Fathers’ rights is indeed an important men’s issue; indeed it is clearly one of the most critical owing to how it reflects systematic violations of equality under the law. But support for father’s rights does not necessarily translate into support for all styles of fathering. By the same token, whilst I am an advocate for the human rights of males, this does not mean I cannot criticize other advocates of the same cause.
But in this piece I will not be critiquing any MHRA; I will be critiquing a statement from Dr. Warren Farrell. Dr Farrell is, frankly, the founding father of modern men’s activism and as such I am sure some people will misconstrue this article as an hostile attack of sorts. But this article is not an hostile attack; rather it is a critique which is intended to be constructive.
At the very same lecture which took place at the University of Toronto and was protested extensively by militant Social Justice Activists, Dr. Farrell argued that the male and female parent provide different styles of parenting; in particular, mothers provide nurturance and empathy whereas fathers provide boundaries and discipline. As Farrell summarized it, mothers provide ‘unconditional love’ and fathers provide ‘earned respect’ (full lecture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AoFV6_ihgoQ). By making this argument, Farrell is attempting to advocate for father’s rights by advancing the claim that fathers are irreplaceable ingredients for children’s well-being.
I am going to argue that this argument is actually counterproductive, and that in reality it is an argument which (unintentionally I am sure) works to promote and preserve an instance of female privilege. Indeed it even goes so far as to promote a subtle form of parental alienation that works against fathers. Whilst Dr. Farrell has done an immeasurable amount to advance the human rights of the male sex, in this particular case he has proposed an argument which is gender-traditionalist and thus undermines the very goal he promotes; a world of more flexible gender roles cannot emerge from gender-essentialist arguments for female privilege.
In Which Farrell Supports Traditionalism
It should go without saying that Dr. Farrell does not, on the whole, support gender traditionalism. He extensively criticizes traditional roles in The Myth Of Male Power and has spent most of his career pointing out the problems with these roles. Farrell supports a culturally materialist view of gender relations and argues that traditional gender roles grew out of the struggle to survive and thrive in a world of scarce resources; I happen to share the same position and have documented my theory in Summa Genderattica (see http://honeybadgerbrigade.com/2014/02/27/summa-genderratica-the-anatomy-of-the-gender-system/). Farrell argues that culture has preserved and inculcated traditional gender norms beyond their period of economic usefulness; I too share this position, and this position is logically incompatible with gender essentialism (it is not incompatible with a belief that there are some on-average population-level psychological differences which are probably due to biology, but this is a softer claim than gender essentialism). As such, Farrell’s support for a particular aspect of gender-traditionalism in this case is highly uncharacteristic of him (as is his essentialist-sounding, albeit vague, rhetoric on the subject).
Why are mothers a source of unconditional love and fathers not? Both parents are equally genetically related to their children so why would one parent love unconditionally and the other not? Why are fathers a source of earned respect but mothers not? Are only men capable of having a capacity to respect which must be earned? Does the value of a person’s respect depend on that person’s sex? Farrell’s position seems to imply that unconditional love is exclusive to women and that earned respect is exclusive to men.
What Farrell ultimately advocates here is the traditional system where the mother is the sympathetic, empathetic, understanding parent who soothes anguish. She’s the “good cop” in the arrangement, but the ultimate threat remains “just wait until your father gets home!” The father is the “bad cop,” typically the child-beater (in houses with such barbaric practices), and in some respects is at least in part facilitating the mother’s proxy violence against the children.
Even if we are to presume nonabusive, perfectly reasonable, rational parents with justifiable non-arbitrary boundaries (an extremely lenient presumption given the character of most parents in general), the simple fact of the matter is that enforcing these boundaries is hard work sometimes and in many cases it is personally draining (I would go so far as to suggest that the reason boundary enforcement is so difficult is because most parents on some level know that they are to at least some degree arbitrary and tyrannical but that’s another issue). So of course the mother is going to try and outsource the unpleasantries of this difficult task when she can; after all, a lot of women like to let men do their dirty work.
To be entirely fair, a more accurate analysis of the traditional family arrangement is really one of “less bad cop” versus “more bad cop” – the mother is the more commonly-present authority and thus is more likely to engage in a disproportionate amount of child-control (abusive or not). Yet when the big guns come out, the task is outsourced to the father; he is intended to be the backup, the ultimate threat. Perhaps a more accurate analogy is “traffic cop/SWAT team” (pun for child-beating very much intentional) rather than “good cop/bad cop” per se, but the pattern still holds true; a portion of the child-control role is habitually outsourced by mothers to fathers. The most unpleasant portion.
Disneyland Dads and Female Privilege
Whilst the concept of “Disneyland Dads” is often invoked in these discussions, the simple fact is that even in intact marriages mothers still typically want to outsource the “bad cop” role to the father (see https://www.babble.com/kid/dear-husband-im-tired-of-being-the-bad-cop/, http://www.drpsychmom.com/2014/10/14/reader-q-husband-wants-good-cop-bad-cop-disciplining-child/#, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2627078/Know-feeling-70-mothers-left-feeling-like-bad-cop-fathers-centre-attention-known-fun-one-family.html, http://articles.latimes.com/1995-08-16/news/ls-35581_1_bad-cop). And let us not pretend that children do not resent the “bad cop” more.
Single mothers are thus put in a situation where they have to play both “good cop” and “bad cop” – which is just another way of saying that they have to shoulder the responsibilities they preferred to outsource previously. Sometimes they hope that, should they eventually land a new partner, the stepfather can take up the “bad cop” role. Playing that role is an headache which they try to avoid, and traditional gender roles let them avoid it. In other words, it is a female privilege.
We see a similar phenomenon arise in the discussion over so-called “Disneyland Dads” – noncustodial fathers who, due to their limited visitation time with their children, try to make their visitations joyful and memorable. The mothers, of course, resent this because the child eventually starts liking their father more and thinking that their mother is a nagging annoyance. In other words, the mother feels entitled to being thought of as the ‘nicer’ parent, and when the father suddenly is put in this position she feels like she’s being oppressed or exploited (or that the father is alienating the kids against her).
Parental Alienation By Default
By positioning the father as the ultimate enforcer, the ultimate threat, and the ultimate object of fear, the traditional arrangement by nature generates more negative feelings towards the father than the mother (even if the father is merely acting out the wishes of the mother – something which is not typically realized by children until adolescence). Let us couple this with the fact that in traditional families the father is typically less present around the house; this means that a larger proportion of time in which the father spends with their child is going to be devoted to harshly punishing and thus inflicting pain on their child. How does this make the father appear to the child, if the father is rarely there to share joy but his presence is typically an harbinger of beating and scolding and degradation?
In short, the traditional separation of disciplinary roles between “good cop” and “bad cop” (or traffic cop/SWAT team) favors women and plants the seeds for parental alienation by default. It pre-emptively alienates fathers from children by casting them in the less empathetic, less compassionate role. It drives children towards the mother; just like a “good cop/bad cop” interrogation tactic the good cop is the figure to whom the subject gravitates towards. It also further entrenches the same biases and midsets that brought us the Tender Years Doctrine – that children need their more gentle and nurturant parent to be closer to them and thus the mother should be favored in custody disputes.
It is hard to overstate the contributions made by Dr. Farrell to the cause of men’s human rights, as well as fathers rights. The biases of family courts and certain feminist academics and organizations against fathers are obscenities. Fathers do contribute more than “wallet” to parenting and Farrell’s advocacy for alienated and noncustodial fathers is admirable. But that doesn’t mean every single argument he makes is beyond criticism.
In arguing that unconditional love is provided by mothers but earned respect is provided by fathers, he ends up undermining his own project against traditionalism; he implicitly supports the idea of good cop/bad cop parenting and thus ends up supporting the female privilege of being “the nicer parent.” This female privilege promotes a form of parental alienation by default; clearly Dr. Farrell would not want such an outcome.
There are many good arguments to support father’s rights; the proposition that fathers provide an ‘earned respect’ and mothers provide an ‘unconditional love’ is not one of them.