Monday, March 19, 2012

Being Versus Doing: A Plea For Being

A Dandy, by Georges Jacques Gatine (1773-1831), a painting by Carle Vernet [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
I was the kind of little kid who dreamed of becoming Miss America, or a fashion model, or at least a cheerleader.  My hero in life was Cher.  I dreamed of halter tops, hot pants, and crazy shoes.  I can't remember a time when I wasn't thinking about high heels.

When I was young my feminist mom taught me a few things about those particular dreams (thanks, Mom!).  She pointed out that girls are taught to want to be things -- pretty, fashionable, pleasing -- whereas guys are taught to want to do things.  The message was clear:  you too should want to do things.

Of course, I already did want to do things.  I was also the kind of little kid who liked to do puzzles and make stuff, a nerd who was into math, and music, and school, and all that.  Focusing on the Doing rather than the Being came naturally. 

The advice was, of course, excellent.  But why was it excellent?

It's sometimes thought that this kind of advice is good because Doing is somehow better than Being.  But I've come to think the whole Being versus Doing thing is not so clear cut.  Because Being is pretty great.  And Doing -- it's maybe a little overrated.  Here in the Last Days of Western Civilization, we've become so Doing Doing Doing.  It's wearing me out.  What about Being?

What is it about fashion and beauty that make them seem like Being rather than Doing?  I take it the answer is something like:  they're Being because even though they are activities, they are activities that are focused on the responses of others.  Doing is supposed to be somehow independent of those responses.  You invent something, you play your best, you climb some stupid mountain, and those things are supposed to matter regardless of whether you look good doing them and regardless if anyone cares.  And that kind of Doing is supposed to be better. 

If you put the distinction that way, though, you get this question:  what about art? 

Art is thought of as Doing.  But it's not independent of the responses of others.  It's all about the responses of others.  If you're trying to become a great painter or a great dancer or a great musician, you're trying to do something to which other people will respond to in a certain way. 

But that would make art less of a Doing than other activities, and if Doing is better, would make art less worthwhile than those other activities.  But surely art is as -- or more -- worthwhile than Doings like sports and hiking?

I think the answer is that Doing isn't really better than Being, because they're both good.  Of course people want others to respond to them in certain ways:  what could be more human?  A good life will have both kinds of activities -- those centered on the responses of others and those centered on the responses of one's self.

One reason we've gotten so screwed up about this is that sex and gender identities, especially historically, pressure women toward More Being and Less Doing.  And because we humans are kind of crude in our application of concepts, this means they also pressure men to become More Doing and Less Being.  This would explain the absurd connection in modern North American between masculinity and anti-art-ism.

So we've got an imbalance.  To right the imbalance, women should remember the importance of Doing and not give in the pressures for Being.  Feminism correctly reminds us of this, and that's why my mother's advice was good.  But this has nothing to do with Being being somehow inherently less good than Doing.

It follows from this that men should remember the importance of Being and not give into the pressures for Doing.  Norms of modern masculinity sanction a few limited forms of Being, like owning a fancy car.  But the range is pretty impoverished, and the cultural pressures from the gender police are crazy.  A guy can't even shop for a nice shirt these days without people getting all wound up about it. 

If men could enjoy fashion, beauty, and being pleasing to others, like the dandy in the painting above, we'd all be better off.


Catherine Hundleby said...

I agree! I think a number of feminist discussions of objectification capture this too. My favourite is Carolyn McLeod's, but it's based on Nussbaum and Bartky. Sometimes "being" or enjoying one's own objectification are the very stuff of life.

Patricia Marino said...

Hi Catherine, yes I totally agree about objectification! FWIW I wrote something on this very theme: "The Ethics of Sexual Objectification: Autonomy and Consent." It's on my website at if you're interested. Stuff of life, indeed.