All is gender in peace and war

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An Ipsos Reid poll indicates that a majority of Canadians are on the same wavelength as Stephen Harper. Almost two thirds of us believe Israel’s military response to Hezbollah’s provocations is justified. In our attitudes to war, it seems ordinary Canadians march to the beat of a different drum than the one our cultural elites parade to, who prefer the famously neutral posture of former governments.

War is a lightning rod for passionate convictions. No sane person likes or wants war, but some of us tolerate its necessity more readily than others. Most of us see war through a gendered lens: we are either masculinists or feminists. By “masculinist” I don’t mean war-mongers and by “feminist” I don’t mean women’s rights activists. The difference between the two instincts lies in respective perceptions of the utility—or futility—of war in resolving international problems. When it comes to war, masculinism and feminism are impulses that speak more to personality, temperament and internalized values than to political affinities or ideology.

The word “gender” rather than “sex” means men can be feminists and women can be masculinists. Political labels are sometimes a clue, sometimes not. On the predictable side: Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Condoleezza Rice: masculinists. Jacques Chirac, John Kerry, Paul Martin, former and present NDP leaders Alexa McDonough and Jack Layton: feminists.

Unpredictable masculinists: Tony Blair, Christopher Hitchens, Hillary Clinton. Uber-peacenik and loyal leftist Amos Oz, who helped found the Peace Now movement in Israel, was a lifelong feminist, but Hezbollah finally converted him to masculinism; Sunera Thobani, former president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, is a militant ideological feminist, but seems to sympathize with wars waged against America and Israel, so she is a selective masculinist; the recently publicized Euston Manifesto, surprisingly linked to some Women’s Rights groups, is signed by prominent international leftists who support war in the cause of democracy, and the Iraq War in particular.

Masculinists tend to accept war as acceptable under certain conditions, distinguishing between just and unjust wars. They are interested in the history, however complex, that produced the conflict, and the projected future consequences of war. Masculinists view the build-up of great military strength as a prudent course of action in the national interest, a force than can be used for good or evil. They also believe that the sacrifices incurred in just wars are balanced by the positive changes they effect on history.

Like pacifists, feminists see war as an absolute evil, but unlike pacifists, who refuse to fight under any circumstances, they make exceptions for self-defence (a source of internal conflict in this war for feminists, evidenced in Jack Layton’s paradoxical support for Israel’s motives, then call for an immediate ceasefire). What masculinists call appeasement, feminists call compromise. What masculinists call moral equivalence, feminists call neutrality.

The great divide between masculinists and feminists lies between their differing moral hierarchies. Both masculinists and feminists tend to see the world in Manichean terms of light and darkness. For masculinists the West upholds the light. Those who support democracy and freedom are right, those who support totalitarian and now terrorist regimes are wrong. The survival and security of free (good) nations are their highest values, and war, including innocent casualties, is sometimes perceived as the only way to achieve them. It follows that reason, which distinguishes between good causes and bad, courage, which enforces the triumph of good over evil, and patriotism, the outward symbol of a willingness to sacrifice for the values the good side represents, are paramount virtues to masculinists.

The feminists’ dualism in this era is less concerned with national borders. It devolves around the powerful of the world and the powerless. The wish to acquire superior power is perceived as an inherently aggressive and imperialistic impulse. Any violence initiated by the powerful is therefore always wrong, while the powerless are, by virtue of their comparative weakness—even when they inflict a certain degree of violence on the powerful—usually perceived as morally right. For feminists avoidance of pain amongst the powerless is the highest value. Therefore sensitivity to human suffering, wherever it is happening, compassion for innocent victims of war, whatever their ideology, and “speaking truth to (western) power,” perceived as a lack of patriotism by masculinists, are the highest virtues.

The feminist school of thought on war in our era is best summed up by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd who recently declared, “The moral authority of parents who bury children in Iraq is absolute.” The masculinist school of thought is contained in the old adage, “If you want peace, prepare for war.”

You know what sex you are. When it comes to war, what is your gender?

Latest posts by Barbara Kay (see all)

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