Thursday, November 10, 2005

"Reactionary" is not "Enlightened"

Recently, I've been faced with a bogeyman that I haven't had to deal with in a long time: feminism. Just its appearance signals a brawl. In academic circles, terms like "feminism" get brandished like firearms. By this, I mean that they are only brandished in one of two ways: as an attack, meant to belittle another person's ideas (and themselves by proxy, as often as not), or as a form of braggadocio among the like-minded (think rednecks shooting rifles into the air at a party). Feminism is far from alone on the list of "terms whose use represents a throwing down of the gauntlet" (Marxism and Psychoanalysis come to mind), but it is certainly the one that I've had to deal with most frequently.

The basic problem arises from the following paired circumstanced: (a) people use the word to mean a wide variety of different things, and (b) people who disagree on its use usually see the disagreement as a sign of moral inadequacy on the part of the disagreed-with party. I, for example, maintain that "feminism," historically and today, is a term that, at its core, is a reactionary attitude that defines itself by a set of assumptions (rather than facts) about society and gender differences. Others maintain that what feminism *really* means is valuing equal rights for people of both sexes. Clearly, then, because I don't agree with them, they are prone to accuse me of not valuing equality between the sexes, and I am prone to accusing them of not valuing rational ideas.

So here's my take on the matter:

(1) One Gender Is Not Better Than The Other

I'm a big fan of meritocracy. And I don't think a person's gender (or, for that matter, their ethnic background) has a positive or negative value. I think the most qualified people should be selected for the most competitive positions, regardless of gender. I value an opinion based on its merits, not based on its origins. I would like to see this kind of color/genderblindnes permeate society.

Therefore, precisely what I don't want to hear is the constant repetition of a "women are better than men" rhetoric, any more than I want to hear "White/Black is better than Black/White" rhetoric. For many people, in practice, feminism means "men are evil/inferior/stupid." Which is really just sexism.

Which is not to say that there isn't evidence. Mind you, if your data collection is poor, there's evidence for everything. But real, reliable, empirical evidence shows difference between men and women. And not just physical differences (yes, I know women aren't, on average, as physically strong as men) - important societal differences exist. Critical differences. But, I assert, these differences exist because of societal inequality, not inherent inequality. Take, for example, findings discussed in Ralph Keyes' excellent book, The Post-Truth Era:

"When I comes to lying, men and women clearly have different agendas. To oversimplify, men lie to impress, women to oblige. Women are more likely to accommodate others with their lies, men to accommodate themselves. Men specialize in self-aggrandizing lies ("I just swung a big deal - huge"), women in charitable ones ("Love the dress") or fibs that are self-protective ("I eat mostly low-fat foods"). Their deceitfulness seems to be based on caring, perhaps too much, what others think of them. This reflects a broader psychological finding that women feel judged more on the quality of their relationships, men on the quality of their achievements."

So far, nothing I find surprising. Nor would most feminists, including those who would use this passage as "proof" that women are more charitable, and men more selfish. However, Keyes continues:

"Let's examine the basis for this distinction a little more closely. Members of both sexes said they lied to women in order to protect them, but told men lies in order to one-up them. Why? Because, [Bella] DePaulo explained. "they thought that the women to whom they told their lies would have felt even worse if they heard the truth instead of a lie." Isn't this patronizing? And what does this say about relative deceitfulness, independent of motivation? As DePaulo herself admitted, "At least some of the times when women are being protective of other people's feelings, they are simply lying. Men are less supportive in those ways, but also more truthful."

"DePaulo originally thought this contrast reflected female supportiveness and male competitiveness. That was before she discovered how frequently women lies to each other. In same-sex interactions, they routinely told "kind" lies, "love-the-dress" lies. Women don't lie to spare other *people's* feelings, DePaulo found, so much as they protect other *women's* feelings. What's more, the least stressed of all her subjects were women lying to women. Women felt much greater distress when lying to a man. Men didn't feel quite so stressed when lying to each other, and hardly stressed at all when lying to each other. Before assessing lying by gender, DePaulo concluded, one must first consider the gender of a lie's target. Men who routinely tell other men boastful stories switch to protective, other-oriented lies when dealing with women. Women's lies also change dramatically when aimed at the opposite sex. Then, self-serving deception becomes more common. In mixed groups, women are nearly as likely as men to concoct stories about their spurious achievements."

As a scientists, this is exactly what I'm talking about - many simplistic assertions for which one can proclaim supporting evidence (e.g. "men are selfish compared to women") become much, much more complex upon careful examination. Similar findings have been found with race and IQ - according to a superficial reading of certain experiments, blacks have a lower IQ than whites - until you take the "IQ test" used and present it to the same subjects as "fun games to pass the time." At that point, the difference evaporates. In other words, the blacks seemed to be self-handicapping when told their intelligence was being tested. *Not* that they were, in fact, less intelligent overall.

My opinion is that, in our society, there are predominant gender roles. These gender roles will change in time, and how they change will in turn transform these now-commonplace phenomena accordingly. In a truly gender-equal society, for example, we might expect what kinds of lies people tell to be shaped by the victim's personality more than their gender.

(2) Reactionary Feminism Is Bad for Women's Rights

Reactionary belief systems can be found all over the country. Americans are quite good at being reactionaries, descended as they are in large part from religiously reactionary European exiles, wage/genuine slaves brought over by cruel injustice, and self-reinventing go-getters. This is because nothing ferments irrational fervor like the mixture of the sense of having been wronged and the force of ambition. We label those reactionary belief systems as "counter-cultural" today, but we often ignore what counter-culture means: it means that without a mainstream culture to rebel against, the counter-cultures lose their ability to define themselves. Without developing values that are based on something more concrete that rejection of the status quo, all counter-cultural movements, given enough time, are doomed to irrelevance when society as a whole changes.

"Feminism" as a movement (as opposed to a self-label signifying a belief in gender equality) is reactionary in its current form. Sure, women aren't burning their bras anymore (an act that quickly fell out of fashion, perhaps because women realized that bras are *useful* - just ask any woman with a size C chest or larger who tries to jog). But many feminist organizations, schools of thought, and activists seek to "reform the system" as their defining characteristic. To be clear, I agree with them that society has serious gender problems to be resolved (such as the gender gap in wages or the glass ceiling women face on their career paths). But to define oneself according to the wrongs you are trying to right is to set a limit to your own personality.

More broadly, reactionary movements are adversarial. Feminist activists are well-versed in outlining the crimes of their opponents, but doing so angrily is only going to create enemies. Herein lies the basic paradox of reactionary movements: if people are defined by ingroup-outgroup status (e.g. Marxist vs. Bourgeois, feminist vs. masculinist) then there's a very real sense in which a sizable block of the population cannot be persuaded, because it is their nature (remember: men = evil) to be unpersuadable. But activist movements require persuasion to succeed. If a person's activism, by its nature, causes anyone you haven't already persuaded to close off communication with you, you've lost. Society may change on its own, but you'll be marginalized and ignored as a crackpot or a fanatic.

In fairness, most self-described feminists are not radical activists who seek to remove slightly less than half of the world's population (men) from power. Those who are rabidly anti-male or anti-status-quo are in the minority. But as is the case with American Christians, it's the vocal minority that distort public perception. Fervent biblical literalness are not characteristic of Christians in America, but it certainly seems that way sometimes because it's the really crazy ones we hear about on the news. So it is with feminists. It's true of all reactionary movements that seek social change: if your own intensity, your own fervor, and your own unwillingness to compromise causes people to close themselves to your ideas *because* they've closed themselves to you, you've cut off your nose to spite your face.

(3) Don't Confuse History With Biology, Or Current Events With The Possible Future

Yes, history is dominated by patriarchal societies - in fact, according to the strict definition, a martiarchal society has never existed on a large scale. If someone was keeping score (which no one is), men have won, so far. Some Feminists want to take this (histortical) fact and somehow tie it in with (biological) reasons for why "men cheat" in the gender wars. From population biology ("women have babies, so they're tied down, so men can assert dominance") to bad literary metaphor ("a penis seeks to invade and subjugate the uterus"), there's no end of really stupid theory floating around.

The same goes for the way society is. Many assert that "because society is sexist and men are in charge, societies where men happen to be dominant must by definition be sexist," which makes several assumptions. My breakdown is somewhat different: If a society lets men dominate women, men will dominate women. If a society, alternately, puts women in a dominant roles, they will behave accordingly. My take on human nature is that anyone (man or women) given the opportunity, will eventually exploit a position of unfair power. If we achieve a truly gender-blind society, guess what? Men will sometimes still hold positions of power! And in our currently sexist society, guess what? Many of the women who are in positions of power are helping to make the gender relation problems in this country worse! The real test of a person's value lies not in their heritage or their genitals, but in their beliefs. A society's value is not defined, in my view by where it is, but by where it's trying to go.

What we need is for normal, everyday people to accept each other. Rallies aren't going to do that. Protests aren't going to do that. Education is going to do that. Our children need facts, not rhetoric. Our teachers need to value the objective truth, not moralistic agendas. And the truth is this: in any issue, be it abortion, gender relations, racism, unemployment, or anything else, those who go to war and won't compromise are eventually going to find themselves sidelined by those willing to reach agreements, to compromise, and the try to meet in the middle. This is why fanatics *hate* people who are willing to compromise. Despite being "weaker" or "impure," they also usually win.

Myself, I'm just tired of knee-jerk reactionaries of all stripes. I challenge anyone who hasn't done so to try, disconnected from the internet, away from books, out of sight of a TV, to lay out their beliefs on paper, and make sure they have reasons, justifications, and values to support those beliefs. The more you feel the need to grab at some other media else for guidance, you haven't gotten it together yet.


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