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1.11.03

The Manliest Cavemen

This Jeanne D'Arc post criticizing George Lakoff's "strict father vs. nuturing parent" scheme for understanding politics has been getting a lot of attention. But I didn't make it to her first mention of Lakoff yet, because this opening metaphor caught my attention:

... Republicans want to be cavemen: Every man goes out into the world with his club and his spear, ready to take on the wooly mammoths. Every woman needs to find a guy with a big spear to take care of her.

The problem with that view is that it never worked, even in the days of of the cavemen. It takes a lot of spears to kill a wooly mammoth. One guy with one spear is a wooly mammoth snack. If we hadn't learned to work together, the wooly mammoths would be using computers, and we'd be extinct.


I'll spare you the talk about how the coalition nature of the American parties makes any "X party is like Y" statement that isn't issue-specific very suspect (a criticism that applies to Lakoff as well). What I'm interested in is what D'Arc's metaphor says about cavemen.

The "mammoth hunter providing for the band" idea we know so well -- and which D'Arc plays on to illustrate what she thinks of Republicans -- isn't a terribly good picture of most hunter-gatherer cultures, even with D'Arc's "caveman cooperation" revision. In a typical hunter-gatherer society, most of the band's food is provided by gathering, which is usually a task for women and children. Meat is a small (though crucial, for its protein) part of most hunter-gatherer diets. Further, much of that meat comes from small game. Even the women and children would hunt small animals, which were caught with more frequency than megafauna (just as men would gather while out on a big hunt).

Hunting and gathering practices varied a great deal. The societies who were closest to the popular idea of cavemen as being dependent on men hunting megafauna were those in polar regions -- where the classic wooly mammoth was found. Why has a polar hunter-gatherer lifestyle become symbolic of how our ancestors lived, when for much of the development of the human species they lived in tropical African environments? One answer is Eurocentrism. The ancestors of Europeans went through such a polar megafauna-hunting phase, and the climate difference makes it stand out from the more temperate modern European climate.

Another reason may be the very gender dynamic that D'Arc points out. Masculinity run amok carries with it a sense of being primal and raw. It's nice if we think that such masculinity did prevail before the dawn of the civilization that reined in the manly men. Harsh climate and mighty megafauna reinforce the idea of male strength battling for victory on behalf of a beleagured people. At the same time, this primal masculinity is also primitive. While admiring the cavemen's feats of strength, we can look down upon their stupidity, a mental level defined by their lack of civilized comforts and the presumed trade-off between brains and brawn. These kind of cavemen reassure modern men and women that this is what pure masculinity is, and that civilized men have a masculinity that's compromised (even if it's a compromise we accept).

UPDATE: I finished reading D'Arc's post, which ends with this:

People want the party of "masculine" strength. But real masculinity is more complicated and includes women. (Well, heterosexual masculinity anyway. There's an obvious flaw in my metaphor here, and I don't want to feed anti-gay stereotypes while trying to fight anti-female ones, but I don't see a way around it at the moment; another reason why I need to keep thinking about this). The frame I'm aiming for contrasts phony, immature masculinity vs. real, sexual, smart masculinity that prefers life with women and a community rather than being out in the field with a spear and a mammoth.


I'm happy to see D'Arc thinking about the sexuality implications of her proposed metaphor, something that's unfortunately rare in dichotomous metaphors that play on gender ideas. But in this case I think her concern is misplaced. She seems to be presuming that the need real men have for women and traditionally feminine characteristics is a sexual one, and thus the scheme is inapplicable in the case of a homosexual man. As a heterosexual man, I disagree with the idea that my need to include women in my life and community is entirely mediated by my sexuality. Certainly there's one way that a woman can be part of my life that a gay man would lack -- though I lack one of his ways of making another man part of his life (bisexuals are problematic in one of these ways if they're monogamous). But it's only one of many ways in which I can relate to a woman, in addition to things like friend, sibling, colleague, teacher/student, etc. To reject such relationships on the basis of gender would be unhealthy masculinity just like rejecting such relationships with anyone (as in the case of D'Arc's solitary cavemen) would be unhealthy masculinity.

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