Identity and Ideology: an Oblique Defense of Feminism

I would like to defend feminism in a more direct and full-throated way, but I could only do so for my particular kind of liberal feminism. Here I’d like to offer a defense of feminism generally, but it must be a little more indirect, by way of defending the ideological impulse itself.

It turns out some folks are really hostile to feminism. Interestingly, this sentiment comes not just from misogynists, but from genuinely nonsexist people. The hostility seems to stem from the conspicuous existence of feminist ideas and feminist people that are absurd. Statements like “All men are rapists”, “All heterosexual sex is rape“, or “Straight white men cannot suffer discrimination” are all statements that have been uttered by feminists. Then there are the disproportionate public shame campaigns, often whipped up on Twitter, like Shirtgate or Nobel laureate biochemist Tim Hunt getting shamed into resignation over some sexist remarks. Shame is a weapon regularly used by feminists, especially against white males who express frustration at romantic difficulty, with epithets like “mouth-breathers, pimpled, scrawny, blubbery, sperglord, neckbeard, virgins, living in our parents’ basements, man-children” all too common (a list supplied by Scott Alexander). Feminists have been behind some truly scary assaults on free speech and due process, especially when it comes to college life and those accused of sexual assault.

Of course, I should say “some” feminists. To be totally clear at the outset, the statements and beliefs and behaviors above are those of bona fide feminists, and I won’t try to argue that these are not “real” feminists. They are misguided in my view, but they are feminists nonetheless. And it’s a fool’s errand to try to define all those misguided out of the big tent, like earnest evangelical Christians who believe that Roman Catholics aren’t real Christians (or vice versa). Or left-libertarians insisting Ron Paul isn’t a real libertarian because of his opposition to abortion. These little internecine purity debates are probably inevitable, but they appear absolutely absurd to outsiders.

Instead, an ideology like feminism should be viewed as a lens through which one views the world, bringing certain issues into sharper focus though also inevitably obscuring other details with particular biases. There is no lens-free option; without some kind of lens (theory), the world is a hopeless blur of disordered sensory data. Pretending to go sans-lens is simply to fail to acknowledge or even be aware of the lenses through which one does in fact peer. With a particular lens comes, in addition to a perspective and accompanying biases, a set of tools for understanding and deconstructing problems. This is acute for feminism, as one of the purposes of feminism is to highlight assumptions of a certain kind (gender).

Another way to look at ideologies is as a living conversation, with participants coming and going, leaving in their wake not only the contours of doctrinal tradition, but the imprints of strong personalities, canonical ideas and rhetoric, and a shared history of how the conversation has evolved in different times and places (certainly different issues are salient before and after universal suffrage is achieved, for example). The boundaries of what lies within and without the tradition become established by common understanding, but the boundaries are blurry and can move over time. A better guide to what or who belongs within a tradition is reference to central, cherished figures or works. Jezebel is certainly feminism, but how do the ideas found on those august pages relate to Wollstonecraft, de Beauvoir, Friedan, Butler, hooks, etc.

These are open conversations, with little to no control (by whom?) over who participates. Essentially anyone can jump into the conversation with commentary that might touch a contemporary nerve and be adopted into the conversation. Any such new entrant may find a hearing by some faction while other factions are hostile. There’s no central control board to authoritatively deem a new voice legitimate or not.

As a conversation, it is a category error to view feminism in toto as either true or false, right or wrong. Feminism contains too many voices contradicting one another at various levels for any blanket judgment to be meaningful. The feminist positions and behaviors above are often used to condemn feminism as a whole, but of course there are feminists who don’t hold those beliefs. This reminds me of nothing more than the New Atheist criticisms of Christianity and Islam. The New Atheist can point to damning passages within scripture to say “Ha! You believe this barbaric thing!” in fine Biblical (Qur’anic) literalist fashion. And while Christians (Muslims) can certainly – even easily – be found that affirm whatever nastiness has been highlighted, it can’t be inferred that Christians (Muslims) generally affirm anything. Feminists, no more than members of religious traditions, cannot be pinned down to the beliefs of the worst – or even average – of their numbers. In this, it’s helpful to remember that 90% of everything is crap, including, dear reader, 90% of what is said in the name of your own intellectual tradition, whatever it may be.

Feminism-as-conversation is feminism in dispute. The dispute exists down to the level of definitions, since the different perspectives within feminism each offer their own versions, highlighting different values, emphases, concerns, and construals. A traditional definition is something like “feminism aims at social equality between men and women”. Feminist intellectual bell hooks famously disputes this definition as obscuring the importance of other forms of oppression (race, class, etc) and their intersections with sex and gender. She prefers “Feminism is the struggle to end sexist oppression.” Personally, I like this: “Feminism is the belief that gender should not be destiny.” This framing sounds less agent-centric, allowing for complex, systemic, and deindividuated causes for oppression and inequality. Whatever the causes of difference and inequality, no individual should be bound by birth to fulfill socially prescribed roles not of her own choosing. Or at least we should strive to foster the individual’s capabilities to choose well her own adventure.

The many detractors of feminism view the inability of feminists to agree even on a definition as reason to not take feminism seriously. Hooks herself notes that many people who would readily sign onto a platform of common feminist positions nonetheless demur from accepting the label for worry of malignant social connotations.

Many women are reluctant to advocate feminism because they are uncertain about the meaning of the term. Other women from exploited and oppressed ethnic groups dismiss the term because they do not wish to be perceived as supporting a racist movement; feminism is often equated with white women’s rights effort. Large numbers of women see feminism as synonymous with lesbianism; their homophobia leads them to reject association with any group identified as pro-lesbian. Some women fear the word “feminism” because they shun identification with any political movement, especially one perceived as radical.

Or they don’t want to be seen as “hating men”. But hooks and the antifeminists are both wrong on this point. The inability of feminists to align on a single definition, platform, or list of priorities is no malady; it is on the contrary evidence that the movement is a living conversation. Participants in the conversation are vibrantly trying to figure out what it means to be a feminist and how to move forward.

The schools within feminism can be divided in many ways, but common divisions I’ve seen are liberal feminism, radical feminism, socialist feminism, and cultural feminism (though the possible categories go on and on). I’m a liberal feminist, reckoning that feminist considerations are necessary for liberal ends of individual liberty and equality. Similarly, a socialist heeds feminist considerations for socialist ends. Radical feminism asserts in contrast that the oppression of women is the root of all or most injustice; achieving justice requires a complete overhaul of society. Cultural feminism maintains there are essential differences between genders, and that feminine virtues warrant higher esteem than they’re currently accorded. But of course the boundaries between these approaches are blurred. Any particular feminist doesn’t have to choose a school and stick with it, and can pick out aspects of each. Certainly the average feminist encountered on the Internet often does not have a strong identification with some particular school, but has instead cobbled together the bits they’ve happened upon that sound right.

Consider by analogy the extreme diversity found in Christianity or libertarianism. Coptics, Southern Baptists, Roman Catholics, and Quakers are all recognizably Christian, using the Bible and the moral teachings of Jesus as a framework, but their theological, political, and cultural outlooks couldn’t be more different (Quakers fit in nicely in ACLU board meetings for instance, and Southern Baptists believe all of the above are hell-bound). Libertarians can’t agree on whether the government should exist or not (anarchists vs minarchists), and other factions regard the size of government as a distraction, leading to the seeming oxymoron of libertarians advocating a welfare state.

Intra-ideological diversity is caused by the openness and flexibility of ideology. People can maintain their ideological identity even as the content of their ideology evolves to accommodate new facts and reasons. This is good news, since most of us come to our ideological commitments through accidental and idiosyncratic contingencies. But this doesn’t mean anything goes. Basic epistemic virtue requires we cultivate our beliefs and our ideological commitments with care. This is how two different intelligent persons of good faith can come into significant alignment on facts and values beginning from widely disparate starting positions, with neither ever needing to change their label.

Epistemic virtue imposes some demands on both ideological insiders and outsiders. For insiders, the temptation is to yield to tribal affiliation, defending bad beliefs and irresponsible co-ideologues against our better judgment. Humility requires that we acknowledge that our ideologies need occasional complement and critique from other conversations. This takes effort and good will. This means feminists should probably spend more time addressing the bad arguments presented in the name of feminism. But we should also be aware that A) the extent to which this is already done is really difficult to gauge from the outside looking in, and B) this is not a criticism unique to feminism (making fun of libertarianism is a popular sport, but as an insider I see internal critiques all over the place).

For outsiders, the task is to recognize value in other traditions and, further, actively seek that value out. Think tank libertarian Aaron Ross Powell recently remarked “If very smart, very educated people accept a theory – even if it’s one you disagree with – and hold to it … then it’s probably not something that can be dismissed in a sentence or two.” This is true as it stands, but I would amend it thus: “If very smart, very educated people accept a theory – even if it’s one you disagree with – and hold to it … then that theory has probably generated valuable observations and ideas, regardless of the truth of the theory as a whole.” Other traditions of thought can and should be mined for useful and true observations, ideas, tools, and methods.

Feminism in its various forms has developed or adopted several concepts that are worth taking seriously regardless of your worldview, even if you think these ideas can be abused. I’ll just name a few. One of the biggest is the separation of gender and sex as distinct concepts, which allows us to contrast biological versus socially constructed differences between men and women. Given the stark differences in gender roles observed in different cultures, the explicit distinction is both hard to deny and very useful. Intersectionality is the observation that an individual’s experience with the world is shaped by multiple identities, both real and those supposed by strangers. A black woman experiences a different sexism than a white woman due to its intersection with racism. Privilege is a venerable concept inherited from classical liberalism. It’s the elevation of some groups to special social, economic, and legal advantages. Many concepts in feminism are underpinned by unconscious psychological biases that work to the disadvantage of women, such as the perception that a woman is dominating a conversation at a much shorter (objectively measured) speaking time than a man. Again, however you’ve seen these concepts deployed on the Internet, they are in their most basic formulations robust and fertile concepts.

Though I’m a feminist myself, I don’t believe everyone must identify as a feminist. People will always have idiosyncratic reasons for both attachment to and disaffection from certain identities. And I have seen enough nonfeminist nonsexists in the wild to believe that the fruits of feminism can be enjoyed without universal identification under the F word. What I do believe is that feminism, given its rich diversity, adaptability, and stock of resources, should not be casually dismissed. It is not the responsibility of every feminist to police the conduct of other feminists, though such self-policing is laudable. But it is the responsibility of nonfeminists to exercise due diligence in finding the strongest exponents of feminism. This is a benefit of the doubt feminism shares with all traditions of thought.

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