Word Extensions: Feminism, Science & Technical Terms
I want to take a new look at the Feminism vs whatever debate which has been going on. I think I’ve found the cause, and it seems to be mainly semantic.
‘That’s not atheism’, you may have heard people say when someone’s going on about the terrible things some atheist did – ‘Someone may have done that but atheism itself isn’t a movement, it’s just the belief that there are no gods’. More rarely people make bogus claims about scientists, saying science is responsible for bombs and maybe even holocausts. They may say that scientists are almost entirely white males, so science is a racist and misogynistic little club. The tired old reply comes that it doesn’t matter what scientists do and believe because Science itself is a methodology, not a club. It’s a belief system which is concerned with how to get facts and the belief that there are objective facts to be had.
All that’s fairly standard, and you might be considered an idiot for confusing a belief with the movement behind it if you were to voice these claims about atheism, science and such. Let me spell the divide out a little better. There are two types of words – use-words and technical terms. Use-words are your standard words – ‘dog’, ‘flummoxed’, ‘cloud’, &c. They often start life cobbled together from other words or as mispronunciations of foreign terms. They don’t have a definition, but rather we describe how they are commonly used. So if we want to know what the word ‘dog’ means, we would look at how the word is used. It refers to a) the only known mammal allowed to lick people on the face, b) a fraternal or familiar term for a male friend or c) a derogatory term for a woman. If a) and b) were to fall out of use, then c) would be the only ‘real’ use of the word, and it would by that point have changed its meaning. It would no longer refer to a mammal, even in a metaphorical sense.
On the other hand, there are technical terms. These are consciously created by someone who needs a word for something. They are replacements for a phrase. When you get bored of writing out the phrase ‘The idea that we cannot make genuine choices because everything we do is predetermined by previously caused events and nothing happens without causation’, you can just write out ‘Determinism’. It saves ink and makes reading the piece more interesting. Of course, within a technical term there’s still scope for ambiguity. When someone says ‘I am a Feminist’ we might take this as short for ‘I think women should have the same rights as men’, but two people who called themselves Feminists might disagree about whether or not Vince has the right to have babies, given that he cannot, in fact, have babies. Similarly, where two people agree that science is the best method for learning facts, perhaps only one of them thinks that scientific facts include all facts and that this belief is part of a belief in the Scientific method. Exactly what a word refers to is sometimes called its ‘extension’, meaning ‘the things the word extends out to’, as if reference to things were a series of long, grabby-arms.
Technical terms may have a movement behind them, but they remain pure technical terms. Names of political movements are use-terms and are to be judged on the merits of their members. When we judge the KKK badly, it’s due to the actions of its members. If the KKK were composed of only egalitarian humanists we should judge it to be better than we currently do. It’s not bad by definition because it has no set definition.
Typically, people want to treat terms for ideas which they approve of as very pure technical terms and ideas they dislike as a movement to be judged by the actions of its members. People who think that Christianity is true will tell you that it doesn’t matter how many holy wars various Popes might have called for, what is important is whether or not the claims of divinity are true – whether or not the New Testament’s various stories of resurrection are to be believed. People who dislike Christianity will waggle a finger at every child killed by parents who believe in ‘faith healing’ rather than real healing.
This brings my meandering thoughts finally to the actual point – Feminism. This is where I want to clear up some deep-rooted confusion. Proponents of Feminism take Feminism to be a technical definition – if you’re not a Feminist, you’re not for women’s rights. That’s not to say that people who say they aren’t Feminists are doing horrible things to women, rather people who act in accordance with gender-equality principles are Feminists. At the same time, when someone says to them ‘I’m not a Feminist’, what they hear is, ‘Women shouldn’t get the same treatment as men’. On the other hand, we have people who dislike Feminism and take it as a use-term, referring to a group. But wait a moment, that’s all out of order. It’s not that they didn’t believe in women’s rights and afterwards started to take Feminism as a use-term, rather they were turned off by what they saw self-proclaimed Feminists doing and decided that ‘If that’s Feminism, I want no part in it’. Potentially, it would be better for them to say ‘I’m not a fan of extreme-Feminism’, or ‘I don’t agree with particular nutters who call themselves Feminists’.
If you’re at all familiar with Atheist-Internet culture (Atheism’s a technical term, but there’s also an Atheist movement) you will no doubt have come across Thunderfoot, The Amazing Atheist, Skepchick and PZ Myers. After the internet shit-storm of Elevatorgate an extended conversation on Feminism has been raging across these and a few other sites. I don’t think that I’m the only one who’s been disappointed by the material from both sides, and I think that the root of the problems stems largely from this extension difficulty. Thunderfoot, across one too many videos, states that some feminist has said something which is incorrect/ laughable/ outrageous and then proceeds to say that ‘Feminism poisons everything’. This is particularly painful for someone who really liked his really fun videos on astronomy, chemistry and physics. It seems everything would be easier and less objectionable if Thunderfoot and others could simply call people out on particular points instead of trying to vilify the movement which historically brought half the human race democracy and education and is currently fighting to end the modern-day slavery which is enforced marriage, genital mutilation and human trafficking. But then again, if he’s taking ‘Feminism’ as a uses-term, it seems quite right to identify the problems of the members with the group.
Why We Should Continue to be Feminists
We may wonder why an anti gender-discrimination movement is called ‘Feminism’. You don’t hear non-racists identifying as ‘pro-black’, they just identify as ‘not-stupid’. A gender equality movement should also be equally willing to speak to problems men have due to gender discrimination. For every girl who’s dressed in pink there’s a boy who’s told ‘Don’t cry, be a man’. The answer is almost certainly that the people who were originally fighting against gender problems were fighting for half the human race to get the ability to vote and become educated, and the gender-issues of the average Victorian Gentleman paled in comparison. They didn’t think that in a hundred years time there would be a few men who were annoyed that they could be enlisted to the army while women couldn’t. They never imagined that women once women were allowed to divorce without stigma they would be heavily favoured by the courts when gaining custody of the children. They couldn’t have known that there would be men who would desire to wear dresses and make-up and be discriminated against for this simply because they were men. ‘Feminism’ was a pretty good word for what it was used for at the time.
‘Feminism’ now sounds like an odd name, but if it was originally a pro-equality movement, then surely that’s what it still is. We don’t decide that ‘Science isn’t good’ because some some scientists are bad people – we continue using the term as it was defined originally. If someone, e.g. Thunderfoot, is all for equality, then we can say something like ‘Thudnerfoot is a Feminist’ rather than saying the more cumbersome ‘Thunderfoot believes that women should have equal access to education, voting and everything else, and should not be discriminated against on the grounds of their gender’. It might seem that the current anti-Feminist wave is grappling with a minority of wrong-headed people with all the wrong words.
Why We Should Abandon Feminism
On the other hand, some might reasonably ask if there could ever come a time when a technical term must be abandoned. Maybe after a word’s been borrowed, used, abused and is now generally understood to mean something other than what it once meant, it’s time to let it go. It’s been pointed out time and time again that the kind of balls-out bat-shit crazy Feminists who say that women shouldn’t involve themselves in scientific or logical subjects because that’s a part of the Patriarchy are a rare breed. Yet if we drop the crazy-o-metre down a jot we can find rather a lot of women who actively promote violence against men and even more who insult other women who want to stay at home or wear make-up. Surely, if enough Egalitarians are refusing to use the term ‘Feminist’ and enough people going by ‘Feminist’ are of the nutty variety, we will have to concede the term. Technical terms can weather the storm of change better than use-terms, but they’re not invulnerable. Scientists use the term ‘science’ as a technical term, and ‘Atheist’ generally carries few connotations, at least to atheists; and in fact for this very reason people have been trying to identify as ‘brights’, ‘atheists-plus’ and ‘heathens’ in order to gain an identity they feel attached to rather than simple short-cut description. But to many a feminist, being a feminist means more than a belief in equality; it means an acceptance that with equality, special Feminist thinking must come too. Let’s have a look at some of these special requirements.
Feminists are expected to believe in a nebulous entity called ‘the Patriarchy’. They have commonly used the word ‘gender-traitor’, and accused men as a group of historical or current crimes – literally visiting the sins of the father onto the son.
While I like a lot of work done by Anita Sarkeesian, I can’t help but sigh when I hear that tired old ‘Subjects act and objects are acted upon’ nonsense. These ideas are based on Latin grammar. I’ll let that sink in for a second for anyone who doesn’t know hir ‘amos, amases and amats’. When young people try to learn Latin grammar, they’re taught that the things which are acting out the verbs are the subjects and the things the verbs are acting upon are the objects of the sentence. A couple of lessons in and you of course learn that this is actually a gross simplification. If I say ‘I am going to prison’ then I’m the subject, not the object, but it does not mean that I am acting rather than being acted upon. These grammatical rules have no bearing on Metaphysics, Ethics or anything outside of learning Romance languages. Given this, it’s bizarre that feminists are expected to try to shoe-horn these ideas into an examination of gender. If you run the logic through, the results are both mad and maddening.
Ever seen one of her videos? Well then you’ve objectified her. You, saw her – she’s the thing ‘acted upon’. But don’t worry, she and Princess Peach both have speaking lines, so they are ‘subjects’, at last while speaking. Further, we must remember not to ever give things to people, because this automatically puts them in the dative case, and forcing someone to be a date is sexist.
So why all this talk of people not being allowed to make choices by the vague and circumlocutious ‘objectifying’ talk? Why not just state the problem in unambiguous language?
The worst part about all this ‘objectification’ talk is that it smacks of an ignorance of the last two and a half millenia’s work on Ethics. If you want to say that unwarranted discrimination is bad we already have five or so very healthy Ethics theories on the go. If you’re a Kantian, say that women are being treated as merely a means to an end. If you’re a virtue Ethicist, say that women aren’t allowed to act and virtues require actions. If you’re saying that unfair discrimination is wrong then you’re in the business of ethics, but if you’re in that business and haven’t read half a book on the subject then you’re going to come across as ignorant to anyone who has read about it. We don’t need an ‘objectification theory’ added on top because we don’t need a special ethical theory for bad things which happen to women. They fall under the same Ethical theories which everyone else does.
These terms are all so vague that they’re nothing but a matter of opinion. Let’s say we have a half-way case, where someone thinks that a particular photograph of a woman is objectifying but another disagrees. How do we tell if it really is? The terminology is so vague that people have nothing to go on but their gut. Gender-discrimination is a problem which we need to sort, and then forget about in the same way we’ve forgotten about rickets and Feudalism. We’re never going to defeat it if we cannot say what does and does not count as gender discrimination unambiguously.
Overall the modern incarnation of this movement has lost a lot of would-be friends by attempting to be the Not-Nazi party. Imagine someone were to set up a political party called the Not-Nazis, and then proceed to tell people all manner of things about how they must vote and what they believe. Now imagine that if anyone disagrees the automatic retort is ‘Oh, so you’re not for the Not-Nazi party? You must be a Nazi then!’. Similarly, almost everyone who calls hirself a Feminist will demand all sorts of beliefs be accepted, equate these ideas with Feminism, then tell people that if they’re not in favour of Feminism then they are sexist, or more commonly that they are a rape-apologist.
Finally, there’s the censorship issue. The disability movement attempted to censor ‘spastic’ (except where it’s a technical term), ‘retard’ (even where it is a technical term), ‘mongo’ and the like. The anti-racist movement requested a small handful of racial slurs to be removed. Feminists did exceedingly well in this area, and had a harder time because words like ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ are less simple than ‘nigger’. They’re not simply a bad word for the group – they’re a word which judges particular actions of the group. That was a tough fight, and the concept of ‘slut-shaming’ is useful and has gained a lot of ground. However, while it might have stopped there, many have moved on to banning any anti-female slurs (e.g. ‘bitch’) without a peep on similar male-only terms (e.g. ‘bastard’, ‘arsehole’, &c.). Then we reach the ridiculous heights of people trying to ban the word ‘bossy’. The idea that someone decides to embark on a dubious censorship campaign with no qualifications in either linguistics or ethics is as absurd as it is repugnant. The movement has too often acted like the censorship department of the old Soviet Union, but instead of having the power to edit newspapers and ban books their powers are limited to publicly whining in front of an audience of their own members and few others. The simple notion that complaining about a word’s use might not be enough to strike its use from every conversation never seems to enter the feminist thinking.
In the more enlightened parts of the world, i.e. Europe (call me an imperialist if you will, but not unless you’ve ever read about or visited a non-European country) we don’t need to have the ‘mutilation and rape are bad’ conversation. If there’s a conversation to be had about Feminism, it’s whether the Nature/ Nurture debate is a useful tool. We can discuss whether sexual diamorphism is relevant to discrimination laws. We can ask whether we should be more concerned with foreign or local problems. We can also ask whether it’s right to discriminate against fathers trying to get custody of their children after a divorce because they’re over ten times as likely to be sexually and physically violent. These aren’t Feminist vs non-Feminist issues, and we shouldn’t let self-proclaimed experts tell us that all good Feminists must take their side before seeing any data or reasons.
Outside of Europe (and all the ex-colonies of course), things are largely different. If I were in a room surrounded Muslims who were discussing which girl they were going to force to marry them (racist stereotype or cultural norm? Only facts can decide) then I would be totally comfortable identifying as a Feminist. Suddenly anyone can state in a non-weirdo way ‘I think women are better off once educated’, ‘I don’t think it’s right to force a woman to be married; and no, the consent of her father doesn’t change things’. Suddenly the air is cleared for Feminism. So what’s really changed?
For the most part, within Europe, I cannot but help think that the modern word ‘Feminist’ is a ‘deepity‘. This is a word from Daniel Dennett which means ‘Something which, on one reading, is obviously true but trivial, and on another reading would be profound if it were true, but it is in fact false’. For instance, we might say that ‘Money is really worthless’. On one reading, this is true – but we all know that the paper we use for cash doesn’t have any uses besides exchange value; unfortunately this is trivial. On another reading, all the value we place on getting money is a mistake – there is no real value to holding money. If true, this would be earth-shattering, but it is in fact false.
Similarly, on one reading a Feminist is someone who doesn’t have gender-based prejudices. If asked ‘Are you a Feminist?’ it seems one can hardly answer with ‘No, I judge people unfairly based on their gender!’. But this is trivial. In this sense, there are no more Feminists than non-racists. We don’t identify as non-racists, we just assume that educated people aren’t that stupid. Saying ‘I think women should be allowed to vote’ is trivial. Yet on the other reading, Feminism is to allow at least some of the statements which come from Feminists and don’t come from people who do not identify as Feminists. These statements would certainly be earth-shattering if true. Non-Feminists talk about gender equality plenty. They talk about glass ceilings, victim-blaming and abortion rights. The beliefs reserved for Feminists are beliefs in ‘the patriarchy’, ‘rape-culture’, and subject/ object dichotomies. Feminists are the only ones who say that sleeping with a woman while she is drunk is rape. The only Europeans to publish wide-selling books claiming that women should not be scientists nor learn Logic are Feminists. They are the ones telling people ‘check your privilege’, to diminish their input to the conversation based on their gender and skin-colour. The movement has become racist and sexist. If we really had an obligation to adopt this sort of flagrant bigotry then this would be earth-shattering, but of course we do not. Feminism, on this reading, is false.