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Inequality, masculinity & modernity


In the weeks and months after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, speculation swirled over the attackers’ possible motivations.  The pseudo-religious zeal of Mohammed Atta’s final letter to his comrades was only one aspect of it.  Attention also centered on the attackers’ possible socioeconomic motivations.  Many of the 9/11 terrorists seemed to fit the profile of the burgeoning masses of young men with dim economic prospects said to populate the Middle East.  And yet the ringleaders all had graduate degrees, often from European universities.  Their activities in the United States while biding time before the attacks demonstrated no lack of familiarity with American-style consumerism and modern masculine pastimes—including the seamier diversions of casinos and strip clubs.

Some of the socioeconomic analysis of 9/11 focused on the gap between educational background and actual opportunity that may have haunted the minds of the more educated attackers. In that analysis, their ambition may have been enough to get them out of their countries of origin and into European universities, but it also brought new knowledge of the gap between the limitations of their home countries and the affluence of the West.  Theirs was not a problem of absolute poverty, but of relative poverty. In their new environs, they could never quite fit in culturally—or perhaps religiously, morally, or spiritually—given the marginalization of immigrants that persists in many European countries even among immigrants who aspire to “assimilate.”

The spirit level of inequality and modernity

In the recent book, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, public health researchers Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, compellingly catalogue the overwhelming public health effects of inequality along a number of markers.  The authors never deal as directly as they might have with the spiritual level suggested in their book’s title.  But the implication is that inequality disintegrates not only societies, but the spirits of the individuals who inhabit them. And they do note that “more unequal societies seem more masculine,” (58-60, emphasis added) and “more hierarchical” (141, 200-207).  By Wilkinson and Pickett’s account of the upward trend in inequality, throughout the industrial era, but particularly the last half century, inequality seems to be a distinctly modern phenomenon as well.

This attention to inequality in public health comes at a time when economists are beginning to look at the connections between economics and identity.  It turns out that matter and spirit—money and soul—may not be as easy to separate as many religious traditions may suggest, with the bright lines they sometimes draw (or imply) between materialism and spiritualism.  Inability to procure the basic necessities of life, affluence aside, remains a problem in most of the world, and it is a problem with which more and more Americans are becoming intimately and painfully familiar in the Great Economic Recession.

As suggested in phenomena as diverse as the motivations of the 9/11 attackers and the recent self-immolation of the fruit-seller Mohamed Bouazizi that touched off the “Tunisami” (hat tip to Rashied Omar) of revolutions now sweeping North Africa and the Middle East, what is also emerging is a sense of the connection between inequality, masculinity, and modernity.  Observers have commented for decades now on the global “feminization of poverty.”  It may now be important to turn our attention to the “masculinization of inequality” as well.

Religion and globalization

Again, in the spirit of the animating question of the “Contending Modernities” project— “Where can Catholics, Muslims, and secular views come together to address the problems of modernity?”—the masculinization of inequality might be another problem to address.  On the Catholic side, at Notre Dame, the inquiry is already well under way.  This year’s Notre Dame Forum 2010-2011 has focused on “The Global Marketplace and the Common Good.”  In this impressive undertaking, scholars from around the university were given the common task of reading Pope Benedict XVI’s recent encyclical on economics, Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”) and journalist Tom Friedman’s book Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution. The result has been a series of events that have generated important interdisciplinary perspective on globalization, inequality, and the common good.

These issues need interreligious as well as interdisciplinary perspectives—and not just on the economic and technical issues that might lead to a green revolution, but also on the social and spiritual dimensions of these issues, which seem to be sparking a gender revolution.  The Catholic tradition has a long line of thought on economic matters, spanning a number of key papal encyclicals and exceptionally well represented in the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ pastoral letter, Economic Justice for All. That 1986 letter is a veritable Catholic “best seller” and is a staple of courses on economic ethics everywhere.  The Muslim tradition, born amidst both desert scarcity and ancient trade routes, has also had a significant focus on economic justice and globalization, centuries before globalization assumed its status as one of the great cultural and political buzzwords of our time.

The gender of humiliation

Where the Catholic and Muslim traditions might want to focus their long legacies of economic thought, together with secular and other religious counterparts, is on the spiritual questions that emerge particularly with economic justice and questions of gender.  For one of the great risks of economic inequality, both within particular societies and worldwide, is that it may produce toxic experiences and emotions of dishonor, shame, and humiliation.  Sadly, many women have such experiences and emotions in abundance through their poverty, objectification, exploitation, and subordination in cultures around the world.

But for many men in modernity, these are new experiences, and ones with which they seem poorly equipped to cope.  From Mohammed Atta to Mohamed Bouazizi, something is going on when even foreign policy and counterterrorism security wonks sense a masculinity problem.

Samia Bouazizi saw the problem when a policewoman slapped her brother across the face because he would not move the fruit stand from which he expected his meager earnings. She remarked of the incident, “She humiliated him. Everyone was watching. Our family can accept anything, but not humiliation.”  In the new era of inequality, masculinity, and modernity, humiliation—at the spirit level—is an intolerable condition we must redress, and one the Catholic and Muslim traditions have special resources for understanding and transforming.

Further reading

  • Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett  The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (2009)
  • Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild, Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy (2003)
  • Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (2009)
  • Isobel Coleman, Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women Are Transforming the Middle East (2010)
  • Reihan Salam, “The End of Macho,” Foreign Policy (July/August 2009).
  • “Man Up! Why We Need to Reimagine Masculinity,” Newsweek, September 20, 2010,
  • Hanna Rosin, “The End of Men,” The Atlantic Monthly (July/August 2010)
  • Dominique Moïsi, The Geopolitics of Emotion: How Cultures of Fear, Humiliation, and Hope are Reshaping the World (New York: Doubleday, 2009)
  • Karim Fahim, “Slap to a Man’s Pride Set Off Tumult in Tunisia,” The New York Times, January 21, 2011
  • Roger Cohen, “Facebook and Arab Dignity,” The New York Times, January 24, 2011

M. Christian Green is a visiting fellow at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. She most recently served as Alonzo L. McDonald Family Senior Lecturer and senior research fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University School of Law. Her research interests include law and religion, feminism and the family, human rights, comparative religious ethics, and religion and international affairs. Green is the editor of the Sharia, Family, and Democracy blog.

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