Thursday, March 14, 2013

Katherine Connell: "Benevolent Sexism"

Ye gads, it's a sad day when the NRO is talking sense about something...

Recent feminism began spinning off into never-never land when it moved radically to the left, politically and intellectually. Any movement that becomes allied with postmodernism, poststructuralism, and similarly disreputable positions is going to have a problem. Whereas old-style feminism was a robustly liberal movement that deployed concepts like equality, justice, autonomy, discrimination and respect in fairly straightforward arguments about the evils of prejudice and sexism, later feminism took a different turn. It's hard to go very far in contemporary feminist literature without encountering the silly terminology, confused concepts and contorted arguments of such thinkers (and I use the term rather loosely) as Lacan, Baudrillard, Foucault. But any arguments built on appeals to nonsense about "the male gaze," "objectification" and "social construction" are doomed to failure. It's not that there aren't interesting and important issues remaining about sex and gender--it's just that a feminism built upon the swampy foundation of literary "theory" etc. is less and less well-equipped to handle those questions. And a feminism that has spun off into intellectual oblivion by trying to construct "feminist epistemologies," "feminist metaphysics," and even "feminist logic" isn't addressing the real social and political questions that need addressing.

You may remember that there was big dust-up a few years back over the fact that fewer and fewer female undergraduates identified themselves as feminists. Many feminists spilled a lot of ink spinning out increasingly baroque and conspiratorial theories about the insidious forces that had saddled these people with "false consciousness" and suchlike. The true explanation was much simple and more straightforward: the feminism one encounters under that description in academia is largely radically to the left and intellectually indefensible. There's no real doubt that most female undergrads are feminists by the old standard--they're egalitarians with respect to sex. What they reject is radically leftist feminism and po-mo gobbledygook. As they should. The farther feminism moves back toward the sensible liberalism of, say, the Mills, the more people will identify themselves as feminists.

All that having been said, it seems to me that feminism outside the academy has moved in the right direction in the past ten years, abandoning its flirtation with people like Andrea Dworkin, and tracking back toward a more hard-headed--and clear-headed--liberalism. Every movement has its errors and excesses; feminism isn't unique in that respect. But, because it has been treated (as someone once said, but I can't remember who...) as a "protected species" in academia, it was subject to the evolutionary pressures that knock the nuttiest edges off of other positions.

Personally, I think that feminism was one of the most important social and political forces of the 20th century. I also think there's a fair bit left undone. But I think that the good feminist arguments are relatively straightforward liberal arguments about fairness, justice and equality. The farther feminist allows itself to be moved to the left, and the more closely it identifies itself with outre and muddle-headed literary quasi-philosophy, the farther it moves away from where it needs to be.


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