In 1972, Ann Wilson Schaef, an American psychotherapist, coined the phrase “white male system.” which is a consciousness that she says infects everyone living in western society. It’s a very addictive way of thinking and feeling that imprisons us, but we don’t know it exists because of how clever the system is. Imagine a prison cell with four walls which Schaef calls the four myths of modern manhood.
1. The white male system is the only thing there is – power, status, wealth are the goals
Power and wealthy are limited in this model so I have to hoard it or you will get it and I will not conquer. That’s why MORE! is the motto of the system. It’s an obsession with personal security based on external stuff. It doesn’t matter what we do to the planet in the process. And it doesn’t matter if I don’t have stuff as long as I follow someone who does. This makes everything aspirational. His life tells me that I could have stuff if I was like him.
Identity is found in usefulness, so I am what I do. If I cannot perform, I am of less value. Usefulness is given an economic value, and everything serves it.
Anything of potential economic worth must be possessed. There is no notion of stewardship and much less of kinship with any part of nature. A native American response to the invasion of the white male system on North America was this: “When the last tree is cut down, the last fish eaten, and the last stream poisoned, you will realize that you cannot eat money.”
In 2008 when Barack Obama became president for the first time, 35 people – almost all men – had as much wealth as half the world’s population. By 2016, that was down to 8 people – all white men – who possessed half the world’s wealth and one percent possesses more monetary wealth than the other 99% combined.
An American investment banker was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna.
The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.
The Mexican replied, “only a little while. The American then asked why didn’t he stay out longer and catch more fish? The Mexican said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs.
The American then asked, “but what do you do with the rest of your time?”
The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siestas with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine, and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life.”
The American scoffed, “I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat, you could buy several boats, eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing, and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually New York City, where you will run your expanding enterprise.”
The Mexican fisherman asked, “But, how long will this all take?”
To which the American replied, “15 – 20 years.”
“But what then?” Asked the Mexican.
The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part. When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions!”
“Millions – then what?”
The American said, “Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siestas with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”
Thomas Merton wrote “If I had a message to my contemporaries it is surely this: Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success . . . If you are too obsessed with success, you will forget to live. If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted.”
2. The white male system is innately superior
This wall of the prison cell creates a dualism that affects everything. If we are threatened or challenged by anything, we refer back to the fact that we have a better way, so the other must be wrong. We scapegoat them, they are stupid, bad. This creates inherent narcissism – which is ultimately void of life.
Have you noticed that you can admire perfection, but you cannot love it. Love requires identification, which requires some degree of empathy, and that requires struggle, failure, weakness, disappointment. It is around these themes that we deeply connect with one another and with our own lives. But if we believe we are right or have to look right, we will wear a bullet-proof vest around our hearts.
Because relational experiences are of little importance, they are relegated to day care centres at one end and nursing homes at the other, and nurses and teachers are the poorest paid professions in the west (and almost entirely filled by women), and yet the ones we intrinsically value.
If I am innately superior, I will confuse colonisation for engagement. I bring my better way to you to change the way you live. This is what passes for evangelism (which is a word that causes most people to recoil – and with good reason!). I ignore all the wisdom of “their” tradition because it is “primitive.” I can learn nothing outside my system because there isn’t anything outside my system that is empirically true – therefore I am immune to any critique of my system, because I am white, I am male, I am educated, I am heterosexual, I am Christian, I am western, therefore I know I am right.
Richard Rohr said “there are two ways of being a prophet: one is to tell the enslaved that they can be free. This is the difficult path of Moses. The second is to tell those who think they are free that they are in fact enslaved. This is the even more difficult path of Jesus.”
3. The white male system knows and understands everything
People in positions of authority know what is right for everyone so they define everything. Truth doesn’t matter – that’s why we are suddenly in a post truth world – because if it is different to what I want it to be, that is just lies spread by the media, or a conspiracy by governments, and truth is whatever I say it is.
This sees doubt and questions and faulty thinking. This even infects faith communities – the man (it is usually a man) tells me how to live, how to think, what to do with my money, my time. If it doesn’t work its because I haven’t tried hard enough or I have sin in my life. Suffering does not fit in the model because it is the enemy of power, status and wealth, so suffering is your fault, because my system is superior. You will notice how the walls of the prison cell hold each other up and reinforce the other walls, making it a prison from which you cannot easily escape.
So we make uninformed judgments about other cultures, other religions, anyone different to us. We discount or dismiss what we don’t know as unimportant. We seek to protect ourselves from “them”. We know we are right, because of the system. So we can never leave the prison cell of certainty. Certainty is the enemy of faith and curiosity and discovery and wonder and mystery, where our life is always hiding, waiting.
Rigid (rules based) responses are the only way to create a consistent, ordered society. An ordered society is one we can control. So we have organisations representing religion that attack people who don’t fit the system, which amplifies tribalism, which disconnects us from one another – even from others in the same belonging system, because they have to hide behind the masks to fit in the system.
Because I understand and know everything, I can debate, I can discuss, but I cannot dialogue with you. There is nothing you have to offer that I don’t already know. In fact, whatever you share is an opportunity for me to help you know what I know that will fix you or correct you.
The absence of dialogue is the root of the divisive nature of public debate on almost any topic. Social media has become the forum for polarising debate. Because I know I am right, and because you know you are right, we see everything through a binary lens. Everything is dualistic – religion, politics, gender issues, sexual orientation, education, everything is either or, because my belief is the only thing that exists. Educated liberal attitudes are as affected as uneducated, conservative opinions, because the white male system infects every sphere of society.
A person then is a problem to address, a challenge to confront. I need to be the expert and I will only identify the thing that I can test, measure and prove: Their thinking. The mind become a control tower where everything is evaluated empirically. Approaches that fit this framework are favoured over the slower, difficult to measure methods.
4. Being logical, rational and objective is the only truth
The problem with this wall of the prison cell is that being logical, rational and objective excludes the world of emotions, which excludes any depth in relationships. It confuses fact for truth, what I can measurable for what is real, and treats humans as objects instead of living beings. It ends up treating everything we encounter as ‘that’ instead of ‘this.’
Our actual lived experience – all our true spiritual energy – is found hiding inside things that you can’t be logical, rational or objective about. Love, suffering, death, God, eternity, sexuality – these are all trans-rational, you can’t figure them out with a MBA. Because of the white male system, our lives are hidden in plain sight. It usually takes a crisis or some kind of suffering to discover this.
Putting it all together, the white male system prison cell looks like this image on the left. As you can see, there is a payoff. The white male system gives you the illusion of control. And for men, this is often the most valued belief, because it assures me I will live forever, I will be able to turn off disappointment as easily as a tap. And there is much good about the white male system. We have answers for many of the questions of life. However, the moment it does not work, it leaves us feeling dazed and discarded.
Another description of the white male system would be the addictive system. We are addicted to a way of thinking that is anti-human because it’s not how we were created to live. But letting go is scary. Going towards something you don’t know feels dangerous, foolish. You’ll hear messages in your head like “your friends will think you are a tosser” or “that’s off with the faeries” or “I’ll turn into some kind of kook.”
There is a story about a buddhist monk walking with his novice alongside a wide river. The novice asks “tell me master, what is the river like? Is the water cold? Is it deep? Is the current strong? Do the fish bite? Will I drown?” This went on quite a while until eventually the monk said “let me answer all your questions” and pushed the novice in. Nothing can change until a man loses control, and experiences immersion.
So let me tell you about the Men’s Rites of Passage. Another way of looking at it is a detox from the white male system. You will be in recovery the rest of your lives, but you can’t start recovery without detoxing first. You don’t drive there; a bus takes the whole group to the venue, so there’s a clear demarkation from your ordinary life to this special time where everything is different. When you arrive, we take your wallets, phones, keys and watches off you. It’s extraordinary how tightly we cling to these security blankets of the white male system, especially the phone. But it doesn’t work out there – there’s no mobile signal. For five days, you are immersed in a world that invites you to discover your life within you.
Because being logical and rational is how you find security, we don’t use books and long teaching sessions. This is not a corporate retreat or strategies for success. It’s more strategies for enjoying failure! We use art, music, nature, silence, poetry to take you in and down to the depths. It might sound really scary, and the white male system will tell you it’s crazy. But a prison break is never going to be easy.
Because debate gets us nowhere, we invite you into dialogue with others at a depth few men have every known, especially safe dialogue where you won’t be fixed or corrected or advised but simply heard, honoured and known.
We have discovered that men’s liberation is even more difficult than women’s liberation. Even when we do recognise it, we believe that’s simply the way the world is, the way life has to be. But it is not the way life has to be. There is a way out.
A Sufi theologian translating the gospels from the Aramaic cultural lens interpreted the Beatitude “blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth to read “ripe are those who have made that which is rigid within them soft, for they shall draw life and strength from all creation.”