August 24th, 2008

ewe

Fledgling feminist

Having decided I'm going to be a feminist, I should actually do something about it. I'm somewhat in trepidation about discussing directly feminist ideas in public like this, but I'd be pretty useless if I kept silent and never dared to say anything about my convictions. But I am certainly not claiming to be any kind of authority on this stuff.

Anyway, this post, such as it is, is dedicated to forestofglory, kaberett and atreic.

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I find myself in an LJ discussion (mostly friends locked) where I am trying to explain why feminism is a matter of justice. atreic comes from a similar place to me and feels alienated by feminism telling her that she's a victim even when her life is in fact perfectly satisfactory. kaberett has a strong sense of the need to make the world a fairer and more welcoming place for women. And all three of us find ourselves in conversation with men who don't see why they should bother with feminism, because at least this part of the world is basically equal already, and there are feminists making sloppy, man-hating arguments all over the internet.

I am working on the basis that the men who don't see the point in this discussion and a whole lot of other similar are mostly coming from a position of good faith. (Not absolutely all of them; there are clearly some people who just like to disrupt feminist discussions because they feel threatened or just like the attention they get from literal trolling.) But it's perfectly possible to genuinely and sincerely care about women, and still not get it; I didn't for a long time, after all. At some level, I want to convince such well-meaning people, but at the same time I feel really, really uncomfortable with any kind of proselytizing.

I'm also all dewy-eyed and naive and actually taking an explicitly feminist position in a highly charged internet argument is a novelty to me. I can really see both sides of the argument so well it's almost dizzying. I can see the weary frustration of seasoned feminists who have to deal with a huge wall of denial every time they mention a sexist incident. I can see why many might not want to argue at all, or might not want to be polite and patient, with men who might possibly deign to care about injustices against women if they can be convinced that feminists have a cast-iron rational case that would stand up in the strictest court. Everybody who complains about sexism has to answer for every feminist who might ever have said something negative about men, or something more emotional or hyperbolic than rigorous. At the same time, I can completely see why feminism can look really alienating; it alienated me for a long time, and for exactly the same reasons being raised in this kind of conversation.

I am going to propose a theory about why it's extremely difficult to report sexism and systematic discrimination. This is probably obvious to experienced feminists, but it might be helpful to people who don't see the point. Anyway, it's a conclusion I've come to recently. If you talk about individual incidents, people can (and seem particularly inclined to) always propose reasons why that particular incident might not be sexist. Even if someone believes that the most likely reason why a woman was disadvantaged is sexism, she's still rather in a double bind: if the incident was minor, she's making a fuss about nothing, but if it was major, then it wasn't mere sexism, it was viciousness by someone so far beyond the pale of normal human behaviour that there's no hope for them.

To avoid this problem, you have to go to systematic analysis to look for overall trends. The problem with that is that it becomes very abstract, people don't relate emotionally. And it's a lot of work, so it ends up being its own academic discipline, with its own jargon and community that is not very accessible to outsiders and a sort of self-perpetuating orthodoxy. Like most complex subjects, feminist studies and positions get misquoted and over-simplified by ignorant internet people. At the same time, if someone posts to a blog complaining about an annoying sexist remark, they don't want to and quite likely can't justify their complaint by giving an overview of all the feminist studies and theory ever to have been performed on the topic.

So it's easy to get to a point where someone who has done a fair amount of reading and thinking about feminist issues is going to dismiss a well-meaning but relatively ignorant man out of hand, if he starts demanding detailed arguments why he should believe her complaint. This can end up looking a lot like telling him that his opinion is worthless just because he's male, which is not at all likely to encourage men to be sympathetic to feminism.

Obviously, the fact that something is hard to demonstrate doesn't make it true! But what I would like to see is a little less readiness to look for reasons why sexism might not be sexism. I want people to at least consider the possibility that something might be true, and realize that some of the apparent causes for scepticism would still apply even if it were true. Also, the fact that some people who consider themselves feminists say ridiculous things fairly obviously doesn't make every claim that might be interpreted as feminist prima facie ridiculous!
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