May 1, 2020

Not your feminist

Feminism is a contested concept. Claims that "you're not a real feminist" or "her so-called feminism" (eye-roll) are common currency. This isn't a one-off. Pretty much any political concept is like that. Compare: "that's not real socialism!"; "you're not a proper Tory if you think that". Different people have different versions or idealisations of  the political positions they occupy, and contest with others about whose version is the right one, and what that means in practice*.

In the past, I've probably used the "that's not real feminism" line too. Sometimes I think there are things said in the name of feminism which clearly can't be right, on any conception of feminism at all, and I still might use the line then. But lately I've become incredibly bored with that line, because it gets toxic so quickly. I think on the whole it's probably better to go down a level, as it were, and just argue about concrete practical aspects of women's interests, and how they might intersect with other interests, without letting the issue of what counts as feminism, or not, get in the way.

Still, I know not everyone agrees with me. And while I think that there are different versions of feminism floating about, what does seem true is that there are a few particular rules or values that, within feminism, are currently very popular, so that if you disagree with one, you will be told you're not a real feminist more quickly than usual. The same goes for sub-cultures within feminism, such as being a radfem, a libfem, or being an intersectional feminist (if that's different). Some bits of doctrine are more popular than others depending on which you are, and some are shared as popular between subcultures. In the radfem world and possibly the libfem world too, one of these bits of doctrine is #believewomen. Also in the radfem world, "men can't be feminists" is popular. In the  modern libfem world, there's sex-positivity, and in the intersectional world there's "feminism is for everybody".

As it happens I disagree with pretty much all of that. I don't think women should be believed no matter what because they're women (NB in practice, when you question people further, they don't either, but often the hashtag is interpreted this way). I do think men can be feminists (according to my preferred version of feminism, natch). I think sex-positivity would be fine in a vacuum, but in the world we actually live in, harms women disproportionately; and I think saying feminism is for everybody empties it of all meaning.

While we are at it, there are other shibboleths I'm not down with. (This list is not exhaustive). I don't believe that unity is or should be a goal in itself of the feminist movement. I think it encourages tribalism and passive-aggression, none of which we need more in the world. I don't automatically assume the mind is a blank slate, so that all sex-based social characteristics are wholly acquired. That's an empirical question so let's see what the science eventually shows. I don't think that getting rid of different social stereotypes for males and females altogether is a coherent aim, though altering the highly regressive ones we have, is. I don't think what is dismissively called "tone-policing" is a bad idea, if it keeps discussion from degenerating into abuse. I don't think the fact women are expected to be kind doesn't mean it's never unstrategic or just plain wrong to be very unkind. I use preferred pronouns, except for people who have demonstrated so much disdain for women generally that in my view, they don't deserve the courtesy. And I don't take being a trans woman as showing any kind of automatic disdain for women.

I've never (I think) called myself a radfem, and probably never will. There's too much obvious difference between my views and the core doctrine. What I have done, repeatedly, is written about the need for the academy and Universities to take radical feminism seriously, to employ radical feminists as lecturers, and to stop treating it as some kind of disgusting outlier to academic debate. That's incredibly unfair, genuinely misogynist, and excludes some brilliant provocative thinkers from having the public influence they deserve.

So am I, or am I not, a feminist? Yes in the broad sense that I'm broadly focused on promoting the rights and interests of women in a world in which they're often neglected. But not in the sense that I sign up, no matter what, to any particular doctrinal element. I think everything should be up for reasonable discussion. If you think I'm not a real feminist, that's fine by me. I'm honestly not that attached to the term. What I am attached to is trying to get the underlying actions and attitudes right.

Before I started speaking out about trans activism and its influence, I felt oppressed**, and furious at my own incapacity to speak about what mattered to me. I admired the brave women out there, drawing huge negativity and personal attacks, and putting up with it anyway to speak the unpalatable truth. My own academic discipline was smothering discussion (and in many ways still is, though things are slightly better). The mass media was smothering it too. There was an overwhelming social pressure to keep quiet, keep smiling, keep mouthing the meaningless mantras about being kind and being inclusive, keep wearing the rainbow lanyards, and don't look beyond to what it all means in practice.

I eventually found my voice and started to say what I think.  As an academic, that's how it should be, and if I can't do it, who can? It's built into the job description. Others aren't that lucky. But lately I've felt oppressed again. Views get projected on to me by even sympathetic supporters which I don't hold. Sometimes I see things I feel I can't argue with even though I should. Where you've already got many critics and enemies (quite literally), disagreeing with "your own side" feels particularly risky and exposing. Dissent is taken as personal betrayal by some, and as unacceptable divisiveness by others. It's also vastly amusing to witness for those that already hate me. And where you're aware that there are people within your broad circle that don't like you, for whatever reason, it becomes extra hard to say things you know in advance will give them another opportunity to add to their list of public grievances.

But. But. The tendencies that got me to this point are also the ones that put me at odds with some feminists now. To paraphrase Reginald Perrin*** (look it up millenials): I didn't get where I am today by mindlessly agreeing with people. Over time, my views are changing and (I like to think - though I would, wouldn't I?) improving. I'm hearing lots of viewpoints and thinking hard about them. And that's fine by me. It's also how it should be for anyone. So: if what I think about something irritates you to the point where you feel or act like there's been some kind of betrayal of your value system, so that you have to attack me personally, I'm afraid I was never beside you to start with. I'm not your feminist. Be your own. And let me be mine.

*Seeing things this way was largely inspired by reading Peter Ludlow's brilliant philosophy, and that's another thing feminists in philosophy aren't supposed to say.

**"Oppressed" as in "oppressed by frustration" and not "oppressed by patriarchy"!

*** Strictly speaking I was paraphrasing C.J.