What is Patriarchy?

“What is patriarchy?” is a question that I often get from anti-feminists and men’s rights activists (MRAs), albeit disingenuously as a means of setting me up for a “gotcha!” moment. Typically, what is being asked for is a definition that they can use to poke holes in as a way to completely dismiss the idea of patriarchy–and feminism by extension. Since definitions are necessarily incomplete, or imperfect, there is always a way to find a flaw, but we don’t typically dismiss other definitions on merely this basis as a general rule. Thus, the anti-feminist/MRA is applying a double standard as a dishonest debate tactic when they do this.

This idea that you can come up with a complete definition  comes from the notion that words have inherent meanings and that all we have to do is figure out all the necessary and sufficient conditions in order to get at a complete definition of those words. Therefore, if that cannot be done (at least for the time being), then we have reason to doubt the validity of the concept and what it refers to.

In Language-games, I wrote the following about meaning (yes, I am quoting myself):

“Many of us intuitively believe in inherent meaning, the idea that words and statements have meanings that are essential, or necessary. In other words, there is an objective set of necessary criteria that constitute a ‘biological male’, and all must be present in order for one to be ‘biologically male’. However, there is a fatal problem with this view. What we ultimately decide on as necessary is partially determined by an element of choice (or preference).

“What if instead of viewing meaning as inherent, we abandoned the idea in favor of something different? What might a word’s meaning be if not a set of necessary and sufficient conditions? Ludwig Wittgenstein argued that the meanings of words and statements are functions of their use. In other words, in order to understand the meaning of a word, or a statement, you need to understand how it is being used.

“In his work Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein introduced and developed the concept of language-games. Think of a paradigm case of a game: chess. In order for a player to play chess successfully, she must first understand the rules of the game, have an ability to identify patterns and anticipate the moves of her opponent. Like playing chess successfully, effective communication requires an understanding of how words are being used by being able to understand general rules, recognize patterns in communication, and anticipate what fellow communicators intend to convey by reading context clues.”

In summary, what we have to accept is that though we cannot come up with perfect definitions, we can settle for working definitions and instead of asking “what is patriarchy?”, a better question to ask is how should we use the word “patriarchy” and why?

Consider the following working definition:

“Patriarchy is a social arrangement in which males hold more social, economic and political power compared to females. It refers to a society in which power is disproportionately held by men. Patriarchy is not in our genes or part of biology instead it is a social construct which can be seen as part of our cultural belief system.

“Patriarchy is not a universal phenomenon. Rather there is a patriarchal tendency in human societies where most societies tend to be patriarchal in nature. In the past we had societies which had matriarchal tendency. We have some societies which are highly patriarchal while some are as less patriarchal in nature while some somewhere in between being egalitarian and highly patriarchal ie; in the middle ground (spore).Patriarchy can take on/ play out in a variety of forms and ways. Hence patriarchy is not a unitary state but rather a variation within a range of possibilities.”

What are the important points of this working definition?

  1. Patriarchy is a social system (or “arrangement”).
    • Note that social systems are how power is distributed and functions in society.
  2. In this social system, the distribution of power is predominantly held by men.
    • This is why a social system of this nature would be described as patriarchal.
  3. Patriarchy is made evident in our cultural values and practices.
    • This will be the primary focus of my analysis.
  4. Since this concerns the distribution of power, it is unlikely that it will be evenly distributed across time and place.
    • In other words, patriarchy doesn’t function the same way around the world or throughout history.

Keeping these points in mind, it’s easy to see how even well meaning skeptics–and even feminists themselves–can miss out on a productive dialogue regarding this topic. Patriarchy isn’t something you can easily point to. In fact, it’s not even something that can be observed directly, but rather indirectly. Opponents of feminism may consider this a flaw, but we have many reasons to believe that it is not, and we can look to scientific practice to see what those reasons are.

In science, there are observable and unobservable entities. This seems really pseudoscientific at the outset because science is supposed to be empirical. This is correct in a sense, but the main project of science is to describe and explain the phenomena that scientists observe. Stated differently, science entails not only observable “facts” of the natural world, but also theories that put those facts into context and allow us to make hypotheses that we can derive predictions for further observations. A common method among scientists is hypothetico-deductivism, what most recognize as “the scientific method”. In short, what scientists often do is come up with a hypothesis, derive predictions (this is where the deductivism comes in), and then come up with tests that they can use to see if the results they observe are consistent with those predictions. If they are consistent, they are said to support the hypothesis and if they aren’t, then the scientist can reject or modify the hypothesis (or even the test that was designed to test it to see if there was a flaw in the test). A simplified model of this method can be seen here.

What is important to understand is that the hypothesis isn’t what is being tested directly. What is being tested is the predictions that can be derived from it assuming it is true. In other words, the hypothesis is a part of the theoretical side of science and the results derived by testing the predictions are the factual side of science and all kinds of hypothetical, or unobservable, entities are used to help scientists understand and research what they are dealing with.

Two obvious examples are dark energy and dark matter–things that cannot be observed, but can be studied by observing their effects. Other, more scientifically controversial, examples are described by Sean Carroll in his article titled “Science and Unobservable Things“:

“The […] thing to understand is that all of these crazy speculations about multiverses and extra dimensions originate in the attempt to understand phenomena that we observe right here in the nearby world. Gravity and quantum mechanics both exist — very few people doubt that. And therefore, we want a theory that can encompass both of them. By a very explicit chain of reasoning — trying to understand perturbation theory, getting anomalies to cancel, etc. — we are led to superstrings in ten dimensions. And then we try to bring that theory back into contact with the observed world around us, compactifying those extra dimensions and trying to match onto particle physics and cosmology. The program may or may not work — it’s certainly hard, and we may ultimately decide that it’s just too hard, or find an idea that works just as well without all the extra-dimensional superstructure. Theories of what happened before the Big Bang are the same way; we’re not tossing out scenarios because we think it’s amusing, but because we are trying to understand features of the world we actually do observe, and that attempt drives us to these hypotheses.

“Ultimately, of course, we do need to make contact with observation and experiment. But the final point to emphasize is that not every prediction of every theory needs to be testable; what needs to be testable is the framework as a whole. If we do manage to construct a theory that makes a set of specific and unambiguous testable predictions, and those predictions are tested and the theory comes through with flying colors, and that theory also predicts unambiguously that inflation happened or there are multiple universes or extra dimensions, I will be very happy to believe in the reality of those ideas…Keeping in mind, of course, that when Boltzmann was grounding the laws of thermodynamics using kinetic theory, most physicists scoffed at the notion of these ‘atoms’ and rolled their eyes at the invocation of unobservable entities to explain everyday phenomena.”

You might be saying, “Okay, this is all well and good, but what does this have to do with patriarchy?” Good question, my dear reader! What can be taken from the idea of unobservables in science is that like dark matter, dark energy, inflation, multiverses, etc., the notion of patriarchy is a useful part of an overall feminist theory we can use to explain what we observe in reality and make predictions. Thus, by hypothesizing patriarchy, we can observe its effects in the world. Of course we must then ask what are the effects of patriarchy that can be observed?

Continuing from the source of our working definition of patriarchy:

“Patriarchy is evident in our institutions at the macro state level and predominantly it is the men holding military and political power whereas women are excluded or marginalised from and in institutionalised competition for prestige. The head of state, cabinet ministers and the top executives of major companies are still mostly men. Women’s average income is still significantly lower than men’s average income level. At the micro level, patriarchy can also be seen as the structuring of society on the basis of family units, where fathers are attributed as having the primary responsibility for the welfare of, and authority over, their families.

“The most common notions and [understandings] of patriarchy is male dominance over women through violence…and common misconceptions of patriarchy is the total oppression of women in all spheres of life. Patriarchy is not a unitary state. Male dominance in the political, economical and military arenas and women’s surbodination [sic] in these areas should not always be seen as total oppression of women by men as these arenas also tend to be highly stressful and not necessarily easy on the men.”

A full analysis of these empirical claims is beyond the scope of this analysis and has been fairly fleshed out by other feminists. The main point that I want to reemphasize is that patriarchy is a social system that distributes power unevenly between men and other genders and concentrates it primarily in the hands of men as a group. We can see this in the way society is structured and functions both on a macro and micro scale, and that this distribution of power isn’t universal, nor does it affect all men and women in the same way. However, we are still at liberty make some useful observations regarding its effects.

The primary effect of patriarchy that impacts women is misogyny. In an APA blog post, philosopher Kate Manne explains some of her thoughts regarding misogyny and its relation to patriarchy:

“I was so frustrated with what commentators were saying about misogyny—that it had to be hatred directed at women as a class, harbored deep in the heart of an individual misogynist. But that makes no sense of misogyny as a political phenomenon.

“My first basic thought was, what would we expect misogyny to be, understood as the most hostile and toxic manifestation of patriarchal ideology? Not a uniform hatred of women, surely. Patriarchal social structures, in conjunction with the ideology that governs them, work to make women into men’s deferential, attentive social subordinates, and to mask many of the forms of dominance and power which men have over women. Patriarchal social relations are designed to look as amicable and seamless as possible, in other words. So why would even the least enlightened of men within a patriarchal culture be hostile towards women across the board, or as a social class in its entirety? We might expect him to have a low opinion of women’s capacities in masculine-coded arenas, say (which I think of as being sexist). But having a low opinion of someone is one thing; being hostile toward them, quite another. Women will often be far too pleasant and convenient to have around to be an object of his hatred, at least when things are going smoothly.”

In other words, the idea that misogyny is “the hatred of women” is generally unhelpful and fails to explain and predict what we actually see. Instead, we need to be a little more nuanced when it comes to understanding how patriarchy functions and is manifest through things like misogyny. An example of the subtleties of misogyny in practice can be found in an article published by The Guardian titled “AI programs exhibit racial and gender biases, research reveals“, which explains that researchers have found that Artificial Intelligence (AI) programs pick up on racial and gender biases through studying the way humans use language:

“In the past few years, the ability of programs such as Google Translate to interpret language has improved dramatically. These gains have been thanks to new machine learning techniques and the availability of vast amounts of online text data, on which the algorithms can be trained.

“However, as machines are getting closer to acquiring human-like language abilities, they are also absorbing the deeply ingrained biases concealed within the patterns of language use, the latest research reveals.

“Joanna Bryson, a computer scientist at the University of Bath and a co-author, said: ‘A lot of people are saying this is showing that AI is prejudiced. No. This is showing we’re prejudiced and that AI is learning it.’

“The [program’s] approach [to learning language], which is already used in web search and machine translation, works by building up a mathematical representation of language, in which the meaning of a word is distilled into a series of numbers (known as a word vector) based on which other words most frequently appear alongside it. Perhaps surprisingly, this purely statistical approach appears to capture the rich cultural and social context of what a word means in the way that a dictionary definition would be incapable of.”

In other words, a statistical analysis of our everyday language use reveals that humans have implicit, or unconscious (not just explicit, or conscious) racial and gender biases. These biases can affect our individual decisions as well as the way institutions and societies operate and do a lot of work as far as explaining how racism and misogyny affects people in the real world.

Of course, it is also worth noting that racism can intersect with misogyny, so the way misogyny is experienced by women of color can be very different than the way white women experience it. It is also important to understand that “intersect” does not mean “additive”. In other words, the experience of misogyny for women of color is more than the “sum” of what you would get if you tried to think of it in terms of a simple arithmetic algorithm adding misogyny and racism together (i.e., we can’t think of it as a simple addition problem like 2+2=4). In reality, it’s much more complicated than that. Thus, patriarchy and misogyny can operate, and are experienced, in very different ways since the distribution of power along gender and racial lines is nowhere near uniform within societies as well as between them. They also happen to “intersect” with other systems of power (including but not limited to racism, heteronormativity, cisnormativity, ableism, etc.), thus making the reality much more complicated than even most feminists will acknowledge.

With these ideas in mind, hopefully feminists will be able to do a better job of explaining their ideas and experiences to outsiders. Of course, there is no convincing to be done if one is engaging with the disingenuous person, but if we play our cards right, we can do a better job of communicating our ideas to those who are genuine.



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