The Triumph of the Maternalists

The new paternalism is so nonconfrontational, anti-ideological, and unwilling to claim moral authority that it can hardly be called “paternal.” Let’s call it “maternalism”…

maternalism

Nancy McDermott looks at the cultural assault on masculinity

‘Nanny and Sammy followed their mother’s instructions without a murmur; indeed, they were overawed. There is a certain uncanny and superhuman quality about all such purely original undertakings as their mother’s was to them. Nanny went back and forth with her light loads, and Sammy tugged with sober energy.’  (From ‘The Revolt of Mother’ by Mary E Wilkins (1)).

“…what we are seeing today is the dismantling of the historic gains of the Enlightenment in the name of The Mother”

The idea for this essay began percolating about a year ago, when I reviewed Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men. She made the case that women are achieving parity with men and even surpassing them in a number of important ways. Although I didn’t quite buy all her explanations, I liked Rosin’s book and was sorry to see so many reviewers dismiss it in what seemed like a rush to reiterate the persistence of women’s oppression. I thought her observations were reasonable, but more importantly they seemed to throw the contours of something else into relief, something beyond gender roles. It was only when I began to look at the question of paternalism that it dawned on me what this might be.

Paternalism has emerged as the dominant form of authoritarianism in our society. Across the world, policymakers are quietly working behind the scenes to save us from ourselves, nudging us towards Jerusalem with smaller fast-food cups, architecture intended to make us climb more stairs, and maternity wards that encourage bonding and breastfeeding. These policies are seldom debated or even noticed. When they are, the routine argument is not whether they are a good idea but how ‘hard’ or openly coercive should they be. Why value autonomy at all when people, left to their own devices, continually make poor choices that foil their aspirations and create a social burden in the process?

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