Log in

No account? Create an account
I believe the correct term is "straw individual" - Jackdaws love my big sphinx of quartz [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]

[ userinfo | livejournal userinfo ]
[ archive | journal archive ]

I believe the correct term is "straw individual" [Aug. 31st, 2012|10:40 pm]
[Tags|, , ]

[possible trigger warning: discussion of gender]

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.
- Etc.

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.
- Etc.

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.
- Etc.

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
- Etc.

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-wrecks that drives some people to watch reality shows. One of the staples of discussion is someone posting screenshots or logs of a conversation where a man propositions them, they say no, and then the man throws a fit and says they don't know what they're missing and they deserve to die alone and unloved. Inevitably, this is followed by some woman posting "Wow, what an MRA!" or "Looks like you met someone who's active in the MRA movement, har har." Click through to these people's profiles, and you can often find "Don't bother if you're a Nazi, a skinhead, or an MRA." All I have to say about this is that ye who live by the sword should take care lest ye perish by the sword.

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).

Page 1 of 2
<<[1] [2] >>
[User Picture]From: sniffnoy
2012-09-01 04:27 am (UTC)
Minor notes:

1. What, no TVTropes link?

2. I was expecting the other Rebecca West quote: "Feminism is the radical notion that women are people."

3. That strikes me as a pretty questionable notion of what differentiation does. Though I guess it is good to differentiate atheism from other things... :P
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-09-01 04:32 am (UTC)
Darnit, I looked up Rebecca West quotes and I knew that one didn't sound quite right.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread) (Expand)
[User Picture]From: xuenay
2012-09-01 07:40 am (UTC)
If you haven't read that article yet, you probably should, since the rest of this post will make very little sense without it.

Actually, although I can't perfectly emulate a person who hasn't read that post, I believe that this one can be understood just fine without it. The content of this post could be summed up with "the things you associate with this particular -ism aren't going to be the same things that everyone associate with this -ism", which can be easily understood even without knowing what the WAitW is.

I actually suspect that you shouldn't even mention the WAitW, because the WAitW implies that the other person is employing motivated cognition and throwing any poor argument they can come up with at you in order to shut you up. In contrast, here they might just genuinely have a different mapping between verbal and conceptual space than you do.
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: ciphergoth
2012-09-01 08:10 am (UTC)
Unless you have a very generous definition of fringe, whether or not it's OK to judge every woman in public life by her appearance has to be put under "currently controversial".
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: andrewducker
2012-09-01 09:28 am (UTC)
Also "Should women be held partially responsible for not taking sufficient precautions to avoid being raped?" is clearly fringe, or I wouldn't be seeing so much about it.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread) (Expand)
[User Picture]From: drethelin
2012-09-01 08:10 am (UTC)
tldr: groups should keep their identity small to keep their tent big.
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: mountainkiss
2012-09-01 08:32 am (UTC)
You wrote that whole complicated and controversial essay just to be able to use that last line, didn't you?
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: cartesiandaemon
2012-09-01 09:13 am (UTC)
Oh, cool.

Hm. As it happens, I pretty much agree with all of the stated positions of Atheism+, but I agree, that if I didn't it would be problematic to have an umbrella that I sort of fit under but don't quite; all movements have this problem of "well, I mostly identify with it, but..."

But having looked at some of the prior articles, it feels like there is a problem that much of atheist-as-a-movement can be unwelcoming to people who don't fit the loud-middle-class-white-male mold, and people who fit the concept of "atheist" are uncomfortable identifying as atheist.

And it feels useful to have a label for "athiest, plus the usual things atheists are in favour of, plus nice, plus social justice" because labels do help make stuff visible.
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: xuenay
2012-09-01 11:23 am (UTC)
I still find the whole atheism-as-a-movement thing kinda weird. I mean, I understand that it's necessary in the US where atheism is still looked upon as weird, but from a Scandinavian perspective it feels like... I don't know, like having a movement for the fact that blue is your favorite color and then making a big deal out of it, or something.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread) (Expand)
[User Picture]From: Jennifer Isaacs
2012-09-01 12:01 pm (UTC)

Just Another Useless Opinion from Me

Is to be expected that there is extremism from all areas of thought.
There is no group save from stereotypes and/or predjudice.
There will always be an anti- to something else with haters and troll ready to play cards in the wings.
Atheism and theism both are not always religions and/or belief systems alone. Though either can be placed as part of religions and/or belief systems.
Sadly humans just can't help with the social hierarchy they have to play out inferiority and superiority complexes. It seems we cannot git rid of our primitive behaviors and the past often seems to repeat itself in similar ways.
Drama and the train wrecks. People rather feel right and have opinions matter more than truth it seems. Just the way the cookies crumble I do believe.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: siodine
2012-09-01 12:14 pm (UTC)
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: crocodilewings
2012-09-01 04:50 pm (UTC)
Hello. Long-time-lurker who followed you home from LessWrong here.

You know when you're reading an online article, and you briefly scroll down the page to make sure there's not too much left to go? And you know when you're reading a really good book and you briefly check how many pages you've got left, because you want it to go on for as long as possible?

I just want to say that your writing is one of the few things I read online where I scroll down to reassure myself that there's plenty left to read.

Keep up the good work.
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-09-02 05:38 pm (UTC)
I know exactly what you mean in that second paragraph and that makes me feel very good and thank you very much for the compliment :)
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: marycatelli
2012-09-01 06:06 pm (UTC)
My personal favorite is the view that Violence Against Women is a horrible, horrible, horrible thing -- because if you go and look at the statistics, men are more frequently the victims of violent crime.

You will actually get people saying, "Ah, but they aren't attacked by women" if you bring that up.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: captainbooshi
2012-09-01 06:33 pm (UTC)
I don't actually see what the big problem with viewing violence against women as worse than violence against men. In a perfect society, they would be equally horrible, but reasonable people have to deal with the world we live in.

Even still today, and definitely in the past, violence against women is going to fall into the category of the powerful harming the powerless much more often than vice-versa. I'm not even talking physical strength here, but societal position as well. It's the same reason that a police officer beating a citizen unconscious is considered much worse than another citizen beating that same person unconscious.

Unfortunately, I don't know anything about the statistics involved, so I cannot comment about whether or not your statement is fair, but I will note that statistics about such a hugely varied subject as all violent crime are often so diluted as to be useless in most discussions anyways.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread) (Expand)
(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand
(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand
[User Picture]From: pktechgirl
2012-09-01 07:26 pm (UTC)
What about something along the lines of Welcoming and Affirming? I.E. "this fight isn't our core mission, but we can see why you might feel unwelcome or worry we're merely tolerating you, and we want to make it clear that you are totally welcome exactly as you are."
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-09-02 05:36 pm (UTC)
I am in favor of vague feel-good statements about welcoming and affirming. However, I worry that these statements are somewhere between meaningless and actively disingenuous if they're not backed up by some actual policy that makes people feel more welcome. And until I hear what these policy proposals actually are, I can't be sure I support them.

For example, Less Wrong has realized for a while that it's disproportionately white male and it ought to have more women and minorities. Sometimes people have said we should be more welcoming to women and minorities, and this has been greeted mostly with approval.

However, recently there were some political debates in which some people took somewhat liberal positions on things like diversity and multiculturalism, and other people took somewhat conservative positions on things like diversity and multiculturalism. A few people then chewed out the people who took the conservative positions, because even if they believed them voicing them publicly even in a polite way made us "less welcoming to minorities" and we had all agreed being welcoming to minorities was a goal. I value the goal of being more welcoming but not if it means that all opinions a minority might disagree with have to be suppressed.

Likewise, some people have claimed we need to be less aggressive and fanatically-evidence-based during political discussion, because supposedly women like friendly feelings-based community-building discussion more. Leaving aside for now the sketchiness and potential stereotypingness of that statement, even if it were true I think most people would be strongly against changing the way they interact, but phrasing it as "You're not being welcoming to women" backs us into a corner on this one.

So my feelings on that are about the same as my feelings on the original issue - I'm in favor of being welcoming and affirming insofar as being welcoming and affirming is Obviously Reasonable, but I'm afraid if I outright say "let's be welcoming and affirming" people are going to use that to demand that I cede on Controversial Issues.

Edited at 2012-09-02 05:37 pm (UTC)
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread) (Expand)
From: Tristan Miller
2012-09-02 12:20 am (UTC)
"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."
Isn't that exactly an example of "The Worst Argument in the World"? Massacre is an emotionally charged word, and you're implying that we should judge it negatively. Whereas, from the perspective of people defining MRA negatively, the negative definition is simply the correct one.
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-09-02 05:40 pm (UTC)
I wasn't using massacre to mean "something which is ethically horrible", I was using it to mean "a battle in which one side vastly outnumbers and outguns the other". That is, I was just trying to say that neither feminists and anti-feminists have entirely succeeded in redefining feminism, the anti-men's-rights groups have been very successful, and the pro-men's-rights groups total failures, in the attempt to redefine men's rights.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: hairyfigment
2012-09-02 02:10 am (UTC)

no, he didn't

Carrier said he would treat anyone opposed to his core beliefs as an "ideological enemy". Which appears tautologically true. Seems to me you're not arguing about a name, you're asserting that he shouldn't have these beliefs or shouldn't attach as much certainty to them. And you peripherally assert that he shouldn't associate so much with people who share his beliefs (perhaps you think it will encourage him to double-count the evidence of their agreement). Do you see why that's not going to work?

The fact that you find the name annoying seems more interesting. Do you see any way to avoid this problem? Because "Atheism plus" seems like an accurate literal description of their views, and if has positive connotations then someone will use it for exactly that reason. (The reverse suggests that having no name will fail even if Carrier convinces everyone who agrees with him to forgo having one.) Note that this name does not lend itself to self-descriptive nouns as easily as "atheism" or "secular humanism" or Bright-ness does. So that aspect works against runaway identity expansion.
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-09-02 05:27 pm (UTC)

Re: no, he didn't

I guess the way in which I have a problem with Brights (and to a lesser degree Atheism +) is that it means the only name we have to describe them is a loaded term (this is more obvious when you notice Carrier also describes non Atheism+ers as Atheism Less. It's sort of like the whole debacle where "I am pro-choice and you are anti-choice!" "No, I am pro-life and you are anti-life!". I agree it's not uncommon, but it's still annoying.

I think Carrier's claim was a bit beyond the tautological "I will treat them as an ideological enemy." First, one doesn't always go out of one's way to exclude everyone one disagrees with about anything; for example, if I'm an Obama voter Romney voters are in a sense my "ideological enemy", but that doesn't mean I think they should be excluded from interacting with me in non-political contexts (like an atheism group). Second, I don't know if it was in the post I linked to or another, but he has a long discussion of tone arguments I interpreted as a defense of taking a very hostile tone towards these opponents, which again is beyond just acknowledging their opponentness.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: hairyfigment
2012-09-02 02:12 am (UTC)

on the meaning of MRA

I don't think a single self-identified "Men's Rights Advocate" has helped to advance any of what you call their "obviously reasonable beliefs". Show me an instance.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2012-09-02 04:06 pm (UTC)

Re: on the meaning of MRA

Well, I've gotten a number of people to change their opinions on whether there are legitimate cases of systematic discrimination against men that are deserving of effort to correct them. Am I a self identified MRA activist? Well, I could call myself one right now.

If the label of "feminist" was a huge social liability that was treated in mainstream discourse as an invitation not to take people bearing it seriously, feminists who were pragmatic about making a difference would probably endeavor to not call themselves that.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread) (Expand)
From: (Anonymous)
2012-09-02 02:35 am (UTC)
Thanks, I been debating with myself over a week about this topic and now I think I finally know where I stand.
While I understand the reasons for Atheism+, it might not be the right move.
What is currently controversial in our group is not how religion discriminates against gender and race, since everyone is happy to call their enemies sexists and racists, but on how bigotry in our own movement affect our members. If so splitting is currently unnecessary since, going away is exactly what their opponents inside want them to do.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2012-09-02 06:12 am (UTC)


No, they want them to stay, take it and shut the fuck up.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread) (Expand)
Page 1 of 2
<<[1] [2] >>