De-constructing sentiment 1: The Empathy Gap

Many men blame feminists for the fact that they feel marooned in the tidal movement of social change. But this is misplaced blame. Because their problems started much earlier than the birth of feminism. After all, feminism is a relatively new phenomenon. So there has to be something else at work in the background that has been causing hurt to men.

Actually, the reason why so many feminist ideas have gained such prominence has less to do with logic and truth than it does with sentiment. There is after all a disparity of sentiment between the genders which overwhelms factual evidence and undermines logical argument. The problem is that feminists did not invent this disparity. As Prof. Janice Fiamengo says, “Feminism didn’t create this asymmetrical concern out of nothing. It was already there in the DNA of our culture.” Feminists have certainly worked hard at amplifying it, and they have done so with the cooperation of important social agencies. But the truth is that it existed long before feminism.

Therefore the whole effort about men engaging in dialogue with feminists is flawed unless men understand the powers women possess, how they use those powers, and for what purpose. The dogmas of feminism are after all ultimately rooted in more general female attitudes that view relationships with males in terms of their value. This simple observable fact, coupled with the biological supremacy of females, normalises behaviours and attitudes towards men which would be considered farcical and unacceptable in any other context.

As far as the wider body of women goes though, they are getting a free ride. They may feign to keep their distance from the more extreme semantics of feminist rhetoric, and they may feign to excuse individual men. But they are complicit by their knowing silence, and they will continue that silence for so long as they see some material advantage in it. However, as soon as their expectations of material advantage start to be threatened, those women will be the ones to expose the self-interest and personal biases of their own presumptive leaders.

So it is a matter of the utmost importance to take a critical look at the disparity of sentiment between the genders. I have to start out though by first acknowledging the fundamental fact that babies are imprinted emotionally and psychologically through intimate contact with their mothers from the earliest moments of their lives, and throughout their most important formative experiences, with the presumption of female virtue and innocence. This presumption then becomes the bedrock for many of the illusions that benefit women exclusively. In particular, opening the door for what some writers describe as the ’empathy gap’ between the genders.1

One of the ironies regarding this issue is that even though the myths engendered by the presumption of female innocence require constant feeding, its own continued existence depends on obscurity. Therefore it requires some practice to follow. Nonetheless, there are signs to read, and it is worth the effort.

Jane Austen offers us some insight in her book Pride and Prejudice.2 This book is widely acclaimed by women as ‘inspiring’ literature, and we underestimate the coded meaning of such words at our peril. In fact there are very good reasons why so many women describe this work of romantic fiction in such a strange way. Because its whole narrative is about nothing more and nothing less than social climbing. In this context, Austen uses the hero (Darcy) to issue an important caution to women when he says,

“..there is a meanness in all the arts which ladies sometimes condescend to employ for captivation. Whatever bears affinity to cunning is despicable.”

By this warning therefore the author impresses on her readers how vital the appearance of innocence is to courtship. We can understand the necessity of this warning more clearly if we remember that the problems faced by rich people in Austen’s time are perennial problems faced by rich people even today. And one of the biggest of these problems is for them to know which person to trust when so many want to be their friend. Therefore Austen’s warning to women is that if you want to go up the social ladder, you have to maintain the appearance of sincerity. So this is the point about the presumption of innocence. It creates an atmosphere in which people can be easily manipulated and exploited.

The author further elaborates her point in the words of one of the sub-heroines. Her name is Charlotte, and it is this character who comments on the initial dislike of the main heroine Elizabeth, for the hero, Darcy. For the purposes of romantic and literary trickery Darcy must eventually win the approval of the heroine. But at the early stage of the story, Elizabeth is still not convinced. So Charlotte says, “…all her friend’s dislike would vanish if she (Elizabeth) could suppose him to be in her power.”2

This statement is one of those pivotal messages that explains a great deal about why this story is so admired by women. Because it suggests to its readers that a woman may forgive a man’s faults if it is to her benefit, and for the same reason, create an impression that he needs to be forgiven, even when he does not. Besides that, it reveals how the presumption of innocence bestows power. Because Austen’s heroine could not conceivably exercise power over the hero if he did not presume her to be innocent.

So by following the footsteps that Austen lays out for her like-minded readers, we can observe that this presumption of innocence lies at the heart of female power, and of female deception. In this context then, it becomes both natural and inevitable that so many women should work so hard to monopolise the perception of victim-hood.

By this stage now I imagine that some of you are looking for something to contradict. But please don’t waste your time contradicting me. It would be better if you direct your energies instead to the BBC. Because in 2004 the BBC3 arranged a survey of sorts to find out what books women found to be most inspiring. The Women’s Hour programme invited listeners to find the “top 10 novels that have changed the way we see women.” Programme listeners were asked to choose a life-changing book that “has spoken to you on a personal level – it may have changed the way you look at yourself or simply made you happy to be a woman.” And the winner by many thousands of votes was Austen’s book, Pride and Prejudice.

Doctor Lisa Jardine was chosen to lead this project, which was called Women’s Watershed Fiction, and she explained during her promotional interview with The Sunday Times that “women think deeply and strategically about forming relationships, whereas men don’t think about it much at all.” And then she added helpfully that, “…men could learn a lot from the books.”4

So there you have it, unintentionally one must presume, from a leading feminist historian. She said that, when it comes to relationships, women are strategic thinkers, and they are inspired by books like Pride and Prejudice. But what is it about this book, one should ask, or indeed any of the others that made the top 10 list that would make them appeal to the instincts of strategic thinkers? Well, the answer to that question becomes abundantly clear when we view Pride and Prejudice as a continuation of the princess stories. Think about it. What is the difference between Pride and Prejudice, and the earlier princess stories like Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Snow White, and Rapunzel? Actually, the answer is, not much. Because they all pursue a common theme of social climbing for girls.

There are of course some strategic differences. Because the earlier princess stories appeared, at least on the surface, to speak about the dreams of little girls. But Austen translated these childhood dreams in to the fantasies of adult women. She did away with the prince and his castle and kingdom. But she replaced them with a very wealthy aristocrat. She also disposed of the beautiful girl idea in favour of a grown up woman whose claim to attention and admiration rested on her wit. So from the point of view of strategic thinkers, Pride and Prejudice makes the justification and the rewards of the princess stories accessible to a wider range of women.

In fact this underlying trail of literary evidence begins at least from the medieval princess stories, then wends its way through the Georgian and Victorian parlour aspirations of writers like Austen and Bronte, and on in to some very modern tales of romance. So it is not a vague and accidental whim, nor even an astrological coincidence. However, it is demonstrably a very old strategy, and it is a strategy that depends entirely on the myth of female innocence for its efficacy.

This pattern of self-interest in the words and behaviour of women is revealing even when we allow it to stand alone, but it starts to acquire a more self-conscious complexion when we juxtapose it with the trail of story telling that has guided the footsteps of young boys throughout the same period. Because, in contrast to the succession of princess stories for little girls, little boys received their lessons in self awareness from stories like The Boy Who Cried Wolf, The Emperor with no Clothes, and The Adventures of Pinocchio.

By contrast with the princess stories, these stories offer no material reward to their heroes. Indeed, the experience of love enjoyed by the heroines of the princess stories is confirmed by the fact that they are freed forever from a life of poverty. But Pinocchio’s experience of love is the love of his father, which he has to express by working hard so that he can take care of him in his old age. The purely adult interest that fosters this idea is made clear when the good fairy finally concedes to grant the wish of Pinocchio5 to be a real boy. She says, “In reward for your kind heart, I forgive you for all your old mischief. Boys who love and take care of their parents when they are old and sick deserve praise even though they may not be held up as models of obedience and good behaviour.”

Unlike the princess stories therefore, there is no sympathy, nor admiration, nor even material reward to be found here. Even at the final moment when young boys might anticipate a happy ending, their minds are drip fed with grudging praise that they realise when they get older is no praise at all. The modern film version of Pinocchio omitted some of the moral hectoring contained in the original. But it compensated for that by introducing the idea that Pinnochio’s nose would grow longer when he told a lie, thereby including something from ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf.’ It should hardly come as any kind of surprise therefore that the myth of female innocence, and its converse argument about males is so deeply entrenched in modern culture. Of course it does not explain everything about how these myths are propagated, but it gives a good indication of the driving forces behind them.

These stories collectively don’t have any single origin or author, but they do collectively sort themselves in a pattern that conforms with female self-interest in a truly creepy way that is impossible to dismiss as coincidence. So this is where we find the motive that causes so many women to be so eager to denigrate men. It does have something to do with feminism, but it is in truth considerably older than the ‘newspeak’ of feminism.

It is therefore an inadequate response to address ourselves exclusively to the distortions of feminists, expecting that if only we could convince them to consider real evidence then we might somehow reach a common and logical understanding. The problem is that the behaviours which feminists exhibit are simply a modern iteration of an older and broader habit which will probably outlive feminism.

So it becomes obvious when we think about the princess stories that they play with our capacity for sympathy. That is not to say that they play with all of us equally, or in quite the same way. Because these stories heighten the capacity for sympathy in males, and heighten the expectation of sympathy in females.

The problem is, that when that sympathy is given, both males and females infer that justice is being done. But this perception of justice is not confined to feminists, nor is it limited to the larger constituency of women. Because it is also a perception indulged with just as much enthusiasm by an equal number of men. In other words, it uncovers a much wider existential problem that we could follow in to some very modern interpretations of justice. But I won’t go there right now. Except to acknowledge how often it happens that even when people think they are talking about justice, in fact they are being influenced by sentiment.

As time has passed, generations of women have accumulated these expectations of sympathy, and generations of men have been anaesthetised to the pain its absence causes them. Eventually the agents of commercial propaganda got involved, and for the purposes of seducing women, they magnified this disparity, and turned sympathy in to a commodity. Men can therefore haggle as much as they like with feminists, but advertisers welcome these arguments as a distraction from their own strategies. So they can continue to whisper ‘because you deserve it’ in the ears of a much wider female population, knowing that many of their listeners will translate those words as meaning ‘because he owes me.’

Another irony is that this propaganda is played out in the sly knowledge that men in general have an abundant capacity for the very thing that they are accused of lacking. Namely, sympathy. So it is a very narrow outlook to think only about the ascendancy of feminist semantics. Because one day it can be religion, and the day after that politics, and the day after that, as we have seen, it can be nouveau affections of social justice. The fact is that we are vulnerable to them all for so long as we fail to bring the manipulation of sentiment in to the light of day. This especially requires a new awakening in the consciousness of men, going beyond any consideration of their own presumptions about manliness.

In fact the manipulation of sentiment is a systemic problem in modern society. Which is not to say that it never happened before, but simply that the technologies that we have developed in the last century make it possible to mass produce and broadcast sentiment in ways that were never possible before now. This presents new challenges, because the manipulation of public sentiment is pertinent to the resolution of many critical issues, such as social equity, rational political governance, the volatility of stock markets, and so on.

The particular problem as far as men are concerned though is that the technologies and organisations that mass produce sentiment are under the influence of the propaganda agents of the consumer society, and those agents have established an exclusive alliance with women. The particular problem as far as women are concerned is that this alliance requires them to adopt behaviours that are costly to maintain and which are damaging to their well-being, and to the well-being of those around them.

I will discuss these issues in another post. But for the present, let me conclude by pointing out that sometime in the future men may have reason to look back on the historical ascendancy of feminism with some gratitude. Because it is attracting more realistic attention to the powers women exert through the use of sentiment, and how these same powers are used by other agencies.


[1] Equality for Men by Glen Poole
[2] Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen; 1813
[3] Orange Prize for Fiction: Women’s Watershed Fiction Long list announced, 2004
[4] Joyless Sex? A Great Read for Women, The Sunday Times, John Elliott 2004
[5] The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, 1883

The feature is image from Wikimedia Commons and is licenced under CC-BY-SA 2.0.

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