Propaganda and Patriarchy

A few weeks ago I was stirred by the following image, which has been doing the rounds on Facebook:

I have seen two very different people share this image, and countless other similar examples shared. Sourced from Facebook, apparently attributable to

I have seen two very different people share this image, and countless other similar examples shared.
Sourced from Facebook, apparently attributable to

For some audiences the message presented by the above image will strike a chord. To others it will seem very questionable. Personally, it got me thinking about the amount of politically loaded truth claims we share and observe on social media daily.

Messages such as the one presented above assign the good to one camp and the bad to the Other in an attempt to reduce complexity into a binary, which may then be identified with politically. In this sense such messages represent a political technique which may fairly be called propaganda, that is: “information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view” (thanks Google dictionary).

The proliferation of such propaganda is justified by an appeal to the simplicity of the message, and thus to a perceived (or projected, or internalised) lack of thoughtfulness (or time to think) on the part of the audience. Such simplicity plays a double role: 1) It provides the audience with easily memorable sound-bites which may be consumed and then regurgitated with minimal effort, thereby helping to spread the message; 2) If need be, it allows for a shifting of the goal-posts, whereby the shortcomings of the message can be shifted onto the simplicities of the sound-bite (which may then be defended on grounds of being a sound-bite).

For instance, in the above image patriarchy is presented as the common-enemy, which is to blame for all the bad things. The nature of patriarchy is not touched on, other than in terms of its badness. Likewise, just how the patriarchy goes about “saying” the things that it supposedly “says” is left to the imagination. In either case, what the patriarchy is saying is definitive and direct: “men are stupid”, etc. Feminism is presented in opposition to the common-enemy, as a potential solution for the bad things and promoter of good things. An interesting note with this example is that, while the image is most certainly saying something, the message is distanced from feminism itself, which (unlike patriarchy) merely “holds” rather ambiguous and positive beliefs and expectations (this distancing can also be observed in the image bellow).

At this point it is worth stressing that a message will generally only appear as blatant propaganda to the eyes of its critics, wily developers, and less-partial-much-more-cautious readers. The rest of us are more forgiving. On this count one need only replace the nouns in the message with alternatives to see whether the same effects listed above are achieved. For instance, it is easy to imagine the word patriarchy being replaced with other words: “It is religion which says men are stupid…” “It’s Darwinism that says men have animalistic instincts…”  “It’s capitalism that says men can only be attracted to certain qualities…” Likewise, feminism can be replaced with other words, be they to do with some other religion, political organisation, or figurehead: “Shia LeBeouf holds that men are capable of more – are more than that”. In every case and no matter the content, I (perhaps naïvely) hope that thoughtfulness and discussion will be encouraged, and the reactionary responses which would curb such engagement discouraged. In other words, I want to stress that the endorsement and sharing of such propaganda is not limited to any particular group – I’m sure that those of you with a wide social network on Facebook will see many other examples of such material before the week is through.

However, I do think an empirical point can be made for some groups operating across different mediums, regions, and domains making more use of such techniques at different times than others. In regard to my own experiences as a Western Australian academic with a social network comprised mainly of working class and educated people located in the U.K and Australia, the examples which I have been seeing the most are to do with Islam as the common-enemy and Australian values as the potential solution (see below), and (to a much greater extent) material such as that presented in image included at the top of this post.

Unfortunately, nosebleed material like this is presented to me weekly. This is a relatively mild example, and thus only implies the perceived common-enemy. Please note that I do not support this message. Indeed, anyone who does should have a chat with me some time, as I'd love to try to change you.

Unfortunately, nosebleed material like this is presented to me weekly. This is a relatively mild example, and thus only implies the perceived common-enemy. Please note that: 1) I do not support this message. Indeed, anyone who does should have a chat with me some time, as I’d love to try to change you. 2) I am not comparing the groups behind the images included.

For those living in different contexts I’d be interested to hear of your own exposure to and observations of such social artifacts!

Now! With all this talk of engagement, I thought I’d share my contribution to a discussion on patriarchy, which took place around the time that I first came across the image featured at the top of this post. The discussion followed a provocative episode of Triple J’s radio show “Hack”, and was to do with the perceived unwillingness for both feminists and victims to talk about domestic violence perpetrated against men. What follows is my response to the following question, in which I try to wrap my head around and express my thoughts on the notion of patriarchy as it is so often used by the community I am embedded in:

Q. “But wait, don’t you think it’s part of patriarchal discourse not to talk about violence against men, not just part of feminist discourse?

A. “That’s a good question! I’m going to number this, as it might be a few blocks:

  1. I don’t think of either the words ‘discourse’ or ‘patriarchy’ as being adjectives that can be applied to everything. In other words, I don’t think that any and every event can be looked at and convincingly brought under the heading of a single discourse or ‘patriarchy’. (I understand that ‘patriarchy’ can be used to talk about less grand things, like the oldest son inheriting the land and so on, though this anthropological point is clearly not what many of those who now use the term are getting at).
  1. This is because discourses are (among other things) about distinctions (that is, distinguishing ‘this’ from ‘that’). If there were: 1) no limits to its application, or 2) no limit on how it could be reconceptualised in order to apply to any situation, then it would no longer mean anything to me, other than perhaps being a grand narrative that I’ll never ever be able to get my head around (though I understand that in such instances people can be encouraged or pressured into acting as if such notions were meaningful nonetheless – though this in itself is not enough to imbue something with meaning)
  1. That said I understand that ‘patriarchy’ is generally used to describe a ‘social structure’/’system’ – however I often think that these words are rarely understood as I understand it (though I’ll continue treating them as interchangeable in order to avoid going too far down the lane of Systems Theory). For instance, if, on the one hand, the intention is to refer to patriarchy as being ‘structural’ then this would describe a quality of a structure, rather than a whole social structure. For instance, if I refer to theocracy as a social structure, then particular traditions or religious attitudes within that theocracy would be structural, rather than the whole social structure. To refer to the structural components as the whole social structure would be akin to referring to a cog as a machine, a tree as an ecosystem, or a part as an apparatus (granted, such comparisons are here only intended to engage the imagination).
  1. With this in mind, even if ‘patriarchy’ was seen as the ‘whole social structure’ it must still have limits. For instance, there are elements of the economy or the legal system or the scientific enterprise that are distinct from religion. Thus even in a theocratic system ‘theocracy’ wouldn’t be the ‘whole social structure’, but rather one particularly influential (and indeed, in respect to itself, ‘whole’) social structure among many. In a similar fashion, to see the notion of patriarchy as referring to a ‘whole social structure’ that can be applied without limit as a grand account for every other ‘whole social structure’ would lead us back to points 1 and 2.
  1. That said if, instead being a structure, ‘patriarchy’ is meant to refer to a discourse, then I can understand why both the feminist and patriarchy discourse, as well as many other discourses, can frame and reveal and omit and render the same event in different ways. Thus talking about/not talking about violence can be ‘a part of’ these two discourses, plus a religious one, plus a psychological one, and so on. However, I think there should be limits to this too, because otherwise you could have replaced the word ‘patriarchy’ with any of these other discourse in order to answer the question “is violence a part of the patriarchy discourse?” with an honest though unsophisticated “yes”.
  1. However (and this would probably make a few people go red in the face), I don’t really recognise ‘patriarchy’ as a discourse. This is because, so far as I know, I don’t frame etc. all the things I come across or think or do in terms of patriarchy, nor can I try to in a meaningful way. In contrast, the feminist discourse has an intellectual history and set of coherent assumptions, accompanied by concepts and notions which feminists have worked at, or which have developed over time out of wider contingencies. The same goes for the biomedical discourse, or a religious discourse, or scientific discourse, and so on.
  1. Even with all their mysteries in toe, the none-deliberate and contingent parts of discourses can work to frame, reveal and hide aspects of the world in a way that doesn’t violate the points I’ve so far raised. For instance, particular understandings of, say, masculinity weren’t all penned out deliberately, but developed over time and across a range of events. Yet it is still very clear that these contingencies have become part of a wider and coherent discourse to do with masculinity. In this sense many of the distinct parts of ‘the masculine’ may come into the purview of ‘patriarchy’. However, without an ample capacity for charisma on the part of the speaker, attempts to ascribe ‘masculine characteristics’ to whole social systems (as patriarchy often supposedly does) are often far from convincing.
  1. (This is more of an anecdotal point, and is almost certainly misplaced.) If anything, the only time I see the term patriarchy being use in any of the senses mentioned from points 1-7 is in the feminist discourse. Just the other day I saw a photo posted saying something along the lines of “it’s the patriarchy which tells boys that they’re useless, feminism tells them that they’re worth something”. This sounds like an extreme example, but I see such things every week posted by dozens of people. I see it too in feminist literature and lectures and so on, though rarely elsewhere. At times it’s as if what patriarchy is to feminism is comparable to what sin is to religion, the Other is to nationalism, or madness is to the psychosciences. In other words, I only ever experience patriarchy as it is revealed to me by the feminist discourse. In this sense, it often seems to me that patriarchy is a part of the feminist discourse. Please note! This isn’t necessarily a bad thing! For instance, alienation (which is a bad thing, though awesome concept) can be said to be a part of Marxist discourse, much to its merit.
  1. (last one!) If the response to all of this is that I cannot ‘see’ patriarchy as it is often meant by some of the terms users, or that I’m otherwise incapable of ‘understanding’ it because I am too deeply embedded in it, then my response could be even longer than this one.”

I know there will be many problems with my reasoning, so please feel free to engage. Ideas for sound-bites are especially welcome.


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11 Responses to Propaganda and Patriarchy

  1. Mark says:

    I agree with the fact that this is way too much slippage around the term “structure” – I think what people may mean when they say it is actually “ideology” – that is, what supports a false consciousness (so a Marxian/Frankfurt understanding). So far so good.
    I think where things start to go awry is in point 6, when you say you don’t perceive patriarchy as a discourse. If discourse works by rendering some things disclosed, and other things concealed, which I think you have argued that it does (and I would agree), then for a phenomenon to be discursive in this sense, it would work in that way – that is, in rendering some things visible and some things invisible. This would mean that it might be one of the functions of patriarchy – if it is discursive in this sense – to conceal the fact that it is rendering its own presence invisible. And, of course, this is exactly what we say about other such discourses – such as Orientalism – these are ways of not only “othering” certain types of people, but also (and here is the rub) of concealing the fact that this othering is actually taking place. We look back on “Plain Tales from the Hills” by Kipling and notice immediately his othering stance in relation to the native Indians he describes – but this would not have been at all visible to Kipling’s readers (the same may not be true of Kipling himself, it’s quite difficult to determine whether or not he is taking the piss sometimes). The test of something being discursive, then, is to be able to step away from it and notice its presence disclosing and concealing.
    TL; DR: I think you are incorrect to state that patriarchy is a discourse, and (this is an addition, sorry), discourse is too easily misunderstood in this way, and is probably a term that we should discard or replace).

    • Good stuff, Mark.

      I certainly agree with your point on the possibility for discourses to conceal themselves. For instance, people regularly slip into the psychological discourses by adopting its terms without recognizing that they are doing so. On top of this (though this a more contentious point) some discourses can make it difficult to get a clear idea of what is going on, be it through obfuscation or rhetoric – this does not so much speak to the ability to ‘reveal’ or ‘hide’, but rather to obscure.

      The reason I say it is contentious is because even here I think we can speak of distinctions and conceptual boundaries, if not between the things being framed by the discourse, then in regard to the concepts used by the discourse (i.e. conceptual circle-jerks).

      This speaks to the difference between, for instance, doxa and discourse. Doxa (if I’m not mistaken) supposedly refers to the limits of how we make sense of the world, and can can include all sorts of contradictory discourses alongside one another. Thus, to compare our own contexts to Kipling’s, the injustices that future generations might condemn us for, and which we are oblivious of, are outside of the current doxa.

      On the other hand, while discourses can often contradict and obscure themselves, they nevertheless tend to have some kind of distinction or conceptual boundary that we can discuss. Thus psychology is to do with mental illness, and not to do with justice; feminism is to do with sex and gender, and not to do with ecology, and so on. The peculiar thing about ‘patriarchy’ is that it is at once to do with the law, with religion, with economics, with micro social interactions and macro social events, with psychology and science, with my own self-esteem, with the temperament and treatment of the sexes, races, and so on.

      My contention is that, while the conceptual barriers may have once been distinct (e.g. to do with social organisation according to the masculine), they (and thus the coherence of patriarchy) have been overextended. However, I understand that I may well be erecting artificial barriers for the sake of my own understanding. After all, sociological concepts don’t all need to be rigorously defined in order to stimulate the imagination. For instance, Bourdieu (seeing as I’ve mentioned doxa) preferred to characterise concepts in different ways in order to express a kind of theoretical stance/broad sociological disposition toward the world (for more info on this see Brubaker’s ‘Social Theory as Habitus’ 1993). In this respect I’m quite comfortable to admit patriarchy as being something of a discourse (though for the time being I stick by my point that it is generally expressed as an ancillary notion in feminist discourse, rather than as a stand alone discourse).

      However, for the time being I don’t see any reason to make a similar concession in regard to treating patriarchy in terms of a social-system or over-arching social-structure. This is because I think these notions should remain more rigorous than ‘discourse’, if only to preserve the possibility that they can be discussed in more or less distinct terms for the purposes of social theory.

  2. Mark says:

    The first line of my “TL:DR” should be “I think you are incorrect to state patriarchy is NOT a discourse …”
    Thankyou. As you were.

  3. Ben says:

    I think I do understand partiarchy, and it’s study does have value. But I don’t Believe it is the most useful way of viewing the world, explaining power structures, or bringing about liberation.

    • Thanks for the comment, Ben. The question o useful ways of viewing the world is certainly something worth thinking about. Feel free to share ways that you find particularly useful! Otherwise, please stay tuned for future posts 🙂

  4. Mark says:

    Once again, the comment about psychology being about mental illness and not about justice suggests a misunderstanding of the concept of discourse. As well as the scope of psychology, which is discursively the dominant discourse in late modernity. The reason I say this is precisely because it is so pervasive that its effects usually remain unnoticed – it is simply regarded as “common sense.” Many of us would not blink at the Family Court’s standard in child related matters – what is of most importance is the “best interests of the children.” Justice is not absent from this concept, but former ideas of the meaning of justice – that it refers to ruling in terms of the truth of events – have been displaced. The standard in an institution that is purportedly fundamentally concerned with the implementation of justice has been thoroughly psychologised.
    I give this example because it relates specifically to the contention that psychology is not about justice, but many others can be used. We just have to go back through the history of thinking to see that psychology has not previously had the exalted position it does now (and of course, in the modern sense of referring to a set of practices and concepts related to the effect of the unconscious on behaviour and action, it didn’t actually exist prior to the twentieth century). But the point is deeper. A discourse – or an ideology is that is preferable, it is to me – exists whenever we start to view something as common sense, when really it is something that should be critically interrogated. That is why feminists (and I consider myself one) continue to critically interrogate patriarchy – attempting to render the assumptions latent within it visible. Is there a tendency to slippage, whereby patriarchy ends up being the big bad wolf behind everything wrong with the world? Yes, and you are right to call that out. But it should come as no surprise that patriarchy is only identified as discursive by feminist interrogation.

    • Thanks again, Mark.

      It’s a good example, and does well at demonstrating how different discourses can intersect throughout their histories and in their practices. I agree that discourses become common-sense in daily life, and thereby a different kettle-of-fish to discussions which try to theorise them as distinct entities. In this sense, psychology can certainly be to do with justice. I tried to make this clear in point 5, though I can see how the other seemingly more hard-line points may have overshadowed this. Thanks for clearing that up!

      Again, I want to make it clear that I am not saying that the ‘discourse’ of patriarchy being ancillary to the broader discourse of feminism is a bad thing. Moreover, I am not surprised that patriarchy is identified as discursive be feminist interrogation. If anything (aside from pointing out an analysing propaganda on social media), this post was about pointing out this disproportionate relationship between the two, whereby one reveals and frames the other. I think the fact that I had to clear that up is significant, so in the next comment I’ll turn from theory to a personal statement to do with identifying as a feminist.

      I also understand your effort to treat discourse in a similar way to how we might treat an ideology. For the time being I’m interested in developing and therefore hopefully understanding concepts in a rather limited (though potentially more productive) way. This presents a good opportunity to make my own understanding of ideology clear.

      My treatment of the concept is influenced (and quite upset by) Huaco’s 1971 essay ‘On Ideology’, which argues that: Ideological phenomena include a minimum of three separate and distinct elements or factors. It follows that any two-factor conception of ideology is necessarily inadequate”. These three elements are:

      1. Falsity: which may be traced back to Marx.
      2. Social role: which may be traced back to Parsons (I have to admit that I haven’t read much Parsons, though I’m sure you can imagine what Huaco is getting at by conceding that even a thing like false-consciousness can have a social role).
      3. Isomorphism: which explains the maintenance and reproduction of ideology. There’s a lot going on in this last one, and it relates back to the notion of ‘common-sense’, so I’ll quote straight from Huaco (1971: 254): “Isomorphism does more than duplicate; it also sets the limiting assumptions of a class or an epoch… they structure the common-sense view of the world held by most men in a given society.”

      It is this third element of ideology which overlaps most with your understanding of discourse (which need not have to do with the Marx’s or Parson’s use of the word). After all, discourses are generally built around and traceable to rather distinct bodies of knowledge and assertions about the world which frame and influence the way that further knowledge and assertions are developed. They can also be integrated into popular parlance and eventually structure the common-sense view of the world. In this sense, a discourse can certainly become part of ideology, which can in turn influence the development of the discourse. Does this reflect your understanding of ideology?

      I’d love to hear about whatever distinctions you make between discourse and ideology.

  5. In regard to feminism.

    I hoped it would be clear that, while this post was to do with feminism, in the main it was not a post about feminism itself. However, a number of responses have made it clear that a few things need to be set straight. In truth I suspected this might happen, as feminism is a fascinating and popular topic of discussion that many people are deeply invested in. Moreover, as a political movement, it is not enough to discuss feminism as one would other theories and ideas – rather, one is expected to identify themselves before the movement. So here is a personal reflection on where I think I’m at with feminism:

    For many years I have identified as a feminist. Initially I was encouraged and occasionally pressured to do so by people who didn’t seem to mind whether I understood the movement or grasped its tenants. After a while I became quite invested, to the point that reading or hearing criticisms would unsettle me emotionally, make my ears heat up and go read, and cause me to adopt a reactionary posture which (in hindsight) almost always worked to render the speaker as the immoral and naive Other.

    Eventually started to frame information and events through a gendered lens, whether or not it was relevant. Indeed, I’d strain to do so, settle for just about any successes in my attempts, and then treat them as though they were inescapable. Moreover, I had been provided with popular responses (sometimes thoughtful, though more often dismissive and silencing) to criticisms whereby my own lack of reflection was encouraged by a sense of belonging to a group which had an answer for every thing. For instance, there were a number of instances in which I would scoff at friends who would say things like “not all men” or “I have friends who are gay”. I ignored the fact that these people, who had not gone to university or read the same blogs as me, were merely expressing their own experiences. Instead I pigeonholed them and felt right to do so. Generalisations, at least of this sort, were permitted.

    However, as I became an increasingly critical thinker, I started to notice these poor habits. I noticed how they blurred the lines between theory and a social group, and analysing and antagonising. I observed countless times when questioning a feminist argument or trying to clarify a questionable concept has been discouraged, either implicitly (through a culture which treats access to the discussion as a technical problem according to race and gender) or explicitly through what I consider to be bullying.

    Attempts to address this often resulted in the seemingly acceptable widespread use of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy, or further discouragement which trivialised (or ‘Otherised’) my own lived experiences by telling me to ignore what I was seeing daily. These responses seemed to coincide in an unspoken implication that “feminism is elsewhere”.

    It is this lack of clarity, along with the tendency to suppress what Habermas would call an “ideal speech situation” which has left me rather unsettled after many years of identifying myself as a feminist. Moreover, I think that the amount of anxiety that I feel about contributing to the discussion in an intellectually honest way, and the fear that I will be misunderstood (seemingly in spite of my best efforts to me clear) and therefore seen as somehow immoral is significant to these reflections. Finally, I do not think these experiences should be individualised as an isolated a personal problem that is confined to me, for I am not special. Indeed, I know for a fact that I am not alone in this, and that my experiences and concerns are shared by many.

    I still identify as a feminist. Though I find it increasingly difficult to identify with feminism.

  6. Thinking about the use of patriarchy-as-big-bad-wolf reminds me of Wittgenstein’s language games. What appears dogmatic to some demonstrates camaraderie to others – and conflict is perhaps as much about misunderstanding as opposing opinions. I cringe when in the presence of someone more concerned with the form of my words than the intended content of my expression. Some people seem more concerned with boxing-off the world – rendering it consistent in their own minds – than testing the cogency of their own understanding of others. This is, by definition, prejudice/bias.

    If patriarchy is taken to be (at least somewhat) discursive in nature, then it should be defined as other discourses are: substantiated within a community of discourse (i.e. those that develop and use it), technological by nature (as discourses are regulated forms of language) and plural. The discourse of patriarchy is as fluent and multiple as are the communities which invoke it. Academic feminism is perhaps most consistent in attempting to use a more rigid form (as academic discourses tend to solidify via texts and academic communities), whereas the propaganda that you’ve identified is much harder to attribute. It seems to me part of a digital literacy (I’m not familiar with the organisational logo on the bottom of the image). Taken literally, it seems absurd that “patriarchy” should “say” anything, as patriarchy (as understood within academe) is a social structure – a term denoting a sum of forces, discourses, power relations and materiality. “Patriarchy” in the propaganda seems to be equated with gendered inequality itself: it is far removed from the more academic understanding and it therefore seems futile to attempt to measure it by the academic definition. The personification of patriarchy as that-which-says “x” is involved in a different language game than the academic ‘truth game’. Its game seems to be concerned with – as you’ve noted, Christian – with spreading “the message” that feminism is a good.

    I think I share your apprehensiveness with identifying with “feminism”. Certainly, I hold feminist values and would call myself a feminist if the question was posed, but I would always qualify this claim by asking “what do you mean by feminism?” just to ensure that I was making some specific claims. I cannot control the total context of what “feminism” is and the variety of feminisms (especially those alleged feminisms which invoke censorship) warrant my qualification. At the very least, I hope that asking for this qualification will open up conversation and pull both conversational partners towards a language game which is mutually beneficial. If I weren’t so lazy, and were choosing to be more accurate, I would say that I am a series of patterns which looks like a male homosapien, sounds like a squawking ape, always smells vaguely of coffee and also believes in the value of feminism (as a set of ideals) and patriarchy (as a feminist discursive tool).

    Okay, I think I’ve ranted enough. Time for sleeps. 🙂

    • Well put, Fabian. I totally agree with just about all you’ve said. To be honest, I think I should have tinkered with the part on discourse a bit more before taking it from one discussion thread and posting it on this blog. I certainly share your frustration with people who refuse to try to understand what is being said unless the language used is absolutely accurate (as though such a thing was possible).

      What I’ve tried to get at here is that the actual application (and to an extent, meaning) of the word ‘patriarchy’, as it tends to be used by people in my community, is generally more perplexing than anything else. On the very night of posting the original blog, a friend of mine described the patriarchy to me as being almost synonymous with white imperialism. A few nights prior, another person had described it in terms of something completely different, to do with internet bullying and so on. One was an academic type, the other was not.

      Perhaps the confusion has sunk into my bones… it seems my response was to try to “reduce complexity through complexity” – albeit on my own limiting terms.

  7. Looking back over this I can’t stop cringing over the spelling and grammar. Do people recognise material written on an old iPad when they see it?

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