Radical vs. Liberal Feminism: Part One

In her book, Why I Am Not A Feminist:  A Feminist Manifesto, Jessa Crispin includes a chapter called “Men Are Not Our Problem.”  In this chapter she writes:

“You as a man are not my problem.   It is not my job to make feminism easy or understandable to you.  It is not my job to nurture and encourage your empathy, it is not my job to teach you how to deal with women being human beings.”

Crispin’s book is a scathing critique of liberal feminism in favor of more radical forms of feminism.  Her charges against liberal feminism are numerous, but the gist of it is that she charges liberal feminism as being a series of compromises with the oppressive systems of patriarchy, capitalism and white supremacy.  Part of the motivation of this type of feminism is making the idea of feminism more accessible to men and to justify the success of women of higher social class at the expense of women of lower social class.

Crispin avoids naming any specific self-proclaimed feminists in her book because she didn’t want to make her book an attack on specific people but on an idea.  As a result,  I have already seen a number of liberal feminists dismiss her book as being about some “made up” feminism that doesn’t really exist.    There is one very telling name that Cripsin does mention in her book.  That person is Hillary Clinton.

Whatever else you want to say about Hillary Clinton, much of which could be seen as very positive about her competence and success, Crispin argues that she is neither a feminist nor was supporting her feminist.   Her objection to the claim of Hillary’s narrative being an inherently feminist one is that it is filled with so many examples of her success coming at the literal disenfranchisement of poor women and people of color.  In addition to this, Clinton is a rather brazen enthusiast for capitalism, something that Crispin sees as antithetical to feminism.  Though Crispin doesn’t mention it, there are also many feminists who object to Clinton because of her alleged role in covering up and defending much of her husband’s questionable behavior over the years.

Many people may be put off by the dadaesque title of Crispin’s book, though I found it to be very clever.  What is suggested by it is that the divide between these two schools of feminist thought is so wide that both of them could not truly be called feminism.  Crispin is aware that the conversation has become one of who can call themselves a feminist, so she side steps this one.  What she is saying is that when liberal feminists use the word feminism, they are meaning it in a completely different way than she is when she uses the word feminism.

One of the big parts of liberal feminism that Crispin is criticizing is the idea that feminism is about equality for women, or specifically women having equality with men.  To Crispin, such a view is used in order to try and shame as many people as possible, especially men, into calling themselves feminists.  Crispin points out that a person’s acceptance of a label is far less important than the views they have or the actions they take.  She uses the example of the singer Bjork denying the feminist label and this sparking outrage.  One could compare it, as Crispin doesn’t, to the singer Taylor Swift.  Swift initially denied she was a feminist and then was shamed into accepting the label, but if we compared her to Bjork in terms of beliefs and actions, there is hardly a comparison between the two.

One of the things that Crispin is most annoyed with is that liberal feminism has now portrayed second wave feminism as having “gone too far.”  She contends that the tactic of liberal feminism is to hold up more radical feminists as examples of “bad feminism” in order to get more men on board for a “soft” pro-capitalist version of feminism.    Crispin doesn’t object to criticism of radical feminists like Andrea Dworkin, Catharine Mackinnon and Shulamith Firestone on their individual ideas, because no intellectual is ever right about everything, but she is angered by the blanket dismissals that liberal feminism has toward these women and their ideas.

The normal reaction to this argument I have seen from liberal feminists who have bothered to pick up Crispin’s book is that it is outrageous that she say they should read these women because they are racist and transphobic.  I will address the racism topic shortly, but the idea of transphobia being associated with radical feminism is one that is an example of the tendency of liberal feminists to employ identity politics as a broad smear against a large number of people with very little evidence.  Crispin spends the most time in her book talking about the three women that I have mentioned, Dworkin, Mackinnon and Firestone, none of which were transexclusionary.

Now, its possible, and I would say even likely, that these liberal feminists are so ignorant of the views of these women that they do not know this and assume that all radical feminists are transexclusionary.    This proves Crispin’s point better than any argument that she could make ever could.  The only feminist that Crispin mentions in the book who could be labeled transexclusionary is Germaine Greer.  However, part of Crispin’s point is that you could criticize this element of Greer’s feminism and still agree with her on a lot of the other things she says.  It is ironic that people can overlook the oppression that Hillary Clinton spent decades contributing to and still enthusiastically support her, but not even be able to engage with the ideas of Greer because of one element of perceived prejudice.

As for the subject of race, this is a thornier issue and one that needs some more background to deal with.  First, one needs to look at the differences between “radical feminism” and “socialist and Marxist feminism.”  Some people, looking at somebody like Firestone, who was a Marxist, and say there isn’t any.  However, I have talked to self-described radical feminists who claim not to be socialists.  From what I can gather on this is a radical feminist can be a socialist or not be a socialist, but a socialist feminist is necessarily a radical feminist.

Here is an attempt to make the distinctions we need.  A socialist sees capitalism as being inherently oppressive.  A radical feminist sees patriarchy as being inherently oppressive.  A socialist feminist therefore might buy into the idea that people are oppressed under capitalism and women are oppressed under patriarchy but a socialist who is not a feminist ignores patriarchy, while a radical feminist who is not a socialist ignores capitalism.  The problem with liberal feminists is that while they may be critical of these systems in general, they do not seek to overthrow them but to reform them in a way that is advantageous to themselves personally, or women like them.  Another problem with all this  is that there is a third oppressive system that we are ignoring altogether and that system is white supremacy.

The problem we are talking about is one that Bell Hooks sought to take on in her landmark book, Feminist Theory From Margin To Center.   For Hooks, the problem with feminism at the time she was writing was this quote from Sonia Johnson:

“One of the basic tenants of radical feminism is that any woman in the world has more in common with any other woman regardless of class race, age, ethnic group, nationality, than any woman has with any man.”

I disagree that this should be seen as the defining characteristic of radical feminism but I cannot argue that many radical feminists see things exactly this way.   Bell Hooks argued that this was wrong and that any feminism that was worth anything had to address the three sources of cultural oppression, patriarchy, capitalism and white supremacy.  She stated that this was what was holding feminism back and why it was seen as a middle-class white movement.  Working class women were not likely to find the idea of working outside the home liberating because many of them already did, and women of color, who had seen men of their race subjected to racism, were torn between these two different kinds of oppression.

Citing Hooks,  has become a way of disparaging Crispin, but I can’t understand why.  Like Crispin, Hooks rejects the idea that feminism is about equity for women.  Hooks states that saying this assumes that all men are equal and ignores the problems of class and race.  Also, Hooks sees the inherent problem with a person calling themselves “a feminist.”  Hooks says that using the word feminist to describe oneself gives the impression of absolutism.  Hooks suggests people say, “I advocate feminism,” because this changes the subject from oneself to what exactly the person is advocating.  If everybody did this, the distinction between somebody like Crispin and the feminists that she is criticizing would become crystal clear.

So in short, there isn’t really a difference between the kind of feminist theory that Jessa Crispin advocates and the one Bell Hooks advocates.  Both women see that feminism needs to challenge capitalism and white supremacy, as well as patriarchy in order to unite all women.   This is, I think, a better definition of radical feminism.  Radical feminism seeks to upturn the oppressive systems that keep women down.  Liberal feminism may be critical of these systems but does not advocate revolutionary politics because it is “too extreme” or conflicts with one’s own interests in some way.

The second part of this blog will deal with some of the more substantive differences between radical and liberal feminism,  including issues like prostitution and pornography.  I will also address “gender critical” radical feminism and some of the conflicts that arise between this philosophy and transgender studies.

The Undiscovered Country

On August 18th my friend, Erik C. Banks, passed away suddenly of a hemorrhagic stroke.  Erik was one of the most interesting people I have ever met, and one of the most intellectually curious, generous and kindest as well.  He was a professor of philosophy, with a passion for the history of science, physics, art, Kantian ethics, leftist politics, and science fiction.    He was only 47, and when I learned about his passing the day after he left us, I was filled with a visceral anger at the injustice of the universe.  The last time I had spoken to him we were arguing over Thomas Kuhn and I figured we would be arguing about things until he was an elderly man.  I take a tiny solace that he might live on through his academic work and his science fiction stories.

The prevailing feeling that I get from a sudden untimely death is an awareness of its utter senselessness.   Erik Banks was beloved, not just by me, but by his colleagues and students as well.   He had given us so much, but there was still so much more that he had to give.  His academic work was starting to gain some recognition and he had a genuine talent as a writer of fiction as well.  Even worse, future students will be deprived of the passion and insight he brought to his teaching of philosophy.

In literature, an untimely death such as his is usually cloaked in some kind of meaning.  His death would serve as a lesson, or be a noble sacrifice.   Death in literature is subservient to create a fictional world that makes sense, has clear cause and effect, and is moved forward by the trajectory of something called a plot.   In reality,  this kind of death stands as only another sign of our universe’s cold indifference to us.  If there is a lesson, it is that we can go at any moment and that we could lose anybody we love just as quickly.

I take the title of this blog post from Hamlet, but Shakesphere’s approach to death has always been within the artifice of drama.   Looking throughout the history of literature, honest portrayals of death are incredibly rare.  Oscar Wilde once said, “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.”  This was a reference to the novel The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens and a dig at the author for his famous sentimentality.  Sentimentality makes us feel better, but it really is meant to distract us from the harshness of death.

John Irving’s novel The World According To Garp is about a protagonist who is obsessed with death taking away those he loves.  He buys a house that has been hit by a plane because it has been “pre-disastered” and therefore he finds it less likely it will experience a second such event.  Despite this, people in his life do die, but in the world of the novel these deaths come as direct results of plot elements set up earlier.  Two deaths in particular could be seen as some kind of divine punishment for the actions of certain characters.  While Garp wrestles with the anxiety of death it does not give us a wholly honest portrayal of how grief is experienced.

The novels of Cormac McCarthy are filled with death and violence, but there are often subservient to the mechanics of the plot as well.  The Road gives us an apocalyptic landscape where death is a constant companion, but there are still noble sacrifices and dramatic plot reversals.  Blood Meridian concerns us merely with the perpetrators of violence, not the consequences of their actions.  Child of God  is about a necrophiliac but the subject of death itself is secondary to the taboo being broken.  McCarthy’s masterpiece, Suttree, has a death that seems purely senseless but it still is used to fill in the backstory of the protagonist, who we learn about in only maddeningly vague terms.

Alice Sebold’s massive bestseller, The Lovely Bones, has an original approach to the conventional ghost story.  Told from the point of view of a girl who has been murdered, it contrasts the traditional plot of the ghost who cannot let go of life, with the living not being able to let go of their grief.  Though well-reviewed upon its original release, its success with the masses has made it a target for nitpicking snobs, but really Sebold’s approach lays bare the fundamentals of the ghost story and why it appeals to us on such an elemental level.   It also gives us a buffer when dealing with death on the most honest level, both its status as a ghost story and mystery elements bring in artificial plot structures that keep the effects of grief at arm’s length.

Thinking of novels that have dealt with an untimely death in the way it really feels, it is odd that the only one I can think of is a children’s book,  Bridge to Terabithia, written by Katherine Paterson.  The book approaches the subject of death, not as a plot device and motivation for the main character, or as merely a pretense to develop a character, but as a truly senseless event.  The book’s value, and the fact that it remains so widely read, is that it teaches children about death honestly and without fantastic elements.  In fact, it contrasts the reality of death with the kinds of children’s fantasy that authors like C. S. Lewis create.

Of course, there are other works which deal with the idea of mortality.  The Death of Ivan Ilyich was written by Leo Tostoy right after his fiftieth birthday and his conversion to Christianity and was published in 1886.  His own death was probably a subject that was much on Tolstoy’s mind;  being fifty years old made one an old man in his time.  Ivan Ilyich is forty-five years old, and lives a carefree life until he becomes ill.  Slowly, it dawns on him that he is dying, and the novella deals with his thoughts about his death and his own suffering.

Simone De Beauvoir wrote another honest account of death in her memoir A Very Easy Death.  She tells the story of her mother’s death from cancer, and paints a portrait that is free of sentimentality.  Her mother was a devoted Catholic and at one point she admonishes those that doubted her mother’s faith because she never asked for a priest.  Beauvoir writes that the reason her mother never asked was because she had never intended to die, comparing it to people who say her own work will mean that she will live on past her death.  “Whether you think of it as heavenly or as earthly, if you love life immortality is no consultation for death.”

A more recent honest portrayal of death comes from another memoir.  In 2008, David Shields published The Thing About Life Is One Day You’ll Be Dead.  Sheilds is a polarizing writer and often an acquired taste but this is one of his best works, starting by contrasting his daughter’s, his and his then ninety year old father’s life.  Exiting early life, we leave his daughter behind.  The book then bounces back from David and his father, until we reach fifty and the book continues to be about his father alone.

Sheild’s takes a postmodern approach to the subject, as he usually does, but here it suits the book he is trying to write.  Peppered into the biographical bits are assorted facts about death and aging, as well as famous last words.  The problem with books about death is the subject cannot help but always escape our grasp, due to the fact that all books written about death are by authors who were at the time very much alive.

People often talk about “universal experiences” but death is the only experience that I think is really fully universal.  Every one of us will die, regardless if whether we live long enough to lose those around us that we love.  Some people say all literature is about death.   Margaret Atwood, in her memoir Negotiating With The Dead, writes that it is because if their mortality that all writers write.  I have my own thoughts about that.

First off, it is like Beauvoir said.  Her books cannot substitute for the love of life, just as reading the works of my friend can be a substitute to having him here with us.  Then, there is how much artifice literature covers death with in order to disguise its presence.   That might be its ultimate purpose like so many other things human beings do.  The work that asks us to stare it in the face are rare.  This is because it is a throughly unpleasant thing that we do not want to face it until we have to.  Better to be distracted from it than anything else.

As I write this, I am reading the work that my friend left behind.   It is the only way I have to communicate with him, after taking for granted that we would have years of conversations yet to come.  This is my link to him, his work, his passions left written on the page.  Ultimately, all we really want is to communicate.    With the dead, literature is the closest thing we can have to a conversation.



Boys Don’t Read (Or The Not So Strange Case of James Damore)

A while back my friend wrote a blog post, on her now defunct blog, called “Boys Don’t Read”.  Her blog was a humorous chronicle of her daily life, raising kids, having a career and being a divorced single woman.   Boys Don’t Read, was a post about her foray into online dating.  It didn’t surprise me that her being an intelligent, successful, athletic and conventionally beautiful woman got a mountain of messages from interested men.  The main issue for her was out of all of these messages only about ten percent, at most, were from men who actually read her profile.  So she would have to spend each day deleting one word messages and responding to guys who would ask her questions clearly answered in her profile, and guys who had nothing in common with her who just liked her pictures, to find that small ten percent of men that she MIGHT be interested in.

I was sympathetic to this blog post, but I had one quibble with her.  I didn’t like her assumptions that these behaviors were limited to men.  I too was using online dating, having recently moved to a new city, and I had experienced a lot of the same things from women.  While I got only a fraction of the messages she did, a lot of those I did get were one word, asking questions clearly stated in my profile, or from women who obviously had nothing in common with me but were interested for some reason regardless.

We began by debating how men and women acted online and extended this to dating behavior outside of that online sphere.  What this conversation eventually led to was a fervent debate about whether these traits were innate or caused by culture.    Were men merely ignorant grunting pigs who could only follow the basic evolutionary programming of their brain-penis, or could a woman hope to train them to be loyal and obedient like any good dog?

So this story brings me back to James Damore.  Its another case of Men are From Mars and Women Are From Venus, but this time we aren’t talking about relationships but the workplace.  In case you have been living under a rock, Damore is the Google employee who got fired for writing a ten page memo criticizing Google’s diversity polices as politically correct nonsense.   Of course Damore’s “scientific arguments” are merely redressed stereotypes supported by pseudoscience, but this still made him a martyr and a hero to the “alt-right.”

Before I get into talking about the books that deal with the claims Damore makes, because that is what this blog is about, books, let me address the issue of his firing.  Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks not only thinks Damore should not have been fired but that Google’s CEO should resign.    First, Brooks thinks that all Damore did was merely stating the facts, which is a whole other kettle of fish,  but lets examine what sending such a memo does.  By sending such a memo, Damore made it clear to any of his female colleagues that he thought that most women who worked at Google got their jobs because of tokenism and did not earn it.  It doesn’t matter how many caveats you make, that is the suggestion of the memo as clear as day.  What is it like for women to work in such an environment.  Might you come up with an adjective such as hostile?

Those who defend Damore do so by the same reasoning that infamous pseudo-intellectual Sam Harris defends infamous scientific racist Charles Murray.   The basic idea is that if you cloak such arguments around science then they gain an air or respectability.  It doesn’t matter that such arguments reinforce bigotry or that they suggest that trying to right the wrongs of the past is useless.

As for the scientific claims, Brooks has this to say:

On one side are those that believe humans come out as blank slates and are formed by social structures.  On the other are the evolutionary psychologists who argue that genes interact with environment and play a large role in shaping who we are.  In general the evolutionary psychologists have been winning this debate.”

If there ever was a textbook example of a straw man, Brooks has provided quite an example here.   While I do not dismiss the whole of evolutionary psychology, nor all of its premises, what it seems for most people who are strong proponents of this view is that they want to regulate all the authority on views of human behavior to the biologist and get rid of those pesky “soft” social sciences with their lack of rigor, and tendency to produce studies with easily repeatable results that contradict the kinds of claims that evolutionary psychologists like to make.

As for his assertion of their opponents, professor of philosophy and history of science Cordelia Fine is trained in neuroscience and actively disputes this straw man of her view.  As Fine, and nearly everybody else arguing against hard-wiring has pointed out, brain differences from men and women are so small that individual men might have more differences from each other than they necessarily would with a member of the opposite sex.  So even though this fact alone makes the whole “hardwired brain differences” theory totally useless somehow we are supposed to take it seriously because its “just facts.”

What Fine does instead of arguing the “tabula rasa” view of the brain, is to systematically dismantle all the assumptions, inductive inferences and methodological shortcomings of the studies that are used to support the brain differences that men and women supposedly have.  You don’t have to take my word for it.  You can read her 2010 book Delusions of Gender here.

Earlier this year, Fine returned with another book, Testosterone Rex.  By a stunning coincidence this book actually addresses the issue of women in tech. Before you even get started with Fine’s arguments, you can take a look at the history.  Then you can look at the studies in Fine’s book that show that women are less interested in tech jobs because of the way they are presented to them, and the amount of sexist stereotyping they face.

Fine takes on another evolutionary psychology claim, the idea that men are hardwired to be promiscuous and females to be choosy.  Fine humorously goes through a statistical analysis  of a male attempting to have sex with as many woman as possible in a “pre-Tinder environment” and comes to conclusion that a male would have more reproductive luck with a single monogamous partner, or at least a few poly-amorous ones, but so would females.    Are men hardwired to not be able to read online dating profiles because this is a SUCCESSFUL mating strategy?

Fine is only building off the research used by biologist Robert Sapolsky in his seminal book The Trouble With Testosterone.  Sapolsky looked at all this talk about biological determinism and found it to be pure bunk.  Fine concurs and counters gender essentialists’ examples from the world of animals with ones of her own, involving rats, fish and elephant seals.   She also once again shows how biases and assumptions encourage scientists to misread the data.

So maybe you aren’t convinced by all of this.  Maybe you insist that it is antiscience to suggest that hardwired gender differences are anything other than facts.  Well then, do I have a book for you!

In 2015, Dr. Melvin Konner, a Harvard educated MD with a PhD in biological anthropology published the book Women After All.  This book argues strongly that gender is not a social construct and that biological differences between males and females tells most of the gender story.  So far so good!  What kind of robust scientific manly man could not be delighted?  The book even comes complete with quotes of praise from evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, who loves to tweet articles from “factual feminist” Christina Hoff Sommers, and anthropologist Jared Diamond.  What’s not to like?

From Konner’s introduction:

“There is a human genetic fluke that is surprisingly common, due to a change in a key pair of chromosomes. In the normal condition the two look the same, but in this disorder one is malformed and shrunken beyond recognition. The result is a shortened life span, higher mortality at all ages, an inability to reproduce, premature hair loss, and brain defects variously resulting in attention deficit, hyperactivity, conduct disorder, hypersexuality, and an enormous excess of both outward and self-directed aggression.  It is called maleness.”

Wait, what?  Konner, demolishes those pesky feminists about gender being a social construct.  He argues that just because a tube of paint that contains yellow and red at both ends is orange in the middle that the ends aren’t less red and yellow.  Checkmate feminists!  He also argues that if you were forced to bet, based on a single trait whether a person was a man or a woman a lot of things would be safe bets.  His first example is having a penis, but he moves onto playing with dolls or liking football.  How can any feminist or girly social scientist possibly argue against that?

Then he gets into the more manly and robust arguments.    He argues that women don’t really need men because female insects often eat their mates.  He does have a good point there.  And women don’t have to put up with men’s shit because the lioness does the hunting and has such an enlarged clitoris that rape is impossible.  This is the most robustly factual account of gender differences I have ever read and every man should read it.

Of course I am being facetious, except for that last part.  Every man should read it, but as we know from the beginning of this blog that boys don’t read, due to the evolutionary psychology of their penis-brain.  However, if you do find yourself in one of these conversation with robust manly science men you might want to mention Konner’s book.   It could be good for a few laughs if nothing else.