“Your political writing comes across as feminine,” he said. He meant it as an insult. His more specific criticism was that I spend too much time conceding points, demonstrating that I understand both sides, and trying to speak to people using a language and a tone that they sympathize with and understand. He said I should stop trying to reach people and simply allow my ideas to “stand up for themselves.”
In his view, that is what masculine political writing is: bold assertions, plain language, ideas that are devoid of subjective voice or context because they simply “stand up for themselves.” Who cares about “reaching people” when all we should be worried about is the ideas?
He’s right, in a weird way. That is a very “masculine” way of thinking.
I’ve written before about the distinction between Masculine Magic and Feminine Magic in old Norse mythology. It’s a distinction that has been around for hundreds if not thousands of years. Masculine magic used brute force to accomplish your goals: blowing things up, setting them on fire, shoving them out of your way. Feminine magic used deception, coercion or trickery: making things invisible, shape-shifting, creating illusions.
Hundreds of years later, this perception of how men and women “work their will on others” has not changed. Men force, women seduce; men attack, women conspire. The male voice tells you what’s what: He tells it like it is; facts are facts, and if you disagree it’s because you’re stupid or gullible. The female voice tries to lure you into feeling comfortable, uses a web of words to trick you or make you doubt yourself.
One style isn’t inherently “better” than the other, I suppose. They are just two styles of dealing with conflict or disagreement, two ways of handling an opponent whom you want to overcome. Do you yell at him until he submits? Or do you smile and wink and trick him into changing his mind to agree with you?
When I write a political article where I spell out the opponents perspective, give them credit where credit is due, but then try to use their own logic to show them where an error lies…. I am using Women’s Magic. When I pick my words with care in order to manipulate the subtle nuances and unconscious emotions in a conversation, to get them on my side and manipulate them into being more receptive to my later criticisms, that’s Women’s Magic. So I suppose it’s true: my political writing is feminine.
Fox News, by contrast, uses Men’s Magic: shout down the opponents, and call them pinheads. Force the other side to answer ridiculous “yes or no” questions, and cut their microphones when they try to answer with some nuance instead. Bully, force, overwhelm, and then dismiss the other side if they still disagree.
That’s Masculine Magic.
The struggle of Valentine Wiggin
One of the most complex and interesting characters in the novel Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card is the main character’s older sister, Valentine Wiggin. (Most of her storyline was excised out of the movie, so I highly recommend you read the book.) She discovers early on that she has a talent for persuading people to see things from her point of view. She realizes that it is a kind of power and enjoys it; but when her older brother Peter, whom she despises, points out to her that it is a kind of social manipulation, she struggles with seeing herself as a manipulative person:
Writing was something Val did better than Peter. They both knew it. Peter had even named it once, when he said that he could always see what other people hated most about themselves, and bully them, while Val could always see what other people liked best about themselves, and flatter them. It was a cynical way of putting it, but it was true. Valentine could persuade other people to her point of view―she could convince them that they wanted what she wanted them to want. Peter, on the other hand, could only make them fear what he wanted them to fear. When he first pointed this out to Val, she resented it. She had wanted to believe she was good at persuading people because she was right, not because she was clever. But no matter how much she told herself that she didn’t ever want to exploit people the way Peter did, she enjoyed knowing that she could, in her way, control other people. And not just control what they did. She could control, in a way, what they wanted to do.
(Emphasis on the key sentence was added by me.)
That’s Feminine Magic for you. And I can understand Valentine’s struggle. When I am passionate about a topic, and I pour my heart out in a debate, I use every social strategy imaginable to win someone over. It’s not even a conscious connivance: it’s automatic. It is something I do without thinking.
I give concessions to put people at ease. I tell people that I understand what they feel. I humbly ask them to consider my point of view, instead of declaring that I’m right and they are wrong. I say, “Isn’t it possible that both of our perspectives have some validity?” instead of “Your opinion is illogical you stupid idiot.”
I smile, I sympathize; I wink, I flirt. It’s just who I am. And at the end of the conversation I want to believe that I was able to convince someone to my side because I AM RIGHT…. and all of the social manipulation I did was nothing more than a way to get them past their stubbornness. I didn’t manipulate them, I just helped them to see the TRUTH! (Go ahead: roll your eyes. I did.)
Which is why I, like Valentine Wiggin, don’t particularly care for it when someone points out that I’m using Women’s Magic, instead.
What do we need in politics?
I said at the beginning that one style isn’t inherently “better” than the other: both masculine and feminine magic are simply different ways of trying to work your will on a person with whom you disagree. But when it comes to actually getting things done on a large social scale, like in politics, I firmly believe that both masculine and feminine magic are necessary as parts of the total equation. Each has strengths and weaknesses, each manipulates emotions differently.
Our politics, and our political journalism, have veered heavily in the direction of Masculine Magic, at the expense and almost disappearance of Feminine Magic. The media has noticed this as well. Some people even wring their hands and moan about how nobody is compromising any more, nobody is “working across the aisle”. In the last decade alone, each wing of American politics has taken to calling the other side bullies and tyrants. At the same time, both sides have done everything they can to unilaterally impose their will on the nation.
President Barack Obama began his career as an exception to this. He began his first term employing Women’s Magic: he talked about coming together, he made concessions, he talked about compromise. What did he get out of it? The Republicans called him “effeminate” and “weak”, made their demands even more extreme, and shut down the government when they didn’t get their way.
The Women’s Magic has been gradually pushed out of our political system ever since. It is being pushed out of political journalism, as well, as evidenced by my critic: women’s magic is too indirect! It is too circuitous! Just be blunt! Be strong! Be authoritative! Tell it like it is! People who are smart will know you are right, and people who disagree don’t matter!
Personally, I’m not buying it. Women’s magic can be just as effective as a strategy for changing people’s minds. In some cases, I believe it’s more effective. At the very least, in a world overcome by way too much men’s magic, we may need more women’s magic to get us out of the rut into which our politics have been driven in the last decade or two.
So here’s to having more Feminine Magic in political writing, and in politics in general! At may be the only thing that can get us out of the political rut we’ve been in.