One of the most contentious topics today is gender. Whether the issue is sexual assault, housework or body image, the public sphere is quickly, predictably inflamed by discussions of men and women, and their relationships.
More frustratingly, it often results in a clear and stubborn divide: between ‘feminists’ on one side, and those who mock, dismiss or criticise them on the other. For some, the word ‘feminist’ itself is enough to set eyes rolling and minds wandering - it signifies irrationality and self-righteousness, glossed by academic posturing. It must therefore be trivialised and ignored, along with the women giving voice to it.
And importantly, it is often women who are considered feminists, and in the thrall of some warped ideology - if only they’d relax into stereotypical feminine roles, and stop reading so much Greer. Put another way, a common assumption is that men cannot be feminists, for men are the victims of women’s hysterical or ivory tower accusations. A more cynical view might be that, since men are the beneficiaries of patriarchy, men have no business siding with the losers. Either way, much mainstream debate seems to occur between feminist women and ‘realistic’ men dismissing their gripes as fantasies. Many letters or comments pages after a feminist opinion piece demonstrate this.
This situation is unproductive and damaging. It is unproductive because it results in a stand-off between both camps, neither of which can persuade the other. Put another way, both sides end up preaching to the choir, which is singing songs the other group blocks its ears to. And it is damaging, because the community loses its capacity to change itself thoughtfully and patiently - momentum is lost to the inertia of stalemate.
And at the heart of this is not some inbuilt, innate divide between men and women, males and females. Rather, it’s a confusion about what a feminist is and does.
A feminist is not necessarily a woman, who is radically opposed to men by virtue of politics, morality or sexuality. There have been feminists of this sort, and they’ve no doubt added something to the feminist tradition. Instead, a feminist is someone concerned with justice in matters of gender. Some recognise more than two genders, other just the normal, mainstream allotment. But what’s common is the recognition that gender, like class and ethnicity, is one dimension of social and psychological injustice. Feminists agree that a great deal of suffering, frustration and wasted potential are caused by gender discrimination or inequity, and they believe the world would be better off with less of this.
Of course their solutions vary. Some radical feminists have argued that patriarchy is a deliberate, systematic oppression of women, and called for a direct and revolutionary attack on this. In general, liberal feminists have accepted the general warp and woof of democratic capitalism, but lobbied for the removal of barriers to women's equal participation in it. And the movement has seen countless other variations of diagnosis and prognosis - if we can call it a movement at all. But what’s common is the belief that gender injustice is a real issue, and requires psychological and social adjustment to diminish it.
Which brings us to the stalemate. Those who do not label themselves feminists, and who oppose themselves to those who do, are missing an opportunity to participate in the creation of a more just society. They’re doing so, not necessarily because of some well thought-out, systematic philosophy, but because they’re confused about identity. They think a feminist is a woman, with some skewed personal vendetta against specific men, or vision clouded by academic vagaries. And for this reason, their response is often unfair and ungenerous. It'd be more constructive to share the feminist identity. Their own concerns for fairness or justice might be realised by wearing the feminist mantle. And, in doing so, they’d be retaining that most fundamental of human inheritances: the cooperative improvement of one’s society.
A similar change might occur on the part of feminists themselves, myself included. Whether it’s in the newspaper or in the pub, a great deal of gender debate is oppositional - and rightly so, as there are genuine and important differences of opinion. Yet in some cases, the arguments are caused by false misidentification - the idea that a man, for example, is in one camp, and a woman in the other, and therefore must be in conflict. But human nature is not so straightforward, and sympathies not this clear cut. Sometimes the job of the feminist is not to simply point out another’s shortcomings or failures, but to enrol them into the cause; to demonstrate how feminism is part of civilised, common concern. This requires not angry diatribes, but listening: seeking common points of longing or anxiety. Put simply, sometimes the job of a feminist is to change society by enlarging feminism itself.
And, finally, this suggests one of the focal points of feminism: not always in the public sphere, but in the home or the office. Feminism is not simply a rallying cry or battle plan - though it can be both. It is also a character of intimacy, which flourishes in healthy relationships. It is how we live, not simply who we attack.
is an Australian philosopher and writer.
This piece was first published on ABC's 'The Drum', at
. Reprinted with permission of the author.