Thursday, July 24, 2014

An open response to the “letter to privileged people who play devil’s advocate”

By: A privileged person who plays devil’s advocate

(Before I begin, the reader should know that I make a point of addressing people with the same level of scathing, patronizing condescension with which they address me. Bear that in mind as you read both the original letter, and my response below.

If you’d prefer a more respectful tone that isolates the ideas in question, instead of coloring them with sarcasm, defensiveness, and personal attacks, so do I. In fact, I have employed such a tone when discussing this very issue here, here, here, here, here, and here. But right now, I’m simply not in the mood. I have spent the past two weeks pausing every half sentence to bite my nails for fear of being misconstrued by thin-skinned manufacturers of perpetual outrage. My back is not flexible enough to bend any further backwards in accommodation for these people. Caution is healthy, but too much timidity for too long can drive a writer insane, so I’m going to let loose for once. Consider this your trigger warning.)

“You know who you are. You are that white guy in an Ethnic Studies class who’s exploring the idea that poor people might have babies to stay on welfare. Or some person arguing over drinks that maybe a lot of women do fake rape for attention. Or, recently, someone insisting that I consider the idea that Elliot Rodger could have been a madman and an anomaly, not at all a product of a white supremacist and misogynistic society.”

Although I’ve neither taken an Ethnic Studies class nor accused a woman of lying about a sexual encounter, it’s worth pointing out that the positions you presented in your last sentence are not mutually exclusive. Elliot Rodger could have been a product of a misogynistic society, and also a madman, and also an anomaly. In fact, I think it’s reasonable to argue he was all of those things at once. Positing those positions as contradictory is an example of a logical fallacy called “false choice,” in which one is directed to choose between fewer possibilities than actually exist. But then again, you much prefer ethos and pathos to logos, don’t you?

“Most of the time, it’s clear that you actually believe the arguments you claim to have just for the heck of it. However, you know that these beliefs are unpopular, largely because they make you sound selfish and privileged, so you blame them on the “devil.”

There are a few reasons this paragraph is, erm, “problematic”:
1.     The first half of the first sentence is just not true. Most times I play devil’s advocate, I’ve not yet thought about the topic enough to have well-formed beliefs. The fact that I’m engaging in devil’s advocate means I’m hoping somebody else will help those beliefs form. By contrast, there are many topics on which I do have thoroughly considered views. When those topics come up, I assure you I have no reservations about voicing them in my own name (see reason #3).
2.     The second half of the first sentence also isn’t true, but for a separate reason: I do not claim to play devil’s advocate “just for the heck of it.” I do it for two reasons: first, to learn more about the subject from someone who may have more extensive exposure to it than I; and second, to further the disussion on the matter, to the potential gain of all participants and observers. Those are important benefits with important implications for the question of whether devil’s advocate is a worthwhile endeavor. To dismiss them as simple shits and giggles is to purposefully and lazily misrepresent my intentions.
3.     The second sentence is just pure bullshit. I believe, and have publicly argued, that polygamous, homosexual, undocumented immigrants should be able to do heroin on their wedding night without breaking any laws. I’ve defended the sale of organs, sweatshop labor, prostitution, open borders, and a whole bunch of other shit that’s a whole lot less popular than the thought that maybe you don’t have a right to free birth control. Besides, if we truly feared advocating unpopular ideas, why stick our necks out by commenting at all? Most people would just keep to themselves. There are a lot of people in the world who are afraid to take their ideas wherever they lead them, for fear others will disapprove of what they say. I am not one of them, and I suspect most people who demonstrate the intellectual curiosity it takes to play devil’s advocate are not either.

“Here’s the thing: the devil doesn’t need any more advocates. He’s got plenty of power without you helping him.”

By “the devil”, the author means “ideas she disagrees with.” Of course, everybody in the world with any opinion at all thinks the opinions they disagree with do not need any more advocates. The trouble is, you can’t just wish those ideas away by closing your eyes and clicking your heels together. If you want to prevent the people who disagree with you from gathering additional sympathizers, the burden falls upon you to convince the undecided people that you are right, and those other people are wrong – a process which is greatly aided, might I add, by a glorious explanatory tool called “devil’s advocate.”

I understand that male-dominated anti-feminist ideas have pervaded our society for centuries, and I agree that feminist ideas pose a welcome challenge to those outdated concepts. I further recognize that those who challenge stubborn mindsets are often met with predictable responses from those whose mindsets they challenge, so I can grasp the skepticism with which you might approach the next guy in line. But people engaging you in conversation have neither an obligation to omit those arguments you might have heard before, nor an obligation to be convinced or satisfied by the rebuttals you offered previously.

“These discussions may feel like “playing” to you, but to many people in the room, it’s their lives you are “playing” with. The reason it feels like a game to you is because these are issues that probably do not directly affect you. It doesn’t matter whether most mass shootings are targeted at women who rejected the gunman if you are a man – though it should, since misogyny kills men too. If you are white, it doesn’t matter whether people of color are being racially profiled or not. You can attach puppet strings to dialogues about real issues because at the end of the day, you can walk away from the tangled mess you’ve exacerbated.”

Fair enough, which is why we should be a responsible devil’s advocate, but this is not an argument for why we shouldn’t play devil’s advocate at all. Yes, I’m very lucky to be able to discuss things in an abstract and objective way, without potentially traumatic personal experiences coming into play. For that reason it behooves me to tread lightly around those who are less lucky. But no matter how lightly I tread, the conversation still needs to take place if feminism is to get anywhere at all. If we ever want to reach the day when there are fewer misogynistic massacres and less racial profiling, we as a society have to frickin’ talk about those issues! We have to exchange the bad ideas for the good. What too many feminists fail to recognize is that this communication is a process; it can’t consist of feminists talking at people and expecting them to just shut up and agree.

“To be fair, there are many privileged devil’s advocates out there who are truly trying to figure things out. I know people who think best out loud, throwing ideas at me to see which sticks to their “friendly neighborhood feminist.” Your kind like to come at a concept from every angle before deciding what you think. You ask those of us who are knowledgeable on the subject to explain it to you again and again because in this world it is harder for you to believe that maybe the deck is stacked in your favor than to think of us as lazy, whining, or liars.”

You were doing good up until the second half of the last sentence. It should have finished “because not everything we say is sacrosanct, occasionally we’re wrong, and it’s important to tease out those occasions from the rest so that feminism’s otherwise laudable message isn’t polluted with illogical crap.” But besides that, yeah, you got the gist.

“It is physically and emotionally draining to be called upon to prove that these systems of power exist. For many of us, just struggling against them is enough — now you want us to break them down for you? Imagine having weights tied to your feet and a gag around your mouth, and then being asked to explain why you think you are at an unfair disadvantage. Imagine watching a video where a young man promises to kill women who chose not to sleep with him and then being forced to engage with the idea that maybe you are just a hysterical feminist seeing misogyny where there is none. It is incredibly painful to feel that in order for you to care about my safety, I have to win this verbal contest you have constructed “for fun.”

To answer your question, yes: I do want you to substantiate your beliefs. If this burden is as “incredibly painful” to you as you claim, perhaps due to some personal trauma you’ve suffered that I cannot relate to, you have my sincere condolences. As someone who thinks feminists are right 80% of the time, I sympathize with how agitating it must be to have people deny your oppression. I, as a privileged dude, don’t have to deal with that same feeling, so I will take your word that it is physically and emotionally draining. Accordingly, I will treat you and your beliefs with respect and sympathy. I will also give you every opportunity to either a) take a break if you need to collect your thoughts or cool down, b) direct me to a link that explains it better or more thoroughly than you’re presently able to, or c) tell me you’re not in the mood and that I should go on my merry way. Which I will do!

What I won’t do is what you and too many of your feminist sistren seem to expect: encounter ideas I’m not sure about on topics that are important and affect all of us, but shut up and roll with them anyway, just to prevent you from “being forced to engage with the idea” that you might be wrong about something. That’s not how my mind works, it’s not how our society’s discourse will advance, and it’s just not a reasonable thing to expect of the world. If I see the public discussion being swayed by an idea that strikes me as dubious, I’m going to challenge it. If I have a question, I’m going to ask it. You don’t get to police my reactions to your ideas any more than I get to police yours to mine.

What this means for you is that if you’re not interested in having your ideas respectfully scrutinized, you shouldn’t share them with an audience of people that includes me. When you post your opinions to a public forum like Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, or the comments section of an article, you do so at the peril that somebody else on that forum might not immediately agree with you. This is especially true, as you seem to have gathered, when the ideas you’re posting radically unsettle entrenched power systems. Prepare yourself accordingly! You ever heard that saying, “if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen?” Well, if you can’t handle dissent, don’t preach controversial opinions on social media, because it’s essentially daring people to take you on.

Should you choose to share your views (and I so hope you do), you rightly point out that you do not have to humor me in discussion. But if you have enough energy and interest to show me your thoughts on the topic in the first place, you do have to deal with me showing you mine, at least initially. That’s how this works; you clutter my newsfeed, I clutter yours.

“For those devil’s advocates who are trying to learn, I suggest you explore other avenues. Consider that you are not paying your friends to break down concepts that are often painfully lived experiences for them, and be mindful of their time and energy. Be grateful (and show it), and listen carefully and thoughtfully when they are generous enough to talk about these experiences with you.”

I must have some tremendously generous friends, because sometimes they seem almost eager to talk about their most passionate beliefs, and I’ve never paid them a dime! You may find it hard to believe, but a great many people (who, might I add, are wholly capable of managing their own time and energy) actually enjoy a polite intellectual joust on topics that intrigue or animate them. I engage with these enthusiastic social activists on a daily basis. You may find this shocking, but some of them are even women.

Patriarchy or no patriarchy, you will not convince me that women as a class are too traumatized by dudely oppression to have their ideas scrutinized – even if it’s by someone who fails to demonstrate adequate gratitude for the opportunity. There’s some overlap here with the Blurred Lines controversy, which I wrote the following about last fall:
“I am bewildered when self-described feminists suggest men must coddle women, and speak to them more gingerly then we speak to other men. This mindset only perpetuates the bullshit stereotype that women are these dithering, indecisive, easily overwhelmed creatures who lack the emotional wherewithal to take charge of the situation and say yes and no with clarity and confidence. There was a time when feminism was about empowering women to view themselves as fully capable of such authority. It’s sad that the modern version seems to have given up on encouraging female communication, and turned instead to blaming men for having the audacity to expect it.”

Ideas cannot be fairly examined when the discussion takes the form of one participant doing the other one a favor. You cannot expect people who aren’t sold on what you’re selling them to sit cross legged at your feet, patiently pleading you to shower your enlightenment upon them. Socrates comes to mind, feigning reverence for Euthyphro’s wisdom even as he runs intellectual circles around him. In fact, Socrates – who was condemned for persistently questioning widely held beliefs in Ancient Greece - is a damn good analogy for what’s happening here. You should read him some time.

“Some might challenge that I am shutting myself off to new ideas and censoring important opportunities for growth. But these ideas you are forcing me to consider are not new. They stem from centuries of inequality and your desperate desire to keep them relevant is based in the fact that you benefit from their existence. Let it go. You did NOT come up with these racist, misogynistic theories. We’ve heard them before and we are f*cking tired of being asked to consider them, just one. more. Time.”

I am tired of reading the word “forced” in sentences where it does not belong.

            “ideas you are forcing me to consider”
            “being forced to engage with the idea”

“You keep using that word…I don’t think it means what you think it means.” Am I putting a gun to your head and demanding that you debate me, or else? Or am I asking you a fucking question? Tweeting upon your Twitter involves no force whatsoever. What’s more, the fact that I’m playing Devil’s Advocate to test the strength of your idea means that you did it first! I’m not forcing you to consider my ideas any more than you are forcing me to consider yours.

Anyways, when you strip out all the circular arguments and stylized vitriol, the reasoning that underlies this paragraph is just pure intellectual laziness. Translated from feminist to English, it reads “Some might challenge that I am shutting myself off to new ideas…but those ideas are wrong! I know I’m censoring important opportunities for growth…but…but…but I don’t wanna grow out of the exact same set of opinions I already hold! I’ve probably got it all figured out already – after all, I’m in my twenties!”

So dearest devil’s advocates: speak for yourself, not for the “devil.” Teach yourself. Consider that people have been advocating for your cause for centuries, so take a seat. It’s our time to be heard.

No. I refuse to timidly tiptoe around the heart of important matters because some people are too feeble-minded to deal with dissent – whether or not the reason they lack that mental fortitude is because they’ve been systematically oppressed in ways I have not. They’re welcome to my sympathy and assistance, but not my silence, because the vibrancy of our public discourse on the critical issues facing humankind is simply too important to sacrifice on behalf of their short term mental state.

If you don’t like it, don’t read it. Ignore me, vilify me, go on cathartic rants about what a douchebag I am for daring to speak my mind. Or, even better, articulate why I’m wrong, and put it in writing. If you do, I’ll be happy to abandon the rambling anger of this post and resume the respectful, considerate tone of an intrigued but uncertain debater, eager to learn. But I won’t prostrate myself before you or refuse to challenge anything you say, so don’t expect me to “take a seat.”

Juliana should get a gold star for every time she refrained from saying “go f*ck yourself” to Elliot Rodger apologists.

Andrew should get a gold star for every time he refrained from closing his computer and giving Juliana the comforting cocoon of unchallenged consensus the thinks she's entitled to.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Reason is not part of the patriarchy

(note: this post is part of a series on why feminism should embrace the clash of ideas. It can be read in isolation, but would probably be more thoroughly understood in context. Go here for hyperlinks to all posts in this series)

Feminist Argument #5: Open debate is itself part of the patriarchy, because the veneration of reason and logic as superior means of knowing than emotion is merely a tool to marginalize and ridicule women associated with those traits.

I have only encountered this argument at the extremes of the feminist movement, and I desperately hope it remains there. Whereas a prior generation of feminists sought only to remove the association between emotionalism and femininity, this new argument seeks to remove the “stigma” around emotional reactions at all, even in places which were formerly thought to require the use of unclouded reason and abstract logic. What’s so good about reason anyway, it asks? Humans are creatures of emotion, and it’s unnatural to attempt to divorce ourselves from it. Just because ones arguments are more rational, it concludes, does not mean they are right or just, so we should diminish the importance of rationality in our discussions.

If this thinking ever catches on, I fear my differences with feminism will become irreconcilable.

To attack reason is to attack the entire endeavor of comparing ideas by proxy, because without it there is no means to evaluate the ideas we compare. Without the guide of logic, debate is just a bunch of people chaotically shouting at one another. And to attack debate is to attack the virtue of free speech altogether, for who needs alternate viewpoints if there’s nothing to be gained by considering them? It reduces feminism – once a rationally defensible layering of sourced ideas – to a self-sustaining, quasi-religious dogma of circular logic.

I disagree fervently with the notion that free speech is part of “the patriarchy” we rightly fight. But even if I’m wrong about that, the implication to me is not that free speech must go – it’s that not all of the patriarchy must be torn down. Masculine or not (and I think it’s not) freedom of thought is the foundation and guarantor for all other freedoms. It precedes them in order and supersedes them in importance. Free speech trumps the right to bear arms. Free speech trumps the right to own property. Free speech trumps civil rights and the right to a living wage or healthcare or whatever other rights you want to invent. And yes, free speech trumps feminism, because without it, feminism – along with every other ideology under the sun – is a meaningless mockery of a discourse, a sham collection of pre-approved notions masquerading as the battle tested product of reasoned thought. I could not endorse such an illusion of knowledge. I’d rather drink hemlock.

The world is not your "safe space," and isolation from dissenting views is not your right

(note: this post is part of a series on why feminism should embrace the clash of ideas. It can be read in isolation, but would probably be more thoroughly understood in context. Go here for hyperlinks to all posts in this series)

Feminist Argument #4: “Open debate between privileged and underprivileged participants furthers oppression, because it inevitably leads to one side saying things which prop up the patriarchy. Worse yet, open debate risks triggering people who may have deeply personal or traumatic experiences with the subject at hand. For these reasons, open debate is unacceptable in feminist communities, which should instead prioritize the preservation of “safe spaces” for oppressed peoples. These communities should only welcome debate if it takes place under a set of restrictive terms and conditions designed to prevent or minimize these effects.”

To clarify, if your position is merely that debate is more appropriate in some times, places and manners than it is in others, I wholeheartedly agree. The Facebook status of a woman announcing she was raped as a child is probably not that time or place. Personal attacks with blatantly sexist insults are not the manner. Similarly, online groups designed specifically as support agencies for people who have experienced genuine traumas in their life should not be hijacked by people who don’t meet that description. And any group that deliberately and preemptively limits themselves to a certain demographic, so as to designate a _____-only zone of discussion for the purpose of strategizing or commiserating, is also cool (provided that is made clear from the outset).

What I’m objecting to in this rebuttal is the growing practice of broadening the bubble of protected “safe spaces” to include those areas in which feminists preach feminism to the general public. This includes entire college campuses, conferences or speaking events at which gender issues are discussed, and open online groups designed to “educate” about the feminist cause. It is related to the requirement that trigger warnings be affixed to damn near everything, which I will address in a later post. It’s why my university peers threw a temper tantrum when a pro-life group dared to be pro-life in their presence. Basically, it’s the extension of the hypersensitivity one might expect at a rape clinic or PTSD counseling session to cover the entire universe, on the basis that every individual with an opinion has an obligation to present it (or not) in a manner that is “emotionally safe” for those the left has designated as amply oppressed.

This is more extreme version of argument #4 is complete bullshit, and I want to denounce it in no uncertain terms.

Our conference organizer from earlier justified one such set of community guidelines this way: [emphasis original, not mine]

I’m…okay with using our power as conference organizers to potentially censor content or behavior that is harmful to a subset of our community. I’ll say it again in another way: I don’t believe that censorship is in and of itself a bad thing because freedom of expression is not an unlimited right

censorship also prevents harm from being done to vulnerable populations…We censor children’s access to pornography so that they have less of a chance to witness sexual material before they are ready for it. We censor hate speech. We censor certain incitements to violence and crime. We (hopefully) self-censor too, for a lot of good reasons: so that we don’t hit our kids or tell our co-workers to go fuck themselves when we’re having a bad day.

Part of being a mature and responsible adult is knowing when freedom of expression should be limited and censorship is appropriate”

Another part of being a mature and responsible adult is not conflating wildly different things in an attempt to normalize what is really a pretty abnormal position. Concealing pornography from children – or simply refraining from beating them! – is in no way shape or form analogous to censoring dissent. Although it is true all three activities are designed to prevent “harm”, the type of harm which a seven year old experiences when s/he is beaten or made to watch two-girls-one-cup is so far removed from the type a woman experiences when a man tells her she’s wrong that surely, in a vocabulary vast enough to include the word “incitements”, those “harms” might have warranted distinct descriptions.

But let’s humor this and go a little further; what ought these community guidelines to be, according to feminists? How is it that people who disagree with a feminist are supposed to go about interacting with them in the appropriate way, so as to ensure they don’t “further oppression”? One particularly obnoxious group member on the Hopkins Feminists’ page proposed a series of rules governing the groups discourse. I have pasted my favorite six in italics below:

1. “members of an oppressed group are not immune from furthering the oppression of members of that same group, but these discussions should by and large be left in the hands of members of that group.”

Well, how convenient. You know, as a libertarian, I think people who smoke marijuana are being oppressed by the government. If I could limit the discussions surrounding marijuana to those people who smoke it, I imagine my opinions would come out on top in those discussions every time. But I can’t do that, because to leave debates about important issues in the hands of people who already agree with me is to not have any debate at all.

2. “Remove people from the space who refuse to be called out or insist on upholding oppression. These people may be educated or informed by group members, but not in a public space that touts itself as safe for marginalized peoples.”

What is and is not “upholding oppression” is an opinion. Educated and informed people can and do disagree on what counts as oppression. To remove those who dare to disagree with you from the discussion, and thus insulate all group members from their dissent, is censorship plain and simple.

3. “Defer to the members of the oppressed group. You may ask for follow up questions, but members of oppressed groups are not obligated to educate you.”

And I am not obligated to agree with them, nor to shut up just because they disagree with me. Believe it or not, it is possible for a member of an oppressed group and the member of the empowered group to get into a disagreement about a thing in which the member of the empowered group is correct.

4. “Approach the subject with the intention to learn, rather than to debate the group whose oppression you are complicit in.”

As I explained in my second rebuttal, I find it ridiculous to categorize “learning” and “debate” as two mutually exclusive things. If anything, I think they are one and the same. If person 1 holds opinion X, and person 2 holds contradictory opinion Y, and opinion X is tru, person 2 can only ever come to realize that through comparison with the ideas of person 1 – in a process we normally call DEBATE! We can only learn if we debate open-mindedly, of course, but we can never learn if we aren’t permitted to present our qualms or misunderstandings.

5. “You…should just apologize and be grateful for the knowledge that will enable you to further your efforts as a feminist.”

Read: you should just assume the other person is right, and you are wrong, without having actually ever been convinced of it. Well, no. Being an oppressed woman does not relieve you of the burden of substantiating your truth claims. If you can’t convince me of your opinion through reason and logic, I will not just concede you are right just because you’re female, and it is preposterous to assume anyone would. And feminists wonder why progress is so slow? Any ideology that expects those who do not already ascribe to it to apologize outright is in for a rude awakening.

6. “Do not police the feelings and experiences of oppressed people. Do not expect people to behave politely towards people who are oppressing them. This is silencing and detracts from their right to contribute to spaces that should be dedicated to their empowerment.”

So, let me get this straight. Person A and Person B disagree about something. Person A has less privilege, on net, than Person B. This incidental stroke of fate means, according to feminists, that Person A can say whatever they like to Person B, no matter how offensive. They can scream, they can hurl obscenities, they can levy personal attacks, and they are freed from the necessity of making any sense as they do so, because they have a right to free expression and find it empowering. Any objection from Person B should be decried as “tone policing”. Any emotional reaction this produces in Person B should be scorned as making the discussion “all about them.” Any psychological distress this creates in Person B should be ignored or even ridiculed. In fact, Person B should be grateful for the knowledge which Person A’s obscenity laden rants have provided them.

Meanwhile, the only thing Person B needs to do to get removed from the group is express any opinion to which Person A objects. When this happens, the simple fact that Person A has objected is expected to change Person B’s mind, and produce an immediate, unquestioning apology.

I yearn for a feminism that was about eliminating double standards between men and women, as opposed to erecting more.

As I qualified earlier, safe spaces from which the public at large are preemptively excluded are one thing. But if you hope to spread your ideology by presenting it to an audience that includes those who don’t already agree with every word (as you should!!!), you cannot cry oppression when people mention that they don’t agree with every word. Pointing out the fallacies in your argument is not the same as oppressing you, nor of furthering your oppression at the hands of others.

You can call me privileged until you’re blue in the face, but I will never accept the idea that members of oppressed classes are just too oppressed to handle being presented with ideas they disagree with. And if they are, I sympathetically but wholeheartedly encourage them to do everything in their power to get over it, because that feature of a free society which ensures they will encounter ideas they don’t like is one we absolutely must not abandon.

Credibility is no substitute for an argument

(note: this post is part of a series on why feminism should embrace the clash of ideas. It can be read in isolation, but would probably be more thoroughly understood in context. Go here for hyperlinks to all posts in this series)

Feminist Argument #3: Open debate is only productive among people who are equally educated about or familiar with the issues at hand. Some people are more qualified than others to discuss certain matters. When we’re discussing the systematic oppression of certain classes, this includes by default the members the class whose oppression we are discussing, because they can see things from a perspective that privileged people cannot. It is a waste of time for educated or personally affected people to debate those who lack that experience or expertise.”

What this argument boils down to is pure ethos: an appeal to credibility as a means of persuasion in place of logical argument. The heightened credibility which feminists claim comes from two alleged sources: superior expertise, and superior personal experience.

Regarding expertise, Thinking Girl argues: [emphasis original]
“If you don’t know the basics of feminist theory, you can participate, but it would be easier on everyone if you did some reading on your own first. Don’t expect or demand that feminists in this space do your educational leg-work for you. This is actually REALLY impolite and if you’re male, reeks of privilege. It may sound condescending, but sometimes you actually do have to catch up to the rest of the class. If someone tells you to do this, try not to take it personally. It really isn’t feminists’ job or responsibility to do your work for you.”

Fair enough. Those who are not yet feminists would indeed do well to learn the basic parlance of feminism if they wish to engage a feminist in conversation, just as one who wishes to discuss economic policy should know the meanings of terms like “Pareto efficiency” or “supply and demand.” But it does not follow from this that open debate is ineffective. Once the facts of the matter are established, people who are not yet feminists do not need to be taught what you believe, as one is taught math or history: they need to be convinced of it. Debate with some adversary or another is the only way I know of to convince them.

It should come as no surprise that feminists are the experts on the patriarchy, just as communists are the experts on proletariat exploitation, libertarians are the experts on property rights, and Christians are the experts on the contents of the Bible. But that does not mean that any of those groups are right within their respective fields of self-proclaimed expertise. In fact, it does not even mean that any of those topics – the patriarchy, proletariat exploitation, property rights, or Bible stories – actually exist, as their existence is entirely dependent on the veracity of the theories which created them. Similarly, much of the terminology feminists complain non-feminists are “uneducated” about are self-created terms which presuppose the correctness of feminism at all, which makes “educate” a kind of arrogant word choice. An expert on the flat-earth theory may know all the ins and outs of his theory better than anyone else on the planet, but at the end of the day, that planet is still round. No amount of “educational leg-work” will change that.

Regarding the claim to higher credibility due to personal experience, this argument is rooted in a much broader progressive narrative. The theory is very roughly and hastily summarized as follows: everyone in society has a certain amount of privilege, conferred upon them by the complex web of socially constructed prejudices against certain classes of people which have been ingrained in our culture for centuries. Privileged classes include men, white people, wealthy people, heterosexual people, cis-gendered people, people of a socially acceptable body size, and many others. I’ll discuss the overall usefulness of this narrative in greater length at a later date, but for the most part I agree with them up to this point.

Where they go nuts is in the next step. Due to their devotion to fighting for oppressed peoples, feminists, and really progressives in general, have pretty much accepted the idea that the amount of privilege someone has is essentially determinative of their ability to be right about almost anything. It is utterly remarkable how comfortable they are with this assumption. It would be amusing if it weren’t so depressing.

The result of this narrative’s pervasiveness is that in the instant that any disagreement is detected in the radical progressive community, most participants will not continue to express their beliefs until they’ve sized-up their opponent: before proceeding, they’ll need to get a rough estimate of their opponent’s net privilege levels. If the progressive determines that their opponent is less privileged than they, this happenstance disparity is perceived as so damning to their chances of success that they will often forfeit outright. Privileged progressives frequently apologize preemptively, even when they remain utterly bewildered as to how in the world anything they said was the slightest bit objectionable. More often than reasonable people can imagine, privileged progressives will admit they are wrong, despite the fact that deep down inside they remain entirely unconvinced of it. Examples of can be found here.

If, on the other hand, they determine their opponent to be more privileged than they, such people will usually waste no time in demanding that said person “check their privilege.” If their opponent persists in disagreeing with them, the progressive is wont to berate them with emotionally charged insults and personal attacks, calling public attention to the oppression taking place. If their opponent dares object to this tactic, they will hurriedly accuse them of “tone policing,” on the preposterous but widely held belief that oppressed peoples are entitled to a lower standard of politeness than everybody else. And if their opponent infuriatingly continues to disagree with them, they will snidely dismiss their arguments as “______splaining,” with the insertion of one’s membership in a privileged class into that blank sufficing as a widely accepted substitute for any thoughtful retort. The consequences of such an atmosphere are described here.

What was that phrase the last lass liked so much? “[E]ndless, fruitless turd-pong”? Yeah, it turns out feminists do it amongst themselves too. In fact, I am fairly certain that the vast majority of feminists reading this article, if they even bothered to read this far, don’t give a rats ass what I think as a primary consequence of the fact that I’m a dude. It’d be “mansplaining”, and according to them, men can’t ‘splain anything worthy of knowing. I’m giving my two cents anyway on the long since abandoned principle that it is our ideas, rather than our identities, which determine who is right and who is wrong.

Anyway, what this argument boils down to is “some people are more qualified than others to discuss these things…namely, us.” I shouldn’t need to illustrate how this divisiveness retards the spread of feminist ideas, instead of accelerating it. Credibility may bolster an audience’s receptiveness to an argument, but it is not a substitute for an argument, and feminists who use it as such merely forfeit the opportunity to use it to their advantage. If feminism is to spread, feminists must convince non-feminists they are right; they cannot do that merely by telling them it is so.

Effective communication is a process of exchange

(note: this post is part of a series on why feminism should embrace the clash of ideas. It can be read in isolation, but would probably be more thoroughly understood in context. Go here for hyperlinks to all posts in this series)

Feminist Argument #2: Open debate gives undue and excessive voice to privileged classes [in this case, men]. Society is dominated by a media and culture that sees things from the male perspective by default, so men have other podiums from which to be voice their opinions. In fact, most of feminism is already a rebuttal to the male worldview. If feminism is to be a movement for women’s liberation that gets them out from under this culture, it must primarily be a movement in which women speak, and men listen.

This is perhaps the most common argument I have encountered. This conference organizer’s community guidelines read:

"Everyone is entitled to their thoughts and opinions. And we are entitled as a community to exclude a few in order to welcome the many that have been marginalized time and time again."
Over at Twisty’s afore-cited policy, one supportive male commenter wrote:

“…the only appropriate role for a male here is to learn, maybe on rare occasions to inform, but never to attempt to convince.”

Another rejoiced that non-feminists were being kicked out:

“So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye to all of the interminable pricks who really hate blogs because they are one place in which radical feminist women can demonstrate our overall brilliance unhindered by misogynist idiocy.”

And finally, back at Thinking Girl, the girl who thinks justifies censoring those who disagree with her by writing: [emphasis removed to preserve context]

“the viewpoint of the hegemonic white male is enshrined in cultural discourses, so sometimes it’s nice for others to have a space in discussion that is free from that dominant voice…there are plenty of places where privileged voices are given priority, but this is not one of them…Freedom of speech is not the be-all, end-all of “rights” – RESPECT IS. I do not believe in absolute free speech. Freedom of speech is a privilege, not a right, not on this blog…Don’t like it? Get your own blog.”

OK Thinking Girl - I’ve done that. Now what? How do we have a conversation? What happens when people like me follow Thinking Girl’s advice is that we ramble on our little blogs, and she rambles on hers, but we never interact. We do not exchange or test our ideas – we merely list them. We’ll never question the other, or be questioned by the other. How are either of us supposed to learn from that – or at least, learn as much as we might learn from talking to someone other than ourselves?

One way I try to advance that conversation is to employ a tactic called devil’s advocate, which I defended earlier on my blog here. Apparently, this is anathema to modern feminists, as you can see from these feminists’ mocking the entire concept. Over at, Juliana argues against devil’s advocate (in a post so ridiculous it will eventually warrant a direct response) by writing:

"Here’s the thing: the devil doesn’t need any more advocates. He’s got plenty of power without you helping him."

When that link posted in the Hopkins’ Feminist page, that quote in particular received a whole lot of support. One of the group’s most active members – who is usually brilliant, by the way, and whose opinions I really respect – left the following comment:

“Yessss. I remember in some recent JHU-related convo about rape (maybe on the protest event page or something) a guy said something accompanied by "just playing devil's advocate"…it's like they can't make the connection that in cases like this the "devil" they're advocating is *rapists*!”

Yeah, it’s exactly “like they can’t make the connection” that you’re right…because they haven’t yet decided whether or not they think you’re right!  This mindset is a classic example of begging the question. Imagine the following conversation:

Sally: “Frank did activity X. Activity X is rape. Ergo, Frank is a rapist.”

Tom: “I’m not so sure…just to play devil’s advocate, are we really certain that X constitutes rape?”

Sally: “How can you advocate for a rapist?!?!?!?!? Stop apologizing for rape!”

See how the Sally assumed her own conclusion? Feminists do that a lot. Tom would only be advocating for a rapist if the activity in question were, in fact, rape, which is what Tom was contesting in the first place. And even if Tom were wrong and Sally were right, it wouldn’t make Tom a rape apologist just yet; perhaps, once Sally shows him why activity X does constitute rape, he would join Sally in condemning Frank.

As I conceded in my last post on the subject:

“I imagine that the excuse of “don’t worry, I don’t really believe this, I’m just playing devil’s advocate” must wear thin on women accustomed to hearing bullshit excuses for misogyny. I can grasp the necessity that feminism primarily be a forum for women to talk, and men to listen.”

But the need for women to have a voice makes arguments like those above only slightly less ridiculous, and feminism itself none the more unique amongst the world’s debatable philosophies. ALL radical movements are composed of people who believe themselves to be silenced by the mainstream. Communists could say “capitalism dominates our culture, so communism must be a movement in which communists speak, and capitalists listen!” Libertarians or anarchists could say “government dominates our culture! We need to hear less from statist apologists, and more from us!” To use an even more extreme example, anti-Semites believe Jews dominate our culture and have undue influence over media, banking, and political decisions.

No matter what your political views happen to be, you probably think that whoever disagrees with them has too much of a voice! Everyone’s perception of who dominates the public discourse is influenced by their views on what changes are necessary; if you want change A, and it seems obvious to you that change A is super important and just and necessary, but it isn’t happening, it occurs to you that whoever it is that opposes change A has entirely too much say in influencing public affairs.

None of this excuses advocates for change from parrying the blows of those who challenge their belief systems. Most feminists lean left on issues of economic justice, so let’s take the libertarian example to illustrate this point. Like feminists, we libertarians hold many unconventional opinions. Like feminists, we view ourselves as defenders of the historically oppressed. We too seek to overthrow entrenched hierarchical systems. We too believe the enemy is a series of wrongheaded, unjust, and highly problematic mindsets rooted in millennium of violence and intolerance, which are deeply embedded in society’s collective psyche thanks to our immersion in a culture that nurtures and reinforces them. We too count many with deeply personal and traumatic experiences related to this oppression – say, those who spent decades in jail due to the drug war – amongst our ranks. We too find the work of uprooting and exposing these pernicious ideologies exhausting and difficult. We too get infuriated by ideas we perceive as offensive in the status quo. I cannot relate to most of the oppression women face, but I can absolutely emphasize with the frustration you face as advocates for an unpopular and historically marginalized cause.

But if we libertarians were to claim, in the presence of all you non-libertarians, that this exasperation and mental distress exempted us from directly engaging with your arguments against libertarianism, we would be rightfully ridiculed into oblivion.

When feminists demand that men listen to them quietly, and prohibit them from voicing their inevitable objections as they arise, they confuse telling with teaching. Speaking at someone is not the same as educating them. Having a voice is not the same as effectively using it to spread your message and enact your desired change. Feminists would be more successful if they focused less on being heard, and more on being understood.

Of course, the most seasoned feminists have likely already encountered and considered most of the objections men will raise. For this reason, feminists are correct that the learning will be mostly one directional. Where they go wrong is in failing to recognize that in order for any significant learning to take place by men from women, the communication must still be a process of exchange.

Teachers in a classroom do not impart their superior knowledge by droning on in complex technical jargon and expecting their students to understand. In the same vein, feminists do their movement a tremendous disservice by expecting newcomers to figure it all out on their own. This feminist describes this common expectation:

“For a new guy the best policy is to lurk, read, get a feel for the place, and just keep chanting: 'It's not about me. It's not about me. It is not about me.' Twisty even has an FAQ to help people out, but does anyone ever read it? Not the guys. They figure they already know everything important and no spinster aunt is going to tell THEM."

As someone who followed that policy for a long time, I agree it is the best – based on the way feminists currently behave – for someone who already has a deep desire to learn more about it, and who is intellectually curious enough to embark on a soul-searching journey that makes them feel uncomfortable without any guidance or direction from people who’ve already done that. Needless to say, this excludes the enormous majority of potential allies right off the bat.

Newbies cannot be expected to dig up feminist literature on their own for three main reasons:
  1. Not everyone we might and should convince is already interested enough to do so
  2. Even those who are interested won’t find it on their own if they don’t know where to look, and aren’t directed there
  3. Even if they did find it on their own, they won’t agree with it all, partly because feminism ruptures the foundation of male privilege upon which they were raised, and partly because feminists are not always right. This means that even if they are curious enough to investigate on their own, they’ll have doubts and questions right off the bat - questions must not go unanswered lest their uncertain skepticism harden into angry anti-feminist conviction. Well-intentioned men can only get banned from so many feminist forums before they either give up or, worse, take it personal and join the other team.

Even the author admits that most “new guys” do not follow the “best policy” she outlines for them. And why would they? They don’t yet have the desire to learn more. Just like any savvy salesman peddling a newfangled thing, feminists would be well suited to incite that desire! The best response to new guys who don’t have the time or interest to “lurk, read, and get a feel for the place”, and as such inquire about some easily explainable element of feminism, is not to berate them and lament that nobody reads your FAQ; it’s to direct them to the damn FAQ! It takes two seconds to post a hyperlink, and not much longer to summarize it yourself.

That so many feminists view this process as an irritating hassle bewilders me in particular, because I am wont to do this all day, and for fun. Maybe I’m weird, but I truly enjoy explaining the ideas I’m passionate about to people who don’t get them – especially when they’re ideas which are marginalized by the rest of society. Maybe I’ll convince the person, and maybe I won’t, but either way at least they’ll be presented with them on my own terms, in my own words, instead of negatively characterized by some threatened third party.

I’ll conclude this second rebuttal with an excerpt from an earlier conversation with an online feminist:

“All I have the authority to comment on is how my own mind works, and how men like me think upon first exposure to feminism. And from my expert opinion on that matter, I can assure you that listening alone is not enough to answer the reservations that prevent men from embracing the movement, even among those like me who are receptive to its basic premises. The only way to answer those objections is to allow us to voice them. You may or may not want our help in advancing your cause – that decision is entirely up to you. But if you do choose to recruit us, you cannot eschew the work of convincing us you’re right.”