Sunday, June 17, 2012

Identity politics and feminism

There is a common slogan feminist slogan that 'feminism is the radical notion that women are people'. This wide definition identifies most modern people as feminists, perhaps even some who have mildly sexist views but still acknowledge the basic human rights owed to women. Another quote, which I see attributed here to Rebecca West, though I can't vouch for that attribution, states:
I don’t know what a feminist is; I only know men call me one whenever I say or do anything that differentiates me from a doormat.
This is another very inclusive statement, suggesting that a feminist is anyone who treats women with a fairly basic human regard. 

These two definitions mean that I am a feminist, along with nearly everyone I know.

The surprise is when I look at what kinds of policies self-described feminists are calling for. Things like prohibitions of pornography or the buying of sexual services, calls for quotas in women's representation in parliament, prohibitions of sexual advertising, even the liberalisation of abortion. These are surprising because they are specific and focused, only loosely connected to those initial inclusive definitions. 

That is, it is perfectly possible to reject the idea that voluntary prostitution is 'male violence against women', while still thinking that women are people. Or possible to acknowledge women's equality with men without wanting political quotas. Or defend women's rights to control their bodies while opposing abortion on the grounds that an unborn foetus also has rights. 

And so on. It seems like a huge jump from 'feminism means women are people' to 'feminism means the government should censor advertising' or 'feminism means women should be denied the right to sell sexual services'.

I wonder if the inclusive phrases help people to self-identify as feminist, in turn leading them to identify with other self-described feminists, and finally warming some of them to these more radical or specific feminist policies. By getting people to identify as feminists first it may be easier to get them to read feminist literature, defend feminism against criticism, and eventually become acclimatised to more extreme political policy demands.

I suspect something similar happens with right-wing American demands to 'support the troops'. By associating the right with patriotism and support for admired soldiers they seek to get undecided people to self-identify as right-wingers. The Political Compass seems a little suspicious in this respect too because most of the people I know who took the test ended up in the 'libertarian left' corner, along with admired people like the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela.

Convincing people to self-identify with a particular political ideology could be a good way to start convincing them of its more specific policies. That is probably why Irish feminists here chide Beyoncé Knowles and Juiliette Binoche for refusing to call themselves 'feminist':
This dissing of the words ‘feminist’ and ‘feminism’ really frustrates me. I wish people, especially women, would embrace the word. I feel so cranky with women who are obviously feminist joining in with the notion that it is a negative word. 
Why should she care that others do not identify as feminist? Perhaps because getting people to identify with political labels may popularise specific policies that they don't initially support. 

So while the original inclusive statements clearly make me a feminist - one who expects women to have the same basic rights as men - I will not call myself one because I am unconvinced by many of the policies pushed by self-described feminists. I'm not the first to hit this disconnect between positive, inclusive feminist rhetoric and narrow, specific feminist policy: I wrote before about former prostitute Maggie McNeill who identifies as an 'archeofeminist' in contrast to what she calls the prohibitionist 'neofeminists', sociologist Dr Laura Agustin, who complains about illiberal 'state feminists', and sex worker Furry Girl who has abandoned the feminist tag completely, explaining it in this fascinating post. So beware those who encourage you to identify with a particular political label and chide those who do not. It all seems too much part of a cynical way to manipulate people and nudge them towards policies they would never support otherwise.

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