Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The Ideological Bait and Switch

Julian Sanchez makes an interesting point:
Now, far be it from me to dispute any movement's decisions about how to define its terms. But these rather strong criteria [for who qualifies as a real feminist] strike me as incompatible with the expressions of frustration we sometimes hear about people's reluctance to self-apply the label "feminist." The criteria in those cases seem rather looser: "Don't you support gender equality? Don't you think people doing equivalent work should be paid the same? Aren't you opposed to rigid gender roles and double-standards? Well, then you're a feminist!" If that's the standard, then I am a feminist, and so are the vast majority of people I know. If the standard is the wholesale acceptance, in practice as well as theory, of the ideology held by the modal Feministe commenter, I suppose I'm not and probably don't aspire to be. But by that standard, neither are most women I know.

The problem generalizes: any movement or ideology will face conflicting pressures towards both inclusion and exclusion. On the one hand, a "big tent" is required to attract people to your tribe. But on the other hand, you also want to persuade these people to adopt your more specific (and controversial) views. It's easy enough to apply social pressure once they've signed up, as nobody wants to lose their tribal identity. What better way to manipulate people into agreeing with you? Force a choice between "The Patriarchy is oppressing women everywhere!" and "Bah, then you oppose gender equality!", and hope no-one notices the false dilemma.

I guess that's a reason to be suspicious of labels in general. Their equivocation is avoided if we tackle the issues directly. It hardly matters what we call our resulting view. But there's a sense in which such definitional squabbles may be more substantive than they seem. Most charitably, arguments about the "true meaning" of an ideological label may be interpreted as questioning what is the most coherent and compelling version of that ideology, i.e. what position the diverse adherents would eventually converge upon, given ideal epistemic conditions. Importantly, such claims then stand in need of real argumentative support, rather than mere definitional stipulation.

Having said that, if stipulation is called for, I would recommend going with a narrower position for sake of enabling debate. There's no point taking a stand when nobody disagrees with you in the first place!


  1. On a slightly facetious note, have you seen this: BlogWarBot
    I found it rather amusing.

    On a more serious note I agree with Julian, these sorts of disputes about names can often sidetrack the real issues. (Recall the Life of Brian)

    Could this be solved by the use of that innovation of the biological sciences, the genus/species distinction?

    I do this when I talk about ethical theories with my students I give them an explanation of the genus ie consequentialism and the core claims of a theory that make it consequentialist, I then give examples of specific species of consequentialism ie ethical egoism, act utilitarianism, rule utilitarianism, satsificing and so on. I think this is useful because people's intutions I think lead them to the broad theory ie the genus, but not often to a specific species. Thus if a species of theory is shown to be wrong they can always shift to a different member of that family.

  2. Yeah, that sounds helpful!

    (Funny link, too...)

  3. As plausible as the view that feminists are out trying to manipulate men is, I'm afraid feminists disagree over what counts as a feminist. Actually, many feminists would disagree completely that "if you believe in gender equality, etc. voila! you're a feminist."

    You recommend going for a narrower position. There is one, actually, that is super narrow. Some radical feminists believe men simply can't be feminists, period (this is doubtless because they harbor a deep hatred of the entire male race). Not very inclusive, you see. This is a topic of a lot of internal dispute within feminists, what does the 'feminist' label denote, and what should it denote.

    There are more moderate positions in between, of course, but your last few lines suggest you were unaware of the existence of these narrower definitions or labeling criteria.

    And indeed, these debates are, despite appearances, substantive and not merely about definitions or labels. If they were, we could simply pick something and go with that.

  4. Oh, right, I certainly don't mean to suggest that one should always go with the narrowest definition. I was more just criticizing the practice Julian refers to as "[expressing] frustration... about people's reluctance to self-apply the label 'feminist.'" Example: Belle Waring - "Reducing the stigma attached to being a victim of sexual assault would be a great idea. So great, that it already has a name…feminism!" That sort of approach neglects the substantive disagreements that people have.


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