Saturday, 23 January 2010

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In the comments to my last post, I've been called by an anonymous commenter on singling out Joan Kelly. I understand the anonymous commenter's feelings. But I also feel very troubled by her most recent comment, so I'm going to quote it here anyway. I hope that each of you think seriously, however, about the critique that the anonymous commenter made. These things do have a tendency to get out of hand and become entirely ad hominem, so I hope that you will think seriously about whether I'm being fair or not. I believe I am, as I believe my earlier comments are about how a certain kind of anger makes us lose sight of logic. And I believe this comment, as well, will be fair, because it's not about Joan as a person, who I actually know nothing about, but rather about the ignorance that her comment demonstrates, and why I think that ignorance is important to deciding which "side" of the "sex wars" is the right one. Here's the comment, a continuation of the discussion Bean began of censorship in Canada that is justified by radical feminist argument:


I did read your comment, and insomuch as I could make sense of it, the wikipedia entry you linked to. Both of which you made a point of posting as if they had anything to do with what I said. They don’t. So on top of your response being, in fact, non-responsive, you also mixed in some snottiness with the “thank you try again” business.

I don’t know understand which thing you’re referring to as “this facile “protection of women’s rights.”” Is the wacky obscenity law in Canada supposed to be some protection of women’s rights? Or are you saying that an argument against the wholesale promotion of female submission and masochism is a facile protection of women’s rights?

Whatever the case, my position is that arbitrarily applied obscenity laws – which, according to you, censor things like “feminist literature” but let actual pornography fly freely about the atmosphere? – are not in fact evidence of male dominance and female submission being unacceptable sexual/romantic frameworks.

Again, I live in the US. There is, to my ongoing horror, a fairly strong conservative Christian contingent in this country. The word “sex” is bleeped out of pop songs; I can’t think of another example that I just noticed earlier today because I’m fuzzy-headed on cold medicine, but there are even more benign words that get absurdly censored in pop culture media.

None of that puts any power whatsoever into the hands of kink-critical radical feminists. Especially not as regards other people’s sex lives. I don’t know what the hell Canada’s up to, but I do have a general enough sense of it to know that it, too, is not a radfem utopia, obscenity laws or not.

Lastly, it is not the fact that that billboard was in full view of children that is so disturbing to me (though I don’t fucking like that part, either); the propaganda towards legitimizing female submission and masochism permeates everything all the time – it is not being hidden from children in the first place. It may not always show up in overt BDSM-themed references (though it does so more and more, as I’ve noted), but it is the ever-present blueprint for heterosexuality.

That billboard is basically just a fucked up sign post on a destructive road. The road itself is the problem. And, I believe, it is a road that runs parallel to obscenity laws, not counter to them. Conservative culture, such as it is, in this country, proves that point over and over: the requirement of female submission/masochism and overall higher levels of social control go hand in hand, if males in power have anything to say about it. And they do. Hence my objections to all of it.

I have a serious problem here, not with Joan Kelly as a person, again, but with such a flimsy response to a discussion of actual legal precedent established through listening to Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin and taking their arguments seriously. if one is going to defend radical feminist points of view, one needs to be familiar with the ways those points of view have affected people's real lives, especially insofar as legislation has been modeled on them. I find it highly troubling that Joan (and again, it's not specifically Joan saying this that bothers me, but the fact that anyone would say it at all) can write off salient facts of history because they did not happen in her country or, even worse, perhaps because she simply doesn't know about them.

I do think that somebody who wants to argue for radical feminist points of view needs to be able to acknowledge this, that it happened, how it happened, and why it happened. A person who is really interested in having an informed, thoughtful opinion, will think about the impact this has and have reasons why it shouldn't matter, beyond "I hadn't heard of that, and can't quite make sense of it."

In fact, I've had radical feminists repeatedly say to me that I simply need to "educate myself"and not even show up to a debate with them in the first place until I fully understand where they're coming from and what the social frameworks they're talking about look like. This often includes having a sophisticated understanding of "privilege" as they understand it, without which opponents are often told they're not even supposed to show up to talk ("This is not a Feminism 101 blog!") I find it rather concerning that many set the bar so high for us, and yet the bar apparently is quite low for themselves.

This reminds me of nothing so much as a conversation I had in college with another student I knew well and respected very much. At the time, I knew very little about feminism as a movement, and it just begun to learn that some feminists have problems with BDSM. I talked to this person in hopes that she could help me understand some of the radical points of view that I was having trouble digesting (a professor recommended I begin my readings of McKinnon withToward a Feminist Theory of the State. I don't recommend beginning there. Honestly, I don't recommend beginning at all without some background information about what she was getting at.)

I remember that at one point we started discussing pornography. Personally, I'd always been vaguely leery of porn, but had found when I actually looked at it that I had almost none of the objections I expected to have. I'd expected something I'd feel affronted by and carefully avoided it, and (for me, personally -- not saying anyone shouldn't be bothered!) when I actually looked, discovered something I found arousing and amusing and... not offensive at all, though I did have critiques and there was/is some I don't like.

So I ask this person about it and the first thing she blurts is "There's no cunnilingus in it!" I look at her, startled, and go "Huh. What exactly have you watched? I've definitely seen it in -- uh --"

She stops dead.

I've caught her.

She hasn't seen any.

She backtracks, protests, starts saying "Well, okay, but isn't... the focus on male pleasure? Um... er..."

I nod. She's not wrong. We discuss this, some, and part amicably if I recall right.

But I walk away stunned. She has swallowed (yes, I am being clever) what her professors and her feminist books have told her pornography is without ever bothering to check the accuracy of her sources. She has taken books and lectures that argue against Something as correct without ever beholding -- or, if beholding would be triggering or upsetting, researching, neutrally -- what Something is in the first place.

And that alarms me far more than being against Something.

That's why I'm bothered by this. Our opponents say that we miss something very huge about how culture is shaped, though they rarely have hard data. We say "what about obscenity law, and the impact that radical feminist rhetoric has had on it in this case?" and they go "Uh, I'm in the US. And I'm talking about porn!"

That's why the anger bothers me. Not because I think this one person is pissy (though the zero-to-sixtyness of it does take me aback, and I don't like it, so I must admit there's some ad hominem here too) but because it seems the anger either happens instead of, or precludes, understanding everything salient about how real people are affected.


Anonymous said...

It reminds me again of a passage from Righard Feynman's book of anecdotes, "Surely You're Joking Mr Feynman" - in fact, more than one anecdote deals with this same tendency to take things without checking them properly. Feynman was very good at picking out woolly thinking for what it was.

The passage I have in mind is a continuation of the one I commonly use to explain why men aren't good at acting for men's liberation but instead get caught up in stupid MRA stuff. (That one is on this post about "female privilege", at item 21 about halfway down.)

Feynman is explaining why science is so poor in Brazil. He starts with an analogy of a Greek scholar who bemoans the lack of students learning Greek, so he goes to another country where lots of children learn Greek - he asks one of the successful students, "What were Socrates' ideas about Truth and Beauty?" but the student can't answer; but when prompted for "What does Socrates say to Plato in the 3rd Symposium?" the student rattles off a string of perfectly-pronounced Greek; but the passage in question was the one dealing with Truth and Beauty!

I think that some radfem commenters approach feminism in a similar way almost - they come at the theory and study it but don't actually get that the words have meanings beyond this vast theoretical edifice.

The thing about "checking against reality" is mentioned by Feynman a little further on, explaining about Brazil's poor science:

"'...I can show you ... how it's not science, but memorising in every circumstance. Therefore, I am brave enough to flip through the pages now ... put my finger in, to read, and show you.'

So I ... stuck my finger in, and I started to read: 'Triboluminescence is the light emitted when crystals are crushed...' I said, 'And there, have you got science? No! You have only told what a word means in terms of other words. You haven't told anything about nature - what crystals produce light when you crush them, why they produce light. Did you see any student go home and try it? He can't!'"

Partly that is seen in this whole "sophisticated understanding of 'privilege' as they understand it" malarkey they have going on (the best ways I've learned about feminism is when I can go away and look at stuff and say, "hey, yes, I can SEE that happening!" - but if they can't or won't demonstrate it, what does it mean?)

Partly it's seen in the whole not actually looking for oneself to find out what porn is really like.

And partly, of course, it's seen in the "I haven't heard of that therefore it doesn't matter" stuff.

Trinity said...

"I think that some radfem commenters approach feminism in a similar way almost - they come at the theory and study it but don't actually get that the words have meanings beyond this vast theoretical edifice."

Radical feminism is very much a closed system, yes.

Which is sort of a polite way of saying "cult," but... when people simply can't get past the idea that there are other meanings to words and events than their closed system allows for, that's where you're headed.

Becky said...

I think much of the rad-fem population loves the idea of privilege because it lets them announce that they have shed theirs, they have stepped beyond the boundaries of their mostly white, mostly upper-class mostly highly educated class to embrace The Truth.
All too often I see it getting used to dismiss any experience that falls outside the limits of The Truth. Then it pathologizes that experience, making it an example of how unaware those poor benighted souls are of their own subjugation. That experience can lead to other explanations, that there is no one Truth, are foreign concepts. Cult-like, indeed.
And if you complain that the theory, when used in real life, has poor repercussions, then the response is "But the theory is correct! Therefore, any action taken from that theory will have a right outcome!"
After that it's turtles all the way down.....

Bean said...

Incidentally, I'd love to know if Deuce lets Andrew's comments through purely as a joke, or what.

K said...

I think that some radfem commenters approach feminism in a similar way almost - they come at the theory and study it but don't actually get that the words have meanings beyond this vast theoretical edifice.

This is a good line - I think it applies to feminists other than radical, too, sometimes.

It bothers me, there's this... Disconnect between theory & practice.

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What were Socrates' ideas about Truth and Beauty?" but the student can't answer; but when prompted for "What does Socrates say to Plato in the 3rd Symposium?

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