January 8, 2013

How to Discuss Feminism in the Atheist Community

FeminismThis one requires just a bit of context, so let me to set the stage for you. Ed Brayton (Dispatches from the Culture Wars) wrote a post last month in which he scolded Al Stefanelli for a video criticizing the behavior of 4-5 bloggers on the Freethought Blogs (FtB) network. I am not planning to address the content of Brayton's post here, as I want to focus instead on a comment on his post left by Greta Christina (Greta Christina's Blog). She posed what I consider to be a brilliant question that has helped to show me that I've been missing something important about the role of feminism in the atheist community, how we discuss it, and the ongoing controversy surrounding Freethought Blogs/Skepchick/Atheism+. I feel like my eyes have been opened, and I am kicking myself a bit for not fully realizing this on my own.  

Greta Christina's Question

Greta's comment was in response to a reader who complained, "The treatment that anyone who isn't a feminist encounters down here is beyond reprehensible." Part of Greta's response included the following question:
How would you respond if someone said, “The treatment that anyone who’s a racist encounters down here is beyond reprehensible”? Or, “The treatment that anyone who’s a homophobe encounters down here is beyond reprehensible”? Have you considered the possibility that you’re treated the way you are because not being a feminist is reprehensible?
I know that some of you may be tempted to dismiss this out of hand. Please do not be so hasty. I think she's on to something important here.

Asking Myself Greta Christina's Question

I started by asking myself the question she posed to this commenter. How would I respond if someone were to complain about how racists or homophobes are treated on my blog or someone else's blog that I visit regularly? I would initially be puzzled over how anyone could make such a complaint, and I'd likely end up dismissing the complaint as absurd.

Have I considered the possibility that not being a feminist is equally reprehensible? No, I suppose I haven't fully considered that possibility. I am considering it now. To do so, I'd like to make the situation Greta Christina describes a bit more explicit by constructing some hypothetical scenarios that will reveal what I think is an important lesson here.
Scenario #1. A stranger about whom I know nothing whatsoever approaches me and describes himself or herself as a "racist."
What would I think of this person? Not too much. In fact, my attitude toward this person would be quite negative. Even though I know nothing about this person except for what he or she has just told me, this would almost certainly be sufficient to affect my appraisal in a negative manner.
Scenario #2. A stranger about whom I know nothing whatsoever approaches me and describes himself or herself as "anti-feminist."
What would I think of this person? I'm not sure, and the lesson comes down to why I am not sure. I am not sure because I have learned that people use "feminist" and "feminism" to mean vastly different things. I need to know what this stranger means by these terms before I can determine how this statement will affect my appraisal. Are they saying that they oppose equality for women, or are they saying something else?

Equity Feminism vs. Gender Feminism

"Feminism" is a misleading because the label masks the great diversity involved within feminism. That is, there are many forms of feminism, and some bear little resemblance to others. Equity feminism and gender feminism provide excellent examples of this diversity. In a nutshell, equity feminism refers to a focus on the goal of social and legal equality. That is, equity feminists believe that women and men should have the same rights, be paid the same for the same work, have access to the same opportunities, etc. They are advocates of equality, and I wholeheartedly embrace this form of feminism. Women deserve equality, and none of us should settle for anything less.

Gender feminism is very different. It looks far less egalitarian, involves sharp criticism of gender roles, and seems to emphasize victimhood. There are aspects of gender feminism with which I agree (e.g., the manner in which patriarchy can be harmful to both women and men, the critique of traditional gender roles), but I do not support the entirety of gender feminism.

Now let's return to Scenario #2 and make a few changes:
Scenario #3. A stranger about whom I have sufficient context to know that he or she equates feminism with equity feminism approaches me and describes himself or herself as "anti-feminist."
Now I can tell you exactly what I would think of such a person. My attitude would be quite negative, much like what we saw in Scenario #1. I now see this individual as communicating that he or she opposes equality, and like Greta Christina suggests, I would not see this as being very different from racism or homophobia. Her point about the rejection of feminism being reprehensible would be valid as long as we are talking only about equity feminism.

One final scenario is necessary before we move on:
Scenario #4. A stranger about whom I have sufficient context to know that he or she equates feminism with gender feminism approaches me and describes himself or herself as "anti-feminist."
My attitude toward this person is going to be very different from what we saw in Scenario #3. Specifically, it will be far less negative. This individual is not talking about rejecting equality. Do you see the difference and why it matters?

Lessons Learned

First and foremost, we cannot expect to have meaningful discussions about feminism when we are using the term to mean vastly different things and then reacting based on mistaken assumptions about what the other party means. If your version of feminism is limited to equity feminism and I make the mistake of assuming that it extends beyond that into gender feminism, it is going to be difficult for us to communicate. I'll be reacting to something you are not advocating, and misunderstanding will result. Similarly, if your version of feminism really is gender feminism but you refuse to specify that and insist on describing it only as "feminism," you cannot be surprised when people react negatively. You also cannot then accuse them of reacting negatively to the idea that women are equal, as this may not be what they are reacting to. Perhaps it feels like we've been talking past each other because we have.

Second, context matters a great deal. If the other party will not define his or her terms, we have no choice but to infer his or her meaning based on our familiarity with his or her previous work and behavior. When someone writes and acts like a gender feminist, we typically assume that they are referring to gender feminism when they say "feminism." Remember the key question with which we started? Is not being a feminist reprehensible? The answer may well depend on what we mean by "feminist."

Third, some people in the online community seem to be falling into a trap (which may be entirely unintentional) when trying to talk about feminism. A gender feminist makes a controversial statement with which other gender feminists would agree but which many equity feminists would reject. An equity feminist responds negatively. The gender feminist then accuses the equity feminist of being a "gender traitor" or "MRA" and feels victimized, claiming that he or she is being attacked for being a feminist. The problem is that they are talking about different forms of feminism without making that clear. 

Questions For Prominent Atheist-Feminist Bloggers

When you encounter atheist bloggers and their supporters who identify themselves as feminists and write extensively about feminism, clarify whether they are equity feminists or gender feminists. When they talk about feminism, are they referring to anything more than equality? My hunch is that many of them are. In any case, my questions to the prominent atheist-feminist bloggers (e.g., Ophelia Benson, Greta Christina, Rebecca Watson, etc.) would be something like this:
What do you make of those of us who agree with and seek to advocate for equity feminism while rejecting portions of gender feminism? Are we allies, or are we part of the problem? Many of us have been called sexists, misogynists, gender traitors, MRAs, rape apologists, chill girls, and the like for advocating equity feminism while rejecting portions of gender feminism. We have been called these names by people claiming to support you. Do you agree that these labels apply to us on this basis, or are your supporters mistaken?
Maybe these are not easy questions to answer. Maybe they are not even fair questions to ask. But these are the sort of questions that have occurred to me and the others who haven't given up on the possibility of having meaningful dialogue just yet.

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