Thursday, October 25, 2007

Straw Feminists Are Scary, Real Ones...Not So Much

Over at Sweating Through Fog, there's an interesting post that argues for a simple foundational flaw underlying feminism. He begins by responding to Peggy MacIntosh's widely read list of "Daily Effects of Male Privilege" with his own list of Female Privilege. Then, he argues that the exercise is silly because

"in some circles, the admission of privilege is an implicit acceptance of the validity of an ideological view of the world that slots people into categories. Whether it is the fight of feminism against patriarchy, the fight of marginalized peoples against western white oppression, or the latest addition, the fight of transgender people against - and I plead willful ignorance of some of these post-modern nuances - against social constructions of gender, heternormativity ... whatever.

All of these ideologies have one thing in common - they slot people into fixed categories of relative value, while at the same time accusing others of doing the same thing. People with privilege lineage are innately evil; people with victim lineage are innocent. The views of anyone with privilege lineage are deeply suspect, because they lack what is called "epistemic knowledge" - a valid standpoint from which to make any value judgments.

So yes I do have privilege - the privilege of rejecting all these confining, myopic ideologies that claim to tell me the right and proper view of every social exchange. Ideologies that sometimes lead to vicious fanaticism. I'll make a moral assessment of myself and others that is based on my religion, my values, and my experience, not some historical grievance theatre that is, quite often, more about revenge than justice."
This argument is worth responding to because it includes many widely held misperceptions about feminism that can be clearly spelled out in order to explain the mistakes. Once one understands what feminism is, these simple critiques can be seen to be obviously faulty.

Feminists themselves often hamper the effort to quell misunderstandings in responding to the question "What is feminism?" with the question, "Whose feminism?" On one hand, this answer is perfectly fair in that feminism is often wrongly thought to be a monolithic intellectual movement whereby it can be asserted that "All feminists think X" which for any non-trivial X is, of course, false. There are knock down drag outs in the feminist intellectual community, there are disagreements about methodology and foundational tenets, there is an evolving on-going conversation, not a static set of dogmatic postulates to which one must swear allegiance. But, at the same time, there certainly are a couple of distinctive aspects that locate arguments within the realm of contemporary feminist thought and to spell these out clearly would go a long way to countering some of the knee-jerk reactions that are based purely on misunderstanding.

Contrary to his later comment, the list of Female Privilege is an interesting list and there are surely other items that can be added. But the idea that one could compile such a list in no way threatens or undermines feminist claims, indeed, it supports them. One of the standard confusions is conflating political action undermining gender bias in our economic, social, and political institutions with feminist thought. These are two different things. Surely, part of the feminist intellectual project is to expose such injustices and explore their sources, ramifications, and possible means of rectification, and it is also true that once you bring an injustice to light there emerges a moral imperative to correct it, but the political acts of changing the system are different from the intellectual acts of finding and making sense of them. The claim that "people with privilege lineage are innately evil," according to academic feminist scholars is simply false. It is true that some like Andrea Dworkin argue that people with privilege will sometimes do evil things to protect it, but that's an empirical claim that seems pretty well substantiated and a far cry from the strawman offered.

The flip side of this is the caricature that feminism is mere belly-aching about how much women have it worse and by showing how they have it better in some cases is a direct assault on the project. But Sweating Through the Fog is not original in working out the ways in which the present system, despite the hurdles, also offers advantages to women. Indeed, there is a significant strand of third-wave feminism that does exactly that as well. Allowing that there are deep ways in which women are disadvantaged by how things are set up does not mean that there are not also ways that smart, enterprising people will find to turn the system to their advantage. Pointing these things out is very much in line with current feminist analysis, not antithetical to it. Of course, women are clever enough to often figure out how to make lemonade out of lemons, but any celebration of their ingenuity does not mean they weren't, in fact, lemons. Further, these scholars also point out ways in which women take advantage of patriarchy, ways in which illicit advantage can be secured. The claim that "people with victim lineage are innocent" is a widely shared view amongst feminist scholars is simply not the case. Have there been some who have tried to make that move? Sure. But like in any other intellectual community, if someone tries to oversimplify reality, there is a scholar just waiting to take him or her to task.

To be honest, I've always thought MacIntosh's framing of list a bit odd. Many of the items are not really privileges, but lacks of oppression. Much of what it points out are injustices that are not heaped upon men. In the same way, Sweating Through the Fog's list contains a number of items that really express ways that men are disadvantaged by the current social arrangement. Again, this does not undermine feminist arguments, but is very much in line with orthodox, mainstream work in the field starting with Mary Wollstonecraft in the 19th century and proceeding through contemporary writers, even male pro-feminist scholars like Alan Johnson and Michael Kimmel, who explore the ways in which power imbalance harms all involved. Maintaining an unfair system will taint everyone involved and it's no surprise to people who think deeply about it (i.e., feminists) that an unjust system brings about injustices even for those who tend to benefit more indeed they've spent centuries explaining how and why this is so.

But the argument for the rejection of the list brings about the big misunderstanding, "they slot people into fixed categories of relative value, while at the same time accusing others of doing the same thing." Three things here that need unpacking, (1) fixed categories, (2) relative value, (3) the supposed contradiction. Let's take them one at a time.

Do feminists slot people into fixed categories? Some do, some don't. In some of the writings of the 70s and 80s, you'll find folks like Carol Gilligan, Sarah Ruddick, and Nel Noddings do argue that there are natural properties that tend to be more associated with one sex. Other writers, like Catharine MacKinon and Luce Irigaray argue that the slots are socially constructed. Many, many others take issue with the existence of slots at all and seek to show that the notions of sex and gender are so complex that they resist any attempts at categorizing neatly. This is one of those fun places where smart people disagree and real work is done.

Are categories of people given relative values? This is a way of framing the old idea that feminism is about male bashing, man hating, or showing that women are better. Are there some feminists who hate men? Probably. Are there some feminists who hate calamari? Probably, but that doesn't make the intellectual project about squid bashing. That's just not what is done in the literature.

Next, we come to the purported hypocrisy of doing what they accuse others of doing. Feminism is not about replacing injustice with injustice. It is not about diminishing the humanity of anyone. It's about unearthing the ways our traditional understanding of gender has unknowingly shaped beliefs in places we may not have realized and figuring out what more apt understanding of gender ought to replace it. This hardly seems like hypocrisy.

But it's the conclusion that warrants the closest discussion. "I'll make a moral assessment of myself and others that is based on my religion, my values, and my experience, not some historical grievance theatre that is, quite often, more about revenge than justice." It's the old, I'll just treat people like people. Just like the "let's not quibble over how we got into this mess in Iraq, let's just focus on what to do from here" canard, the idea is that somehow the history, the context, and the failures and injustices of the past have nothing to tell us about the details of the situation that we need to know to move forward successfully.

Here is the one major point where Sweating Through Fog does radically disagree with the core of feminist thought and the one place where we really can explicitly set out that characteristic which is essential to feminist thought. Feminism begins with the acceptance of the existence of sociological facts involving sex and gender. They may disagree about what these facts are, how to determine them, where they come from, what they mean, and whether and/or how to change them. But the entire tradition is founded on the central claim that our concept of gender and our beliefs about it play a role in what else we believe, how we behave, and the how we design our social institutions, and what we see from Sweating Through the Fog is a denial of the existence of, or at least a sweeping under the rug of, sociological facts. It's the conservative/libertarian move I've called "limiting the scope of discussion." Sociological facts are ignored and the scope of discussion is limited strictly to the personal. It's the gender version of Stephen Colbert's "I don't see race." We deny that broader influences play any role in our understanding of the world by forcing the conversation to focus on "personal responsibility."

But, of course, these broader influences are real. Their content may be hard wired, it may be empirically-based, or it may be socially constructed. There are socially constructed facts. "A twenty-one year old in the US can legally drink alcohol," is a fact. There is nothing biological that happens on midnight of the 21st anniversary of one's birth, but according to an arbitrary statute a created status is conferred upon 21 year olds that is not afforded to 20 year olds. We created the status and the law that gives it to some and not others. We could change it if we choose. Some of these sociological facts are like this. Are all facts socially constructed? No. Do ones that we wouldn't suspect, have socially constructed presuppositions? Yes. Which ones? Good question.

But regardless of the answer to this question, there are ways in which we are deeply, but subtly influenced by our understanding of gender and this is not the result of ideology, but an empirical fact demonstrable in all sorts of ways by social scientists. Given this, the feminist project then becomes a search for these facts, the ramifications of them, and questions about how to alter our social institutions and social structures to correct for injustices that follow from them. When we see feminism for what it is and don't wall off real facts about the world, it turns out to be a whole lot less scary than the evil bogeyperson too often made of it.