Stereotypical Manners?


Just as in the first chapter, the second chapter of Aimee Byrd’s book on male/female friendships contains a real tension at the heart of it. And given how she states her concerns, I can’t see any way of resolving that tension. Another way of putting this is to say that Aimee Byrd has complaints about our manners, but no solution to our problems.

The Tension:

In the first place, we see plainly, very plainly, that she takes a dim view of stereotypes. They are simplistic, and reductionistic. Stereotypes: “we don’t reduce “ (Loc. 495) “that stereotyping blocks growth” (Loc. 507) “that align with conventional beliefs and hinder their ability to grow” (Loc. 509). “Women are stereotyped” (Loc. 509) “Men are stereotyped” (Loc. 510). “These stereotypes” (Loc. 514) “Still, they contribute” (Loc. 515). “Stereotypes can be even subtler” (Loc. 516). “Scripture turns stereotypes upside down” (Loc. 522). “we fall into objectifying or stereotyping men and women who are made in the image of God” (Loc. 440). “Reductive” (Loc. 566). “How could such renowned philosophers [Aristotle and those guys] stereotype women in the most reductive way?” (Loc. 569). “Let’s not reduce our brothers and sisters in” (Loc. 607). “be reductive” (Loc. 573) “turns stereotypes upside down” (Loc. 574) “However, much Christian writing has reduced us in this same way” (Loc. 588) “Our holistic personhood is not valued” (Loc. 449) “Not only do we need to look at individuals holistically” (Loc. 611). “That means we need to view our sisters and brothers holistically, not just physically” (Loc. 487).

In short, stereotypes > bad. That is one side of the equation.

But the other side of it is this:

“Paul didn’t describe androgynous function and relationships between men and women, but he smashed down unnecessary cultural stereotypes” (Loc. 564).

So on one end of the scale we have biblically defined roles between men and women, and concomitant necessary cultural stereotypes about men and women, and on the other end we have “reductionistic” and “unnecessary” cultural stereotypes. Great. How do we tell the difference?

Reasonable and Unreasonable:

Now this presents a real challenge. Describe for me a society full of men and women who are distinctly masculine and feminine (which Byrd sees as desirable), who have non-androgynous functions, and non-androgynous relationships, without that giving rise to what any number of women would regard as offensive stereotyping—even if Aimee Byrd did not regard it that way.

We could be talking about large-scale important issues (the men go to war, and the women have babies), or we could be talking about the small scale cultural echoes of the large issues (the men take out the garbage, and the women make the biscuits). We could defend it by saying that certain cultural stereotypes are necessary

What this means is that the definitions of all such things will be put into the hands of the offended. What is a stereotype? What is an unnecessary stereotype? It will become anything that makes a woman feel stereotyped.

“I can’t tell you how many times I have felt less like a human being, a sister in Christ, and more like a threat” (Loc. 606).

In order to avoid this trap, Byrd has an obligation to define and describe the difference between a necessary non-androgyny and unnecessary stereotypes. Suppose someone is persuaded by her position in the abstract, and says that he wants to walk in accordance with what she has described. The problem is that she hasn’t described it—just outlined it. There is apparently a country called Unnecessary Stereotypes, but she has not yet told us where the border is.

Here it is again.

“Rather than upholding a call to healthy relationships between the sexes, we draw unreasonable lines” (Loc. 589).

She has given a number of examples of what she considers such an unreasonable line. Here’s one:

“Let’s be careful not to make blanket judgments that cross-sex texting or emailing are signs that an affair is imminent” (Loc. 604).

If she were a radical egalitarian, she could do this all day. But she is not. She acknowledges that there are biblically defined roles. For example, I am sure she would agree that men are called to preach the Word, and rule in the church, and women are refused such an office (1 Tim. 2:12-15). So if she wanted her book to be really helpful, she would show what such healthy relationships between the sexes might look like; she would describe some reasonable lines for us.

If any subculture (like the Christian subculture) grants that there are creational roles for men and for women, and if that is taken as a non-negotiable, then of necessity, certain lesser cultural roles will take shape (not specified in Scripture). These lesser cultural roles are called stereotypes by their enemies. But what do their friends call them? We call them customs and manners.

Only an idiot would think that women are incapable of opening their own car door. Only a greater idiot would think that Scripture requires men to open their wives’ car doors. But the fact that we do so is a reflection of our commitment to a foundational reality, and as we honor our women in the lesser things we are honoring the greater testimony of Scripture at the same time. But if someone doesn’t like it, it is the work of a moment to sneer at the stereotyping. Not only so, but if it is labeled as a stereotype (“the delicate little woman can’t get her own car door open”), it is the work of another moment to show that it was an unnecessary stereotype. The world didn’t end when the men stopped walking around the car.

What such manners do is that they orient the general population. People know what to expect from others, and they know what others expect from them. When you remove such restraints, manners, and customs, you leave everyone to their own devices and you see what we are currently seeing, which is a race to the bottom. If men are not taught how to treat a lady, then they will do what they feel like doing to her, which is to stare at her chest. If women are not taught how to carry themselves as ladies, then they won’t. And that is where we are now. We are living in the middle of a comedy of manners in a world without manners.

It is true that when a society is governed by various customs and manners that are not grounded explicitly in Scripture, some people will start to abuse those customs, or handle them in a wooden manner. This is how necessary customs can turn into harmful stereotypes.

“Masculinity’s machismo portrayal in much Christian literature leaves men who are less physical and aggressive feeling like they are less of a man” (Loc. 517).

Leaving aside for a moment the claim that modern Christianity exhibits a “machismo portrayal,” a claim I find dubious, let us take this at face value. I grant that in a world when the star quarterback is regarded as the real man on campus, and the president of the chess club isn’t, the result of this set up is that the president of the chess club might find himself teased. I don’t think he has to give up chess to be masculine. But I do think he has to tease back. He has to stand his ground. He can’t excuse himself to go call his mother.

So bring this all this discussion back to the point at issue:

“Apparently, we are all time bombs on the brink of having an affair—or of being accused of having one. Because of this, men and women often feel uncomfortable around each other, even in innocent contexts, and we impose strict hedges on behavior in order to avoid the threat of sexual impropriety” (Loc. 425).

“It also means our physicality should not pose a threat to one another. Is our zealousness to avoid sin inadvertently training Christians to reduce women to sexual temptresses and men to animalistic impulses? We are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (see Rom. 12:2). To view the other sex as constant temptations to sin and threats to purity merely perpetuates the thinking and behavior of the unredeemed” (Loc. 489).

She refers to “time bombs,” “strict hedges,” “physicality,” “impulses,” and “constant temptations.” She thinks that to think this way is to be unhelpfully reductionistic. It is stereotyping women (and men) in ways that she believes to be a rejection of a holistic approach.

A Last Example:

I have said earlier that there are any number of good reasons for keeping a Pence-like distance. I want to reassert this, because on this point I agree with her about the need to not be reductionist. The world is a lot more complicated than “affair avoidance.”

But for the sake of this last example, let us consider a situation that is explicitly a sexual one. Let us say that a man is being tempted by the looks and figure of some co-worker. He is a conscientious Christian, laboring to be faithful to his wife in thought, word, and deed, and he also sincerely wants to be respectful of his co-worker. Let us also say, in order to keep this simple, that his co-worker is not being out of line in any way—she is not being flirty, or immodest in any way. She is only trying to do her job, and she is doing it well. Her only problem is that she—in the immortal words of Paige Patterson—is built, and God is the one who did that, not her.

Aimee Byrd needs to build room in all this for those men who keep their distance so that they might treat the other person holistically. When a man is being blunt and honest with himself about the propriety or impropriety of his thought life, the very last thing he is doing with himself is stereotyping. It is not a stereotype at all—it is a particular situation where he wants to do something he knows he ought not to do. He is not staying away because he read in a book once that men, considered as a class, run a greater statistical risk of sexual impropriety as the propinquity increases. No, he is not stereotyping at all. He is dealing with one thing only, which is his particular set of temptations. He is not being reductionistic as he fights with his lust. Lust is reductionistic, and by battling his lust he is battling reductionism.

As nice as it might be for someone like Aimee Byrd to tell all the Christian men what temptations they are allowed to have, it is not realistic. It doesn’t work that way. When the situation is a sexual one, men have to deal with the devil, and not with some holistic paradise. Perhaps I can develop this further in a future installment, but men and women do not understand each other very well, and the chasm between them is probably the greatest when it comes to understanding their unique temptations. This is compounded when the men have been cowed by a sentimental feminism into lying about it, for the sake of keeping the peace.

Submit A Letter to the Editor. Well-written, fair-minded letters may be interacted with in featured posts. Also, please mention the title of the post which you are addressing.