On Feminism… Are We Talking Past Each Other?

Thanks to Shaun’s latest post (and a couple links he posted on Facebook), I’ve spent the past two days reading feminist articles, critiques of those feminist articles, and critiques of the critiques. I’ve been reading Skepchick, Greta Christina, PZ Myers, Jen McCreight (when she was blogging), and other feminist-friendly atheists for years. What I haven’t been reading are the people at Skeptic Ink or any other major criticism of the Skepchick/FTB-style feminism. The blog that Shaun linked on FB (not approvingly) was Skeptically Left, written by a woman who, to put it mildly, takes some issue with the kind of feminism that is practiced at FTB & Skepchick. One of the first posts I noticed was this one, where Maria Maltseva, the author, takes a collection of words, and gives them the definitions that are used in “certain darker parts of the internet.” A sample:

Feminism — A dogmatic stance on women’s issues promulgated by the likes of PZ Myers, who is notably not a woman.
Misogynist — Someone who disagrees with a feminist. See definition of feminism above. A vile human being.
Rape Enabler — Someone who disagrees with a feminist. See definition of feminism above. A vile human being.
Rape — Consensual sex with a woman after she’s been drinking. Also, actual rape.
Patriarchy — A nebulous conspiracy-like entity responsible for oppression of women in Western society.
Oppression — Being born with a vagina, even if you’re treated like a queen and allowed all the same opportunities as men.
Victim Blaming — The suggestion that women have some degree of control over their own behavior.
Slut Shaming — Pointing out that suggestive attire, inappropriate nudity, and sexual behavior are likely to get attention.
Rapist — Any man who’s had sex. Also any man who hasn’t. Synonym: man.
Rape Culture — A culture that glorifies rape. The one we live in. The same one that makes (actual) rape a criminal act.
Privilege — Something you say to get another party to shut up when you have no real argument, because clearly human beings are incapable of empathy. Existence of actual or even group privilege is irrelevant.

(sigh). I have some sympathy for the victims of unfair attacks at the hands of quick-to-anger feminists, especially at FTB & Skepchick. I too have had the word “privilege” used as a bludgeon to suggest that any opinion I have on a topic that concerns a marginalized group is completely worthless and irrelevant. I have been labeled a misogynist for having the audacity to voice a minor disagreement with a popular feminist. I’ve been decried as a troll and been accused of “JAQ-ing off” for asking sincere questions about a feminist position that I don’t understand. And in none of those situations did anyone come to my defense, so I understand how someone can be upset with the community. But come on, this crap is ridiculous. These definitions are ridiculous caricatures of complicated and nuanced issues, and surrender the moral high ground before the discussion is even started. I think contemporary feminism could use some strong criticism in certain circumstances, but juvenile bullshit like this is just flame warring.

Yesterday, Shaun described a post by Libby Anne at Patheos as “recommended reading.” Libby Anne’s post is a critique of a post by vjack at Atheist Revolution. I was not as happy as Shaun with Libby Anne’s post. The whole post was one big straw man.

vjack’s post was about some people’s hesitancy to identify as feminists, and posited that it was because “feminist” means different things to different people. While many people may be feminists under one interpretation, they may not be under another interpretation, and people don’t want to be associated with the more extreme factions. So far so good. Most of the feminists I know (including me) specifically disavow radical feminism, and specifically its shameful treatment of trans* people. vjack offers the following definitions:

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.

So, clearly, those definitions are crap. Aside from the obvious bias of the author, I’ve read them several times now and I still have no idea what “gender feminism” is. As Libby Anne note, vjack did not invent the terms, and followed one of the links vjack provided to this post by Barry X. Kuhle, an evolutionary psychologist. Libby Anne provided the following quote:

What is feminism other than the belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes? Regrettably to feminists like myself, far too many other feminists believe that being one means believing in far more than equality for women. These “gender feminists” cling to an ideologically driven, theoretically unsound, and empirically unsupported perspective on the origin and development of sex differences (Kuhle, 2012). To paraphrase New Jersey philosopher J. B. Jovi, they give feminism a bad name. In so doing, they have discouraged women and men who support sexual equality from self-identifying as feminists. … The reluctance most women and men have to embrace the feminist label in the absence of a definitional nudge is due in no small part to gender feminists’ untenable position on sex differences.

As an evolutionary psychologist, I believe that much light can be shed on psychology by considering how the information-processing mechanisms underlying our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors affected our ancestors’ abilities to survive and reproduce. As an “equity feminist” (Sommers, 1994), I believe that women should have the full civil and social equalities that are afforded men. Equity feminism has no a priori stance on the origin or existence of differences between the sexes; it is solely a sociopolitical desire for men’s and women’s legal and social equality. Defined in these ways, there is no rational reason why one cannot be both an evolutionary psychologist and a feminist.

Gender feminism is an alternative version of feminism and is the dominant feminist voice in academia (Sommers, 1994) and online (e.g., Jezebel.com). And boy (er, I mean girl, er, I mean womyn) do they take issue with feminism being compatible with evolutionary psychology. They ardently argue that psychological differences between the sexes have little or nothing to do with evolution, but instead are largely or solely socially constructed (Pinker, 2002; Sommers, 1994). Whereas equity feminism “makes no commitment regarding open empirical issues in psychology or biology… gender feminism is an empirical doctrine” committed to several unsubstantiated claims about human nature, especially that of the psychological blank slate where sex differences are concerned (Pinker, 2002, p. 341).

Now, Kuhle seems like kind of a windbag, but I can’t point to anything factually inaccurate with his statements, other than that he seems to be doing an awful lot of generalizing based on relatively few citations. Libby Anne, however, finds a lot more of an issue:

In other words, Kuhle argues that there are significant natural and inherent differences between men and women, so while we should support equality of opportunity, we shouldn’t wonder when men and women make different life choices, pursue different careers paths, act in different ways, or value different things. Thus Kuhle appears to be arguing that men and women can be equal even if they, as a result of their evolutionary background, carry out vastly different roles in life.

Excuse me? Did we read the same quote? Kuhle never says “there are significant natural and inherent differences between men and women.” Kuhle merely says that it’s an “open empirical issue.” Kuhle doesn’t say that the idea that the sexes are psychologically identical is incorrect, he just says that it’s unsubstantiated, which is true. The psychological community has reached no consensus on the topic, and there is substantial evidence to suggest that the sexes have genetic psychological differences. Furthermore, Kuhle most certainly does not extrapolate from this that “we shouldn’t wonder when men and women make different life choices, pursue different careers paths, act in different ways, or value different things.” Later in his post (and not quoted by Libby Anne), Kuhle says the opposite:

The first misunderstanding, the myth of immutability, is evidenced when one erroneously concludes that “if it’s evolutionary, then we can’t change it.” As has been discussed at length elsewhere, evolutionary psychology does not view human behavior as impervious to change. In fact, evolutionary psychologists have cogently argued that knowledge of the informational inputs to evolved psychological mechanisms is a crucial first step toward changing the behavioral output of these mechanisms (Buss, 1996; Buss, 2012; Confer et al., 2010; DeKay & Buss, 1992; Geher, 2006).

The second pervasive misunderstanding is the naturalistic fallacy, which rears its illogical head when one concludes that “if it’s evolutionary and hence natural, then it’s okay and hence good.” Numerous evolutionary psychologists have unpacked the mistaken inference that if something is the case then it ought to be the case (Buss, 2003; Geher, 2006; Pinker, 2002).

Evolutionary psychology does not excuse, justify, or rationalize any human’s thoughts, feelings, or actions (Buss, 1996; Geher, 2006). It merely seeks to discover and detail the design of the information-processing mechanisms that underlie our psychology. If some women have been subjugated because they were regarded as different than and inferior to men and some men have excused their misogynistic behavior as being an inevitable consequence of their genes, then a reluctance to embrace a discipline which viewed such pernicious behavior as immutable and excusable would be understandable. But evolutionary psychology is not that discipline (Buss, 1996).

Kuhle may be an asshole, and by the tone of his post, he probably is, but he’s not arguing that women belong in the kitchen. Later in her post, Libby Anne quotes Harriet Hall as saying:

I think it is unreasonable to expect that equal numbers of men and women will be attracted to every sphere of human endeavor. Science has shown that real differences exist. We should level the playing field and ensure there are no preventable obstacles, then let the chips fall where they may.

Libby Anne’s followup:

Kuhle made this same argument in his article when he argued that there are natural differences between men and women and derided the idea that gender roles are socially constructed. Kuhle’s line of reasoning is why some people argue that it’s only natural that the vast majority of engineers are men and that the the fast majority of stay at home parents are women. Men are just better at spacial reasoning, after all, and women are perfectly evolved to care for children!

Again, nobody said that! Kuhle never “derided the idea that gender roles are socially constructed.” And he certainly never suggested that men evolved to be better engineers and women evolved to care for children. It is not “Kuhle’s line of reasoning” that leads to this attitude – it’s unscientific sexism. Kuhle never makes any such suggestion anywhere in his article, and to say that it’s his “line of reasoning” is ridiculous. It’s the laziest kind of slippery slope argument.

Libby Anne spends the rest of her post listing the various evils of assuming that our current gender roles are natural. It’s a good rundown, and would be a good argument against anyone who actually argues the opposite. However, the remainder of the post continuously implies that it is an argument against people like vjack and Kuhle. Libby Anne ironically closes with the following:

it’s critically important to find ways to communicate with those who may not fully agree with us, and listening to each other and trying to understand each other’s perspectives is crucial.

I agree. I hope Libby Anne will make more of an effort to do so next time, before putting words in people’s mouths. Chris Hallquist, of The Uncredible Hallq commented, echoing my concerns:

I’ve read the Kuhle article, and you seem to be reading a lot into it that isn’t there. In particular, [it] can be true that there are some innate psychological differences between men and women and at the same time think the male domination of many fields might be cultural.

Ed Clint, for example, has defended evolutionary psychology (including claims of innate psychological differences between men and women) against its detractors, but has also argued for having 50% women among speakers at skeptic conferences, for the sake of breaking the (possibly? very likely?) self-perpetuating maleness of skepticism.

No response from the OP. Both writers, Libby Anne and Maria Malseva, seem to be ignoring the actual words of the people that they are criticizing. While Libby Anne’s writing is seemingly from a much more conciliatory place, both posts unfairly lampoon their subjects and ignore what they are actually saying. It’s no way to start a dialogue, and it’s certainly no way to reconcile.

We can do better.

15 responses to “On Feminism… Are We Talking Past Each Other?

  1. Have you heard of hyperbole? But I do take issue with feminists posting my home address online, giving out my work info, defaming me, and similar. Not to mention them calling me a bitch, a cunt, telling me to die and so forth. And that’s considering the fact that I fully support their political agenda, although due to their behavior I’ve begun to question it.

    One thing is for sure, though, online feminists have no sense of humor.

  2. “These ‘gender feminists’ cling to an ideologically driven, theoretically unsound, and empirically unsupported perspective on the origin and development of sex differences (Kuhle, 2012).” This is the truth, and I agree with Kuhle 100%.

    I’m tired of seeing bunk anti-science feminist theory crammed down the throats of everyone in the atheist/skeptic community (including impressionable young people) and swallowed whole because no one wants to be labeled a “misogynist.” It’s an old, ugly tactic, and it has nothing to do with reconciliation or persuasion.

    As for a joke, take it for what it is, will you? If it sounds too much like the truth, the problem isn’t mine.

  3. I don’t think your joke was very funny. These issues are serious, and the casual disdain in your post suggests that you think they don’t matter. For every feminist misusing the terms you named, there are 3 feminists using them to talk about serious issues which need to be discussed. Mocking them doesn’t help.

    • People who’ve been called these names on a daily basis for no apparent reason do find it funny. It’s the laughter of shared experience. Until I hear why posting my home address online and calling me sexist names is OK, I will consider online feminists to be hypocrites and slacktivists. But that won’t stop me from working toward women’s rights in the real world.

  4. Hallquist and Clint are both terrific, BTW, and though both have been called MRAs at one point or another, they’re deeply concerned about women’s rights. Those are the the men who deserve respect, and not buffoons like Myers.

  5. You are hot like Hansel right now, in this post. Love it. Nothing insightful to add, just unqualified praise. This is awesome. Thanks for writing.

  6. meh

    It’s a good post with good information and good arguments if you’re likely or interested in engaging with people who believe gender differences are innate or that gender roles are immutable.

    If Sommer’s fanclub feels they’ve been misrepresented, I’m sure some somewhere is playing a violin number just for them.

  7. Who thinks gender role are immutable?? No one that I know, that’s for sure. That’s the precisely the problem; some people prefer assumptions and name-calling to actually listening to the other side. (This applies to almost everyone involved.) For one, I think gender roles can be changed and probably should be, but not in such a way as to make everyone unhappy. Moreover, I’m not sure that skepticism and atheism are the proper vehicles for such change.

  8. @Maria

    So what could we use besides skepticism? I mean, skepticism is the methodology where we use the best evidence and techniques to solve problems, so why would it not be ideal for solving this problem? I agree that atheism per se is not very useful, but certainly the atheist community could take part in the application of skepticism to make this issue better.

    • I think it’s important to know where we want to go before trying to get there. And that’s the part that skepticism has very little to say about. What should gender roles be? What are the actual goals of feminism? So far, it seems to be to throw women (as well as men and trans-folk) who don’t conform to feminist ideals under the bus. I don’t think skepticism is helpful in this endeavor. Values and knowledge are two different things.

  9. I agree with Shaun. @Maria – in your previous comment, you described the gender feminists’ position as “empirically unsupported,” which sounds to me like you’re approaching it from a skeptical position. Skepticism is the only vehicle I trust to make social change in a reasonable manner, so I don’t understand what the “proper vehicle” would be, if not skepticism.

    @Julian – nobody referenced in the OP described gender roles as being immutable or innate. That type of straw manning is exactly what I was describing when I said we can do better.

  10. Well, at the narrower levels, goals may diverge, but I think that almost every one with a strong opinion about feminism shares the goal of creating the happiest and most functional society possible. The goals that Sam Harris lays out in The Moral Landscape (maximizing the well-being on conscious creatures) are hard to argue against. If we can agree on that goal (and Harris makes a convincing case that all non-psychopaths should be able to agree on that goal), then skepticism is the only toolset I trust to further that goal.

    What should gender roles be? I think the skeptical position would approach that question phrased “what gender-based assumptions and expectations maximize human well-being within our society?” It’s a really difficult question, and reasonable minds can certainly disagree, but if you care about human well-being, it’s the only question that’s relevant to what gender roles should be.

    From reading your blog, I think that you ARE approaching feminism from a skeptical place, and your issues with the feminist movement (and particularly the atheist-feminist movement) is that it is not skeptical enough for your taste. You seem to take issue with assumptions being made without an evidentiary basis, various logical fallacies being committed, false dichotomies based on the concept of “privilege,” etc. – all non-skeptical behaviors. I think that if the feminist movement as a whole was more rigorous about applying skepticism, you would find it less distasteful.

    • Yes, I agree with that. My other problem with feminism is the vicious personal attacks. As I’m generally in favor of equality and the reparations necessary to reach it (although what equality is or should be can’t easily be defined), I would have been fine with feminism minus the dogma and the hypocritical, stereotypically catty personal attacks.

  11. That’s generally my biggest issue with all issue-based online communities. People love to separate others into “one of us” or “one of them” and there is very little room for people who don’t neatly fit into one of those categories. I also view that as a failure to apply rigorous skepticism. Ad hominem reasoning is a logical fallacy, and wouldn’t be used if people were careful about their reasoning processes.

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