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Feb 09 2013

Libby Anne on equity feminism vs gender feminism

Sorry I’ve been mostly absent from the blogohedron these past few days. I’m actually hard at work on a WordPress plugin to allow for ad-free subscriptions, and over the past several days, I’ve been pouring my (sadly, waning) blogosphere time into that plugin instead of blogging. (Why my blogosphere time is waning, however, is a different story — one I may even get to tell you about shortly. For right now, suffice it to say I’m doing my damnedest to keep a bunch of plates spinning, and some things need more attention right now.)

In lieu of my writing anything of my own, I will gladly link to people who’ve written things I wholeheartedly agree with. Over at Love Joy Feminism, FtB Expat Libby-Anne has written a bang-up post on the difference between “equity feminism” and “gender feminism”, and she hit on a meme I can honestly say I actively desire to have propagated — equity feminism could be better described as “libertarian feminism.”

I’ve noticed something as I’ve watched the conflict over feminism play out in the atheist blogosphere. Rather than “equity feminism” I would call it “difference feminism” or maybe “libertarian feminism.” I don’t really have a good label for exactly what’s going on, but vjack is right that there are some people in the skeptic community who reject the feminist focus on questioning and challenging gender roles. Here is an example from prominent skeptic Harriet Hall:

I think it is unreasonable to expect that equal numbers of men and women will be attracted to every sphere of human endeavor. Science has shown that real differences exist. We should level the playing field and ensure there are no preventable obstacles, then let the chips fall where they may.

Kuhle made this same argument in his article when he argued that there are natural differences between men and women and derided the idea that gender roles are socially constructed. Kuhle’s line of reasoning is why some people argue that it’s only natural that the vast majority of engineers are men and that the the fast majority of stay at home parents are women. Men are just better at spacial reasoning, after all, and women are perfectly evolved to care for children! Based on this same sort of argument, Michael Shermer responded to a question last summer about why speakers at atheist conferences generally tilt male by saying that

it’s who wants to stand up and talk about it, go on shows about it, go to conferences and speak about it, who’s intellectually active about it, you know, it’s more of a guy thing.

It’s hard to tell when going of fairly short statements made in blog posts or comments, but the idea seems to be that if you ensure that there is equality before the law, it shouldn’t matter that men dominate in STEM fields and in leadership positions, or that that women find themselves doing the majority of the childcare. We shouldn’t bat an eye or ask why – instead, we should just accept this situation as natural and inevitable because men and women are different.

She ably deconstructs the whole argument as one of language, which I’ve argued myself in the past. It’s as though people are intentionally confusing language to prolong a conflict that, one would think, should not go on as long as it has before people come to an amicable agreement that certain behaviours are counterproductive or antisocial — it’s only gone on as long as it has because people want to avoid facing the consequences of certain behaviours and are using language as the most readily-available baffle for conversation. And their goal in doing so, as far as I can tell, is to forestall any actual societal change necessary to achieve a more perfect equality. This is entirely in keeping with the libertarian ideals of letting the “free market” continue to advantage those that it advantages. And it smacks heavily of a cargo-cult mentality — the libertarians subscribing to this “equity feminism” like the ideas of equality that feminism seeks to achieve, and are envious of the positive social aspects of feminism that have led to real change even where “feminist” has long since been converted into a slur by right-wingers and antifeminists. So, they build entire constructions in order to co-opt whatever positive parts of the movement they can absorb while simultaneously trying to cut down the existing feminism that has achieved those goals. It’s building the trappings of feminism without any of the infrastructure and expecting that’s enough.

There’s one minor point I might quibble with, but otherwise still largely agree:

Furthermore, I do think we need to be careful when we accuse those who disagree with us of being sexists and misogynists. This is partly because we risk applying these labels unfairly (and in doing so watering them down) and partly because doing so risks closing down conversation rather than opening it up.

I’ve made the same argument in the past, that one should be careful about calling people “sexist” or “misogynist”. However, at the same time, I’ve come to learn that if you say “that thing you said was sexist”, even if it is empirically so (as was the case with Michael Shermer’s inelegant phrasing she quoted earlier), that person may still react as though you’ve called them a sexist. If I were to suggest a name for this phenomenon, I’d call it the Smooth Principle. Identifying a behaviour is often enough to make the person go full whargarbl with “witch-hunts” and “feminazis”. As a result, no matter how hard you try to be careful about not unjustly name-calling, the narrative is already set. If you criticize a person’s behaviour, there’s already a ready-made outrage engine primed and waiting for them to engage in their defense.

13 comments

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  1. 1
    Improbable Joe, bearer of the Official SpokesGuitar

    I’d say that the “ready-made outrage engine” serves the same purpose as “equity feminism”: to create a justification for doing nothing, maintaining the status quo, and protecting privilege. Look how much people equate the terms “sexism” and “misogyny” with bullying… what they mean is “you used that word, therefore I am justified in sticking my fingers in my ears and refusing to address my attitudes and behavior.”

  2. 2
    CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain

    I will gladly link to people who’ve written things I wholeheartedly agree with.

    That thing you wrote is what someone in an echo chamber would write.*
    .
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    Also normal bloggers.
     
    * I want to believe that’s unambiguously satire. But there’s a nagging worry someone might’ve responded that way to a similar mined quote and meant it.

  3. 3
    CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain

    It’s as though people are intentionally confusing language to prolong a conflict [*] because people want to avoid facing the consequences of certain behaviours and are using language as the most readily-available baffle for conversation.

    * a conflict that, one would think, should not go on as long as it has before people come to an amicable agreement

    Article: Wikipedia – Agency (Sociology)

  4. 4
    garnetstar

    Yeah, yeah, different hormones enter the brains of males and females and different behaviors may result. However, no one has yet demonstrated that, and no one will ever be able to prove which behviors may be due to biological differences, and which are socially constructed. Because, there is no control group.

    You’d have to take groups of infants and subject one to no socialization whatsoever–none, not even interactions with parents (who have been shown to act differently towards male and femal infants). The other group must be socialized, but somehow have the hormones sucked out of their brains.

    You’d then have to follow these unfortunates as they grow up and join or don’t join STEM fields. Voila, you have demonstrated that differential interest in these fields is due to biological differences, with differential socialization playing no role at all! Socialization is meaningless!

    Or not.

  5. 5
    mikmik

    Jason T=

    I’ve made the same argument in the past, that one should be careful about calling people “sexist” or “misogynist”. However, at the same time, I’ve come to learn that if you say “that thing you said was sexist”, even if it is empirically so (as was the case with Michael Shermer’s inelegant phrasing she quoted earlier), that person may still react as though you’ve called them a sexist. If I were to suggest a name for this phenomenon, I’d call it the Smooth Principle. Identifying a behaviour is often enough to make the person go full whargarbl with “witch-hunts” and “feminazis”. As a result, no matter how hard you try to be careful about not unjustly name-calling, the narrative is already set. If you criticize a person’s behaviour, there’s already a ready-made outrage engine primed and waiting for them to engage in their defense.

    Come on! ;)

    There is a huge difference, and accusing someone of using a behavior is not the same as ascribing a character flaw. You said this, but it does not follow that just because you’ve seen people take descriptions of their behavior to heart, does not mean it is futile to call behavior what it is, and leave the personal insults alone.

    Epithets will almost always get a flame war going on, but a claim against behavior is just that. It isn’t so personal(none at all, in theory). Lot’s of us point this out around here, and it is perfectly acceptable to criticize behavior, and uncouth to condemn character.

    It doesn’t matter if some overly defensive ninnies get all personal anyways, because not everyone does – not at all. That’s my ‘just because I’ve seen it’ rebuttal.

    Sir ;)

  6. 6
    crowepps

    @ garnetstar -

    “You’d have to take groups of infants and subject one to no socialization whatsoever–none, not even interactions with parents (who have been shown to act differently towards male and femal infants).”

    Already been done, without clear results, because all the ‘experimental subjects’ died in short order of what would now be diagnosed as failure to thrive.

    “An alleged experiment carried out by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in the 13th century saw young infants raised without human interaction in an attempt to determine if there was a natural language that they might demonstrate once their voices matured. It is claimed he was seeking to discover what language would have been imparted unto Adam and Eve by God.

    The experiments were recorded by the monk Salimbene di Adam in his Chronicles, who wrote that Frederick encouraged “foster-mothers and nurses to suckle and bathe and wash the children, but in no ways to prattle or speak with them; for he would have learnt whether they would speak the Hebrew language (which had been the first), or Greek, or Latin, or Arabic, or perchance the tongue of their parents of whom they had been born. But he laboured in vain, for the children could not live without clappings of the hands, and gestures, and gladness of countenance, and blandishments.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language_deprivation_experiments

  7. 7
    Jenora Feuer

    @crowepps:

    Already been done, without clear results, because all the ‘experimental subjects’ died in short order of what would now be diagnosed as failure to thrive.

    Hmm… sounds like the only thing that you could even claim this might have proved is that humans are social animals, and really tend not to do well without socialization and feedback of some sort.

  8. 8
    CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain

    @Jenora Feuer #7:

    Hmm… sounds like the only thing that you could even claim this might have proved is that humans are social animals, and really tend not to do well without socialization and feedback of some sort.

    This is the problem with arguing nature vs nurture.
    Development is an ongoing response to the environment. When there’s a relatively consistent environment, there’s the illusion of genes doing things all on their own. But if you remove or radically change the environment to test it, the body misses cues it had been selected to expect, or it responds inappropriately.
     
    @garnetstar #4:

    However, no one has yet demonstrated that, and no one will ever be able to prove which behviors may be due to biological differences, and which are socially constructed.

    You don’t need to test against the existence of socialization itself. It would be enough to compare different socializations to see what behaviors emerge.
     
    If only there were a way to regionally separate close relatives and raise them differently… give em different social identities… speak different languages to them. And if one winds up thinking “carrying water is women’s work”, there’s a data point.

  9. 9
    crowepps

    One clue might be that behaviors due to biological differences happen all by themselves. would occur consistently across many populations (most women have higher pitched voices than most men), and would be present without being either taught or enforced, which isn’t the case at all with socially constructed differences. There is an enormous apparatus of religion/tribe/family that focuses almost obsessively on constructing and enforcing artificial social norms (like men wear pants/women wear skirts) which are widely divergent in various populations.

  10. 10
    CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain

    @crowepps #6:
    Off-topic, but since you linked language deprivation…
     
    Audio: Radiolab – Words that Change the World (28:56)

    “an isolated young man she met one day at a community college. He was 27-years-old at the time, and though he had been born deaf, no one had ever taught him to sign.”

  11. 11
    CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain

    @crowepps #9:

    One clue might be that behaviors due to biological differences happen all by themselves. would occur consistently across many populations, and would be present without being either taught or enforced

    Article: Wikipedia – FAP

  12. 12
    CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain

    My reducing it to a choice between environmental determinism and fixed action patterns wasn’t entirely fair. Comparing cultures aspires to compare individuals under a range of stimuli deemed normal: what would a person with this characteristic – raised in whatever ways were common between those places (parental attention, etc) – do in the circumstances that make the places different.
     
    I dimly remember hearing that across various tribes, men on average had a higher rate of [violent crime?] than the average woman in those same societies. But women in one society could have higher rates than even the men in another. The lesson being that with sex-based innate tendencies like aggression, culture plays a major role in modulating it (for better or worse).
     
    I can’t remember the source or details on that, so grain of salt.

  13. 13
    crowepps

    I would guess the venue/reasons where it was considered *appropriate* for men/women to express aggression would change as well. For example, in our society, women are validated for being aggressive in defense of their children, but not in defending themselves.

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