Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Feminism and More Important Things

I recently come across a critique of feminism that is a teensy bit more substantive than some of the usual offerings. And that's always fun for me to deal with since, Twisty once observed that we feminists devote 93.7% of our time towards convincing men that we do not hate them.

Anyway, the critique, over at Heresy Corner, is a variation of the Feminists Should Stop Criticizing Silly Things Like Sexist TV Shows and Instead Criticize More Important Things Like Muslims theme. Specifically, the blogger Heresiarch, argues that Western Femininsts should stop pointlessly arguing about "the evils of sexually stereotyping adverts," and instead should devote their efforts towards helping Muslim women, or specifically, the "millions of subjected women living in conditions [Western Feminists] cannot begin to understand."

You know, if I may digress for a moment, I've always said to myself that one thing feminism really needs is for people who know nothing about feminism to set its agenda. Accordingly, Heresiarch builds up his case:

"I don't pay that much attention to feminism. I don't have a degree in the subject, indeed I've scarcely studied it at all, which according to some people means I'm in no position to comment on any feminist issues."

This ignorance of feminism is common of critics of feminism. It never stops them from criticizing feminism, of course, and I sometimes wonder why so many feel entitled to render critiques of a subject they know nothing about. Is it because feminism (oftentimes) pertains to lady stuff and, therefore, they believe it requires no real expertise. Any schmoe off the street can waltz into Virginia Woolf's room of her own and utterly "demolish" the entirety of feminism by virtue of his objective, reasoned manliness? Ker-pow!

Anyway, the first part of Heresiarch's sentence, you will notice, is an admission that the author is ignorant with respect to feminism. He doesn't pay attention to it and has "scarcely studied it." Therefore, the second part of that sentence, you will also notice, has a purpose. It's purpose is to take the focus off of the author's ignorance regarding feminism and, instead, shine a light on how "some people" might, perhaps wrongly, take issue with someone criticizing a subject when he doesn't "pay much attention to" that subject. Probably because of Political Correctness Gone Awry or some shit.

He continues, regarding his ignorance:

"But I'm not sure how relevant that is. We live in a media-saturated age, and it is up to feminists to put their case in the public sphere, to make their voices heard, to get across their arguments, to persuade those of us who haven't memorised Feminism 101 of the validity of their case."

Here, we see a shift in the argument. First, he admits that he doesn't pay much attention to feminism but he explains this away by arguing that feminists just haven't made their voices heard. Perhaps ignorant of the fact that many (though certainly not all) people are quite familiar with feminism, he mistakes his perception for objective reality and argues that feminism is unpersuasive and unknown just because it hasn't sufficiently infiltrated the public sphere with which he, personally, is familiar.

You know, along these lines, people have been telling us for years that Western culture has been feminized and that feminist indoctrination has infiltrated governments, the legal system, education, and indeed all of society. Heresiarch's argument that feminists have not made their voices heard these days presents quite the paradox. From different sources, we learn that feminism is super-duper powerful yet mysssssssteriously not at all powerful or persuasive.

Nonetheless, neither his ignorance nor his astounding lack of initiative with respect to learning about feminism stop Heresiarch from doing two things. One, he entitles himself to tell his readers what feminism is:

"Feminism is best expressed by Melissa McEwan's solipsistic whining about how she feels undermined by male friends daring to argue with her."

Disregarding the fact that Heresiarch has turned McEwan's actual argument into an absurd strawman, let's instead focus on the fact that even though Heresiarch admittedly doesn't "pay much attention to" feminism, he somehow just knows it's "best expressed" by the figure of a womyn sitting around whining just to hear herself whine. And two, he goes on to set the new Feminist Agenda:

"It's not that feminists never talk about [the Muslim oppression of women]. It's just that I seriously wonder why they ever talk about anything else."

Feminists see these sorts of critiques all the time from those non-feminist ignorers of feminism who deem themselves the arbiters of all that is True and Important in life.

We are told by the paragon of feminism that is the Catholic Church, for instance, that the "new feminism" should place a primacy on protecting fetuses. Dudes write to feminist bloggers all the time informing us that "there are so many terrible things that exist today and happen to women" that we shouldn't waste time critiquing arguably idiotic Seth Rogen films. Even liberal doods tell feminists to fuck off if we dare mention that, say, an ad at their Very Important Political blog might be perceived as sexist. And yes, even atheist non-feminists call women whiny for suggesting that some skeptic communities aren't particularly welcoming to women.

The message is clear, regular everyday sexist stuff doesn't matter and isn't worth talking about, especially when there are More Important Things to think about.

It is true that some women have it harder than Western feminists, since we're now apparently quantifying oppression in an objective, measurable way. And, (I think Heresiarch would agree with me here) I would certainly argue that the three major monotheistic religions have, historically speaking, been one of the most powerful institutional contributors to the oppression of women.

Yet, it is also true that the mainstream viewpoint, which is decidedly non-feminist, regularly dismisses, denigrates, and caricatures feminist viewpoints. Many people have the privilege of not having to "pay much attention" to feminism or so-called "women's issues." And so, quite simply, they don't. When non-feminists or anti-feminists do pay attention, they often shame and silence us by calling us humorless for, say, not laughing at their sexist "jokes" or nodding in genteel agreement when they recite Rush Limbaugh's line about feminists being ugly.

From those who have the privilege of being considered default human beings who are privy to the One and Only Objective Worldview, feminists often receive quite the schizophrenic message. On the one hand, feminists aren't worth listening to because all they do is whine and ruin everybody's fun. But on the other hand, they should use their incredible powers of indoctrination to work on More Important Issues.

But worse than this mixed message, is the fact that non-feminist advisors to feminism are often so very wrong about what feminism is and is not. Perhaps placing a primacy on their own "objective" worldview, they assume that their ignorance about what feminists do, care about, and strive towards is an accurate reflection of reality.

It's usually not.

As Neil Robertson notes:

"Equally, if you’re comfortable dismissing western feminism for being 'bogged down in its own limitless self-regard' or, as Cohen does, for ‘turning a blind eye to misogyny’, then there’s a pretty good chance that you’re just not paying enough attention to feminism.

For this characterisation to be true, we would have to ignore the western feminists who run Women for Women International, the Feminist Majority Foundation, or the Global Fund for Women, and ignore all the work they do in Muslim countries. Similarly, we would have to ignore the feminists who’ve campaigned to help the women of Afghanistan, support those protesting for democracy in Iran and end the practices of stoning & ‘honour’ killing.

Once we’re done ignoring the western feminists in aid organisations, NGOs and pressure groups, we’d then have to ignore the scholars who’ve written books about these issues, the activists who’ve actually visited Muslim countries and the innumerable bloggers who regularly post in opposition to oppression, or in support of the brave women who fight against it....

The voices are many, widespread and longstanding, and just because neither Clive nor Nick [nor Heresiarch] has noticed doesn’t make it untrue."

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