• Andrew Sweeny

Digital Patriarchy?

Updated: Dec 20, 2020


The word patriarchy has come to mean an oppressive power structure run by men and the systematic abuse and exclusion of women. It describes the ignoble sins of men throughout history and the plight of women who have always been victims of men; patriarchy is a word synonymous with ‘injustice’ and seen exclusively through a social justice lense. Of course, beyond the historical exclusion of women in public life, even today women who are rape victims are stoned to death for adultery or burned alive as witches for possessing an ‘evil eye’. In the face of such past and present horrors it is hard to argue with the evils of tyrannical patriarchy. The historical and present mistreatment of women does not need to be enumerated: it is now quite obvious to most sensitive and educated people.


However, what is not obvious to the modern mind is the potential virtue of a noble, even a virtuous patriarchy. (Note: when I say ‘noble’ I am not referring to class nobility, but rather the noble qualities of character and leadership.) What if patriarchy is not essentially evil? Patriarchy literally means ‘the rule of the father’, which doesn’t necessarily discount ‘the rule of the mother’ or an equally powerful matriarchy. Throughout history there have always been men who ruled through self sacrifice, wisdom, and dedication to the protection and advancement of women. And certainly there have always been women leaders—even if the matriarchs were not always present in the public sphere and are absent from our history books.


Of course, while we justly cherish the equality of the sexes, let us stop pretending that ‘equality of outcome’ of the sexes were possible or desirable or anything else but a totalitarian concept. Women and men should be allowed to occupy different realms through their own choice, cultural history, and biological imperative. Women today, for example, on average, are more interested in being doctors and lawyers than engineers or policemen—even if progress has allowed for both sexes to freely choose to be present in both realms. We should celebrate such freedom of choice, even if it means men will continue to dominate the tech world and women the caring professions. Let us celebrate our differences rather than try to create a bland society of sameness.


Describing the history of humanity exclusively through the lenses of male domination and exploitation of women, is reductive to say the least. Furthermore, today many women, some of whom describe themselves as feminists, do not want to be regarded as mere victims of men. Victimology is a modern obsession that has gone beyond compassion for the victim: it has become a form of scapegoating against men who are considered essentially toxic. This kind of misandry (a word that means hatred of men) is not the answer to misogyny nor is a zero-sum ‘culture war’ between men and women. Traditionally, men and women were not supposed to be ‘equal’ but complimentary. Our differences are both determined by biology, history and also our own free choices. ‘Equality of outcome’ is a mathematical concept that exists nowhere in nature except perhaps in death.




The Hidden Matriarch

Aboriginal writer Tyson Yunkaporta has pointed out in his book Sand Talk that there has never been such a thing as a real political matriarchy at a large scale. This doesn’t mean that there haven't been powerful female matriarchs and queens—women were traditionally and still are still so often ‘the power behind the throne’—equally as powerful as men behind the scenes. And there is some evidence that there were plenty of women warriors and hunters in primitive societies, so perhaps we should not be too categorical in our descriptions of the sexes. At the same time, until recent history it was men who died in battle, created democracy and philosophy, built skyscrapers in Capitalist America, and invented the birth control pill and washing machine to help liberate women from domestic drudgery. Men are no smarter, no wiser, no better than women. We are just different in so many ways. For one thing, we have a penis and a higher level of testosterone, which makes us volatile, prone to physical violence, and horny as hell much of the time; women’s bodies are flooded with calming oestrogen. Men have less flexibility in their bodies but more upper body strength; they like to roughhouse and strategise and spend time in the wilderness; women have greater verbal intelligence and social skills. Men do dangerous manual jobs and plan cities; women give birth to and educate young children. Men get violent and engage in antisocial behavior and end up in prison; women destroy lives through hyper-social gossip and reputation destruction. A man strategises in the boardroom; a woman keeps the community in line through the sacred power of her gossip.


Of course, we are talking about the average man and woman here, not the exception. Yunkaporta tells us that in some communities in Australia the men are quite gentle and passive and the women love street fighting. These aboriginal men and women do not relate to the stereotype of the male breadwinner and the female housewife of the typical 1950’s nuclear family. And rural women are used to shouting, working the land, and are tough as hell—the African and Slavic traditional women I know do not consider themselves to be fragile flowers or victims but powerful beings to be feared. The point is: there are different kinds of patriarchal and matriarchal power.




The Digital Patriarchy?

In the recent and novel experiment of modernity—a tiny blip in the long history of mankind—men and women are now supposed to do the same things, want the same things, and be the same ‘things’ as men. Patriarchy therefore is something to ‘smash’ in the name of egalitarianism, and matriarchy is considered an ultimate good. Many considered this to be the dawning of a matriarchal age.


Since the start of the pandemic, Elon Musk’s wealth has increased by $118.5 billion, Jeff Bezos’ wealth has increased by $71.4 billion, Bill Gates’ wealth has increased by $20.7 billion. It is therefore not surprising that there is a certain resentment against the so-called patriarchy. And despite the occasional powerhouse woman, the richest barons in the tech world still are all men. And not all of them are particularly ‘noble’, let alone ‘virtuous’ patriarchs. Would you call Mark Zukkeberg a noble Patriarch? The tech leaders in Silicon Valley appear incredibly boyish!


Although Google and other companies preach equal outcomes for women, this is still more ideological than real, and profit seems to be the primary concern. While tech giants champion women's rights and fire employees for even suggesting that there are differences between men and women (see the case of James Damore at Google) men still continue to dominate. Certainly they are right to encourage women and discourage any systematic disadvantage to women. However, should men and women not be chosen for their competence and choices rather than their sex? There is a reverse sexism and performative contraction at work: a schizophrenia split between ideology and biology, between what we think should be the case and our social reality.


By and large men still rule the world of tech. However we might ask ourselves: where are the virtuous and noble patriarchs (as opposed to the evil patriarchs or boy pharos) in tech, in the biggest and most lucrative industries in the world? The recent film ‘The Social Dilemma’ may give us a way forward. It describes many of the high performance engineers, marketers, and creators of social media platforms now taking an ethical stand against its abuses and trying to redesign tech to be more synonymous with human dignity. Perhaps the guys in tech who are standing up against tyranny are the real noble patriarchs. Perhaps the definition of a noble patriarch should be: a person of dignity and ethics who cannot be swayed by easy money. This kind of masculinity is not fundamentally toxic. It is a dignified and heroic disposition.


The patriarch was historically a religious figure, someone in charge of the ethics of a community. The examples that come to mind are the Patriarchs in the Christian Orthodox tradition, The Zen Patriarchs in the east, and Rabbi’s in the Jewish tradition—wise and compassionate men. These men were not tyrants but ethical models for the whole community—noble beings who had proved their spiritual and ethical worth through mastering the tradition and being exemplars of that tradition. This is in contrast to the soft gangsterism Hollywood and Silicon Valley, which has been both extremely creative and profoundly exploitative. What if there were real ethical and spiritual leaders in the tech world? Could we then call them digital patriarchs?


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12th - 15th September 2019

Mariager, Denmark