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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Things that Make Us Cry

Steve Horwitz had an interesting post over at the Bleeding Heart Libertarians back in October that I just noticed now, where he addresses once again research that came up some time ago that purported to show that libertarians tend to be focused on logic at the expense of emotion.

Horwitz challenges this conclusion, pointing to a video male libertarian friends of his have told him drives them to tears. I watched it and I had the same reaction. I suggest you check it out:

To Horwitz’s observation, I will add my own about media that drives me to tears: Google’s yearly “zeitgeist” videos (“spirit of the times” – see 2013, 2012, 2011, for example), the “I, Pencil” video (explanation of spontaneous order), images of Christians joining hands to protect praying Muslims in Egypt, and Niemöller’s “First they came …” poem, off the top of my head.

For the zeitgeist videos, the moments that set me off most were the shots of the artificial hand, artificial leg, kid with cerebral palsy walking to greet his father returning from the war, various brief shots of amputees achieving their goals, the Red Bull space jump landing with the man holding up his fists, the US soldier coming home early to his mother, Steve Jobs’s advice to stay hungry, stay foolish, the 29-year-old hearing for first time, and the solider high-fiving a local kid.

From these experiences I can extract what I believe are the moments which affect me most:

Overcoming conflict with other humans – rejecting war and accepting cooperation

Spontaneous, unplanned order – voluntary cooperation that builds magnificent things we do not expect but we’re all part of

Overcoming conflicts with nature – fighting back the scarcity constraints of the world, fighting against the cold, uncaring universe and carving out a place for ourselves

and, maybe most importantly,

Unchaining of the individual to achieve his or her potential

I say that the last one is perhaps the most important one specifically because of my reaction to the 29-year-old hearing for the first time in her life. I felt that the moment represented the opening of an entire new door for an individual that she thought would be closed forever. The sheer intensity of the feeling of overcoming what you thought would be a handicap for your entire life – and the overwhelming emotions when tasting this entirely new sense – hearing- for the first time in your life is simply astonishing.

Can the bolded points above somehow be connected to libertarianism?

– Overcoming conflict with other humans – replacing coercion with voluntary cooperation (see self-ownership)

– Spontaneous, unplanned order – emergent properties of market systems – in the tradition of Hayek

– Overcoming conflicts with nature – pushing back the limits of scarcity – see the libertarian emphasis on capital accumulation and innovation

– Unchaining of the individual to achieve his or her potential – libertarianism places a strong emphasis on the individual as the centerpiece of society. This point is also a little strange, since libertarianism doesn’t specifically say that individuals must be required to achieve their potential, but could very well choose to do nothing with their life if they so wish. However, it’s possible that people tend to be drawn to libertarianism because they value the individual so much already, and also happen to understand that all rights are individual rights.

I would even argue that the above points can be folded up into two main points. The overcoming of conflict with other humans and nature are both an unshackling of the individual – free from both human coercion and the limits of nature. We are then left with a free individual and the result of this free individual – the spontaneous order of social cooperation through the market.

If I may make the unfounded assumption that I am a decent representative of libertarians, I can see that the elements that set us off most are indeed ones libertarian emphasize – on the moral side, emphasis on the voluntary and on the individual. On the pragmatic side, emphasis on innovation, capital buildup, and emergent order. If we examine the condensed case I made in the previous paragraph, then we have the moral side, the free individual, and the pragmatic side, the result of the free individual.

Perhaps it’s not the case that libertarians aren’t very empathetic, but instead that they can openly make emotional connections when they are presented with situations aligned with the spirit of libertarianism. It is then that the libertarian can place himself in the shoes of the character in the story and appreciate the beauty of the situation as if it were his own. If, on the other hand, we see situations that emerge out of coercive action, we do not emote as easily, because there is something at the back of our minds that reminds us that there’s a zero sum game being played, with hidden losers in the background we’re not being shown.

I also want to point out what I consider to be a fantastic quote from Horwitz’s article – one that I believe is strong competitor for being one of the best that combine practical and moral arguments:

Critics of markets sometimes say “you can’t eat GDP.” What they miss is that you can’t eat, or learn to read, or go to school, or leave a bad marriage, or do pretty much any of the basics that we might see as required for a flourishing life without the wealth and time created by the market economy.

This relates to the washing machine, as the invention and its adoption opened up time for women to both gain more education and educate their children more easily, and education unchains people and allows them to do anything up to… well, we don’t know the limits of our imagination and our creativity yet. Hopefully, we won’t ever know them.

Good job to the BHL for a solid post. Now I need to get some water – I’ve somehow gotten very dehydrated after those videos.