Essentialist annoyances

Message from the Amazon is a recent post by one of my favourite writers on corporate social responsibility, Christine Arena. It includes a summary of the ‘oil wars’ occurring at present around purported oil-reserves in the Amazon basin, the work of groups such as the Pachamama Alliance, and in particular the worldview of indigenous peoples such as the Achuar, Shuar and Kichwa:

The Achuar, Shuar, and Kichwa peoples have one thing that oil companies don’t: ancient wisdom. If effectively leveraged, it is hypothesized that such wisdom could translate to a groundswell of pubic support for the ‘save the rainforest’ cause. Ancient wisdom could potentially build bridges of mutual understanding between indigenous communities and mainstream Western culture. Ultimately, it could help win the ongoing “Amazon oil war” in a way that benefits all humanity.

The Achuar, Shuar, and Kichwa peoples have one thing that oil companies don’t: ancient wisdom. If effectively leveraged, it is hypothesized that such wisdom could translate to a groundswell of public support for the ‘save the rainforest’ cause. Ancient wisdom could potentially build bridges of mutual understanding between indigenous communities and mainstream Western culture. Ultimately, it could help win the ongoing “Amazon oil war” in a way that benefits all humanity.

With one key exception, I would agree entirely with the article. Its description of the Achuar worldview also aligns exactly with my own experience and understanding of the Australian aboriginal context and its concept of the Dreaming.  One of the most interesting points, for example, was about the Achuar’s view of the respective roles of men and women:

“Achuar women’s role is to say when,” says Lien. “They tell men when they’ve cut down enough trees, hunted enough animals, taken enough from the earth. And the men listen.”

To me that makes perfect sense – when it’s in balance. I’ve seen similar descriptions in other indigenous societies, such as the Plains Indians (Sioux et al, I think?) structures for dealing with major decisions: the male Elders (and only the men) discuss the issues, each from a single perspective, after which the Grandmothers (collectively, without discussion) make the decision – and their decision is final. But that’s where the exception comes, because Arena blows it completely here by adding the fatuous remark:

Imagine if Western women wielded that kind of power.

I’m sorry, but I get really annoyed at the underlying implications in that kind of comment, and the selective myopia that drives them. (Very much a ‘Green’ perspective, in Spiral Dynamics terms, rather than the ‘Yellow/Gold’ that’s actually needed here.) The point is that Western women already do wield that kind of power – and that’s exactly the problem, because at present they use that power just as irresponsibly as do Western men. If not more so…

For example, take a look at who really drives Western consumerism. Yes, no doubt at all that we could point a finger or two at ‘men and their toys’: but just note also which sex spends more of their time in the shopping-malls and flicking endlessly through the TV shopping-channels? It’s common to claim that men earn more than women (which in fact they generally don’t in Western societies, as is shown in any real like-with-like comparison), but rather more important is that fact that Western women spend far more than men – something like twice as much as men, in fact. (The huge transfer of wealth from men to women somewhere between earning and spending somehow fails to be noticed in most current feminist studies of economics… strange, that…) So who has the real purchasing power? – and the equally-real responsibilities that go with it? That’s a serious question, which needs a serious answer – which, rather noticeably, we don’t get in that quote above.

Now add into that mix the probable source of that fatuous comment, the all-too-convenient ‘essentialist’ myths that arose with the modern variants of feminism. All of these summarise to a single vain, vapid, self-serving, self-congratulatory assertion that women are somehow inherently ‘better’ and ‘wiser’ than men, that “men are the problem, women are the solution”. If we go further back, to a rather more honest and intellectually-rigorous period in feminist history, one of the main concerns of the 1848 Seneca Falls women’s convention was a demand for acknowledgement by all of each woman’s responsibility for her own life; yet present-day feminism seems far more concerned with evasion of any form of responsibility for women, instead seeking to offload all responsibility onto others via what one rather more aware feminist commentator (Naomi Wolf, I think?) described as “a religion of Other-blame”. And blame itself is a key form of social violence. If we want to resolve these serious world-level issues, we need to be a lot more honest than that.

The physics definition of ‘power’ is the ability to do work; most social definitions of ‘power’ – including those of most modern feminism – are closer to ‘the ability to avoid work’. Therein lie some huge problems for individuals, families, communities, organisations, nations and the world as a whole; it also doesn’t help that most of the so-called ‘rights’ discourse lies on the wrong side of that balance. What we need here is not convenient gender-blame or Other-blame, but some real honesty and real responsibility. That’s the real ‘message from the Amazon’ – and it’s one we all need to learn, and fast.

5 Comments on “Essentialist annoyances

  1. Hello Tom. I agree with you that the real ‘Message from the Amazon’ is indeed one of balance. That is the principle point of my post, and the key to establishing a functional society. This is what the Achuar are telling us with a great level of urgency, and it is what the Amazon rainforest, with its delicate ecosystem, demonstrates every day.

    And as most readers will note, mine is not a feminist piece. No where in my piece do I insert the “vain, vapid, self-serving, self-congratulatory assertion” that women are superior to men. Tom, perhaps you are reading into this, or taking my phrase out of context?

    The sentence: “Imagine if Western women wielded that kind of power” followed a description of the Achuar social structure, where Achuar men serve as the community’s industry, taking from the earth to produce food, shelter and goods. Achuar women, on the other hand, literally hem in the taking – telling the men when to stop killing animals, chopping down trees, etc. They can say: “Enough,” and the men listen. Since male energy dominates Western industrial society, and particularly extractive industry (such as oil and gas activity in the Amazon), I inserted the sentence above to suggest what a delightful change it would be if an abundance of female energy suddenly countered the ongoing wave of plunder with an effective: “ENOUGH!”

    Personally I do not believe that Western women presently wield that kind of power. If Western women banded together to say “Enough” to the 35 oil companies attempting to drill in the Amazon, the likelihood is that those companies would basically ignore us and drill anyway. I’m sure I sound like a pessimist, and I’m sorry for it. Just giving you some indication of why I wrote that sentence. Tom, you are talking about wider feminist issues, which are not part of my narrative.

    I suspect that we will have to agree to disagree on my Western women sentence. Maybe I will have to write a different piece that addresses some of the critical issues you bring up. But speaking of selective myopia and essentialist annoyances, it is interesting that you point to Western Women as the primary driver of the irresponsible consumerism problem.

    Aren’t you demonstrating the train of thought that you are arguing against? You then say: “Blame itself is a key form of social violence. If we want to resolve these serious world-level issues, we need to be a lot more honest.”

    Might I suggest taking your own advice?

    • Hi Christine – I already do take that advice, which is precisely why I challenged that sentence in your post. It’s not about blame, but about responsibility.

      To quote Amory Lovins, “In God we trust; all others bring data”. I’m not making a pejorative point about the role of women in Western consumerism, but merely pointing out that Western women already have a great deal of power in that context – arguably quite a lot more power than men, according to that economic data – yet are doing no more than men to change the situation. To put it in your own terms, very few women are saying ‘Enough!’ – and of those that do, many seem to have an unfortunate tendency (as is all too common in ‘Green’ issues, in the Spiral sense of ‘Green’) to ‘solve’ the problem by blaming others rather than by looking at their own engagement in the mess.

      “You are talking about wider feminist issues, which are not part of my narrative”, you say: my point here is that they need to be part of that narrative! 🙂 The linkage to current feminism is real in that this ‘Other-blame’ is an extremely common (also extremely dishonest, and extremely dysfunctional) characteristic in far too much modern feminism: witness the outright fraud that underpins so much of the domestic-violence ‘industry’, for example, or the travesty that occurred during the misandrist takeover of the anti-cruise-missile tactics at Greenham Common in the 1980s, replacing the original brilliantly-successful tactics (which had succeeded precisely because they were not based on crass ‘essentialist’ gender-blame) with strident accusations which succeeded only in increasing division and conflict. Modern feminism is by no means unique in this, of course, but the point there is that the contrast to previous generations of feminists – particularly the Seneca Falls period, which focussed on women’s social, political and economic responsibilities as much as on their purported ‘rights’ – is both instructive and disconcerting.

      So I would argue that it is both disingenuous and dangerous to separate ‘the wider feminist issues’ – which at present are primarily focussed on evasion of responsibility – from the more specific concerns such as women’s ‘responsibility to say “Enough!”‘ in this context. If we don’t tackle the overall problem of (evasion of) responsibility, by both women and men, what we’ll see instead is blame and finger-pointing – which solves nothing. Responsibility is hard: I’m not sure that you realise just how hard it is, or just what it really means in the small everyday details of real, everyday decisions. It certainly doesn’t come out in your article – which, incidentally, does not make any direct linkage between the Achuar women saying ‘enough’, and the actual responsibility that you’re asking Western women to wield. (You do, explicitly, mention ‘power’, but that’s it – no mention of responsibility at all.)

      I perhaps also ought to point out that a large part of my professional work is about cultural translation. The role of the Achuar women applies within a very specific cultural context, in a culture and context that necessarily has highly gendered roles. (This is true of many indigenous societies, perhaps most – certainly true of Australian aboriginal culture, for example – and there are solid contextual reasons for those gendered roles, too.) But one of the key aims or drivers for Western culture is that it should not be gendered: being able to minimise the linkage between sex and gender is one of the most important luxuries of Western culture. Hence in Western terms it makes no sense to describe that ‘Enough!’-responsibility as belonging to women alone. Making it gendered would go against that cultural driver; and, worse, would almost certainly end up reinforcing exactly the kind of ‘essentialist’ dysfunctions that already cause so many problems within Western culture. And, of course, making it gendered makes it extremely likely that the whole issues would become re-framed in a later-Greenham-Common style “men are the problem, women are the solution”, with ‘bad’ men alone blamed for the oil-drilling and the wars, and ‘good’ women the only peacemakers (who don’t however, have any responsibility to do anything other than tell others that they are wrong…).

      I take your point about pessimism (though I do try to be optimistic wherever I can! 🙂 ) But for a Western culture I believe it is utterly essential that any action should be done by women and men working together – and that the responsibilities in this are equal, too. That’s really the point I’m trying to make here.

  2. hello Christine and Tom, and other hopefully potential joiners of this debate. I thought Christine’s piece was informative and enlightening and not about feminism or gender inequalities. It was about, amongst othe things, the roles people play in different societies. You response, however, draws me inevitably into the gender debate. In an ideal world there would be gender equality, shared responsibility, mutual respect and a sense of harmony between all people of the world. In this world (are you really here, Tom?), it doesnt exist. To say that women have purchasing power is to chant the mantra of the business gurus who are talking up markets focused on increasing purchases through women that serve men. Let face it Tom. Who are all these women buying all this stuff for? Their husbands and their kids. And what sort of choices do they really have when a consumer society created by men .. oops…not blaming anyone here… just stating a fact … is designed to line the pockets of those who created it. Of course things are slowly changing, as the recent financial crisis has proven when for the first time in history more men were made redundant than women. But who wields the real commercial, economical, political and social power, Tom? Not the gals in your life. Nor in mine.’s recent 2009 research shows that in the Fortune 500 women have 2, yes TWO, T-W-O percent of board chair positions and only 15 % of total board seats, and almost 30 percent of companies have NO female executive officers. but you can bet your life that all the secretaries and most of the cleaners are women. In 2008, 7 women were among 150 elected heads of state and 9 women led governnments of the 192 UN member states. In almost all of the developing world, women are disadvantaged and underprivileged versus their male counterparts. in many cases suffing serious human rights abuses. Not surprising that two of the UN Millenium Goals directly relate to women (gender equality and maternal health)So Tom, whilst i dont necessarily accuse men of being the poblem, i do say that women are the solution. And major shifts in culture practice and power need to happen before the playing field is level enough for men and women to work TOGETHER.
    Oh, but there is one thing we agree on – In God we trust, in all others bring data. Well, i agree on the data part. I showed you mine. Show me yours :).


    • Hi Elaine

      “And what sort of choices do they really have when a consumer society created by men .. oops…not blaming anyone here… just stating a fact …”

      Nope, it’s not a fact, it’s an opinion – and yes, gosh, isn’t it interesting how magically it’s all the fault of men and men alone?

      Sorry, but I ain’t gonna play your numbers-game, because we both know that it’ll go nowhere, and is irrelevant anyway. And in many ways you’ve just illustrated exactly my point: that this style of feminism has long since lost the point of Seneca Falls and is almost exclusively about Other-blame rather than responsibility. Gosh, “none of it is any woman’s choice, we’re all trapped, passively controlled by these wicked men who ‘do it to us’…” Corporate social responsibility is ‘Somebody Else’s Problem’ – specifically, men’s problem, because men are to blame (insert chosen statistics here). And now, gosh, we now have all the developing-country statistics coming in too, to ‘prove’ a purported point about the subjugation and absence of responsibility of Western women… C’mon, gimme a break, willya…? As I said to Christine in a DM, “don’t wriggle” – stick to the point, and stop playing evasion/blame-games! 🙂

      And as I said in the post, the notion that “women are the solution” is “vain, vapid, self-serving and self-congratulatory”. And amazingly arrogant, to boot. (Part of the solution, yes; the solution, no. If you can’t get past that blunt fact, there’s really no point in continuing with this conversation, is there?)

      Now. let’s start again. Societies develop in relation to their context. There are fundamental sex-differences – I haven’t seen any men bearing a child, and I’ve seen none breast-feeding (it has been known, but is very rare), so the blunt reality – whether we like it or not – is that women will always have that responsibility. Male physiology/anatomy is geared to burst-tasks (higher energy, lower endurance), female more to continuity-tasks (lower energy [c.80%], higher-endurance [c.150% – which gives women a greater overall ‘ability to do work’, by the way]) – which gives you the classic hunter/gatherer split. When a society is up against its limits – which most indigenous societies are – having strongly gendered roles isn’t an arbitrary choice, it’s a matter of survival. Certain fine-details of that sex-difference split will depend on the physical context: for example, whether the environment demands a fully-nomadic lifestyle, a territorial lifestyle (as in much of the Amazon), an agrarian lifestyle or whatever.

      But yes, everything beyond that point is culturally-determined – in other words, a choice. (To quote Margaret Mead, “motherhood is a biological fact, fatherhood is a social fiction”.) And, yes, perhaps some types of society we may decide we don’t like – according to our assumptions and our norms. Which a) probably aren’t appropriate to the context anyway, and b) often smell like the dead-kipper of cultural-imperialism… So the notion of a ‘level playing field’ is one heck of a lot more complex than the blithe misdirection and blame-games in your, um, interesting, selection of statistics. Which means that the demand that “major shifts in culture practice and power need to happen before the playing field is level enough” for you to be willing to do anything at all to start sorting out this mess is yet another red-herring (or stinks-to-high-heaven dead-kipper – especially as I have some interesting research-experience about just how rigged the game needs to be before most self-styled ‘women’s advocates’ will call a cultural playing-field ‘level’… the ‘old boys’ club’ is dysfunctional enough, but its dysfunctionalities are trivial compared to most products of ‘the sisterhood’… (And yup, I can quote you chapter-and-verse on that one too, but it won’t fit into a single post…) So let’s just back off a bit on that one too, and come back to the point of Christine’s post, and the point of contention, which are related but which are not the same.

      The point of Christine’s post was about responsibility. Specifically, about responsibility on a much larger scale, not simply to tell oil-folks (and the whole messy mindset that goes with it) that we’re well past the stage of ‘Enough!’, but also to cope with all of the consequences of saying that we’ve gone past ‘Enough’ – which is a whole lot harder, but without which the destructive mess in the Amazon and elsewhere will inevitably keep rollin’ along.

      The point of contention was the throwaway assertion “Imagine if Western women wielded that kind of power” [to say ‘Enough!’]. Which, if you think about it for more than a couple of seconds, they clearly already do. And equally clearly, they don’t – don’t say ‘Enough!’, that is. What concerns me is the layer upon layer of evasions and blame-games that are used to ‘justify’ that difference between the power to do something – and hence the responsibilities that go with that power – versus the rather noticeable lack of action (other than the aforesaid blame-games – “it’s all his fault” etc). (We’re not ignoring men or men’s equivalent evasions, but Christine’s focus was on women, so let’s keep the focus firmly there for once, yes? – and don’t wriggle! 🙂 ) Women already are powerful, especially in Western societies: so how are they using that power? How are you using your power – other than indulging in put-downs and game-plays whose sole apparent aim is to blame it all on men so that you can continue to do nothing? (Do you have any idea how much those blame-games disempower women? Oh, and disempower men, too, but that’s not really our concern here, is it?)

      So, to link back to your last point, what are you doing to help “men and women to work TOGETHER”? (Besides telling me that I’m wrong, and demanding that women alone should have a perfect absence of responsibility, that is?) Anything? Anything at all?

      (Apologies if I’m ranting here, but I’m seriously underwhelmed at the game-plays, the subtle abuse and the even more subtle violence – go see for more explanation on that, within the normal everyday business context. Fact is that I’ve spent so long working with people – women probably more than men – helping them find their power and the responsibilities that go with it, that I don’t react well when someone comes up and plays games that are all but purpose-designed to disempower them all over again. Oh well.)

  3. hi tom, i don’t blame, i am just stating facts- that in current society there is great inequality (not only gender-based, by the way). I agree with you that we need to get to work together. But i also believe that women are currently seriously disadvantaged in many ways which are beyond their own control and empowerment to change. And this inequality cannot be resolved without conscious efforts which of course requires all members of society to make change. We all need to live together harmoniously and collaboratively, towards common goals, in a just society. What am i doing? I spend 18 hours a day, every day, promoting and helping the development of social responsibility with business people, students and supporting non-profits. Some of that is how i earn a living, some is that i give a lot of my time voluntarily. I promote and actively support processes and activities which drive accountability, responsibililty, diversity, inclusion, ethics, respect for human rights, transparency and social justice. Anyway, i hope we are both right. Because that way, the world is sure to be a better place for all. Happy new decade, Tom!

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