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Nov 10 2011

Why I am a feminist

I took an intro to philosophy course back in high school. It was roughly the equivalent of a first-year philosophy survey course (only better, because the class size was smaller and everyone in the class actually wanted to be there), taught by a really cool guy named Mr. Peglar. It is to him, and his class, that I can attribute credit for not only a lot of the content on this blog, but the way in which much of it is presented – he’s the one who taught me the strength of the ‘argument-counterargument-refutation’ approach to persuasive writing.

One of the central dichotomies we focussed on at the beginning of the class was realism vs. antirealism – the question of whether or not reality exists independently of an observer. We agonized over this for a week before he introduced us to an absolutely magical solution – pragmatism. Whether or not reality exists objectively, since the question is unanswerable (the scientific method – the best way to determine truth – is dependent on the assumption of reality existing), we are best served by assuming things exist. It is the only way to get by in the world.

There are a lot of assumptions about what motivates feminism. If you’re a woman, you may be accused of hating men and wishing to castrate them, or of being bitter and not having the strength to assert yourself, so you have to tear men down. If you’re a man, these assumptions are harder to make stick – there’s no reason to suspect that I hate men, being a man myself and having mostly male friends, and anyone who thinks I’m not strong enough to assert myself is invited to come say that to my face. Other insulting suggestions, that I am whipped or I’m just sucking up to chicks to get laid, are similarly poorly applied to me particularly – I’ve been single for many years and it’s theoretically much easier to score with randoms that don’t respect themselves than it is with feminists (which is a sad fact), who are, in my experience, the only kind of women that think a guy who calls himself a ‘feminist’ is sexy.

No, my reasons for being a feminist are largely impure and pragmatic. Sure, equality of women is the right thing to do, but many people are not particularly swayed by moral arguments. After all, feminism appears, to many eyes, to be more than simple equality – it is active change as opposed to passive assurances to ourselves that we aren’t sexist because we don’t use the word “broads” anymore. However, everyone can appreciate a nice, clean, pragmatic argument:

Though it is stunning to see these two worlds in such stark and detailed relief, their existence is not news: Development specialists and human rights groups have been calling attention to these inequities for years. But the systemic oppression of women tends to be cast in terms of claims for empathy: We shouldn’t follow these policies because they are not nice, not enlightened. Some development researchers have started to make a compelling case, too, that oppression of women impedes countries’ efforts to escape poverty.

But the data in the Newsweek list show that we need to frame this issue in stronger, more sweeping terms: When poor countries choose to oppress their own women, they are to some extent choosing their own continued poverty. Female oppression is a moral issue; but it also must be seen as a choice that countries make for short-term “cultural” comfort, at the expense of long-term economic and social progress.

(snip)

If you are not innumerate, you can start a business. If you are not living in mortal fear of rape and beatings at home, you can organise your community to dig a new well. If you are not subjecting your daughter to traumatic genital injury at three and marrying her off at ten, she can go to school. And, when she does marry and has children of her own, they will benefit from two educated, employed parents, which means twice as much literate conversation in the home, twice the contacts, and twice the encouragement to succeed. Educated, pushy mothers make all the difference.

Many people are uncomfortable with pragmatic arguments. They are incredibly cavalier – these are real people who suffer real pain we’re talking about here. Rape, beatings, mutilation – these are not things to be placed on a scale and weighed against money. Forgetting these facts marginalizes that suffering; making the moral argument is the only decent thing to do.

Here’s the problem with that line of reasoning. I’ve always called myself a feminist. Even when I was younger, I accepted the moral argument that all people should have equal rights and live free of discrimination. However, like with so many things, my understanding of feminism was juvenile and ill-informed. It wasn’t until I began to delve seriously into the antiracist discussion that I learned more about what feminism fought for and against.

The thing that had the greatest impact on my thinking – what turned me around to active feminism rather than milquetoast hand-waving and effete posturing about the need for equality – was the fact that the system that we currently have is hurting us. We are all victims of the patriarchy (to be sure – some of us are victimized more than others). What our society is doing, essentially, is trying to run uphill in roller skates with a weight around our ankles. Adopting a feminist approach not only removes that weight (by giving the human race twice as many well-informed and powerful members), but it removes the skates (by ceasing to engage in self-defeating behaviours).

I am a feminist for the same reason I am a liberal, or an anti-racist, or pro-LGBT, or any other political stance I may hold – because it makes the world a better place. It improves our whole society without violating any major ethical strictures, and has a ripple effect that sees increasing returns the better we get at it. It also has the added bonus of being the right thing to do.

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20 comments

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  1. 1
    Johnny Vector

    Oh yeah, that’s me. I started with empathy (and apparently it’s still a more convincing argument to me than to most people). But later I figured out that it’s better for all of us to protect the environment, treat women equally, treat minorities equally, stop fighting wars, provide roads and hospitals and fire departments and libraries and schooling to all, and all those other “liberal” things. And I can’t understand people wanting to maintain a system that hurts them directly. Well, not until you posted about SJT.

    So, that’s pragmatism, then? I take it utilitarianism is something different. Because those words mean pretty much the same thing in normal English. Are they different in philosophy?

  2. 2
    rutty

    Ah, that magic word: systemic. You have to take look at problems in a systemic way to really understand them. Everything is interconnected.

    I very much like the idea of the argument for “releasing the potential” that feminism brings. Excellent article, thanks :)

  3. 3
    Lou Doench

    Absolutely… once we accept the liberal premise that we’re all in this thing together it becomes so much easier to argue for equality.
    I’m a feminist because i don’t want my girls to grow up surrounded by assholes, and I don’t want my boy to grow up thinking its ok to be one.

  4. 4
    Crommunist

    Pragmatism holds that if two arguments hold equal weight, or you cannot resolve which one is correct, you go with the one that is the most practical. Solipsism is not a practical way to go through life – ethics would completely break down and society would collapse as people simply decide they are brains in jars. It’s a metaphysical approach.

    Utilitarianism is an ethical approach. It means that, given a slate of actions to choose from, you should choose the one that maximizes utility for the largest number of people. One could argue (and MRAs do, as do opponents of affirmative action) that any steps taken to elevate women come at the expense of men, which means that the utility argument is neutral (and then they argue that it is wrong to compromise the autonomy of men, therefore feminism is immoral). Zero-sum thinking is one of the hallmarks of privilege, and it can be demonstrated not to be true, but we’ll leave that aside for a moment.

  5. 5
    LS

    Philosophy is underrated. Me and my fellow phil majors thank you for acknowledging our field’s impact on your life.

  6. 6
    Crommunist

    Anyone who dismisses philosophy needs to play that game where you pick any Wikipedia article and click on the first link. Keep going – eventually every trail leads back to the article on philosophy.

  7. 7
    Graham

    I am no philosopher, but your post reminds me of

    “… the way [things] are now arranged in our lands – where it’s not the case that all the men with their entire strength, and united in spirit, practice the same things as the women – is the most mindless of all. For this way, almost every city is just about half of what it might be, when with the same expenditures and efforts it could double itself.” – Plato

    From http://www.thinkingtogether.org/rcream/archive/gaming/Laws2.pdf

  8. 8
    raymoscow

    Well said, sir.

  9. 9
    Johnny Vector

    Okay, so I guess I’m a utilitarian and a pragmatist. If I actually believed that feminist goal X would cause more harm to men than it would benefit women, I would be against it. For example, taking away men’s right to vote. The loss of utility would far outweigh the gain. Of course the only place things like that are proposed is in the fevered imagination of misogynists.

    And true utility isn’t always found on the surface. Example: religion. The argument that religion provides comfort and community is a utilitarian one, but the fact that religion’s core principles are false outweighs that, in my mind. And I actually hold that as a utilitarian view (I think I’m using the word correctly), based on the fact that actual truth has, in the long term, provided far more good to more people than the temporary comfort of a pleasant falsehood.

  10. 10
    Crommunist

    I realize you’re not suggesting this, but taking away men’s voting rights would not be a feminist goal at all. It would be, in fact, contrary to the principles of feminism. It would be like saying atheists want to worship man as god… that stops being atheism as soon as gods are introduced into the equation.

    Utilitarianism has its limitations, but Daniel over at Camels With Hammers, or alternatively my friend Brian Lynchehaun are much better equipped to explain that than I am.

  11. 11
    Johnny Vector

    taking away men’s voting rights would not be a feminist goal at all

    Right-o. I’m afraid I left out a bridge between the “feminist goals” sentence and that one. Actually there was supposed to be a key change too. Sometimes terseness doesn’t serve me well.

    “Once in flight school I was laconic.” -Hoban Washburne

  12. 12
    Robert B.

    I don’t dismiss philosophy, quite the opposite, but I tried the game – “Uranium” to “Philosophy” in 13 clicks.

  13. 13
    Snapp

    I wasn’t planning on following this blog, and I certainly wasn’t planning on reading anything more than a couple of paragraphs long. Here I am at the end of the post, that was a good read.

  14. 14
    Crommunist

    Umm… thank you? :P

    Seriously though, glad you got something out of it.

  15. 15
    Simon B

    I took an intro to philosophy course back in high school. It was roughly the equivalent of a first-year philosophy survey course (only better, because the class size was smaller and everyone in the class actually wanted to be there), taught by a really cool guy named Mr. Peglar.

    ***

    Oh my god. It -is- you. :D Um, hey, it’s Simon Braendli from Turner Fenton. When I first saw the link to your blog I thought, it can’t be… It’s too cool to see you again, and to see you as a prominent skeptical voice from Canada! Nutty and awesome!

    Anyway, I just had to say hi and tell you it’s great to see you’re taking names and kicking ass. I’m super glad you’re still playing music. I still remember being amazed at your violin version of the Super Mario Bros theme.

    Cheers and all the best,
    Simon

  16. 16
    Crommunist

    You lied to me, Mr. Smiley face… and now you must pay THE ULTIMATE PRICE!

  17. 17
    Simon B

    Hahaha! I was going to post that initially but decided against it. That kind of comment out of the blue could startle a man. :D

  18. 18
    Brian Macker

    So, given you think such reasoning is valid, would you say that the “magical solution” to whether god exists or not is pragmatism, and that we are best served by assuming god exists?

    I ask because your teacher has implicitly assumed a dichotomy between thought and reality, when in fact they are both instances of “existence”. Thoughts exist in reality, not separate from it. The same attributes that he gives to reality in relationship to thought hold true for certain notions of god. So I just did a substitution. This is a very handy trick for understanding why certain claims are false.

    Note I discard pragmatism [the philosophical school not the strategy] for pragmatic [the strategy] reasons. If the world doesn’t exist then what’s pragmatic [the strategy] about assuming a false conclusion that it does. Assuming a falsehood can only lead one to error, especially if you do so dogmatically. That’s not very pragmatic.

  19. 19
    Brian Macker

    I’ve found most philosophers to be very poor philosophers. It’s not philosophy that is a problem but what most of them have done to it.

  20. 20
    Rich Woods

    Kim Jong-Il to Philosophy in 26. Bloody hell!

    That’s skipping the first link if it is a ‘from the x language’ or the ‘listen’ type, else you can easily find yourself in an infinite loop.

    This is so much cheaper than Angry Birds.

    *Goes off to play again*

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