Illiberal Feminism Strikes Again, Ctd

The in-tray has seen another big wave of reader responses since our most recent post, but we’re trying to balance the need for your input with the need to keep the debate productive and relatively concise. One reader who wants to keep it going:

I dissent from the dissenters. Keep talking about it. Keep questioning the excesses of the feminist hard line. I understand that they don’t want to confront their own worst elements because, like any political movement, talking about your internal messaging problems is guaranteed to annihilate your external message. So I know why they don’t want to talk about it, and I surely know that the mainstream brand of feminism is Emma Watson’s elegant, inclusive variety.

A refrain I hear often from the feminist side is that men have to learn to stop talking and listen. And when I point out that that sounds suspiciously like “shut up”, I then get a 30-minute explanation as to why it’s not hypocritical to tell men to remain silent when you’re angry that women have been kept silent for so long. You are listening, Andrew. Don’t let them tell you otherwise.

Many more readers sound off:

I do think that sometimes your maleness and gayness come together to make you a little tone deaf on feminist issues, but this pushback must just reinforce every bad stereotype you have.

Getting the Oxford debate cancelled is one giant case of ad hominem; your views have no merit because of who you are. The irony is so rich it’s cloying. But the last dissent finally clarified what’s wrong in this discussion. Your critic (male, of course) states, “every feminist contradiction you’ve covered in this thread has been debated within feminism since its beginning” (obviously, demonstrably false), and then whines: “It’s not feminism’s burden to educate.”

Seriously, dude, grow the fuck up. Of course it’s feminism’s job to educate; you just don’t want to do the work. The fact that you have suffered and/or do suffer injustice does not mean you’re not a massively over-entitled asshole. If the top level of the oppressor pyramid is a straight white wealthy intelligent educated first-world man, then almost everyone in this discussion on the first five levels of a fifty level pyramid, pointing furiously up at the top level and ignoring everyone below. They have all the entitled laziness of the top levels, but spend so much time looking up they actually feel (and act like) they’re at the bottom (like the guy who thought $450,000 a year made him poor).

This vocal minority of feminists are not wrong to name and fight the injustices. But they are childish to expect it to come easy, and only this entitled immaturity explains their gall in lecturing you, of all people, on the “burden to educate” – as though you did not spend decades educating and re-educating every new person who came to the table with a sudden insight on marriage equality.

Another continues along those lines:

The fact that this thread has revealed such a wide degree of opinions and experiences demonstrates the necessity of this education. There is a huge swath of people in this country, many of whom are intelligent and well educated, who have reservations towards or disagreements with positions in modern feminism. Even if you are certain that you are right, you don’t get to just snap your fingers and win the argument. Ignoring those who disagree with you isn’t going to help anything. Attempting to censor your detractors is only going to make things worse.

If there really are arguments that are strong enough to settle these debates within academic circles, then why is it treated as such a difficult task to show these arguments to those who haven’t seen them? Why are you “disheartened” when someone whose opinion and understanding you otherwise trust disagrees with you? Why don’t you just explain why this stuff is so damn clear to you?

On that note, a female reader wishes we hadn’t run this email from another woman:

I appreciate that you air comments from a variety of opinions and much prefer this format to a comments section, but that one could have stayed in the in-tray.  Actually, no, I think it’s illustrative in that it presents the hideous stereotypes and gross exaggerations often employed by equality foes.  This view that “feminists don’t care about equality for women … they want domination for women” hurts the cause of equality for all as much as the institutional patriarchy we defend ourselves against.

I’ve been kicked out of feminist forums for being reasonable and having the audacity to suggest that, perhaps, not all men are potential rapists and murders, so I know very well how they “eat their own.”  But that vast majority of people who call themselves feminists, publicly or privately, actually are on the side of equality, do not hate men, and are not seeking gender domination.  I’m sure you know this.  I’m not convinced that your reader does, but I think by posting it you give credence to the idea that probably had some of your readers nodding along.

Another wonders where to draw the line:

I generally agree with your overall take on this subject, but like everything else there needs to be room for nuance. Here is one example: At my law school, a first-year criminal law exam included a very detailed description of rape. A huge controversy arose. Now you might easily think this is more evidence of overly “delicate sensibilities,” but you should consider that at least some women, maybe a significant number, taking that exam would have to fight through their personal experiences with rape and somehow remain as analytically focussed and dispassionate as the men taking that exam. First-year law exams essentially determine your law school success, and one blown question will be difficult to overcome. So basically, by including that rape question, the professor handed a huge advantage to the male students in his class. Should we fault the female students who were enraged by this?

Update from a reader:

Why should we not do this for kidnapping, or traumatic car accidents, or … ? Are these women never going to deal with rape in their law practice? Is there a tipping point where a trauma that potentially affects {n}% of students should not be asked?  I am (perhaps overly) analytical. I’m not saying the precaution is unnecessary, but how are we making these decisions? What is the framework? That is the part that bothers me.

Another expands the debate to include race:

One reader argued that what is being given as an argument is: “I know you think what you’re doing is OK, but it’s not for some unspecified reason that you can’t understand because you are not the correct gender/race/religion. Because of this, you should refrain from expressing an opinion and solicit feedback from those who do possess the relevant identity.”

Sometimes that is the argument being made, and it is self-evidently a flawed argument. And I agree that “call-out culture” is a problem, with so much emphasis put on denouncing and writing people off as bigots. And obviously, as I’m a man commenting on feminist issues, I don’t think that men are incapable of understanding issues of sexism. But there is a more nuanced version of that argument that is much more persuasive, that your reader is ignoring.

Let’s take Ta-Nehisi Coates as an example where you to defer to someone else’s life experience because of your self-admitted ignorance. I don’t think this means, or that you intend to say, that you defer completely to TNC on all questions of racism or race relations. But a lot of questions relating to racism can’t be quantified. A lot of questions relating to racism have to do with subjective experiences. A lot of questions relating to racism are researched using surveys where canny respondents can and often will perceive the “correct” answer. We can’t just ask White people whether they’re racist and expect an honest answer. Sometimes there isn’t an objective answer in the data. And I think there’s enough evidence that White people have glaring holes in their perception of racism that we shouldn’t dismiss the experience of Black people because it doesn’t match with our own. And we can see from well-crafted studies that the perception of Black people is often validated by the results.

For example, I’ve often encountered White people who are skeptical that job discrimination is still a real factor affecting Black people. Often they think that because of affirmative action, the discrimination actually goes in the other direction. Yet studies have found that if you send identical resumes with White names and Black names, the White resumes will get substantially more responses. The statistics lead to the undeniable conclusion that despite what White people perceive, that discrimination is still there. But because this discrimination may be subconscious or is at least conducted in such a way that makes it hard to prove in any individual case, White people often just don’t see it and don’t think it’s there.

This perspective does not mean that White people have nothing to contribute, and they cannot debate racial issues. But it does mean that we have reasons to think that White people’s perception can be flawed.

You are willing to acknowledge these limitations and defer to writers like TNC rather than relying just on your perceptions. But you seem to be much less willing to do this with issues relating to women, despite much sexism operating in the same veiled manner as racism and involving situations with subjective interpretation.

And there’s also good reason to suspect that men often don’t perceive issues relating to sexism accurately. For example, I know from my studies in linguistics that the perception that women talk much more than men is not really true if you look at it quantitatively. The perception simply doesn’t match the data. There were even experiments where, when teachers were forced to actually give equal time to boys and girls, their impression was that the girls were talking more than the boys.

So, when issues of representation of women are derisively dismissed as calling for quotas in order to achieve gender justice, your impression that women are actually represented fairly as journalists and composers not only overrides whatever feminist activists are saying about the issue, but dismisses their analysis as illiberal, censorious fanaticism. That they looked at the numbers, to you, suggests quotas, and the issue of whether there’s actually any sexism causing those disparities wasn’t even considered. The way you think women should interpret objectification of women say, in video games, carries more weight than how women feel about it. But maybe you should be a little bit more circumspect about your ability to perceive these issues fairly.

Another reader questions how useful the word “feminist” is:

The main problem with the label of “feminist” is that it has come to mean something different from its literal definition.  Here’s another phrase to consider: “family values.”  Those words are quite noble if you look them up in the dictionary, but in reality many people suspect the term as a proxy for anti-gay Christianist sentiment.  For this reason, while I value my family and families in general,  I will never, ever say that I support “family values,” nor will any of my friends.

Sadly, the word “feminist” has been similarly corrupted by a very vocal minority who are defined by their damage and penchant for quick disapproval, and they are far more interested in punishing the world than changing it for the better.  It’s unfair, but the word cannot be rehabilitated. I would urge “dictionary feminists” to use the momentum of their hostile sisters against them, and simply pick a new label (“Equalists?”) and reject the old one.  Otherwise, they are going to bang their heads against a negative cultural image that is continually fueled by extremists who simply have no interest in reaching a consensus.

Another tells the story of how he came around to the idea of “privilege”:

I was raised in an ultraconservative, fundamentalist Christian household, where homophobia and sexism were the norm. It should surprise no one that I entered adulthood with some nasty, bigoted views.

Contact with the real world – meeting gay people that were “virtually normal” and realizing that women were obviously every bit as human as me – inevitably challenged my worldview, but also it put me in conflict with myself.  I started to soften my stance on issues such as gay marriage or women’s rights, adding qualifiers and exceptions to my language whenever the topics arose with friends, classmates or colleagues.  Yet, in the course of these discussions, I was still so often insulted, attacked or condemned for my beliefs that I had no reason to think that feminists and “liberals” considered me anything but brutish, stupid and evil.  So I never felt any impetus to consider their positions – you don’t stop in the middle of a fistfight to consider your enemy’s feelings and perspectives, and debate the relative merits of whether you should have your nose broken.

My change of heart came when I made friends with a bisexual woman who, at the time, sat on the board of the local feminist community center.  She and I had many conversations over many hours and evenings about feminism, sexuality, identity politics … you name it, and we jawed about it.  Rather than judging me, shaming me or telling me that my views were out of bounds or that debating certain topics was off-limits, she created a “safe space,” so to speak, and listened, attending to both my thoughts and feelings, and asking smart, vexing questions at opportune moments. It didn’t take long for me to start hearing the words coming out of my own mouth, and to realize how I had been so carelessly and unconsciously destructive with them in the past.

I’ll never forget the day she dropped this bomb: Knowing that Hemingway was my literary hero, she paraphrased him: “You have to pay some way for everything that’s good.” It became bleedingly obvious to me just then. There are so many human beings fighting for the basic privileges that I get for free, just for being white, straight and male.  With great power comes great responsibility: If I don’t accord everyone the same dignity, agency and freedom that I have, I cheapen myself.  You pay the price of privilege by recognizing that the privilege is good, it’s worth something, and that if you deserve it, everyone deserves it.

If she had blithely dismissed me as a bigot (which I was) and shut down the debate over some ignorant thing I said (there were many) I may have never come around.  Thank God that she realized you can’t teach someone empathy, understanding and mercy with hatred, hard-heartedness and vengeance.  You teach people how to be loving and understanding by being loving and understanding.  It makes me think of the recent post “Jesus Amidst the Ruins“; she didn’t attack me or attempt to silence me or give up on me because my beliefs were unacceptable in polite public discourse.  She just washed my feet.

The impulse to silence those that disagree with you may be all too human, but it has no place in a free society. It is the tool of the ideologue, the dictator and the assassin. Those of us that are able to participate in debates like #gamergate or illiberalism in the art world – or any public debate – need to check our privilege. You have to pay some way for everything that’s good, and the price of free speech is recognizing that it is good, that it is worth something, and that if we deserve it, everyone deserves it.