Over coffee a few months ago, a friend and I asked ourselves the following question: What character traits and values should society be promoting in order to best create sustainable well-being for all?
Because we had both recently finished reading Peace Education: How We Come to Love and Hate War by Nel Noddings, one lens to use in answering this question jumped out. We began discussing it as the difference embodied in masculine and feminine traits and values. It appeared obvious to us at the time that the majority of masculine traits and values, which are promoted, advertised, and sold to us, largely stand in the way of universal well-being and their opposite traits and values, embodied in feminist ideology, mostly contribute to a better, more peaceful world.
There seemed to be a clear disconnect between what society espouses it desires and the values it endorses in attempting to actualize those visions of a better society for individuals to live in. This post aims to explore the masculine and feminine values in our society, and the ways that we actually do (or do not) promote a better world.
What We Teach
The easiest way to think about this question is to consider what we teach our youngest children or students. We want them to be kind, caring, and compassionate. We show them how to cooperate, collaborate, play together, and form friendships. We praise children who are gentle with other children and who help those around them.
All of these qualities are undoubtedly positive and certainly enhance the relationships between individuals for the better, thus contributing to overall well-being. When we teach our children to take turns in the sandbox so that no one feels left out or left behind, we do it with the hopes that they will grow into adults who are responsive to others’ needs. When we do not care about others, including those we do not know, we are less likely to see them as deserving of the same rights, privileges, and opportunities as we are. An accepting, non-discriminatory society therefore depends on caring relations between individuals. The time we spend teaching caring to our children demonstrates its importance in all aspects of our societies and communities.
Similarly, we spend countless hours teaching our children to cooperate and work together. We want them to entertain themselves as a group, solve problems collaboratively, and develop strong bonds with others. When children see themselves as friends, they are happy to be around those people; adults are the same way. There is a certain satisfaction to a high-five for teamwork after completing a difficult puzzle or solving a challenging problem in tandem with others that is not the same alone. Cooperation towards a common goal, whether with one person or with hundreds around the globe, means that any number of people will benefit from the realization of that goal. The aim of achieving greater well-being on a large scale is clearly embraced through cooperation.
Cooperation naturally leads to and stems from connection to others. This connection can be brief and shared only for the time that the problem or project lasts, or it can extend beyond into a true friendship. As people spend more time working together, their connection will deepen, whether they are friends or not. We help children interact with others and engage in activities with like-minded individuals in the hopes that they will form friendships. This way, we know that they have people to rely on, people to turn to in times of need, and people who make them feel good about themselves. Those who have deep connections with others tend to be happier in their personal lives, which also leads to taking more actions that increase the well-being of others.
The qualities discussed above (caring, compassion, kindness, collaboration, friendships, and gentleness) are traditionally associated with girls and women. These feminine qualities clearly enhance existence and society should promote them in order to best contribute to well-being for all. However, society has an unnecessarily complicated relationship with feminine qualities. We praise girls and women when we call them caring, kind, and gentle but we have actively turned these words into insults for boys and men. We derisively ask, “Why do you care so much?” We hurl at young men, “Don’t be such a pussy!” “Boys don’t cry,” we remind young children who are hurting. As a society we have deliberately chosen not to associate compassion, kindness, and caring (positive feminine qualities) with the qualities that undoubtedly serve to increase the well-being of others.
Instead, femininity is tied to physical beauty, as indicated in this Google Image search:
When we whittle femininity down to physical appearance, we devalue everything else that comes with it. Furthermore, we turn femininity into an abhorrence and an embarrassment. If femininity is merely associated with physicality, who wants to be considered feminine? Even the images of “strong women” above are first and foremost images of physical beauty.
This realization is troubling because it indicates that while we consider feminine traits and values of utmost importance when teaching children, we do not carry that message through as children develop into adults. Instead, we focus on femininity’s foil: masculinity.
In direct contrast to femininity, masculinity is generally associated with strength, competition, aggression, individualism, and violence. Overwhelmingly, these are the qualities that society has chosen to promote. A great deal of media are devoted to exercise, sports contests, how to promote oneself, and how to stand out of the crowd. Violence is an accepted part of television and film. Street fights and scuffles among adolescents to solve conflicts are considered “kids being kids” or, more often, “boys being boys”. (Physical fighting between girls, interestingly, is a spectacle.)
The Google Image search below clearly reflects these ideas of masculinity:
As demonstrated in the above examples, a society that aims to increase well-being for all must promote the opposite qualities. Competition lies in direct contrast to cooperation. When we teach children that there must always be a winner and a loser, we are sending the message that equality and equity are neither desirable nor possible and that success is equal to winning. Furthermore, we indicate that the way to win is to do it alone, which is incompatible with working for the betterment of all. We have objectified others, literally turning them into objects that we need to overcome, rather than looking at them as subjects that we to know and understand. We have thus stolen their humanity.
Similarly, the all too common displays of aggression are far from caring for those around us. Aggression means a continuous display of strength and a celebration of strength. Where does that leave those who need help? What role are they relegated to in society? Choosing to value aggression automatically devalues anyone who is not aggressive, and those who are not aggressive are not strong. Traditionally, this refers to women, children, and the elderly, leaving younger men as the ones who matter the most. Obviously, this is a ludicrous statement. However, that is the decision we have made as a result of our emphasis on aggression, strength, and violence.
It is clear that what society espouses it desires for the world does not match the values it actually endorses. We are not promoting the values that would create sustainable well-being and a better, more peaceful world for all. We need to move away from masculine traits and qualities and embrace feminine traits and qualities if we hope to increase well-being and develop a more peaceful world.
One way to accomplish this would be to adjust the language that we use, especially around young people. Let’s use emotion as an example. Many young boys will decide it’s not okay to show emotion (caring and compassion are feminine values) and this is because of the message that we have chosen to send (men are strong and the strong don’t cry – aggression is very much a masculine value). Instead, we need to reframe how we approach those around us. If we can see tears as a sign of what they are, feeling, and if feeling is a demonstration of concern for others, we should embrace the tears and feelings that tie us together as humans.
Rather than referring to strength as a physical quality, we need to reframe it as the ability to endorse the values that we espouse, these feminine qualities that will actually make the world a better place. It takes a far stronger individual to resist conformist and socialization pressures than to hit harder or run faster than the next person.
We also need to exercise caution with words of praise. Girls are often told that they are beautiful, but this is a comment on what they look like rather than who they are. If we value our girls as more than their appearance, we need to use words that emphasize precisely what we value about them. Perhaps they are helpful, kind, or generous. Developing an identity around being helpful, for example, provides a way forward to developing a more peaceful world.
The same is true for boys. Commenting on how big and strong they are does not go a long way when what we actually care about is their humanity. Instead of emphasizing these qualities that lead to competition and violence, we are better off focusing on what makes our boys helpful, kind, or generous.
If we truly want a better, more peaceful world with sustainable well-being for all, rethinking how we talk to one another is a good place to start.