After organizing, frantically reorganizing and then organizing yet again, I finally ended up with a group of people for my first Living Room Conversation.
I tried choosing people with different perspectives and different beliefs, but I ended up with a group of five friends from my great books program. We knew we had different beliefs, but they weren’t as starkly opposed as they could have been. We were all operating under the assumptions of a Christian worldview, and we’ve all experienced a similar style of classroom discussion.
Perhaps the atmosphere wasn’t ripe for contention, or perhaps we simply did very well at following the rules of a Living Room Conversation, but we spent our time building a framework out of our similar beliefs rather than arguing opinions or sharing personal stories.
The first question was simple (yet huge): What is inequality?
We began by questioning the concept of hierarchy – is it good? Bad? Can equality exist within it? Should it be abolished? Must we live in it? Attempting to answer these questions led us to a two-pronged framework for viewing equality.
First, there is “equality of value.” This is the equality that says, “humankind was made in God’s own image.” Every person has dignity and worth simply for being a human. There is a shared basis for equality in all of humanity – God’s love and undeserved grace for every human soul.
Second, there is “equality of power.” This is the equality that is visible in the practical life. The equality of power dictates who votes, who holds positions of power, whose voice is valued and all other hierarchies found in societies throughout history.
I believe you can vary these two forms of equality to verbalize and understand any belief about the topic of inequality.
Some people may believe that on a value level, humans are not equal; particular lives are foundationally less human than others, and that lack of value rightfully justifies inequalities of power.
Others may believe that equality of value can (and must, in this life) coexist with inequalities of power; every human soul has inherent value, but that doesn’t mean that every culture, gender and individual has the exact same rights and expectations as every other.
Personally, I think I lean more toward the belief that equalities of power and social hierarchies should be a direct reflection of the equal worth of every human. I’ll admit I don’t know exactly how that should look in reality – I couldn’t outline exactly what any of these beliefs would look like in practical life, but I think it is a great start to know which you believe and to understand other perspectives.
In our conversation, we took one step toward specificity with the next question we discussed: To what extent are women and men equal, and what are the implications of that?
I don't know if we ever answered that question at all. But we talked about gender as a virtue – as something an individual must intentionally pursue in order to live their best life. We pondered whether gender was defined by a universal or a particular: Is there a form of “masculine” and “feminine” that we as material humans naturally adhere to, or is masculine masculine because men have historically been this way and feminine feminine because women have historically been that way?
We didn’t have an answer to that universal vs particular question (who could?), but we took the virtue idea further. Perhaps, we wondered, it’s not a woman’s duty to pursue femininity and a man’s to pursue masculinity, but each sex should pursue both genders?
I think that gender oppression happens when a person is punished for exhibiting traits common to the opposite gender. Sexism is a woman being denied a position of power based on her sex, to be slandered for being domineering and physical rather than nurturing and submissive, to be rebuked for operating as the head of her household. Similarly, sexism in the form of toxic masculinity is when men are shamed or hated for showing tenderness, depth of emotion and other traditionally feminine traits.
In our conversation, we supposed that to truly consider gender a virtue, to be a full human, a woman must pursue her fair share of traditionally masculine qualities and a man his of the feminine.
I was surprised and relieved that my friends were willing to discuss that option – that regardless of sex we should all be both masculine and feminine.
For a long time, I hadn’t particularly cared about the concept of gender; I hadn’t really understood why it mattered or why anyone made such a fuss about it. Women were women, and men were men, and what good did it do to talk about it? But last semester, I read a book/collection of short stories called Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, and it opened my mind to exploring concepts of gender.
In one story, a drunk stranger walks up to a little girl and tells her a very strange, mysterious thing about gender. This passage has always stuck out to me, and it touches on a lot of these ideas – oppression, universal gender, virtue. So I’ll leave you with the words of the drunk stranger of Winesburg:
“There is a woman coming. I have missed her, you see. She did not come in my time. … I know about her, although she has never crossed my path. I know about her struggles and her defeats. It is because of her defeats that she is to me the lovely one. Out of her defeats has been born a new quality in woman. I have a name for it. I call it Tandy. … It is the quality of being strong to be loved. It is something men need from women and that they do not get. … Be Tandy, little one. Dare to be strong and courageous. That is the road. Venture anything. Be brave enough to dare to be loved. Be something more than man or woman. Be Tandy."