The paternal imperative.

Author:Gutmann, David

It is argued that it is the traditional, authoritative father who accomplishes the job of fatherhood well. Although he may be difficult and even oppressive at times, he facilitates masculine development and guides his sons' transformation into productive men.


I used to think of myself as a rebellious son; but now this essay is in defense of the traditional father - the responsible, authoritative paterfamilias. I hold that, while strong fathers can be a real pain, difficult, sometimes even oppressive toward their wives and children, they do get the job done. Routinely, they oversee the evolution of little boys - every man jack of them a potential sociopath - into productive men and responsible, even sensitive fathers. They accomplish this miracle by sponsoring a crucial transition in their son's development. I refer to an evolution that their wives, unaided by fathers, cannot bring about on their own: the psychological separation of the son from the mother.

The traditional father enforces a major rule of masculine development, one recognized, in ritual and in common practice by all successful human societies. At some culturally designated point boys have to separate, in the psychological sense, from their mothers. Unlike girls, who share a common biological destiny with their mothers, most boys will become fathers; and like their fathers, their work will engage them - whether as hunters, soldiers, or traveling salesmen - on the communal periphery with other men, rather than close to home, with their mothers or wives. Men exemplify the principle of closeness through distance; they sustain the home by their readiness, when called upon, to leave the home.

I shall preface my argument by first quoting the great ethnographer Ralph Linton, who in 1945 wrote: "In some ways, each man is like all other men; in some ways, each man is like some other men; and in some ways, each man is like no other man." Linton was referring to the major orders of human experience. His first level - "each man . . . like all other men" - points to our common, universal ways of underwriting individual and species survival. The psychology that pertains to this level comes from psychodynamic conflict theory - it is the psychology of the id and the language of war - defense, resistance, drive, conflict, breakthrough, boundary, and the rest.

Linton's second level - "each man . . . like some other men" - refers to the fact that we share common language and common culture as well as common ways of achieving language and culture with some socially designated members of our species. This level refers also to the ways in which we preserve our loved ones and our communities, while presenting ourselves to our fellows as proper social beings. The pertinent psychology comes from attachment theory, whose master term is relationships, and whose master premise is that the primary human drive is for connection with others.

Linton's third level - "each man is like no other man" - refers to the ways in which we experience ourselves and maintain ourselves as unique and extraordinary, different even from those with whom we share a common culture.

To be fully appreciated, the father's crucial functions must be studied via the methods and instruments that are fitted to the universals, to Linton's first level. These, however, are currently out of fashion: they remind us of forces that operate outside of conscious control, even as they influence the direction and content of conscious thinking. The tectonic forces of the psyche that propel level one experience are unsympathetic to our amour propre: they remind us that we are not even the masters in our own mental house.

Humanistic psychologists predictably deplore the authoritative father. He is, they fear, expressing masculine needs to be dominant and "phallocentric" at the expense of his wife's individuality and "self-actualization." Thus, on the best campuses (and especially the best) biological paternity - the special role of the father in procreation - has been split off in theory from the social condition of fatherhood. Biological paternity is an undeniable fact of nature; but fatherhood, particularly in its patricentric phrasing (as a unique status, with its own scope, powers, and responsibilities) has come to be regarded by mainstream social scientists as a corruption of nature.

And so we find that too many men, happy to be let off the hook, have heard the liberating message from academic thinkers. They are helping to conceive more babies and more candidates for abortion than ever before, but they are, in growing numbers, refusing to be trustworthy, strong, and responsible fathers. According to the new dispensation, this liberation of men from bondage to the patriarchal ideal should lead to the liberation of women. It has not. For as men defect from the traditional version of fatherhood, they also defect from the traditional arrangements of marriage - and from marriage itself. As a consequence, too many women are left alone with the kids in single-parent families. Women are more oppressed than ever. The patriarch has gone, but so are the special rations of security and companionship that he provided. Clearly, the sociological and humanistic revisions of fatherhood are not working. Instead, we are recognizing - perhaps too late - that the patriarchal phrasings of fatherhood were more than expressions of oppressive male politics; it appears that they, too, were an extension rather than a corruption of the same natural laws that governed biological paternity.

If we are going to develop some real insight, beyond political correctitude, into a central mystery of paternity - how do little sons become, in the space of only a few years, fathers in their own right? - we will have to forage through the data and conceptions of the language of human universals. For when we neglect the inevitable element of conflict in father-son relations, we ignore a critical feature of the male bond in the family and a major contribution to the son's development as a man and future father.

But before taking up the evolution of sons into fathers, we should first consider its context: the special needs, universal across our species, of the uniquely vulnerable human child. This vulnerability is always taken into account by any human group set on survival. Despite differences in their child rearing, most societies maintain common understandings about the generic needs to be addressed by any child-care regime. They recognize that, to thrive, the vulnerable child must be assured of two kinds of parental nurturance. It must be given some assurance of physical security and of emotional security.

There is also a general recognition, across our species, that the same parent cannot provide both kinds of security. The child's physical security ultimately depends on activities carried out far from home: warfare, hunting (including the hunt for business and clients), and the cultivation of distant tillage. Men are generally assigned the task of providing physical security on the perimeter, not because they are more privileged, but because they are more expendable. In the hard calculus of species survival, there is typically an oversupply of males: one man can inseminate many females, but women, on the average, can gestate only one child every two years during their relatively brief time of fertility. But the surplus males, those over the number required to maintain reasonable population levels, can be assigned to the dangerous, high-casualty tasks on which physical security and survival are based. "When it comes to slaughter, you do not send your daughter," is one of our most predictable human rules; and there are very good reasons for it: societies do not expose the vulnerable uterus, during its brief season of youthful fertility, to machine-gun fire. Women are generally assigned to secure areas, there to supply the formative experiences that give rise to emotional security in children.

This is a large generalization, but the cross-cultural record bears it out...

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