31 December 2014

Why I insist that I am a feminist

To explain my commitment to being a proponent of feminism in the face of a number of objections, I need to offer a distinction I make between feminism and what I refer to as “feminist culture”.

Feminism can be tricky to define, but it refers to a bundle of political and intellectual approaches to understanding and objecting to injustices faced by women. Feminism is an outlook, a toolkit, a history.

Feminist culture is the range of things that feminists do.

When people complain about “feminism”, very often they are objecting to a particular thing that some feminists have done. They are criticizing feminist culture, not feminism itself.

I can respectfully disagree with a range of different responses to feminist culture, including criticisms harsher than I would make. So when one objects to, say, the unmeasured rhetoric of “Tumblr feminism”, one may be criticizing a part feminist culture without rejecting feminism. And I have objections of my own to feminist culture.

That is not to say that everyone who “rejects feminism” is really just making fair critiques of feminist culture. There are a great many people who really do reject feminism. They may say that women face no inequities, which is factually untrue. They may say that the inequities women experience are just, which is morally wrong.

With that distinction made, I can be clear about why I insist that I am a feminist. I am not a “feminist sort-of”. I am not a “feminist but”. I am a feminist, period. I may have my criticisms of feminist culture, but I support feminism itself 100%.

I say that despite my position as a cis man, which I recognize disqualifies me as a feminist in some eyes. I say that despite social justice objections to parts of the feminist tradition that have failed lesbians, women of color, trans women, sex workers, and others. And I say that despite disagreement with some ideas from the feminist tradition. (Feminism has offered so many ideas that of course a few of them are dumb.) And naturally I have my own criticisms of feminist culture.

But to let those deterrents prevent me from calling myself a feminist would not just be mistaken, it would be dishonest. I have a deep commitment to the feminist outlook: women face terrible injustices, and they can and must be corrected. I employ the feminist toolkit: I grew up reading feminist theory and I apply its intellectual toolkit to everything, as I think any responsible citizen should. I am heir to the history of feminism: the person I am and the way I see the world owe an incalculable debt to the work of over a century of feminist thinkers and activists. Feminism is integral to how I see the world, to how I try to operate in the world. I cannot not call myself a feminist.

This post has been reproduced at The Isocracy Network

In another forum, a commenter challenged this post, saying:

The question that needs to be answered is: what is the need for men to identify using the word “feminist”, when many women feminists object to the usage and other less contentious usages are available?

The only successful feminist movement will be one led by women.

There are two questions there. Why is it desirable for men to call themselves feminists? And why should those reasons outweigh the objections of some women?

I've answered the first question. So the question on the table is whether the objections of some women should negate other arguments.

A comparison to the taboo against Whites using The N Word is instructive. I respect the spirit of the prohibition, but I also have reasons why I ardently believe that it's actively bad for society that I should have to use asterisks to say, “It is offensive for White people to say ‘n****r’.” I could present a whole argument about why. But there is a strong (if not quite universal) consensus among Black commentators that the rule has to be that absolute, and I think it is so important to signal my respect for them that it does negate my arguments. So I do this rhetorical thing which I think is silly and counterproductive because in the White position, signaling respect to Black people is more important.

But with the word “feminist”, there is no such strong consensus. There is lively disagreement among feminist women (and women in general). One cannot simply follow the lead of women in this as one can follow the lead of Black people in the use of The N Word.

So how am I to decide?

Defaulting to not using the word is not just making the cautious choice. It is taking sides in a dispute within feminist culture. This makes the comment that “the only successful feminist movement will be one led by women” false in its implication that if I don't follow the lead of women who this commenter agrees with, I am arrogating leadership of the feminist movement to myself. I call shenanigans. That is a non-sequitur at best and disingenuous at worst. But it presents a clue that answers an important question.

Who these women are who object to men calling themselves feminists? I know them well, and recognize their rhetoric in my critic's comment. They come from what I would call the “identity politics school” of feminism. In alluding to the need for the feminist movement to be “led by women”, I find a hint pointing to what I would call the totalizing identity politics school: the strain which thinks that the identity politics toolkit is the only valid approach to feminism, dismissing all others.

The identity politics school looks to understand sexism (and other social injustices) in terms of the power relationships between the socially-imposed identity categories of men and women (and other categories like race and sexual orientation and so forth). A proper discussion of this school and the toolkit it offers will have to wait for another blog post. (I'm working on it!) In brief, I think that every citizen needs to know and use the analytical tools of identity politics, but I vigorously disagree with the totalizing form of the school which rejects all other kinds of analysis.

I can point to a key example which should inform the question at hand.

Identity politics tells us that the identity group membership of a speaker informs how we should read their comments, and a corollary to that is that we should regard privileged speakers comments about injustices with a certain wariness. We are all familiar with men who will loudly proclaim, “Let me tell you who's really sexist. Look at these sexist women!” This pattern presents some obvious problems, so we do well to resist it.

The totalizing identity politics school says that identity positioning doesn't just inform the meaning of a commenter's statements, it actually is the only thing meaningful about them. I have had a totalizing identity politics feminist tell me that I should not have called Cathy Guisewite's newspaper comic Cathy sexist, because I am a man and Guisewite is a woman, which means that I am placing myself over all women as the arbiter of what is sexist. This casts the content of her strip as irrelevant to whether I am justified in my comment on it.

I think this is stupid and counterproductive.

If I avoid calling myself a feminist and instead use some clumsy language saying that I am “pro-feminist” or “working to be an ally to feminists” or whatever, I implicitly declare my allegiance to that school in the discussion taking place within feminist culture. So no, I won't be doing that.

Update: Mark Ruffalo agrees with me.


Lev said...

Can I repost this on the Isocracy Network site?

Also, I think some of the motivation behind some feminists wanting to exclude men from being able to define themselves as such is because they want to ensure the autonomy of women's (and feminist) organisations.

Jonathan Korman said...

I'd love to have this appear there, Lev. I'd appreciate a link back, if you can do that.

I certainly agree that we need some feminist organizations and fora that exclude men, but I think that the idea that some feminists have that men cannot be feminists has more to do with the way the identity politics style of feminist analysis works. I need to write about that someday.

J'Carlin said...

There is a perfectly good term that is not inherently sexist to describe what you are trying to be. Lc "h" humanist. Or why I am not feminist despite spending most of my life empowering all people, and fighting sectarianism of all kinds.

Jonathan Korman said...

Certainly I am also a humanist. But my debt to the feminist tradition and perspective is great enough that I need to mark it by calling myself a feminist.

Lev said...

And done... You even have an account as well.