Saturday, 29 November 2008

It's only a game...

I have been having a bit of trouble writing this post. Something in a blog I was reading this morning seemed to me to sum up many of the problems I have with the use of the word "patriarchy". I get very frustrated by what I see as a very restrictive and partial - in both senses of that word - use of it by some writers. For some it is a good word to use to dismiss the opinions of those with whom they disagree- particularly if that person is a man. If she is woman then she can equally be dismissed as a tool or dupe of patriarchy. Many men also react defensively when the word is used, feeling - often accurately - that it is used personally against them. In both cases the word then serves to divide and close off communication.

Many people, therefore, have decided not to use it and I fully respect their reasoning. One word which has been suggested is "Kyriarchy" and i can see its advantages. For one thing, it is new and is therefore fairly devoid of the baggage of history. And it does not seem to be gendered. I have been tempted to use it.

After consideration, however, I have decided not to. And this is for reasons that are sort of encoded in the word. For, far from being ungendered it comes, as I understand it, from two greek words - kyrios, meaning "lord", and archein, meaning "to rule". Thus, what is happening is a movement up a level from "rule of the father" to "rule of the lord". (It is therefore, now I think about it, more accurate than patriarchy and this makes a powerful argument for its adoption. But, nevertheless, I will continue for a while to try to reclaim the word "patriarchy"). For I feel that at least there is a sort of understanding of what "patriarchy" means. And also because i feel it is important not to obscure the fact that the values that are dominant and celebrated are indeed those very ones that are associated with masculinity.

The particular thing that prompted this musing was coming across two posts in a blog. The first detailed the prolonged abuse of the writer from many men. The other celebrated her devotion to a particular football team. To me, there was a feeling of dissonance which was clearly absent from her experience. To her, a football match is a positive and life-affirming experience, whereas to me it is one of the principal tools in the construction of that model of masculinity and gender-based domination from which she had suffered so long.

I have no argument with children or consenting adults getting together of an afternoon to kick a ball about. That is their own business and I can see that they could get a lot of pleasure from it. What worries me is the central position competitive male team sports take in our culture. For it is essentially a violent activity in which a group of young men fight to gain dominance over another group of young men - watched and encouraged by thousands of others, mainly but not exclusively male, who vicariously partake of the battle. And this participation is not always entirely vicarious as many city centres have seen to their cost. And the off field violence is not, as many would allege, an aberration but is rather a result and extension of the violence intrinsic to the match itself.

Organised sport as we know it had its origins in the 18 and 19 centuries. In the early 19th century Wellington's remark that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton was an early recognition of the link between warfare and sport. By the time of the first world war the two were culturally deeply intertwined. As the carnage began, this poem by Henry Newbolt was both widely admired and reviled - expressing as it does the idea that sport prepares men for war.

There's a breathless hush in the Close to-night
Ten to make and the match to win
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play, and the last man in.
And it's not for the sake of a ribboned coat.
Or the selfish hope of a season's fame,
But his captain's hand on his shoulder smote
"Play up! Play up! And play the game!"

The sand of the desert is sodden red -
Red with the wreck of a square that broke
The gatling's jammed and the colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed its banks,
And England's far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks -
"Play up! Play up! And play the game!"

This is the word that year by year,
While in her place the school is set,
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
Bear through life like a torch in flame,
And falling fling to the host behind -
"Play up! Play up! And play the game!"


It was in this spirit that, in the first months of the war, young officers would advance on the enemy kicking a football. War was, to them, simply an extension of the team sports that had played a principal role in their education.

This particular naive and simplistic idea did not survive long in the trenches (or, more accurately, those who held it did not) but it was a major factor in recruitment. The totalitarian regimes of right and left that followed the war also saw the value of sport as a preparation for world dominance. This is because what team sports in particular do is to foster the notion of "them and us". The whole point of each ninety minute exercise is to establish physical dominance of one side over another. Once the normality and desirability of that ideal of dominance is established in people's minds it is then easy to manipulate to whatever "thems" or "us-es" are convenient.

I want here briefly to look at the behaviour of fans. It has been pointed out by those across the Atlantic that crowd violence is notably absent from US sport. It was also absent from football in the UK until the 1960s. The reason for this is, I believe, connected with Empire. Fans do not need to demonstrate their dominance3 in such a way when the world dominance of their group is a basic assumption. As Britain's imperial pretensions evaporated in the 50s and 60s, so rose the spectre of sport related violence. It will be interesting to see if, as the American Empire follows the inevitable road to collapse, the same phenomenon appears at their weekly celebrations of male dominance.

Now, football is not going to vanish overnight and neither, really, would I want it to. But to pretend that it is an unadulterated social good and that all children, however unwilling (as I was), should be coerced into it is both dishonest and dangerous. The ideal of masculinity that is upheld is not one generally noted for sensitivity and respect for women and other, perceived, "weaker" men. On the contrary, it is an ideal of contempt for the weak which is expressed in taunts and bullying. In fact, it fosters the attitude that sees the bodies of those perceived as weaker as fit for exploitation by virtue of that very weakness and the right of conquest.

Whatever you call it, patriarchy invades all aspects of our lives and of our consciousness. Despite what I have written, I still feel a surge of pride and pleasure when Wales beats England at Rugby. I doubt that this particular piece of hypocrisy will ever go away - it had its roots too deep in my history. And I know that other areas of my life are invaded by the dominant world religion of patriarchy (Here, again, I can see the value of "kyriarchy" but will keep patriarchy because of its direct links with the literal patriarchs such as Abraham). The mass promoted team sports act to validate male (mainly) aggression and are as much a product of patriarchal thought as prostitution and pornography. In fact, they are even more instrumental in its maintenance and continued survival. It is more than coincidence that the triumph of the sports culture and the rise of differing forms of social darwinism have occupied the same period of time.

4 comments:

Livia Indica said...

The first thing I thought of when I read this post was a line from the Radiohead tune "Bishop's Robes": children taught to kill
to tear themselves to bits
on playing fields

And while I, as a female, have no problem laying the ills of this world at the feet of the reigning patriarchy I see your point about it's overuse and misuse. I think I'll be a bit more careful in using it. Or at least I'll be more conscious of what it is I'm really saying.

Brian Charles said...

One of the major problems with the word "patriarchy" is, I think, that it conjures up images of an actual body that rules. And it is easy, when one looks around the world at all the male faces in positions of power, to believe that there is such a conspiratorial men's club - who meet together to plot how to maintain their power.

And, to a certain extent, this is in fact true. Politicians, princes, industrialists, economists and military leaders - almost exclusively male but now with a sprinkling of female faces - have regular private meetings in which decisions are made that have life and death consequences for all.

But these men are as much subject to the ideology as the rest of us. They know that their position on the tip of the pyramid is only maintained through violence, overt or covert, and they do not want to lose it and become as the rest of the planet. They are therefore compelled, through a desire to protect what they see as their own interests, to enact whatever measures are necessary to protect the integrity of the pyramid.

The challenge we face is to recognise the pyramid for what it is and to see that it is, in fact, completely insubstantial. It is like the Wizard of Oz, a vast confidence trick of smoke and mirrors- surviving on its ability to divide human beings one from another.

There is another way of being.

Paul said...

I well remember going through this conditioning as a child in an all boy's school. We were all placed into houses and taught to see boys in the other houses as competitors. Rugby was the big thing, no soccer that was not manly enough. I hated it all, having absolutely no desire to compete never mind win. Even then I knew there must be a better way.

When the others went for extra rugby on a Saturday I would head for the local library with my library tickets and those of both my parents and come home with a pile of books to read. I well remember the taunts of, "You should have been born a girl" as I headed off for a day's reading.

Patriarchy and power is all smoke and mirrors, it seems substantial but really isn't. In a real way it depends upon us all accepting the norm (en-bodied in religion) that we should spend our life separating sheep from goats. Rewarding some and punishing others. Accepting black and white views of the world, "We are at war with the axis of evil."

Refusing to separate sheep from goats is a crucial first step to sanity.

Brian Charles said...

Hi Paul

I went to six different grammar schools and in one we were taught soccer but the rest were rugby. My father was, additionally, a former player for Llanelli and a pre-war Welsh trialist who became life-president of our local club. So, for me as a boy, soccer was not only not manly enough it was also tainted with class and Englishness.

I can fully relate to the taunts you experienced - for me the words were "queer, sissy and artsy-fartsy".

I suppose it was then I decided to take up the cause of the goats.