Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Case of the Invisible Ideology

What is objectivity?

Wikipedia has a pretty standard definition of the concept, saying "objectivity addresses what reality is and what we know about it." When referring to the state of being "objective" within this article, I am referring to the state of having the ability to discern what reality is.

It's a matter of ongoing debate as to whether journalists, scientists, and people in general can ever truly be completely "objective" observers of reality. It is my personal philosophy that we cannot. I won't even qualify that with a "most people cannot," because I think it puts a damper on the ability to live peacefully with those of differing opinions when we decide that some people are capable of recognizing the "objective" truth while others are not.

Since the time we declared that all stars revolved around the Earth, I think it has been a part of human nature to believe that we, each one of us, is living The Authentic, Neutral, and Objective Human Experience. All other experiences, we think, are relative to ours and are.... biased.

This idea, I think, has been especially true among many men in our male-dominated society. "Man," of course, has been traditionally thought of as the default, standard human being. All people are "men" and if we're talking specifically about women we must always specify that we mean "women." At the same time, it has not been my experience as a woman that the lives of women have consistently been included by the "generic masculine" embodied in the word "man."

For instance, the American Dream is conceptualized as a man pulling himself up by his bootstraps, becoming successful, and marrying his "girl." (And oh yeah, women can do that too.) Movies for all people star male protagonists who are action heroes, soldiers, businessmen, lawyers, and comedians who may or may not get the "girl" in the end. (And oh yeah, movies have female leads too. These are called chick flicks.) Athletes are men who worked hard in high school and college and are now professionals to be worshiped on television and paid millions of dollars. (And oh yeah, women can play sports too.) In the law, we ask what a reasonable man would have done in a certain situation and follow precedent developed by "reasonable" men reasonably deciding cases. (And oh yeah, they really meant reasonable "person.") Men are actors. Women are acted upon.

All of the above examples embody my experience as a woman. It is my experience as a woman that in our society, men are often still the center of most things that matter in the public sphere. And yet, because it is my experience as a woman, it is automatically "biased," "irrational," and "subjective." In the minds of some people, my experience, opinions, and beliefs don't count for much because they are not "objective."

Why is my experience not considered objective?

Scholar Rita Gross puts it well:

"Feminist scholarship is often thought to be 'biased' because it self-consciously and deliberately includes information about women, whereas conventional androcentric scholarship is not similarly regarded as biased because it includes more information about men." (in Feminism & Religion, 15)

The same idea is at play in debates between feminists and anti-feminists. It is the typical anti-feminist position that any argument put forth by a feminist is automatically "subjective," "biased," or "irrational" because it consciously and deliberately confronts the worldview and assumptions of the anti-feminist.

For an example of this in play, we turn to Fitz (a "concerned" anti-feminist who, in addition to blaming every conceivable social ill on feminism, always seems ready to provide us with convenient examples) who recently said the following in response to a "feminist" argument put forth by my friend Jane:

"I think your post above demonstrates how far the gap is between feminist thought and rational thought."

Here, Fitz's comment indicates that he is working under the assumption that his worldview- his ideology- is objective, neutral, and rational- perhaps because his is the dominant one in our society. Meanwhile, Jane-the-feminst's worldview is a subjective, biased, and irrational one. His experience as a man who believes in "traditional gender roles" is the norm. Under his "traditional values" worldview, the genders are inherently very different, they belong in certain spheres, they must "integrate" in marriage and that's just the way it is. It's the absolute truth. Defining the phenomenon of confirmation bias, every study he reads "proves" these "universal truths" to be true even if the study he cites is only tangentially, or in no way, related to such claims.

Ultimately, his experience is the experience around which the experience of those who reject traditional gender roles revolve. His outlook is the standard. Jane's is the "other."

Working from his assumption that each gender has a proscribed role allows him to state "absolute truths" like:

"The lack of women in the sciences or participating in collegiate athletics is not now nor has ever been “oppressive”. Heck, its [sic] not even a problem."

I'm sure there are many members of the audience today who would laugh at such a statement and/or beg to differ. The lack of women in science or sports may not be a "problem" for Fitz, but it most definitely has been a "problem" for many women. What is most unfortunate is that Fitz states his claim as though it is an objective fact, completely discounting the claims of women who have been harmed by the insistence that men and women have their own "gender role." Our experiences as women, you see, do not count because they are "subjective," "biased," and "irrational." Fitz has it all right, because he's the one standing in the center, on rational, objective ground.

Fitz, and others who believe feminism is some sort of biased worldview, are suffering from a case of what I like to call Invisible Ideology Syndrome. That is, they are blind to the fact that they, as all people do, hold a subjective ideology in their heads. They work from the mistaken assumption that their worldview is neutral, natural, unbiased, and objective when, in fact, their ideology is as subjective as any other, which means that unless they are magical human beings, they have no firmer grasp on objective reality than does any other human being.

How invisible is Fitz's male-centric ideology? It may even be invisible to some of you. Here's a pop quiz. What is "wrong" with the following statement:

"The Egyptians allow (or don't allow) women to ....."

As Rita Gross explains, "The structure is so commonplace that even today many do not see what is wrong with it. But for both those who make such statements and for those who hear them without wincing, real Egyptians are men. Egyptian women are objects acted upon by real Egyptians, but are not themselves full Egyptians." (Feminism and Religion, 18)

Fitz's statement that Jane's feminist idea is "far from rational thought" precisely because it is a feminist idea works in much the same way. Fitz' and Jane's two worldviews are very different. But Fitz presents his worldview as the "rational" one and Jane's as the "irrational" one, (in)effectively making his anti-feminist worldview the standard, objective worldview whereby other views are judged.

I say all this with full acknowledgment that feminism, too, is subjective. Feminism does not tell us the ultimate truths about the world. I don't know that any ideology does that. There are many forms of "Feminism" and I am certainly not speaking on behalf of all people who are feminists, but perhaps the most important role of feminism is that it allow us to discover male-centric ideologies that are so ingrained that many in our society do not perceive them. It shows us that although male-centric ideologies have become "standardized" they are far from objective. Their defining characteristic?


According to Gross, "The male norm and the human norm are collapsed and seen as identical.... Femaleness is is viewed as an exception to the norm" (18). Because the male norm has been collapsed into the human norm, the anti-feminist sees his point of view as "objective" and as encompassing the "human" view.

Feminism critiques the idea that "placing one gender in the center and the other on the periphery" is in any way "objective" (20). And that, I suppose, is a pretty large threat to some men who want one gender to remain at the center of everything.

So, to those opposed to feminism on the basis that its "subjective," "irrational," or "biased" I can only say this: Your worldview is not the worldview of all human beings. You are neither the center nor the standard. Just because your ideology is the dominant one in a male-centric society, you have no firmer grasp on "objective" reality than do I.

Accordingly, it is not really useful to bicker as to which ideology is the "Objective" one. On that, we will never agree. The far more useful question is this: How do we as humans peacefully co-exist and respect the human dignity of each other knowing that we will never all agree that a single ideology is the True one? Because as it stands, taking for granted that a feminist woman's experience in the world is not legitimate is anything but respectful of her human dignity.

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