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Fire brigades

Thanks to the Atheism+ debate, I’m getting to learn about something called “equity feminism” versus “gender feminism.” The difference seems to revolve around the degree of activism required. I’m new to this particular debate, so take what I say with a grain of salt, but I thought I’d put my initial impressions out there so I can see what people say in response.

The equity feminist seems to be saying, “Look, I know that women are equal, and so I don’t personally discriminate against them, and that should be good enough. We don’t need to be gender feminists and try to make society better for women in general.” If that’s not an accurate assessment, feel free to inform me where it goes astray, but if it is, then I have to say I don’t think that equity feminism is sufficient, and I can explain why, using the analogy of the fire brigade.

The problem with equity feminism as I’ve described it above is that sexual harassment and other social inequities won’t go away just by virtue of a majority of people abstaining from them. There are, and probably always will be, those who actively promote abuse because it gives them some kind of advantage and/or pleasure. You have to deal with those who are actively causing harm, and not just refrain from bad behavior yourself.

It’s all very well respond to fires by saying, “I just won’t start any fires,” but if you have an arsonist in the city, and you wake up one night to find your roof blazing, you’re not going to want a bunch of people come running up and merely refrain from starting more fires. You need a fire brigade to come up and actively combat the fire that’s already there.

I say fire brigade instead of fire department because the brigade is a closer analogy. We didn’t used to have government-funded fire departments, we used to just band together and pass the buckets, both out of sympathy for the victim and out of the knowledge that fires spread, and that our own house could be next. In other words, it’s not just an emotional sense of community—there’s self-interest involved as well.

It’s the same way with sexism, and all the other forms of social injustice. They’re fires, and we have arsonists actively involved in spreading them. If our only response is to say, “Well, I’m just not going to be one of the arsonists,” we’ll end up living in ashes. We have to get actively involved in eliminating the inequities, the same way we would actively quench the fires. It’s not a question here of some kind of “gender feminism” seeking to create a society that unjustly favors women (and other minorities), but rather targeting the inequities that already exist, and eliminating them.

You don’t have to be the one that rushes into the burning building, but you should be willing to help pass the buckets back and forth. It’s part of the price of belonging to the community, and community is a good thing.