A Culture of Complementarity

What is a culture of complementarity? "Man+Woman" Magazine will have a great deal to say on this question, and this article is intended as an introduction to the topic.

What Is Culture?

What does it mean to say that a culture exists? It only exists in and through the acts of meaning that give it form, and through the communication that makes these meanings actual as something shared with other people.

We could say that culture is the 'self' of a community. Just as a person develops a psychological self to interpret herself to herself, or express himself to others, so a community develops a culture that interprets the community to itself and is the form of expression used by the community members to relate among themselves.

We tend to think of culture as existing independently. But there is a real question as to what extent a culture even exists. We can talk about a change of culture but not recognise that it might have diminished, or even ceased to exist in important respects.

A community needs a culture, and vice versa. A community with an impoverished culture is like a person with an undeveloped sense of self. A community with a fragmented and contradictory culture is like a person with a fragmented and contradictory sense of self.

A Culture of Romance

For example, to what extent could we say that a culture of romance exists in a community? Let's look at a particular case. If a young man develops an interest in a young woman but is too shy to talk to her or even interact with her in any way does a relationship exist between them? No. Yet in his own mind he may have constructed an elaborate fantasy of how he wished they could be in a relationship. But all of this is only potential. None of it is actual until he acts on it.

Similarly, if individual men and women in a society are watching lots of movies about romance, having lots of fantasies about sex, and so on, but not putting any of it into practice, is there any 'culture of romance'? No. The less people have to do with each other the less community and culture there will be. The very existence of community and culture are called into question.

More commonly of course we are not dealing with the lack of the very existence of a culture but of varying degrees of impoverishment. It is not just a question of culture changing. Its very existence can increase or decrease. It can become fuller and more substantial, or it can fade away into superficiality and disconnection. It is the same with individuals. A person might grow into a full, substantial and integrated sense of self, or might fall into disconnection, insubstantiality and strangeness.

The health and vitality of community and culture have a strong shaping influence on whether individuals will develop a healthy and vital sense of self. There is a close interplay between the personal and the communal. The culture of the community has a strong shaping influence on the kind of selves individuals will develop.

The Quality of a Culture

The quality of a culture depends on the truthfulness of the community's interactions and the beauty of its forms of expression. Truth and beauty are the substance of the meaningfulness that is 'carried' in the communications between people. The greater this substance is then the stronger will be the community. If people speak the truth in their dealings with each other, and embody this truth in their actions then the community will be strong and close. If people speak this truth in ways that are considerate in manner and creative in expression then the culture will be harmonious and beautiful.

On the other hand, a loss of truth and a loss of civility lead to conflict and breakdown in the community. Since people struggle to know what the truth is and to acquire habits of peaceful relations, there is always some diminishment in community and impoverishment of culture. Cooperation depends on agreement, and radical disagreement leads to fragmentation of community.

A Culture of Complementarity

If the truth about human nature itself becomes a point of radical disagreement in a community then to that extent the community itself loses its unity and begins to break apart. This disconnection between people, the lack of real conversation between them, makes it harder and harder to to promote civility and tolerance. People lose the willingness to even listen to each other. Unfortunately this is happening in our society at the present time around the question of human nature, including what it means to be a man or a woman.

One of the foundations of a sense of self is sexual identity. If there is a weak culture of complementarity individuals will find it harder to develop a clear sense of being masculine or feminine. If such identity is downplayed or even reprobated in a culture it becomes harder for male and female to relate in ways that would strengthen the bonds of attraction between them. If the power and depth of attraction that draws men and women towards each other is weakened then community is weakened and culture is impoverished.

If the meaningfulness of complementarity ceases to characterise relations between men and women then the beautiful gives way to the practical, and the vision of personal union gives way to one of self-centric cooperation. If differences are only seen as individual then all the potential richness within complementarity is left undeveloped. A great resource for beauty and harmony is foregone, and in the process the power of attraction between men and women grows weaker. This leads to less closeness and less motivation for closeness, so that men and women invest fewer of their hopes in each other.

The loss of the principle of complementarity in the culture leads either to a loss of sexual identity in individuals, or to exaggerated forms of masculinity and femininity that become superficial and self-referential. Without a rich culture of complementarity men and women become a puzzle to each other, and are left to their own devices to try and figure out what the other is. Yet the culture should act like a mirror, revealing masculinity and femininity 'writ large', so that individuals and couples can draw from it both lessons and enriched forms of expression. So the loss of a culture of complementarity makes married life more difficult.

This Project

"Man+Woman" aims to help people think through issues such as the one addressed here, and to begin building or rebuilding a culture of complementarity. This is why the aim of this project is described as being "for a beautiful culture of relations between men and women".