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Jaimie recently got me reading a couple of feminist books: First, an anthology called Bitchfest (mostly good, with only one or two contributions I found truly wanting, although a lot of it failed to resonate with me even though it was intelligent and well-written, because it deals chiefly with a pop culture that I do my best to avoid). Second, and currently, Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, which I gather is something of a classic. I’ve talked about feminism and body image issues with Jaimie a fair bit, and I’ve lightly skimmed some blogs here and there. And in my usual nitpicking way, I have come up with a nit.

Now, obviously I don’t argue with feminism in the conventional sense of—well, let me define it as “a movement advocating gender equality, focusing in particular on promoting the position of women up to equality” and hope I won’t meet with much argument. There are some things branded as feminism with which I take issue—difference feminism, for instance, or a lot of the tripe that seems to get passed around in some Women’s Studies programs. Don’t even get me started on “male and female ways of knowing”; I’ll just say that I agree with Richard Dawkins who ended a description of how women supposedly use intuition and feelings instead of reason and logic: …and other insults to women. It’s been pointed out that this fluff is basically Victorian, only now picked up by women who call themselves feminists…

But that’s all by the way. Basic feminism—equality is good, and it’s more specific than “egalitarianism” because it focuses on women as the currently more disadvantaged gender—is obviously a good idea. Calling out beauty myths, impossible standards, and harmful propaganda is a very worthwhile enterprise, and while we should remember that it isn’t completely one-sided and guys like me worry about our lovehandles and so on, I think it’s pretty clear that there’s more of that crap aimed at women, so focusing primarily on that seems entirely fair.

That said, there’s some standard feminist rhetoric that bugs me, even if it may be that it’s not much more than the phrasing. However, as regular readers of my blog may have had occasion to notice, phrasing is kind of a big deal to me; and as it’s my damned blog I will pontificate rant about it. (I won’t pontificate. I don’t pretend to be august or infallible, I don’t cover up pædophiles, and I have better taste in hats.)

Let me reiterate that. I’m talking about phrasing here, and do not therefore mean to dismiss the arguments that are so phrased. I am talking about consequences of implication, so read carefully before you assume that I am accusing people of making accusations; more likely I am saying that they are making unfortunate and probably unintended implications. Please keep that in mind, or this blog post will make me look far worse than it already does…

Back on track, then: A lot of feminist writings come across as antagonistic. At first blush this actually sounds reasonable, as there is certainly plenty to be angry about; and let it not be said that it is never appropriate. However, there’s a difference between anger and antagonism: Antagonism exists between antagonists. In my personal view, the enemies of feminism aren’t usually persons. Instead, they’re less tangible things: Groups of people in the aggregate, perhaps; social and cultural trends and traditions; moores and taboos. There’s a glass ceiling, but there isn’t a glass ceiling repair man. But whoever encounters the polemic is a person. Society doesn’t read blog posts; readers do. And when something is phrased in an antagonistic way, it’s awfully tempting to leap to the conclusion that it’s aimed at an antagonist (or, even if you consciously tell yourself that it isn’t, read it through that emotional filter).

I could talk about “privilege”, but the thing I want to rant about today is the common way of phrasing things as though they were intentional. “This is done to keep women down”, “the patriarchy responded to women by attempting to—”, and so on. True, intent is not fucking magic, but it still matters: Morally, and tactically, and, well, factually. Who is this Patriarchy that does things to keep women down (an explicit statement of intention)? Who are its members? Why, given that I am a man, was I not invited? Well, of course it’s not actually some shadowy cabal of old men writing the Protocols of the Elders of Chauvinism, but rather a set of attitudes, largely invisible even to most of its perpetrators—but then why personalise it as though it were a bunch of people? (Naomi Wolf uses a bunch of such language, although I am not accusing her of insanity: She explicitly says that this is not a conspiracy theory; it doesn’t need to be. But the language is still there. And I personally think that sort of language affects the debate.)

Perhaps it serves as a psychological crutch. Maybe it is easier to imagine that there are villains out there, figures of malice whom one can dream of fighting and defeating, rather than the less satisfying, more difficult, and infinitely more nebulous web of thoughts, opinions, and behaviours that truly are at fault. But I’m not usually a big fan of psychological crutches, and the fact that it’s incorrect seems like reason enough to dismiss it.

Well, often incorrect. There’s no denying that there are awful people in the world, after all. Let’s make a hierarchy of people, ranging from the vilest to the best:

  1. People who oppress women to oppress women out of malice or delusions of superiority. Christian fundies, honour-killing Islamists, MRAs, and moustache-twirling villains who tie women to railroad tracks.

    I’ve no sympathy for these people. Crucify them at will. It’s not like consciousness-raising or education will help: This category of people know damn well the harm they cause and do it anyway. Attack them as ideological enemies, because they are.

  2. People who oppress women knowingly but incidentally—for greed or profiteering, presumably, such as perhaps marketing execs who consciously design or push ideals, procedures, and so on that serve to exacerbate eating disorders, body dysmorphia, and poor self esteem. I think this is a slight degree less vile than those who simply want to keep women down, but only a slight one.

    I’ve no sympathy for these people either.

  3. People who oppress women incidentally who should know, but use rationalisation and cognitive dissonance to avoid knowing. And let’s face it, rationalisation and cognitive dissonance are things that humans excel at. Probably most of the marketers involved in designing the most horrible and damaging campaigns ever made never really thought they were doing harm. These ideals are already out there, they might think; it’s unfortunate but it’s not my fault and what does it matter if another drop is added to the bucket? Even a surgeon pioneering some godawful new procedure like removing pinky toes to fit into smaller shoes or rib removal for a slimmer waist (which may be apocryphal, but I did say “pioneering”) will surely find a way to rationalise it: The unrealistic ideals are already out there and women are already feeling bad for failing to live up to them. I can’t change that, but I can at least provide a service that allows them to meet them when nature won’t.

    A person like this does cause harm, but I’m not sure whether the same rhetoric is ideal. Accusing them of causing malicious harm, it seems to me, could make them re-examine what they are doing and come to their senses, but could also make them dig in their heels, protest defensively, and entrench their position. Speaking for myself, few things put me on the defensive more quickly than an unjust accusation, and if you want to make someone aware of the harm they are causing, surely putting them on the defensive—mustering all their powers of rationalisation—is not what you want to do.

    Still it’s hard to defend someone who sacrifices women’s toes on the altar of beauty and stiletto heels, and I won’t waste energy in the attempt; they aren’t worth it.

  4. Average schlubs like yours truly who cause harm incidentally, and not due to cognitive dissonance but sheer ignorance. I try my best, and I even read the occasional article by bloggers like Amanda Marcotte and Jen McCreight, and every post by Greta Christina…but I’m sure that I err in ways that I won’t enumerate because I can’t; I don’t see them. Isn’t that the whole point?

    Far be it from me to suggest that anyone cater to me; no one should have to bend over backwards to court me as an ally for basic social justice. However, avoiding antagonistic language isn’t bending over backards; it’s just standing up straight. I think it’s unfortunate and alienating, and more than a little hurtfull, when I feel addressed like an enemy, even incidentally and accidentally. The same argument as above applies, but more strongly. Dismiss me because of “male privilege” or as part of “the patriarchy” and I will feel like I’m being treated like an enemy, someone you want to drive away from your camp. I’m trying my best, however short I may come up.

  5. Activists who actively combat stereotypes.

    You go, guys and girls; I wish I had your energy.

  6. People completely free of bias.

    These are necessarily either fictional, comatose, or dead.

I think that the first two categories are pretty small, the first especially; at least in my part of the world. I think very few people really know and acknowledge the harm they do. I think that even the most egregious things that happen in the beauty industry, say, are more boiling frog-like: A cultural backdrop exists favouring, say, thinner women, and people build on that, each model or each advertiser wanting to go a little thinner, a little more “beautiful”, until before people realise what’s going on, we end up with terrible, harmful ideals and a cycle of emaciation that no one has the power to stop (without going out of business, succumbing to a more ruthless adversary). No villains, just people acting in honest ignorance, perhaps well-intentioned.

I do not think that beauty companies are really out to make women put themselves down. I think that they are out to make shitloads of money, which is precisely the goal a capitalistic system rewards them for seeking. I think that the more ruthlessly they do so, all else being equal, the more likely they are to succeed in the marketplace; and the fittest companies, best able to convince women that their products are needed, will survive. But I don’t think this is done out of misogyny. And I’m sure they’d sell just as hard to men if only the cultural backdrop we live in made it possible. It doesn’t; they can’t; so they don’t. But I don’t entirely buy some of the “commoditisation” arguments because that phrases it in language of intention, which I find misleading.

I don’t even think that big male power structures like corporate boards or governments are trying to keep women out. I’m not denying that they have these effects, but I do deny that they are trying. Why on Earth would they? It’s trivially true that a male-only government benefits men (presumably half of all qualified people are female, therefore excluding women gives cushy jobs to men occupying their seats), but I fail to see how this serves the interests of anyone in that government, or on that corporate board. They’re in it for themselves, after all, not for the sake of Mankind over Womankind. What has an old politician to lose from allowing women to make it into political office? By the time they can rise to the top levels and compete for his job he’ll be long dead and gone anyway, so as far as that’s concerned they’re irrelevant. I do not deny that there are surely misogynists in governments and corporate boards just as there are elsewhere, but I fail to see evidence or rationale for any widespread motivation that merits claims such as, to closely paraphrase something I read the other day (Bitchfest?), that the American government has a vested interest in suppressing women. Does it? How? How can a body of hundreds of people (or thousands, depending on how you define “government”) with competing political ideologies, some acting selfishly and all having to cater to public approval (slightly more than half of which is female), all share a vested interest in that?

Does this mean that the consequences are any less harmful? Of course not. Does it mean that people should get a free pass on their wrongs? Don’t be absurd.

But I think it is harmfully misleading, because it paints the wrong picture. If there are villains, it’s simple: Fight the villains. If there are people in power who struggle to suppress or oppress women, take them out of power. But if that’s not the case—if it’s no one’s intentions, if it’s instead the outcome of an impersonal system—then it’s a different problem and needs a different solution, education and consciousness-raising rather than taking out the villains.

Obviously feminists have done and still do a fantastic job of consciousness-raising and education that I could not hope to match in a thousand years even if more than ten people read my blog; I just find this particular detail grating.

I also think it’s unfortunate because it’s alienating. If the patriarchy is spoken of in terms of an oppressor (true, in an unconscious sort of way, but phrased as though intentional), and if I am accused of being part of the patriarchy (which I suppose is regrettably true, in that I presumably carry various thought and behaviour patterns with me that make me part of that general cultural problem), then—boom!—the language has become “you’re an oppressor; you are our enemy”. Reading up on feminism has helped me understand this language and realise that this is not what it means, but giving me the initial impression that I am the enemy you want to destroy is kind of a barrier to wanting to read up on it! I might contrast this to pieces by Greta Christina, which manage to describe the same issues without pulling punches but never using this kind of language. First I was told that I was part of the patriarchy that oppresses women; only much later did I find Greta Christina’s blog read her explanation of patriarchy as a set of embedded attitudes that affect and impact both men and women, and is appropriately labelled “pat-” only because women are the ones who get the rawest deal.

And this matters a lot to me because it makes me much more willing to re-examine myself. Telling me that I’m part of the evil patriarchy makes me initially think that you’re insane because I am a member of no such shadowy cabal; and secondly to think that you’re wrong because I know I’m well-intentioned and in no way interested in oppressing women. Telling me that there exists a set of pervasive attitudes that I express unknowingly makes me feel like I’m being invaded by some cultural, memetic disease, and like I ought to learn more about this disease and how to cure myself of it. If I accidentally step on your toe and you tell me, I will apologise profusely, but if you do so in language that to the uninitiated sounds like an accusation of assault, I will be self-righteously offended (especially if it’s not clear that I stepped on your toe to begin with). I’m not asking for brownie points when I make the slightest efforts; I just hope for a tonally neutral notification that I did something wrong.

This veered into being more about me towards the end, which was not my original intention but was perhaps inevitable, and as I said right at the very top, this is about my perception of rhetoric, phrasing, and implications; and thus necessarily becomes subjective. If I thought that feminist writers regularly wrote about actual purported Cabals Of All The Men producing grand designs to oppress women this would be quite a different post, after all!

Finally, before I trepidatiously post this and go into a cringe anticipatory of the feedback, I want to respond to one hypothetical retort: Maybe the language of intent just makes better rhetoric. Maybe, in spite of its potential to alienate as it has on occasion alienated me, and in spite of its fundamental inaccuracy, it’s just so valuable in its strong emotional charge, and so galvanising in its implicit image of an evil that is ultimately fightable, that it’s worth it.

To this I can say only that I’ll never condone untruths even if they are rhetorically convenient.

Of course, this whole thing makes me wonder whether I have a point at all (good or bad), or whether I am just uncommonly sensitive to certain nuances of phrasing that others wouldn’t even notice, even while I am tone deaf in other, remarkable ways.


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Petter Häggholm

April 2016

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