Patriarchy is a social system, based in a dominance hierarchy. It harms men as well as women. You’ve correctly identified that many men don’t have much overt power because that is reserved for the elites at the top of the pyramid. But it’s a system we should all be challenging because it’s grounded in coercion, control, and fear. It’s the root cause of everything from racism to homophobia to playground bullying. There is no way to overstate how much power patriarchy has in our current society.

Patriarchy is a zero-sum game, where if you don’t win, you lose and there are no peers. Men especially are always evaluating whether they are higher or lower in the pecking order than those around them, although women do this too, of course, but it directly correlates to the epidemic of loneliness and social isolation of men in their older years.

Interestingly, one of the places that this kind of dominance hierarchy structure is changing is in the world of business, because in a fast-past environment, letting the people closest to the work make the relevant decisions is a lot more agile than going through layers of traditional hierarchy to obtain the approval of bosses.

One of the most destructive elements of patriarchal style stratification and dominance-based relationships is that they create social isolation. How can you have real closeness or camaraderie with anyone when you feel you are in constant competition with them, always ascertaining who has a higher rank in the social or power hierarchy? How can you have a real culture of excellence and self-responsibility when everyone, including the leaders, are afraid to admit that they are anything less than perfect because this is what a dominance hierarchy demands of them?

Partnership-based structures (in the family, workplace, or civic arena) don’t have to mean that everyone has equal say, or that there is no hierarchy or leadership at all. The goal is not anarchy. But instead of creating an in-group and an out-group, or having some people with vastly more power than those around them, the goal is to have real cooperative relationships that yield the best results for everyone.

Demands for subordination and obedience are replaced with mutual respect and collaboration. Stratification based on arbitrary elements like gender, race, or class are unnecessary and serve no purpose. Achievement based solely on merit is fully possible. Quality-of-life, human development, and environmental sustainability become more important than the interests of a few elites.

Pervasive violence and aggressive as well as coercive domination are relatively new parts of human culture, only appearing in the last 6–9 thousand years when Proto-Indo-European tribes (Kurgans) overtook the “peaceful, matrilinear (hereditary through the female line), matrifocal, though egalitarian cultures of ‘Old Europe’, replacing it with a patriarchal warrior society.” For the vast majority of human history, we lived in much more cooperative and partnership-oriented societies with minimal social stratification.

In other words, to say that patriarchy is about men having primacy and power over women is only a small part of the equation and one that many men never overtly experience.

Patriarchy is generally not an explicit ongoing effort by men to dominate women. It is a long-standing system that we are born into and participate in, mostly unconsciously.

Dispelling cultural myths with research-driven stories. My favorite word is “specious.” Not fragile like a flower; fragile like a bomb! Twitter @ElleBeau

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