Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Arguing with feminists

According to a now-notorious post by Melissa McEwan, causing great excitement over at CIF this afternoon, it's a form of misogyny to argue with a feminist.

There are the occasions that men – intellectual men, clever men, engaged men – insist on playing devil's advocate, desirous of a debate on some aspect of feminist theory or reproductive rights or some other subject generally filed under the heading Women's Issues. These intellectual, clever, engaged men want to endlessly probe my argument for weaknesses, wrestle over details, argue just for fun. And they wonder, these intellectual, clever, engaged men, why my voice keeps rising and why my face is flushed and why, after an hour of fighting my corner, hot tears burn the corners of my eyes.

Why do you have to take this stuff so personally? ask the intellectual, clever, and engaged men, who have never considered that the content of the abstract exercise that's so much fun for them is the stuff of my life.

Not surprisingly, this line of thought hasn't gone down well with everyone (and to judge by the number of deleted comments, some people have taken it personally). A couple of things strike me - and I realise that even by attempting to be objective about this I am already, by McEwan's lights, displaying my deep-seated hatred of women. So be it. First, there's an essentialism that, in another context, would seem deeply sexist. McEwan appears to be saying that women - or at least women like her, feminists, whatever - are what generations of patriarchal oppressors have assumed that they are, irrational and emotionally (or hormonally) driven creatures incapable of abstract thought, or at least incapable of talking about ideas that affect them personally without becoming overwrought.

Perhaps she's like that herself, where feminist theory is concerned. But then so - in other contexts - are many men. Men who take personally any criticism of their religious traditions, for example. Although McEwan chooses to frame her experience in a Mars/Venus type of explanation - these clever, cynical men playing intellectual games over the stuff of women's deepest pain, they just don't get it - she could just as well be a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain explaining how some fairly innocuous cartoon is a source of untold personal suffering for believers. Instead of engagement with the argument, answering objections (which do presumably have answers) - and thus, potentially, winning new supporters - comes the demand to shut up, acknowledge the profundity of feeling, show respect.

There is the perplexity at my fury that my life experience is not considered more relevant than the opinionated pronouncements of men who make a pastime of informal observation, as if womanhood were an exotic locale which provides magnificent fodder for the amateur ethnographer. And there is the haughty dismissal of my assertion that being on the outside looking in doesn't make one more objective. It merely provides a different perspective.

That, however, cuts both ways: for what McEwan is surely saying isn't that the insider's perspective is merely different but that it is superior, privileged (as of course in some ways it is) and that therefore it must prevail - that to even engage in discussion is to concede the high ground. And that does not make for an inclusive conversation or a harmonious society. It is the victim-mentality embodied in multiculturalism and its offshoots: the claim that only a black person has a right to an opinion on the black experience, only a gay person can understand homophobia, only a Muslim can express an opinion about the Koran, only a Jew can criticise Israel. It leads to intellectual ghettoisation, in which arguments are never challenged, only reinforced, until eventually we stop speaking to each other.

Now oddly enough McEwan does have some sort of point, though she doesn't make it at all well. The kernel of truth in her argument is this: she does know a great deal more about feminism than the men who casually try to engage her in debate. What to her (stereotypically male) interlocutors might seem good points (because any debating point seems brilliant at the moment it occurs to you) are from her point of view tired old arguments that the high priestesses of feminism dealt with long before she or her sparring partner were born. Any system of thought - religion, philosophy, politics, science - creates its own logical universe, its own modes of discourse, language and assumptions which insiders take for granted. And the whole mystery cannot be revealed at once. Just as in Scientology the information about Xenu is too deep for neophytes to grasp, so feminist concepts that seem patently barking to outsiders (mainly, but not exclusively, men) will turn out - to anyone who bothers to study the subject properly - to be the result of hard and thorough intellectual effort carried out over decades. So it is naturally aggravating to have some outsider muscling in on "your" intellectual terrain, acting like they have all the answers or can prick all your balloons.

People who have spent their entire lives convinced of the centrality of some intellectual project don't take kindly to hearing it rubbished. Richard Dawkins, for example, got ticked off by bishops and theologians (and wannabe theologians like Armstrong and Eagleton) for not knowing much about theology - and, worse, not realising that theology mattered or had anything useful to say. They weren't threatening to kill him, or accusing him of being filled with hatred, merely of being unsophisticated. But the defence mechanism is much the same: shoring up the edifice of a system by rejecting even the possibility of valid criticism by an outsider. All worldviews have the intellectual equivalent of an immune system to enable them to repel invaders. And the more all-embracing a system is, the more it incorporates within itself an explanation for every possible objection.

Imagine members of two rival religious sects, each convinced of the truth of their claims and the falsity of the other's. It might seem obvious to each that the other was under the control of Satanic powers - how else could their wrong-headedness be explained? Or say you believed in a conspiracy for which no convincing evidence had ever been supplied: is not the very lack of evidence proof of the diabolical efficiency of the conspirators? Now feminism (of McEwan's type), like many -isms, is very like a conspiracy theory, in that it proposes a single overarching explanation for most of the problems of the world, viz "the patriarchy". It is patriarchy's fault when women are kept at home, and it is patriarchy's fault when women are forced out to work. It is patriarchy's fault when women wear too many clothes, and when they wear too little. Patriarchy is to blame when Britney Spears is criticised for behaving in ways that the patriarchy has forced her to behave. It's patriarchy that restricts women's access to abortion, and explains the high rate of terminations. So it's scarcely surprising that patriarchy - or its underpinning, misogyny - also explains the otherwise perplexing fact that anyone might attempt to argue with a feminist.