April 10, 2004

More Vamps & Tramps

Posted by shonk at 01:52 AM | permalink | 3 comments

Finished reading Vamps & Tramps today, and all in all I’d have to say it was a good read. Paglia has some excellent things to say, especially about feminism, but also about sex, art, culture and even education. What’s especially enjoyable to about what she says is that, although a harsh critic of political correctness, mainstream feminism, post-structuralism and the like, she bears no resemblance to the more stereotypical opponents of such things. She attacks those exponents of leftist ideology not as a conservative, but as an old-school radical who feels that liberalism has been betrayed by these stiflings of free expression and the quest for truth and understanding. Which isn’t to say that she’s a starry-eyed Marxist, either; a self-described “libertarian Democrat”, she chastises her favorite targets for ignoring history when it comes to their economic and social analysis:

The 1960s failed, I believe, partly because of unclear thinking about institutions, which it portrayed in dark, conspiratorial, Kafkaesque terms. The positive role of institutions in economically complex societies was neglected. The vast capitalist network is so efficient in America that it is invisible to our affluent, middle-class humanists. Capitalism’s contribution to the emergence of modern individualism, and therefore feminism, has been blindly suppressed. This snide ahistoricism is the norm these days in women’s studies programs and chi-chi, Foucault-afflicted literature departments. Leftists have damaged their own cause, with whose basic principles I as a 1960s libertarian generally agree, by their indifference to fact, their carelessness and sloth, their unforgivable lack of professionalism as scholars. The Sixties world-view, which integrated both nature and culture, has degenerated into clamorous, competitive special-interest groups. (pg. 99)

Which isn’t to say that she’s a cheerleader for the bland corporate institutions that only a Republican could love, as evidenced by the railing against the “puritanical and desensualized” corporate culture that “fetishiz[es] the white Protestant persona”. She, instead, identifies with and revels in the strong pagan strain that underlies much of American culture, with special emphasis on the Roman and Greek tradition and especially on the Dionysian paradox. Relentless developments of this theme serve as a unifying element to what is otherwise a very non-homogeneous book.

Actually, I really only have two major complaints about the book. First, Paglia’s constant egomania and conscientious iconoclasm can grow old, especially if you’re the sort of person, like me, who devours a book like this in two or three days. Even for a collection of essentially essays, the book is a bit too author-centric, if that makes any sense. One never forgets that Paglia is speaking (and at a tremendous pace), nor that she’s an iconoclastic figure and loves it. Admittedly, the book is intended to be read within the context of her other work, the scholarly (though apparently X-rated) Sexual Personae and her first essay collection, Sex, Art, and American Culture, neither of which I have read.

The second complaint is that this collection really only contains three or four stand-alone essays and the only real highlight among those is the excellent, novella-length “No Law in the Arena: A Pagan Theory of Sexuality”. The transcripts of various talk shows, TV specials and short films are certainly interesting, especially “Sex War” and “Glennda and Camille Do Downtown”, because they show Paglia, for better or worse, in what seems to be her natural element, verbal warfare, but they suffer from the shift in medium. Similarly, the book reviews were generally insightful and resulted in a couple of additions to my “need-to-read” list, but having only ever heard of one of the books being reviewed and having read none, they didn’t do much for me in terms of opening up my eyes to new interpretations.

That all having been said, I would definitely recommend the book to anybody with an interest in feminism and culture, either as a critic or a standard-bearer, because Paglia is, ultimately, a very penetrating critic, forceful writer and original thinker.

And now to round out the collection, some more quotations from the book:

I suspect most women are genetically more empathic, not as a moral value (in the tedious Gilligan manner) but as an intuitive faculty of infant care. Women’s well-documented superiority in reading facial expressions, as well as their hormonally produced, hypersensitive thinner skin, supports this. What I see is not a world of male oppression and female victimization but an international conspiracy by women to keep from men the knowledge of men’s own frailty. A strange maternal protectiveness is at work.

—pg. 47

Sexual harassment guidelines, if overdone, will end by harming women more than helping them. In the rough play of the arena, women must make their own way. If someone offends you by speech, you must learn to defend yourself by speech. The answer cannot be to beg for outside help to curtail your opponent’s free movement. The message conveyed by such attitudes is that women are too weak to win by men’s rules and must be awarded a procedural advantage before they ever climb into the ring. Teasing and taunting have always been intrinsic to the hazing rituals of male bonding. The elaborate shouting matches and satirical putdowns of African tribal life can still be heard in American pop music (“You been whupped with the ugly stick!”—uproarious laughter) and among drag queens, where it’s called “throwing shade.” Middle-class white women have got to get over their superiority complex and learn to talk trash with the rest of the human race.

—pg. 51 (If any women are reading this and disagree with the above, keep this is mind: for better or for worse, Paglia is elucidating almost exactly the male perspective. We can argue about whether it’s genetic or social conditioning, but the simple fact of the matter is that the majority of men, even if only subconsciously, do identify “[t]he message conveyed by such attitudes is that women are too weak to win by men’s rules and must be awarded a procedural advantage before they ever climb into the ring.”)

The campus is now not an arena of ideas but a nursery school where adulthood can be indefinitely postponed. Faculty who are committed to the great principle of free speech are therefore at war with paternalistic administrators in league with misguided parents.

—pg. 101

I hate the victim-centered nature of contemporary feminism! It’s loathsome to me. I believe woman is the dominant sex, okay? And that everyone knows this, everyone knows throughout world culture that woman dominates man. Everyone but feminists knows that! And I think it’s absolutely perverse and neurotic to insist that history is nothing but male oppressors and female victims. This is ridiculous, all right? They want to make women small! (_She angrily gestures with thumb and index finger_.) Is this feminism? To make women small, to make them into victims? This is absurd!

—pg. 240 (dialogue from part one of the documentary “Female Misbehavior”)

I’m saying that men go from control by their mothers to control by their wives, and that is the horror of men’s life. And that feminism refuses to see this.

—pg. 265 (dialogue the short film “Sex War”)

April 09, 2004

Get paid for watching porn

Posted by shonk at 12:59 AM | permalink | 7 comments

Think you might like to get paid for looking at porn? No, this isn’t one of those e-mails you delete from your inbox without even looking. Rather, if you’re wanting to get paid to look at porn, you might want to consider applying for a job in the Department of Justice, which is cracking down on pornography for the first time in 10 years.

Apparently, GW thinks the way to win votes in November is to indict a few high-profile porn distributors. Now, maybe that will consolidate the conservative fan-base, but it’s not like the fundies are going to vote for Kerry anyway. Really, it’s all about reminding the people who’s got the guns and the power. In other words, the bureaucratic equivalent of “flexing nuts”, as we used to say in middle school.

God knows it won’t have any impact on porn itself. Good luck shutting down the massive online presence and good luck trying to convince jurors who never miss an episode of “Sex and the City” that sex on TV is bad.

At least, that’s my hope. The Puritanical strains of American culture never cease to amaze me. The whole porn debate should be as simple as this: as long as people who don’t want to see it aren’t being forced to, then what’s the big fucking deal? And no, having porn available for subscription on your cable service does not qualify as being forced to view it. Neither does the availability of every sex act imaginable in high resolution online. If you don’t want to see breasts, penises, vaginas, anuses and various combinations thereof, stick to AOHell and Dilbert. If you’re too dumb to be able to avoid porn online, well, send me an e-mail and let’s talk about some real estate deals I’ve got to offer.

Apropos my last post, I think one of the good insights that Camille Paglia offers on feminism is how the attitudes of, say, the Catharine MacKinnons of the feminist movement echo so closely the stance of “the reactionary, antiporn far right”. Paglia’s everpresent libido and love of porn is a bit over-the-top at times, but I think she’s exactly right to call out MacKinnon et. al. for hijacking feminism into prudish moralizing and for saying things like “The pornographers rank with Nazis and Klansmen in promoting hatred and violence” (cf. especially the essay “The Return of Carry Nation: Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin”, originally published in Playboy, October 1992; also on topic is Wendy McElroy’s “A Feminist Overview of Pornography” and, presumably, her book XXX: A Woman’s Right to Pornography).

I don’t mean to sound like Randy Pan the Goat Boy, but come on with this legislating porn crap (a point for you if you recognize the reference). Hell, if anything, we should be subsidizing porn. After all, we all hate the French and you can see naked women on TV and in the newspapers in France. Shouldn’t we be trying to do them one better? Instead of cracking down on porn, I say GW should make a speech to the effect of “Look here you French pansies, we’re going to show you how to do porn.” Then maybe he’d get my vote (okay, not really, but it would make for great TV, wouldn’t it?).

April 07, 2004

Vamps & Tramps

Posted by shonk at 12:12 AM | permalink | 2 comments

As is my wont when I can’t think of anything to write about, I’ll let someone else do the talking. As such, some quotes from Camille Paglia’s Vamps & Tramps (for those that don’t know, Paglia is a lesbian, a feminist and a civil libertarian as well as being a harsh critic of the “feminist establishment”):

When the office—by which I mean the whole complex of word-based, smoothly cooperative white-collar work, in business or academe—becomes the primary paradigm of new female achievement, women have cut themselves off from the risk-taking, rough-and-tumble experiences that have always toughened men. Women will never succeed at the level or in the numbers they deserve until they get over their genteel reluctance to take abuse in the attack and counterattack of territorial warfare. The recent trend in feminism, notably in sexual harassment policy, has been to overrely on regulation and legislation rather than to promote personal responsibility. Women must not become wards and suppliants of authority figures. Freedom means rejecting dependency.

—Introduction, pg. xii

Fundamentalist reading of the Bible is far from passé. On the contrary, religious faith, in particular evangelical Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, is spreading around the world. The goals and reputation of progressive politics have been harmed by the juvenile arrogance of the liberal establishment toward institutional religion, which may oppress by rules but which is also a repository of spiritual experience, as well as fold wisdom about life, far more truthful than anything in French poststructuralism.

—pg. 21

There is such a thing as seduction, and it needs encouragement rather than discouragement in our puritanical Anglo-American world. The fantastic fetishism of rape by mainstream and anti-porn feminists has in the end trivialized rape, impugned women’s credibility, and reduce the sympathy we should feel for legitimate victims of violent sexual assault.

What I call Betty Crocker feminism—a naively optimistic Pollyannaish or Panglossian view of reality—is behind much of this. Even the most morbid of the rape ranters have a childlike faith in the perfectibility of the universe, which they see as blighted solely by nasty men. They simplistically project outward onto a mythical “patriarchy” their own inner conflicts and moral ambiguities. In Sexual Personae, I critiqued the sunny Rousseauism running through the last two hundred years of liberal thinking and offered the dark tradition of Sade, Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud as more truthful about human perversity. It is more accurate to see primitive egotism and animality ever-simmering behind social controls—cruel energies contained and redirected for the greater good—than to predicate purity and innocence ravaged by corrupt society. Nor does the Foucault view of numb, shapeless sensoriums tyrannically impinged on by faceless systems of language-based power make any more sense, in view of daily reports of concretely applied and concretely suffered random beatings, mutilations, murders, arson, massacres, and ethnic extermination around the world.

— pgs. 25-6

I envision two spheres: one is social, the other sexual and emotional. Perhaps one-third of each sphere overlaps the other; this is the area where feminism has correctly said, “The personal is political.” But there is vastly more to the human story. Man has traditionally ruled the social sphere; feminism tells him to move over and share his power. But woman rules the sexual and emotional sphere, and there she has no rival. Victim ideology, a caricature of social history, blocks women from recognition of their dominance in the deepest, most important realm.

—pgs. 30-1

Until recently, most societies had a clear idea of what constitutes “uncivilized” or “ungodly” behavior and punished it accordingly. Today, in contrast, there is a tendency to redefine the victimizer as himself a victim—of a broken home or abusive parents—and then, ironically, to broaden criminality to areas of consensual activities where women are equally responsible for their behavior. When feminist discourse is unable to discriminate the drunken fraternity brother from the homicidal maniac, women are in trouble.

—pg. 33

The dishonesty and speciousness of the feminist rape analysis are demonstrated by its failure to explore, or even mention, man-on-man sex crimes. If rape were really just a process of political intimidation of women by men, why do men rape and kill other males?

—pg. 33

March 24, 2004

Unwanted sexual advances and creating a phallic mythos

Posted by shonk at 12:42 AM | permalink | 1 comment

Laura Kipnis asks a very interesting question: “Are onetime ‘unwanted advances’ really a feminist issue?” With Naomi Wolf’s recent revelations about Harold Bloom’s advances some twenty years ago as a starting point, Kipnis wonders whether some context isn’t being dropped from this sort of story:

Is something being left out of the story, though? Do the recipients not wield just a tiny bit of power in such situations—the power to reject and humiliate the advancer, at the very least? And these days, given the moral high ground the accusers seem to occupy, there’s another form of power to consider: the power of public disgrace—available even when the accuser’s motives are ambiguous.

Certainly Wolf’s belated response to Bloom’s conduct is restricted to a single note: outrage at how it disempowered and demeaned her. But why was this strikingly unattractive but very intelligent man’s desire to get in her pants so demeaning? Did she, perhaps, accord him more power in her mind than he deserved? Kipnis certainly seems to think so:

One of the interesting contradictions of Wolf-and-Jones-style feminism is its apparent thralldom to the phallic mythos it’s also so deeply offended by. Wolf describes becoming “sick with excitement” when Bloom agreed to read her poetry. Why? Exactly because he was a charismatic and famous guy, because she wanted his approval, and wanted to be found attractive (as she relates in a thinly fictionalized account of the episode in her memoir Promiscuities). And let’s face it: The sexual privilege that accrues to Important Men accrues for exactly this reason.

Kipnis strays from this theme a bit, but I think it’s a very interesting question. One that, admittedly, I’m not completely qualified to answer. In fact, part of my reason for posting this is to try to peer-pressure Petya into responding, since she’s thought a lot more about these issues than I have.

Anyway, as for my opinion, I don’t think it’s at all improbable that, in devoting so much time and effort to denouncements of “masculine power” and the “male-dominated power structure”, some feminists have actually accorded more power to the men than the men actually have. After all, it’s one thing to have to deal with guys that are jerks, or to recognize that men tend to have better jobs and more choices than women; it’s quite another to stipulate that society is inherently masculine or that some secret male conspiracy has seized control of the world and will never relinquish it. The first scenario is one that invites action, awareness and constructive work for a positive change, whereas the second engenders fatalism, cynicism and defeatism. After all, if the men have rigged the world so that women will always be subjugated, what’s the use in fighting it?

To bring it back to Kipnis’ assertion and Wolf, if you’ve been inculcated with the notion that males have an almost mythical power for shaping and determining the world, isn’t it pretty natural to be in thrall of that power and that myth, to turn to it for validation? After all, humans seem to be innately drawn to the mythical, to that which, rightly or wrongly, they perceive as having abilities and powers beyond their own. And note that a myth need not be associated with something good or benevolent: the comic-book supervillian is as much myth as the comic-book superhero. And, come to think of it, the supervillian usually gets more women than the superhero.

My point is, I don’t think it unlikely that some feminists have, by way of their ideology, made myths of men and male power by mentally granting them more influence than they deserve and that this mythology has made those women more vulnerable to precisely that which they fight. It is, of course, not my intent to paint all feminists with this brush, as many certainly don’t fall into this category, but nor would it be reasonable to confine this analysis (assuming it’s correct, of course), to feminists alone. One would expect minority activists, environmentalists, libertarians, communists, anarchists and pretty much every other primarily single-issue dissenting group to be susceptible to the same sort of thing.

(Link courtesy John Venlet)

January 21, 2004

Generalizations

Posted by shonk at 10:18 AM | permalink | 2 comments

Petya has some interesting thoughts related to my post on Race, Gender and Blogging :

Dana’s initial question, actually, led me to think about feminism and how we, feminists, have become so focused on our personal agenda’s that sometimes allow ourselves to build even more rigid structures than the ones we strive so hard to abolish. When we talk about women’s issues and ask questions like Why most bloggers are male?, don’t we participate in the reinforcement of the binary model of societal structure that we so vehemently criticize? In this sense, isn’t fundamentally questioning of gender and gender roles the more appropriate way to address problematic issues? And, when saying Women are often purported to be the primary social network maintainers, the communicative sex, isn’t dana herself participating in strengthening pre-existing assumptions about women and the way women are?!

Judith Butler says (I’m paraphrasing) that in their efforts to legitimize their own political views, feminists very quickly came up with universal claims and statements that supposedly apply to all women and all men, regardless of historical and cultural contexts. I agree. And in the context of the current discussion, I find it absolutely amazing how easy it is to opt for the most obvious answer. Like we need more generalizations.

I think any commentary on my part would be superfluous.

January 19, 2004

Race, Gender and Blogging

Posted by shonk at 12:06 AM | permalink | comment

Over at Misbehaving (an excellent site, by the way), danah boyd asks “why are bloggers mostly straight white men?” She writes:

Women are often purported to be the primary social network maintainers, the communicative sex. Yet, the more time i spend in blogging land, the more i realize how few women blog. (Major props to the women listed on the right!) In response to a conversation about blogging as an equalizer, i wrote a note today that blogging is a privilege. Assuming that my perception is accurate, i’m pretty convinced that bloggers (note: not LJers or other journalers) are primarily straight white men. Given that this is a sociable technology, this seems rather suggestive that blogging is not an equalizer.

I have my doubts about how accurate this perception really is, but since it is just a perception, it’s not something that can really be argued. However, I would like to take issue with a couple of things.

First off, I, like many of the commenters there, question the validity of the distinction between “journalers” and “bloggers”. I tend to think of the space between a “journal” and a “weblog” as more of a continuously varying continuum than a vacuum. For example, since most of what my brother and I post here is related to news, politics or meta-analysis of online communities, this site would probably not be classified as a “journal”. However, posts like Fun with Transliterations, When You Dance or Me, Style Savant, just to take some recent examples (or, for that matter, most of the Ramblings category), are certainly more along the lines of what you might find on a Live Journal. On the other hand, Petya’s site, since it primarily deals with what’s going on in her life, would be more likely to be considered a “journal”, yet Petya herself calls it a weblog and a quick perusal of, say, the September archives and her posts on feminism will convince you that a site can be both “personal” and “serious”. In fact, I find it a little surprising that boyd would distinguish between journals and blogs in this way, since making such a distinction seems to be judging journals as less worthwhile or important than blogs.

Second, moving on to the claim that “blogging is not an equalizer”, I tend to disagree. However, it is a qualified disagreement for the following reason: blogging, in and of itself, is not so powerful an equalizer as to completely overcome all obstacles. As boyd points out in blogging is a privilege :

Privilege is a funny thing. Often it opens up opportunities that we don’t even realize. Take time, for example. Who has the time to sit online and read, write and discuss all day? A working mother? A migrant worker? Time is money. Very few people have both time and money and most people spend most of their time trying to make ends meet or trying to calm their nerves from the stress induced by the former. Having time to “waste” is privilege.

However, this is not the fault of blogging in and of itself. I suspect that a disproportionate percentage of white men are online, which fact is a result of various and complicated social phenomena, but any disproportionate representation in the blogging community is probably a direct effect of this reality (I exclude the “straight” part of the equation because I think it’s ludicrous to think that there is any reliable way of determining the sexuality of a blogger. Most people simply don’t broadcast this information). In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that, if we merely consider the simple function

f(x) = (number of bloggers from gender x)/(total number of people online from gender x)

we might well find that f(female) > f(male). Why do I say this? Because, in my personal experience, women I know who spend a fair amount of time online are more likely to blog/journal than are men who spend an equivalent amount of time online. So, in this sense, we see that, even in the area of gender, blogging may indeed be an equalizer.

Whatever the case, the claim that blogging isn’t an equalizer is, to me, ridiculous. Absent blogging, Glenn Reynolds would be just another law professor, dooce would be just another pregnant ex-Mormon and danah boyd and I would be just two more grad students with more ideas than outlets. I challenge you to find anybody who reads a fair number of weblogs and/or journals who doesn’t think they have a broader understanding and perspective than they could get merely from newspapers and television. So no, blogging, in and of itself, can’t produce perfect equality (whatever that is), but that doesn’t mean it’s not an equalizer.

September 19, 2003

I Have to Go

Posted by shonk at 04:50 PM | permalink | comment

I don't know about "I have to go", but the standard translation of "You wanna go watch a movie?" was "Let's go hook up" at Sewanee.

And now...further sociological cant

Posted by Curt at 10:59 AM | permalink | comment

Apparently my brother was disappointed at not getting a response to his response, so to speak, in our little ethics debate, but as should be clear we are not really disagreeing about the central issue. I say that it is natural for humans to make moral distinctions in their relationships with different people; he says that the law should not be used as a surrogate morality to enforce those distinctions; I agree but feel that the individual may have obligations in this regard that go outside or even in opposition to the law. So there you have it. Now for my own question about domestic violence issues: why is "I have to go" always the cue for sex in movies? Does "I have to go" tacitly mean the same thing as "no" under our byzantine rape laws? Is Hollywood therefore endorsing a pretty lethargic form of sexual abuse? Is this ("I have to go") a line that would actually work at parties?

September 17, 2003

And Yet More

Posted by shonk at 10:06 PM | permalink | 1 comment

Since Petya's guestbook seems to be broken, I'm posting this here and hoping it gets noticed.

From Petya's latest:

The main concern, voiced by most of the people participating in the discussion, is that in its efforts to push for equality, feminism often creates a bias which favors women.


Just thought I'd point out that this is actually not a good form of critique. Suppose that, in fact, feminists, through their actions, have created biases favoring women in certain situations (like the military example that leo and I have discusses). This is quite different from saying that feminism necessarily creates these undesirable biases.

In fact, the stipulated biases may be results of misapplications of feminism, excessive zealousness or misunderstanding. If that's true (which I think it may be), then those problematic biases will likely be corrected with time as more thoughtful people start to question them. In any case, demonstrating that, at times, feminists or those influenced by feminists have created undesirable situations is a far cry indeed from saying that feminism necessarily engenders undesirable situations. If we could demonstrate this last, then we might be justified in tossing feminism out the window.

But nobody, to my knowledge, has done this. In fact, if we suggest that feminism is about equality, then I think it would be impossible to show this, as any demonstrable inequality, even one created by feminists or those they influence, would be contrary to the ideals of feminism.

(Just as an aside, even were it demonstrably true that feminism entails undesirable biases, it still might not be justified to toss it out the window, since it might create fewer or less severe biases than any alternative system)

Right Back At Ya

Posted by shonk at 05:43 PM | permalink | comment

I was initially going to post the following response to Curt as a comment, but decided to make it a separate post.


I absolutely agree that it is natural for people to feel more strongly for their loved ones, to be more opposed to harming them than harming others (e.g. a "good" mother would never steal from her children, but might steal for her children). However, that doesn't mean the law should necessarily punish harming one's loved ones more than harming others. After all, as you point out, law and morality are two distinct things. In fact, saying that law should punish domestic violence more harshly than other violence because morally we have a stronger obligation not to harm our loved ones than others is to run the risk of falling into the trap of trying to duplicate morality with laws, to equate law and morality.

Now, I understand, since most people feel a stronger taboo against harming loved ones than harming others why a majority might favor laws that reflect this feeling, but my question is not why we have domestic violence laws (because a majority voted for them, probably), but what purpose do they serve? It seems, upon this analysis, that they only serve to make people feel better. Now, you might argue that this is a legitimate function of law, but I think that's a dubious claim.

Risposte

Posted by Curt at 03:32 PM | permalink | comment

Honestly, despite a general willingness to hold forth on almost anything, I usually have little inclination to weigh in on issues like domestic violence, at least in public forums where sensitive issues like this are likely to quickly degenerate to the level of general abuse. But when I read my brother's post (I admit to not having read the other opinions to which he is responding) it struck a chord with me, perhaps because after a month of reading Kant and Hegel I am perhaps a bit more oriented towards a general consideration of the intersection of the law and morality. The general question which I think is implicit in my brother's query is why and for what reasons extrinsic factors like race, gender or personal relationship between people should affect one's intrinsic obligations either to the law or moral duty. Or more simply, how can the same action be judged differently under different circumstances? I know this is unfair to his specific point, because one can be sensitive to the role of outside factors in general in evaluating the relative merit of an action without necessarily accepting the ones under particular consideration, such as the domestic relations between two people, racism, sexism, etc. This is certainly true, and must be addressed to evaluate the merit of a particular body of laws, such as the domestic violence laws. But I think my brother, as well as anyone with an inquisitive bent, will eventually be led to a consideration of the broader issue which I have posed above. My intuitive feeling is that the reason that laws like the domestic violence laws, laws which make particular provisions for certain groups or particular situations, rather than simply imposing the sort of general obligation for which they seem more suited, is that the moral sense of most people inevitably leads them to personalize moral obligations. One's behavior towards the members of one's family are simply more important to most people than one's behavior towards a stranger on the street, and I for one think this is entirely natural and eminently defensible. I feel that the ties of family or intimate friendship creates a greater obligation among two people than simply their shared humanity, and I have always been very critical of moral systemists like Kant who level these distinctions by elevating moral abstraction above human relations, who advocate the imposition of moral obligation as a logical principle while ignoring our best impulses of love and pity. I think the state of the laws reflects that feeling among the majority of humanity, although I certainly do not equate the law with morality nor do I even think they have or should have the same goals. The law is not the proper place to enshrine these distinctions; it exists to maintain stability within society, and hence is probably the best place of any to formulate abstract, universal duties. However, for a moral individual within society, the situation is somewhat different; it is within the particularities of the individual's own life that he or she must consider the particular implications of their actions and the ways in which their personal existence must deviate from abstract principle. There is a Hebrew word for this, for the proper relation of the individual towards his legal and moral obligations: it is called chesed. It means a loving sense of obligation towards others which may sometimes bend the law or specific moral injunctions, but always honors their spirit. May all of us try to act in the spirit of chesed.

Feminism

Posted by shonk at 12:17 AM | permalink | comment

Actually, though, what I want to discuss is not so much the justification for feminism, but rather the endgame. Is there a point at which feminism becomes irrelevant? Or is it an important part of culture for all time? If we view feminism as a social movement struggling to achieve equal rights for women, then it would seem like, once women have equal rights, feminism becomes irrelevent. On the other hand, if we view feminism more broadly, as a "belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes" (Dictionary.com definition one) or, in Brooke's conception, as "freedom of choice", then we tend to the second option.

However, this second definition seems to me troublesome. Why use the gender-specific term "feminism" if we're talking about a belief in gender equity or freedom of choice? Lexically it makes little sense. Historically, of course, this is because the term was first coined to describe a social movement. That is why, I think, most people, when they hear "feminism" or "feminist", think of a social movement rather than a belief system. Words, after all, have no objective meaning; they mean exactly what people think they mean. Which is why it's silly, outside of formal arguments wherein precise definitions are imperative, to argue over what a word "really means"; when it comes right down to it, that's a rather mindnumbing and ultimately pointless exercise in demographics. Thus, despite the fact that I think all individuals ought have freedom of choice and ought be treated equally under the law, I wouldn't call myself a feminist (and not because I'm afraid of emasculating myself were I to do so, incidentally).

However, I've strayed from my original point, which is to ask what the endgame is for feminism (or if there is one). Thad asks an excellent question in Petya's guestbook (check out leo's interesting comments there as well). Ultimately, I think, his question is pointing to the question of whether feminists would be better served trying to end some truly horrible situations in places like Afghanistan or China rather than trying to make American women a bit wealthier. As usual, I see merits to both sides of the discussion. On the one hand, practices that all but the most Neanderthalic of Americans would find downright barbaric still exist in other parts of the world (widow-burning, anyone?); isn't preventing death and assault more important than improving the wage gap for people that are tremendously wealthy, relative to the rest of the world? On the other hand, I think that perspective neglects certain realities, like the fact that things like "rights" and "equality" are pretty irrelevant when one is malnourished. Also, there's a case to be made that one ought practice what one preaches (a.k.a. "Clean up your own mess before you start sticking your head in others' "). I find that less persuasive, since Utopia is impossible, but it's not unreasonable to think that emulating success is easier than creating it anew.

There are a number of things I'd like to go into, such as "economic equality" (which is, at best, a very poorly defined term), but I think I'll leave those for another time. One thing I do want to talk about, though, is domestic violence laws. Petya, Brooke and leo all mention them and I must say that I, personally, am not entirely certain what the best answer is. It makes me uneasy, though, for a special class of crimes to be created when the actions they govern are already illegal under the existing laws ("hate crimes" legislation falls into this category, too). Assault and battery are already illegal, so why is it necessary to single out a certain class of assault for special attention under the rubric of domestic violence? Is beating your wife worse (under some moral metric) than beating random strangers on the street? An argument could be made that it is, since it represents a breech of trust, but the same could be said for beating one's friends or co-workers, yet friends and co-workers can't claim domestic violence. Another argument could be made that domestic violence impacts not just the husband and wife (or boyfriend and girlfriend, or boyfriend and boyfriend, or girlfriend and girlfriend), but their children (if any). But, again, this seems a somewhat hollow critique, as many criminal cases (and virtually all civil cases) take into account a crime's impact on uninvolved parties. So, again, I have to ask what the point of domestic violence laws is. Just for the record, I am totally opposed to domestic violence, but I simply don't understand why special laws are needed to prevent it when it was already illegal under existing laws (incidentally, I've just remembered that in many societies it was not illegal for men to beat their wives, as the wife was considered property, to be disposed of as the man pleased, but rectifying that situation requires, it seems to me, changing attitudes (to recognize women as equals) and then applying pre-existing laws more consistently). I'm honestly puzzled by this issue. Care to help me out?

Anyway, I've rambled long enough for one night.

July 31, 2003

Feminist Vocabulary

Posted by shonk at 04:01 PM | permalink | comment

I got to thinking recently about people who refuse to use words like "mankind" or "history", claiming that they're sexist. Now, first of all, to me, this seems really, really trivial. I mean, even stipulating that women are and always have been oppressed, they were never oppressed by words. Words are just sounds, or, at best, concepts; they are totally incapable of taking action. They are effects of culture, not causes (Wittgenstein and Jaynes disagree with me on this, in part, but let's keep the argument simple). Hence, if you are going to fight oppression, fight the causes (e.g. people, social institutions, etc.), not the effects. At least, that's my gut feeling.

Furthermore, the whole thing is made even more ludicrous by the fact that most of these words are not, technically speaking, sexist at all. Take, for example, "mankind". Here is Dictionary.Com's etymology of the word "man" (look for the "Usage Note"). You'll note that in Old English, "man" was entirely gender-neutral, so "mankind" literally means "humankind" or "person-kind" or whatever other gender-neutral synonym you prefer. Similarly, "history" derives (by way of Old French) from the Latin "historia". However, the Latin possessives look something like "suus", "sua" and "suum" (look here for a cool Java Latin/English dictionary); in other words, the root word was not intended to mean "his story", and the fact you can parse it that way in English is, apparently, a coincidence.

The moral of the story is, if it makes you feel better to say "herstory" or "personkind", then go right ahead, but realize that the words you are substituting for are not actually sexist.

(Just trying to alienate as many readers as I can in the first two days)

Marilyn Monroe or Condoleeza Rice...

Posted by shonk at 02:55 PM | permalink | comment

Which would you rather be?

This ICQ conversation is edifying:

roo: i read somewhere that fashion magazines have started hiring 14-year-old models and then 'sexing them up', i.e. making them look older!

roo: isn't that sick?!

shonk: yeah...but they're just pandering to people's tastes, so I have to blame the people that buy the magazines more than anything

roo: i am not concerned about WOMEN buying them. i'm worried about the girls who read them.

shonk: ah...well, I can't imagine it's any more damaging than looking at the anorexic, heroin-addicted models that were popular when we were adolescents, if that's any consolation

roo: in my women's studies class we looked at pictures of models from the early 90s and the 80s. they all look so...normal!!!

shonk: hell, look at models from the 50s and 60s, and you'll be frightened by how normally shaped their bodies are

roo: marilyn monroe was a size 12!!!

roo: condoleeza rice is size 6!!!

shonk: exactly

roo: i'd much rather be marilyn than condoleeza ;)

shonk: well, keep in mind that marilyn did commit suicide, so she wasn't exactly the happiest person

shonk: of course, if my parents named me Norma Jean, I'd probably be depressed too

roo: hhaha

shonk: wait, did I say that out loud?

roo: some suicide-bomber might kill condoleeza...so you never know.