Thursday, May 23, 2013

Feminism For People Who Don't Do Feminist Politics.


As far as I can tell, I agree with everything that Center For Inquiry President Ronald Lindsay said in his "scandalous" opening presentation at the Women in Secularism 2 conference (or at least everything in his transcript*).  It's actually put quite well, imo, for what he was obviously trying to communicate.  He wasn't against men listening and obviously one would think hosting a conference of this sort might weigh in his favor.


For those of you still reading after my opening, my diagnosis of the uproar is that Lindsay said the right thing at the wrong political time.  He contradicted the going hyperbolic, feminist political narrative with the ordinary rules of intelligent conversation and he wasn't wrong.  I've seen plenty of conversations prematurely shut down by standard issue, thought-killing, feminist clichés.  But, also the backlash to Lindsay's talk wasn't wrong since a lot of men do need to shut up and listen. Two demographics of social justice advocates are having a pseudo-disagreement (in terms of substance) and talking past each other.  I agree that the "shut up and listen" political narrative takes precedence over Lindsay's perspective, but I do not agree that it erases Lindsay's perspective which probably represents a significant and meaningful minority(?) demographic of feminist friendly intellectuals in secularism that are being ignored and/or trampled for the sake of the greater good.

I personally can't live the populist feminist political narrative, "Shut up and listen."  It is directed at a probable majority of men with psychological privilege that do actually need to hold their tongue a great deal until they get their listening in proper gear.  I understand that, but one size does not fit all.  And that's the same overkill story of every useful political narrative ever.  It's a dramatic emphasis, but not the gospel truth.  There are lots of people just like Lindsay that want and need to have a normal conversation without the political bs getting in the way, but mainstream feminism doesn't appear to be currently interested in that.  They see it as a threat to their core goals.  

Am I that person that needs to shut up and listen?  How would I know whether that's me or not?  If I read a popular feminist blog post or two on occasion and find a few philosophical errors does that mean I need to listen harder?  Or does it mean that feminists aren't exempt from common errors and may just not have all the kinks ironed out of their ideology just yet?  You know, like every other social movement ever.  Theists and atheists have their own special brand of political hang-ups that have to be harped on over and over again for the sake of productive conversation.  Shit gets really fucked up when those things are allowed to run wild and escalate into greater and greater levels of political nonsense if left unchecked.  It is no different with feminists.  I don't think I've ever read a philosophical book without wanting to at some point throw the book across the room in reaction to blatant stupidity, but maybe that's just me.  I'd love to wholeheartedly throw my philosophical support around some of even my most appreciated philosophical heroes, but it will always come at the expense of numerous qualifications.  That's life.

But I also don't think I know what the dominant narrative emerging out of feminism central necessarily should be.  I'm not in the target zone of oppression and so my sensibilities are not calibrated to that.  And so I will presume that the "Shut up and listen" meme is more or less the best functional emphasis that demographic can come up with at this time despite its flamboyantly obvious practical limitations which Lindsay pointed out.  

It seems that I personally do not need that messaging at all as I am reasonably confident I can communicate the important claims of feminism across even extreme value divides (one on one, at least) without pulling that kind of rank the vast majority of the time.  Even when that fails, I wouldn't tell anyone to shut up and listen, because if it ever comes down to that I know they aren't listening.  I wouldn't shut down any conversation and tell them to Google it for themselves or go read a book and come back when you've done so because obviously you are going to read the exact websites I would expect you to and the exact books I would expect you to and come to the exact same conclusions as me, right?  Sure.  When someone honestly does not see the issue and demands evidence for a positive claim being made, I consider that reasonable from their perspective even if it may not be reasonable in the context they may have invaded.  I don't expect people to be psychic or be able to mysteriously beat their own Dunning-Kruger effect and/or their own privilege without some patient assistance.  I make it my business to find a way to bridge the gap (or if I don't have time or are not in the mood, I say so and perhaps suggest a discussion for another time if I'm actually interested).  That's what thoughtful people do.  Certainly examples of disingenuous troll behavior on the part of outsiders can be pointed to, but just as often it seems it can be pointed out where feminists give up prematurely and default to their brand of socially acceptable cop-outs.  As the saying goes, they've been given a hammer and everything looks like a nail and then they get overly known for that kind of behavior. 

I also know many skeptical dude bros in my relative demographic who I'm reasonably sure are all in as far as the core values of feminism go, but simply can't stand all the inane political bullshit and find it an impediment to continuing their education on the topic and actively engaging in that heavy spotlight.  There's too much social punishment for "just asking questions" and even a feminist meme that defines that as problematic by default.  So yes, this is a "think of the men" message, but incidentally these people do exist (even if this is not the most important demographic for a typical feminist to focus on), there are probably more of them than a typical feminist might prefer, and despite a typical feminist's experience to the contrary these dude bros can probably be reached with merely a different kind of message to the same effect.  A typical feminist may also not be the appropriate person to deliver that message.  

I would like to be able to blog about and to that particular target demographic of dudes and not in a way that is meant to be contrary to the mainstream political message of feminism.  I don't have much, if anything, to say to feminists who feel threatened by anything I've said here.  My audience is not intended to be you (but I wouldn't mind if I changed your views just a little).  If feminism is a circus, I'd like to open a booth somewhere just outside the big tent with the center ring for my own clown show.  I understand I may never get "permission" to do so.  So be it.  Welcome to the internet!  I'm not here for typical feminists and I'm certainly not here for the MRAs.  I've had many reasonable conversations with people who have no place in either camp.  Typically I can make the right message palatable for those friends of mine and communicate the same underlying social justice concept while setting aside the crap.  But what then?  I can detect they know they are just dealing with me.  Sure I may be reasonable, but that's not what they're getting in general.  So why should they feel good about it?  And maybe they're right.    


My general impression of feminism is that it is, in practice, often times an overly defensive ideology for some very obvious and understandable reasons.  Everyone in the history of anyone has been prone to take how they feel and turned it into an overreaching ideology with at least a kernel of truth.  Feminism's large core of truth is obviously oodles better than the cultural sexism it is fighting against, but it tends (in my experience at least) to gloss over inconvenient competing humanitarian values over and over again in order to attain the desired level of defense.  Any push back along those lines even if it is just by a few degrees is typically met with irrational hostility and many of those thought killing clichés.

What might illustrate this point aside from my vague generalities you might ask?  An easy example that comes to mind is the issue of complimenting women in public on their appearance.  It makes perfect sense to want to combat the sexual objectification and trivialization of women in the public spotlight.  However, there's also an important competing value of free expression of what otherwise should be harmless additional attention.  Feminists sound particularly irrational when they pretend there's some absolute dictate that comes down from heaven that says even lighthearted comments about a woman's appearance should never have any place ever in business or politics especially when anyone has any power over someone else.  However there are women who do like it despite those issues and there are men who wish it would happen to them and the audience of these irrational sounding feminists knows it.  In fact, it may be all they know and so getting them to listen to the wider sample range in mind may take some patience and some tact.  But  you'll need a message that actually makes full sense of the data.

It seems feminists don't want to admit that there is actually a place for complementing of women in public on their appearance but maybe just not right now.  The reason a feminist may not be open to this truth is that it exposes a weakness.  If there's a hard and fast rule, then there's no weakness.  It's just what's supposed to always be done and why, oh why, are you not doing it?   [Or in this case not doing it.]  If it isn't a hard and fast rule, then the person asking for this measure of consideration is betraying a personal or demographic weakness in a culturally hostile context.  It says, "I need you to do me a favor.  A favor you're not really obligated to do."  Very few people are willing to be that mature and so it is an understandable gloss.  It is still a meaningful gloss though that tramples an important competing value which no rational person should be willing to so easily throw under the bus.  Incidentally, my personal choice is to comply with the standard feminist advice.  But I get anxious at the thought of socially imposing that on everyone, because I think there is probably some room to maneuver depending on the kind of person you happen to be.    

In my opinion, on this issue feminists should be making an articulate defense for a temporary corrective measure where we voluntarily overly compensate for a history of trivialization.  I don't think anyone should want to in a future equalitarian paradise where we never get to make lighthearted comments about each other's appearances even in relatively serious contexts.  In fact, it doesn't seem that ridiculous to expect to be able to live there right now on that issue since we can pull plenty of anecdotal evidence that it does happen in various amicable circumstances and no evil comes of it.  [Note: That's why lots of men on their first pass on the issue think, "Hell yeah, we change nothing and women should just start publicly objectifying men more and everything will be cool, right?  Pick up the pace, baby girl!"]  It seems silly to have to say that it even adds value to those social circumstances as we might expect it to.  It just may not be the majority of cases given our current level of social progress in terms of combating sexism.  

And so you actually have to make a convincing argument for the interim ethic and call it an interim ethic and ultimately leave it up to the person you are trying to convince to see if it fits with their sense of applied compassion.  Social justice weighting issues (where we strategically take on a measure of unfairness in order to compensate for greater systemic unfairness) are complex and difficult to apply and need to be reiterated over and over again so that people understand what the hell is supposed to be going on.  It's not obvious.  On the issue I've been discussing, I believe that kind of argument can be made and I believe it can appeal across ideological divides because people that intuitively know there's something wrong with what seems to be a typical feminist reaction to that situation also probably have enough background knowledge of oppression (at least indirectly) that can be appealed to in order to make the point stick well enough.  It's the difference between just representing your own position (which has it's own value) and actually communicating to someone who disagrees with you (which is another competing value).

It should also be noted though that when there are closely competing values, there are no hard and fast rules.  Different people are going to take the same social information and their compassion and apply it differently with different valid measures of success.  Some of the rules they set for themselves are even going to conflict and be permanently unresolveable.  In other words, I may apply certain rules to myself that you should not apply to yourself and we shouldn't necessarily try to make direct sense of that.  This is what I eventually learned from the infamous warrior vs. diplomat debate in skepticism.  We should promote evidence based understanding of the given social justice issues, give our recommendations, and allow people to act with their own consciences.  If we let that happen, most of the time we'll probably get more of what we want.  But if you pass on giving appropriate weight to competing values, you'll not get much traction with a wider audience of otherwise reasonable people.  You'll be settling for the easy converts who are willing to focus on just what you'd prefer.  Maybe a typical feminist is okay with that and maybe it's okay that they are okay with that.  Reaching out passionately with an important core message has value.  Atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens do that kind of thing quite well when it comes to atheism (much to the chagrin of many atheists who which they were much more refined in their presentations).  But that doesn't mean there aren't other ways to go about things that reaches different audiences.   

I think what I perceive as the over-defensiveness of mainstream feminism may actually be necessary for this particular point in time for the majority of feminist movements and it may not be reasonable to expect better of people who are genuinely struggling through the difficulties of this miserable life that have been imposed on them.  It may just be psychologically true that one needs wider margins for error than actually exist in the social sphere without trampling other important values that have obvious staying power.  People have to be able to live the social movement.  Sometimes there's a cost to that.  I'm willing to appreciate that at arms length.  I also believe feminism will continue to shift and change into some more morally buoyant and equalitarian for hopefully the rest of human history.


It may be clear by now that I do not exactly identify as a feminist, but this is a bit like someone not identifying as an atheist for political reasons even though they fit the criteria of not believing in a god.  Feminist politics are alienating just as the popular politics of atheism are often alienating to average atheists.  If someone calls me a feminist, I'm not offended and I understand and appreciate the technical argument they are making, but the title is not personally compelling to me given the politics.  

I don't tend to speak out on feminist issues because I almost always seem to have something contrary and politically unproductive to say.  Also I'm not that interested in burdening my feminist friends with my brand of philosophical accuracy they don't necessarily need just because I can't live exactly in their ideological shoes.  I would like to focus on philosophical troubleshooting and practical problem solving.  I'm not a promoter.  Should a post like this one be put in the main spotlight?  Hell no (And no worries, no one reads my blog!)!  Most dudes probably would be best served by shutting up and listening wholesale (bs and all!) to mainstream feminism.  I have no interest in justifying the vast spectrum of unrepentant dudes or promoting that feminist political message with no qualifications.  Typically I merely express my grievances with what I read to my spouse and lament that I don't think I have any helpful place to speak.  I just didn't think feminism was at the right stage of cultural development to hear the kinds of limited criticisms I've been wanting to voice and frankly there are plenty of other issues to blog about in this life.  

It became quickly clear to me when I first really got into feminism that my explicitly feminist friends weren't going to be very helpful in my personal journey and that I was just making them miserable doing things the way I had always been accustomed to through many paradigm crashing changes.  There are typical ideological problematic issues entrenched in mainstream atheist thought.  Lo and behold I found some in feminism!  The difference is atheism is typically about abstract metaphysics and feminism is typically about interpersonal relationships at many social levels.  The personal cost of debating the difficult nuances of feminism is higher and as a white, heterosexual, middle class male I have privilege to burn in regards to avoiding unreasonable social conflict.  Sorry ladies.  And so in regards to feminism for the last few years I've shut up and listened from a distance, but that doesn't mean what I continue to hear with every stupid scandal is always that reasonable.  Often it isn't.  The reaction to Lindsay's talk, even from people I respect (like my spouse, Richard Carrier, James Croft, Rebecca Watson, etc.) is somewhat understandable, but betrays a dysfunctional politics-only mindset that isn't helpful for all parties.  I'm not going to make much of a splash here with my 2 readers, so I hope that works out for those who would never listen.

Lately, I've been pondering that maybe it is time for me to shift gears.  If, in terms of Atheism Plus, we are attempting to merge the atheist activist community with the feminist activist community and atheism is expected to listen to the feminism, it seems to me the feminism has to listen to the atheism (and I apologize for such simplistic terms to get the basic point across).  Both movements have their run-of-the-mill strengths and weaknesses.  If the lone wolf, privileged male atheists have to listen, the overly defensive, educated feminists have to listen as well as those cards shuffle into the same deck.  No one gets to set the terms of discussion by fiat.  They have to be negotiated.  Obviously a lot of that has already gone down in terms of A+, but more remains.

Appreciating why feminism sets the rules of engagement the special way it tends to do requires already agreeing with its message (in terms of the many difficult social justice weighting issues that there are).  Which is bassakwards of course in terms of communication.  It's great for extreme in-grouping which may have been a necessity at one point to give people certain oppressed demographics of people a safe space.  But if you expect to open those defensive doors to a wider audience (ahem, a la A+) things have to change.  I walk into every conversation knowing I don't get to set the rules and that I have to have a translation module prepared for many difficult and complex ideological contingencies.  I cannot tell anyone that they don't have to do that without experiencing the ill consequences for failing to do that.  You'll be a rat in the maze of your own ideological dysfunction that's always partly your fault and partly the fault of your opponents who hopefully are at least less right than you are. 

Apparently the main people behind A+ believe we are culturally ready to pay the transitional cost of merging two difficult movements.  I would like to see that transition continue to happen.  At some point in the future I'd like to blog about the incoherent aspects of the Atheism Plus forum rules, for example, which I'm sure aren't going to be amended anytime soon.  I personally appreciate the environment the A+ people have created, but they've made a few mistakes which could be pointed out.  Atheism movements seem to have a brighter future ahead of them given our growing numbers (thanks to how especially shitty Big Religion has been lately in this internet age) and we seem to have come to a sub-cultural head with secular feminism.  And so be it.  Change often hurts.  That's how I see the enormous divisive uproar of Atheism Plus without getting totally frustrated even though many others feel like they should just give up and go home.  Hopefully it is the necessary birth pains of a better, stronger movement in the long run without alienating too many good people in the process.  And maybe I can be on board with that in more than a passive sense.  No promises though.

I also hope Ronald Lindsay doesn't lose his job over this.  I feel like something stupid is probably going to happen and everyone like him is going to learn that feminism and A+ aren't interested in reasonable conversation.  Although, that's already not a surprise to a lot of people.  I will attempt to remain hopeful.  Again, no promises.   


*There are a few factual claims that Lindsay makes that I could check up on, but they do not seem to relate to the core of the uproar and so I'll leave that for another time.  I do have one minor quibble that's irrelevant here.  At one point Lindsay says that sexism is "deeper" than religion.  I would say that it can be as equally deep as religion since they are independent, culturally learned social phenomena, but I understand what he's trying to say.