Can Cultural Individualists Commandeer “Feminism”?

Note the use of the phrase “cultural individualists.” This post regards people who value individualism on a cultural and/or personal level. This is in contrast to libertarianism, which is a political theory that has nothing to say on whether individuals in society should voluntarily organize along the lines of greater emphasis on the individual or on the group/community. Libertarianism only concerns the use of force in society, especially in the context of government, and is founded on individualism only in the methodological sense as it relates to politics (e.g. individuals have rights, and all rights of groups stem from the rights of the individuals composing those groups).

It is should be apparent to people who have invested a few unbiased few minutes thinking about the problem that feminism has a definitional problem disguised as a coup d’état disguised as a PR problem. Let me untangle that knot for you:

Feminism consists of two main camps:

Type 1) A vocal radicalized minority of the sort that writes tirades on Tumblr claiming all men are awful pigs and/or rapists and that everything bad in the world happens due to the (imperial/neoliberal/capitalistic/viciously white) patriarchy.

and

Type 2) A more silent majority that claims “hey, there are (some) cultural ways in which (some) women and (some) men are treated differently (by some people) starting as early as childhood that possibly lead to women failing to realize their full potential personally, professionally, and socially.”

The PR problem is the fact that feminism is widely consider a crazy, radical, man-hating ideology.

The reason for this is a coup d’état of the word “feminism”: Type 1 feminism is crazy and vocal, which means it monopolizes public coverage of feminism (scandal sells) – at least for people who don’t go out of way to read more broadly on feminism. Because Type 1 is very off-putting and has become the de facto face of feminism, the broad public considers it to be the standard bearer for feminism and writes off the whole movement as crazy – including the silent Type 2 majority that doesn’t want to make men suffer or beg for mercy, but simply wants people to put themselves in each other’s shoes.

The reason why this coup d’état was “allowed” [1] is that “feminism” has always been poorly defined. Not only has the word provided a home for the almost diametrically different opinions on gender that we see in Types 1 and 2, but it’s lost its own root (“femin” – woman) in order to become associated with a varied assortment of ideas dear to the cultural left, such as critical race theory, LGTBQUIA rights, animal rights [2], and so on. The possible solutions to the problems that this broadly-defined feminism identifies range from voluntary cultural shifts by engaging in open-minded discourse to forcefully smashing apart the entire global system of commerce. Besides things that are obviously anti-woman, it’s difficult to think of a concept that couldn’t be spun to be some sort of hyphenated feminism [3]. Couple this with the drastically different approaches for building up the theory behind each of these flavors of feminism (ranging from rationalist to relying on personal anecdotes to replace systematically and methodically collected data), and “feminism” quickly loses its meaning.

If someone were to choose to label themselves as feminist, the (commonly assumed) implication is that they place their support behind all the wings of this movement. It’s difficult (if not impossible) for someone to say “I’m a feminist” without this carrying the entire baggage of the feminist movement. This is one of the reasons (if not the primary reason) why I do not consider myself feminist: if I am a feminist, what does it really mean? Who am I claiming to be?

The (Failed) Solution

For feminists to be able to progress, they need to shed all of this baggage and focus entirely on the part of feminism (qua feminism) that makes sense: Type 2 feminism. That is, the leaders of Type 2 feminism have to reclaim the word feminism for themselves and reject Type 1 feminism not only as incorrect, but also as not feminism. And then, whenever a Type 1 feminist makes a statement such as “I support [Type 1 issue] because I’m a feminist,” Type 2 feminists must vocally respond “Sorry, that’s not feminism. Go do that off somewhere else away from the term ‘feminism’ and come up with a new name for it.”

There are two obvious problems with this, however:

1) Type 2 feminists are not doing this. Maybe it’s because they don’t want to start a civil war and lose face in the public discourse. Maybe it’s because they tolerate Type 1s because Type 1s still write their names down under the column “feminist,” giving the movement further strength in numbers – even if this is just adding apples and oranges.

2) Type 1 feminists want to be part of the definition of feminism, because to them it’s very useful to spread their ideas. In his regularly brilliant blog Slate Star Codex, Scott Alexander describes the technique known as “motte and bailey” and how it relates to feminism. Motte and bailey involves a group that, in good times, is out in the open making strong, controversial claims that they say are supported by an ideology, but when that group comes under attack, it retreats to a fortress of claiming that their attackers are attacking the obvious and uncontroversial elements of the ideology. In the context of feminism: In good times (and when in a group of their own), Type 1s make claims like “capitalism institutionalizes oppression for all women” and “rape culture is in the fabric of our society and teaches all men to rape.” When challenged on these assertions, they retreat to the position that claims that the opponents are attacking feminism, and how could they – because all that poor little feminism wants is for men and women to be treated as equals when sitting at the table in society. Hence, Type 1s can hide behind Type 2s when they need defense, thereby claiming that their opponents are crazy misogynists who would deny women a voice. If Type 1s were banished from feminism, they’d have no way to defend their claims by accusing their opponents of being awful human beings who deny women the most basic of rights.

The (Proposed) Solution

It seems, then, that Type 2s either don’t want to engage in this purge or are unable to engage in it. This is unfortunate, since Type 2 feminists probably have something positive to bring to society.

And if (real) feminists can’t reclaim their own term for themselves, perhaps someone else should commandeer it – and in the process redefine its perspective. The obvious candidate is cultural individualists, who want to maximize the power, independence, and self-sufficiency of the individual. The reasons are clear: Type 2 feminist issues are issues of individual autonomy and individual empowerment. To give some examples:

Women aren’t encouraged as much as men to study math, engineering, and computers from an early age, which steers individual girls away from the fields they like most and toward fields that are more “socially acceptable” for them. Setting aside the question of whether men and women have naturally different aptitudes, it’s undoubtedly the case that regardless of what nature gives men and women, societal pressure and cultural norms can negatively pressure individual decisions in ways that go against the will of these individuals. The issue of gendered education, then, becomes a question of “can individuals, as wondrously varied in abilities, interests, and passions as they are, find fulfillment and maximum growth in their lives, or does society hinder this ability?” Given that cultural individualists love giving individuals free rein in deciding their own futures, they can perfectly well be standard bearers for more equal treatment of men and women in early education. And if even after removing all obstacles we see gender differences, then let it be so (they would say).

Women are often harassed on the streets with arrogant, unwanted attention. I’m not talking here about someone saying “have a good day, ma’am,” but instead the sort of pickup lines stereotypically associated with construction workers cat calling women. I can just imagine that in a piece of literature by a cultural individualist, these unwanted, repeated, and arrogant come-ons would be symbolically described as a barrier to break through, an obstacle to overcome, a sneering, twisted imp jeering at the character to be banished. Moreover, for a cultural individualist, not only are the cat callers failing to live up to their own potential, but they’re pulling the individual down.

Women are sometimes passed over for recognition in the workforce. This is related to the point about education. Cultural individualists want people to not only be recognized and glorified, but they also want them to be glorified for the right thing – not merely for external looks, but for the subjects about which individuals are passionate and in which individuals invest a lot of time to succeed.

Many women are the victims of violence (including rape). It almost goes without saying that cultural individualists, as a byproduct of seeing the individual as the most powerful symbol of humanity, also go on to see the individual’s body as a temple that must not be desecrated.

The list can go on. The pattern is that the issues on which Type 2 feminism focuses are issues that matter because they’re issues that violate individual autonomy and peaceful individual possibilities for growth. To cultural individualists, the goals of sensible feminism make sense not because there is a group of people called women and society is hurting the group. Instead, it’s because the growth of each of those individuals is impaired – the fact that they’re all women doesn’t matter much morally, only strategically: since all of these separate individuals are being held back by a characteristic they all happen to share, the issue can be addressed in a more strategically coherent way.

One interesting byproduct of making feminism be a part of cultural individualism is how this relates to the “I don’t need feminism because […]” movement, which has women writing on a piece of paper why they don’t need feminism (ostensibly because they’re strong individuals and not victims). The response of the feminism that is a subsection of cultural individualism would be “fantastic – God bless you. We want to give all other individuals the chance to be exactly like you guys, and we’d love to have you as mentors or as a person to talk to for people who aren’t like you yet. We exist as a movement so that one day we won’t have to exist. We want more people like you – more people who are powerful enough to not even need a movement (though hopefully people who also help the movement to make more people like you!).” And if one stops to think about it, this really should be the response of feminists to such campaigns. The response should be “we’re thrilled for you. It means you’ve achieved the goal we’re fighting to help every individual to achieve. We couldn’t be happier. Welcome to the team!”

Conclusion

So we see that everything is about framing. If feminism were framed today as an ideology of the individual and his/her power to flourish, to grow, to learn, to build, to create, to form worlds, to shape history, to destroy the old, and to epically usher in the bright, the new, and the useful for all corners of society, its reception would be quite different [4]. It would be a feminism that would ride under the banner of someone like Ayn Rand [5], a feminism that wouldn’t be founded on the despair of the oppressed, but the future of the powerful. And at that point, it wouldn’t even really be feminism – it would be individual power for everyone, because ultimately that’s what cultural individualism is about – empowering the you, the “I”, regardless of the social circumstance or the accident of birth.

Cultural individualists have the opportunity to create this feminism. And perhaps they should. Banish Type 1, and remake Type 2 in the tradition of cultural individualism [6].

___________________

[1] As with the evolution of most words, there has not been a single gatekeeper who has “allowed” the word to take on a meaning

[2] See here, for example: http://ncc.gmu.edu/courses/1401/course_sections/18508

[3] A Type 1 feminist might at this point respond that “see, this means the entire world is against women!”

[4] In rhetoric, sometimes Type 1 feminists also sound somewhat centered around the individual, but there always appears to exist not only a certain hostility underlying all their rhetoric, but also a sense that suppression of individual growth is bad more because it harms the group than because it harms the individual that’s directly affected.

[5] I use the word “like” because I neither know Rand in much depth nor do I support all her views and rhetoric. However, she’s typically associated with cultural individualism, so I’m relying on this stereotype of her.

[6] I’d also like to note that since many libertarians are cultural individualists, they can be part of this solution. Not as libertarians, since libertarianism has nothing to say on which voluntary cultural norms ought to prevail, but rather as cultural individualists. Moreover, they should be careful to clearly separate the two concepts (even if blending them might help them politically).

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A Response to Philluhp’s Video on “Formalizing Privilege” – Systemic Hierarchies

My article on formalizing privilege has received a tiny bit of attention in social media (since I sent it around to a few people) and someone graciously decided to message me with his thoughts and later went on to make a video response to my article:

I’d like to begin by thanking Philluhp for taking the time to both read my article and to make a respectful video (twice!) to voice his views on the matter, which can be summarized as follows:

_________

– When we, as social justice warriors, talk about privilege, we are not talking merely about an individual advantage someone has

– We’re talking about an advantage that a group has due to beliefs or cultural practices that results in social stratification/hierarchies/put people in positions of power over others

– We’re also talking about psychological authority

– Systemic privileges are advantages that certain groups have over each other and over other groups

– We’re talking about ending the beliefs that create these outcomes

– We don’t care about individual/personal privilege

– If someone has genetics that make him 6 foot 8, have large hands, and like basketball, and he goes on to become a successful basketball player – we don’t care about that. By your [Michael’s] definition, he’s very privileged, but we don’t care. We don’t care that the environment he grew up in happened to value his traits.

– We are not talking about people who happened to get lucky with genetics and environment and they happened to coincide.

_________

The above are the main (and only) points Philluhp makes, and I took careful notes to not miss any of his thoughts and build a straw man against him. Still, I do have to admit that it was sometimes difficult to parse out his intention, and so I did the best to reconstruct his argument. Here is one example of an apparent contradiction in what he was saying:

4:12 – “I’m not talking about equality of outcomes, necessarily” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wjzFhT8k6ak#t=4m12s

8:53 – “when I’m talking about privilege I’m giving a particular focus on the beliefs and practices that create these inequalities of outcome” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wjzFhT8k6ak#t=8m53s

Of course, we always give our discussion partners the benefit of the doubt in these cases and assume the best intention on their part.

Anyway, my thoughts:

Philluhp’s response doesn’t alter my analysis in any way, because it was already broad enough to encapsulate all of his points.

Philluhp’s main theme (which is likely one that any social justice warrior [1] would have brought up “against” me) is that privilege is “an advantage that a group has due to beliefs or cultural practices that results in social stratification/hierarchies/put people in positions of power over others.”

The fact that the privilege is a feature that pertains to a group instead of just an individual is not especially relevant if the outcome is the same. Not only this, but all group privilege is a type of individual privilege – each individual receives this privilege when he/she is part of a group. Furthermore, if many individuals have what Philluhp calls an “individual privilege,” then there is a group of people that has this advantage over other people, and hence it becomes a group privilege.

Does Philluhp not care about individual privilege because he does not think that these specific privileges create group advantages that are all that large (like being naturally built in a way appropriate for basketball)? If so, then he’s ignoring a mainstay in feminist theory – interlocking privileges. Simply because 10 individual features by themselves are not very influential does not mean that when put together they will not have a significant impact. But even that ignores the point that simply because the greater power these individual privileges confer is not as great as other “class” privileges it does not mean that it’s not important to discuss it.

But I digress. The most important answer to Philluhp is: my analysis already takes into account class privileges/social stratification/hierarchies/putting people in positions of power over others. As he explains, my analysis is quite broad, and even by his definition of privilege it subsumes [2] the concept of privilege. I talk about both “individual” and “class” privileges (thought I doubt the distinction is in fact existent) because I address privilege as a thing that has the features that both individual and class privilege share. None of my analysis breaks down when you replace each instance of “privilege” with “systemic privilege” in my essay (and Philluhp has failed to point out why my analysis would break down). No part of my analysis said one’s privilege (as I defined it) may not be in part due to a prevailing social attitude. Here’s an analogy: Say I am writing a paper on why it’s impossible to just lift a book and leave it to float there by itself, and in my argument I say “all items are pulled toward the earth because of gravity. Therefore, if there is no other force to hold the item suspended, it will fall.” Someone responds, saying “aha – but you are wrong, my dear Michael! We are discussing the issue of books falling – not just ‘items’!” Well, yes, we are, but since “a book” is a generic particular [3] of “all items,” what is true for “all items” is true for “a book.”

Fundamentally, I think Philluhp’s argument is inconsistent. He states “We are not talking about people who happened to get lucky with genetics and environment and they happened to coincide.” And yet this is exactly what white privilege is, for example. A person happened to get lucky with genetics (being white) and environment (a society where whiteness is valued) and they happened to coincide. Yes, his environment’s liking for his whiteness is a systemic thing – this does not change the analysis.

Try another line of argumentation: Suppose all NBA players are wealthy or at least have a fairly large yearly income (my guess is that this does not strain the imagination). Suppose an NBA player walks into a soup kitchen, sits down, turns to the homeless man to his right, and starts complaining about how he can’t afford the mortgage on his third home and how his Lamborghini just broke down, etc. etc. I think that many people would think that a good “check your privilege” would be healthy for the basketball player right at that moment No? Well, suppose that the homeless man starts complaining back about how he’s got no home, how he’s in debt, how he’s got a mental illness, and how his friends all abandoned him. The basketball player, with a look of disgust, says “well, why don’t you just become a basketball player like me and make tons of money?” In this case, a “check your privilege” would definitely be required, since the basketball player is ignoring the pathways through which he achieved his success and is failing to realize that the homeless man likely cannot do the same. Aha – so we see that “privilege” is indeed a good word for the basketball player’s characteristics.

Moreover, take beauty privilege or thin privilege. Both of these have various causal “individual privileges” (by Philluhp’s verbiage) as their roots – whether this is genetics or how health-conscious a person’s parents are or how stressful a child’s environment was.

To summarize:

– Most importantly (and again, I cannot stress this enough) – my analysis already takes into account class privilege, because nothing I said is specific to “individual privilege.” Even if all of the following points are in fact wrong, this point by itself is enough to hold up my entire thesis. My original essay remains entirely true unless someone can show my analysis does not hold for class privilege.

– There is no useful distinction between individual and class privilege in my opinion. All class privileges are characteristics of individuals [4]. And all characteristics of individuals separate people into groups and determine their success/power/hierarchical relations.

– Even Philluhp’s “class privilege” is exactly what he said it’s not –  “people who happened to get lucky with genetics and environment.” I repeat – all privilege is a mix of genetics and environment, including class privilege – to no lesser extent!

Notes:

[1] In my experience, “social justice warrior” is used somewhat derisively, but since Philluhp approached me using this terminology, I figured that it is a label accepted by the community.

[2] Subsume – to consider or include (an idea, term, proposition, etc.) as part of a more comprehensive one.

[3] A “proof by generic particular” as I learned it in Discrete Mathematics is a proof where you say “we have a category Y. Take any generic item y in that category. By virtue of being in Y, it satisfies conditions a, b, and c, from which we can deduce d, e, and f.” It’s relevant to this conversation because I said “take a generic type of privilege. By virtue of being in the group of privileges, we can deduce so and so from it.” Simply because the privilege can also be a specific type of privilege, it doesn’t invalidate things that are true for all privileges.

[4] Any students of economics reading this will appreciate here a mention of methodological individualism. If this means nothing to you, no worries.