Robert Jensen on Hierarchy


Robert Jensen is an emeritus professor of journalism at UT-Austin, and I've never heard of him before. But today I read an essay of his, dated 2 February 2021, that was really great. It's on the subject of hierarchy. More interestingly, it's about the linkage between the hierarchy of the sexes and other forms of destruction that are also based on hierarchy.

Jensen begins with a bit of autobiography: "My work has shifted over time depending on circumstances, but, for many years, I have consistently spoken out against pornography and in support of perennial grain crops grown in mixtures. Most people find those two subjectsómenís sexual exploitation of women and the search for a sustainable agricultureóto be a curious combination and assume they are unrelated. But those two endeavors, along with all the other issues I have worked on, are really one struggle: challenging hierarchy."

He continues: "[T]he threat of menís violence and menís underlying claim of a right to control women has shaped the human experience for the past 5,000 years. And, in patriarchy today, most menóeven many men who support womenís rightsócontinue to reject this radical feminist analysis and advocate for less challenging liberal/postmodern versions of feminism that pose less of a threat to menís status and sense of their own benevolence.

"This opening up of my imagination helped me understand the patriarchal sex/gender system as an illegitimate hierarchy. Men believe they rightfully sit on top in that hierarchy, and they justify the power and privilege they hold as natural and inevitable. Patriarchy wants us to believe that this domination/subordination dynamic is just the way the world works, that there is no other way the world could work.

"Once radical feminists helped me critique patriarchy, I could see more clearly the same illegitimate hierarchy at work in the other systems of power that structure modern societies: racism in a white-supremacist world, wealth inequality and class status in a capitalist world, First-World citizenship in a world structured by imperialism. Each system has its own history and contemporary practice, but each is a hierarchy in which the domination/subordination dynamic is justified as just the way the world works. Hierarchy is naturalized, made to seem inevitable. If that were true, the best option we would have is to try to get to the top, motivated either by crass self-interest or a desire to change the worst aspects of an institution from within. That is an efficient system of social control.

"I believe that once we recognize the pathology of hierarchy in any one of those systems, we should be able to critique them all, to realize that they are not simply the state of nature but the result of human choices. Once the cruelty of the domination/subordination dynamic becomes clear in one domain, we should seek to eliminate it in all domains."

Of course, given how foundational sex is to human civilization, the hierarchy of patriarchy must be confronted. Jensen expresses it in this way: "extracting ourselves from patriarchal assumptions will be particularly difficult. So, we should not be surprised when otherwise critically minded people rationalize menís assertion of a right of access to womenís bodies, as we see in the liberal and left defenses of pornography and the other sexual-exploitation industries, or in similar defenses of surrogacy. Patriarchyís defense of menís use of women in these ways goes way back . . . [S]ettling for patriarchal benevolence can turn menís routine use and abuse of prostituted women into 'sex work,' with a call for better working conditions for the women who are used by men rather than a demand that men stop exploiting women, children, and vulnerable men . . . We should refuse to accept menís sexual exploitation of women, and we should reject the use of womenís bodies as reproductive machines in surrogacy. We should target any practices that keep girls and women subordinated."

Preach it, brother! The neo-liberal version of feminism, to my mind, simply upholds the old patriarchal values by means of a greased palm. That is not the answer. If we really do want Zion, men's domination, control, exploitation, and harm of women must end, full stop.