Avoiding “-isms”

No Ma'am (Men's Rights organization)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

"Paolo" by Paolo Tonon

"Paolo" by Paolo Tonon

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

"Hello My Name Is" stickerThroughout 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.

In Conclusion

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.

Labels

Notes:

  1. I know Christianity is not technically an “-ism”, but it’s still a set of beliefs. []
  2. 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. []
  3. Of course, some feminists don’t even consider it possible for a man to be a feminist. But that’s a separate discussion. []

8 responses to “Avoiding “-isms””

Adamoriens

Hi Jeff.

I sympathize with everything as said. It’s very tempting, in our desire for purposes and goals etc., to subjugate ourselves to systems of thought which deliver those to us in nice little packages. I do find one of your comments odd:

Of course, as the author of this blog points out, often these [MRA’s] 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.

In contrast to this, I have been educating myself on feminism over the past few months…

Now, this isn’t an outright genetic fallacy, but it reveals the difficulty in separating one’s self from bias, even in an article attempting precisely that. Will you be explaining feminism away via troubled relationships with father figures?

Jeff

Hi Adamoriens,

Thanks for dropping by!

I will admit that the statement you point out is probably a little out of place. I wasn’t trying to offer it as an argument against the Men’s Rights Movement. I think I was just trying to offer an explanation for why people find themselves in such a position. As an aspiring psychologist, I think underlying motivations are important to study. But you’re right, and the notion that these men are frustrated with their relationships with women does not in any way make any of their statements untrue. I don’t disagree with the Men’s Rights Movement because they’re hateful misogynists, but because they’re wrong. Or at least….generally wrong.

Thanks for pointing that out. I have edited the article a bit to hopefully clarify what I meant by it. You can let me know if it fixes the problem or not, I guess 🙂

Jeff

Adamoriens

Hi Jeff,

All good now. Well, I could point out another sentence for additional introspective grist:

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.

You may notice that you portrayed the men as frustrated failures, as if they bore the entire burden of collapsed relationships. No doubt this is true in some cases, but one often finds that many of these men have experienced traumatic betrayals. Oddly enough, I’m pretty sure this applies to the majority of those in the pick-up and seduction communities. Perhaps a vengeful desire for conquest and control? Or, more charitably, learning from one’s mistakes…or both.

Anyways, I enjoy your blog, and I’m surprised at the (apparent) lack of commenting. This is an interesting post.

Jeff

I don’t think that’s what I’m implying by that sentence. Certainly some of them, I’m sure, have experienced betrayal, etc. That’s a good point. But I didn’t mean to imply that “their own failure” means that they are the ones failing. It’s “their” failure in the sense that it is happening to them. But not necessarily because they were responsible for the failure. Just like we might say that a member of a basketball team lost the game, even if they weren’t personally responsible for the loss.

Still, though, I have the feeling that an MRA or a member of the seduction community is not born overnight. They may have experienced some betrayal which caused frustration or anger, but after a while, it may be their continued anger that causes future relationships to fail. In other words, the frustration probably builds up over time and can start to become itself a cause of further frustration. But again, that’s just speculation, and the sentence you quoted was also speculation from the blog author I linked to. So take it for what it’s worth: an intriguing possibility, but probably at best a generalization.

I find it interesting that you make a link between Men’s Rights Activists and pick-up artists, though. Certainly both seem to have a level of sexist attitudes there, one that results in avoiding women and hatred of them, and another that results in hooking up with them while generally still remaining emotionally detached from them. I don’t know whether there’s a real connection between those two communities or not, but it’s definitely interesting!

Adamoriens

I don’t think that’s what I’m implying by that sentence. Certainly some of them, I’m sure, have experienced betrayal, etc. That’s a good point. But I didn’t mean to imply that “their own failure” means that they are the ones failing. It’s “their” failure in the sense that it is happening to them. But not necessarily because they were responsible for the failure. Just like we might say that a member of a basketball team lost the game, even if they weren’t personally responsible for the loss.

Still, though, I have the feeling that an MRA or a member of the seduction community is not born overnight. They may have experienced some betrayal which caused frustration or anger, but after a while, it may be their continued anger that causes future relationships to fail. In other words, the frustration probably builds up over time and can start to become itself a cause of further frustration. But again, that’s just speculation, and the sentence you quoted was also speculation from the blog author I linked to. So take it for what it’s worth: an intriguing possibility, but probably at best a generalization.

Point taken.

I find it interesting that you make a link between Men’s Rights Activists and pick-up artists, though. Certainly both seem to have a level of sexist attitudes there, one that results in avoiding women and hatred of them, and another that results in hooking up with them while generally still remaining emotionally detached from them. I don’t know whether there’s a real connection between those two communities or not, but it’s definitely interesting!

Perhaps all they have in common is a shared enemy. The archetype of the pick-up artist is accurate enough, I think, however he is only part of the wider seduction community, which is by no means emotionally detached from women. Both groups do emphasize the projection of masculine traits to attract women, with the observation that most women respond positively to dominance and signs of social status etc. Is this a sexist attitude in your opinion?

Jeff

Both groups do emphasize the projection of masculine traits to attract women, with the observation that most women respond positively to dominance and signs of social status etc. Is this a sexist attitude in your opinion?

I think that if you were to take that observation in a scientific sense, like a hypothesis of “women respond positively to dominant behaviour” to be tested, then it wouldn’t be sexist. It would just be a way of discovering more about human behaviour, which can have differences between men and women. And to my understanding, some of the people in the seduction community do treat it sort of like this. They will use whatever seems to work best, testing different methods. But I think where the sexism would come in is if they then try to make further conclusions about it, like “women are stupid/weak for falling for this sort of dominance”, or if they try to generalize it. Most people in this community go to bars and clubs to pick up women, so they’re dealing with a select population. Women there (if I had to guess) are more likely to be okay with or looking for a short-term sexual encounter rather than a long-term relationship. Acting dominant (i.e. like a douchebag) might work on women looking for short-term encounters, but the psych. research tends to suggest this is not the case for longer relationships. So if these people in the seduction community try to generalize their experiences in bars to make statements about all women, I’d have to say that would be sexist. They’re developing an unwarranted stereotype and using it as justification for their aggressive behaviour toward women.

Jeff

Sure, atheism and secularism need to be examined properly used carefully as well. Not every statement made by an atheist or a secularist is true, and that fact needs to be recognized. Nothing that I said in this article is inapplicable to these labels.

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