Thursday, July 17, 2014

Fighting about Feminism

They’re at it again.  The latest inspiration to my friends in the social media is a series of online photos in which women hold up signs bearing the logo “I am not a feminist because:” followed by lists of reasons.  Somehow, these placards have proven more controversial than the ones criticizing Boko Haram.

I am a long-term veteran of the Feminism Wars.  I entered into the fight as an adolescent, and went on active duty as the token conservative at an overwhelmingly progressive liberal arts college.  I bear the scars of my service.  My expression of my views has led to me being called every name imaginable, by members of both genders.  I’ve caught fire from both sides; I’ve never been clear as to which side of the war I’m fighting for.

The feminist movement has a lot more in common with political Libertarianism than devotees of either group would like to admit.  For one thing, they’re the only two movements I know of that conduct their recruiting drives and their ideological purges simultaneously.  To wit:

LIBERTARIAN:  Hey!  Would you like to be a Libertarian?

ME:  I dunno.  What’s a Libertarian?

LIBERTARIAN:  A Libertarian is anyone who believes that the government ought to occupy a smaller portion of our lives in both the economic and social spheres!

ME:  Oh.  I guess I’m a Libertarian, then.

LIBERTARIAN:  Hooray!  You’re a Libertarian!  And as a Libertarian, you must certainly agree with me that airline passengers should be allowed to openly carry firearms, and that blackmail should be legal!

ME:  Uh…no, I don’t believe that.

LIBERTARIAN:  BOO!  You’re no Libertarian!

ME:  Okay, I’m not a Libertarian.

LIBERTARIAN:  How can you say that?  Don’t you believe that the government should have a smaller role in both our economic and social lives?

It’s a bait-and-switch, and it’s not exactly subtle.  Oddly, though, I don’t think that the people pulling this stunt are really fully aware of what they’re doing, or of how they’re perceived.  They genuinely want people to be part of their movement; then, when they get what they want, they suddenly realize that having other people as part of your movement means that they get a voice in what the movement means, and they get paranoid about losing control over the movement’s direction.

The feminism debate, at least in its crude, online version, seems to occur along similar lines.  It opens with the broad premise that anyone who believes women are or ought to be equal to men is a feminist.  The statement is designed to lure in fair-minded individuals of all stripes.  The problem occurs once everyone’s inside, and the likes of Margaret Daly learns that she’s sharing the tent with the likes of Phyllis Schafly.  Or, alternatively, one of my former students can find she’s sharing the tent with me, and can respond to my participation in a discussion about antifeminist thought with “I don’t need a white man to tell me about feminism” (suddenly, not just gender but ethnicity becomes a qualifying condition for participation in the movement).  Very ugly, very personal fights ensue almost immediately,  and many people who have been lured in feel that they’ve been cheated, and begin defining themselves as anti-feminists, and holding up posterboards in Facebook pictures.

Feminism, however, has been afloat as a distinct ideology for longer than libertarianism has, and has been more thoroughly analyzed as a subject of scholarship.  This means that it is far more fractured ideologically than libertarianism is.  “Radical” feminists vs. “liberal” feminists is only the tip of the iceberg; there are schools of feminist thought which occupy almost every point on the political spectrum.  Probably there are as many different kinds of feminism as there are feminists.

And this, in turn, leads to really unproductive arguments about the label “feminism.”  Because virtually anyone who makes an argument about feminism is going to be correct about certain specific feminists and wrong about others. 

Take, for instance, this particularly incendiary claim, expressed in one of those placards to which I referred earlier:  “I’m not a feminist because I don’t hate men.”  As you might well expect, a whole lot of self-described feminists of my acquaintance found that to be a bothersome statement; responses ranged from “Feminism isn’t about hating men” to “feminism isn’t about men at all.”  Here’s the problem, though:  I have another former student, also a feminist and one of the most loving people I’ve ever met, who recently used her Twitter feed to advocate the proposition that the human race would be better off if the male half of it simply didn’t exist.  I think I might be forgiven for finding that to be an anti-male statement.

The bearer of that anti-feminist placard wasn’t making a statement that accurately describes all feminists.  Rather, she was making a statement that describes her specific experiences associated with feminism.  To become infuriated with her expression will only reinforce those associations.  Moreover, objection to her generalization about feminists is both 1. justified and 2. irrelevant with regard to her specific experiences.   I find it ironic that many of the same people who are driven to the heights of apocalyptic rage by statements beginning with the words “not all men” find themselves immediately eager to use similar constructions when inaccurate generalizations are made about groups of which they are a part. 

There are, in any case, many feminists who love men; many who love some men, some of the time; many who could give a damn about men either way; some who hate all men some of the time; and a few who hate all men all of the time.  And many people within each of those subgroups would argue that their specific views on men are definitive of feminism generally, and that those who disagree are not true feminists.  This, in turn, makes it pretty pointless to make any form of declarative statement about feminism vis-à-vis its views of men generally.  Nobody is qualified to make such a statement.  Anyone who tries, no matter how emphatic they may be, is defining their own views, not those of feminism generally.

Which is why, where fights over feminism are concerned, this soldier is retiring from the field.  It is a battle over a term that has become so broad (ahem) as to be utterly meaningless.  If you tell me that I can’t be a feminist because I’m a manwell, you’re correct, for your personal definition of feminism.  But given that you’re speaking for yourself and not for anyone else, what’s the point in my arguing back?  I’m not interested in “taking back” the term, because your claim to the term in no way impacts upon the legitimacy of my claim, or anyone else’s.  I have a limited amount of energy, and I won’t expend it arguing over a word that doesn’t have a fixed meaning.

I think that sex impacts upon people’s physical capabilities and their intellectual profiles in a variety of ways, some of them environmentally determined and some of them genetic.  I think there’s enough overlap in the physical and psychological bell curves between men and women to provide credence to some generalizations but to make definitive statements unproductive.  I think women suffer from a variety of unjust disadvantages, some of which should be remedied through law, some of which should be addressed through individual or collective action, and some of which we will probably just have to live with.  I also believe it is possible to overcompensate for these disadvantages and that we should avoid doing so.  I don’t hate or love women generally, but I do hate or love some women specifically, and there’s a fair (and unfair) few women whom I both hate AND love, either at different times of the day, or even simultaneously.

All of this both makes me and doesn’t make me a feminist.  You will apply or withhold the label as suits your interest, but I will no longer engage you when you do.