Sizing Up Suffering: A New Language of Liberation

Your Body Is a Battleground

"Untitled", by Barbara Kruger

I’ve written at various times about gender issues. I’ve written about gender roles, about gender-neutral language, and about feminism as a label. I have had notes stored on my computer for months now for a post about feminism, but I never feel qualified enough to provide my insight about such a broad movement. In short, it seems clear to me that thoughts about gender issues have taken up prominent residence in my mind. So I’d like to share a few of those thoughts. I’d also like to hear what others have to say in reply, so please feel free to comment afterwards.

A Contest of Suffering

I realized fairly recently that my major issue with Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs) is their tendency to turn gender issues into a contest about who suffers more. Their complaint is that women are “better off” than men and that men suffer various disadvantages with little recourse to correct them. (Alimony payments seem to come up a lot, as one example of these disadvantages.) But this seems to be similar in nature to many feminist writers as well—though in the opposite direction, with women being worse off than men, of course. Feminism is a broad movement, so I don’t want to overgeneralize here, but the themes of male privilege and the disadvantages of women in comparison to men seem to be common. While I do agree that women face significant disadvantages in the social realm, and that equality is not yet in our grasp, it seems to me to be a wrongheaded approach to the issue.

In general, when talking about privilege and disadvantage, it can end up seeming trivial or even childish to talk about who suffers more.1 Certainly a lesbian, trans-gendered woman living in sub-Saharan Africa suffers much more than a straight, cis-gendered male stock broker in New York. But does such a discussion really serve to help the first individual? I understand that acknowledging the problem is an important first step, but complaining about which group of people suffers more seems to be a fruitless endeavour. It’s clear that women can be disadvantaged by society, and it’s also clear that men can face disadvantages in society as well. But the size or degree of disadvantage faced by each group is unimportant. The gender of the groups themselves are unimportant. What is needed is for action to be taken to reduce disadvantages, regardless of who it is that suffers. In other words, it’s not because women suffer more than men that makes it an important issue; it is important because women (and men) suffer at all.

From Patriarchs to Power

EqualityFeminism seems to be shifting from discussions of patriarchy to kyriarchy. The former focuses on men as dominant over women. The latter describes various interacting and interconnected systems of dominance and power. It goes beyond gender to find power struggles in race, class, socioeconomic status, age, sexual orientation, and more. So while a generic man may be better off than a generic woman, can one even compare the degree of suffering between a gay man and a straight woman? The disadvantages are real and apparent, yet they are of a qualitatively different type. When comparing the two, it’s not clear that gay men are dominant over straight women. And when one includes other factors like race, class, etc., it is clear that not all men wind up on the top of the pyramid, and not all women fall to the bottom. With these interacting systems, to determine who objectively suffers the most seems inconsequential. If one instead embraces that all human suffering should be diminished, the situation comes into focus. It’s no longer about which gender as a whole has it better off, since discussions of “gender as a whole” become largely meaningless.

A Label of Love

Connotation MattersIn light of this broader scope, I would like to set aside the label of ‘feminist’ in favour of one that is more inclusive of these other factors. Something like ‘humanist’ might portray a larger view of the situation.2 This is not to say that feminism is obsolete. Far from it. Gender is absolutely one critical variable, and feminist literature has brought (and continues to bring) to our attention many important concepts that shape the nature of the discussion. What I am looking for is not an elimination of feminism, but an extension of feminism to include these other factors. I realize that many feminists are ten steps ahead of me on this, and do already discuss these factors, but I merely submit that the term ‘feminist’ does not suggest this broader focus. The root of the word implies only gender, and indeed only a focus on women. What is needed is a term that accurately portrays a desire to decrease or eliminate human suffering, regardless of its form or origin. This doesn’t preclude talking about women’s issues or gender roles, of course. Some might choose to remain focused primarily on issues that are most relevant to them; however, a more inclusive term would acknowledge that groups focusing on gender, race, and so on are really working towards the same goal, united in the reduction of suffering and disadvantage in favour of equality. It may be mere semantics, perhaps, but human language has the ability to inspire fresh focus and perspective.

So this is my proposal: Define a word which more adequately embraces the desire to reduce human suffering. Some might wish to extend this even further to include the suffering of non-human animals as well. That’s fine. Considering I don’t really have a good term at this point, the floor is open. But my hope is that, through identification with a such an inclusive term, we can get past comparing who suffers more and continue on the path of producing real change in the lives of real human beings.

Notes:

  1. When I use the term ‘suffering’ in this article, I mean more than physical harm. Other types of harm, including psychological, economic, and emotional, are just as crucial to understanding the scope of suffering of an individual or group. []
  2. Of course, humanism has its own history very different from feminism, and thus brings in its own connotations, so it might not be the best term for what I am trying to describe here. []

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