Feminism & Feminists

Posted on October 9, 2014 by Richard Goulter
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Isn’t this topic such a good one? I’d be willing to bet your mind is already made up by the time you’ve read past the title page.

It’s been a topic which pops up on my social networks; especially moreso due to Emma Watson’s fantastic talk to the UN recently. And because I’ve seen enough discussion on the point, I’d like to gather some thoughts on the issue here.

If you (somehow, incredibly) haven’t watched the talk, it’s quite short. One way to summarise Emma’s talk would be that i) yes, feminism is a righteous cause for advocating gender equality, and ii) maybe the word “feminist” makes some people uncomfortable (for some reason), so let’s call it HeForShe, and invite men to the discussion. There are surely other ways to summarise the talk; and I think different people will highlight different parts of Emma’s speech according to how they see things. Certainly the feminist-folk I saw were quite chuffed with the talk.

I was also impressed by this response / opinion piece from Cathy Young, with a baiting title “Sorry, Emma Watson, but HeForShe Is Rotten for Men”, which made the points (roughly) that the feminist community doesn’t give enough recognition or effort to the issues of gender equality for men; and that the invitation to discussion needs to be more than “sit down, shut up, and agree with us”. In brief, why “HeForShe” and not “SheAndHeForUs”. – What deeply impresses me about this opinion is it gives feminists responsibility (and therefore, power), rather than a “you’re dismissing the opinion because it’s by feminists”.

Between Emma Watson’s talk, and Cathy Young’s piece, there are enough good ideas to take on board. That much I would like to highlight in this blogpost. But before we get any further; if I contribute nothing else to the discussion, I would like to point out that there isn’t as much civility in these discussions as they should be. As I note in a moment, I think people agree more than you’d think, yet these discussions seem to be framed in such a contentious way (feminists vs non-feminists) so as to lose sight of this. It’s very easy to become frustrated or angry other people have dissenting opinions. (And snark/sarcasm is the quickfix to deal with this anger). - So it’d be worth taking a moment to consider that if you think “Hey, I completely can’t understand why this person would even think that. Are they an idiot?”, you might want to make more of an effort to listen to what the other person is saying, value their contribution, and try to understand what they’re saying. (Doesn’t mean you have to agree. But better to understand why you disagree, right?). - Even this blogpost might come across as a little contentious, rather than trying to be constructive about things. The other thing worth pointing out in this discussion is, for as much as people might agree on things, there are things people will inevitably disagree on. Passion of belief doesn’t excuse feeling incredulous that people might see things differently than you do. - But even if discussion between two people reaches such a point, probably it is valuable to gain more knowledge/awareness of the topic, and to hear other viewpoints. – Meta-discussion like this is a whole topic in and of itself, and short of concrete examples is needlessly tedious to consider. Oops. Onwards, then.

I guess the first thing I’d really like to note is that.., well, there is a lot of discussion going on about this. Second thing to note is that there are a number of people who really don’t like the term “feminist”. Regarding the second point; I see it heavily emphasised everywhere (especially in Emma’s talk) that feminism is about equality. And I see that many people are happy to get behind this notion of gender equality, even if not behind the term “feminist” (which is notable in and of itself); but almost all the discussion I see doesn’t then stop to say “Hey. I like equality. You like equality. We both like equality, that’s great. We should agree on things.”. (Emma’s talk touches upon this point, but it’s not a point I’ve seen feminists repeat). - Such discussion would then continue, discussing what people mean by “equality” (which itself isn’t a simple, easy word for people to agree on). Instead, what I see is feminists almost universally make the point “You like equality? Then you’re a feminist!” in response to people’s distaste for the term. That is, for such feminists, agreeing with the term “feminist” is more important than agreeing about equality.
– Certainly I feel there’s a sense of righteousness in the cause for gender-equality (and fighting against injustices therein) which fuels passion. I’ve seen remarks like “I’m too busy caring about the justice of the issue to care about what you think [about feminists].” which partly comes across as snobbery. - On the other hand, I think such an attitude is noble: “You think feminists are mean, man-hating, illogical jerks? Sure, whatever. That’s me. But listen to what I’m saying about the inequality and injustice at hand. It’s not cool.”.

I saw the remark from C.S. Lewis, which could be paraphrased as “if you ignore theology, it doesn’t mean you have no thoughts about God. But it does mean you’ll have some naive thoughts.”. I suspect if we draw parallel to the discussions occurring about these issues, then similarly people can have opinions on gender; but it’s likely such thoughts will be naive. I’m somewhat fine with that; not everyone needs to be an expert on everything they have an opinion about. I believe discussion would be better (and more civilised) if people were better educated, though. – I really liked Harvard’s Justice series from Michael Sandel, where Sandel introduced a contentious argument, and then as students in the lecture discussed different views, Sandel introduces terms which summarise the attitudes. (That is, the students’ discussion was re-treading old ground. Which is fine. But it’s good to have the tools to discuss the issues). – And I’d believe that with all the discussion going around between people who haven’t taken courses in gender-studies (which is fine).. I think the opportunity is ripe for someone to come in and offer information.
– When I last looked at this topic, I saw some remarks from feminists along the lines of “Go away and take a gender-studies course, and only after that will I bother to read what you write”. Back then, I thought the remark a rather snobbish one, from someone sitting in an ivory tower, dismissing remarks as without value. I think With the above in mind, this viewpoint can be more reasonably understood as someone frustrated with naivity in the statements being made. (Of course, if such a person wants you to go learn gender studies only so that you’ll agree with them, that’s stupid. But if they want you to be educated with a richer set of tools for the discussion, then that’s much more respectable).

Instead, the responses I see from feminists are more like “agree with me, or else.”; grounded in the idea that feminism is the Right Thing, and so as feminists they must be Right also. (The idea that all feminists agree on everything, all the time makes sense under “feminism is simply about gender equality”; that definition makes for a good start, but isn’t adequate to describe the feminist community as a whole). I’ve seen some feminists go as far as to admit that there’s a “PR Problem”. That’s a step in the right direction for inviting “non-feminists” into discussions with feminists. I feel, though, that to call this problem a “PR Problem” says the problem is only an issue of appearances; that people just don’t understand what femnists are all about. (Such an attitude is degrading to those who don’t want to consider themselves feminists; “if you understood, you’d agree with me”. Or, rather, “if you’re smart, you’ll agree with me”). I think it’d be more accurate to call this issue a “communication problem”. Nuance gives some share of the blame to both parties, if we call it that. What I have seen only very rarely, though, is any attempt to address this problem. (Aforementioned response to Emma Watson’s talk is a start, because it says “Hey, here’s why people don’t like discussing things with you. Here’s something you need to fix/address.”). – I’d suggest that feminists oughtn’t complain that people don’t like the term “feminist”, if there’s little or no attempt being made to understand why people don’t like the term “feminist”; and little or no attempt to listen to people who have different attitudes.

– I think it’d be fair to say, though, that one can’t quite talk of the feminist community as one body and one mind. So statements like “feminists ought to..” are somewhat useless (even if the sentiment is agreeable). What I feel, though, is that there are too many feminists who are bad-apples; and not enough feminists who are upset by that and doing something about it. Much of the discussion I’ve seen about feminists comes down to addressing the question “what is a feminist?”. Particularly, if a ‘feminist’ ever says something bad, they’re not a real feminist. And the common answer is that “feminism is about equality!”, without distinguishing between feminism and feminists; that allows that when people discuss “feminists hate men”, the response is “feminism isn’t about hating men”, which talks past the point. In any case, while “feminists are those who believe in gender equality” is a nice, simple answer for getting people to consider themselves feminists, it doesn’t do a good job at addressing the idea that feminists don’t all agree with every other feminist, that there are different schools of thought which fall under the term “feminist”. – I’ve seen this highlighted every now and then, but cf. above point that much of the discussion is grounded in naive understanding.. it’s rather a mess, isn’t it?

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