What Is A Philosopher?

The title of this blog is something that I sometimes get asked and other times get in arguments with people about.  I am not an academic philosopher, but I studied philosophy and have friends who are academic philosophers.   I arrived at my interest in philosophy because it was the only academic subject that could encompass all my varied interests.  I have always felt torn between my interests in science and my interest in the humanities, and by choosing philosophy I didn’t feel as if I would have to choose between the two.   That said, though I considered it for a time, pursuing an academic career in philosophy was one I ended up turning against.

There are various reasons for this.  One is the lack of academic philosophy positions and the state of academia in general.  Another is how little respect philosophy gets with people in scientific fields dismissing the work of philosophers as “just opinion pieces” and some people in the humanities disliking the tendency of philosophers to challenge their underlying assumptions.  From the general public it is even worse.  In the introduction to his book, Experiments In Ethics, Kwame Anthony Appiah says that when people learn he is a philosopher they usually ask him, “What is Your Philosophy?” to which he responds, “Everything is more complicated than you thought.”

My main reason was that I thought academic philosophy was “too rigid” and in the framework that philosophers had been forced into I wouldn’t be able to do the things that I really wanted to do.   In the final essay in her book, Undoing Gender, Judith Butler expresses a similar sentiment.  She states that despite being trained as a philosopher she was shocked to learn at some point in her career that she was no longer a philosopher but “a theorist” and this kind of person had no place in the philosophy department.

For this reason, and also because it was an excellent and entertaining read, I delighted in Justin E. H. Smith’s book, The Philosopher: A History In Six Types.  Smith is a philosopher and historian of science but the question of what a philosopher actually is has seemed to have caught his attention.  For instance, he talks about the struggle to keep his philosophy books at work, while his non-philosophy books at home and not being able to make a clear distinction between them.  He also mentions not being able to decide whether the book he is writing is philosophy and that many people would contend it isn’t, since it is not an exhaustive and rigorous attempt at defining what a philosopher is but an attempt to exhaust his own thoughts on the subject.

Smith’s approach is an interesting one.  He divides philosophers into six job descriptions.  This is not an attempt to put individual philosophers into set boxes, because many philosophers fit into more than one of these categories, but one cannot deny that these “job descriptions” have all historically, and in some sense in the contemporary colloquial ideas about philosophy.

The first category is the Curiosa, so named because Smith based the ideal example of this type on Margaret Cavendish.  It isn’t much of a surprise that Smith, being a philosopher of science, would start with this one, but it does get to the core of how philosophy has developed throughout history.  Since the beginning, philosophy has largely been about how things worked and expanding the realm of human knowledge.  As this state has evolved, different fields have been “cut off” from the branches of philosophy in order to inhabit fields of their own.  This hasn’t just happened in science, but now it is where something ceases to be philosophy and “becomes science” we see people arguing the hardest distinction.

There are a large number of people who think of themselves as “natural philosophers”  and their stated goal is to use philosophy to develop a universal understanding of science.   I personally think these philosophers often do great work and there is value in what they do, but I also think that their mission does not encompass all of what philosophy is or should be.  I also think that developing a “universal understanding” of science, meaning a criteria for interpretation that everybody agrees on as fact, may actually be harmful to science and strip from the enterprise some of what makes it vital in the first place.

The second category is The Sage.  This is probably the closest to what the general public thinks of a philosopher and also one I think has value.  There is a definite cultural idea of the person who devotes much time to thinking and can pass on wisdom to others.    We can see this kind of philosopher in many ancient societies, or in Native American Culture.  Many people appeal to the idea of sage wisdom when they consult a religious authority like a Priest or a minister but this would be mocked by most “professional philosophers” today if you suggested that this person is a philosopher.

Skipping around a bit, the fourth type by Smith,  The Ascetic,  has some significant overlap with The Sage.  The life that The Ascetic leads, looking for the good instead of material wealth and power is something we would associated with The Sage as well.     Though, this is not something that we would automatically define a Sage by. You could consider somebody like Jean- Paul Sartre a Sage, but you certainly would not call him an Ascetic. In our contemporary culture we could see a Sage as somebody with a large media celebrity, somebody who is even successful in capitalism.  While the two have significant overlap they still justify their place as separate categories.

The Acetic might be a category as well that we put a great many ethicists.  Utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer comes to mind.  He preaches a philosophy of self-sacrifice in order to achieve the good, which to him is maximum utility.  He practices what he preaches as well, giving large percentages of his income to charity, but still there are those that might think Singer has too much of The Mandarin (Smith’s fifth category) to be a true Ascetic.

The category of philosopher that I find myself most relating to is The Gadfly.  This is the philosopher who is mainly concerned with challenging the norms of his society.  Smith argues that Socrates was a Gadfly and that since Western philosophy started with him it is hard to see how this is not an essential identity to discuss while trying to define the philosopher.   He also mentions Nietzsche who was an expert at “how to philosophize with a hammer.”  I would also include David Hume in this category, as well as the twentieth century philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend.

This category would include a great many artists.  Smith mentions Walt Whitman.  I would say there is a lot of the Gadfly in somebody like Simone De Beauvoir, who challenged assumptions about women in particular in her philosophy and novels.  When we look at the intersection between art and philosophy we really see Gadflys everywhere and this is why Smith had such a hard time separating his books, thinking that the novelist and poets he admired were as much deserving of the title philosopher as the scientists and academics.

The last two categories have a significant amount of overlap as well. The Fifth category is The Mandarin, to which Smith refers to the learned men of academia who take on the title of professional philosopher.   It is worth noting that many of the most important figures in philosophy never worked in the philosophy department.   Academic philosophy, as much as I enjoy reading it, seems like a closed off enclave of people communicating to each other in obscure language about things of little consequence.  This is a stark contrast to somebody like Karl Marx who thought the purpose of philosophy was not to describe the world but to change it, or Friedrich Nietzsche who wanted to communicate to a specific audience of free thinkers wherever they may be.

This finally brings us to The Courtier, and it is hard to think of where The Mandarin and The Courtier leave off since it is defined as a philosopher who plies his trade for money.  Since Smith defines The Courtier as including “the public intellectual” it is easy to see how somebody could be a Courtier but not a Mandarin.  Somebody like Sam Harris delivers his own version of philosophy without holding any academic position.  His aim seems to be making money exclusively by his expressing of his opinions.

Smith’s point is that professional philosophers such as himself are “all sophists” though in my example of somebody like Sam Harris, some are obviously more sophists than others.  Smith even recounts an experiment where he made extra money while living in Paris by offering to have conversations about philosophy with tourists for money.   He found the conversations to be surprisingly interesting.

The book reaches no conclusions, but I suggest you read it yourself if you are interested. It’s a lot of fun and thought provoking.  I’m still not sure what counts as philosophy myself I just know what interests me.    Maybe pursuing one’s own path thoughtfully and critically is all you really need.



What I Learned From Hillary Clinton’s “What Happened.”

There were quite a few people upon learning of the release of Hillary Clinton’s new book who vowed to not read it “on principle.”  I was not one of those people.   There is value in getting Hillary Clinton’s perspective on the election, even though what I was hoping for with the book was a detailed account of how her campaign made the decisions that she did and how she felt about it now.  (I did not get that.)

There are many things that I agree with Hillary Clinton on.   Yes, the Comey letter was ridiculous and possibly tipped the election, yes she has been the victim of right wing conspiracy theories for decades, yes Trump is a bigoted and misogynistic fascist demagogue, and finally,  yes, Hillary Clinton would have made an infinitely better president than Trump could ever hope to be in his wildest dreams.

Her book begins with a chapter on how she felt the day she lost the election and then continues with a second chapter about how she felt.  Don’t worry, the book will later include a chapter about the night of the election so you can learn about how she felt about it a third time.   There is very little policy in the book.  It is mostly about how she personally felt about things we all saw happen last year.  So in order to learn anything there had to be at least a little reading between the lines, but what Hillary Clinton says can be rather illuminating.

Taking Money From Wall Street and Banks is No Big Deal

There are a few parts of the book where Hillary Clinton praises Bernie Sanders.  It is usually when he said something nice about her, or when he rightly calls out the media for concentrating on her “damn emails.”  One thing she said she appreciated was a conversation between her and Senator Sanders where he promised not to stoop to personal attacks on her or her family.  We all know what Sanders meant by that (cough…Monica Lewinsky…cough) but Hillary took it as a promise to ignore her donation history too and she is angry that Bernie broke that promise.

Hillary Clinton has two defenses.  The first is that Bernie Sanders could not name a single time she had switched positions on an issue during a debate.  It is important to note that many supporters of Sanders criticize him of this as well, but for completely different reasons.  The cases where Clinton switched positions due to financial pressures from lobbyists are obvious and many believe that if Sanders had hit her hard on this issue he would have hobbled her and he would have won.   Clinton apparently agrees with this assessment because she thinks even without it Sanders did so much damage to her that she could not beat Donald Trump.

Her second defense, which she used in the debates, is that Obama took more money from Wall Street than any other candidate ever in 2008.   It is a curious defense when we consider Obama’s attacks on her in 2008, but we also have to consider the fact that Obama’s financial reform was lighter than Glass-Steagall, which Hillary’s husband repealed.  Senator Elizabeth Warren gives an account of her role in Dodd-Frank in her book A Fighting Chance and she portrays a President Obama who wanted to do some kind of reform, but had to be pushed by people like herself and Barney Frank to even make the bill as tough as it was.

Clinton does admit that her speeches were “bad optics” in her book, but doesn’t ever address any of the numerously problematic things she said in those speeches.

Compromise Is Good But Not When Bernie Sanders Does it

When it comes to Bernie’s stance against taking corporate money, Clinton sees this as simply an unreasonable stance.  She simultaneously claims she is against Citizen’s United, and that money in politics does not influence the votes of Democrats, and if you can untangle the logic knot of that position be my guest.

Bernie Sanders DOES take some pragmatic stances because despite how his critics portray him his goal is to revolutionize the Democratic Party and American Politics in general and the logistics of that task is important.  In his book, Our Revolution, Sanders outlines exactly how we do this.  A big part of his strategy is to expand Democratic territory into rural areas and the South, by highlighting the ways Republicans have tricked working class white voters to vote against their own interests AND by fighting voter suppression and disinterest in minority communities that feel ignored.

Clinton attacks Sanders for doing just that when he campaigned for Heath Mello for Mayor of Omaha, Nebraska.  The sticking point was that Mello is not pro-choice.  By contrast, Hillary Clinton thought it was perfectly fine to pick Tim Kaine as her running mate, who has had a strong record in the senate, but had a horrendous record on abortion as governor of Virginia.

Clinton also used this same tact to attack Sanders about gun control.  There are three issues that have come up.  The first, is that Sanders voted against the Brady Bill on five separate occasions while he was in the house of representatives, because his state was against waiting periods.

The other two issues were that Sanders had voted that people be allowed to check their guns in their carry on luggage while boarding Amtrak trains and he voted against victims of gun violence being able to sue gun manufacturers.  In terms of the latter position, this is the rare case of Clinton being “more extreme” than Sanders and he being more pragmatic.  I tend to agree with Sanders, that allowing people to sue because a product they manufactured was used to kill people and there was no negligence on the manufacturer’s part, opens up a whole new can of worms.

In truth, there is a conversation to be had about what Sanders is and is not willing to compromise on.    However, the way Clinton uses it is to portray him as a pie and the sky huckster who tried to sell people on false promises in order to slander her.

Hillary Clinton’s Story is Every Woman’s Story.

Early in her book, Hillary Clinton talks about her own story not being as inspiring as her husband’s or Barack Obama’s.  So in order to counteract this she emphasized how her story was that of the woman’s movement.  Boy did she ever!  The so-called “Bernie Bro” was a myth cooked up by the Clinton team the same way they used Obama Boys in the 2008 campaign.   As somebody who campaigned for Obama in 2008, I had a lot of run-ins with aggressive Clinton supporters who hurled personal insults at me.  They were a minority, and at the time I didn’t think it was a coordinated effort, but when this time they paid trolls to attack Sanders supporters online, I got wise to it.

Let me be clear, Clinton has no doubt encountered a lot of misogyny and sexism in her life.  Compare her book to that of Elizabeth Warren though, who in her book A Fighting Chance details how her own mother discouraged her from going to college because she wouldn’t be able to find a husband, and how she experienced sexism as both a lawyer and a politician.  With Warren, this is part of her story, for Hillary Clinton it is the WHOLE story.

Later in her book Clinton admits that she may have talked about race too much, playing into Donald Trump’s hands.  She never mentions that she might have talked about gender too much.  Though she mentions her slogan “Stronger Together” many times, this one was hardly used on the campaign.  The slogan that was used was “I’m With Her” which will probably go down as one of the worst campaign slogans in politics.  It would be as if Obama had made his slogan, “Once you go black.”

Hillary Clinton’s narrative is an inherently feminist one if you buy the idea that all feminism is about is women being ambitious and successful.  Hillary buys this herself because she says in her book that many Republican women are feminists.  I guess this is all fine, but it never occurred to Clinton that even many women who considered themselves feminists would find this ridiculous and  wouldn’t take kindly to being insulted.  In his book, Listen Liberal, historian Thomas Frank criticizes Clinton for arranging a International Woman’s Day event that celebrated female entrepreneurs when the holiday has its roots in labor movements, illustrating the disconnect perfectly.

Then there was the issue of her husband’s sex scandals.  People would make the case that she should not be judged by her husband’s transgressions, or that comparing Bill Clinton and Trump was a false equivalence, but that didn’t matter.  By leaning so hard on the idea that Bernie Sanders supporters were misogynists and Trump was even worse, she invited people to remember and reflect on those things.  Democrats had no problem voting for Bill Clinton despite his sex scandals and as such Republicans had licence to not care about Trump’s transgressions.  It may not have been right, but the point is Hillary Clinton was not the best person to make that case.

The Clintons Are Not Responsible For Their Own Actions.

One telling part of the book is where Clinton talks about Black Lives Matter.  The beginning of this chapter is somewhat moving and hits all the right notes.  It then segues into gun control and finally ends with a volley of attacks at Bernie Sanders.  I’m not sure if Clinton only talked about Black Lives Matters as a means to attack Sanders but it sure reads that way, and I was aghast at how cynical it came off.

However, I have already covered Clinton’s attacks at Sanders.  What is most troubling about this chapter is Clinton is frustrated with the Black Lives Matters protesters for asking her to take personal responsibility for all the things the Clinton’s have done to black people.   Hillary focuses on the crime bill, which she points out both Bill Clinton has said was a mistake and Bernie Sanders voted for.   The crime bill is a complicated issue, and yes, pretty much everybody was on board at the time and even some Republicans have claimed that voting for it was a mistake.  However, even though Hillary Clinton pledged to end private prisons the not taking responsibility part is disturbing.

Clinton begins her book with a quote by Harriet Tubman and holds herself up as a fighter for racial justice.  I think she means it now. However, not facing the past head on is a real problem, and one Clinton seems to think is unreasonable for her critics to expect.

Losing the Midwest Was Not Hillary’s Fault

One of the big criticisms that Hillary Clinton got was that she didn’t campaign enough in the “rust belt.”  Clinton lost six states that Barack Obama won in 2012, and five of those states were in the Midwest.  Clinton dismisses this accusation as a load of crap.  She does admit that she did not campaign enough in Wisconsin but the reason for this is because the data she had showed them they had a solid lead in the state.  So why did she lose those states?   She lost because of third party voters.

The only data point Clinton uses to support this is that Donald Trump got less votes in Wisconsin than Mitt Romney did in 2012.  Let’s take note of a couple things.  First, Trump did better than Romney nationally and more importantly did better than Romney in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa and Florida.    If Jill Stein had not been in the race, the only two states that would have been effected, making the huge assumption that every single Stein voter would have switched to Clinton, would have been Michigan and Wisconsin.  In that scenario Trump still would have won.

Rachel Maddow hilariously made the claim that if all of Stein voters and half of Libertarian Candidate Gary Johnson’s voters had voted for Hillary Clinton than she would have won.  The problem with this is obvious.  If the other half of Gary Johnson voters voted Trump they would cancel each other out and Trump still would have won.  Hillary Clinton makes the claims she would have won if not for third party voters as if it is obvious and mentions Gore losing New Hampshire and Florida in 2000 due to Ralph Nader.  Many people have pointed out the problem with this hypothesis before, that we simply do not have any data about the “second choices” of Nader voters and just assume it would be Gore because we assume that all voters think in the left-right binary that politics is usually presented in.  But even if we assume that the narrative about Nader in 2000 is correct, Gary Johnson  was the “spoiler” in 2016, not Jill Stein and some have even predicted without him in the race it was possible Trump could have won the popular vote.

Here is another idea.   My theory is that it has something to do with trade deals, that were very unpopular in those Midwest states and Trump had been hammering Clinton on while campaigning there.  In her book, Hillary Clinton doesn’t mention NAFTA or TPP even once which are pretty stunning omissions for a book that is supposed to be concerned with why she lost the Midwest that Obama won four years earlier.

It Is All Russia’s Fault

Okay, Russia did interfere with the election by trolling online and spreading conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton.  That is what is known for certain.  Did Russia hack voting systems and machines in the 2016 election?  The answer is there is no evidence to support this whatsoever.

Hillary Clinton herself has admitted that what Russia did was not any different than what the Koch Brothers do.  If Russia hacked voting machines are registrations then this is a major story.  That is why the press keeps running stories implying this constantly despite having nothing hard to back this up.  There isn’t even hard evidence that John Podesta’s emails where hacked by Russians and given to wiki leaks.  Even if they were, there is nothing in the wikileaks emails that anybody has claimed was falsified.

Hillary Clinton’s book paints a picture of a vast conspiracy between Russia, Trump and Jill Stein to give the election to Trump.  Why it was Jill Stein who funded recounts in those key Midwest states is never explained.  If Trump colluded with Russia this is an impeachable offense, but this isn’t even the only thing that congress has grounds to impeach Trump for.  It is, however, the only one that can be used to make the case that losing to Trump was not Hillary Clinton’s fault.





Do We Live In A Dystopia?

Recently, I read the 1968 science fiction novel Stand on Zanzibar which came highly recommended to me by several people.   The novel is considered the masterpiece of pulp sci-fi writer John Brunner and one of the most important works of “New Wave Science Fiction.”   It is also considered one of the greatest works of Dystopian fiction ever written, which made me wonder if it really qualified as such a work.

Stand on Zanzibar portrays a fictional world of, then future, 2010 dealing with overpopulation.  Brunner predicted a number of things about the future that actually came true, including twenty-four hour news and domestic terrorism. There are a few things that are off, or are exaggerations of things we already have, and like a lot of science fiction Brunner fails to predict a lot of things that we do have and have changed our lives significantly.  (e.g. cell phones and the internet.)  It borrows techniques and structure from John Dos Passos USA Trilogy”, and as a result creates a futuristic world that feels like it has its own culture, politics and history.

Here is the thing though, it neither seems to fit the dictionary definition of a dystopia, (“An imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one.”) nor the more academic definition, which is roughly a failed attempt at a Utopia.

Using the broader dictionary definition most science fiction novels set in a future society could be called a dystopian novel.  A story needs to have some level of conflict, and many science fiction stories do this by putting their hero in a future environment that is outright hostile to them.  Looking through any list of sci-fi novels, I would say that 8 out of 10 that take place in the future do not portray the future as pleasant, if not outright totalitarian.

Of course, the dystopian novel that embodies this broad definition that everybody knows is 1984.  George Orwell was writing an allegory about the Soviet Union, and his book was not meant to portray a future, per se, but to give a detailed critique of  a totalitarian state and the methods that would be used to manipulate the populace and keep them in line.  At this, Orwell excelled, and that is why the novel is considered to be a classic, but there is also a way in which the novel “failed”, if one is to look at the more specific definition of what a dystopia is.

The totalitarian government of 1984 seems to just want to crush freedom for “the hell of it” and isn’t the result of trying to fix a problem at all.   Orwell himself was a socialist, and so the issues of Capitalism and Marxism are not really addressed in the novel, but Orwell’s book in general warns about the manipulations of an oppressive state.  Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is similar to 1984 in this respect, though it concentrates on the aspect of burning books and stopping free thought by manipulating the populace.

The world that Stand on Zanzibar inhabits is not like this.  Western society has become a merging of state and corporation, with imperialism still a common feature, but while the details are different, one of the things that makes Zanzibar such a relevant novel to read still is that it does not differ that much from the world that we currently live in.  Brummer’s whole point was that this world was fucked up, but it doesn’t differ much from a current US where money is speech, and the government spies on its own citizens.  The only totalitarian element that is explicit is the government’s authority to approve the giving birth of children.

So here is the real question, with the popularity of dystopia fiction being on the rise throughout most of this century, do we live in a dystopia now?   That is an interesting question.  We live in a world much closer to the one in Stand at Zanzibar than 1984 or  Fahrenheit 451, but we can see very clearly that our world has moved closer to each of these speculative societies since the works were written and while I am still free to write a blog criticizing this society as much as I want, there is only the slightest chance anybody will listen.  Hell, there is a character in Zanzibar named Chad C. Mulligan who is a celebrated iconoclastic author, and his work is taught in college and his whole point is despite all the money and fame he has earned his work hasn’t encouraged anybody to actively fight the system one iota.

This reminds me of one of the other great works of dystopian fiction, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.  Huxley portrayed a future where society is manipulated through drugs and media to become increasingly hedonistic.  The vision the ruling government has is purely Utilitarian, but Huxley shows the dangers of having a society that is completely dominated by the seeking of mindless pleasure.  While Orwell and Bradbury were afraid of censorship, Huxley portrays a world where there really is no need for censorship because nobody really cares about anything but their own hedonistic pleasures in the first place.

Huxley’s vision is closer to that more nuanced version of dystopia where the attempt at a utopia has gone horribly wrong.  When I look at that book now I see Huxley predicted a certain mindset that would be created in the middle class during late stage capitalism.  Even with everything collapsing around them these people cannot be moved to action because the constant stream of entertainment, social media and self-medication keeps them perpetually distracted.  The seeking of pleasure has taken over beyond all reason. Still, its hard to imagine anybody looking at a world like the ones Huxley, Orwell and Bradbury create and see them as ideal.  Sure, authoritarians might look at these books and see the methods that could help them accomplish their goals, but in all three of these novels it is unclear what the ruling class actually values and how their authoritarianism is rationalized.

When I read Stand on Zanzibar I found myself thinking of Kurt Vonnegut when reading the Chad C. Mulligan bits.  Not that Brunner could have been inspired by Vonnegut, since his breakthrough work Slaughterhouse Five would not be published until a year later,  nor is Mulligan much like Vonnegut in terms of personality, with Mulligan being a  swaggering extrovert, the exact opposite of Vonnegut’s personality.  What I was reminded of was how Vonnegut had spent so much of his work trying to change his audiences whole worldview and been rewarded with practically nothing.

Vonnegut’s first novel. Player Piano, shows the effects of the world under automation. This world is a meritocracy, and it allows people with scientific jobs to flourish while those who do not have that education can only choose the military of low paying civil service jobs.  Vonnegut’s novel warns us about automation in the exact way that it is relevant right now, and we still have not steered clear of the danger with literal decades of warning. The reason is because for some people this “dystopia” where the smart hardworking techies are rewarded and everyone else gets screwed just seems fine and dandy.

Vonnegut would write this kind of dystopian story again.  In his short work Welcome to the Monkey House, a compromise over overpopulation between the people who “know science” and the people who “know morals” results in the population being robbed of their sex drives through drugs.  In Harrison Bergeron, Vonnegut created a parody of a straw man for equality, where everybody with any kind of talent is handicapped.  The story is a very sharp and subtle satire of the American mindset of the time, but goes over most people’s heads and it is largely seen as an endorsement of the very thing that it is mocking.

Perhaps the reason that Vonnegut abandoned this “dystopian” satire was because it was largely ineffective.  His later books would steer clear of the sub-genre in order to make his points in different ways, but by the end of his life he was disheartened and thought that his work, while having made him a lot of money and made his name well known, had largely been a failure at changing the world.

Another example of a writer who uses this genre is Margaret Atwood.  Atwood began a dissertation at Harvard University about dystopian fiction but ended up abandoning it.   Parts of it can be read in her book In Other Worlds: Sci-Fi and the Human Imagination and it probably almost certainly inspired her most famous novel The Handmaid‘s Tale, which has already been adapted into both a movie and television series.   Her dystopia is a result of a fertility crisis and as a result women who are fertile become “handmaids” and are forced to carry children for wealthy and powerful men.  Once again, this is, while not an attempt at a utopia, a world that might seem great to men who benefit from it.

There has been an overlap between “feminist science fiction” and dystopia fiction since the beginning.  The 1884 novel Flatland, by mathematician Edwin Abbott, uses a society based on geometric shapes, where men are higher status based on their number of sides and women are only single lines, to satirize both the class structure of 19th century England and sexism.   A favorite example, Suzette Haden Elgin published Native Tongue in 1984, a dystpoian novel about women in a male supremacist future who develop their own language to fight back against the male dominated society.  Both of these novels are satires of what women faced at the times they were written, and historically, and both probably seemed like drivel to many sexist men.

Margaret Atwood has attempted this kind of dystopia on other subjects as well.  Her MadAddam Trilogy warns about the misuse of science by corporations and environmental issues.  Her more recent novel The Heart Goes Last deals with the idea of the financial collapse, private prisons and objectification of women through “sex robots.”  These novels are warnings about where we are headed, and would fall under the label of dystopia, but the question still remains, are we already there?

During the 2016 presidential election many people pointed out the similarities between the issues we are facing now and Octavia Butler’s dystopian novels The Parable of the Sower and the Parable of the Talents.  Many people even pointed out the similarities between a certain fictional president and Donald Trump.  Once trump won this didn’t seem as funny anymore. Butler wrote these novels in the 90s when the economy was booming, so her vision of an economically collapsed US, with heavy racial tensions seems incredibly prophetic.

Radical vs. Liberal Feminism: Part Two

You might want to read part one of this blog post before preceding.  The purpose of this blog post will be to outline the differences between radical and liberal feminist views on two very controversial subjects, the first being prostitution and pornography, the second being gender identity.  First, it should be noted that I am not trying to resolve these issues, only frame them. Second,  it should be noted that not all liberal and radical feminists have the exact same views on these issues and attempts to conflate a single person’s views to a stereotype should be avoided no matter what side a person falls on.

Prostitution and Pornography

In terms of prostitution it is important to understand where the disagreement lies.  Here the issue rests on objectification, coercion and consent.  To many radical feminists the institution of patriarchy is re-enforced through prostitution by reducing women to commodities to be purchased.  In addition, to many socialists, capitalism is an inherently oppressive system, and women who are technically “consenting” to sex work, are no more consenting than women and men who consent to working conditions at low wage employment.

The arguments go roughly like this:

Radical feminists argue that the majority of women, even if they appear to consent to sex work, are not actually doing so, and that a sex industry exists where women are trafficked at worst, and at best, men profit from the sexual objectification of women.  Sex-positive feminists argue that restrictions of sex work are themselves sexist and that they interfere with the autonomy of women to make their own choices.  They usually stress how legalizing prostitution would allow regulation and unionization.

Sex-positive feminists argue that laws restricting sex work keep women from making a living and being able to support themselves and sometimes their families.    Radical feminists argue that while some women might have positive experiences with sex work, this is not the norm, and the successes that some women might have comes at the expense of the majority of women in sex work.  (Just like capitalism in general.)  Most radical feminists support the Nordic Model or something similar, while there are arguments against this model.

Some sex-positive feminists argue that sex work is no different than any other service provided to people.  Radical feminists and socialists often contest this.  For instance, if capitalism where destroyed and replaced it is highly unlikely that prostitution would continue in society, or at the very least be a rare occurrence.   Furthermore, with prostitution  it isn’t just the service provided but the specifics of the sex worker that are being paid for.  As an example, a man might enter a brothel and request a black woman or an Asian woman, or make specific requests about the “type” of woman he wants.  This is inherently objectifying in a way that other “services” clearly are not.

Ultimately, the discussion ends up with an argument involving “johns”, or men who purchase sex.  While most feminists are in agreement that selling sex should not be considered a crime, there is a very strong argument about whether buying sex should be.  I find this argument in particular to be somewhat revealing, because the arguments that some sex-positive feminists make do not alter much from the arguments that an anti-feminists male would make.  For instance, I have heard sex-positive feminists claim this is punishing and demonizing male sexuality.

It my seem at this point that I have been overly harsh to sex-positive feminists, but I would like to take the opportunity now to highlight some of the things I think sex positive feminists are essentially right about.    It is true that controlling women’s sexuality has been a major part of women’s oppression and that feminism legislating activity between consenting adults is ultimately a form of tyranny, but it is important to note that both feminism and socialism have been involved in a questioning and redefining of concepts of freedom as defined by patriarchal capitalist society.   This is something we should keep in mind when moving onto pornography.

The most potent and most effective argument against anti-pornography views has been free speech.    After all, a person can logically and consistently find something abhorrent and still defend the idea that it should be legal.  This has been the main problem in the advocacy that Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin faced was there were many people who may think their arguments have some teeth to them but be uncomfortable with the legal implications of their views, while also having to deal with “individualist” feminists like Camille Paglia and Wendy McAvoy.  

Ultimately, there are a number of difficult issues associated with pornography.  What counts as pornography?   Is all pornography bad?  If not, then what is bad and what is not?  What should be legally done about it?  What are the effects of a culture where we all have access to online porn constantly?  It is because of this last question I think in particular that this question has gained some steam again. With the amount of porn we now have available to us, any negative effects should start to become more obvious.

The person who best tackles these questions is Gail Dines.  Dines advocates for a different tact than Dworkin or Mackinnon when it comes to pornography and she has even convinced some of her opponents.

Gender and Identity  

For most of human history, and even for the early history of feminism, it was assumed that men and women were very much essentially different psychologically.  This view is called “gender essentialism.”   A blog post of mine that deals with this subject can be found here.

A major part of second wave feminism was the rejection of this narrative.  Philosopher Simone De Beauvoir, in her book The Second Sex, claimed that the idea of what it means to be a woman had been shaped by a myth she called “The Eternal Feminine.”  This myth is defined in opposition to man, and through it woman is “othered.”  Beauvoir backs up her assertion with numerous historical and literary examples.  This became the basis for second wave feminism’s ideas about gender as an oppressive system.

The existence of transgender individuals complicates matters here, but to be clear, not all radical feminists have been “trans-exclusionary”, meaning that they claim transgender identity is a meaningless category.  Andrea Dworkin and Catharine McKinnon both accepted “transexuals.”  In addition to this, there are both trans and non-binary individuals who accept the  idea that gender is a construct determined by society.

The major issue here is that some feel that trans-advocacy often includes the language of gender essentialism.  Many people when talking about transgender individuals seem to view the state of being transgender as  a person’s “body sex” not matching their “brain sex.”  A lot of this problem arises when sex and gender are not delineated.  It can be stated that sex is biological, while gender is sociological, but there are a number of issues involved with sex as well.

Intersex individuals exist, who do not fit into the traditional male/female binary of biological sex.    Some, such as biologist Anne-Fausto Sterling argue that we should expand our concept of what biological sex means.   Issues with biological sex are as followed.

1. Two gametes that are involved with reproduction, but some individuals produce both gametes, called “true hermaphrodites.”

2. There are male sex organs and female sex organs but intersex individuals typically have both, at least partially.

3.  XX chromosomes denotes female, while XY denotes male but other chromosome combinations exist.

There are some people who try and get around that last one and make sex a binary by saying that the SRY gene determines sex.  The problem with this is that while the SRY gene determines whether a person has male genitalia there are XX and XXY individuals who have SRY but a fully working uterus and are able to be “mothers” of children.  To say that these people are male, actually redefines what biological sex means more radically than expanding our categories to include intersex people does.

Much of the problem of communication between different schools of thought on gender come from the complications involved with how sex relates to gender.  Some radical feminists define the term woman to mean that a person has a uterus, or at the very least was born with a uterus.  The problem here is that this is conflating female (a sex term) with woman (a gender term.)  Things could be resolved by defining these two terms as separate, but some trans women, even if they have not transitioned, insist that they are female.  Similarly, non transitioned trans women will call themselves lesbians, something that many cisgender lesbians feel implies that a person has a vagina.

It should be noted that much of these controversies ignore trans men altogether, with a focus on the idea that trans women  are invading cis women’s spaces and claiming female identity while still retaining male privilege.    The more aggressive trans-exclusionary views originate with feminist theologian Mary Daly.   Daly’s protegee was Janice Raymond who wrote a book called the Transexual Empire.  More recently, Sheila Jeffreys expanded on the views of Daly and Raymond in her book Gender Hurts.

Much of the arguments made by them feminists involve challenging gender essentialism as a justification of transgender identity.  However, both the work of Raymond and Jeffreys relies on a mix of conspiracy theory, scare tactics and misrepresentation to make their case.  Both make some legitimate points about gender essentialism and the fetishizing of female bodies, but most of their prescriptive arguments rely on seeing transgender identity as a mental illness and that transgender identity as being a creation of pharmaceutical companies.

Judith Butler, finds a way to both reject gender essentialism and accept transgender identity.  Butler, like Jeffreys, sees transgender identity as a social construct but comes to radically different conclusions.    Butler sees gender as a “performance” a person makes in relation to societal social norms.  She defends transgender identity on the basis of autonomy, and defends trans rights on the basis of how gender non-conforming people, including lesbians such as herself, are often subject to violence by society.   Butler sees all forms of identity to be the result of social construction and while this may be meaningful to individuals, can be re-conceptualized.

Butler sees disphoria as a definition of transgender identity to be problematic, because it allows transgender identity to be pathologized by the medical establishment and forces transgender people to adopt the essentialist language of the establishment.   Transgender individuals often talk about dysphoria in very different ways, take this video for example.

I have seen dysphoria talked about in two very different ways.  The first, is to treat it almost like a form of mental illness or close to an eating disorder.  The second way is how Contrapoints does, basically describing issues that most people face.  For instance, plenty of cisgender people obsess over going bald.  In addition to this, Contrapoints stresses a need to remove body hair, something that women do because of cultural pressures and has a bad history.

In her book, Undoing Gender, Judith Butler rejects gender essentialist narratives and analyzes the infamous “John/Joan case” which many use to argue for it.  The bottom line for Butler is that individual autonomy should be respected and no person’s relationship to sex and gender should be forced upon them without consent.   However, when looking at issues like dysphoria and biological components there is still a lot to be learned and discussed.  Twin studies involving transgender individuals, only show a 33% correlation with identical twins in terms of transgender identity, compared to a 51% correlation in terms of sexual orientation.   More views on how transgender studies and feminism intersect can be read in books like Transfeminst Perspectives.