For the last six millennia, patriarchal societies based on wealth, power and consumption have caused the violent death of billions of people and driven the planet to the brink of extinction. Despite its obvious insanity, why is patriarchy still humanity’s default social system? Patriarchy instils a lack of inner authority that prevents us from overthrowing it.
The American phrase ‘You can’t fight city hall’ epitomises an individual’s lack of inner authority to change this toxic social structure, which is otherwise known as ‘the system’, ‘the machine’ or—from the 1999 film—‘the matrix’.
The American phrase ‘You can’t fight city hall’ epitomises an individual’s lack of inner authority to change this toxic social structure.
According to Dictionary.com, ‘You can’t fight city hall’ “transfers the seat of city government to a more general sense of bureaucracy in any sphere.”
Yet this phrase goes deeper than the vague red tape and general obstruction of bureaucratic organisations. It alludes to our inability to challenge patriarchy as our overarching social structure.
One of the reasons for this is we can’t actually see what that structure is.
That’s because its structure is not primarily formed of institutions or even laws. Its primary form is psychological—an invisible psychic spine that’s inside every one of us. This spine is hidden in our unconscious, which is sealed off from our conscious understanding by unconscious shame.
If we gain access to our unconscious we can gradually perceive the emotional mechanics that perpetuate the system, such as the 3 laws of patriarchy. These laws form the ultimate bureaucracy: the invisible ‘city hall’ of patriarchy.
Spare the rod
The phrase ‘You can’t fight city hall’ dates from the mid-1800s. Interestingly, child-rearing practices in America and Europe underwent significant change at that time.
For the previous few millennia, children were beaten into complying with and perpetuating patriarchy through the adage ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’. A beaten child lacks the inner authority to challenge the beater in any meaningful way. They may attack their attacker. In practice they’re more likely to grow into one, beating their own children to both express their rage and to normalise their own dysfunctional childhood through recapitulation.
Geographer James DeMeo traces the origin of anti-child violence to the rise of the earliest patriarchies around 6,000 years ago due to climate change in the deserts spanning the Sahara through the Middle East into central Asia.
The belief that children should be beaten into obedience is stoutly defended in the Bible, though softened in recent translations: “He that spareth the rod hateth his son; but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes [often].” Proverbs 13:24, King James Version (1611)
In an essay titled A Period of Ambivalence, historian John F. Walzer argues that in the eighteenth century a softer attitude emerged that replaced the use of the rod—beating in its many forms—with the deliberate shaming of children.
Walzer writes: “The relatively enlightened Puritan ministers Josiah Smith and John Barnard joined with their much more old-fashioned colleagues to suggest that shaming children was a legitimate and effective way to obtain desirable behaviour.”
As well as unquestioning obedience, this “desirable behaviour” included the total repression of anything related to what early Christian writer Tertullian (c. 155-c. 240) called “the parts of shame.”
The effectiveness of this method can be seen in the endemic sexual shame that still plagues the modern (and supposedly sexually liberated) world. The shaming of sexuality is an intrinsic part of our genetic inheritance—and hence an intrinsic part of our healing journey.
Walzer adds that the “Puritans admitted rather openly that their children were a means to an end: namely, the perpetuation of the parents’ life-style, or ideology.”
Just as the phrase ‘You can’t fight city hall’ refers to both visible (bureaucracy) and invisible (patriarchy) layers of institutional intransigence, Walzer alludes to both the visible (life-style) and invisible (ideology) constructs Puritans wanted their children to replicate.
Of these, ideology is key. A life-style is an external manifestation, a physical reflection of an underlying ideology. At its core, patriarchy is a psychological structure passed from generation to generation—with a built-in mechanism to ensure replication: the lack of inner authority.
Joseph E. Illick, Professor of History at California State University, writes in the essay Child-Rearing in Seventeenth Century England and America: “The attitude to be fostered in a child would have to be one of constantly questioning himself, making him feel inadequate, engendering self-doubt.”
In Childhood and Society, Erik Erikson dubs doubt “the brother of shame.”
This constant doubt surfaces in our lives as low self-belief, what’s colloquially known as a ‘lack of spine’. Patriarchy guaranteed the survival of your genetic line, your tribe, for thousands of years. Do you honestly think that you know enough to replace it?
And so we cling to our small lives, our small dreams; our anaesthetics—while the lumbering dinosaur of patriarchy inflicts its toll on the latest generation.
Yet not everyone seems to be affected by this lack of inner authority. The world is full of confident people living grand lives that many can only dream of. I would suggest that things are not as they seem.
The issue here is human sensitivity. Those who are less sensitive are less aware of their core emotional wounds. They are successfully repressed. They can cope with patriarchy’s emotional brutality and thrive.
When we experience a relationship breakdown, the death of someone close, a job loss or other significant trauma, the ‘lid’ that contains our repressed feelings may break. We then become aware of the toxic maelstrom of pain in our unconscious and set about the business of processing it.
Lack of inner authority
Ultimately, this leads to an awareness of our lack of inner authority. It’s felt as a painful buzz at the core of our being that’s literally vibrating us apart. The closer we get to it, the stronger it gets. It feels like we can’t get a grip on life.
This inability to get a grip on life lies at the heart of what I call the mother wound—humanity’s multi-faceted core wound that gave rise to patriarchy itself during the events that James DeMeo describes in Saharasia. This wound is based entirely on a lack of healthy emotional nurturing—the lack of nurturing that has plagued us since antiquity and is documented in Walzer’s and Illick’s essays.
No half-measures or Band-Aid solutions work here. There’s only one way to heal this lack of inner authority. Go to the end of the line and heal the mother wound. Here’s a toolkit to help you.