Norman M. Brown and Marsha Hudson
Introduction: Intelligence, love, aggression and men and women vis-à-vis the earth.
Evolutionary theory postulates that any species may face an existential crisis if its relation to its environment becomes untenable for any reason. Our species is proud of two traits, our high intelligence and our capacity for loving, which have enabled us to adapt to many different environments and populate most of our planet.
However, the combination of intelligence and aggressiveness, for which purportedly men have been specialized, was once adaptive for competing with animal predators but has now rapidly overpopulated the earth. After killing or confining every other predator our pursuit of increasing wealth, power and domination over most of the world’s territory now exploits and threatens the existence of many other species of both animals and plants, as well as the mineral resources beneath the earth and the oceans. Our runaway building of cities, towns and mineral extraction factories has degraded much of our natural environment and polluted the soils, waters, oceans and skies.
Our planet has responded to three centuries of human overgrowth, overuse and environmental degradation with catastrophic extremes of weather, wildfires, sea level rise and species extinctions. The balance of nature has been severely compromised and tilted towards biosphere destruction, in which our excess population, consumption and intergroup and international conflict play a central role. Therefore, we must change our own habits and desires in order to rescue our planet from ourselves.
There are hundreds of human organizations that aim to change the way we treat the other animate and inanimate entities around us. But all of them focus intelligence on how to treat nonhuman nature. None of them focus on how to change ourselves. And furthermore, the last three quarters of a century have seriously challenged the androcentric assumptions in many cultures that human males are inherently more intelligent or educable than females. Changes that began when millions of men left work to fight in World War II have now led to far more women than men exceling in higher education and pouring into government service. Perhaps aggressiveness, arguably more central in boys and men, is not more conducive to the development and productivity of intelligence than cooperation, which appears to be more characteristic and well developed in women.
Let’s begin with men.
Our greatest threat to planetary sustainability comes from predatory men who seek wealth and power at the expense of all other species, as well as most women, children and elders. These predators are also determined to minimize the impact of climate crisis mitigation on their power and profits for as long as they can. Let’s face it men: We have a lot of changing to do to make society sustainable, and it will take both persistence and courage to do it. But it’s a particularly difficult challenge because the courage needed is both inward and outward.
Outward courage is something men understand because it’s like what was needed in every shooting war. Such courage is also needed to persist in the struggle to stop predatory men from pillaging and polluting the planet and keep them from dominating the rest of humanity and all the other species of plants and animals. But if all the forces for change do is overthrow the current predators without changing all men’s ways to become caring stewards of every other part of the world, then there’s no guarantee that (some of the) the victors in this struggle won’t just become the new dominators over humanity and the rest of the planet.
The political struggle for our future on this planet is far more challenging than any war that either men or women have taken on before. For both men and women will need to develop new ways of relating to each other that will also work in relationship to the rest of the planet. This task may seem impossibly complex, especially since the solutions to interpersonal relations may vary significantly between various human cultures. And the issues involved in human stewardship vis-à-vis the many animal, plant and inanimate entities we’re impacting in today’s global crises add even more layers of challenge.
We suggest that the path to resolution of all the crises arising in the anthropocene era must go through the resolution of the major issues besetting humanity itself. And these are quite specifically discernable as the emotional suffering resulting from domination of the human power drive over the human drive to love. The power drive is most often displayed in men who are habituated to wealth and hierarchy, and the love drive is most typically expressed in women. Therefore, to coexist in peace with the rest of the planet humanity needs to reset the balance between love and power. Our drives for wealth and male domination must give way to love of all our fellow creatures, animate and inanimate. This sounds very complicated. Yet the path of discovery for reaching this balance of love and power can develop through acting intelligently and cooperatively on the emotions we already experience when both individual and societal relations between us are painful and unfair.
Paul Hawken addresses this while introducing his book “Regeneration”: “Fairness is about social systems—how we treat one another, how we treat ourselves, and how we treat the living world. The planet has been transformed in a blink of an eye. If we are to transform the climate crisis, we need to transform ourselves, and we had best not blink.”1
To bring about such a fundamental change in what we’ve assumed is “human nature” we will need to begin at a more fundamental human level, by bringing all of our normally unconscious emotions into much greater awareness. Then we can learn how to manage our thoughts and actions more intelligently and restructure what it means to be male and female. Our youngest generations are experimenting now with “gender fluidity,” so the time is ripe.
Let’s focus on key emotions of men: Understanding interest and shame
We begin with the dawn of a baby’s consciousness. Face-to-face gazing at 14-18 inches with its caregiver while sharing emotionally harmonious expressions provides an infant with its first mirror image for self-awareness. Before “I think, therefore I am” comes “I see and am seen with enduring interest, so I’m alive.” This experience of interest and attunement growing into excitement ignites the infant’s urge towards intimate relations and gradually towards understanding the entire world around.
Interest and excitement are the emotional fuel that powers us through life, but we still need a braking force to slow our progress down for protection against potentially damaging collisions with other species and objects. That braking emotion that enables us to develop guidance is called shame. (The dictionary puts the cart before the horse by defining shame as the painful feeling that follows mistaken social behavior, instead of the warning sign that potential social damage is imminent.) But since many emotions are normally unconscious until they become conscious, most male persons are unaware of most moments of shame. Thus boys and men don’t name their awkward moments shame. They need to withdraw from a scene instead and either feel helpless and bad or blame somebody else.
In contrast, research videos showed girls are more than twice as concerned as boys with their mother’s continuous approving gaze in toddlerhood (18-36 months)2. If their mothers were showing disapproval girls were quickly distressed and sometimes self-punishing (such as banging their heads against a wall) or running to their mothers crying for comfort. But boys often ignored their mother’s reaction instead by just playing harder. Or if she intervened with disapproval boys might throw their toy against a wall. Thus girls’ reactions of self-punishment, distress and seeking forgiveness and restoration furthered empathy and closeness with their mothers. But boys’ reactions were more uncomfortable and foreign and thus promoted distance from their mothers.
These differences may well develop into general relating patterns between men and women when behavioral discord occurs. For women are likely to both 1. blame themselves for relational discord, especially with women, and 2. go to work to repair them, whether the glitches are clearly their fault or not. But men are likely to both 1. be unaware of or ignore discord in relations with either sex and 2. automatically attribute any such issues to anyone or anything other than themselves. As a result, men are also more likely to get frustrated and angry when they are either 1. blamed for a social problem or 2. expected to work out a way to repair it when they don’t know where to start. As a result gender-specific ways of coping with shame play a central role in runaway couple and family conflict, especially when most of this coping is unconscious.3
Working with shame and interest to restore relationships.
Shame-laden scenes are felt as “negative” because they make us too uncomfortable. But if we’re curious about what happened, that interest alleviates our discomfort and we can survey the experience with our emotions balanced. We can let go of either blaming another or ourselves. For the fault is neither ours nor the other’s alone. There’s in fact a fault zone between us in our relationship. Some of the best words that singer Leonard Cohen ever wrote address this fault zone: “There’s a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”4 One important source of this inner light is the dawning of shame consciousness. For shame moments signal danger to valued relationships.
Ever since 1975 psychologists have shown that interrupting both early infant-caregiver face-gazing and intimate adult emotional harmony may trigger three phases of reaction. First comes a sudden moment of dismay, then confusion with sometimes frantic efforts to restore the harmony and finally escalating separation distress and efforts to change one’s focus so normal life can continue. A common coping expression at the edge of anxious separations is to say “Love-you,” instead of just “Good-bye.”
Even in adult intimacy we must repeatedly separate and reconnect many times a day, with the closest partners in communion 30% of the time and separately immersed in their own awareness for 70%5. Yet being immersed in ourselves makes it harder to tune in to another and being conscious of both the other and ourselves makes it harder to be aware of what’s going on in ourselves. Thus the most difficult task in relationships is to develop the art of repairing them when they’re so often interrupted and also damaged by misunderstandings or neglect. Shame moments are the signals that such repair is needed.
People can practice relationship repair by taking some time each week to talk about what’s satisfying and what’s uncomfortable for them. Since women began repairing in toddlerhood, they are far more practiced the repair. But they can get disgusted with assuming all the responsibility and blame for relationship rifts, so men won’t feel threatened. And they can get angry that men avoid and stonewall their repair attempts, since they don’t know how engage with them.
Therefore for us men to begin repairing we need to first cultivate solitary reflection on our own uncomfortable moments of dismay, confusion or discord to dig up the shame moments we’ve been ignoring. So now imagine that you have discovered a pricklypear moment in a relationship; how do you begin repair? If you’re standing on the edge of speaking without words for a script, you may feel echoes of the times you stifled this moment in childhood, and perhaps even felt too small for the task. Or perhaps thought you’d have to crawl back and beg for forgiveness. I realize I rarely acknowledged when my feelings were hurt, because then I’d be “easily hurt.” But if I could trust the person I was with to appreciate my effort and help out, I might begin by saying “I’m uncomfortable.”
If we men and the person we care about could view yourselves through the positive lens of curiosity, then we could speak up more easily. We couldn’t be sure of success in advance, but we could establish guidelines for regular encounters that include acceptance and commitment. That means each person’s words and feelings are human and therefore accepted, and everyone is seeking comfortable relations and respect. It takes a lot of courage for both men and women to use words in the unfamiliar realm of emotions and relationships. But if we commit to acceptance and respect for each other we can expect to steadily improve our relationships and also develop our emotional fluency in the process.
Women need to embrace the challenges of their anger.
The challenge for women is not so much in the repair of relationships because at least they are more experienced with that than men. But women need to take on more power and responsibility in the public arena. This requires of women that they come to terms with the emotion of anger. While men are more familiar with excitement, anger and contempt than women and typically avoid fear, sorrow, shame and surprise, women are more familiar than men with distress, sorrow, shame, joy, surprise and fear, and typically avoid contempt and anger, especially anger. Most societies discourage intense expressions of anger, probably because of its association with violence.
The association of anger with violence in the habits of many men leads many societies to strongly discourage it for women. Women hear that their anger is frightening, unattractive, or unjustified. But mostly women’s anger is dangerous to them because it can serve as a trigger for male violence. When witnessing a woman’s anger men may feel either anger or fear—perhaps of their own violence, or because an unconscious association of women to mothers may lead some men to fear that the giver of life could also take life away. At present American cultural response to women’s anger is rarely positive, and women often feel ashamed of their anger. Shame is the gatekeeper of all unwanted emotions, as an instinctive braking system for avoiding social risks. Intense anger is undesirable for women because it demands attention, and a good woman is not supposed to seek such attention. Thus, in the process of developing anger fluency, women need to be willing to feel their shame in order to move through that discomfort zone. Observing her shame with interest can ease this passage.
Many women have learned to repress their anger, sometimes to the point of making it disappear. Some time ago I knew a woman who claimed to have never felt anger, ever. She came from a family of Lutheran ministers and so deeply believed that expressing anger was wrong that she repressed all awareness of it. Anger was totally outside of her conscious experience.
I wonder how many women have had difficulty at times embracing and identifying their anger. Perhaps because they are afraid or uncomfortable with the power the anger allows them to feel? Perhaps because they are afraid of physical reprisal? Perhaps they were taught, like my friend, that it is wrong? I suggest the problem is lack of awareness of their anger and therefore a lack of familiarity and comfort with the power of that emotion. Women need to embrace the work of learning to understand and manage all our emotions, most especially anger, so that they can serve us and not blindly drive us.
Now take a minute, or a half a minute, to pause and reflect on when you last experienced anger. Be sure to pay attention to your experience in the public arena as well as in your close relationships. What were the circumstances? How did you express what you felt? Or did you keep it to yourself?
Chances are your recalled anger was due to one or two causes: the “mother bear” anger that occurs when a vulnerable person, usually a child, is under threat and needs your protection, or when something has been done to you that is unfair. The second is the anger from injustice. This covers a lot of ground and can happen in both the private and public arena. Privately in the realm of relationship it can happen when a promise is broken, a boundary is breached, a lie is told, or a betrayal is committed. In the public arena the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade outraged many, as does the continued extraction of oil, the intentional distortion of news events, the hoarding of billions, the unequal treatment of people of color, and the list goes on an on. What is worth noticing about all these injustices is that our anger gives us energy and urges us to action. We are moved to repair the damage done to our relationships and to take action in the cause of equal rights for all and to protect the planet from degradation.
This is the wonderful quality of anger: it brings injustice to our attention and brings with that a powerful energy to do something about it. Anger is the harbinger and creator of change. It invites us to respond to the cries of injustice, change what is wrong and put in place what is right. In our near future this requires that women as well as men take up positions of leadership in our communities and in legislatures. And this in turn requires that we exercise assertiveness instead of continuing in past safe and subordinate roles. Being assertive will take courage, but all humankind will benefit if there are many more women with the power to affect national and international policy.
Furthermore, because we are women, chances are we will be more collaborative in the way we lead and less dependent on the male hierarchical model of leadership. This commitment by women to the process of improving humanity’s behavior vis-à-vis the earth needs to ultimately replace heirarchy with an egalitarian system of leadership.
Conclusion: A new emotional gold standard needs to extend to all of nature.
This work is the cultivation of emotional maturity. It is the vision of many that we, women and men both, can develop more mature management of our emotions in our biosphere. Then we will not be unconsciously driven to compensate with excessive need for wealth and power that results in the degradation of animals, plants, earth and sky. Indeed, this new emotional maturity can become a Gold Standard for human nature as well as a more egalitarian government and society.
We have explored two emotional themes: For men it is awareness of shame as a key to engaging in relationship repair and along the way expanding their breadth of emotional fluency. For women it is understanding the power of anger to strengthen their voice in public arenas in order to share equal leadership with men in government and society.
An even bigger leap in improving human nature is to apply the loving we develop in human relations to all other species of animals, plants, waters and other elements of nature around us. When we can perceive all of nature as alive and ensouled, as many indigenous peoples do, we can stop enslaving people, animals and plants who work for, house and feed us and stop treating all waters and earthen materials with unconscious contempt as mere objects we can use and abuse in any way we want.
Healthy stewardship of the earth is already well planned and technically possible. We need only to control the greedy predators blocking it through good government. We can also lower our birthrates by enabling women to exercise as much leadership in public life as men. If we also increase our conscious understanding of and action on mature emotions we can restore our ability to live sustainably with all other indigenous species and exercise conscientious planetary stewardship by living in peace and mutual nourishment with all of the earth’s environments.
- Hawken P(2021). Regeneration: Ending the climate crisis in one generation. NY:Penguin
- Olesker W (1990). Sex differences during the early separation-individuation process. J Am Psychoanalytic Assoc 38(2), 325-46.
- Scheff TJ, Retzinger SM (1991). Emotions and violence: Shame and rage in destructive conflicts. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath.
- Cohen L (1992). Anthem. Album “The future.”
- Tronick E, Gold, CM (2020). The power of discord: Why the ups and downs of relationships are the secret to building intimacy, resilience, and trust. NY: Little, Brown.