Two things I came across recently, seemingly of little relation: Atheism + and The Straw Feminism Comic.
Atheism+ seems to be about saying atheists should support feminism and anti-racism and progressivism, and they should exclude anyone who doesn't from all the cool atheist clubs, assuming the doubtful proposition that such things exist. Richard Carrier pretty much comes right out and promises, with impressive honesty, to be really mean to anyone who isn't on board. But, he argues, feminism and anti-racism and progressivism are important enough, obviously true enough, that this is justified. This is a strong argument that merits a careful response, which will come at the end of this extremely long and convoluted blog post.
Moving on, Straw Feminists is a comic accusing many of the popular stereotypes about feminists of being "straw men" that exist mostly to discredit feminism.
What exactly what is meant by "straw men" in this context? Does it mean a belief which literally no one holds? Probably not. There are few beliefs so horrible that someone somewhere has not held them, and horrible beliefs vaguely related to feminism are no exception. There really are a tiny minority of people who say All Men Are Rapists. There really are a tiny minority people who believe Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was pro-violence and phallocentric. There really are a tiny minority of people, I hope to God a minority of one, who will listen carefully and politely as you explain that some men can also sometimes be victims of domestic violence, then kill your dog in retaliation for departing from the party line.
But these people are, indeed, a tiny minority. So by a charitable interpretation, Straw Feminism is the unfair and politically motivated tendency to hold up fringe beliefs as representative of the feminist movement. Such beliefs are either very rare, or at least held by a handful of people but definitely repudiated by the average feminist. Therefore, when people bring these up as an argument against mainstream feminism, they're doing it as a sneaky trick in order to discredit it, even though the beliefs mainstream feminists actually hold may be valid.
Frequent readers of this blog will recognize this as The Worst Argument In The World, ie that we must treat all instances of an artificial category the same way based on some archetypal case even when in fact they are obviously different. If you haven't read that article yet, you probably should, since the rest of this post will make very little sense without it. But basically, the opponents of feminism are trying to make the archetypal case of feminism something horrible like "all men are rapists". If they succeed, they can WAitW feminism by tarring any reasonable feminist proposal with "But that's feminism, and we already know feminism is horrible!"
In order to prevent this tactic, it would be useful to have a definition of real feminism, as opposed to the straw feminism only practiced by a couple of fringe loonies. Luckily, if you have ever been within thirty meters of a feminist, you have already heard this definition in the form of a catchy quote: "I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat." - Rebecca West. So the West Definition of feminism is the belief that women are not doormats.
But, uh, this also seems susceptible to Worst Argument In The World-ing. Here, let me draw a handy table.
Obviously Reasonable Feminist Beliefs
- Women are not doormats.
- Women should not be forced to stand around in the kitchen barefoot and pregnant.
- Women deserve equal civil rights including the right to vote.
- Rape is bad, the victims must be helped, and the perpetrators must be punished.
- Domestic violence is bad, the victims must be helped, and the perpetrators must be punished.
- Women should have equal opportunities and earn equal pay for equal work.
Feminist Beliefs Currently Controversial In Our Society
- Abortion rights are important and need stronger protection.
- Current pay gaps are mostly the result of discrimination and should be met with government action.
- Women need better access to contraception, possibly with government support.
- There are no significant biological differences between male and female brains.
- Gender roles are not biologically determined.
- Incidents that look like male oppression of women should be punished more severely, and we should be less willing to accept male excuses that it was innocently-intentioned or misinterpreted.
Obviously Unreasonable Feminist Beliefs
- Men are all without exception horrible people.
- Women are biologically superior to men.
- Men can absolutely never be the victims in cases of intersex conflict.
- Everything men do is about rape or phalluses or the patriarchy.
- It is acceptable to use violence to pursue feminist ideals
Some people might classify one statement or another under a different heading, but my point is less that everyone must agree with my definition of "obviously" than that some feminist beliefs are much more socially palatable than others.
Which of these three groups most genuinely represents real feminism? Although the correct answer is that the question is meaningless, the practical answer is that the Feminist Beliefs Currently Controversial In Our Society group is what most discussions of feminism are actually about. There aren't many people arguing for the Obviously Unreasonable Beliefs, there aren't enough people arguing against the Obviously Reasonable Beliefs, at least not out loud where people can hear them, so most arguments between the people who identify as feminist and the people who don't are about the Controversial Beliefs - and those are also where feminists are putting the most effort into changing our society.
Now we see how the Worst Argument In The World operates from both ends. The anti-feminists are trying to paint feminism as being typically about the Obviously Unreasonable Beliefs, so that when the feminists voice a Controversial Belief, the anti-feminists can get you to reject it by appealing to your natural instinct to believe feminism stands or falls as a whole. Since everything else in feminism is Obviously Unreasonable, the new belief suffers guilt by association and you reject it so you don't look like one of those awful feminists who always only believe horrible things.
But the feminists are trying to paint feminism as being typically about the Obviously Reasonable Beliefs, so that when they try to push a controversial belief, they can get you to accept it by appealing to your natural instinct to believe feminism stands or falls as a whole. Since everything else in feminism is Obviously Reasonable, the new belief benefits from the halo effect and you accept it so you don't look like you might be one of those awful anti-feminists who always believe horrible sexist things.
In other words, opponents of feminism use straw men to make feminism look wrong beyond any possibility of controversy. Proponents of feminism use straw men to make feminists look right beyond any possibility of controversy. But they're both straw-manning the other side and in reality feminism is controversial - hence the obvious controversy around it.
Let me push my luck further with the following table:
Obviously Reasonable Men's Rights Advocate Beliefs
- Men should not be discriminated against in typically female professions like nursing
- Men should not be automatically assumed to be pedophiles and so barred explicitly or implicitly from professions that work with children
- Men should get a fair hearing in child custody cases and not be automatically barred access to their own children if not at fault.
- Male victims of rape should not have their experiences trivialized or poked fun at
- Male "househusbands" should be treated with as much dignity and respect as female "housewives".
- Men should not have to conform to male gender roles about manliness and ambition and so on, and those who don't shouldn't be called wimps or sissies.
Men's Rights Advocate Beliefs Currently Controversial In Our Society
- Male suspects in sexual assault cases need more protection to make sure they are genuinely treated as innocent until proven guilty
- Men's shorter lifespan and greater rate of most diseases is the result of discrimination and should be met with government action.
- Men who are unsuccessful in dating and end up desperate and alone should be treated as genuinely deserving of pity rather than derision
- Men need more protection against demands for child support: in particular "it's not my child and here is a paternity test to prove it" should be an ironclad defense.
- Men should be able to get very favorable divorce terms if their wives are cheating on them, abusing them, et cetera.
- Men are given such conflicting messages about dating and interaction with women that people should be more forgiving of them when they screw up and unintentionally do something that looks creepy
Obviously Unreasonable Men's Rights Advocate Beliefs
- Men have the right to have hot girls have sex with them a lot
- Wait, you need more unreasonable beliefs? Isn't that one enough?
- Okay, uh...men have the right to be arbitrarily creepy without women complaining.
- Men are biologically superior to women.
- Women should conform to traditional gender roles and mostly stay in the house and have sex a lot
- All allegations of rape or domestic violence are false and probably just attention-seeking
At the risk of editorializing, I would point out one difference between these two cases, which is that the battle to define feminism is exactly that - a battle - whereas the battle to define MRA is a rout, or less politely a massacre. I occasionally lurk on dating site forums for the same urge-to-watch-other-people's-train-wreck
And so we return after a winding detour to Carrier's Atheism + (wow that name is annoying. Didn't you people learn your lesson after "Brights"?) The question was: given that feminism, anti-racism, and progressivism are such obviously good things, isn't it totally fair to say you'll be super mean to anyone who doesn't commit to being on board with them?
And by now my answer should be apparent: yes, if you are a rationalist saint. But if you live in the real world, as atheists are fond of mentioning they do, chances are about 100% that the feminism and anti-racism and progressivism that are obviously true aren't going to be the feminism and anti-racism and progressivism that you're being mean to people for rejecting. You're going to establish that the Obviously Reasonable points are obviously reasonable, and then be mean to people for rejecting the Currently Controversial Points. Even if that's not your plan and you earnestly swear you're not going to do it, once you have established strong cultural norms saying it's okay to be mean to non-X-ists, other people will take those norms and run with them.
I worry that the supporters of the Atheism + movement either do not understand this tendency - or else understand it perfectly and are secretly quite pleased about it. One wonders what would happen if someone suggested that Atheism + demand that all atheists swear allegiance to MRA - only the Obviously Reasonable Points, of course, but they do have to swear the allegiance. One worries it would be something other than "Well, since those points are Obviously Reasonable, it would be unfair not to add that to our list of requirements."
I think atheists should stick their core strength: their tendency to reject demands for pledges of allegiance to the local -ism. Even when the local -ism is right about a lot of things, as indeed honest atheists must admit that Christianity and many other religions are, virtuous atheists have the strength to honor those strong points on their own merits while keeping their identity small by refusing to accept the baggage that comes with them. One might facetiously compare this ability to the mathematical derivative function, where one takes a variable that can stand for anything ("feminism", "progressivism", "Christianity") and reduces it to a fixed constant with a fixed meaning at a fixed point in time. So I say less Atheism +, more Atheism (d/dx).