The funny thing is, though, that I have another reason for loving Halloween. I refer, obviously, to candy. Halloween is a night when we are supposed to pelt children in costumes with all manner of sugary treats. One wonders how this ever became popular, since each piece of candy likely translates in some linear, or even curvilinear, fashion into hours of lost sleep and frustration for parents, but what would society be without irrational passive-aggressive holidays? Now, I love pelting children with things as much as the next guy, so this is one practice I can really get behind. When I was a camp counselor, I was once told by the camp nurse to pelt the crap out of my charges with a sock full of cornstarch to prevent heat rash, so I know how cathartic a solid pelting can be. Yet, in four years at my current apartment, I have come to understand that there aren't any kids around here. Seriously. Usually, I only see a few kids belonging to other grad students. This year I saw but a single child, dressed up as a witch, and was otherwise undisturbed the entire evening.
Despite the fact that I know I will likely not see any trick-or-treaters, I still go dutifully to the store and load up on candy. This year it was snickers, butterfingers, hershey bars, and rolls of those little smarties that are bizarrely addictive. Yet, with the minimal attendance at my doorstep, even if I load my one or two trick-or-treaters down with candy, I am always left with a tremendous over-supply. This might seem like an unintended consequence but, as I'm sure you understand, it is secretely the entire purpose of the evening. You see, Halloween provides me with an excuse that I otherwise would not have: an excuse to purchase, and then consume, a variety of sugary treats. My normal logic that, "Whatever you eat you have to exercise off" is rendered moot by the more pressing logic that, "You have to be ready for the kids," which is then followed by, "You spent money on it, you may as well see it put to good use."
I was thinking about Halloween as my excuse for candy-eating, when it occurred to me to wonder if, perhaps, it's other people's excuse as well. Perhaps the success of Halloween does not lie in its appeal to children, but in how it provides a way for adults to partake in the sugary delights of their own childhood without feeling ridiculous. The children are, thus, merely a pretext concealing the reality of the holiday. This may come as no shock to many, and indeed is not intended to be all that surprising, but I like to pretend that I'm interesting or ground-breaking now and then. Bored yet? Good. Fuck you.
If we accept that the entire institution of Halloween in the United States is largely popular only as an excuse for adults to do something they want to do anyway, we must confront the idea that there may be other such bits of social construction hiding other institutions. What might those be, though? After all, the entire purpose of the system is to conceal true motivations, so how might we identify "real purposes" in our institutions? In thinking about it, only one example came readily to mind, and it isn't an observation I made first: rape.
I know, I know, I'm implying that rape is something people in society want. Well, back the hell off. That's not my meaning. Feminist theory has often claimed that we live in a "rape culture," or a society in which rape serves as a system of social control. Such was a major point in Susan Brownmiller's work on rape (reviewed previously on this site) and there is some persuasive and disturbing, as well as laughably absurd, evidence in support of such a contention. What we may have to consider, however, is another idea: that in addition to being a means of social control, rape may be a goal unto itself whose continued existence is supported by social mores and institutions.
Consider the "reasons" given for rape, by rapists, just for a moment. It has been claimed before that the rape of a woman was acceptable, justified, or motivated, by her being sexually promiscuous. The logic, of course, is that a promiscuous woman must be lying when she claims to have been raped or, if she was indeed raped, is not a "good enough" person to warrant the prosecution and incarceration of her attacker. Clearly, this rationale works as the difficulty sexually-liberated women have had in prosecuting rape cases is so well known as to be virtually cliche, and is all the more horrifying for that reason. Yet, the opposite extreme also serves as a justification for rape: she was just so pure, so uppity, such a goody-two-shoes, she was asking for it. The logic here seems to be that women should show proper deference towards men in all matters, and failure to do so justifies punitive action. It would seem that either conforming completely with female-specific behaviors, or conforming imperfectly, can be pressed into service as excuses for the rapist's behavior. In such a double-bind, it becomes obvious that a man who wishes to rape, for whatever reason, is enabled by understandings that provide a ready set of justifications, regardless of the actual characteristics of his intended victim. Much as Halloween provides a convenient pretext for my purchase and consumption of a quantity and variety of candy that I would otherwise find ridiculous, conceptions of masculinity, femininity, and their appropriate interaction provide a handy excuse for the would-be rapist.
This example is chilling, but might there be others? Indeed, I believe there are, though in this case they come more in the form of unintended consequences. I recently read Terry Arendell's "After Divorce: Investigations into Father Absence" (Gender and Society, 6(4). 1992. 562-586.) which examines the discourse of fathers who have experienced divorce. While I must comment that I am highly skeptical of Arendell's study, partly because I am prejudiced against qualitative interview-based research and partly because her analysis seemed more rooted in politics than science, I did find her article to be interesting in a way other than what she intended. Arendell observed that men sometimes employed absence from their children's lives, as well as the withholding of child support payments, as a tool to exert power over their ex-wives. Similarly, though this point was largely glossed over in the article, former wives might deliberately prevent ex-husbands from visiting with children, or might level charges of physical or sexual abuse, in order to exert similar power. While I would certainly concede that the continuing inequality between men and women grants men more tools to use in such circumstances, and that this places a consequently greater obligation on men to deal fairly with their ex-spouses, it does provide another example of pretexts.
In a case of divorce, one can usually assume a certain amount of conflict. Even the most amicable of divorces, after all, remain an instance of two individuals severing what was once a very intimate and significant bond. Even if both partners agree that it is for the best, the disruptions in living conditions, as well as the legal and economic complications that children bring to a divorce, are likely to play a role in generating some level of hostility between the marital partners. Such hostility, and the anger that it entails, can often engender a desire for vengeance. One might hope that such desires would be controlled but, as is often the case, all that is necessary is an avenue through which one or both parents may excuse their anger. What is needed is a pretext.
Unfortunately we have such a pretext in the form of the legal system. Our system of law is constructed from the ground-up as an adversarial system. The state becomes an adversary of a citizen in criminal law, and organizations or individuals become adversaries of each other in civil law. Even in cases where little or no animosity exists, the structure of the legal system creates participants as opponents. It is a social system that facilitates, rather than restrains, conflict. In cases of criminal or civil law where matters of justice, damages, remuneration are to be decided, such an adversarial system is quite reasonable. Divorce with children, however, is a somewhat different case. In such instances, the minimization, rather than the intensification, of conflict is of greater value. I am by no means blaming the legal system for making divorcing-spouses behave poorly, they are obviously capable of that on their own just as I am capable of purchasing candy whenever I choose, it is merely that the legal system channels interactions in such a way as to make recourse to pettiness that much easier to justify.
We might conclude, with no small amount of naivete, that what is needed is a non-legal, non-adversarial approach to divorce. I do not know if that is, necessarily, the case, however. As I have said before, men enjoy a power advantage in society. A non-adversarial system might benefit women, as it would restrain the supposed masculine affinity for conflict, but I am enough of a Marxist to think that social institutions tend to reflect the interests of the powerful. We have no reason to believe that any non-adversarial system we might construct would necessarily do anything except gag women, and provide men with a subtle knife with which to harm their former intimates. I like to think of myself as a relatively enlightened male, but when injured many of us lash out, and I am honest enough to know that not doing so is much more difficult when a weapon is ready at hand.
If not a less adversarial system, then, how might we reign in the violence of divorce? I can't claim to know, really, which should come as no surprise since I rarely propose solutions to the problems I discuss. Yet, still, I wonder if the solution isn't in the way that we men understand ourselves as fathers, and as men. For too long we have thought of ourselves as the rocks upon which families are founded. It is our financial success, our stern, disciplined charge into the battle of economic life that holds the line between life and death for our families. Such notions are little more than rubbish now, perpetuated only by antiquated conceptions of gender, and the reality of a wage gap that all too often provides men with power that is disproportionate to the ever-strengthening norms of gender equality. Embedded within this traditional concept of man-as-provider, however, is the kernel of an idea: a man is defined as a father by the economic role he performs for his family. When divorce occurs, however, the man is stripped of this shallow role, even as he retains a portion of the economic burden. To the men in Arendell's study, who describe the process in terms of a loss of rights, it is the theft of their very identity. They have become disembodied fathers, floating freely without the context in which such a social role must be lodged. Is it any surprise, therefore, that much as one loses interest in a workplace where one is no longer employed, many fathers slip out of a family that no longer provides a foundation for their role?
I do not propose that we blame mothers, or children, for depriving men of their role. I am too much of a traditonal man to place blame anywhere but where it belongs: with my fellow men, and myself. Our traditional approach to our masculinty is responsible for our distance from our children, and the ultimate vulnerability of our roles as fathers. We have built not genuine relations with our children and our wives, but have seated ourselves as spiders in the center of a web of power and dominance, in which our families are caught like hapless flies. In the past, such an approach was tenable, if only because our victims might escape only through death- either their own or ours. Now, however, such bonds are not unbreakable, and the mighty hand of the law (which is not always just) may reach in and flick us out of our webs at any time. Perhaps even more frustrating, it may pluck our victims from our grasp, leaving us as spiders with no prey. Power, without anyone over which to exercise it, is little more than self-delusion.
As a side note: Does anyone think I can squeeze even a smidgen of additional mileage out of that lousy metaphor? Speaking for myself, I sure as shit hope not. I'm getting nauseous.
We must undo this concept of fathers as providers, and instead create one of fathers as parents. We must become involved in the lives of our children, becoming figures providing love and guidance just as mothers have. Will this reduce the divorce rate? I'm skeptical of that, but so what? If we construct genuine relations with our children, will that not be motivation enough to approach divorce with civility and reason? If we come to know our children as people, and not merely as occupants of roles, won't that give us a place to locate our identities as men, and as fathers, even in times of divorce? Maybe it will, maybe it won't. I am not a father, and cannot claim to know for sure, yet I am hopeful. Such changes will be difficult, and I doubt that any generation I will live to see will fully realize such a change, yet for the good of our own sons, isn't it our duty to at least try? We may, perhaps, stand to lose some aspect of our traditional masculinty, but there is something even more meaningful that we might gain in return: The ability to truly know our own children.
Isn't that worth it?