Tuesday, July 22, 2014

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 Feministing.com, 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.”

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