Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Saving Feminism

LATER NOTE (December 28, 2015): I have removed a criticism of Rebecca Watson over the "elevatorgate" incident, as I no longer view it as deserving of scorn. In general, my views have changed significantly since writing this post (for instance, I'm much less dismissive of the concept of rape culture), but I will leave it up for the sake of allowing what I said to stay on the record.

Let me preface this by saying that I self-identify as a feminist. I believe that women are at a significant disadvantage within the United States (where I live), and at a huge disadvantage on a global level. I think that feminism is movement with a history that is both laudable and highly impressive, and that it has been represented by some of the best minds of their respective eras.

With all of that being said, something has gone wrong—very, very wrong. While there are plenty of reasonable, well-educated feminists out there, there is also a large section of people--particularly online--who call themselves feminist but promote an ideology that real feminists would cringe at. This ideology isn't just disappointing when one considers feminism's history; it’s downright loathsome and depraved, in and of itself. Its focuses are absurd; its claims offensive; if it promotes equality, that equality comes as the equal right for all to be oppressed. This wouldn't be so troubling if it weren't for the visibility this group has gotten, and the bad reputation it's helped secure for feminism as a whole.

These feminists (or pseudo-feminists, more appropriately, seeing as their ideology is far from liberating for women or anyone else) make claims and promote ideas that are often dubious at best. Take the idea of rape culture--essentially, that rape is seen as justified if a women's clothing is provocative enough, or the like. There is no doubt that there are people with this repulsive attitude, but by and large, people recognize rape for what it is--an atrocious crime that can never be justified. Furthermore, it is important to recognize that "rape culture" is not the cause of rape--a fact these pseudo-feminists seem to forget. RAINN, the largest anti-sexual assault organization in the United States, even felt obligated to rebut this idea: "While it is helpful to point out the systemic barriers to addressing the problem, it is important to not lose sight of a simple fact: Rape is caused not by cultural factors but by the conscious decisions, of a small percentage of the community, to commit a violent crime."

Then there’s the patently absurd, but apparently very popular, trend of these people claiming they “need feminism” for one reason or another. By their logic, they have apparently helped the mystical being “feminism” spread its wings and save them from the injustices of the world just by calling themselves feminists. I would point out to them how unlikely it would be to see Emma Goldman or Simone de Beauvoir holding a sign explaining why they “need feminism,” but I doubt a lot of these “feminists” would even know who either of those people were.

There’s also the fact that the ideology this group of people subscribes to essentially views women as perpetually victims and men as perpetually evil—not a flattering ideal for either, really. As such, plenty of statements about how society needs to teach men not to rape/abuse/disrespect women instead of teaching women to avoid such rape/abuse/disrespect, float around. Apparently, those making such statements are oblivious to the facts that 1.) not all people who rape/abuse/disrespect are men, and not all people who are raped/abused/disrespected are women, and 2.) it’s generally far more productive to teach people how to avoid falling victim to a crime, since criminals often don’t care what society tells them to do. These “feminists” are also very convinced that society imposes no standards on men in terms of body or appearance; it’s an absolute mystery why they think men can’t feel insecure when seeing what commercials and other media consider “attractive men.” (Actually, it’s not a mystery—it’s because these pseudo-feminists implicitly think women are the weaker sex—wrongly, as any true feminist would point out).

And what of the recent upticks in female genital mutilation? The oppression of women in other countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran? These are issues that, when one is addressing gender equality (or lack thereof), one should be sure to speak on, so what do these “feminists” have to say? Their silence is deafening. In fairness, I suppose there is some talk in pseudo-feminist circles about issues like these, but they always seem to fall into the background—examples of “Why I’m a Feminist” or the like, issues to prove the patriarchy still exists (and I agree, it does) but never issues to actually address in any meaningful way. Then again, when do these people address issues in a way you could fairly call “meaningful?”

Unlike a multitude of other people today, I don’t want to abandon feminism. I think it’s a movement that has achieved a lot, and that continues to be relevant to this day. But—regardless of whether they constitute a minority of feminists or not (and I certainly believe they are)—this sub-movement of radical feminists threatens to discredit feminism as whole by giving it a bad name. Therefore, I call upon all who are able to see through the dangerous extremism of this movement to oppose it at all turns and denounce it at all opportunities. As Noam Chomsky once said, “It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and expose lies.” I propose as a corollary to that, that intellectuals—in this case, anyone who understands what real feminism is—to decry all dangerous aberrations within their own movements and seek to eliminate them. Feminism has done a great deal for both women and men; it would be a shame if its legacy were ruined thanks to a hijacking by bigoted extremists.  

I don't expect to actually cause the disappearance of these people and their ideas, nor do we need to, but I do think it's important to recognize the damage they can cause. When the average person sees an article like this one, feminism itself gets a bad connotation. Part of the reason feminism has a bad reputation is because of people like Rush Limbaugh and Pat Robertson, but "feminists" who really do promote misandry and false ideas play a role too. There are also plenty of well-intentioned people who may say the sort of things or believe the ideas I've talked about here, without realizing their implications. Hopefully, any that read this will understand the problems with those ideas and catchphrases. But, in a time where the people who promote such ideas get as much attention as they do--and alienate as many people as they do--it is important for the real feminists who know better to take action, and speak up when they see something wrong. 

NOTE: This post was edited from its original version. The second and third paragraphs were partly rewritten to be more accurate, and I made a brief addition in part of the second to last paragraph. The last paragraph is entirely new. These edits were made on the advice of my girlfriend. 

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