Friday, September 12, 2008

A Good Question Deserves an Answer

"Bill Maher's Fan" asked an interesting question the other day, as a response to my post on loving university life:
Just curious. Would you bother to explain why "feminist" is NOT a politically incorrect affiliation? White-ist...Black-ist...Nativist.... male chauvinist...etc are usually supposed to be disgusting. Yet "femi-nist" is always okay.

I would be happy to bother to explain my understanding of this question and answer it!

Let's break down the question a bit, and ask what "feminist" means, and what the other terms mean. Then let's ask what it means to be a "politically incorrect affiliation" and "disgusting." And while we're at it, we'll look at the "are usually supposed" passive voice there.

What's a feminist?

When I say I'm a feminist, here's what I mean: A feminist starts by trying to understand how inequities in power and injustices are tied to gender differences, and works from there to critique inequities and injustice, and to work for equity and justice for all.

Most feminists I know are straight, female or male, and all (including those of us who aren't straight) love men in their lives. I know no feminists who hate all men, or who want men to be systematically abused or treated poorly. Feminism isn't about hating men, but about changing the patriarchal system which disempowers women and some others so that we all have a just and equitable system. Feminism recognizes that individual men may also suffer under patriarchal systems, and works for justice and equity for men as well as women.

US Feminism has been rightly criticized in the past for being more concerned with white, middle and upper class women than with women of color or economically disadvantaged people, for focusing on straight women rather than all women. These critiques have been foundational in my growth as a feminist, and I work to be open to the words and works of those whose views aren't "easy" for me to see or hear, and to respect human beings fully. I also recognize that feminism has blind spots, and we feminists will need to continue to work and rethink our positions as we critique our theory and practice.

What about the other terms?:

I'm not sure what a "white-ist" is. If it's someone who believes in the supremacy of people with some pinko-gray skin shading, then it's a position which seeks to promote inequity and injustice, and I reject that position. If it's a group of people celebrating their Norwegian heritage in some way, that's a different matter. There are lots of heritage groups around (and in this area, most are about European heritages) and they help us understand and enjoy our cultural wealth.

Similarly, if by "black-ist" you mean an organization such as the NAACP, which seeks to promote justice through a focus on African American experience and history, then I support that fully. I know lots of people (and I include myself) who think promoting justice for people of color is very important, and that we can't really have a just society if we don't have justice for all of us. If that's what you mean by "black-ist" then I could willingly put that label on my blog. If, on the other hand, by "black-ist" you mean an organization which seeks to promote the supremacy of people with "black" skin, then I'm against that organization because it's promoting inequity and injustice.

My understanding is that "nativist" means someone who opposes immigration into the US and believes only people who were born here should live here (the link is to the Wikipedia article). That seems to me an unjust and inequitable position.

Similarly, "male chauvanist" indicates a support of male supremacy, and since that's supporting inequity and injustice, I'm against.

In general then, I tend to support positions and approaches that are focused on promoting equity and justice, as I understand them. The openness with which many people claim a feminist position leads me to believe that many other people believe that approach is valid and useful. That includes a fair number of people in academics.

What's acceptable, and to whom?

If what you're getting at with the label "politically incorrect affiliation" is that most people don't openly support organizations and activities which promote injustice and inequity, then I think the incorrectness has to do with the realization that being outright racist really is disgusting to most people in the US today. That's not to say we're not (as a society) racist still, but our attitudes about the acceptability of racism have changed a lot in recent history.

Let me give an example: I recently listened to a book on tape about the role of the press in the 1960s civil rights movement, and I was rather shocked to hear again the extent to which African American people were abused and disenfranchised. (I was a little kid in the 1960s, and not really aware at all of things in the South.) I can't believe that any governor today would even consider trying to prevent a high school student from entering a school because that student is black. And yet, that happened, and it happened openly, and an awful lot of white people didn't seem to think it was wrong. Today, I think most white people would agree that such an action is wrong. That's a huge change. For most white people today, racism is disgusting.

What's the deal with the passive voice?

Okay, now onto the passive voice, the "are usually supposed" part. The problem with the passive voice is that it disembodies the action of the verb. Who supposes feminism is a good approach? Who supposes that racism is bad?

While I just wrote that I think most white people today think racism is disgusting, there are plenty of people who seem to think otherwise. Similarly, there are lots of people who think that feminism means "hatred of men" or something. The passive voice sounds like we all agree, but that's not at all true. What's true is that on this blog and in life, I'm openly feminist, and openly trying to promote equity and justice. Most of the regular visitors are either comfortable with that, or haven't said they aren't.

But if you went to a blog by someone who's really patriarchal, you'd probably read jokes about "feminazis" and such. There are plenty of people for whom the term "feminism" is, at best, uncomfortable. Part of my work is to convince them otherwise, to convince them that using a gendered analysis as a step in promoting equity and justice is useful because promoting equity and justice is worthwhile. There are other approaches, and the more approaches to promoting equity and justice we can bring into play, the better.

I hope that answers the question! Thanks for commenting.


  1. Bardiac--your old correspondent and sometime participant in your Chaucer class, Peter (AKA Axis of Peter), here. Had to come out of the woodwork to give you a little love. Slam dunk!

    But the title of your post may need a bit of parsing, as the various "-ist" terms and the use of passive voice did in the original question.

    If "A Good Question" means "a tendentious, hostile, loaded, and ultimately rhetorical question," I'm with you.

    If "Deserves" means "needs (in the same way that a zit needs to be squeezed until pus splatters the mirror)," I'm with you again.

    And if "An Answer" means "complete evisceration and discrediting during which I run laps around the withered nut that inhabits your cranium"...well, then, I think you nailed the title. Any less doesn't quite sum it up.

  2. Chuckling at (with) Peter. And this is a truly lovely and spot-on description of feminism. Yay!

  3. In a very generous reading of Maher Fan's question, maybe s/he was just confused about the -ist suffix. Maybe s/he thought it's always supposed to be negative. It's not, of course: scientist, psychologist, anthropologist, and so on. Context determines meaning, and so context determines which -ist (or -ism) you're dealing with.

  4. What Peter said. And I love this discussion of feminism & justice. . . Thank you!

  5. Write on! This is quite good (and quite generous to the questioner, I might add).

  6. very good, and generous.

  7. You. Rock.

    Ditto on the generosity comments. I'm so glad you took the time to parse out each of those potentially contentious, easily misinterpreted terms...I just hope the original questioner actually takes the time to read your thoughtful response.

  8. I love this post. You have cheered me up, and I was having an extra gloomy day. Linking!

  9. Yippee! Another cool 'blogger to read! I enjoyed this very much. Now someone tell me how I can link stuff to my own page so I can help pread the love?

  10. I mean "spread"...

    or 'pread, maybe?

  11. Anonymous11:32 AM

    Im reading this post somewhat late but just have to tell you, Bardiac, that you do indeed rock.

  12. Thanks for the kind comments, everyone :)