Confusing Patriarchy: How “Patriarchy” has Two Wholly Different Meanings With Radically Different Implications (A Cultural Maturity Thought Experiment)

The word “patriarchy” today is often thrown around as if both its meaning and it implications are obvious. In fact the word has multiple meanings, and depending on which meaning we choose, the implications could not be more different. With one meaning, getting beyond it makes an excellent way of describing the essential “growing up” as a species that Creative Systems Theory argues will be essential to any kind of future we will want to live in (what the theory calls Cultural Maturity). With the other, the result is ideological conclusions that at best undermine real advancement, at worst risk real harm. I address this essential difference in depth in my book On the Evolution of Intimacy. 

I will start with the second, more ideological meaning as it tends to be the most familiar. It is referenced today with growing frequency particularly in gender-related conversations, but also more broadly as social/political thinking becomes increasingly polarized. With gender-related conversations, patriarchy in this sense tends to refer simply to dominance by men. Wikipedia quotes sociologist Sylvia Walby in defining Patriarchy as “a systemic social structures in which men dominate, oppress, and exploit women.” Wikipedia then goes on to observe that “social stratification along genders lines in which power is predominantly held by men has been observed by most societies.” In the world of gender politics, this way of thinking commonly frames women as the victims of men. With broader social/political thinking, the term patriarchy tends to be used to refer more generally to perceived oppression of the disadvantaged by elites, particularly in more liberal/progressive/populist circles. 

While this definition can alert us to many real instances of victimization, it has major problems. At the least it misrepresents history. Depending on the sphere of activity, in fact it may be men or women who historically have been most apt to have the last word (men more in the world of work, women more with relationships and life within the home). And as I describe in the book, just how this has played out has often been very different at different historical times and places. 

But more ultimately important, as we look to the future, this way of defining patriarchy commonly results in simple-minded, ideological conclusions that get in the way of effectively going forward. In On the Evolution of Intimacy, I note how one result of today’s new gender-related conversations could be better communication and greater mutual understanding between men and women. We could see an important reconciling of the historical battle of the sexes. But just as easily we could also see increased polarization like we find in so many spheres today and an exacerbation of the historical battle of the sexes. Limited to this more ideological way of thinking, it is hard to imagine greater mutual understanding being the result. 

The book describes how our times present essential challenges to both men and women. And it emphasizes that needed changes are deep and fundamental—all the way around. It includes a list of “important lessons of men” and also a list (that is just as long) of “important lessons for women.” If we define patriarchy only in terms of male dominance—or worse, only in terms of oppression by men—at the least we fail to appreciate what men bring to the table. Worse, we end up making men the problem to be solved. 

The first, more useful application of the term patriarchy, is wholly different To fully grasp it, we need to think about history, and understanding in general, more systemically. Here the emphasis is not on gender—on men versus women—but on what psychologist’s often speak of as “gender archetypes”—archetypally masculine and archetypally feminine qualities.  

The archetypally masculine and archetypally feminine are aspects of psychological functioning possessed by both men and women. Archetypally masculine qualities are of the “harder” sort, qualities like assertiveness and expressiveness. Often we associate them with the more analytic aspects of intelligence. Archetypally feminine qualities are of the “softer” sort. Here being nurturant or receptive might most stand out. Often we associative such qualities with the more subjective or emotional aspects of intelligence. Depending on a person’s temperament, a man can embody more of the archetypally feminine that the average woman, or the reverse. (I would be no match for Rhonda Rousey in a fight, nor Nancy Pelosi in a debate.)  

The comparative influence of archetypally masculine and archetypally feminine qualities has evolved over the course of culture’s evolution. Understanding just how it has provides a definition of patriarchy that can serve us powerfully as we look to the future. 

In our tribal beginnings, the archetypally feminine had very much the larger influence. Then identity and meaning were defined ultimately by our connectedness in tribe and nature. Later, with the rise of the early high cultures such as ancient Egypt or classical Greece, we witnessed greater visibility for the archetypally masculine with the ascendency of pantheons of gods. But even then, while more elevated symbolism gave the masculine new importance, mystery’s depths retained the ultimately greater power. With the next stage, that seen with the European Middle Ages and in much of the Middle East today, the archetypally masculine and the archetypally feminine first came to have more equal influence. Identity and meaning then took expression in isometric tensions between polar opposites—crown and church, serfs and peasants, order and mysticism. With culture’s Modern Age—the last 400 years in the West—the archetypally masculine came to assume the greater significance with the archetypally feminine taking a second role, often then being regarded at little more than decoration. The objective came to rule over the subjective, individuality and competitive came increasingly to define our actions, and material values more and more prevailed. In the later parts of this most recent stage, as Industrial age sensibilities have given way today’s Age of Information, this archetypally masculine preeminence has often become, in effect, all that remains.  

In our time, we tend to think of modern age values, institutions, and ways of thinking as ideals and end points, at best needing some refinement.  Creative Systems Theory, the body of work that serves as the foundation for my efforts, challenges this assumption. It makes the radical assertion that modern age beliefs represent only one chapter in culture’s evolutionary story. It also makes clear that if we can’t move beyond them, we are in deep trouble. The needed further chapter in culture’s story is the necessary “growing up” that CST describes with the concept of Cultural Maturity. 

Cultural Maturity is appropriately a controversial notion, but examined at all closely it becomes hard to refute. It can be understood to follow directly from what is required if we are to proceed in any healthy way beyond the developmental trajectory just noted. (CST uses the phrase “Dilemma of Trajectory” to describe the apparent dead-end consequences of what I have observed.) We find further evidence in how Cultural Maturity’s changes becomes necessary if the skills and capacities needed to address the most essential challenges ahead for us as a species are to be understood, much less realized. 

The importance of the concept of Cultural Maturity comes into particularly high relief with the recognition that the result is not just different kinds ideas, but fundamentally new ways of thinking, specific cognitive changes (what CST calls Integrative Meta-perspective). One result has direct implications for how we view the archetypally masculine and the archetypally feminine and also for patriarchy in it more systemic definition.   Nothing more defines the essential next cultural chapter than how we understand becomes more specifically integrative—systemic and complete. 

Culturally mature perspective reveals the archetypally masculine and the archetypally feminine to be equally important and ultimately complementary in their functions. In the process it directly brings into question any belief system that would seem ally with one at the expense of the other. In so doing, it specifically challenges the way in modern times we have in effect equated the archetypally masculine with truth.

In taking us beyond patriarchy in this sense of archetypally masculine preeminence, culturally mature understanding brings essential perspective to contemporary gender-related conversations like those stimulated by the #MeToo movement. It very much applauds the emphasis they bring to the importance of equal rights, equal opportunity, and equal safety. But it also makes clear that as yet, only rarely do these conversations have much to do with Cultural Maturity. Rather, even at their best, they reflect concluding accomplishments of the modern age project that gave us the Bill or Rights and emancipation-related movements that followed in the centuries since. 

Cultural Maturity’s more specifically integrative changes require essential further steps. These further steps radically alter the gender conversation. 

A key way that culturally mature perspective expands the conversation concerns how we tend to think about power. Women as well as men today tend to define power almost wholly in archetypally masculine terms. When women speak of empowerment, it is generally archetypally masculine power they refer to. Culturally mature perspective makes clear that power has equally important archetypally feminine and archetypally masculine aspects. It also makes clear that any kind of future we would want to live in honors both kinds of power. 

Today, society as a whole lacks any depth of connection with the archetypally feminine. This observation applies to women as well as men. The most common links most people have with the archetypally feminine in our time are tied to superficial acts of consumption. In the book I quip—only partly in jest—that the only remnants of the primordial receptive that remain for most people are shopping, eating (often to the point of obesity), and social media. In the end, transcending patriarchy in a mature, systemic sense presents the same challenge for everyone, regardless of their gender identification.  

We recognize a particularly concerning aspect of the more ideological way of applying the word patriarchy if we expand our vantage to include socio-political concerns more broadly. There when people speak out against patriarchy they are most often advocating for an extreme, progressive/populist agenda. I’ve written extensively about how ideology of this sort, while its advocates are often well-intended, not only fail to get us where we need to go, it specifically undermines the more mature kind of understanding needed to take us forward. (See in particular my earlier book Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future.) In fact, extreme progressive/populist ideologies tend to undermine themselves. In being anti-patriarchal, they tend also to be anti-authoritarian. As a result, with time they undermine their own authority. 

Of greater ultimate consequence, they are also vulnerable to producing a more specifically destructive kind of anti-authoritarianism. They can undermine authority in ways that not only destabilize social structures, but that end up producing results that would seem almost the opposite of what its advocates might appear to desire. It is a common recognition among those like myself who work in the psychological sphere that people who view themselves as victims can be some of the quickest to victimize. The Chinese Cultural Revolution was the result of extreme left-wing populist ideology. If we view patriarchy only as an evil to defeated, our ideological purities can easily produce this kind of tragic result. 

If the word “patriarchy” is to serve us, we must first clearly distinguish between gender and gender archetype (and appreciate how it is gender archetype that must be our concern).  We need also to appreciate how our relationship between archetypal qualities is not fixed, but has evolved over time, and necessarily continues to evolve. Understood in relation to the further evolution needed in our time toward a more conscious and integrated picture, the idea that our times challenge us to move beyond patriarchy provides a useful way to describe the essential “growing up” as as a species on which our future depends.