Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Have Your Straw Feminist, and Burn Her Too! (2017-08-29)
Still from Wizard of Oz, June 2013
I have been mulling over this particular thoughtpiece for quite some time, ever since I returned to the world of post-secondary education and discovered that a form of groupthink had basically eaten the campus that now serves as my academic home. Not very long afterwards, I learned that it certainly wasn't just that campus, and this particular form of groupthink had suddenly become the "social justice" flavour of the hour. Suddenly everyone has become a participant in the oppression olympics, any kind of "exclusion" for any purpose whatsoever is an evil, except for men, funny enough. Furthermore, an area of political thought and class analysis I am familiar with and subscribe to, is currently coming through a period of peak backlash. (Don't take my word for it, have a read of The New Backlash and More Radical With Age, or if you'd rather read a book, start with Susan Faludi in her original breakout book, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women.) But this is one remarkable backlash, in which you can have your straw Feminist and burn her too, while insisting you must be a real "feminist" because you don't exclude anyone, deny that words can have consistent meanings when they are inconvenient to what you think, and you are the feeling police because you are the only one who has the correct feelings. Furthermore, a grimly interesting number of impressively moneyed interests have joined in on this particular backlash, adding vicious manipulation of sex dysphoria and peoples', yes not just women's, resistance to and discomfort with patriarchy to line their pocket books while claiming virtue via what is currently being called "transactivism."
Well, credit where credit is due. From what I can see, this has to be one of the most incredible social manipulation jobs I have ever seen. Never have I seen so much that comes right out of Suzette Haden Elgin's analysis of verbal attacks in her series of books on The Gentle Verbal Art of Self-Defence. Tragically, these books are out of print, but they are nevertheless still often found in public libraries. Besides being a brilliant linguist, Feminist, science fiction author, and visual artist, her analysis of the verbal attack modes and how they work ought to be part of the currently rather ludicrous "career and life management classes" high school students are so often subjected to. Who knows, in the present environment, they could make sex education look uncontroversial, because Elgin took particular care to explain and help her readers learn to appropriately analyze "presuppositions." Presuppositions are the nasties that somebody who isn't speaking to you from a place of honesty and respect wants you to accept and ignore, taking the bait of something else that is overtly more provocative instead. Then while you're busy being provoked, they can claim that you agree to their presuppositions.
Now, in terms of Feminism, I am of a mindset similar to that of the blogger at Hypotaxis, who states, "I do not ascribe to 1) feminism means whatever anyone says it means (actually, it's rooted in some solid theory and that theory requires meaningful praxis) and 2) feminism is for everyone. Because at its root, it's not "for everyone" – it's for female human beings." Much as I respect and love bell hooks' work, this is my perspective. That does not deny allyship to people who are not female human beings. Of course not. What it does do is make it clear that Feminism is about freeing female human beings from oppression, and yes that means it does not focus on freeing male human beings. If you're going to work on opposing and overcoming oppression, you can't focus on everybody's oppression at once, because by nature your efforts will become so diluted that they will be useless. The key is which aspect of oppression you are going to prioritize opposing based on your capacities and the nature of your current primary emergencies, as the late, brilliant Andrea Dworkin noted. So there are times when my efforts are going to be focussed on opposing oppression of Indigenous people, because that is the primary emergency for me at the time. I don't have much time for that these days though, because my present primary emergency has to do with the fact that I am a female human being who is also a visible lesbian, in other words a dyke.
Obviously there are plenty of people out there willing to disagree with me vigorously on all points here, which is to be expected. Who agrees all the time about everything? I even manage to disagree with myself, simply because I gather more information, think through different issues with greater care and attention, and find that I need to revise my ideas. Which is how I eventually determined that despite the wonderful sound and shape of the word "queer" and all the neat things it looked like that word could be used for, I finally had to admit that not only did it not fit my reality at all as it has been developed, subscribing to the new queer ideology was doing me harm. It has become a powerful vector of liberal individualist politics, which practically speaking when the current state of the world is considered, I think effectively comes down to everybody being allowed to punch holes in the boat in their own special way with no obligations to anyone else. Yet there are a few ideas that have stood the test of time for me.
Feminism is a body of theory and analysis that recognizes women as a class of people defined by sex and placed in a hierarchy, at the bottom, where they are expected to behave according to a socially defined gender that systematically weakens and humiliates them. We usually call this "patriarchy" for short. Furthermore, Feminism is a body of theory and praxis applied to destroying that hierarchy, because it is a system of oppression. Feminism recognizes and reiterates the point that anyone defined as in or in any way similar to the sex class of women, is also oppressed at least to the degree that they are seen to be endangering the hierarchy patriarchy depends on to survive.
Name calling and creation of straw persons are always markers of dishonesty and a drive to silence discussion. You can always identify the straw person by how the person who has set them up will refuse to allow any information to be shared by anyone whom they deem to be equivalent to the straw person. The key marker is always silencing and refusal to gather new information. Merely being uncomfortable is not a reason to stop a discussion or refuse to listen, so hang in there. Being uncomfortable is not the same as being threatened. The former is feeling awkward or weird, sometimes even feeling a bit of pain like when you try on shoes that don't fit quite right. It can feel pretty strange when it's your thought patterns that start to feel like they may not be fitting quite right, and it should. But being threatened is no mere discomfort. That's when you literally feel that you are in danger. Alas, the line between the two is not absolute.
This is all far more complicated than putting together a straw Feminist and burning her, with all the connotations and invocations such a description must inevitably raise – and I don't suppose it will change the minds of those who would refuse to actually engage with what is written here. Yet it is still worth the writing, to do my little bit against the tide of groupthink. It's tough to sink the boat when a bunch of us are working together to patch it up.