Monday, February 6, 2012

Alert: Feminism Is Still Baloney – I Mean Divisive! It’s Divisive.

A cute young woman on the Internet is unsure what to make of feminism (not to mention existentialism – and she sings Adele songs).  Well, I don’t blame her.  My four favorite subcultures aren’t sure what to make of feminism either:

•Periodically, a few libertarians will take it upon themselves to announce that all libertarians should be feminists (as in this recent post on by Moriah Costa and Luca Gattoni-Celli), which is roughly analogous to the libertarians-must-be-culturally-liberal claim made by Kerry Howley a few years ago, and I think both claims are wrong, though it’s difficult to make that point without being misunderstood (or just hated). 

Maybe everyone should be a feminist, but there is nothing especially libertarian about feminism, which, after all, insists (as much as any form of rigid traditionalism) upon a certain “patterned outcome” in society – one in which women are as influential as males (or something along those lines), usually backing up the preferred outcome with implicit or explicit threats of regulation (which are not merely hypothetical – such regulations already exist). 

But we’re supposed to be the faction that lets people do what they want and recognizes that the outcomes, whether hippie-like or fundamentalist-like, may not be to our liking – and the faction that knows that even highly mutually-beneficial market outcomes may not look “equal” (height, history, hormones, hetcetera, hetcetera).

(And as my friend Evan Isaac put it recently, the disingenuous – and common – claim that in calling yourself a “feminist” you are merely asserting equal rights for all humans is nearly as suspicious as calling yourself a “whiteist” while insisting that you merely want to remind people to respect the rights of all ethnic groups.  Indeed, it was because of this veiled, disingenuous tribal partisanship, not fear of totalitarianism, that I once likened feminists to neo-Nazis, inflammatory as that inevitably sounds.)

Kerry’s fiance, Will Wilkinson, who (roughly speaking) shared her insistence that real libertarians ought to prefer non-traditionalist social outcomes even threw in the nomenclatural towel recently and decided to start calling himself a “liberal” and very clearly not calling himself a “libertarian” (I’m not sure how Kerry feels about that or whether she’s likely to follow suit).

But to be clear: I never actually insisted that Will and Kerry should stop calling themselves libertarians.  I try to err on the side of inclusive use of labels.  My concern was that they were trying to redefine the term to make the rest of us sound like we didn’t belong – and they were (consciously or not) engaging in some revisionist history along the way, as if libertarianism had never been “merely” a philosophy that says you can do what you want as long as you respect others’ property rights and bodily integrity.  In fact, it had often been framed precisely that way – and avoided lots of culture-warfare muddles precisely because of it.

And to be even clearer: I may have serious disagreements with some (all?) fellow libertarians, but I don’t want to excommunicate them, and I’m happy to have them all within the broadly-defined “libertarian” tent – even Will, if he decides to come back.  On a more electorally-significant note, I think a lot of time and energy will have been wasted this year by
libertarians insisting that one must back Ron Paul and the Mises Institute to be a “real” libertarian – while others insist that one must back Gary Johnson, Reason, and Cato to be a “real” libertarian. 

This is as annoying and counter-productive, I think, as the paleocons and the neocons warring with each other instead of uniting against big government (and in fact these two terminological battles sometimes overlap, just to make matters more muddled).  I honestly just want everyone to get along.  (Is it patriarchal of me to get sad when it sounds like Mom and Dad might be getting a divorce?)  If the libertarians can’t even get along with each other, my master plan to unite all of humanity in peace and harmony, across the political spectrum and beyond, is going to be an uphill battle.

One problem is that there are so few libertarians (still) that many journalists who lean that way end up having to do double duty, and not all good journalists are good philosophers.  It’s funny but also a bit tragic, for instance, watching the Mises Institute’s David Gordon go berserk (in what the aforementioned Evan Isaac might call an “Aspergo-capitalist” way) over language use by Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie that probably would be considered careless by academic philosophy standards (because Gordon is trying to define “libertarianism” and Matt and Nick are basically just reporting news with implications of interest to libertarians). 

But Gordon usually makes a good point – and in his way, he’s trying as hard as Matt and Nick to make libertarianism broadly applicable.  He just tends to agree with me that you do that in part by studiously avoiding larding the philosophy with non-essential cultural baggage about which self-proclaimed libertarians in good standing might legitimately disagree (to take a somewhat analogous case: you can be a libertarian and be pro-choice on abortion, but if you insist that a libertarian can only be pro-choice, you are the one shrinking the tent – just ask the pro-lifers in the Ron Paul camp – and you probably aren’t being very thorough about the relevant philosophical arguments either). 

•Meanwhile, rock n’ roll is a macho enough world that a mere twenty years ago, females in grunge/alternative circles (though they may have been overreacting) felt the need to declare themselves “riot grrls” and stake out subcultural space separate from their growling and angsty male counterparts of the day.  The swell lady-fronted three out of four bands I saw in Williamsburg last night (Young Unknowns, Railbird, and Jessie Kilguss) suggest the gender war is pretty much over in that area, though.  And I was spared watching the macho Superbowl.

•The skeptics community – who you might expect to get along with the feminists just fine, what with them tending to be all rational and non-religious and all – no sooner get over the internal scuffle between the “Skepchick” founder Rebecca Watson and Richard Dawkins than Penn Jillette (who also happens to be a libertarian) manages to piss off the she-skeptics.

•And as I learned from a panel at New York Comic Con a few months ago, as female-friendly as the sci-fi/comics-nerd world has gotten, they still aren’t sure whether Lisbeth Salander from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, with her Asperger’s powers and borderline personality disorder weaknesses, counts as a superhero.  But some things must remain a mystery. 

This much I know: If the Susan G. Komen Foundation thinks chemicals in the environment might cause breast cancer, no one should be giving them money in the first place, but...if you reach the point where instead of paying for your own projects, you’re boycotting companies...for giving to people...who aren’t giving to some other cause you like...which is itself already taxpayer-funded...despite it being extremely culturally-divisive, you are likely one overly demanding little jerk.  (And both Komen and Planned Parenthood saw donations rise amidst the whole mess anyway.)


Matt Zwolinski said...

"as my friend Evan Isaac put it recently, the disingenuous – and common – claim that in calling yourself a “feminist” you are merely asserting equal rights for all humans is nearly as suspicious as calling yourself a “whiteist” while insisting that you merely want to remind people to respect the rights of all ethnic groups."

I'm not so sure. Part of the cause of the kerfuffule over feminism, I think, is unacknowledged disagreement over the proper meaning of the term. There's certainly an important strand of feminism - maybe it's even the dominant strand - that does call for something like the patterned outcome you describe. But there is also a very important, and historically deep-rooted strand, that is just calling for equal rights.

Why, then, call themselves feminists rather than, say, humanists? Well, because they recognize that the way that women have been treated is especially problematic. The reason it sounds silly to call yourself a "whitist" is that white people, qua white people, have and have had it pretty good. But if you combine:
1) the belief that all people should be recognized as having the same basic moral status, and accorded the same basic legal rights, with
2) the belief that women as a class have been denied this, in a systematic way for a long period of time with significant and ongoing consequences,

then calling yourself a feminist makes perfect sense. Not just, I would say, *even if* you are a libertarian, but *especially if* you are a libertarian.

Anonymous said...

The comment about calling oneself a whiteist is making fun of the idea that all libertarians should consider themselves feminists.

This idea asserts that libertarians should identify themselves as any group struggling for what they would consider more equal rights.

But we all know that is totally backward. If feminism is an ideologically consistent with libertarianism then feminist should be able to call themselves libertarians. The truth is they are different things, different groups, with different interests. The same would go for any other group, whiteists included. Collectivism cannot also be individualism.