My highest ideal is an ordinary life. I do not think there can be anything more meaningful, more worthy, than being a good spouse, parent, neighbor, employee, and citizen. Those are among the chief ideals that I take to be characteristic of the ordinary life.
Other people look at the ordinary life through a rather different lens. They see, in its history and present, a smorgasbord of prejudice, superstition, ignorance, and domination.
Who is right? What is the whole truth about the ordinary life?
The Politics of Characterization
It might not be your fault that things were systematically placed before you were even born, but it is your fault for not doing anything to change things now.
My question is—how systematically are we talking, and how much change?
There’s one line of feminism that sticks to the ordinary life, but seeks to renegotiate the terms. In the 19th century, common law in America essentially reduced the legal identity of wives to that of their husband—especially when it came to property ownership. This was one of the first major targets of first-wave feminism, along, of course, with suffrage. Today, husbands and wives are—at least legally—much more like equal partners in the eyes of the law, in terms of ownership and in terms of citizenship.
But the basic outline of the ordinary life persisted. It was not the target, not of feminism of this sort. From this perspective, there are still problems—the way girls and boys are raised to conform to certain gender-specific stereotypes and roles, the way top leadership in companies and government is still disproportionately made up of men and this biases the picking of future leaders—but we can strive to overcome those problems without radically revising our way of life. And in the meantime, women can vote and hold property even when married, they can prioritize having a career in a way that was once only a socially viable option for men, and in general they are able to set their own terms to a much greater degree.
There is another, more radical line of feminism which holds that the ordinary life itself is intrinsically patriarchal and oppressive. While this is more associated with second wave feminism, it has been there from the beginning—a minority of first wave feminists believed that the institution of marriage itself was little more than a tool of domination. Since then, there are plenty of feminists who believe that about all of the basic ingredients that go into the making and preserving of our way of life—how we conduct our commerce, the form of our government, our basic values. These backbones of our way of life must be implicated in the disproportionate wealth, influence, and power of men. We can only make real progress if we break, discard, and replace them.
We can think of these two approaches as beginning from similar pieces and projecting different visions of the whole. Many basic facts are agreed upon by each side as well as intellectual opponents of each—men make more money than women, on average. Moreover, when it comes to people who make very high income, the disproportion is much more pronounced. Congress is constituted of a big supermajority of men, and a woman has never been president. Company top executives and boards of directors look much like Congress.
One picture of the whole that can emerge from these facts is that the entire system is set up, brick by brick, to arrive at this outcome. And the only way to avoid that outcome, therefore, is to tear the whole system down and build it back up from the ground—the right way, this time.
The same set of facts can support a picture of a way of life that is, in the big view, the best we can hope for, but in which the details matter substantially. Within the basic frame of family, working to provide value for other people in order to make your living, and participatory citizenship, a huge range of specific outcomes are possible. Some terrible, some wondrous. Most somewhere between, with some truly wonderful things marred by real ugliness that is neither rare nor enough to render the way of life morally bankrupt.
The challenge of characterizing the ordinary life from a feminist perspective is similar to the challenge of characterizing contemporary feminism itself. Is it made up of reasonable intellectuals who criticize the ugliness in our lives, such as Elizabeth Anderson or Martha Nussbaum? Or is it made up predominantly of online shamers, bloggers who think all heterosexual intercourse is rape, or people like this programmer who wouldn’t use an open source license unless she could specify that men were not allowed to use her code? In absolute terms, the latter group is no doubt larger than the former. Of course, the largest part is likely a group of people living and seeking largely conventional lives who believe sexism is a huge problem but haven’t invested much energy in fleshing out a theoretical framework on the matter. That’s how it is with most groups, from modern secular ideologies to traditional religions.
So then how do we characterize the whole (way of life, group, institution) from its parts?
Let’s start with Paul’s take on the matter, which refers specifically to feminism:
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.
Feminism is thus characterized by a canon and a conversation “in dispute”. That is all well and good, but the act of choosing a canon is itself politically fraught for its very centrality to characterizing the whole, and this still does not help us much in our goal of characterizing contemporary feminism as a whole. Whatever the legacy of canonical feminists, if the state of feminism today is more likely to produce people committed to abolishing the family than Wollstonecrafts, wouldn’t we say that something had gone terribly wrong? On the other hand, if contemporary feminism results in reforms to the enforcement of sexual assault laws that make things drastically better for victims, that would be cause for celebration. So it seems to me that simply establishing a canon isn’t enough to answer the question about what the living conversation of feminism is, as a whole.
In some ways, this is just a reference class problem. Who you put in the canon, and who your representative true Scotsman is, largely determine the character of the whole. Are you a lumper or a splitter?
The legacy of a group largely depends upon which of its extremes ends up dragging the larger part its way. And those extremes can get very extreme. So even when everyone is acting in good faith, critics will tend to split off the good extremists and lump in the bad, while apologists will tend to do the opposite. Why else would they be criticizing or defending the whole in question? Consider libertarianism: if you think libertarianism is primarily characterized by thinkers like John Stuart Mill, it’s a pretty respectable tradition. He was an extremist for his time, but his ideas have become basically conventional.
Critics of libertarianism, however, largely think it’s misleading to include J. S. Mill in the libertarian canon at all. Mill’s place within 19th century liberalism puts him in a much older, broader movement than modern libertarianism. These critics go the other way, and make people like Murray Rothbard, who thought central banking was intrinsically fraudulent and that parents had the right to let their children starve, a chief representative of libertarianism as it exists today. Even less charitable critics put Hans-Hermann Hoppe, an utter retrograde, in that role.
This dynamic of critics who lump the bad extremists in and split off the good ones, and apologists who do the opposite, plays out in struggles to characterize just about every group. And it is not merely an academic or semantic matter. Consider that it is the exact dynamic that plays out when talking about the relationship of Islamic terrorists and repressive Islamic governments to Muslims in general—and Muslims immigrating to the US in particular. If you care about preventing attacks that have a lot of casualties, and the character of our polity, but also about people seeking to escape repression and poverty, then you cannot write these questions off as merely semantic. Our ability to answer them is important.
I don’t think there’s a formula or method that we have recourse to, here. I do think that we need to take the nature of the problem much more seriously than we currently do. Like any important topic of investigation, it requires judgment honed by experience, and a community of people investigating the same or related questions who you can trust. Which is a big part of the problem—this question is by its nature politically contentious, and tends to bring out the worst in everyone. Good faith is harder to find than usual.
I can’t offer any easy answers, but I can offer a few cases where I’m fairly confident in my characterization of the whole. These will only be brief treatments; I’m not going to pretend they are knock-down arguments or that I’m some sort of scholar on any of these groups. But I don’t want to just emphasize the difficulty of this task, I want to show that we can set about answering these questions.
My original inspiration for this piece came after the Charlie Hebdo shootings at the beginning of this year. At the time I noticed that the structure of the arguments made to distinguish the average Muslim from extremists like the shooters was very similar to the way in which people participating in GamerGate try to argue that the death and rape threatening, doxing, and generally harassing component of it doesn’t characterize the whole. I considered writing something on this at the time, thought about what that would entail, and chickened out.
These days, on the Muslim side of things, I think Alex Tabarrok has the right view. In general, we vastly underestimate how dangerous the extremes of our own population are, and exaggerate the danger from other groups. On the other hand, I think there’s a strong case to be made that violence from radicals in Islam has jumped dramatically recently, the same way that far-leftist violence jumped in Europe in the 70s and 80s. I also think that the really big catastrophes—the nuking of an American city, say—are of sufficiently small probability, that differences between the odds of any one group’s extremist committing them are miniscule compared to the magnitude of the event itself. In any event, I don’t feel I have much to contribute to this discussion beyond these observations.
But I am much more confident in my characterization of GamerGate. It is at best a worthless movement, and in reality promotes nothing but vitriol. We needn’t even pile up the countless examples of that vitriol to make this case—we need only ask what it was supposed to accomplish. The most charitable reading of their fixation on the gaming press is that they feel that:
- Media critics influence what sorts of games are made
- Media critics have moved in a direction GamerGaters don’t like, because of feminists who have hijacked the narrative.
The “ethics in video games journalism” refers to the fact that a feminist indie game developer was dating a member of the gaming press. The implication is that part of how feminists are hijacking the narrative is by sleeping with the press.
When you add it all up, even when it isn’t outright offensive, you just have to ask “so what?” I have never agreed with cultural critics when it comes to my sources of entertainment. Not once. I never turn to them for advice in picking movies, or music, or anything. It’s clear that the status conferred by such critics does cause more of some types of art to be made than otherwise would be. Yet there are plenty of movies, songs, novels, and comics made that I love. So again I ask: so what?
The best possible GamerGater is just someone who thinks that gaming journalism is a high stakes affair, and is willing to defend the character of his group despite the obvious tide of vitriol it has produced. The worst are the producers of that vitriol and their most direct enablers and apologists. The apologists will often point to bad faith behavior on the part of critics of GamerGate, but that is irrelevant to the characterization of GamerGate itself. GamerGate stands to offer nothing of value to the world, and it has largely been a vehicle for encouraging toxic behavior.
“Real communism has never been tried” as a defense of the philosophy is, at this point, a cliché. And the intellectual influence of Marx and Marxists, while diminished since the fall of the USSR, remains strong in certain corners of academia. A friend who has a great deal of experience in the humanities describes the current norm as “a superstructure of Marxism and identity politics”. In certain circles at least, Marxism is still in play.
This despite the death toll adding up to some 100 million from communist regimes in the 20th century. Almost as bad as the deaths—perhaps worse, from a certain point of view—was the way of life the citizens of those regimes were forced to endure. To me, there is no line in any movie or novel more terrifying than “the private life is dead in Russia.” Moreover, the machinery of the communist state systematically eliminated any potential rivals, hollowing out the institutions of civil society and leaving a huge void when the regimes crumbled.
Communism in the 20th century was, in short, an unmitigated catastrophe, perpetrated by highly educated people who had read their Marx and Engels. To continue to cling to it is frankly shameful, in light of the plentiful critiques of commerce and conquest from sources that did not inspire atrocities on a mass scale. Communism’s ledger is too far in the red to be salvaged by modern Marxists. People should be no less reticent to don its iconography in public or cite its thinkers in the academy than they would be for fascism.
My feelings are more mixed about libertarianism, but then, I’m closer to it.
I think that libertarians have provided many admirable defenses of liberty throughout their history. And during the height of communism and heavy-handed paternalism, F. A. Hayek and Milton Friedman and others were among the most visible figures pushing back on behalf freedom. And these figures, and many others, have shown a remarkable capacity for institutional entrepreneurship. In the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st, they spawned a wide array of congregatios de propaganda fide to invest in the important work of persuasion.
But ultimately, I am with with Will Wilkinson; modern libertarianism does not appear to have a good model of how politics fits into our life. This is a pretty big hole, given that politics is one of the core pieces of the human experience.
I have what I believe is a fair and representative canon in mind. I would exclude Hoppe, but include Rothbard and Mises. But the character of the whole is I think most represented by Friedman, Hayek, Stigler, and Sowell. And while these are towering intellectual figures, their biggest weakness is a defense of liberty which rests on its neutrality. It is this path which led to libertarians being among the worst offenders in making what I have called the empty defense. Without a substantive defense of a particular way of life, this brand of libertarianism boils down to treating things like the family, religion, or norms as merely instrumentally useful. As I have written, this is a flimsy defense, unlikely to be decisive.
The part of libertarianism more characterized by thinkers like Rothbard tend to approach liberty axiomatically. These days, the larger body of them engage primarily in lobbing potshots aimed at eroding the legitimacy of existing institutions without pursuing any viable path to alternatives. Not that they’re alone; that is the characteristic activism (if it can even be called that) of our times.
That is the last example of an ideology I wish to characterize here. Before wrapping up, I’d like to return to the question we began with: the character of the ordinary life.
The Ordinary Life
I said at the start of this post that the ideals of the ordinary life include being a good spouse, parent, neighbor, employee, and citizen. Obviously there’s a great deal to be fleshed out from this simple statement! I haven’t the space to do a proper treatment in this post, which is already too long. But there are some excellent treatments of this at Vulgar Morality. See his posts on public-mindedness, self-reliance, self-rule, tolerance, and most of all the proper moral sphere. From the latter:
My moral sphere is a small world, a limited space. The necessary virtues aren’t complex: humility with my family, integrity at work, neighborliness in my community – add loyalty to friends, and one has the basic package.
The ideals of the ordinary life are precisely the morality of the small world. The ordinary life is the simple life, the life of family, work, home, community and nation.
There is ugliness in the ordinary life, but the mere presence of ugliness is not enough to indict it. It is a human ugliness, which humans will bring into any way of life to greater or lesser degrees. The key questions for characterizing a way of life is whether there is a degree and form of ugliness intrinsic to it. If so, what are they?
Most of the problems people associate with the ordinary life are in fact problems intrinsic to the nature of authority and the use of power. The anarchist and Marxist vision was of power and authority spread so widely that exploitation and abuse would be basically impossible. It should now be clear, I think, that that vision is impossible to realize. Every attempt to realize it has created power imbalances even more massive, with a commensurately larger presence of ugliness.
There are certainly power imbalances intrinsic to the ordinary life. There is a power imbalance between parents and children, but also between parents and anyone else who might be concerned for their children’s welfare. As the Marxist will point out, there’s a power imbalance between employer and employees. As the libertarian is quick to point out, there is a huge power imbalance between a cop and a regular citizen they decide is suspicious.
But the track record of communities and polities that attempted to do away with law enforcement, employment, or the family is—to put it mildly—not good. The abuses of power that resulted were far, far worse than what we see in the ordinary life—20th century communism being one of the most extreme examples.
Suffice to say that I believe critics who call the ordinary life intrinsically wicked or exploitative are wrong. We need to accept that there are always going to be gaps in human life that cannot be filled. Human life will always be organized by authority, power, and trust—and all three will inevitably be abused by some.
With this realistic baseline in mind, the ordinary life stands out as a strong, worthy ideal. One that stands in need of a vigorous defense, rather than being passively taken for granted or becoming the object of ideological hostility.