The Way We Talk About Things That Matter

I’m engaged in several concurrent discussions about two very different topics – feminism and racism – but I’m finding that I’m making the same argument in both of them.  Since Facebook doesn’t really lend itself well to lengthy reflection, I’m coming here.

My first conversation is with a former student.  He’s a bright boy, though he is sometimes resistant, as we all can sometimes be, to ideas that are contrary to his experience or to the way he views his world.  I fondly recall a number of lively (and sometimes, for both of us, frustrating) conversations about controversial topics in which we both ended up exhausted; I because of the work it took to present him with compelling evidence in a way he’d be amenable to accept and he because he expended an inordinate amount of energy refusing to accept that evidence.

The other day, he posted something on his Facebook wall that was akin to “why can’t we call ‘feminism’ ‘humanism’?  If feminism is really about equal rights, then it should be about men’s rights too.”

Well, yes… and no.

I’ve been thinking an awful lot over the last decade or so about how incredibly polarized we as a society have become.  At what point did it become a bad thing to be able to inhabit the space between extremes?  When did admitting that the opposition had a valid point become a sign of intellectual (or worse, moral) failing?  Why can we not concede that a thing might be grey, rather than insist that everything be categorized neatly into black or white columns?

What ensued was a long – and frustrating – conversation about why, in fact, we need a particular branch of thinking that is specifically and unapologetically feminist.  Do feminists care about men’s rights?  Of COURSE they do; at the heart of feminism is a need to see complete gender equality, and we can’t have that unless and until both genders share equally in the rights, privileges, and responsibilities of society.  The point, however, is that, at this particular point in time, we don’t NEED a specialized movement in order to protect men’s rights (or white rights…).

I talked about the idea of weather versus climate; that an individual’s experience does not necessarily represent the experience of the larger group.  A particular woman may enjoy a bigger salary than her male coworker.  A particular woman may be the abuser in her relationship.  A particular woman may experience no discrimination or harassment in her workplace.  That an individual’s experience is such does not mean, however, that all women experience these conditions.  In fact, the opposite is generally true, and unless and until that changes – unless and until the general experience of women is free from gender-based encumbrances and discrimination and threats of physical intimidation and control – then we need a line of thought that is specifically, enthusiastically, and unapologetically feminist.

I think part of what made my former student choke is the fact that his personal, lived experience doesn’t bear out a “need” for feminism.  He has very often felt disadvantaged and marginalized and, as a consequence, resents the idea that women should be afforded “special consideration” in society when he, himself, feels like his gender doesn’t afford him any particular advantages.  He was arguing the same point that poor men – or black men, or gay men – tend to argue without realizing that the concept of intersectionality – that just because one is privileged in one aspect of their lives doesn’t mean that they are privileged in all aspects of their lives – is an actual thing.  Again, I had to fight against the ‘all or nothing’ paradigm that seems to be the hallmark of our modern discourse; you either are something or you aren’t, and the in between is either too confusing, too difficult, or too uncomfortable to navigate.  Yes, my student may have been poorly treated.  Yes, my student may have been verbally harassed by women on the street.  That doesn’t change the fact that he is LESS likely to be so specifically BECAUSE he is a man.  There are a thousand things that he doesn’t have to worry about BECAUSE he is a man.  There are a number of invisible privileges and advantages that he enjoys BECAUSE he is a man.  Whether or not he understands or appreciates these facts doesn’t make them any less true.

I think one of the things that frustrates me most about these kinds of conversations is the idea that we somehow have to include everyone equally in the conversation.  The central tenet of political correctness – that to marginalize anyone or to silence any voices is to commit the same kinds of crimes we’re fighting against – is, I think, one that stifles rather than encourages conversation.  I reject the effort of people like my student – or the #alllivesmatter people, or the “not all cops are bad cops” people – to try to be all-inclusive specifically because I think that to broaden the conversation to include everyone does further violence to the people whose rights are being denied.

I’m insulted by the implication that my support of feminism means that I reject men’s rights, or that I want women to have advantages over men.  I hate that my support of #blacklivesmatter means to some that I don’t think that ALL lives matter.  I’m deeply insulted by the thought that my outrage at the behavior of bad police officers automatically means that I believe all police officers are bad.  These arguments are simplistic, reductive, and disingenuous.  They are insulting to thinking people, and they serve only to keep the status quo in place.

Of COURSE men matter, but we’re not TALKING about men; we’re talking about WOMEN and the ways in which their gender disadvantages them in our society

Of COURSE all lives matter, but we’re not TALKING about ALL lives; we’re talking about BLACK lives and they ways in which they are undervalued in our society.

Of COURSE not all police officers are abusive, but we’re not TALKING about the good ones; we’re talking about the officers who use their power and their access to deadly force to abuse the public (and, specifically, the black public).

When we try to inject the entirety of the population into a conversation about a particular segment, we water down that conversation.  I, as a white, middle class woman, have very little of value to add to the conversation about poor black people beyond offering my unconditional support for the ending of the policies and practices that keep them poor.  MY experience is completely meaningless in that conversation, and it is both arrogant and counterproductive for me to try to force my experiences in; doing so takes away from the very real problems that people face and, not for nothing, makes me look like an ass.

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