Critiques of Postmodern Feminism (continued from this page)
"All things must be examined, debated, investigated without exception and without regard for anyone's feelings." -Diderot
Note: Much of what follows isn't exactly "politically correct." Whether this is an argument against it is for the reader to decide. A huge proportion of respectable psychological and scientific literature from the past and present is contrary to "politically acceptable" postmodern-feminist ideas, but I'm skeptical that this fact in itself invalidates that literature. As I see it, there are interesting innate (and also socially constructed) differences between men and women, and over the years I've liked to reflectively probe what those differences might be. Perhaps in doing so I've been a bit too provocative sometimes. But we should all be open to perspectives that diverge from our own, at least if they're professed in good faith. Anyway, for what it's worth, none of the following bears on the feminist moral crusade, which every ethically aware person is obligated to support. It is critical only of the movement's idealist, postmodernist (and thus pretentious) orientation.
To speak bluntly, in order to explain gender and sexuality I don't think it's necessary to resort to the airy discourse-mongering and labyrinthine deconstructionism of postmodernism, feminism, and queer theory. These sorts of "theoretical" writings may be useful for academics hoping to get tenure, but they often serve more to obfuscate than to explicate. A more fruitful and accessible approach is to use good old-fashioned commonsense reasoning, combined with respect for the findings of relevant scientific research. One is free to smear such research and arguments as "essentialist," "sexist," "misogynistic," etc., but these value-judgments are of no more than rhetorical value. They don't refute. For that, one needs arguments.
On feminine self-ambivalence.— Why does the feminine as such seem to be more prone to insecurity about itself and its place in society than the masculine? There are many reasons, of course. One set of them is suggested by this passage from Christine Downing’s book Women’s Mysteries: Toward a Poetics of Gender (2003):
…From a series of letters written to me over the course of years I have culled these reflections:
“I write today as I bleed. The first day and the heaviest flow. I write feeling my weightedness, the drag of my uterus. Feeling my wound, my incapacity. All the changes in my body—my voice flattened, my belly swollen, my clumsiness, a flood of dreams I cannot bring back to consciousness.
“How difficult it is to stay in the body. I get up, get to the bathroom, reach into my vagina for the menstrual sponge—a bloody mess! Squeeze the blood into a cup. It splatters everywhere.
“Can I write this to you? Am I so crazy I don’t even know it? Today I feel such self-doubt.
“The knowledge of taboo returns. The blood is not to be touched, let alone saved.
“Even what we value of menstruation—are our bodies there? We value the rhythmic cycle, the feelings, the dreams, the bond. We talk and interpret. Analyze dreams. Theorize. Baroque elaborations. Virginal fluffy clouds. Ascending out of the blood, the mess, the ache, the wound.
“Even this writing. How difficult for me to stay with my body. My feelings of vulnerability. My tears that I had hoped were past, falling again. Fears and doubts.
“Here I am. The ache in my lower spine is sensual, as is the openness of my vulva, my blood slipping in my vagina.
“A wound not to be healed—but attended to—felt, touched, smelled, seen. Received.”
Merida’s words remind me of how our monthly periods open us to our vulnerability, our tears, our doubts, our fears, to a sense of wounds as not to be fixed but attended to. She encourages us to honor our dreams, the dreams we have that prepare us for our bleeding, the dreams that accompany our bleeding, the dreams that warn us we may cease to bleed…
The body tends to be more “other” for women than for men, even as women have a more intimate relationship with it. It asserts itself against their will, it has its own cycles and rhythms, it bleeds and leaks and swells and gets pregnant and determines moods. In general, one can say that, in a sense, women are their bodies more than men are, because their bodies are so much more insistent. This, combined with women’s relative physical weakness and smallness, causes them to feel, at least implicitly, more “passive” and weak than males as such (which is what makes it possible for them to desire the feeling of being “protected” by their man). Firmness, leanness, muscular tautness, as in young men—but also in some women, for example female bodybuilders—is experienced as signifying things like fighting against enemies, being active and confident, dominating, being mobile and strong; softness, physical weakness, pregnant immobility, do not foster a dominating self-confidence relative to the opposite sex.
A second obvious answer to the question I posed above is the ubiquity of the “male gaze.” It seems to be a biological fact that male sexual arousal operates largely by virtue of the look, the look at a beautiful woman, a naked woman, a scantily clad woman. Women tend to be aroused by touch, emotional intimacy, male assertiveness and strength; men are aroused, in large part, by sex-objecthood in the woman. So there are strong tendencies for the male gaze, and hence for some degree of objectification of women, to be an ever-present element in most or all societies. This will, first of all, tend to make women relatively self-conscious. And it will not typically be a healthy, prideful self-consciousness—although it sometimes will—because “the look” is dehumanizing. The look that says “you’re a sex-object” ignores the subjectivity, the spontaneous and active selfhood, of women in favor of their body. The objectified woman senses that her personhood is being devalued. When this happens to her as often as it does in modern society, which is saturated with female objectification, she may internalize the devaluation. She will see herself as the other sees her, as not much more than a sex-object. She’ll lose some of her self-respect; she’ll think she is what she is for the other, an object, not a subject (an active, dignified self). She is a thing, something to be looked at, not something that does the looking. The fact that the other affirms her insofar as she plays the role of sex-object well will give her an added impetus to play this role, because she desires recognition.
From Simone de Beauvoir.— “The advantage man enjoys....is that his vocation as a human being in no way runs counter to his destiny as a male. Through the identification of phallus and transcendence, it turns out that his social and spiritual successes endow him with a virile presence. He is not divided. Whereas it is required of woman that in order to realize her femininity she must make herself object and prey, which is to say that she must renounce her claims as a sovereign subject.” Well said, and true.* To be a fully realized human being means to be active, to be free, to express and “create” oneself, to actively seek recognition by impressing oneself on the world and others. But this is also, in a slightly different way, what it means to be masculine, due to biological tendencies in the sexes. (The sexes naturally define themselves in relation to each other, and because of biological facts about men and women, men, as such, end up being defined as more active and dominating than women as such.) Many men, of course, don’t achieve the ideal, but to that extent they’re not considered archetypically masculine. If women, however, fail to be active and self-creating and independent, that doesn’t count as a failure in their capacity as women but only, in a sense, as humans (and as selves, which have to be “self-certain,” “confirmed,” etc. in order to be fully realized). So, yes, full humanity, in the sense of “self-sovereignty,” and full femininity are in tension.
If, however, you take the moral perspective on humanity, according to which the human ideal is to personify the Golden Rule, then there is no tension between femininity and humanity. Unfortunately this is not the perspective that people instinctually seem to take. They unconsciously tend to respect dominance and activeness more than kindness and compassion. The former traits are more interpersonally and instinctually compelling than the latter. Therefore, the male sex (which is more physically dominant, etc.) is at an advantage, to some extent.
The only thing that can be done to mitigate this situation is that women be socialized in such a way that they don’t always feel the need to be exceptionally feminine. There is a time for accentuating femininity, namely in sexually charged interactions with the opposite sex, and there is a time for not accentuating it but just being human, namely in most other contexts. Women have to navigate the tensions between these roles.
*The only thing I’d change is to say that women don’t just make themselves “object and prey.” Humans, after all, are not self-caused; they are made more than they make themselves. This attachment to a radical empiricism and a radical notion of freedom is one of existentialism's significant flaws.
“Comparative advantage” in human relations.— The sexes naturally define themselves in relation to each other. Men have a biologically given “comparative advantage” in physical strength, large size, height, and aggressive or even violent self-assertion, while women have the converse, complementary advantages. Not surprisingly, then, men—in all or nearly all societies—end up being defined as the relatively “dominant” sex, women as the relatively “receptive” one.* (A kind of passiveness or receptiveness is of the essence of femininity, as de Beauvoir notes in the quotation above.) These designations have nothing to do with “superior vs. inferior”; in fact, if one wants to play that game, one can easily argue that women on average are the morally superior sex, etc. But only an egregiously sexist person would make such judgments or care about them.
*One possible exception to this rule is the Chambri or Tchambuli people of Papua New Guinea, among whom Margaret Mead concluded that women were dominant. See Mead, Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935). Her interpretation has been criticized because of methodological flaws in her study.
Biology and destiny.— Are sex hormones partially determinative of people's thoughts and behavior (and thus of gender-roles)? Many feminists believe not: they insist, in effect, that humans are blank slates, that experiences (social constructions, expectations, etc.) are the only determinants of gender. Whatever the utility of this radical empiricist dogma for feminist political causes, it unfortunately doesn't bear rational scrutiny. This article alone already suggests that biological processes are far from irrelevant to gender.
The un-rational.— Much as one wants to believe otherwise, there is little difference between Fred Phelps’s flock of reason-proof homophobes and most people. The main difference is just the commitment the flock displays toward the single issue of anti-homosexuality. Their fanaticism is what distinguishes them, not necessarily their un-rationality or irrationality.* People constantly use reason, but their use tends to be half-hearted and ephemeral; it quickly succumbs to “causation” (indoctrination, value-judgments, lack of interest). Consider my experiences in the class I’m taking on gender, in which everyone (it’s all women) is a postmodernist but I. I argue against the famous historian Joan Wallach Scott, but it’s quite impossible to change their minds on anything. They’ll always be convinced, for example—at least until they unconsciously evolve out of the belief—that biology is totally irrelevant to history and gender-roles, that as historians we shouldn’t refer even obliquely to biology unless we’re studying the history of the science. –Needless to say, I never state directly that there are connections between biology and gender. The women (postmodern feminists) would burn me in effigy. I only suggested once that the association of women in 19th-century Europe with the domestic sphere was due in part to the biological facts of childbirth and nursing. One student countered that not all women have children; I admitted that but said the point is that men can’t give birth, that the female sex is the only sex that can. They stared at me uncomprehendingly. Finally another woman said that’s true now but might not always be true, due to technological advances or whatnot. I let that pass, thinking it futile and irrelevant to argue the point; nevertheless (I said), in the nineteenth century it was true that only women could have babies. “There’s such a thing as biology.” But no, according to the professor biology is only an interpretation. Besides, as historians we have no business invoking biology. “But…we have bodies,” I muttered despairingly. “So bodies are relevant to society. Which means biology is too.” But I was forgetting that “biology is a social construction,” and that arguing with these people was like smashing my head against a marble wall.**
*Those two qualities signify two different ways of not being motivated by rational considerations. The first term denotes one’s being outside the domain of pure reason, as in emotional states and value-judgments; the second term denotes one’s contradicting oneself either in acts or in thoughts. (Value-judgments can indeed be “rational” or “irrational,” but only in their relations with each other, so that, for instance, it is unreasonable to be committed to mutually inconsistent values. The act of valuing itself is outside reason, i.e., neither rational nor irrational.)
**The biological sciences are indeed “interpretations” and “social constructions,” but that fact has no interesting implications. In particular, it doesn’t imply that they have no truth, i.e., that they do not at least partly correspond to reality. More fundamentally, my classmates and professor are confusing biology-the-real-thing with biology-the-science, which studies the real thing. They’re effectively denying the existence of biology-the-real-thing, the actual processes that occur in the actual body. (These are what I was referring to by invoking “biology,” but the professor turned my meaning around when she said that biology is only an interpretation.) They’re idealists, postmodern idealists.
Religious thinking.— The religious want to believe there’s a God…so they do believe there’s a God. Which is rather stunning, if you think about it. To quote Bertrand Russell, “it seems to me a fundamental dishonesty and fundamental treachery to intellectual integrity to hold a belief because you think it’s useful and not because you think it’s true.” More accurately, the religious think it’s true ultimately because it’s useful. A fact I can’t comprehend. Likewise, it’s obvious some feminists desperately want to believe there are no substantive innate differences between men and women…and so they manage to convince themselves that in fact there are no such differences. This belief is gratifying, so they believe it. Pretty amazing. One knows what to think of the intellectual integrity of people who are so closed-minded about a particular issue that they can somehow explain away every piece of evidence that would force them to change their mind (whether, e.g., the existence of fossils in the case of Creationists or hundreds of scientific studies in the case of feminists).
Postmodern irony.— Given the rigor of the scientific method, the conclusions of modern natural science are much less “socially constructed” than are the ideas of postmodernists who critique science as being socially constructed. Maybe these people should look in the mirror from time to time.
The animal in the human.— Why do some women enjoy “rough sex”? To a being uninitiated into the secrets of the human psyche, this fact might seem paradoxical. After all, what’s so great about being treated like a piece of meat? On one level, the explanation is simply that heterosexual women like “masculine strength.” They like watching half-naked muscular male bodies fighting or playing sports; they like touching and caressing their man’s muscles, they’re fascinated by male assertiveness and physicality. They’re attracted to them, to male dominance and the dominant male. So it’s not surprising they sometimes like half-violent sex. A deeper explanation, though, is that women’s subjection to a frenzy of “powerful masculine desire” irresistibly validates them as women. Far from its being experienced as degrading, their reduction to something like an object affirms them (in that moment at least), confirms their value and reality, as R. D. Laing might say. Through the man’s powerful desire for them, they sense their reality. (Similarly, men are validated through women’s desire.)
In addition to all this is the simple ecstatic pleasure of release from self-consciousness, self-control, inhibitions, similar to the pleasure people get from wild partying or indulging in any kind of orgiastic ritual. It’s Dionysian pleasure, the joy of merging self with other.
An inconvenient truth.— Feminism ends in the bedroom. (Unless it’s French feminism, in which case it begins in the bedroom.*)
*See the writings of, e.g., Luce Irigaray, who might have been a good erotic novelist had she chosen that career path. “Woman’s pleasure does not have to choose between clitoral activity and vaginal passivity, for example. The pleasure of the vaginal caress does not have to be substituted for that of the clitoral caress. They each contribute, irreplaceably, to women’s pleasure. Among other caresses.... Fondling the breasts, touching the vulva, spreading the lips, stroking the posterior wall of the vagina, brushing against the mouth of the uterus, and so on.” (From chapter 2 of This Sex Which Is Not One.) This titillating sort of feminism is easy to mock, but insofar as it doesn’t ignore the body, it’s more sensible than a lot of Anglo-American feminism.
Magnificent maenads.— An intriguing phenomenon happened in 2013: Daniel Bergner published a book called What Do Women Want?: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire, and feminist commentators in the media went into raptures. Salon.com is a good gauge of liberal feminist sentiment; Tracy Clark-Flory’s column on June 1, 2013 bore the gushing headline “The truth about female desire: It’s base, animalistic and ravenous.” As she summed up, “Bergner, and the leading sex researchers he interviews, argue that women’s sexuality is not the rational, civilized and balancing force it’s so often made out to be—that it is base, animalistic and ravenous, everything we’ve told ourselves about male sexuality.”
Two thoughts: first, I’m not sure feminists should be proud that female sexuality is animalistic and ravenous. Second, how is it possible there are people who deny that female sexuality is animalistic and ravenous? Hasn’t that been known at least since the ancient Greeks?
On the second point: this is yet another example of the tyranny of political correctness emasculating the human intellect. Any man who has had sex, and any woman with self-knowledge, should know that female sexuality is or can be almost frighteningly ravenous. The Greeks knew it, as shown by the ecstatic, intoxicated sexual rites of the maenads, female followers of Dionysus. Far from its being seen as glorious, as contemporary feminists apparently see it, the animalistic character of female sexuality was seen (tendentiously) by the Greeks as proof of women’s lower, un-rational nature, even as an indication of their relative passiveness and lack of self-control. It’s ironic, to say the least, that modern feminists are gleefully affirming something that was once held to justify Greek misogyny.
And yet there is some sense to the feminist attitude. Most obviously in the Victorian age, but really throughout history, female sexuality has been repressed by the authorities, denied, tamed, diabolized, such that women have been taught to be ashamed of it. Authorities have agreed with the Greeks and been afraid of its socially disruptive potential. The millennia-long campaign of repression was effectively challenged in the 1960s (as many times before) and entered a new phase, wherein the profit-making potential of women’s sexuality was liberated while most women themselves were not. Thus, for example, you get some feminists now defending pornography because it encourages women to accept and explore their sexuality, which is still something they may be ashamed of. It’s a sad situation when pornography, which typically reduces women to semi-human sex-objects, is viewed as one of the few available means of female “liberation.” One sympathizes, therefore, with feminists who revel in, and want to propagate, the knowledge that women’s sexuality tends to be wild and uninhibited—not least because one shares their desire to dismantle social hierarchies and upend idiotic conventional wisdom.
It’s clear, though, that feminists are caught between Scylla and Charybdis. Either they can counteract repression by glorying in the idea of women’s base and frenzied sexuality—which can be used to justify misogyny—or they can argue that women are civilized, rational, and self-controlling—an idea that can be used to justify sexual repression (because supposedly it isn’t really repression at all). In fact, feminism as a whole is plagued by such dilemmas, which is one reason for its schizophrenia since the 1960s, as every possible position has been advocated by some “feminist” or other. You can (realistically) affirm that women are naturally different from men, which threatens to further the agendas of social conservatives, or you can deny that they’re different, which is not only unrealistic but may further the goal of sexual repression. There is no easy way out of these dilemmas; the best one can do is to be realistic but subtle at the same time. One should acknowledge the innate differences between males and females but neither exaggerate them nor let others draw unwarranted conclusions from them. For instance, while I wouldn’t say that female sexuality is something to be proud of (neither is male sexuality), its “base” nature doesn’t justify ancient-Greek contempt for women.
Pornography.— Some feminists, such as Andrea Dworkin, argue that pornography, even the “female-friendly” kind, is misogynistic. If you understand “misogyny” in a broad sense, that’s true. But really it’s a naïve judgment; porn is actually just a reflection of male desire,* as a female columnist for Salon.com recently wrote. There are pathological, violent, and extra-degrading kinds of pornography, but those aren’t what I’m talking about. Most men naturally want to, and do, in some sense “dominate” women in the sex act (thrusting inside their partner, grabbing her and groping her), so porn almost always involves male domination of women. Misogynistic? If so, then nature is misogynistic. And so are women, because evidently most enjoy being (implicitly) dominated during sex. As the psychoanalyst Theodor Reik said, “A woman always likes to be treated with respect by a man except in one place: in bed. When he shows respect for her there, she loses all respect for him.” That statement shouldn’t be taken too literally, but there is some truth to it.
It must be said, however, that while pornography as such is a socially conditioned expression of natural desires and need not express misogyny in the strict sense, it does not promote healthy attitudes toward sex or women. It takes the natural masculine objectification of women to an extreme, turning them into little more than vulgar sex-objects. Any sort of denial of humanity is always unhealthy. One can argue that sex itself has a tendency to reduce women momentarily to their bodies (insofar as they are being acted on, acted in, “done to”), but then to that extent it is in tension with recognition of their full humanity and dignity. The same is true with regard to men who enjoy being the submissive partner. To be a self is, ideally, to be active, free, creative, self-determining—not passive, degraded, submissive. Needless to say, life is full of ambiguities and this sort of “liberal idealism” can only be approximated in real life; nevertheless, it is the moral ideal. Power dynamics can never be done away with in human relationships, or in humans’ experience of “the other,” but we should always try to return to a recognition of the other as an autonomous person in his or her own right. So, while enjoyment of pornography (depending on the kind) is in itself not unnatural and need not indicate misogyny—for if it did, most people would be misogynists—it is best to think of porn as a sort of “temporary indulgence” or “guilty pleasure” and not let it influence how one treats people.
*And female desire too. According to one study, a third of viewers of porn websites are women.
Male: external; female: internal.— One way to express the difference between how men and women tend to experience sexual attraction is by saying that for men it is usually more “external” than “internal,” while for women it tends to be more internal than external. This corresponds to the fact that masculine minds (and masculinity, like femininity, is something that individual men and women have to varying degrees) are externally oriented—observing the world, inquiring into it in an “external” (“intellectual”) capacity, treating it (acting on it) as an object, not primarily feeling or empathizing or identifying-with or appropriating-into-the-self—whereas feminine minds are less objective in this separation-between-self-and-other way. Thus, masculinity wants to have sex with someone who looks beautiful, whereas femininity wants to have sex with someone who provokes certain feelings. External vs. internal, metaphorically speaking.
Moreover: insofar as, or if, there is any natural basis for the historical unevenness in scientific, mathematical, and philosophical achievement between the sexes, it is related to the contrast between the masculine orientation to the objective and the feminine orientation to the subjective. Femininity is surely just as cognitively capable as masculinity in the realms of natural science and mathematics, but it tends to have less interest in these subjects due to its affective cast of mind. Things having to do with people are, it seems, more interesting to the feminine than things having to do with abstract logic and objective investigation of the non-subjective. Hence, in part, the higher incidence of female psychologists, social workers, artists, musicians, teachers, and lawyers than scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers. (No rule without exceptions—which may, however, as a psychoanalyst like D. W. Winnicott might say, be a result of the relatively high “masculinity” of the minds of female scientists, philosophers, etc. For example, in my experience, many women who choose philosophy as a career are lesbians or un-feminine, stereotypically speaking—“not that there's anything wrong with that.” It's just a fact, neither bad nor good. Maybe someday it will be possible to confirm all these ideas by studies of hormone-levels or brain-structures and such.)
Essentialism, a revolt against postmodernist “cultural imperialism.”*— One of the differences between dogmatic social-constructivists and me is that I think there must be some hidden truth in the eons-old essentialist thought of rich cultures, from China to India to Greece to Rome to Europe to Native American tribes and elsewhere. I have respect for ancient wisdom. More generally, I'm open to the insights of non-contemporary-Western societies.
*(Postmodernists like to argue that the West is culturally imperialist—which it is—but ubiquitous irony is the iron law of history.)
On sexism.— Feminists are fond of laying the charge of “sexism!” at society. I agree with them. Society is sexist, intensely so. When a man opens a door for a woman, he is being “sexist.” When he looks at her, he is being sexist. When he hears her voice, he hears it in a sexist way. As soon as he wakes up in the morning, “sexism” is implicit in his consciousness. And the same is true of the woman’s.
It is certainly the case, however, that many manifestations of sexism are deplorable. Nature dictates only that the sexes won’t treat each other identically, that most women will want to be protected, masculinity will tend to be valorized,* and so forth; it doesn’t dictate the specific forms sexism will take.
*The assertiveness, confidence, physical bulk, and physical strength that are (in part) a product of male rather than female biology have always been taken, half-consciously, to indicate that a person “has value,” or rather has a “strong presence” and “commands respect.” That socialization is not solely responsible for our valorization of those traits can be seen from the fact that apparently all mammals and all human societies valorize them.
Racism vs. “sexism.”— Chomsky argues in “The View Beyond: Prospects for the Study of Mind” that there is no legitimate scientific reason to be interested in differences between people arising out of their different races or sexes. Suppose it turns out, he says, that “a person of a particular race, on the average, is likely to have a slightly higher IQ than a person of another race. Notice first [he continues] that such a conclusion would have null scientific interest. It is of no interest to discover a correlation between two traits selected at random, and if someone happens to be interested in this odd and pointless question, it would make far more sense to study properties that are much more clearly defined, say, length of fingernails and eye color. But here, it is clear that the discovery is of interest only to people who believe that each individual must be treated not as what he or she is but rather as an example of a certain category (racial, sexual, or whatever). To anyone not afflicted with these disorders, it is of zero interest whether the average value of IQ for some category of persons is such-and-such....” He is perfectly right with regard to race. Even if there are slight differences (say, in athletic ability) between “average” people of different races, that is of essentially no interest. Race shouldn’t even really register with you in your daily life. It does, unfortunately, with everyone, but the less it does, the better. In any case, history has shown it to be such a dangerous area that science should stay far away from it. Sex is another matter, though. No one treats women and men exactly the same, as Chomsky implicitly demands in his argument; everyone is “afflicted with the disorder” of caring about sexual difference. In fact, it would be terrible and immoral not to treat women and men somewhat differently. If a man acted around women the same way he acted around men—if that were possible!—he would probably end up hurting their feelings or making them hate him. Men have to be somewhat careful how they act in the company of women, in order to be respectful. Moreover, sexual differences are so much more substantial and evolutionarily meaningful than racial differences that they are scientifically interesting—which is why so many scientists study them (at least indirectly). Are they all “sexists”? Well, yes, insofar as everyone is.
Fact vs. value, an important distinction.— The determination of feminists and other postmodernists (subjectivists) to see veiled value-judgments in claims that are strictly factual, and in particular to see attacks on themselves or some group of people with which they identify or sympathize, is indicative of a somewhat totalitarian mindset. To quote Chomsky (from a different context): “The sign of a truly totalitarian culture is that important truths simply lack cognitive meaning and are interpretable only at the level of ‘Fuck You,’ so they can then elicit a perfectly predictable torrent of abuse in response.” The totalitarianism of radical postmodernists is beautifully ironic, and beautifully predictable. But these people, after all, are a product of their society, their atomized, suspicious, hyper-sensitive society. So their eagerness to be offended at an opposed idea is humanly understandable, though comical and pitiable.
More postmodern irony.— One of the many ironies about certain types of feminists is that they’re arguably more “misogynistic” than some of those they accuse of misogyny. In effectively denying that women tend to have (some) different desires, interests, and talents than men, they’re assimilating them to men—using men as the standard of value—and showing a complete lack of interest in female psychology. They’re showing a lack of interest in women “on their own terms.” The whole enormous psychological, phenomenological, and biological literature on the subject is implicitly being written off as “sexist”—a labeling that shows, incidentally, an indescribable intellectual laziness. “Anyone who disagrees with me is sexist, and his or her arguments can therefore be ignored.” Revealingly, this is the same rhetorical strategy used by most political conservatives to dispatch their “liberal,” “socialist,” “communist,” etc. opponents. Ad hominem attacks are always the recourse of the dogmatic and insecure mind that can’t face opposing arguments on their merits.
Thoughts on common feminist arguments.— To object to a belief on the grounds that it’s a cliché is not a compelling argument. Something can be a cliché and yet be true. Such is the case, for example, with the belief that big business has immense influence over politics. Nor is it a convincing argument to object to a belief on the grounds that it’s offensive. Wall Street tycoons might take offense at the idea that they thrive off the systematic exploitation of millions of workers, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
On the other hand, the argument that a belief is morally offensive cannot be so easily dismissed. But here the question immediately arises: how can truth be morally offensive? As David Hume argued, the realm of “is” and the realm of “ought” are radically distinct, such that a fact cannot be morally wrong or objectionable. It just is. And to believe what is is surely, likewise, not morally wrong.
And yet there are difficulties here. It seems morally offensive to believe, say, that white people are on average less intelligent than blacks, or men are less intelligent than women. But, prima facie, neither belief appears necessarily false. For all we know, nature might have designed things that way. So, if those are possible truths, how is it that they can seem morally objectionable?
Here it’s necessary to clarify a few things. First, the concept of “intelligence” is scientifically useless, meaningless. Scientifically it can be fleshed out in an indefinite number of ways. So, the offending statements in the previous paragraph, being effectively meaningless, can in fact not be true. Consider, then, some variation on them. Suppose someone believes that men are on average less adept at empathic understanding of others than most women are, because of biological structures in the brain. (And suppose this belief can be “precisified” so as to have scientific content and be testable.) Is that belief morally objectionable? No, it isn’t. Insofar as it has cognitive content and isn’t merely an underhanded way of denigrating one sex or the other, it is nothing but a neutral hypothesis to be accepted or rejected.
In fact, it’s only insofar as the element of valuing—or devaluing—is present that it can be morally wrong to believe something. The intuition that it’s wrong to think whites are less intelligent than blacks is explained by our sense that the real point of that belief is that whites are inferior. The “value-judgment” aspect of the statement is what’s offensive. If the concept of intelligence had scientific meaning and could be separated from its emotional overtones, it wouldn’t be morally wrong to believe the statement, as long as one didn’t invest it with emotional content or use it to justify the belief that whites are inferior. Morality, to repeat, has to do with the act of valuing or devaluing, not with simple statements of fact (or non-fact).
This is also what explains the intuition that even to care about certain questions is morally wrong. To care about the differences between the brains of black people and white people seems wrong because we suspect that the only reason anyone would care is if he or she were a racist, and so wanted to demonstrate that one race is inferior to the other. However, such an awful motive isn’t necessarily what would lead someone to be interested in differences between the sexes, because sexual differences are much more substantial and biologically meaningful than racial differences. There are legitimate scientific reasons to investigate differences between men and women. Again, as long as one doesn’t invest hypotheses or conclusions with emotional content, i.e., use them to justify denigrating some category of people, the act of believing them is morally innocuous.
Thus, it can be innocuous to believe that women, for example, tend, on average, to have more intense emotions than men, or be more changeable in their moods, or more excitable, or whatever. It is by no means necessarily the case that someone who has these beliefs—and probably all people do, at least implicitly (without knowing it, because they don't want to admit to themselves that they're "sexist")—thinks thereby that women are “inferior” to men or is only interested in the ideas to justify misogyny. For these statements may, after all, be true, given how little science understands about the human species! (And no reasonable person would deny that evidence exists to support these clichés, and others.) On the other hand, inasmuch as publicly advertising such views, or giving evidence for them and seeking out biological explanations, may give aid and comfort to misogynists and social conservatives, one has to think long and hard before concluding that the possible scientific gains in understanding outweigh the possible moral costs.
It’s unfortunate that humanity is so constituted as to be able to pervert and corrupt truths, or possible truths, into supposed justifications of immoral and even meaningless value-judgments. Because some people act this way, many feminists lash out at anyone who makes speculations about biology or psychology that can be perceived by misogynists and feminists as unflattering to women. Thus you get the totalitarian climate of political correctness, in which even making a mild, correct observation about male and female behavior in our society is enough to get you slandered as a “misogynist.” Indeed, the very act of generalizing at all—even with qualifications—is typically seen as beyond the pale, given the aversion postmodernism has to general truths (preferring fragmentary understanding, particularity, obsessive acknowledgement of human diversity, etc.). “That’s a generalization!” the postmodernist screams in outrage, unaware that generalizations can be true or approximations of the truth. Even stereotypes frequently contain a kernel of truth—one reason for their being stereotypes to begin with.
On the “vice” of “generalizing.”— My dad recently offered a friendly criticism of me: he said I “always go from the particular to the general” when making judgments about things. So I retorted in an ironical tone that Schopenhauer considered this trait to be the essence of genius. Which, if there’s any truth to that, makes postmodernism the opposite of genius.*
*Needless to say, there are intelligent and unintelligent ways of generalizing. Most people do it unintelligently.
A truth from Schopenhauer.— He whose mind is virtually objective is going to have a hard time in life. His instinct to observe and explain will rarely ingratiate him with people, and the cast of his mind will predispose him to incompetence at life’s practical pursuits. People will ridicule him, misunderstand him, demonize him, hate him because he exposes them, have contempt for him because he doesn’t fit in—in short, treat him as Dr. Stockmann is treated in Ibsen’s play An Enemy of the People. On the whole, it is a decided handicap to have an independent mind.
A politically incorrect truth.— Generally speaking, a woman wants to look up to her man, both literally and figuratively. (That is to say, ideally she would like him to be taller, physically stronger, emotionally more stable, perhaps a little older, and at least as intelligent, confident, and ambitious as she.)
(In order to understand the dynamics of personal relationships between the sexes, it helps to remember “politically incorrect” psychological facts like this one.)
The mind is more attuned to selves than ideas.— It is psychologically interesting that people tend to argue ad hominem—to assume, for example, that by saying liberals are “condescending,” one effectively refutes their positions. It shows that what people are really arguing against is not an argument but a self. What matter to them most are not pure ideas or arguments but the fact that a self is putting forward certain challenging ideas. One wants to deal, first and foremost, with this self, not with the ideas it puts forward. The opposed self is what is offensive, its ideas only derivatively. As soon as one has come up with a reason to disregard the self in question, its obnoxious ideas no longer matter, being important not in themselves but only as symptoms of another’s implicit devaluing of oneself (by disagreeing with one’s beliefs). Thus you have the amusing spectacle of adversaries screaming at each other, insulting each other, while completely ignoring each other’s ideas. People who are able to detach ideas from their proponents and, furthermore, be more concerned with the ideas than with the fact that a person is putting them forward, are rare. And even in such people, there is always a basic ad hominem consciousness that can be more or less transcended depending on moods, circumstances, etc.
Incidentally, I’m not arguing that ideas don’t reveal anything about the person who holds them. They sometimes do. It is perfectly reasonable to dislike someone or make inferences about his character on the basis of his holding extremely obnoxious views. But this is separate from the issue I’ve been discussing.
Against value-judgments.— To say that someone or something is inferior to someone or something else is meaningless. “Men are inferior to women,” a radical feminist might say. But what does that mean? In what way are they inferior? Manifestly they’re inferior in some respects: for instance, men can’t give birth, whereas women can. The basis for the judgment has to be spelled out in order for it to have content.
The same applies to judgments that someone or something is bad or good. Stalin was not “bad, period.” He was bad in relation to such values as compassion, not-killing-millions-of-people, etc. He was good in relation to the opposite values. Badness and goodness do not inhere in things, as we’re half-consciously inclined to think (supposing, e.g., that Hitler’s “nature” was somehow badness or the meaningless quality “evil”); rather, we assign those qualities to things on the basis of values we hold. Value comes from our attitude towards something; in itself, everything just is, neither valuable nor worthless. We should always keep this fact in mind, to avoid attributing some sort of “absolute” or “objectively true” status to our value-judgments—an attribution that conduces to misguided certainty, fanaticism, and hatred. Ultimately value-judgments are merely subjective, though it’s true they can be “objective” in the narrow sense of invoking standards shared by others. (See chapter one of my Notes of an Underground Humanist.)
The 'personal-ity' of femininity.— The source of young women’s occasional naïveté (about, e.g., men’s crude intentions in particular situations, or particular men's villainy) is no mystery. It is that the feminine, as feminine, is more personal than objective, more immediately immersed in itself—in the wonderful giggliness and excitability of femininity—than soberly comprehending of the other.* This is why masculinity loves it, and why it loves masculinity. (If radical feminists had their druthers and society evolved so as to socialize women into acting un-femininely, men would not be attracted to them. It is the perceived relative “weakness,” receptiveness, excitability of women that naturally draws men to them.)
Again, though, I’m inclined to agree with D. W. Winnicott and other psychoanalysts that everyone has masculine and feminine elements in his or her personality (and that the concepts of the masculine and the feminine are, to a great extent, grounded in biology). Some women are more masculine than some men, and some men more feminine than most women. My point is just that there are biological tendencies for women to be a certain way and men to be complementary to that.
*Kierkegaard, no idiot, expressed the insight in a sexist 19th-century way: “Woman has neither the selfishly developed conception of the self nor the intellectuality of man, for all that she is his superior in tenderness and fineness of feeling. [Her] nature is devotion, submission, and it is unwomanly if it is not so.... [A] woman who is happy without devotion, that is, without giving herself away (to whatever it may be she gives herself) is unwomanly. A man also devotes himself (gives himself away), and it is a poor sort of a man who does not do it; but his self is not devotion..., nor does he acquire himself by devotion, as in another sense a woman does, he has himself; he gives himself away, but his self still remains behind as a sober consciousness of devotion, whereas woman, with genuine womanliness, plunges her self into that to which she devotes herself…” While qualifications are always necessary when making generalizations, there is much truth to Kierkegaard’s thoughts (from The Sickness unto Death).
Maleness and morality.— In her February 21, 2014 column in the Washington Post, titled “Sex after drinking and the war on men,” Kathleen Parker argues that men should be held to a higher standard than women. She’s right. Feminists might not like that statement, but it’s implicitly what they themselves are saying when they declare that a man should exert self-control if he and a woman are drunk together. He should restrain himself, not take advantage of the woman’s drunken receptiveness. Even if she says “Yes,” he should act in her best interests—which, apparently, he is supposed to know better than she—and not initiate anything sexual with her. This, of course, is to say (rightly) that he should be held to a higher standard than she. In general, society should demand that men have greater control over themselves than women, since men’s weaknesses can be more physically dangerous than women’s. Also, men tend to be more psychologically “detached,” in a sense, than women (see the above quotation from Kierkegaard), so it ought to be easier for them to exercise self-control.
With power comes responsibility. Men are more “powerful” (in several ways), so, by elementary moral logic, they are and should be more responsible.
Necessary sexism.— John Keats’ poem “Woman! when I behold thee flippant, vain” has great psychological resonance. Despite its literary flaws—its mannerism, sentimentalism, exaggerations—and its condescension, it’s a wonderful and fresh expression of the masculine love for women. It’s profoundly sexist, but so is the masculine love of women (and the feminine love of men). Sexism is inescapable in human relations, but this is not the ugly kind of sexism:
…Light feet, dark violet eyes, and parted hair;
Soft dimpled hands, white neck, and creamy breast,
Are things on which the dazzled senses rest
Till the fond, fixed eyes, forget they stare…
Ah! who can e’er forget so fair a being?
Who can forget her half retiring sweets?
God! she is like a milk-white lamb that bleats
For man’s protection. Surely the All-seeing,
Who joys to see us with his gifts agreeing,
Will never give him pinions, who intreats
Such innocence to ruin,—who vilely cheats
A dove-like bosom…
Yes, it treats women as relatively passive and innocent, but it’s time we stopped being dishonest and accepted that that’s precisely what (on a semi-conscious level) draws men to women—and vice versa. One wants to protect, the other to be protected. One to impregnate, the other to be impregnated. Romantic love, after all, cannot be based on mutual equality in every regard—at most, that would get you mere respect, not love. There has to be a differentiation of roles, for it is difference that attracts. Each side seeks its complement. (Intelligent people have understood this since long before Plato’s Symposium, right up until postmodern fantasies corrupted the rationality of the West’s intellectual elite.)
As for sexism, many acts done in the presence of the opposite sex are suffused with it. And it would be odd if that weren’t so. A man acting chivalrously is being sexist (because the premise of his behavior is commitment to a kind of sexual inequality). A man who acted around women the same way he acted around men—being rude, loud, vulgar, jocularly disrespectful—would be seen as incredibly inconsiderate, buffoonish, and cruel. One has to respect women, not treat them like men!
Many forms of sexism are awful. But, in a romantic context, not the Keatsian kind.
In (qualified) defense of feminism.— It’s easy to ridicule feminists who don’t want women to be treated differently from men in any way whatsoever because of the sexism that implies. You shouldn’t “chivalrously” open doors for them, you shouldn’t pay the bill at dinner, you shouldn’t compliment them on articles of clothing if you wouldn’t have complimented a man, and so forth. This ideological stance implies other odd notions too, such as that women shouldn’t be the customary “followers” in a dance, that they’re demeaning themselves when they hold a man’s arm while walking together (which is a self-subordinating act), that their frequent giggling—a basically receptive thing—is degrading, that it's terrible for a wife to adopt her husband’s last name, etc. Nevertheless, there is a perverse logic to the extreme feminist position that, in order to be consistent, is forced to reject all this differentiation of roles. Treating women and men differently, after all, is sexist, if usually in very minor ways, and this mild sexism is a slippery slope. It can legitimize more overt, but still “flattering,” kinds of sexism, such as complimenting a beautiful woman on the bus or flirting with her, and the mentality it involves can slide into truly demeaning sexism. The feminist blanket condemnation of anything that even hints of sexism avoids any possible ambiguities.
One problem with it, of course, is that it’s impossible to realize in practice. Women and men often converse about different topics with their own sex than with the opposite sex; they frequently, and should, treat women more sensitively and respectfully than men; they adjust their behavior based on the values of the person with whom they’re interacting. No feminist acts in an un-sexist way (although he or she may act in a less sexist way than others). Awareness of sex so permeates the human mind that even imperceptible gestures, slight movements, intonation, a word here and a word there, a glance, can express “sexism,” i.e., commitment to the stereotypes connoted by the concepts “feminine” and “masculine.” Consciously one may disavow such stereotypes, but unconsciously that appears to be impossible, as revealed in the subtleties of people’s behavior.
The point, then, is just to avoid manifestations of the obnoxious kinds of sexism. The point, as always, is to be respectful—while acknowledging that being respectful requires acting differently with different people. Sometimes sexism is necessary to be respectful, as when taking greater care not to hurt women’s feelings than men’s (which all civilized people do, whether they know it or not). There are no universal rules on exactly how to behave all the time, since new situations are constantly arising and individuals have differing expectations and values. The best rule of thumb is just to be empathetic and sensitive, and to recognize, for example, that behavior appropriate to a bar is not appropriate to the workplace. While postmodern feminism can be simpleminded and crude, buried in its excesses are positive lessons.