Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Four Fallacies That Fail Feminism

I don't call myself a feminist because I consider myself a humanist, and I believe humanism subsumes feminism. But obviously, I have no quarrel with feminists because I've found that the issues that outrage them outrage me as well, and for the same reasons. However, I've observed that some of the women who call themselves feminists (feminists predominantly tend to be women) sometimes conduct their arguments in a manner that doesn't serve the cause very well.

Let me list four of the ways in which poor arguments can undermine the feminist cause:

1. Women-are-superior smugness:

I'm not referring to the light-hearted jokes about incompetent husbands that do the email rounds from time to time. I enjoy them as much as the next person. What concerns me is when the same attitudes are expressed in all seriousness. A recent example is a blog post on the LeanIn theme, which goes:

This is one of the many points in my life where I was grateful to be a woman: My natural ability to handle ambiguity enabled me to tackle the challenges of setting up something from scratch [...]

Seriously? Has the ability to handle ambiguity been scientifically proven to be a gender-linked trait? If not, isn't this opinion just sexism? With what face can we then argue with men who claim to be naturally more logical than women, better leaders or better drivers?

We don't want to topple the Patriarchy just to replace it with a Matriarchy. What we should be fighting for is an egalitarian society where everyone is treated as an individual, with no gender-ascribed qualities that either elevate or oppress them.

2. Sisterhood-loyalty trumping fairness:

You read a news item about a woman who has accused a man of some misbehaviour. No independent evidence has yet emerged in the case. It is literally a case of "He said, she said". You often find that the comments section is filled with conclusions based on opinion alone, - not just the predictable patriarchal view that the woman is either lying or must have provoked the misbehaviour, but the equally unjustified calls from women for stringent punishment of the man.

Whatever happened to the principle of "innocent until proven guilty"? I am not making an argument in defence of men here. This is an argument in defence of fairness. If we don't know the facts of a case, we must withhold judgement. The most that we can demand is for an investigation to be conducted with due seriousness.

It becomes hard to argue against sexist comments directed at a woman when there are equally unsubstantiated conclusions being drawn about a man. We need to value fairness and justice above all. Once again, it's about individuals. Innocent individuals shouldn't fall victim to gender stereotypes in a gender war.

3. Friendly fire, or Those-not-with-us-are-against-us:

Human society isn't one of perfect clones, and there can be honest differences of opinion even among similar-minded people. We need to tolerate minor differences, or at least address them gently, when our overall viewpoints tend to agree. Insistence on adherence to a purist line, with immediate, public and merciless excoriation of those who stray from that line, risks turning a noble ideal into little more than an authoritarian ideological cult. This is a constant lurking danger in online battlegrounds where sympathetic men often wade in in support of a feminist cause.

I have myself faced unexpected "friendly fire" from feminists when engaged in a heated debate with male chauvinists. It was often some woman who took offence at a minor point I made and proceeded to lash out at me, undermining the larger battle we were both having against more obscurantist opinions.

What I would say to such people is, if you feel someone's views are on the right track but not quite where you think they should be, nudge them along rather than attack them. Vituperative attacks against people supporting your cause constitute bad tactics, for two reasons. One is that such infighting is a distraction from the larger argument that is being made by both. The second and more serious reason is that it causes the target of your attack to lose face with his gender compatriots (against whom he had courageously argued), and considerably reduces his willingness to wade into battle for similar causes in future.

Moral: Don't shoot your allies. You need them.

4. Callousness towards other forms of discrimination:

Some feminists seem to believe that gender-based discrimination is the only one that counts, or at least that it is more serious than other forms of discrimination. Let's call this meta-attitude "genderism". In my opinion, the term "feminism" is itself evidence of genderism. Why aren't we all "humanists" instead? Don't we also oppose other forms of discrimination, such as racism, homophobia, casteism, ageism, religious prejudice, etc.? Who is to say these other forms of discrimination are milder or less pernicious? Just ask someone who has been a victim.

The greatest disservice to feminism comes from feminists who are racist, casteist, homophobic or religious bigots, and there are plenty of these around. It's breathtaking hypocrisy to oppose one kind of discrimination while practising another kind.

There really is no choice for feminists but to be humanists as well, and to be seen as such, otherwise their support of the necessarily narrower cause of gender equality can and will rightly be questioned. As a matter of topical interest, it is heartening to see that feminists are by and large supporting the marriage equality cause, but this support is by no means unanimous.

In sum, these are the four attitudes that I believe hobble the fight for gender equality.


She said...

Since this is a topic quite close to my heart, I have some thoughts to share. Regarding your points 1 and 4 - I totally agree. The entire point of feminism is that there is no superior sex. And regardless of what form it takes, discrimination is discrimination.

On to points 2 and 3 though.
Sisterhood? If only sisterhood would triumph more often! Patriarchy's biggest win is the old divide and conquer. The reason it is so successful is that it isn't just men that discriminate against women. In fact, in the more "progressive" countries, it is more women that discriminate against women, than men. Women of my own age casually make comments like "my office is so bitchy - too many chick managers". It is nothing short of devastating to me when I hear things like that. A man wouldn't dare say that (or phrase it like that at any rate!).

On another note, the rape conviction rate stands at 5% in this country. Five percent. And not all rapes get reported in the first place. So that's 95 out of a 100 men convicted of rape (they almost always are in cases of rape) are not rapists after all? Surely you don't believe that.

Put the whole spectrum of "she's too skinny, she's too fat, OMG WHAT is she wearing, wow she married a loser, wow her husband is whipped...." all the way down to drunk husband beats wife while mother-in-law ignores it in the other room together and you see the picture. What feminism desperately needs is a bit of sisterhood. So until the details are genuinely clear, I am *always* siding with her.

Point 3 - I agree that in the case you have linked to, lashing out at you was quite unwarranted. But the unfortunate thing is that male allies of feminism are so very rare, that unless you really know them well personally, it is hard to believe they actually exist. I am lucky enough to know three such men (those that truly consider feminist) so I do know they exist. But while I may not lash out at what you wrote, I too would have trouble believing you're a true male feminist if I didn't know you personally.

Ganesh Prasad said...

Thanks for the feedback.

On point 2, what you're really arguing for is more fairness from everyone, men and women. People should speak up against injustice, regardless of where it occurs, who is perpetrating it and who is the victim. Cliques are not the answer. Gender-based cliques that are blind to fairness (i.e., the "sisterhood") embarrass others who are fighting for fairness and ultimately do us all a disservice. "Hang in there" would be my response. Fairness will triumph if we all fight for it.

On point 3, my argument was that feminists should try to be gentler with men who are trying, but aren't as advanced in their thinking as they perhaps should be. A spoonful of sugar, as it were.

Ganesh Prasad said...

> Women of my own age casually make comments like "my office is so bitchy - too many chick managers". It is nothing short of devastating to me when I hear things like that. A man wouldn't dare say that (or phrase it like that at any rate!).

There is an equivalent for men. I, for one, am uncomfortable in work environments that are too "blokey". And I too have heard from more than one woman that all-women teams are hell to work in. The consensus in our household is that we need a healthy mix of genders in every team and at all levels of an organisation. That seems to be the fairest and most comfortable culture to work in.