The Nail Problem: Patriarchy and Pandemics

When the only tool at hand is a hammer, all problems look like nails.

Editor’s Introduction

As peace education faces a third existential threat to our planet, we see the need to remind ourselves of the essential importance of thinking holistically, ecologically, and in terms of the interrelationships among the peoples of Earth and between those peoples and the Earth they share. We remind ourselves of how important it is to be aware not only of what we think, but of how we think and the conceptual tools with which we think. As we ponder the integral relationships among and between war and the potential for nuclear annihilation, the climate crisis, and now the present and likely future pandemics, we need to draw on all that we have learned about education for transformation. We now need to conjure the new learnings that are demanded, as we become more acutely aware of the dimensions and possibilities of pandemics. As we often remind ourselves, humans still inhabit this planet, the planet need not die, and wars have ended. We find hope in our ability to learn that has made survival possible.

In this OpEd, Betty Reardon urges us to undertake this new learning challenge with an assessment of the language and images with which we think about the world and formulate strategies to change it, so that wars might end, pandemics be contained, and we and our planet might continue to live.  We believe that this peace education community can meet the challenge; as do those whose messages you will find in the accompanying posts convergent with Betty’s message. In the conviction that our readers share that belief, we propose this learning challenge.

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By Betty Reardon

A front page article in Sunday’s New York Times on the American President’s response to the Corona catastrophe concluded:

So Mr. Trump, with his recent description of a war to be won over a “foreign enemy,” is seeking a dynamic that he is familiar with, personifying the virus as an opponent to be beaten, framing it as the kind of crisis he knows how to tackle. “He’s trying to make it into a win-lose situation” she said. (Gwenda Blair, Trump biographer) “That’s how he sees the world – winners, him and losers everybody else. He is trying to make the coronavirus into a loser and himself into a winner.” (Used to Meeting Challenges With Bluster and Force, Trump Confronts a Crisis Unlike Any Before – NY Times, March 21, 2020)

What she and other observers might have also noted is that designating oneself a war leader also claims the hero’s mantle, another characteristic of the war system, that opens the door to authoritarian excesses, as have catastrophic crises throughout history.  This is the way of patriarchy, the institution which gave rise to the war system to assure its perpetuation, infecting the human psyche as deeply as has our habits, relationships, and most destructively our ways of thinking. POTUS is not the only one among us who sees the human family divided into winners and losers; not the first leader to designate a challenge or problem as “the enemy,” invoking no holds barred in the contest. Most of us have some degree of the patriarchal worldview of social bifurcation and human inequality lurking in our consciousness. This may well be a time, as we are sequestered from the “normal” quotidian expenditures of our days on this fragile planet, when we might dig into our own heads to see how we think about challenge and struggle. Let’s spend some of this time to ponder the alternatives to the concepts and metaphors of lethal conflict and triumphalism that pervades the thinking and the planning with which we face this and the other major perils to human welfare and survival.

We have long-delayed confronting the existential threats of climate change and the nuclear precipice. And even now when all resources and energy is urgently needed in COVID-19 struggle, wasteful death directed wars continue to be waged, prompting a cease-fire plea from the UN Secretary General (See UN News – COVID-19: UN chief calls for global ceasefire to focus on ‘the true fight of our lives’, March 23, 2020).

It is now painfully clear that we can no longer afford war. War must be abolished as we were instructed by Pres. Kennedy in 1963. More immediately clear is that we have too long avoided what should have been understood as inevitable all through the century since the Spanish flu.  Certainly, since the Ebola experience of the last decade, we should have prepared for a pandemic, as Bill Gates points out in his TED talk posted here:

Not only was his talk prophetic in regard to this Novel Coronavirus, he rightly warned us that pandemics are not likely one-time events as POTUS claimed in Sunday’s news conference. In light of this probability, peace educators might well give more attention to the development of skills of anticipation and the projections of alternatives to the war system that we have long advocated as essential learning goals.

Gates also gives us some practical possibilities for transition to what we have called “demilitarized security,” (i.e. security that does not depend on the capacity to inflict lethal violence) as he proposes how trained and mobilized forces can well serve to confront challenges to human security like pandemics, long ignored if not outright denied, by the proponents of highly militarized security. But not, as he points out, by the military itself who have such plans related to the possibilities for biological warfare. One wonders if when this administration cut the epidemic section of Homeland Security, did they also reduce bio-weapons research.  Gates does not, however, suggest that excessive spending on weapons development might be converted toward dealing with this very real threat pandemics pose to human security. However, his prescient message does challenge us to think of human struggle in terms other than war.  As does Tony Jenkins in a recent e-mail commenting on the same POTUS announcement that inspired the above-cited New York Times article.

Tony ponders shifts to less alienating and separating language such as from “social distancing” to “physical distancing,” recognizing that our social bonds remain vital and strong in the face of this crisis; from “war on a virus” to “healing a sick nation.” If we name things differently, we can think differently. We will be better enabled to confront what truly is “a clear and present danger.”

My own tendency is to ponder such life-affirming concepts and metaphors as found in art, agriculture and the reproduction of animal life; to think less in terms of combatting a problem and more in cultivating an alternative. I find myself returning to the conception, birth and nurturing metaphor that concluded Sexism and the War System (Teachers College Press 1985) where I argued for as convergence of those positive values even patriarchy permitted to thrive in its oppressive bifurcated gender assignments. Convergence, I believe, is more likely to strengthen social systems than separations and the designation of enemies that has so weakened them. Developing a deeper self-awareness of ourselves and our systems might also be a fruit of the reflections we cultivate as we “shelter” from the virus. Consistent self and social awareness is the insurance of a social system.  The viability of whatever transformed system we may bring forth would depend upon “continuous reflection on and challenge to its rules and structures and by its capacity to change in response to new conditions.” (Sexism and the War System p. 97) Patriarchy’s tendency to self-replicate, and when challenged to double down on militarist responses make starkly evident its lack of both that self-awareness and appropriate language through which to conceptualize a life-sustaining alternative.

Many in peace and justice movements have called for using this critical time to reflect, plan and learn our way to a more positive future. One contribution we, peace educators might make to this process is reflection on the possibilities for alternative language and metaphors toward which peace linguists and feminists have long tried to persuade us to focus our attention. What substitutions for normal bellicose language and metaphors might readers of this post suggest? And equally as essential, how might we change our thinking, our discourse, and our behaviors to manifest those conceptual changes? Please share your reflections on these queries, so that we might together develop an appropriate language with which to conceptualize and strive toward an alternative to the patriarchal war system. Let us restrain the use of the hammer by understanding that our challenges are more complex and diverse than nails of any size.

1 Comment

  1. Tony in the article was your name Tony Jenkins supposed to link to an article of yours? If so, that dd not happen.

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