December 21, 2020

Transcript of talk at Res Publica event: Beyond the failures of liberal feminism

The film of this event, hosted by think tank Res Publica, and also featuring Mary Harrington, Nina Power, Nimco Ali, and Louise Perry can be seen here.

I want to talk about academic feminism, and some of its relations to liberalism.

Academic feminism, as it is practiced by many in the UK and US at the moment, is neither feminism nor is it particularly academic.

It isn’t feminism, because much of it is no longer directly concerned with women and girls. Over thirty years, like a slowly expiring frog in boiling water, much of academic feminism has gradually moved through three stages. The first says that all, or nearly all, differences between men and women are socioculturally constructed. The second says that all this social construction of difference covertly establishes heteronormative, racist, ableist norms about who gets to count as a real woman, and who doesn’t. The third stage says that for academics to focus on women as their direct research would be to “reinscribe” these oppressive norms, and so fail in some kind of moral sense.

On this view, woman is no longer a descriptive concept helping us communicate about a natural category of people, but is a concept not so much value-laden as value-sodden: whose undifferentiated application has consequences for who is on the inside, and who is on the outside. It is concluded that no-one should talk directly about the general category of women and girls, as such – and indeed, in some branches, perhaps to make it psychologically easier, academics have managed to convince themselves by various sophistical means that there was never any such thing as women and girls in the first place.

Social constructivism is not popular everywhere. In the branch of academic feminism I’m most acquainted with, within analytic philosophy, it is not especially popular. However, something equally anti-feminist and anti-intellectual is going on there: namely, the frequently stated desire of philosophers to “respect the identities” of trans and non-binary people. This, translated, means not just that you should be respectful in discussion with trans people, but that generally you should transform your entire vocabulary, in nearly all contexts including academic ones, so that you don’t make an inadvertently distressing reference to biological sex. Again, this policing of language is presented as having some high moral purpose.

Meanwhile, across the board, we find the specious treating of the absence of a particular disadvantage in a person or group, as the presence of a positive “privilege” - where that privilege is deemed somehow to undercut any other single claim the person or group might have to political attention. It is as if lacking disadvantage in one area cancels out having a disadvantage in another. This childishly simplistic calculus pays no attention to the magnitude of a particular disadvantage in a particular woman’s case. The precarious situation of a particular woman on the streets isn’t offset by the fact she is white; and nor is the racial harassment of a particular woman offset by the fact she is straight. The ultimate extension of this approach, when combined with social constructivism, is the claim that any woman, no matter whether poor, black, gay, or disabled, has “cis” privilege because she is not a trans woman – that is, she is not a male. (Meanwhile, of course, in these tallies of privilege, class is the obvious absentee.)

Collectively, through these questionable moves, what academic feminists have done is very nearly talk feminism, understood in its original sense, out of existence in Universities. Things that women experience in virtue of being one half of a sexually dimorphic species cannot no longer easily be discussed. And yet it is here where the most pressing social issues lie for women: for instance, in the economic vulnerability that maternity tends to bring; or in women’s increased susceptibility to violent assault; or in the effects of widespread objectification on young girls’ psychological development; or in the horrifying afterlife of FGM. You can’t talk about any of these things properly if you can’t talk about women and girls, as such. Nor can you effectively talk about those areas of life where women’s bodies, in particular, are the ones most often instrumentally used for the interests of others: prostitution, pornography and surrogacy.

This background also partly explains why academic feminism is no longer academic. As academics have started to think of themselves as social architects, actively working in the name of justice rather than simply documenting or explaining things, they have started to believe that it’s immoral for others to disagree with them. People like me are not just thought of as intellectual antagonists, but reactionary moral enemies, inevitably driven by a desire to prop up a heteronormative, racist, ableist status quo.  In this worldview, doubters or dissenters should be silenced in the name of justice, and it doesn’t matter if that happens by rational argumentation, or by ostracism and shaming. A frosty chill has descended: ideas have become dogma, texts have become sacred, and favoured intellectuals have become priests (some of them actually attempting to practice transubstantiation in the classroom). Younger entrants to this world need to first participate in the prescribed holy rites, and prostrate themselves accordingly.

Where is liberalism in all of this? Even if on a conscious level, liberalism and liberal feminism are now widely rejected by many academic feminists, still there are traces everywhere. For one thing, the hollowing out of the liberal dream of objective universal values has not stopped academics who say everything is socially constructed promoting their own moral convictions very fiercely, with a missionary-style zeal – almost as if they thought there were some objective values after all. Many of these moral convictions concern the prioritisation of freedom, autonomy, and rights, without explaining why these get to persist as general values, once their contingent, constructed nature has been acknowledged. As I’m far from the first person to notice, in its enthusiasm for the forging of new social identities divorced from material conditions, modern feminism betrays a kind of liberal individualism on crack. (When combined with the idea of a meritocracy this can produce bizarre permutations, as when women athletes are told that to perform competitively against trans women, they should just try harder).

Meanwhile, as professional academics working in neoliberal universities, academic feminists are highly likely to be - in David Goodhart’s words - anywheres rather than somewheres, individualist in preferences and behaviour, and relatively withdrawn from common life and particularly from the lives of working-class women. No matter what their ostensible rationale, it’s obvious that in practice the goals of academic feminism have often skewed towards the preoccupations of the cosmopolitan middle classes: whether it’s a focus on white-collar work and the glass ceiling, or implicit bias within universities, or just focusing on alleviating their own thoroughly middle-class anxiety about felt difference by emoting furiously on behalf of dramatically-projected imaginary others.

Equally, no matter how sceptical they profess to be of the Enlightenment view of reason, academic feminists are still likely to think of themselves as uniquely well-placed to see what ordinary women cannot, via their superior rational capacities and quasi-technical methodologies. A residual paternalism – or maternalism - is still obvious in the policing of the speech codes of non-University-educated women, and in the frequent resort to impenetrable speech codes, without bothering to try to make themselves understood.

Matters of course are not helped by the fact that the direct aim of most academics is to get enough publications to get a job, and to be promoted; and to do this, there’s no point kicking against the pricks, so to speak, in your discipline; your career usually depends on following your particular disciplinary herd in its guiding presuppositions. Hence, I assume, the keen interest that hundreds of basically straight, highly professionalised, well-organised academics now have in trying to “queer” various things via their publications and grant applications.

The good news, however, is that a post-liberal feminism doesn’t need academic feminism, or only needs in a limited way which I will explain. So in my remaining time I want to sketch out what I think a post-liberal feminism could look like.  (This is where I get wildly speculative).

First, I think feminism should acknowledge that the interests of women and men are not exactly the same. Men and women are two different kinds of people, with some shared needs and interests, but also many competing ones, and I assume that in any culture it is likely to be that way. (This isn’t a point about nature over nurture – even if it’s mostly nurture, I think the point is still true). Sexual dimorphism, plus, for the majority, a sexual interest in the opposite sex, produces distinctive masculine and feminine patterns of behaviour, and social meanings - though of course these behaviours and meanings are inflected by whatever other material and cultural influences are also present: religious, economic, geographic, or whatever.

So, we should drop any lingering hopes of some future utopia where all conflicts between men and women are either eliminated or rationally accommodated.  Women collectively are the best judges of what is good for women: we can’t leave political decisions about us up to men (including, by the way, the male architects of glowing post-liberal futures). Feminism should also never underestimate the significance of the fact that men are on average bigger, stronger, and more aggressive than women, and have a sexual interest in them; for this explains so much about men and women’s social relations with each other, and the huge suffering of many women as a result. It is academic feminism’s biggest crime that it has tried to take away the words of women to say this.

Second, I think feminism’s aim should be the well-being of women and girls: well-being in an expanded sense which doesn’t just cover physical health but also mental and perhaps spiritual health as well. The goal of feminism should not be equality, understood as getting or being the same as men, because neither of those things look particularly conducive to women’s well-being.  If freedom is a good, it is only a good because without it, women cannot achieve well-being; it’s not a good in itself.

Nor I think should feminism aim for “gender abolition”, which again, I think of as a kind of basically liberal fantasy: the complete abolition of masculinity and femininity, stripping us back to our supposedly rational core. Yet masculinity is the set of the cultures of men, and femininity the set of cultures of women, and apart from it being impossible to abolish these cultures in any case, there are many valuable aspects of both. What feminists can aim for, is the elimination of harmful gendered ideas and practices, within various versions of femininity, that negatively affect the well-being of particular groups of women– but in many cases, even these changes will have to be gradual, since the practices often have valuable sides too, providing a sense of meaning and identity, which makes those within them attached to them and so reluctant to change them.

Third, I think local grassroots feminism is the best place to identify what enhances women’s well-being, and what detracts. Put crudely, the aim for feminism should be to acquire a kind of practical wisdom or skill rather than elaborate quasi-technical knowledge: knowing-how rather than knowing-that. I assume that what well-being actually looks like for a group of women, may differ in detail from place to place and culture to culture, depending on the complex social relationships women negotiate there, and how they interact with each other. But we should acknowledge that, if left to it, without overt interference, collectively groups of women and girls can work out what is conducive to their well-being, or at least what clearly isn’t. The problem with this in practice is that in a society in which many spheres of value are still dominated by men, others by liberal elites, and nearly all by capitalism, what counts as women’s well-being can get extremely confused, even for women themselves. I don’t underestimate the difficulties of working it out. Still, most women can, at least, easily identify the things that are obviously bad for them. For instance, they don’t need academics to tell them that things like self-starvation, choking during sex, rape, sex trafficking, FGM, domestic violence, and drug addiction are harmful to women, in pretty much any culture.

Fourth and finally, for it to be effective, academic feminists should have a limited practical role in this work; as should any elite (the same obviously goes for any financial elite, religious elite, left-wing or right-wing one, and so on). The role of academics is most helpful in feminism when thoroughly rooted in the empirical: when engaged in data collection of use to grassroots feminists analysing women’s local situations; or helping grassroots groups achieve their aims in law. What is unhelpful and should be avoided like the plague is those academic feminists who think of themselves as having privileged access to some complex ontological or moral reality, that ordinary women cannot grasp.