by Norman M. Brown Ph.D. |
As Cultural Anthropology was emerging from the ethnocentrism of Western colonialism pioneering emotions theorist SilvanTomkins challenged the widespread Euroamerican Social Darwinist belief in white (and male) supremacy with cross-cultural evidence pointing to a dichotomy between pacific and warlike societies.
Cross-Cultural Evidence. A survey of 150 societies1 found balanced authority and power between the sexes except where there were forces perceived by a society to threaten its survival. According to this distinction between cultures the central factor that leads to differentiation of attitudes toward others is not just continual warfare but perceived scarcity of resources and the reliance on male violence or entrenched power to allocate them unequally to the winners in adversarial contests. Such warlike competition may begin with adversarial groups, tribes or nations. But there appears to be a close link between using enemies violently and a hierarchical ranking of the sexes within each society with oppressive behavior by dominant men. This ranking extends to further hierarchical ranking by age and class, with children, elders and other working, farming and service classes to be dominated and viewed as humans of lesser value.
Emotional dynamics of competitive, warlike and resource-greedy societies. Tomkins sketches many changes that would occur when a pacific society’s survival is threatened by scarcity (such as famine) or hostile neighbors. First, the experience of feeling itself is confused with the predominantly negative emotions. So feelings are disparaged and ignored. Anger builds up inside everyone, since it is the physiological result of excessive neuronal activity which gets even worse when dammed up. Since the world has apparently turned bad, anger and violence become a favorable response—as the most rapid means available of eliminating what is unpleasant and/or threatening. If this anger and violence are turned against an outside enemy group or a weaker group within the society, then elements of exploitation, warfare and slavery can provide some benefits to those able to dominate.
The conjunction of superior male strength and superior life-bearing feminine capabilities predisposes men to choose violence and warfare and women to oppose them. When a society tilts the balance of its personality structures towards violence, the nine inborn emotions are distributed separately between those selected for dominance and war, mostly men, and those selected for service to them, mostly women. So excitement and risk-taking are increased for the dominant class, against the more peaceful relaxation of enjoyment and communion, or love. (See Joy articles.) Surprise is not felt by the warriors and other dominant males, except as excitement in anticipated victory when it is perpetrated against others. These include both enemies, competitors and women, who are subjected to surprise and thus taught to fear it. Fear is the worst threat to a warrior’s success, since it can undermine the will to victory at any cost. So fear must be inflicted on the enemy through terrorism.
The warrior-males should express anger while suppressing distress/sorrow. Warrior males should never cry but make their enemies cry out in defeat instead. The warrior-males should be proud of themselves—the opposite of shame—while expressing disgust and contempt towards enemies and inferiors. Shame is what the dominant male inflicts on those he defeats, while he himself would rather die than surrender to it.
Thus in competitive and warlike societies successful men should be excited, skilled with anger, ready to inflict and withstand any surprise, fearless, shameless and contemptuous toward the demeaned emotions of those female and childlike persons who experience too much joy and fear, cry in distress, and are easily surprised and ashamed. Boy children should face developmental challenges on their way to manhood that require mastery of the male-identified emotions and diminishment or repression of the female-identified emotions.
This is Silvan Tomkins’ theoretical construction of how men’s emotions could be structured in a primitive warlike and/or endangered society, divided into which of the 9 inborn emotions would be emphasized and perhaps overdeveloped, as well as which emotions would be dismissed, demeaned and projected onto women, children and other groups, classes and ethnicities. But does it exaggerate the differences in emotions between the sexes? Does it represent only the extremes of modern men’s imaginations when focused on themselves in contrast with their expectations about women? Are we now evolving beyond these prior perspectives because we have recognized our need to do so? Or can this male-centered perspective on all emotions also interfere somewhat with women’s abilities to perceive their own emotions clearly? What might the prevailing perception of women’s emotional development be if women were to design it for themselves? And how do these perceptions of and attitudes toward emotions affect relations between men and women? We will explore more in our following articles.
1. Sanday, P.R. (1981). Female Power and Male Dominance. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.