Saturday, May 3, 2014

Conversations with Feminists, Part I: In defense of devil’s advocate

A few months ago, I joined the Hopkins Feminists Facebook page with the sincere intent of learning more about the feminist movement. For the first month, I did nothing but observe. I read the links that were posted, and the comments/debates that ensued beneath them. Gathering courage, I began posting comments myself over a period of about 3 weeks, which was an interesting ride before I gave it up and resumed watching from afar. I have lots to write about my interactions with the group and my opinions about feminism in general, but before I do I figured I’d just provide the transcript of some of my longer conversations.

The first dispute occurred when I asked to play devil’s advocate with a position someone else had presented. To my surprise, another group member castigated me for this, not for my opinion itself but for the concept of playing devil's advocate at all. She suggested that the tactic was divisive and hostile and perpetuated an oppressive environment, without accomplishing anything worthwhile. A debate ensued, and regrettably, I did not save the text of my opponents’ responses, and cannot find it now. The ironic result is that this first “transcript” will not feature any dissenting opinions by which to compare my own! What a hypocrite I am, huh? But hopefully, you can glean the essence of my opponents’ arguments from my rebuttals - or, just play devil's advocate yourself!

Feminism is a collection of ideas. The beauty of rational discourse is that over time, after years and years of public debate and discussion, bad ideas lose and good ideas win. There are fewer segregationists and homophobes today than there were 40 years ago because, in highly simplified terms, people began realizing that segregation and homophobia are illogical and unjust ideas. To be sure, advancing this discourse is slow and frustrating work: people are stubborn and biased, and the good ideas don't always win right away. But the alternative means of getting what you want, as opposed to changing minds, is using force; at the risk of getting into a philosophical discussion, I think most can agree that has its own downsides and problems.

The internet is a forum for the peaceful communication of ideas. The speed and ease with which those ideas can be communicated online, combined with the almost infinite wealth of information accessible therein, make it arguably the ideal forum. Anyone who cannot be convinced by something online probably cannot be convinced of it in person either. And even if the specific person with which you discuss is not convinced, remember that there’s a massive audience of people on the internet who can read these discussions from the sidelines, forming their own opinions even if they’re reluctant to contribute.

Perhaps it’s true that men won’t acknowledge anything until they’re “personally ready to do so”, but how is it that they become ready? Do they just wake up one day and have a change of heart, independent of human interaction? Or might the cumulative effects of social media peer pressure, extensive exposure to rational dialogue and public scrutiny on their behavior accelerate that process?

If you think feminism can accomplish everything it hopes to as quickly as it hopes to by looking at an “actuarial table” and waiting for everyone who isn’t convinced to die off, I wish you the best of luck. But as a debate team member, blogger and editorial editor, I've pretty much devoted my spare energies in life to the notion that exchanging our ideas is a worthwhile and productive endeavor. I joined this group in part because I seek to apply those energies towards enhancing my own understanding of feminist ideology, with the sincere aim of becoming a better friend of the feminist movement. If you disagree that it’s helpful, I hope you can ignore me without too much trouble, as I certainly don’t mean to bother you.

This was followed by another post from a second opponent, which disputed the meaning of devil’s advocacy. I countered that post with this rebuttal:

We agree in principle, and disagree in semantics. I followed your instruction and looked it up:

"a devil's advocate is someone who, given a certain argument, takes a position he or she does not necessarily agree with, for the sake of debate.  In taking this position, the individual taking on the devil's advocate role seeks to engage others in an argumentative discussion process. The purpose of such process is typically to test the quality of the original argument…”

To me, this sounds a lot like what I said. I wrote DA was “presenting ideas without tying yourself to them or their implications,” which is mighty similar "takes a position he or she does not necessarily agree with.” I wrote that in the context of this page, the questions asked by the DA are designed to “challenge some components of feminist thought,” which is mighty similar to “test the quality of the original argument.”

Anyway, if I failed to clarify what I meant originally, I’ll say it now: I think there is benefit in allowing group members to argue – without actually endorsing or asserting as something they personally believe – contrarian positions that challenge feminist viewpoints. I think this has the dual benefit of a) encouraging those knowledgeable on the subject to articulate rebuttals, from which both the devils’ advocate and others watching from the sidelines can learn, and b) testing the original idea in recognition that intelligent, informed and well-intentioned feminists can and do disagree on many of these issues, such that no idea expressed here should be immune from intellectual scrutiny. And contrary to how you interpreted my post, I think these benefits apply even when the devil’s advocate is ignorant of feminist ideology, SO LONG as they confess this ignorance beforehand and preemptively qualify their devils advocacy as a sincere attempt to learn more about feminist positions on the issue, rather than an attempt to actually convince the rest of the group of the contrarian position they adopt. What I’m opposed to, and recognize the condescension inherent in, is people who have already made up their mind in opposition to a feminist position hijacking posts on the Hopkins feminist page in an arrogant attempt to “educate” the feminists, particularly when such people are highly ignorant of the topic, because this inevitably denigrates into unproductive name-calling, anger and mutually entrenched antipathy.

I sympathize (though my privilege prevents me from empathizing) with the irritation that knowledgeable female feminists may feel towards ignorant males who present oppressive ideas, even within the above framework. 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. I suppose you all must decide as a group how much talking you permit newcomers to do in their learning process; it would be out of place for me to offer an opinion on the appropriate balance.

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.

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