Just when I thought I was out …

… they pull me back in.

I think I mentioned before that in my misspent youth I posted a fair bit on some feminist discussion groups … meaning groups that discuss feminism, not necessarily groups that were feminist. If there’s a difference between the two. I get kinda confused over that. Anyway, I used to talk a lot about feminist issues. I even tried to take a philosophy course on feminism in my last year, and then dropped it because I thought it would be far too restrictive. (I ended up taking the same course with the same professor later during my actual Philosophy degree, and it wasn’t as bad as I might have thought. If you’re curious, I took it because it counted as an Ethics course and was in a convenient timeslot). Anyway, after my first year in Philosophy, my interest in feminism fell off, mostly because there were so many more interesting issues in philosophy to deal with in general than feminism. And so for a long time I stopped talking about it.

And yet I find that I read more and more comments on it, and feel the desire to talk about it more and more. Why? Because it’s flippin’ everywhere. Feminism and feminist issues seem to have come back into fashion, and I can’t even read about video games anymore without coming across it. Heck, I can’t even read atheist sites anymore without seeing lots and lots and lots of discussions over specifically feminist issues, either inside atheism or not.

Case in point: this post by P.Z. Myers. He got sent a comic by someone, which he disliked, and commented on. And then he found that the comic wasn’t the original one, but was an altered one of Rebecca Coren’s.

So, let me first comment on what that person did: it was wrong. Not because he used her images without attribution, because he actually did that. No, it was terribly wrong and terribly dishonest because in altering the message, he made it imply that Coren was saying something that she not only didn’t say, not only said the opposite of, but that she absolutely under no conditions would support. I’m not sure about the etiquette of altering images, but you really ought to make sure that if you do you make it clear when you do, so that we know a) where the original came from and b) also can see what the original message is. Heck, I once didn’t include a cartoon by Shamus Young in an editorial because I couldn’t get permission to do it. Altering it and posting it without noting that? Really bad. I’m not going to go ad hominem on him, and say that his point is invalid because of it, but if I’m going to call out Jerry Coyne for being dishonest for doing less, I gotta do it here.

That being said, let me go on to talk about Coren’s actual cartoon, and the issues it raises. Her cartoon is here.

Essentially, the argument goes like this. A man asks a woman why she is a feminist. She says it’s because she believes in equality. He says that she should call herself an equalist or egalitarian. She replies that she calls herself a feminist because her main focus is on the unequal status of women. He retorts that that means she only cares about women, which is not equality. She then rephrases it to point at him and say that he, specifically, is the reason that she is a feminist.

Somehow, this is supposedly an argument about people who don’t actually have a problem with the term feminism, but instead have a problem with gender equality. Don’t believe me? This is her caption for it:

So sick of people who pretend their problem is with the word “feminism” rather than the concept of gender equality.

Except … the way her “heroine” puts it is indeed problematic. She believes in equality … but then wants to be known not for working for equality, but instead for working for the equality of a specific group. Again, not on a specific set of issues, but for a specific group. And, on top of that, it happens to be the group that she’s in, and so effectively she’s saying that she wants to be a feminist or work more as a feminist so that she can work on the issues that most impact her. And when challenged on that, her response is to essentially say that the person challenging her has some kind of actual problem, and that he as a person is why she’s a feminist. Again, she doesn’t say “THAT is why I’m a feminist”, meaning the idea that if you want to work primarily on equality for women it means that you only care about women (presumably that’s the problematic one, although it could just be the idea of reverse sexism at all). No, he’s the reason … not the societal attitudes, not the overall consciousness around gender issues, not even the idea of privilege. Him. Thus, she replies to his comment, justified or not … with a personal attack. And it can’t be described any other way. And feminists wonder why people who disagree with them often feel like they are being attacked as persons, and not just having their ideas challenged?

Now, is there an argument that Coren could have made and, maybe, wanted to make? Well, the general argument made over this is that the focus has to be one women’s issues because women are far more disadvantaged and are far less “equal” than men are, and so have the more serious issues to work on. Thus, it’s only logical to focus on the most serious inequalities first. The problem is that this doesn’t work at all against a claim that the feminist movement should be rolled in to the egalitarian movement to do that, because presumably if this is the case they can objectively demonstrate that, and any egalitarian movement worth its salt will indeed need to prioritize what they work on. The only main difference in this regard is that an egalitarian movement might actually decide that an issue of inequality towards men is actually a bigger problem at the moment than the top issue for women … which, if objectively true, is actually a good thing. Additionally, an egalitarian movement will have an easier time seeing commonalities among the various groups, purportedly dominant or not, and so be in a better position to decide that perhaps working on one issue — even if it’s one that primarily affects men — might end up being the better one to pursue because its underlying issue is one that, once solved, will solve a lot of problems even if it isn’t, in and of itself, the biggest problem. The ability of an egalitarian movement to have the global or big picture view is a huge advantage that a feminist movement cannot have without being an egalitarian movement with a different name.

Now, this global view can itself be a problem, with a fear that alongside all of the other issues — race, sexuality, religion, etc, etc — that gender issues might end up far, far down the totem pole. And there are reasons for this, mostly because while women are discriminated against, they also end up being part of pretty much every family group, which means that while the income in a family may not be under their control, they tend to get it. Women, under patriarchy, are as poor as their husbands are, and so the issues that really have to be addressed can often seem like middle-class issues … or the result of economic class and not gender. So there may be reason for feminists to say that these issues are still important and need to be considered as such, and that inside an egalitarian movement they might get swarmed under. The problem here is that this still doesn’t justify a specific feminist movement, focusing on women specifically. All this justifies is the idea that egalitarian movements might have to have submovements, like “gender egalitarianism” and “race egalitarianism” and “sexuality egalitarianism” to allow people to focus their efforts on specific issues without having to declare that they care more about those issues than the others. And in these movements, the above advantage still applies: if the purported dominant group is facing inequality, they can still work on it if it’s the most serious inequality of the time. So, again, under this sort of movement, if women’s issues really are the most important, then they would still get more attention, and so feminists would only have to fear women’s inequalities not being addressed if they aren’t objectively the most serious at the moment.

Now, feminists can counter than in that sort of movement, men’s issues will be given more priority because, they argue, they always are. Putting aside whether this is indeed actually correct, remember that this would be in a specifically egalitarian movement, full of people who are dedicated to equality. If you can’t make the argument with them that women’s issues are important, you have a much more serious problem … and you aren’t likely to get any further by calling yourself a “feminist”. Ultimately, you’re going to have to convince egalitarians that your view is right.

At this point, the only other objection is that this argument is semantic. We aren’t arguing over what to do, but just over what it’s called. The issue is that this is not an argument that feminists can make, because feminists have argued for decades that language matters, and that language should be inclusive. If you don’t want to imply that feminism is all about women’s inequality and not about gender equality or equality in general, then you shouldn’t call it “feminism” which implies that, when “gender egalitarianism” or “egalitarianism” are available, just as you shouldn’t say “mankind” instead of “humankind”. Either the feminist here has to abandon one of the tenets of feminist philosophy, or else it “It’s just semantics” works against them; if there really is no difference in the term, then choosing a more inclusive term is better. And if there is, then you are accepting that you really do only care about women … and then the person’s challenge actually starts to make sense.

So, feminists … which is it?

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2 Responses to “Just when I thought I was out …”

  1. Héctor Muñoz Huerta Says:

    ” which means that while the income in a family may not be under their control, they tend to get it.”

    As a matter of fact women do control most of discretionary spending in families and do own most of personal wealth in developed countries.

    The problem with feminism in rich countries is that they are running out of actual issues in comparison with the rest of society and so they tend to polarize into fringe topics.

  2. The Contradiction of Feminism | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] idea is precisely that it takes the focus away from women, as seen in this comic that I’ve talked about before. This leaves us with two […]

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