. Pre-patriarchal societies have existed for even longer, so they clearly also have some survival value.

        Whenever patriarchal societies fight pre-patriarchal societies, what happens? Regressing to a pre-patriarchal state may give you pre-patriarchal results in some important regards. Now that something that performs better has been found, this is very perilous!

        I’m not convinced that the exchange rate is fixed, that some structures may not result in both more peace *and* more freedom.

        Well, patriarchal societies are definitely more free in some important ways. Some very problematic ways.

        I don’t see this as centrally an exchange of peace for freedom. Though that tradeoff is a big part of what happened, the deeper level tradeoff is exchanging greater submissiveness for greater internal cohesion. Submissive people are easier to make un-free but they aren’t automatically un-free… Nor are unsubmissive peoples automatically free, as you can see from the enslavement of Africans by Arabs and Europeans, and the enslavement of even more primitive Pygmies by those same Africans. You clearly can have un-free and peaceful people, free and peaceful people, and free or un-free warlike people. You’re in favor of freedom and peace, I’m in favor of freedom and war, more or less. I want to tune the savagery and self-interest/group identity up, back to where they were when there were regular wars to stoke those fires. I want to avoid oppressive authoritarianism because I find in history examples of armies succeeding because they escape from or ignore micromanagement from high command, and because they have an organic ground-up passion for their art.

        Patriarchal societies are more efficient at directing warlike energies, because they put a lid on disorganized violence. Two thumbs up from me there. There is a problem when they get too good at suppressing violence, and foster deadly weakness. I don’t think this is the first time this has happened. It is probably behind some otherwise anomalous successes of tribal bands overrunning various advanced civilizations throughout history. It does need a fix, and that fix might involve going ‘backwards’ in some important ways. But the eye needs to stay on the ball, and that’s performance in war – not happiness, not lack of oppression for its own sake.

        I appreciate the clarity of your perspective, but really, the thing I’m trying to learn and master is how to give people like me the tools to overcome people like you.

        My perspective is that the question of how best to ‘overcome’ is the central deciding factor in which groups of humans prevail, and whether and to what extent life itself succeeds. That which improves your skill in the art of war is that which will survive.

        If you have an idea about how to prevail over those who straightforwardly place this at the base of their value-structure, I’m all ears. If it will tend to be effective – if ceteris paribus those who hold your proposed value-structure tend to win for whatever reason, then this demolishes my prospective value-system straightforwardly.

        I rather suspect that if you ‘learn and master’ the tools that let you overcome ‘people like me’ you will become rather like those people in the ways that are important.

        The really interesting question is not what you think of ‘people like me’ but where you think said people are wrong – meaning steering towards extinction rather than survival. If you don’t have a quarrel there, then you must have some argument along these lines.

        I am, actually, a very angry person. I am mostly angry about abuse.

        If you’re not willing to step into the world of abuse and violence, what could your anger signify? What is anger for?

        The idea of the crusading hero who only abuses abusers is foisted upon us from when we are young, but the notion is nonsensical. Enter the world of violence and wrath and you will instantly be pulled into grey areas, and you will either fail to follow through in any significant way and be rendered impotent, or become an ‘abuser’ – perhaps one that looks after some non-abusers, but certainly and straightforwardly an abuser, one who deals violence upon deserving and undeserving obstacles alike. There are real devils in this world, but no real angels.

        I suspect you’re angry not about abuse itself, but about abuse by certain people who you would think less deserving even were they not abusers, brought down upon other people who you would think more deserving regardless of their status as victim or abuser. Whether that’s what lurks in your soul or not, it’s definitely what most people mean when they say things like this. They have no care in the world when their preferred sort intervenes or has someone else intervene in their favor with a great deal of vicious abuse which does not ‘count’ as abuse because of who deals it out… independent of whether the wrong-sort folk were actually abusive or not.

      • Not to get into too much detail here, but the place I think your philosophy is ineffective is that it will lead to destruction without building. Even in war, you need to *produce* soldiers and weapons. Knowledge and productiveness help you win wars. And, of course, war is not the only thing that wipes people out — disease and famine are the other big killers. The most “warlike” in a primitive sense is not necessarily the best at winning actual wars, though obviously you have to have some martial virtues.

        And there are oh-so-many historical examples of martial ability coexisting with moral codes. I absolutely don’t buy that the world is divided into wimps and brutes. I am perhaps not the most credible person to hear this from — but talk to literally anybody who’s ever served in the U.S. Armed Forces and you will get some *serious* pushback.

      • Not to get into too much detail here, but the place I think your philosophy is ineffective is that it will lead to destruction without building. Even in war, you need to *produce* soldiers and weapons. Knowledge and productiveness help you win wars.

        Oy! Why do you get to be on the side of productivity here? I am making a defense – though with caveats – of the agrarian-patriarchy you are attacking, the agrarian-patriarchy that lies underneath all the vast productivity improvements humanity has recently seen! Where are the wondrous weapons produced by horticultural or hunter-gatherer societies? Where’s their knowledge and productivity? Almost nonexistent!

        And, of course, war is not the only thing that wipes people out — disease and famine are the other big killers.

        Sure – though agrarian-patriarchy smashes everyone else in that contest too.

        There are some examples of agrarian-patriarchy getting smashed by more ‘primitive’ bands through history, and I think we need to take lessons from that, take on some elements of the savage hordes without losing the advantages that have been accrued. We have examples of this, you only have to look to the past when Europeans frequently fought in large and bloody wars. When exposed to the right stimulus, they are unspeakably savage! The question is how to avoid the the potential to spiral almost completely out of that stimulus-response cycle, which I believe is what has left us in our current unenviable predicament.

        Even in war, you need to *produce* soldiers and weapons. Knowledge and productiveness help you win wars.

        I would say war is the fount of all real gains in productivity, because of this interaction. Without war and between-group violence generally the world would still be dotted with primitive hunter-gatherer tribes! And look within the conquering agrarian-patriarchal societies and see that their great improvements are mostly propelled by national competitive spirit, often characterized by direct violent conflict, but always by the possibility of that conflict. Take that possibility away, make it distant, and behold stagnation! In blood and terror the most brilliant inventions are forged!

        And there are oh-so-many historical examples of martial ability coexisting with moral codes.

        My problem is with YOUR moral code, the morals of our sitting degenerate elite, not moral codes in general. Universalist-utilitarianism, as opposed to particularist duty. Broad base ‘utility’ means nothing, survival of yourself and those you are responsible for means everything.

        I am perhaps not the most credible person to hear this from — but talk to literally anybody who’s ever served in the U.S. Armed Forces and you will get some *serious* pushback.

        I believe your typical soldier on the ground holds the wimp-brute worldview to a greater extent than even I do. How you weight the occasional protecting-the-weak bromides and party line vs their clear glee when the time comes to slaughter is up to you, but I know where I stand there.

        ‘Served in the US armed forces’ means very little, you could be talking about anyone from an officer, to a base-camp shit-stirrer, to those that go out and do the actual fighting. Despite nonsense about there being ‘no front lines’ in modern war there is a clear and sharp division between tooth and tail, and there’s a lot more tail than tooth. How many grunts, people with combat MOS who AREN’T part of the officer class, have you talked to? To put my cards on the table I haven’t personally chatted with any, but my impression from videos of them at their work, in interviews and on social media is that they are… Not very progressive, let’s put it that way.

        I will say that as the US and its institutions have become more ‘progressive’ – universalistic and hedonistic – military performance has nosedived. The soldiers who stormed the beaches on D-Day make the ‘alt-right’ the country is hyperventilating about look like blue-haired SJWs. The racially integrated military in Vietnam was a basket case of racial and political tension and terrible discipline – and it lost, lost to a dirt-poor ‘shitass little country’ to borrow Nixon’s phrase. The US, never great at levying a draft, has lost even the basic ability to raise a useable draft army. If it faced anything close to Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan today, it would be a non-entity. Likely wouldn’t be able to muster the will to get into the fight, or stay in when faced with mass casualties.

      • I’ve talked to enlisted men. The people I’m thinking of are politically conservative and have standard military values and sometimes enjoy violence. They also have moral boundaries. (Things like an special-forces interrogator who is very proud that he never used torture, even though he *was* tortured.)

        You probably know this, but I’m not a utilitarian.

        Also, I’m a modern descendant of agrarian-patriarchal society, not a member of a hunter-gatherer or hoe culture. I think my ancestors were screwed up in some very deep ways, but they also created civilizational and technological achievements, which do matter. Pre-patriarchal societies are universally low-tech. That’s a cost. Ultimately the type of civilization I’d affiliate with most is a modern one, though I have some critiques of modernity. I am, of course, impressed with the massive productivity that goes into modern war. I was trained as a mathematician, so I learned the *incalculable intellectual debt* we owe to the WWII effort, just in mathematics, statistics, numerics and computation. Whatever you think Von Neumann and Kolmogorov did, I promise you, they did *even more than that*.

        I believe winning happens when you have strong characters and clear minds. I think ultimately our best hope is going to have to be some kind of technological civilization. I just don’t think the people who are good at this are, in reality, amoral monsters.

      • Talk to any law-abiding gun owner who’s outspoken about it and you will quickly be linked to this essay.
        Whether or not it’s true, this is what mainstream red-state self-defense people believe. You will practically *never* find a serious firearms or martial arts instructor, no matter how right-wing, who doesn’t believe his job is about defense, or who doesn’t make a distinction between heroes and bullies.

    • The alternative to the Great Father is a low intensity but constant war of all against all.

      This is a plausible proposition to moderns, which is why Hobbes thought it was true, but it is empirically false. Premodern cultures nearly never have this problem. See Ostrom’s and Graeber’s work for examples. War of all against all is the result of the modern tendency to replace communal standards with state regulations, and the ethos of radical selfishness (which standard humans aren’t really capable of meeting). Generally this has been the aftermath of organized war and systems of oppression – Hobbes grew up during the English civil war, in which the problem was an excess of organized capacity to inflict violence, not a deficit of it.

      That’s not to say that we can just wish our problems away – pacifism has the obvious problem that the other folks might not be pacifists – but, this level of despair is totally unwarranted.

      • That’s not what your link says. Your link is about the evolution of agricultural societies, not the difference between agriculturalists and hunter-gatherers or pastoralists. It explicitly says that earlier societies were “robustly more violent.” The 20th century atrocities were small by that measure.

      • OK, having thought for a bit longer – within the agriculturalist framework, increases in social control that reduce disorganized murder rates seem to come along with increased rates of organized killing. I’m skeptical of claims that the transition from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists followed a different pattern, but you’re right that it’s a different thing.

      • Sure, hunter-gatherers don’t have war, while agriculturalists do. But hunter-gatherer murder rates are sky-high. The advent of agricultural really was a reduction, and not just a rearrangement.

  2. This seems like an important part of the problem. But there’s another aspect of patriarchy that’s pretty valuable: it enables hierarchical delegation to agents, in a way that flat organizations can’t enable. Cf. Prussian “mission command” or “mission-type tactics”. Of course that’s in a military context, and military affairs aren’t the only ones where this is necessary – the Romans limited the time of service of their military dictators for a reason, and there’s a reason why Cincinnatus was a hero to the founding fathers of the US.

    But there are other contexts where you want someone accountable, and therefore in command, temporarily. Engineering some big thing like a bridge seems like one such thing. Adjudicating disputes seems like another. Biblical Judges seem like a good model for this, a distributed social order with mostly social equality, with enough information-processing capacity to notice when there’s a problem that requires a manager, and spins up an instance of Horus in the person of the Judge, to be dismissed when the clearly defined need passes.

    Notably, some of the Judges whose names have been passed down to us were very clearly women. The Song of Deborah is widely acknowledged to be older than most of the rest of the Book of Judges, so Deborah might be the most authentically depicted Judge in the book.

    • Yes. One of the things I thought about including, but decided was off-topic, was that hierarchy does not always involve abuse. Militaries have hierarchies, but those hierarchies are governed by formal rules. You take orders from your commanding officer, but you can refuse an illegal order. You don’t necessarily have to suck up to your CO in a personal manner, the way a frightened child does to an angry parent. Soldiers salute, they don’t bow. When the *system* is supreme rather than the man, you may be able to avoid some of the corrosive effects of hierarchy.

      • You think distinguishing between heirarchies and abuse is off-topic for this post? This does not strike me as an honest attempt to engage with a plausible contrary position.

      • I wouldn’t look to any modern military for that! In practice the relationships are quite personal and your ability to refuse orders you don’t like doesn’t improve if you put on lawyerly airs. Have you seen the videos of drill sergeants in boot camp? The way they treat recruits is the most crystalline example of the ‘patriarchy’ you describe. In the field, when a soldier isn’t listening or obeying the standard response is chewing them out and maybe smacking them upside the head, assuming they immediately shape up. Otherwise the punishment will be much more harsh.

        If you want to get a sense of the Prussian influenced military, the moment a soldier refused to move forward to breach a wire obstacle or provide covering fire for his comrades, the officer’s pistol came out and he was given a choice – face certain death now, or possible death at the hands of the enemy very shortly.

        There’s a story from some German soldier’s WW2 experiences late in the war. An officer encountered two soldiers walking away from the front, without their weapons. After a very brief interrogation, he mowed them both down with his submachine gun – there was no time to intern deserters.

        The ‘system,’ when not overwhelmed by the tide of events, explicitly vests a great deal of power in low level officers. Their de facto powers go still further.

        I’m interested in bringing some voluntarism into this field, amusing though the notion should seem. A sort of spirit of the open-source software communities, where there is clearly authority, but people bow to it in order to get things done, and are pushed to participate by their own passion. Utopian though this may seem, you can see examples of something vaguely like this in mercenary or militia armies, which sometimes perform very well. The Swiss crushed all comers for a broad time period, first as mountain militias fighting invaders, then as mercenaries traversing the continent for coin and glory.

      • My point was that Prussian mission tactics aren’t fractally dominance-based the way Sarah was describing, not that there was no coercion involved.

    • This is an early form of separation of powers, I think. Kohanim & Levites don’t inherit territory, and iirc don’t have their own militia. Military and economic power is separated from priestly power.

  3. I do think the bit you quote from Exodus is a little more complicated than you suggest. Exodus 32:10-14 seems as much like Moses chastising God as pleading with Him. Verse 32 is Moses very clearly standing in solidarity, saying, if you fire them, you lose me too.

  4. This reminds me of a point that I’ve made before: the oldest and greatest oppressions are those directed at children. If you want to justify forcing someone to comply with your will, a very common argument is that the person who must comply is like a child whose wishes must be overruled for his or her own good. (I’m not claiming that the subordinate status of children in today’s society is bad or unnecessary, because it is in fact the case that children’s decisions do indeed have to be frequently overruled by adults for their own good, but if an adult were subject to the restrictions that ten year old children are subject to, we would rightly call that adult oppressed.)

  5. If the bullet points are the abstract for a series of posts and not just this one, you should label them as such.

    I suspect that, because the second one (“The family is the model of the state”) seems out of place. You don’t really come back to it. In fact, talking about mammalian dominance structures seems to argue against it.

    Not necessarily to disagree with anything you said, but some things implied by the title and the second bullet point seem off to me.

    But even if I grant the second bullet point, so what? What if, historically speaking, the authoritarian nature of the state was rooted in the authoritarian nature of the family? Saying that patriarchy is the problem today implies that the structure of the state is still downstream of the family. This seems implausible to me.

    The only place where you really come back to defend the second point:

    Patriarchal societies have a normative form of abuse: if the hierarchical family is established as standard

    Sure, but authoritarian states have a second normative hierarchy. What is the point of labeling them patriarchal rather than authoritarian? It feels to me like a slight of hand.

    • Honestly, yeah, that’s a weak point, I’ll have to think more about it.
      You generally don’t see states arise in societies that never had patriarchy (i.e. patriarchy is probably a necessary condition for states) but I don’t know if it’s a sufficient condition. If you eliminated patriarchy today, would you eliminate the state? I have no idea.

    • It would be pretty surprising if refactoring society to do personal responsibility without dominance didn’t involve figuring out how to do justice without patriarchy.

      • I think it is a fairly common radical claim that the problems are too entangled to be separated. This does not seem to be well-summarized as “Patriarchy is the root problem.” It almost seems like the opposite claim.

    • I was going to post a similar comment about making sure to think causally rather than associationally but you seem to have basically already covered this here so I’ll skip it. 🙂

  6. Thank you for an excellent post! (Or an excellent series, since the next post is strong as well.)
    I was a bit surprised to see you referencing Leary’s “eight-circuit model”. Most of your references seem to be obviously science, but I don’t see any scientific evidence for this theory or any evidence that serious psychologists ever talk about it. Is there an interesting story about why you included it?

      • Fair enough. The way you wrote about it, essentially identically to all the science you linked to, made me feel like you were giving it the same epistemic status as everything else you linked to. Which is more than it deserves IMO.

  7. Surely you mean Spiral Dynamics Red, not Spiral Dynamics blue. Blue would be the abstract god of Maimonodes, Post-Roman Christian and Jewish culture, and Xenophanes of Elea.

    I think it’s worth thinking of the Spiral model as an ecological succession model. In it, authoritarian patriarchy is naturally supplanted by Tiān.

  8. Weren’t there statistics from psychology studies showing that women (in the West) are on average happier and healthier (despite the higher rates of depression and anxiety) than men? How would that fit in your worldview?

    • So, I still don’t know what to think about happiness research.

      Women are longer-lived and have lower rates of many illnesses than men, I think, in part because they are less likely to be victims of violence and accidents, and in part because estrogen seems to have some kind of protective effect on aging. It’s complicated, and I wouldn’t claim that women are the more unfortunate sex in every dimension.

  9. The point is that this pattern — abuser-logic and abuse-victim logic — is a recurrent feature in the moral intuitions of everyone in a culture with patriarchal roots.

    Here we have punishment, not as a deterrent or as a natural consequence of wrong action, but as rage, the fury of an authority who didn’t get the proper “respect.”

    Here we have appeasement of that rage interpreted as the virtue of “humility” or “atonement.”

    Even legitimate guilt for serious wrongdoing gets conflated with submission and “broken-spiritedness” and pleading for mercy and an intuition of innate taintedness.

    Every concept of goodness-as-pattern or of universal justice is an alternative to abuse-logic, which is always personal and emotional. But it’s hard to break away completely.

    I suspect this passage is homing in on the exact thing that makes so many liberals (myself included) queasy about SJW callout culture, internet shame-mobs, “vindictive protectiveness,” etc., and it provides some useful rhetorical ammunition against it, so thank you for that.

    Thank you also for not once putting the definite article directly in front of “patriarchy.” 🙂

  10. Social apes like chimps have complicated political systems in which coalitions can form and eliminate a leader. This tendency continued through human history and that restricted abuse to the least powerful groups.
    No caesar could treat too harshly the praetorian guard, no sultan could abuse the janissary, a germanic leader had to play nice with the assembly of the soldiers and, finally, a medieval king had to be careful about his treatment of the Church and of the great lords.
    This last circumstance is what eventually created constitutional regimes with Parliaments, separation of powers, legal protections of human rights etc Gradually these protections and political participation have been extended to all citizens of a modern state and even beyond that by giving rights to foreigners and animals.
    Human rights are a result of agricultural, hierarchic, “patriarchal” (I dislike this concept) societies, not of hunter gatherers despite that some checks on power are inherent to primate social organisation.

  11. I agree that our monkey dominance instincts and related abuse are a huge problem. I am just not sure about the role of families in all this. Would having the same abusive monkey dominance instincts, but without a family structure, be better?

    In other words, is the problem really “patriarchy” or rather “monkey-archy”?

    Would the problem remain if you would remove the fathers from the equation? For example, if we would genetically engineer humans so that women are twice as strong as men, would we get the same pattern, only with abusive mothers? (Would we still call that “patriarchy”?) If we would genetically engineer humans so that both sexes are equally strong on the average, would we get “muscular-people-archy”? If we would disband families and let everyone grow up in institutions, would we get some “boss-archy” without any similarities to family structure? In other words, is there anything specifically evil about fathers, other than being statistically most likely the strongest monkey in one’s proximity?

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