Monday, June 20, 2011

The Feminist Shell Game

Jenny McCartney, in her Daily Telegraph blog, is unimpressed by the hand-wringing over a new "syndrome" discovered by hard-working feminist psychologists and revealed to the world in an article entitled: “Seeing the Unseen: Attention to Daily Encounters with Sexism as a Way to Reduce Sexist Beliefs” published in the Psychology of Women Quarterly by Julia Becker and Janet Swim. This new "syndrome" is called "benevolent sexism."

You got to love the way the article's title comes right out and admits that the goal of the authors is thought control. There was a time when feminism was identified with equal rights for women and the focus was on things like being denied admission to university or sexual harassment - actions that actually harmed women. Although I don't like feminist ideology, I have to admit that a lot of people (including me) actually admired feminism for trying to stop actions that hurt women and so feminism built up a not inconsiderable amount of moral capital as a result of that defense of women's rights.

But the capital is being spent down quickly. The focus is no longer on helping women but on controlling the way that women and men are allowed to think. The ideological mask slipped off a long time ago and the goal for second-wave feminism (roughly from the 60s on) is not making the world safe for women but re-making the world according to a new dogma: the dogma that men and women are identical in every way and so any religion or philosophy that claims that women and men are of equal value but have differences rooted in biology that make them different in significant ways must be exterminated from the face of the earth.

The idea that women should be respected and not mistreated (call it Idea 1) and the idea that sexual differences are meaningless (call it Idea 2) are not the same, but two very different ideas. There can be and should be great debate about how they relate. The dogma that the latter is required for the former is obviously untrue, in my opinion, but that point could be debated openly. But the feminist shell game is to mix up the two ideas in such a way that people lacking in critical thinking skills are misled into believing that the first idea cannot be implemented without the second.

That is what is being done in this article. But McCartney is not falling for it.

“Benevolent Sexism” is a form of patriarchal control designed to promote sexist attitudes in a pseudo-friendly way. Manifestations of it – as identified by the authors – include calling women “girls” but not men “boys”; believing that women should be cherished and protected by men; helping a woman choose a laptop computer in the belief that it’s not the sort of task for which her gender is suited; and complimenting a woman on cooking or looking after children well because that is behaviour especially suited to a woman.

It is a curious melange of complaints. I, for one, have no objection to being cherished and protected, within reason, by anybody: if mild cherishing is on offer, you can generally count me in, unless you’re a dead ringer for Lenny from Of Mice and Men. I would be equally keen to get not only some masculine help with my laptop, but also that abiding trouble with my BT broadband connection set-up, if you’ve got a few minutes to spare. But we can agree that there is the germ of a point buried deep within Becker and Swim’s largely impenetrable prose. If a man comes to dinner and says to a woman: “You’re a great cook” it’s a welcome compliment. If he says: “You’re a great cook, and thank God you’re right where any little lady should properly be, working away at the stove” it’s going to sound weirdly antiquated. Most of us can understand that, thanks, without an academic article analysing and amplifying the bejaysus out of it.

McCartney distinguishes between being polite and considerate, on the one hand, and not allowing women to have a job outside the home, on the other. It is not a difficult point to grasp - unless you are a feminist psychologist, apparently.

As an aside, there is, I believe, a very good reason why articles like this are always written in "impenetrable prose" and that is because the point is not to elucidate but to mislead. The goal is to make the reader think the authors are liberal when in fact they are totalitarian. Turgid prose has been the friend of fanatical totalitarians everywhere. It assures that only ideological sycophants will persevere to the end while critics will give up without understanding the real point. That is helpful because to come right out and say "I'm going to force you to think like I do in the name of your freedom!" just fails to convince most people who are not already ideological sycophants.

McCartney goes on:

Much more serious, however, is the damage that this sort of overwrought hand-wringing does to the name of feminism, by making people believe the old canard that it’s all about women scowling if a man is courteous enough to hold open a door for them. There is plenty of material for both women and the numerous men who care about the dignity of women to get properly angry about. Here, just off the top of my head, are a few: the prevalence of female circumcision and its attendant health miseries; child marriage; the enforced wearing of the burqa; the trafficking and use of women for prostitution; the prevalence of rape as a weapon of war; and the proliferation of images of extreme sexual violence in films and on the Internet. Not to mention the fact that so many Western women now apparently find it necessary to cut and re-stitch their faces or surgically insert silicone bags into their breasts in order to render themselves physically acceptable to the wider world.

Given these concerns, it might really be some time before feminism should devote its energies to worrying about “Benevolent Sexism”. Indeed, I am inclined to think that when one finds a man who believes that women should be cherished and protected, it would be a good idea to send him forth to encourage the others.

McCartney speaks the unspeakable when she points out that many non-Western cultures treat women in much worse ways than poor, old Western culture ever did. This point does not fit into the feminist, anti-colonialist, anti-racist ideology in which the West is always the villain and always wrong - kind of how the Indians are always the bad guys in the old Westerns. Which makes one think that feminists are less concerned about helping women than about undermining the West by hollowing out its religious and philosophical foundations.

But just as the West is not all bad and other cultures not all bad, so not all feminists are actually busy with commendable work like striving to see that women are free from fear of real oppression and exploitation. Indeed, most ideological feminism today is really totalitarian and more interested in Utopian social engineering than in equal rights. Kudos to Jenny McCartney for pointing out that there is no pea under any of the shells.

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