I recently had a discussion online with someone who identifies himself as a “men’s rights activist (MRA)”. These MRAs are reactionaries to the feminist movement, and often their complaint is that equality has already been achieved (in the Western world) and that women who continue to push for greater rights are just seeking to achieve superiority over men. As the author of this blog points out, often these concerns seem to stem from frustrations regarding their own failure to have satisfying relationships with women. The frustrations begin to manifest in outright misogyny, and they pin the blame on the feminists who gave women power over men. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily make their viewpoints wrong, but it does help us potentially understand how someone becomes an MRA.
In contrast to these views, I have been educating myself on feminism over the past few months, and I strongly believe that feminism and gender equality are important, and not issues which have already been resolved in North America. My discussion with this individual, as you might imagine, was somewhat heated, although fairly civil. But during the course of this argument, I found myself wanting to disagree with some of his points not because they were wrong, but simply for the sake of disagreement.
That’s not the first time it’s happened to me, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this. When someone argues against something I feel strongly about, I feel the need to defend the whole cause, even if some of the person’s points are valid. For instance, this MRA brought up the point that scholarships make it easier for women to enter post-secondary education (and indeed, women outpace men in completion of post-secondary degrees in Canada), and thus, continuing the strategy of offering scholarships specifically for women was now encouraging inequality. Although I thought the point was valid, I still felt the need to offer a “yes, but” to challenge him anyway. I focused on math and science degrees and pointed out that there was still gender disparity there. While my point may also be valid, it didn’t really address his criticism.
Shades of Grey
So why did I feel the need to defend feminism as a whole from this guy, even though I somewhat agreed with a few of the things he said? It seems as though it might be a problem with “-isms”. When you buy into a certain set of beliefs so thoroughly that you are willing to label yourself as an “-ist” (a follower of the “-ism”), that cause becomes part of your identity. And when part of your identity is challenged or attacked, it is very easy to go into damage control mode. The defense of the cause becomes more important than the defense of solid arguments. Indeed, with strong ideologies, the defense of the cause can take on supreme importance—it must be defended at all costs, even if that requires deception, financial sacrifice, loss of one’s own life, taking of others’ lives, and so on. The “-ism” becomes the moral good that must be protected from everything else, which becomes “evil”.
However, it seems fairly clear that this black-and-white picture simply is not true. We live in a world that involves shades of grey. Any human ideology is necessarily disconnected from reality to some degree, because “-isms” are human inventions. Even the most correct “-ism” is still going to be wrong at some times, in some contexts. Not every feminist statement will be a shining beacon of truth; not every communist criticism of capitalist society will be accurate; and even if Christianity1 is true, not every statement made by a “true Christian” will be right.2 And if these followers of “-isms” are not always correct, then this means that there will be valid criticisms that can be made against them.
This urge that I have to defend my “-isms” from attack stands in conflict with my desire to be guided by rationality. Logically speaking, if someone makes a valid point, I should accept that point and adjust my own beliefs accordingly. Instead, when I defend my “-isms”, I refuse to admit that the point is valid and continue to challenge it. If it is, indeed, correct, then I am only digging myself into a deeper hole by doing so. But alas, it is simpler and easier to accept beliefs in “packages”. By wrapping up a set of beliefs with a nice ribbon and a tag that says “feminism”, I can more easily incorporate them into my identity. And of course, that’s not always a bad thing. If feminism is 95% right, it is better to take the package and then discard what is invalid. But such a thing is easier said than done. Once one “buys in” to an ideology, it becomes progressively more and more difficult to discard the incorrect beliefs. There is an urge to defend even the wrong beliefs from challenge. And therein lies the problem.
Living with Labels
Throughout my study of feminism (of which I have only scratched the surface), I have found myself agreeing with many points that have been raised. And yet, I have continued to be reluctant to identify myself as a “feminist”.3 Although I advocate feminism, I am inclined to reject the label. In the same way, although I have basically become a vegetarian, I don’t feel as though that label really describes me. I am more apt to say that “I’m just a person who doesn’t eat meat.” To an extent this seems to be simple semantics. If a vegetarian is a person who doesn’t eat meat, and I’m a person who doesn’t eat meat, then I’m a vegetarian! But the taking on of that label seems to require some added commitment on my part. There seems to be some implicit requirement to “advance the cause” or to “be a good representative”. Labelling oneself involves associating oneself with the people that share that label. The issue is barely about words at all; it’s about identity. And sometimes (on my more reflective days, at least) it seems that choosing to label myself as an “atheist” or a “vegetarian” or a “feminist” or a “socialist” separates my core identity into discrete little chunks of being, and destroys that integrated whole that I hold most dear. By calling myself this or that, I am no longer me: I am this or that.
I am not going to argue against labels. They are useful tools, and probably essential for productive discussions. But I would like to offer what I think are some important things to keep in mind when using labels. Remember that you are not your labels. You are more than just the sum of all the words you use to describe yourself. In fact, a label is separate from the thing it describes. I am not an atheist: I am a person who holds beliefs that are generally consistent with what can be called “atheism”. Secondly, you are only required (in a social sense) to defend your own statements and actions. If you generally agree with feminism, but there is a feminist who makes an incorrect remark, you have no need to defend that remark. In fact, you would be wise, reasonable, and moral to do what you can to correct that remark. First, it gets the human race one small, incremental step closer to truth. It can also serve to refine feminist beliefs so that incorrect ones are discarded and correct ones are retained. Thus, challenging one’s own colleagues is not, and should not be perceived as, an “attack”. If others claim it is, they are simply victims of the motivations I’ve been describing in this article. Remember that you are only required to defend your own claims—but you should also be working to ensure that those are truthful before making them. Finally, remember that even wrong people can be right sometimes. There should be no shame in admitting that your “opponent” has made a valid point. Doing so displays humility and rationality on your part, and (hopefully) encourages a more civil discussion.
It is with great care that we should handle “-isms”. It is important that we are able to separate ourselves from the causes we support long enough at least to ensure that we evaluate them critically on a continual basis. It is all too easy to get caught up in battling “the enemy” and fail to realize that we are either defending incorrect beliefs or, at the very least, we are making statements that are not adequately supported by evidence. These are both things that we all, as a human race, need to work to avoid, so that we are continually pursuing truth and discarding falsehood. Take care with your “-isms” and treat them gently. And remember that you are more than just a handful of labels.
- I know Christianity is not technically an “-ism”, but it’s still a set of beliefs. [↩]
- I would go even further to argue that the ideologies themselves will be incorrect in some contexts, rather than just their followers being wrong. As I mentioned, an ideology is a human invention, existing only in our brains as ephemeral thoughts. Human thoughts are always approximations, as there is always interpretation when what exists out in the world is gathered by our senses and processed by our brains. But for my purposes here, I’ll focus on the weaker claim that followers of ideologies are imperfect beings and thus will be wrong in some cases. [↩]
- Of course, some feminists don’t even consider it possible for a man to be a feminist. But that’s a separate discussion. [↩]