2015-10-28

Crider And I Disagree To Agree

Recently the great Paul Crider wrote an "oblique" defense of feminism over at Sweet Talk Conversation. It is very interesting and well worth the read, so as they say in the blogging business, "read the whole thing."

Fond as I am of Crider and his ideas, I've never quite been able to warm up to his affinity for feminism - not because I'm hostile to gender equality, but because I don't see feminism as a viable path toward achieving it. In an odd sort of way, I believe Paul's recent blog post articulates most of the points justifying my belief. Even so, his navigation of these points leads him to feminism, and mine leads me away from it.

Paul Crider and I seldom disagree about anything, so I have to wonder: Do we actually disagree on this topic? Well, that sounds like great fodder for a blog post, so let's get to it.

Why Are People Hostile To Feminism?

Crider isn't afraid to tackle the tough issues head-on, which is why he addresses them right out of the gate:
It turns out some folks are really hostile to feminism. Interestingly, this sentiment comes not just from misogynists, but from genuinely nonsexist people. The hostility seems to stem from the conspicuous existence of feminist ideas and feminist people that are absurd. Statements like “All men are rapists”, “All heterosexual sex is rape“, or “Straight white men cannot suffer discrimination” are all statements that have been uttered by feminists. Then there are the disproportionate public shame campaigns, often whipped up on Twitter, like Shirtgate or Nobel laureate biochemist Tim Hunt getting shamed into resignation over some sexist remarks. Shame is a weapon regularly used by feminists, especially against white males who express frustration at romantic difficulty, with epithets like “mouth-breathers, pimpled, scrawny, blubbery, sperglord, neckbeard, virgins, living in our parents’ basements, man-children” all too common (a list supplied by Scott Alexander). Feminists have been behind some truly scary assaults on free speech and due process, especially when it comes to college life and those accused of sexual assault.
I agree. Those certainly are some attractive reasons to eschew what Crider calls "the ideological impulse" toward feminism, aren't they?

Crider then takes this reasoning right where he needs to: He acknowledges that not all feminists are guilty of these things, but that it's impossible to suggest that the ones who really are guilty aren't "true" feminists. In other words, Crider acknowledges that feminists who do and say bad things are just as representative of feminism itself as are feminists who do not do and say bad things.

Feminism takes all kinds, good and bad; and the fact that feminism includes knaves along with other people is not a mark in favor of feminism. So this is two strikes against feminism right out of the gate: (1) Some feminists are knaves; (2) Feminism necessarily includes knaves.

At this point, a "feminism skeptic" ought to be looking for some attractive reasons to embrace feminism, reasons that are attractive enough to overcome the fact that the label itself will group you in with a significant number of knaves. What does Crider have to offer in that regard?

Feminism As A Lens

Crider's first point in feminism's favor is that it serves as "lens" through which to view and understand the world:
...[F]eminism should be viewed as a lens through which one views the world, bringing certain issues into sharper focus though also inevitably obscuring other details with particular biases. There is no lens-free option; without some kind of lens (theory), the world is a hopeless blur of disordered sensory data. Pretending to go sans-lens is simply to fail to acknowledge or even be aware of the lenses through which one does in fact peer. With a particular lens comes, in addition to a perspective and accompanying biases, a set of tools for understanding and deconstructing problems. This is acute for feminism, as one of the purposes of feminism is to highlight assumptions of a certain kind (gender).
Unfortunately, Crider never mentions why this particular lens is a better or more valuable lens than any other. So while it may be true that seeing the world through feminist eyes brings certain issues into sharper focus, the reader is left alone to wonder whether the view we end up with is more reflective of reality or less.

Indeed, every ideology brings certain issues into sharper focus, including ideologies almost universally understood to be negative. For example, anti-Semitism is a lens through which certain issues are brought into sharper focus, but the result is an unfair and heinous antipathy toward members of a particular ethnic group. Since we can all agree that anti-Semitism is a bad lens, we must generally concede that to justify any particular lens, we'll need some kind of evidence or argument that the "picture" we're getting from that lens is one worth seeing.

Too often, many accept on assumption the value of ideological feminism, which has come to mean not merely gender equality, but also a whole host of additional values. For example, the Feminist Women's Health Center lists among its core values a commitment "to reproductive freedom and justice," i.e. the belief that aborting a human fetus is a human right. If that were the only feminist organization that grouped pro-life abortion values in with broader feminism, then we might disregard it as an outlier - but it's not. The message is clear: Women who oppose abortion, but support gender equality simply aren't feminists.

And there is a long list of similar issues, all equally unnecessary to the over-arching goal of gender equality. Feminists are expected to favor Title 9 legislation. Feminists are expected to favor mandatory and ever-increasing amounts of maternity leave at an employer's or government's expense. Feminists are expected to favor government-provided day care. We need not conduct a deep dive into each of these issues to simply note that feminism is often articulated as a package-deal. If you're not all-in, you're not a feminist. (Unless, of course, the over-arching goal of ideological feminism is not gender equality at all.)

True, some feminist groups attempt to advocate pro-life feminism or libertarian feminism, but these groups are mostly outliers that are not representative of mainstream feminism. In some cases, as with pro-life feminism, they are single-issue groups promoting one non-feminist value (like opposition to abortion) ahead of the "rest" of the feminist agenda.

Whatever we might say about these outlying groups, they are few-enough and far-enough-between to warrant the following observation: If the feminist lens tends to bring "certain issues" into focus, then those issues are in somes cases illiberal and in almost all cases left-leaning.

How likely is it that viewing the world more often from the left results in an objectively more accurate picture, especially when it sometimes puts you at odds with the right to free speech? Unless you're a demagogue, not likely at all.

Fuzzy Feminism

Let's pause for a moment and consider two important concessions Crider has already made against feminism: First, that they are often enemies of free speech (I agree), and second that they are often against free markets, right-to-life viewpoints, and other non-leftist policy preferences (I agree). In light of that fact, it seems increasingly difficult to justify feminism as a means toward a more accurate view of the truth.

On some level, Crider seems to be agree with me on this, because his next set of points argues against orthodoxy. He writes that all ideologies are a "living conversation," and concludes that "The boundaries of what lies within and without the tradition become established by common understanding, but the boundaries are blurry and can move over time."

He goes further:
As a conversation, it is a category error to view feminism in toto as either true or false, right or wrong. Feminism contains too many voices contradicting one another at various levels for any blanket judgment to be meaningful. The feminist positions and behaviors above are often used to condemn feminism as a whole, but of course there are feminists who don’t hold those beliefs.
Once again, I agree. However, if something can neither be true or false, right or wrong, in toto, then how can it be viewed as good or bad, or indeed worthy of defense or worthy of condemnation?  What, in the end, is Crider actually defending?

What follows is a long discussion about the multitude of feminist "varieties," and how they should all count as feminism in the same sense that Catholic and Protestant are both Christians. One easy objection to this point is that comparing feminism to a religion ultimately defeats Crider's argument against orthodoxy.

But a more important criticism is this: The sexes ought to be equal for reasons of basic human dignity, not for metaphysical reasons. Any justification of feminism that can only be justified metaphysically is bound to be rejected by anyone whose views are rooted mainly in physics.

What I mean is, I think it's simply unfair to assign a lower legal value to a woman than to a man. I think this creates a systemic prejudice against a population that ultimately cannot be overcome through "just living your life." This isn't a metaphysical belief about fairness, it's a physical observation of legal outcomes. It's an empirical matter. We don't need a conversation about "what is justice?" in order to make our legal treatment of the sexes blind and equal. It's incumbent upon advocates of gender-superiority to make the case that systemic inequality is more just than equality.

Crider warns us right at the outset of his blog post: "I would like to defend feminism in a more direct and full-throated way, but I could only do so for my particular kind of liberal feminism." But since metaphysics broadly - and Crider's "epistemic virtue" in particular - are highly personal and individualized, I'm still left wondering, what is Crider actually defending?

He next warns us about the dangers of tribal thinking - a warning that I strongly agree with - but this is an odd warning to provide in the context of the defense of a particular tribe. He rightly implores feminists to root-out its worst arguments and dispense with them, but then suggests that non-feminists are not in a position to understand the extent to which it is already happening. Maybe not, but any ideology that has not yet rid itself of terrible arguments (or the aforementioned inclinations against free speech and non-leftist politics) is not ready for endorsement by any person who considers himself or herself a careful thinker. If feminism still has work to do on the inside, let it do its work before its insiders ask the rest of us to accept it as a worthy endeavor.

Feminism As A Set Of Ideas

At the end of Crider's post, he lists a set of concepts - developed within the feminist framework - that he says are worth "taking seriously regardless of worldview." A few of them are concepts that I myself cannot and will not take seriously, but I will leave that matter aside for a moment.

The real argument against that list of concepts is that each and every one of those concepts can be "taken seriously," and even fully accepted without the feminist label. To suggest that feminism is worthy of defense merely because it has resulted in a few good developments seems to me to be as misguided as accepting German nationalism merely because German culture has provided many important contributions to humankind. I accept the value of Beethoven's music without having to call myself "German at heart" or some such thing.

So the conclusion is obvious: The label really is superfluous. There is no need to accept a label like feminism. There appears to be no inherent value in the label itself. So long as you accept valuable ideas as being valuable, and reject bad arguments as being bad, then you're on the right track. Who could possibly disagree with that?

What conclusion does this lead Crider to make?
Though I’m a feminist myself, I don’t believe everyone must identify as a feminist. People will always have idiosyncratic reasons for both attachment to and disaffection from certain identities. And I have seen enough nonfeminist nonsexists in the wild to believe that the fruits of feminism can be enjoyed without universal identification under the F word.
Aha. So Paul Crider and I agree with each other after all. I thought so. :)