What does it mean when a Georgian refers to “Georgian Mentality?” I’ve heard the phrase used by Georgians in one and only one context: to refer to attitudes or behaviors that reflect aggression, belligerence, or a tendency to resort to conflict or violence to solve problems. And I’ve only ever heard Georgians use it to refer to men.
In the USA, we have certain stereotypes about male behavior: men are more violent, more aggressive, more likely to start wars or fights, etc. We tend to think of male belligerence as a universal and innate characteristic of human beings (and many other primate species as well) and so when two men get into a stupid fight over nothing, oftentimes this behavior is dismissed as commonplace or inevitable. Violence and aggression is a typical male response, people say: “boys will be boys.”
So one of the things that I am curious about is why this frame does not seem to have made it to Georgia. I have never heard a Georgian explain aggressive male behavior as typically male – only as typically Georgian.
Now the student of modernist gender theory might immediately jump to the existentialist-based One/Other frame – the idea that men are the people who society identifies as The One, while women are The Other, and so typical male behaviors need no explanation, because the typical male is synonymous with the typical human. In this system, only women’s behavior needs to be explained and understood, because men’s behavior is normal or expected by default and women are different or abnormal by default. This system is in turn based on what we term the male solipsism, which is the fundamental assumption that all rational inquiry is performed from the male subject-position.
However, this answer doesn’t completely satisfy me because while it explains Western male solipsism as performed by men, it doesn’t explain why women would participate in such a worldview to the extent that is indicated by the equation of male aggression with Georgian mentality.
Georgian identity politics is a very complicated and deep subject with a lot of historical (and some not-so-historical) roots. Georgian statesman Ilya Chavchavadze famously said that the three pillars of the Georgian identity are land, language and religion, and the truth of that statement is still apparent in modern Georgian politics – from the resurgence of religion in post-Soviet Georgian life to the unwillingness to part with Abkhazia and South Ossetia – but of course Georgian identity amounts to much more than Georgian nationalism. Georgian identity involves food, art, dance, music, and other cultural practices; and traditions that Georgians may associate with religion but that clearly have their roots in simple social conservatism.
But on a day-to-day basis, what I am most struck by is the gender divide in Georgian identity. For every custom or habit that is explained to me as being characteristic of Georgians, there are two or three that are specific customs or habits of either the Georgian Man or the Georgian Woman.
There is clearly a very strong gender identity politics in Georgia, and the system is maintained equally by men and by women. There are different sets of behaviors expected of men and women. I’ve already talked about some of these expectations (and been criticized for doing so) but the less controversial ones are no less entrenched: women aren’t supposed to smoke in public, aren’t supposed to drink much or get drunk, are supposed to dress a certain way, carry themselves a certain way, and generally abide by one set of social expectations; men are more or less expected to be demanding, to smoke and drink whenever they want, and to abide by a different set of social expectations. There are some jobs that are overwhelmingly performed by women (teachers, nurses, telephone operators) and others that are overwhelmingly performed by men (police, cab drivers).
And Georgian women, in general, seem proud of their place in society. When a Georgian woman tells me “I act/think this way because I am a Georgian Woman” there is always an unmistakable pride in that identity, and often a note of challenge or defiance, as if they expect me, as a Westerner, to criticize or deride their identity because they are different from American women. On the other hand, Georgian men, when explaining their attitudes or behavior, sometimes seem proud, but often seem slightly embarrassed or sheepish about them.
Or perhaps that is just my Western judgment or observation bias that I am projecting onto Georgians. It just seems to me that women have to work very hard to fill their various roles in society here, and so are justifiably proud of such an accomplishment; whereas men here don’t have to do much work at all to live up to the expectations of their gender roles and are more focused on what they can get away with.
So if there are two distinct, well-defined, well-recognized identities in Georgia – the Georgian Man and the Georgian Woman – then I can rephrase my earlier question thusly: why aren’t these identities the site of political or social contestation in Georgia? Why do Georgian women accept the “Georgian Man” as the holder of the “Georgian Mentality?” Why don’t they call it the “Georgian Male Mentality” or just the “Male Mentality” as we call an overly aggressive/confrontational disposition in the West?
It’s not that there’s absolutely no contestation. There are some individuals who defy stereotypes or social expectations, as there are in any society. And there are certainly some organizations that seek to advocate for Georgian women and women’s issues. But overall, there is little indication that either men or women in Georgia wish to challenge the traditional gender system as a whole.
I feel comfortable making this observation because I am not the only one. Recently an article came out about Georgian women in politics that argues the same thing: that deeply held social beliefs keep women from politics despite women’s formal equality. And the Boell Foundation has a short documentary on their website that explores the history of women’s activism in Georgia and argues that there has been a decline in women’s participation in civil society since Soviet times as a backlash against Soviet forced equality.
And I think this leads pretty directly to the question, if Georgians are all apparently satisfied with their identity as Georgians and as Georgians of a particular gender, and if Georgian society has been engaged in a twenty-year “return to normalcy,” then why should there be any gender-based conflict at all? If Georgian gender roles exist in a harmonious balance that almost nobody in Georgia wants to destabilize, then why do I, and other Westerners, keep poking at this obvious sore spot in Georgian society?
I’ve tried to keep my posts about gender issues in this country descriptive, rather than prescriptive. In other words, I’ve said “Georgians seem to do X” but not “I think Georgians should do Y instead.” I do this partly out of a desire not to offend my host country, but mostly out of an understanding that there is very little good that can be done by coming to someone else’s country and telling them how to live their lives. My only deviation from this formula in general is when I discuss treatment of foreign women in Georgia – both the elevated levels of harassment and violence, and the code of silence that surrounds these problems – and I am willing to be more forceful about these issues because they directly involve foreigners and so I feel that I, as a foreigner, have some standing in the discussion.
However, I’m going to veer a little into the prescriptive side of things now. I am an educator in Georgia, and I have been asked here specifically to offer my expertise in the English language but also my experience in the methods and culture of education in the Western world. The US has gone through many of the struggles that Georgia is going through in terms of education, and while neither country has found the perfect solution, we can learn from each others’ experience.
An oft-cited problem in Georgian education is classroom discipline. In my classrooms, discipline problems are mostly caused by boys. Boys tend to be the instigators. They are more likely to be defiant, more likely to disrupt class by getting out of their seats, throwing things, or talking or yelling during class, and more likely to escalate verbal conflict to physical conflict.
In the US, there has been an ongoing discussion of the gender divide in education. Some (foolishly) believe that there is a “War Against Boys” that explains why girls are consistently outperforming boys in US schools. Others argue that the classroom environment is just more suited to the female disposition. Others cite social problems, differences in child-rearing strategies, different rates of development or maturity, and many other more or less credible explanations.
Whatever the case may be, it is clear that the issue of education has a gendered component – that is, any solution to the problem of how best to educate our children must necessarily take gender into account. This is just as true in Georgia as it is in the United States. The difference is that in the US, the issue has widespread recognition because there is a very long history of gender-based identity politics; whereas in Georgia the issue has virtually no recognition at all.
The idea that education can be gender-targeted, or that problems in schools can be best addressed by taking gender into account, seems to be completely absent. And as I’ve said, it’s not just written off as “boys will be boys” – it’s written off as “Georgian Mentality,” or in other words, “Georgians will be Georgians.” There’s a certain amount of hopelessness in Georgian education – the idea that classroom discipline is impossible to achieve and so it’s pointless to try seems to be very common.
So I think that the idea of the “Georgian Mentality” needs to be questioned. Georgians need to ask themselves what the “Georgian Mentality” is, and who has it, and how it relates to Georgian identity as a whole. I know that the Georgian identity is very important here, and it is what has kept Georgia in existence despite the efforts of Russia and other historical empires. But I also know that “Georgian Mentality” was not one of the pillars of the Georgian identity that the Georgian people have rallied around – it doesn’t have to do with land, language, or religion, nor does it have to do with Georgian food, music, dance, or anything else that makes Georgia unique and special – and so if “Georgian Mentality” is not part of the Georgian identity, and doesn’t serve to strengthen Georgia or the Georgian identity, and in fact is holding Georgians back from their national aspirations, then maybe the whole concept just needs to be discarded in favor of a more nuanced, inclusive, and constructive way of looking at what drives and motivates Georgians.
For some reason I can’t embed this documentary on WordPress, but check it out – it’s free and interesting: http://georgien.boell-net.de/web/116-996.html