On patriarchy

by The Editor

SERIES: The Thing About is a weekly Business Day column designed to discuss democratic ideas, ideals, values and principles from a liberal perspective. Today, a look at the relationship between patriarchy and dignity. Why is it that a patriarch will so easily feel their dignity has been impugned? The answer has to do with the assumption that they bear no responsibility for upholding it in the first place.

On patriarchy

By: Gareth van Onselen

19 June 2012

Inherent to a patriarchy, like a matriarchy, are a series of assumptions about how that society should function. Many of these are explicit and easily contested but some are subtle, inferred or suggested, and thus far more difficult to counter; far more pervasive too.

One such thing is the relationship between patriarchy and dignity.

A patriarch struggles to distinguish between their own sense of self worth and their status as it exists in the eyes of others. Because their standing is founded in large part upon some genetic attribute, as opposed to their ability or skill, with that comes the automatic assumption their position enjoys and engenders respect, on nothing more than the basis they represent something inherently superior.

The result of this is a disjuncture, between their behaviour and its reception. A patriarch will naturally assume respect for their actions and be perplexed – even bewildered – when their attitude causes discontent. ‘How can that be’, they ask, ‘I occupy a position which is inherently admired’?

For those onlookers who think in patriarchal terms, this might well be true. Likewise, it is unlikely they will ever complain – something which has its own detrimental consequences. But for those who believe one’s behaviour speaks for itself, that assumption is neither here nor there; for them the nature of a decision rather than the status of its architect will determine their response to it.

And so a patriarch will be dismayed at any resultant criticism, and feel their dignity impugned; in response – advocate for greater control over those things that might facilitate any such dissatisfaction. In their mind, they bear no responsibility for upholding their own dignity – it is predetermined and their behaviour housed in this invisible shield.

That, however, is a profoundly anti-democratic notion: the choices one makes are basis on which a reputation should be endorsed or discredited. In turn, it encourages despotism; for if a reputation is set in stone, what does it matter how one behaves?

An abbreviated version of this column first appeared in the Business Day. For more columns from The Thing About series, click here.

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