Beyond Polarity: A New Encounter between Women and Men

Posted on May 11th, by Elizabeth Debold in Binary, Blog, Femininity, Gender, Integral Philosophy, Masculinity, Polarity, women. Comments Off on Beyond Polarity: A New Encounter between Women and Men

The day after my very first appearance on New York cable TV—it was the 80s, so cable was new and small—I got a message at my office at the National Organization for Women where I was VP. It was from a well-known Dr. Oz-type doctor who did health reports on one of the big TV networks. I had no idea who he was, but my colleagues were all excited, thinking that this could be a real break for us to reach a bigger audience. He had seen my appearance on the local cable program, where I was speaking about women’s rights and equality, and he wanted me to call him.

I was nervous, but I called the number at the TV network that he gave me. It was his private line and he picked up the phone himself. As soon as he recognized who I was, he interrupted me—telling me in the most, well, warm manner how impressed he was by me on the program.

“Thank you,” I said, feeling slightly uncomfortable. I began to speak about how important were the issues that I had been speaking about on the show.

He interrupted me. He loved my passion, he said. He was riveted watching me because I expressed such passion.

“Yes,” I began, “I am very passionate about these issues…”

He interrupted me, and began to explain how my passion made him feel. He loved my passion.

“My passion is for these issues,” I responded, starting to feel wary.

He made a little impatient sound. “It doesn’t matter,” he said curtly. “I’d like to see you in person; perhaps we could have dinner.”

Suddenly I had a sickening feeling—as if he had shoved his hand up under my skirt. I slammed down the phone. This guy had not the slightest interest in what I cared about or what I was talking about. It felt as though he related to my passion as a commodity that he wanted for himself. What I thought—or that I thought—meant nothing. To me, that meant I meant nothing to him except how I made him feel. I felt violated.

Obviously, that conversation made quite an impression on me, since I haven’t forgotten it and it happened a few decades ago. I so distinctly remember the shock I felt when I realized that he could care less about what I was saying but wanted my passion for himself. It wasn’t simply that he was hitting on me. I was used to that. But the horrible irony of speaking seriously about women’s rights and then being seen merely as some kind of conduit of heat or excitement really stunned me. For some dumb reason, I expected that if I was speaking about something significant, then what I say should be respected, or at least be the foundation for a conversation.

Was I wrong? Apparently, when it comes to conversation between women and men, I might be. At least according to some in the spiritual and Wilberian integral world. Since 2006, when Wilber published Integral Spirituality, his integral theory has included “masculine” and “feminine” as types of individual interiors—which is supposed to indicate a basic orientation to life that is persistent across levels of development. While many give lip service to “masculine doesn’t mean ‘man’ and feminine doesn’t mean ‘woman,’” pretty much of the time we use masculine to indicate things or aspects of self that are socially appropriate for men, and the same goes for the feminine. Wilber himself often uses man, male or masculine (or woman, female or feminine) interchangeably. Even though both women and men can and do express both (of course we do—they are, after all, human capacities and qualities), I am referring to the normative use of these terms in which men are supposed to be masculine and women, feminine. Masculine and feminine are often seen as representing a polarity, like opposite poles of a magnet that attract each other.

What happens to communication when this polarity is mapped onto living, breathing human beings, male and female? That is the domain of Wilber’s erstwhile friend and colleague, David Deida, who in his book, The Way of the Superior Man, helps those with masculine essences understand how to have a satisfying, passionate relationship with the feminine essence—primarily for those in relationship, but also for those who are on the lookout for one. Of course, this requires communication. What kind of communication is possible between individuals whose identities are rooted in ideas of masculine and feminine? From my view, using the masculine and feminine as the context of meaningful conversation between the sexes is as misguided as the TV doctor’s attempt to appropriate my passion. Inherently, it does not create the mutual respect needed for co-creative engagement between women and men.

I’ve written quite a bit questioning why evolutionary integralists so often gravitate toward the common (read: stereotypical) usage of “masculine” and “feminine.” To me, dividing fundamental human attributes in two and giving half to women and half to men as polar opposites is a throwback to a much earlier time. To put it more precisely than Freud, this makes your genitalia your personality. The sex act itself becomes the determinant of one’s core self: active/agentic or passive/receptive. Hormones, neurology, and brain function are all brought in to lend an air of biological determinism to these stereotypes. Of course, there are profound historical reasons, based in the differences between women’s and men’s biological roles in reproduction, that lay the ground for differences between men and women. But at this point in time, among those of us aspiring integralists, the idea that these polarities should govern interactions between women and men is a form of retro-modernism rather than an integrative, integral perspective. Moreover, upholding this polarity as fundamental to who we are as men and women makes sex and sexual attraction the subtext for all of our interactions.

The essence of the masculine and feminine polarity, then, is attraction: opposites attract, so we say. Magnetic poles, electric current, the workings of the atom are all examples of the force of polarity. Breaking the bonds forged from the polarities between atomic particles creates a nuclear explosion. “Sexual attraction,” explains David Deida, “is based on sexual polarity, which is the force of passion that arcs between masculine and feminine poles.” Or as he continues, “you always attract your sexual reciprocal,” so that in sexual passion “you need a ravisher and a ravishee,” or what he sees as the masculine and the feminine. While Deida says that we can change our role as ravisher or ravishee every day if we choose, “most men and women also have a more masculine or more feminine core,” respectively. So, if the way that we tend to think about ourselves as women and men is that we possess relatively immutable interiors that are (or should be) feminine and masculine, then the undercurrent of communication will be this polarity of sexual attraction. Sexuality is the subtext.

This has serious implications for communication between women and men. In a chapter entitled “Women Are Not Liars,” Deida explains that, in emotional situations, women cannot be held accountable for the truth of what they say: “The ‘truth’ of the feminine is whatever she is really feeling, in this present moment.” (Italics in original.) Given that women are defined as emotional by nature, that is, according to the polarity in which rationality is masculine and emotionality is feminine, I would imagine that it’s difficult to know exactly where to draw the line in terms of when to take what a woman says seriously and when to just “listen to her as you would the ocean, or the wind in the leaves.” Deida gives men a helpful guideline to figure this out:

The basic rule is this: Don’t believe the literal content of what your woman says unless love is flowing deeply and fully in the moment when she says it. And even then, know that she is probably talking about her current feelings, not necessarily about the subject of whatever she is talking about. Never base your plans on what your woman says she wants to do, unless she is in the full flow of love when she says it. And then, expect her to change her mind at any time when her feelings change.

The gist is that a man should never trust what “his” woman says, because it is only true as long as she feels it. He advises men to listen deeply (hearing her words like the babbling of a brook?) and try to distinguish between her “shifting moods [which can be discounted] and her sensitive wisdom,” which he never explains. Throughout the book, Deida explains that women’s moodiness or bitchiness is usually a signal to the man that she needs to experience his presence and strength or, in other words, he should schtupp her immediately—on the kitchen table, on the floor, take her down wherever she was standing. This is called “f***ing her open to God.” Deida’s roots in the Pick Up Artist community are showing: the subtext is conquest, constant conquest even in the context of a committed relationship. Apparently, real communication between men and women is basically a process of reinterpreting verbiage as a desire for submission—because women don’t mean what they say anyway and what’s really going on is getting it on with each other.

Putting aside the “date rape” overtones of Deida’s advice to men, the most damaging part to me is the view that one cannot expect rationality or accountability from women. The identification of the feminine, or women, with feeling and the non-rational raises questions for me about communication between the sexes. In Deida’s assumption that women in intimate settings should not be taken at their word, the interpretation of what women actually mean is left to the man. The woman is left wordless. I don’t doubt that many women struggle to articulate their experience and desires in relationship, particularly if men choose, as Deida suggests, to engage with women who are their “complementary opposite.” If an older, mature man then selects a woman who is younger and less developed, then being a superior man, or at least a man who is superior to “his” woman, is fairly guaranteed. Admittedly, too, women’s historical role in the emotional give-and-take of caretaking and lack of engagement with intellectual life has had an impact on contemporary women’s sense of being female. At the same time, men’s historical absence from the domestic space of care has left many nearly tone-deaf to the music of emotional intimacy. But not expecting women to say what they mean and mean what they say places women outside the expectations for adult discourse. It turns women into children.

The laundry list of opposites that are contained in the supposed masculine-feminine polarity—reason vs. emotion, active vs. passive, agentic vs. receptive—have a dangerous subtext of adult vs. child. We expect children to be emotionally driven (and later to develop reasoning capacities), to be passive and directed by their parents and teachers, and to receive guidance so that they can develop into independent agents who direct their own lives. In Deida’s polarity, women stay as children, whose spunk and wildness (read: childlikeness) drive his “newly evolving man” wild.

This is nothing but retromodernism. Modernity divided society into the masculine public sphere and the feminine private sphere, each inhabited by “opposites.” The gulf between these two polar opposites was as unbridgeable as the superiority of the masculine over the feminine was undeniable. The effect was disrespect. Men could have sympathy and protective feelings for their womenfolk, but not the kind of respect one reserves for an equal. But likewise, men’s unavailability and cluelessness about the delicate nature of relationship led to women feeling emotionally superior to men. Polarity is not partnership. Opposites attract, yes, but in a context in which the dynamic of dominance and subordination sparks passion. In such a social space, the subtext is always sexual, and men and women come from, and end up on, different planets.

Ultimately, communication between women and men who are embodying this opposition ends up being merely superficial. Even though these are deep grooves in our culture and consciousness, this opposition is not an expression of the depth of who we are. Deeper than our personality, sexuality or cultural role is our shared humanity—the truth that the entire range of qualities and capacities that have been divided by gender are all aspects of our selves. From the unity of the being that we share, and each accountable for the complexity of making meaning from our experience, a new capacity for communication can become possible between men and women. No longer opposites, the creative work of embracing and integrating differences reveals a new potential for being human together.

I wrote this piece for EnlightenNext Impuls Magazine (a German-language publication) for Issue 9 in 2013. We are now publishing a new quarterly magazine, in German, called evolve. I write a feature on gender in each issue.




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