Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Feminism Post

(Warning, mansplaining ahead.)

I consider myself to be a student of politics and social movements. It's something I enjoy learning, thinking, and writing about and one thread of that I've been following recently is the on going battles inside the feminist movement over what feminism should mean and how it should go about trying to influence the world we live in.

I should probably state up front that while I'm sympathetic with the ideas that feminism espouses and it's goals, indeed I basically agree with them, I certainly don't consider myself a feminist and probably never will. If only because it seems to me that at least some feminists don't really want men to be part of their movement. And that's fine, to each her own (look at what I just did there! See feminists, I'm not totally awful!) This raise the interesting question of why some people want to be part of a social movement that doesn't seem to want them. But it also raises, for me at least, the bigger question of why a movement would decided to exclude 49 or so percent of the world's population up front from being part of the team.

Which brings me to the main point I want to make in this piece: feminism the social movement may be in the service of noble ideals and worthy goals, but it often uses methods that seem counterproductive, or at least may be questionable.

Recently The Guardian published a piece that seemed like a checklist of these sort of choices by Roxane Gay. Simply put Gay doesn't like the fact that the wrong people, that is to say celebrities, are also climbing on board the feminist bandwagon:
But it irks me that we more easily embrace feminism and feminist messages when delivered in the right package – one that generally includes youth, a particular kind of beauty, fame and/or self-deprecating humour. It frustrates me that the very idea of women enjoying the same inalienable rights as men is so unappealing that we require – even demand – that the person asking for these rights must embody the standards we’re supposedly trying to challenge. That we require brand ambassadors and celebrity endorsements to make the world a more equitable place is infuriating.
There's no nice way to say this, so let me just say it and if you'd like to call me a sexist jerk in the comments section feel free to: yes the world is filled with unfairness and awfulness of every kind. And yes the methods, compromises, and work necessary to enact social change can be infuriating. None the less, this is how social change works and this is the path your have chosen to take.

So yeah it's fine to be irked and infuriated and whatever by these sorts of things, but that's just part of the game. It's not clear to me about pointing these things out is going to help anyone. Gay goes on to explain the real problem with feminism, (after quoting none other than Taylor Swift, is she the type of feminist we're looking for? It's also not clear, but anyway):
This is the real problem feminism faces. Too many people are willfully ignorant about what the word means and what the movement aims to achieve. But when a pretty young woman has something to say about feminism, all of a sudden, that broad ignorance disappears or is set aside because, at last, we have a more tolerable voice proclaiming the very messages feminism has been trying to impart for so damn long.
Again, this is something I'd agree with, feminism has consistently been painted by powerful forces in a negative light since basically forever. But at the same time it's remarkable that Gay refuses to even contemplate feminists own agency in terms of why so many people might have negative opinions about it as a social movement. Or why the fact that the public is more open to the moderate and welcoming language that Swift deploys than language about why you, yes you, are "privileged".

Yes it's true that lots of people don't really know anything about feminism or feminist thought, but that's because lots of people don't pay attention to politics at all. Lots of people don't even follow what Congress is up to let alone open a JSTOR account and start pouring through articles about intersectionality. This isn't because they are bad people, rather it's because they are people. They live busy lives, they find academic writing (and people who use that style in blogs and articles) difficult if not impossible to access, and they are too occupied by the problems in their own life to add 50,000 years of men doing horrible things to women to the pile.

I'm not a stranger to these sorts of political problems. Reading about monetary policy and the Federal Reserve has really changed my opinion about economic policy, and in some ways politics in general, quite a bit. It turns out things like interests rates set by some obscure group called the Federal Open Market Committee influences how the economy is doing more than Congress passing some law or the President giving some speech. Which in turn influences things like who gets to be president. So yeah, it irks me that the media treats the Fed and monetary policy as some sort of technocratic topic that no normal person could possibly understand, it's infuriating that President Obama has been so slow at nominating people to be put on the Fed's board of governors, and I wish people weren't so "willfully ignorant" about monetary policy. But at the same time I am willing to allow that liberals and progressives and all us social-justicy-commies have done a terrible job of explaining these topics to people. Indeed liberals and progressives basically ignore them, instead we write lots of articles about celebrities.

Maybe part, just part, of the reason so many of the unwashed masses are "willfully ignorant" about feminist ideas is that feminists, like liberals who care about the economy, haven't been doing a very good job of explaining their ideas. I'm not a huge fan of Freddie deBoer, but he did write an excellent piece about how a lot of what he calls "online social liberalism" might be a bit off putting those of us who haven't been initiated into the higher mysteries of the faith:
If you are a young person who is still malleable and subject to having your mind changed, and you decide to engage with socially liberal politics online, what are you going to learn immediately? Everything that you like is problematic. Every musician you like is misogynist. Every movie you like is secretly racist. Every cherished public figure has some deeply disqualifying characteristics. All of your victories are the product of privilege. Everyone you know and love who does not yet speak with the specialized vocabulary of today’s social justice movement is a bad, bad person. That is no way to build a broader coalition, which we desperately need if we’re going to win.
This is an exaggeration, but is he really that far off? After all Gay tells us about, "...the all-too-often sexist music we listen to and the movies we watch that tell women’s stories horribly (if at all)..."

The interesting question for me is if these forms of communication make any sense in terms of building an effective social movement? It's true that historical and social factors can have profound impacts on our life outcomes, but does it make sense to tell people they are "privileged", even if they find that insulting? Especially when the whole thing can seem like a "personal insult posing as a social critique"? Are you going to convenience them to help you advance your goals or just make them mad? This is not mere cant, from my personal experience if you tell a tenured professor about how they are privileged because they basically have guaranteed employment for life they start ranting about how hard they worked to get here and how the deserve it.

That is they sounds like a CEO at a fundraiser for Mitt Romney.

Does it make sense to tell people who might disagree with you that they need to educate themselves before they can voice an opinion? Maybe, but maybe those people read some books about this stuff in college and still might write a blog post disagreeing with you. Does it really make sense to try and change culture by attacking TV shows and movies as being morally wrong and warping people's minds, like some people of a different political stripe did long ago? Or might a better strategy be to go out and make your own movies via a kickstarter that gives you the ability to tell stories, like a neo-noir set in backwoods Virgina, that Hollywood would never make in the first place?

I of course don't have the answers to these questions. And that's because nobody does. Social movements ultimately make their own choices and determine their own fates. That is to say they have the agency they chose to exercise and the purposes they chose to give to themselves. For all I know these strategies might be working, and leading to a better world. But it is still an interesting thing for me to watch. Personally I think when lefties focus on internal power struggles it doesn't go well, and might even strengthen the hand of their opponents. But then again that's just me.

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