The Happy Savages: Learning To Say No
Men have always made me uncomfortable, and I have always struggled to be at ease around them.
In my life, I have been heartened by the power of the gentle men – Gandhi, Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Dr. King, Pope Francis. there is something shocking and wonderfully stirring about them, but it is also true that they are quite rare, and their humane works and instincts are overwhelmed by the violence depravations and conquest the vast majority of men in power commit every day.
They are much admired in their lives, quickly forgotten in death. But the philosopher Rousseau wrote of the "happy savages," the men who had absolute freedom to live as they pleased and dominate the world for many thousands of years. Their genes seem to live on.
Just look at what passes for our own news any day.
Sigmund Freud and Erich Fromm, two of the great thinkers and analysts and philosophers of the 20th century, wrote often about the aggressiveness of man, and of their biological hostility to one another.
In a time when many people men are doomed to wage war, dominate one another and women, and perhaps destroy the planet, their studies seem especially relevant to me. I can hardly bear all the posturing and threatening and cruelty of men in our time.
In a recent writing class (all of the students are women) there was almost universal agreement among my students that no man can really understand what it is like to be a women in a world that men continue to dominate.
Everyone of them had an awful story to tell about what a man had done to them, or tried to do to them, from sexual assault to control to diminishment, trivialization and abuse.
I did not respond, but I wanted to tell them that many men suffer at the hands of men as well. I am one of them. I know many others. In fact, I think most men have also suffered at the hands of fellow men, it is just not much talked about, as men have failed to ever construct a genuine movement.
Freud believed that men are driven by two biologically driven impulses: the craving for sexual pleasure, and for destruction. The aim of his sexual desire, wrote Freud, is complete sexual freedom, that is, unlimited sexual access to all women that he might find desireable.
Freud maintained that primitive man never had to cope with the idea of "no," and there were, for most of human history, few or no restrictions to his sexual desires or drive for violence. "In fact," he wrote, primitive man knew nothing of any restrictions on his instincts.." Across the globe, men fight almost desperately to retain this freedom, they dismiss any real challenge as political correctness, a passing political fad.
In America, this intensifying conflict becomes more fraught and evident every day. in my mind, it is the true struggle of our times.
Modern man, argued Freud have been forced to exchange some of that freedom and happiness for a measure of security. But Freud believed that a basic and ingrained hostility still exists between men and other men.
I believe that is so, and I cite all of the evidence in my own life, and in the news every single day. This hostility is embedded deeply in our political and civic structures and in all of history. Generally, women do not start or fight wars or fill prisons to overflowing or commit genocide or kidnap and murder children.
Man's aggressiveness, wrote Freud, has two sources: one is the innate striving for destruction – he called it the death instinct and the other is the frustration of his instinctual desires, increasingly imposed on him by what we have come to call civilization. A minority of men sublimate their sexual desires and impulses to what is called brotherly live, but this remains, historically and now, a distinct minority.
Men, Fromm wrote, will always compete with and attack each other, if not for power and material things, then for sexual dominance. In recent years, men have had to deal with perhaps the greatest challenge yet to their aggressiveness, a global revolution of feminism.
When I watch the news, it is simple to see this intensifying conflict between men in power and women who are ascending in almost every political and cultural realm. Every day, I see photographs of men, and mostly white men, seeking to make decisions about and for women and even their most intimate experiences. The governing political ideology in America argues that government is too powerful and intrusive, yet again and again, it seeks almost irrationally to expand its power and control over women. If you read Freud and Fromm, it makes historical sense.
Apart from the political issues, the imagery and symbolism is overpowering sometimes, and the male instinct for conquest is, to me, inescapable.
I understand that it is difficult to be a women in a male-dominated world, but it is difficult for men like me as well. I am missing some of the genes that Freud writes about, although I do remember when I was a teenager in blooming puberty the concept of "no" was almost completely unknown to me. Still, I have never sought sexual freedom, have never dominated any woman, and have no conscious hostility to men. Mostly, I have feared them.
Perhaps because of my own difficulties, I have never really been easy around men, and most men have never been easy around me. Almost all of my painful and enduring – and sometimes brutal – struggles in life have come at the hands of men. Women are moving rapidly to seize power in politics, the law and medicine and while I doubt I will live to see them finally victorious – just consider the last election – I hope for my granddaughter's sake that they succeed.
Feminism has always made sense to me, violence and conflict never have. Freud has no explanation for me.
But the issue is important, because it has become clear to me that the very survival of the earth depends on it, and I want my daughter and granddaughter to live freely and in security. I owe them that much.