Q&A: How Do We Smash the Patriarchy? 🔨

I talk to Brian Stout, founder of Building Belonging, about the role men can play in taking down the unseen, male-centric system that harms us all.

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Brian Stout is the initiator of Building Belonging, a global collaborative of practitioners committed to building a world where everyone belongs. The collaborative organizes around this inquiry: “how can we create an ‘us’ without a ‘them?’” 

I originally came across Brian through his newsletter, where he explores themes related to belonging. His three-part series, “Why does patriarchy persist?” draws from revolutionary writers like bell hooks and Carol Gilligan and is one of the best deep dives I’ve seen on the topic. 

Don’t worry if you’re a little foggy on the concept. Brain points out there is no “standard definition” for the patriarchy, in part, because the system has done an excellent job at remaining invisible to most. But he does point out three key features that I think serve as an essential preamble to our conversation.

  • Patriarchy is the institutionalized political-social system of male dominance.

  • Patriarchy is an ideology: it presents itself as natural and therefore immutable; a logical hierarchy of power and order.

  • Patriarchy has no gender: we are all complicit in upholding the system.

With that, my conversation with Brian Stout.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity).

When did you first become aware of the power you hold as someone that benefits from patriarchy?

I grew up in Ashland, Oregon, a small hippie/gay/theater/college town. It was pretty racially homogenous growing up; like Oregon generally, mostly white. I am the second of four kids and was very much the middle child. But I was also the tallest kid in my class and had many of the markers of masculinity that our society recognizes. Sports came easily to me. Academics came easily to me. I was tall. And so I learned very early that I had power and didn’t know what to do with that fact. 

I remember this experiment I did in first grade to test this experience as I became conscious of it. After recess one day, I came in and sat down in my spot and, within a minute, the whole class was sitting down. I was surprised, and the teacher even remarked, “wow, you all have never been so quiet so fast.” The next day, I was loud and slow to come into the room and put my stuff away… and the whole class followed suit - disruptive, slow to settle. The teacher actually had to call me out by name — “Hey Brian, take your seat,” and I remember realizing: “whether I choose it or not, people will follow my lead.” Obviously, at age six, I didn’t connect this to patriarchy, but the recognition that I held some form of power came early.

You mention that one of the reasons patriarchy is so challenging to analyze and discuss the concept of patriarchy is that it’s like the “water we swim in.” For those who haven’t read your excellent three-part article, can you elaborate on that idea?

Most of us probably never seriously considered it until recent years: never read an article about it, seen a movie about it… but we know intimately how it influences our life. Instead of talking about “patriarchy,” we talk about “that’s just the way it is.” 

I notice this all the time trying to explain things to my children (3 and 5). Why do we have boys and girls soccer teams at age 5? Why do we have different bathrooms for girls and boys?  Why are there “girls’ shoes” and “boys’ shoes”? Can a man wear a dress?

The unwritten rules that explain those social norms… that’s patriarchy. We’ve come to understand sexism (prejudice against women) and recently are learning about misogyny (hatred or anger toward women)... but we haven’t really looked at where this comes from. Patriarchy is the system that creates sexism and misogyny… but it’s so much harder to see because it’s baked into everything we do.

You offered a critical preface at the beginning of your series: “I feel a need — as a cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied white American man with class privilege — to justify why I’m writing this.” I feel that the same preface belongs here. You and I both receive outsized benefits from the patriarchal system. Is the conversation that we are having a helpful one? OR...because the system disproportionately oppresses female-identified or non-binary people, are we at risk of being two dudes mansplaining the patriarchy to each other? 

Part of the reason that I wrote the series was precisely the fact that it seemed counterintuitive. The fact that we think that's weird for someone like me to do that is part of the problem. If we understood patriarchy for what it is and what it does, it would be no surprise why a man is writing this because patriarchy puts us in prison, too… albeit in a different way than it harms women or non-binary folks. There’s no question that patriarchy differentially privileges masculine-identified people because it sets up a domination system where masculine is better than feminine, then attaches masculine to male and feminine to female. That said, everyone's trapped in this hierarchy, even men. Beyond the fact that our success or privilege depends on others’ suffering, sitting atop that domination paradigm is an uncomfortable place to be. I sometimes analogize it to purgatory: definitely better than hell, but a far cry from heaven. I think our language of privilege sometimes does a disservice to our aspirations for solidarity and liberation: we wouldn’t call someone in purgatory privileged… it uses the wrong referent point. By keeping our gaze (those of us in positions of relative privilege) focused on how far we might fall, we never think to look up at how much we all have to gain.

If you are in this work because you want to help people who are worse off than you, that's great, but ultimately it's not good enough: the best you can do is help others up to purgatory. There's this great quote from Lilla Watson, an indigenous activist from Australia. She says, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Your “liberation” is your stake in this game. I don't do this work because of anybody else. Though, of course, other people deeply matter to me. But it's my own liberation that I'm seeking. And I think that’s the reason we have not only the right but also the responsibility to have this conversation.

Let me offer some more background around where that question comes from. What you described is more or less why I started doing this work (i.e., my own liberation), particularly in the realm of emotion and vulnerability. But I sometimes worry that might be too self-interested or, worse, quickly turn into virtue signaling. In other words, as someone that benefits from the system, becoming a mouthpiece for changing the system can become a way to stay at the top of whatever new system forms (i.e., let me hold my place on top of the food chain by looking smart). Does that make sense?

Yeah, it does. And I think it's a tension that we have to hold. What is the difference between virtue signaling and an authentic embodied sentiment? I think that there are two aspects to that. The first: Are you walking the talk? Are you showing up or just tweeting about it? I should note that I think that it’s ok to express a sentiment that's not yet acted upon in some cases. Part of transformation is closing the gap between our actual selves and our aspired selves. But what makes it not about virtue signaling is that you are actually doing it. The second is that I don't think it's enough to just do and not talk because there is a value to signaling. I think we look to others to decide how we should act, and it's essential to stand up. The fact that you have a newsletter with appropriate humility around this topic is a valuable thing. Part of what makes it so hard to talk about the space is there isn't anybody there. It’s not about being a mouthpiece: it’s about authentically embodying your aspirations and sharing vulnerably about your own journey.

Thank you! That was cathartic for me. This is something I think about often, that is, how do you walk the talk and not just sort of skirt around the edges. To the point of walking to talk, what should the everyday guy who wants to begin to grapple with patriarchy and its negative impacts be doing on a regular basis?

I think men are deeply aware of how patriarchy harms us. However, we don't feel like we have permission to acknowledge it. Or we don't feel safe acknowledging it. For example, if you were to be in a multi-gender setting and complain about how patriarchy harms you as a man, you would feel a need to caveat by saying, “well, it's not as bad for me as for women and non-binary folks.” Basically, you wouldn't be able to fully own patriarchy’s harmful effects on you for fear of how we land with others. And while that's a good instinct, it prevents you from actually acknowledging the harm that you actually feel. 

Patriarchy prevents us from being fully seen and loved as whole humans. So, we can start by asking where we do not currently feel fully seen and loved. I suspect that, for most of us, it’s in our most intimate relationships. So think about the people you love most and ask, “what's holding me back? What would it look like to have the kind of relationship I aspire to?” 

To make that more concrete, I’d offer the Seven Verbs concept from the sex therapist, Ester Perel. She says there are seven verbs that shape the way your love: to ask, to give, to receive, to take, to play or imagine, to share, and to refuse. So I invite men to ask themselves, “from that list, what's easy and what's hard?” Then sit with that. I think for most men, especially heterosexual men socialized in America, it’s really hard ‘to ask.’ Asking for help, in particular, is really difficult because we've been taught not to need that. Conversely, I also think it's tough ‘to receive’ because, for those of us who've been conditioned to believe that we have it easier than other people, receiving a gift from someone who you believe to be more disadvantaged than you can feel hard to do. It feels extractive. So anyway, I think there's a lot in just that simple exercise that can help point to the parts of yourself that you want to reclaim.

In the three-part series, you often quote bell hooks’s book The Will To Change. Can you tell me a bit of how her work has impacted you personally? 

I had no relationship with patriarchy as a concept until I read her book. And it just blew me away, like absolutely floored me. What made it so powerful is that I am a straight, white man, and she is a queer, black woman, and, although we move through the world with opposite identities, she gave me the language to describe my experience. I recognized everything she said as a thought that I had never fully embraced because I didn’t think I had a right to. I’ve been told this land was built for me. So any dissatisfaction that I have with this society felt somehow unreal or ungrounded. But I'm unhappy in this world. I want out of it. I want a different world, and I've been working my whole life trying to find different ways of being. After reading her, I was like, “oh...the thing she's describing is exactly what I feel. I'm not crazy.” It's hard to overstate how transformative that was for me.

(for those who aren’t big on reading, check out the documentary, The Mask You Live In)

No small question, but anything else you want to add on what we can all do to transcend the patriarchy?

For me, this about going where you feel called. But there are different ways you can be part of the solution. One of them is moving beyond the gender binary. And there are lots of ways you can practice this, especially if you're a parent. Don't gender your kids until you have to, or only do so when it's relevant. For example, I do my best to talk about my “kids” rather than my “daughters” because the fact that they are girls is not actually relevant to much at this point (or at least, it shouldn’t be).

Another really interesting one is the art of the apology. Generally speaking, men are not taught to be accountable for or to own up to their mistakes. Just look at our national politicians, and you can see we don’t have good role models. So if you're sitting here right now reading this, think about someone to whom you want to apologize. I’ve found Mia Mingus’s “The Four Parts of Accountability” a really helpful guide in thinking about how to repair my own relationships (and let me be clear: it’s super hard! And super gratifying).

The other thing I'd say is men need to reconnect with their bodies. I listened to a podcast episode called “Fellas, What Makes You Feel Sexy?” And it occurred to me:  I have no idea! Here I am, 38 years old, married for 12 years, and I don't actually know when I feel sexy. Of course, I yearn deeply for intimacy, including sexual intimacy… and yet I’m actually illiterate when it comes to expressing that part of myself.  I believe reconnecting with our bodies and listening to what our bodies are telling us is, for men, actually a pretty radical act.

Self-reflection is also so important. I’ve found therapy incredibly helpful; I highly recommend it if you have access to it. But I also can’t overstate the importance of doing it together. Find a men's group or some kind of community because this work is so hard. It's swimming upstream and against your conditioning. But if you do it together, it's really powerful, fun, and awesome. It's so liberating to get a little bit better as a human every hour, every day, every week. I can see the results in my relationships. My relationship with my parents has never been better. My relationship with my wife is constantly improving. I’m a better dad. And so, while all this work is in service of dismantling a patriarchal system that sucks, it’s also making real change in my real life in real-time. 

Well, thank you. I think I’ll close things there. But I feel like we could keep going for hours. There are so many different corners to this topic, and I hope this will be one of multiple conversations. It’s daunting to think about the challenges we face. 

Well, if you solve it, shoot me a text.

Ha, yep, I’ll certainly let you know.

Department of Links

  • Introducing Deep Fix — My writing accountability buddy, Alex Olshonsky, just did an overhaul on his fantastic newsletter which explores personal growth, addiction, work, and philosophy. I give it three thumbs up and highly recommend you check it out — Deep Fix

  • What Does Masculinity Smell Like in 2021? — After a big push toward unisex scents, perfumers are bringing back male-focused scents. But given the myriad cultural conversations about masculinity, what should that smell like? — GQ

  • QAnon’s Unexpected Roots in New Age Spirituality — A fascinating dive into the ties between conspiracy theory junkies and new age masculinity — did you know that Jake Angeli (the QAnon “shaman”) “is deeply spiritual” and committed to ahimsa (the Jainist principle of non-harm)? Me neither — Washington Post

  • Tapping the Men’s Wellness Opportunity — Over the past 20 years, the “Wellness” space has been dominated by brands geared toward female consumers (think of all the brands with a Goop-like vibe). But that’s about to change as male-focused brands are increasingly getting in the game —Business of Fashion

  • Can All-Male Support Groups Save Men From Themselves? — I think that Men's Work is a force for helping guys discover new pathways into their emotional lives; however, within that space, there is a lot of misdirection, opportunism, & general weirdness to unpack. This piece does some great (and humorous) unpacking — Inside Hook

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