Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Defining Feminism: A Defense of Rebecca Brink

          The various social strata of Seattle and their economic and cultural underpinnings are starting to become very familiar to me. It feels as if the LGBT community is better represented here than anywhere I have ever lived in California, including San Francisco, as evidenced by the sheer number of people I have met or seen here that identify as either bisexual, queer, pansexual, asexual, gender-neutral, and so on. Related, it also seems as if the practices of having "open relationships" and polyamory is very much accepted here; I have seen and met many people, both men and women, who openly admit to having multiple partners, both love-driven and sex-driven, without any kind of social repercussions, either from his or her partners or elsewhere. This is not to say that this practice should be frowned upon (unless, of course, one is a strong adherent to various religious ideologies), but it is worth pointing out that, as mentioned, I never encountered anything like this in California or Arizona, where, up until recently, I spent most of my life living and growing up. And this is also not to say that such lifestyles are the norm; it is pretty evident that monogamy, like many places, is still the norm. However, such alternative relationship styles certainly illustrate an interesting twist to Seattle.
          And, of course, the social strata between neighborhoods are also very apparent. Take, for example, the area where I live, Eastlake, and the neighboring University District (where the University of Washington is located); it seems to me that many people in Eastlake are young professionals, skilled in various trades or arts, who work for one of the major Seattle-based companies (Amazon, Microsoft, or Starbucks) and also appear to be out-of-state transplants to Washington (I will admit, with a slight degree of pride, and also a slight degree of reluctance, to belonging to this group). When compared to many other places in the city, Eastlake is relatively quiet and low-profile, despite being so close to the heart of the city; many shops and cafes close at 6 pm daily, leaving only a handful of pubs and restaurants open late, which attract only modest crowds (or, at least, "modest" when compared to many other pubs and restaurants in other neighborhoods). For this reason, Eastlake doesn't strike me as the most "hip and happening" place; such a distinction is, of course, usually given to Downtown Seattle or Capitol Hill or the University District or Ballard. And it is also for this reason, perhaps, that Eastlake is a comparatively quiet place: everybody from Eastlake is spending his or her Friday night in the Capitol Hill or Queen Anne or Ballard areas (again, I will admit to this, as someone who frequents Capitol Hill and Queen Anne).
          However, a quick, two-minute drive across the bridge, over a narrow stretch of Puget Sound, from Eastlake to the University District, will illustrate a much more interesting dynamic. As I walk through the avenues of the University District, I can't help but feel as if San Francisco's Haight Street was pushed through the strange filter of Green Day's "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" and Jaco Pastorius' "Punk Jazz", all shrouded under a blanket of clouds. The streets mostly consist of independent or family-owned restaurants and shops; a Greek restaurant will be right next to an Indian restaurant which will be right next to a Thai restaurant which will be right next to a Mexican restaurant (of mediocre quality of course, since Mexican food in Seattle doesn't even come close to Mexican food in California, as I have learned the hard way), and, I must admit, I have never seen so many Vietnamese restaurants concentrated in one area before. Of course, all of this is brought together with the token Starbucks on the corner of 52nd and University, and the occasional smoke shop nestled casually between restaurants, most of which seem to be strategically placed equi-distant from each other. In stark contrast to Eastlake, these streets are far less empty and quiet; one can't help but notice the colorful graffiti decorating the walls of the various back alleys and the occasional used needle lying in the gutter. Perhaps even more apparent than graffiti and used needles are the small huddles of the Destitute plotted here and there on the sidewalks and back alleys, plagued by unfortunate situations in their lives, forsaken by mental illness, left behind by the economic elite of the city, or enslaved by heroine or methamphetamine. The most interesting part about these destitute souls is that, every so often, one comes across a huddle of them so large and established that it might constitute a small camp, trying to survive among the hustle and bustle of the University District. And as one might imagine, since the University of Washington is the focal point of the University District, the students make up the majority of the population of U-District, and the district itself serves as their own odd little college town (odd in the sense that it is in the middle of a major city, so, unlike many actual college towns, it experiences all of the other baggage that comes with being in a major city). Extreme ideas at both ends of the spectrum are also well-represented in U-District; for example, one simply need to browse the isles of Bulldog News in order to find the latest issues of anarchist journals from Berkeley, economic trading advice from Wall Street, and French language art journals from Quebec, all scattered among the usual Entertainment Weekly or Time.
          I've had time to meditate on the social atmosphere of Seattle over the past couple of weeks in order to prepare for this blog entry. I promised in my last entry, my review of Ant-Man, that I would do another "Philosophy" entry this time around, so I've had to crack my mental knuckles, if you will, and step away from art and film. And in my last "Philosophy" piece, I hinted at what the topic of this piece will be: defending the antics of a certain self-proclaimed "feminist". I feel inclined to take on this topic mostly because the timing seems appropriate; discussions of feminism having been occasionally buzzing around the mainstream art media since the representation of Claire and Zara in Jurassic World. Perhaps even more important than Jurassic World, I begin writing this entry while many journalism outlets are abuzz about the contention among the various branches of the military allowing women in combat roles and only days after the first Democratic Presidential Debate for the 2016 election. And while the country would be much improved if Bernie Sanders became president, the prospect of having our first female president is nothing to take lightly, and I am sure many people would like to see Hillary Clinton engage Carly Fiorina head-on. But these larger issues merely set the context for this piece - they are not the focal point. The driving force for my discussion of feminism here will be something much smaller.
          Essentially, I will be adding substance to and defending the actions of one feminist's reaction to the Tumblr page "Women Against Feminism". The issue started a couple of years ago when the Tumblr page http://womenagainstfeminism.tumblr.com/ appeared. A quick glance at some of the photos should illustrate where the potential for antagonism comes from. And, as one can imagine, there have been several responses to the page, including one very humorous one from feminist Rebecca Brink, as BuzzFeed reports (http://www.buzzfeed.com/rossalynwarren/heres-how-one-feminist-responded-to-women-who-say-they-dont#.lc0v4AeJY). Of course, the argument continued, with some other bloggers calling Brink's rhetoric "shallow" and "non-analytical" [3], and some even saying that Brink is "bitching about the most pointless shit" [4]. The Amazing Atheist has even gone so far as to post a video response to Brink on YouTube [5]. A lot of these responses came within the last year, so some may say that I am somewhat late to the party as far as this discussion is concerned. That said, given the reasons mentioned above, the social climate surrounding this issue seems just as volatile as ever. All that is needed now is for someone to either defuse the bomb or light the fuse that blows the powder keg.
          My goal in this piece it to defend Brink by qualifying many of the claims she makes in her photos, as well as provide some additional statistics that illustrate related phenomena pertaining to women and the feminist movement. However, in the process, I will also put forward what I take to be the strongest criticism of feminism: the implicit splintering of the movement into poorly defined factions that ultimately lead to confusion about what the movement really is. For example, a distinction needs to be made between the feminist that sees the statistics about women in mathematics and questions whether or not there is a larger social reason underlying this phenomenon versus the feminist that calls for the extermination of all men with militant zeal. Feminism does a poor job of distinguishing between these different groups, and the movement could perhaps learn from the anarchist movement, which has done a great job of having its distinct factions well-defined (only the novice would be unable to distinguish Anarcho-Capitalism or Anarcho-Syndicalism from Anarcho-Socialism or Anarcho-Primitivism). I will defend Brink by presenting the evidence that supports the feminist that wonders why there are so few women in mathematics, while pointing out that most of her critics seem to conflate this feminist with the misandrist that calls for patriarchal genocide, which, at least from her photos, does not seem to be the position that Brink is advocating. I have a feeling that there are those who may say that I am not qualified to talk about this issue insofar as I am not a woman, and that this issue should only be talked about by women. But this strikes me as the same kind of mentality held by those who say that the controversy surrounding the Confederate flag can only be talked about by Southerners; the South doesn't exist in a bubble that is completely distinct from the rest of the country. To that extent, insofar as the South is intertwined with the happenings of the rest of the country, the issue surrounding the Confederate flag spills beyond the borders of the region. Likewise, many of the aims of the feminist movement directly and indirectly affect the interactions that women have with men. It is in this sense that I think there are sufficient grounds for me to be able to opine on this matter. But I am not particularly worried, and I think feminists need not worry either; I am overall sympathetic to all but the most militant feminists, which, it seems, are the minority in the movement.
          Perhaps the best place to start would be by declaring up front a few principles that I assume. (1): A person's beliefs influence his or her behavior. This should be intuitive; if a person believes that pizza is bad for him or her, he or she is likely to avoid pizza, or if he or she believes that they are likely to get mugged if they walk through a particular neighborhood at night, then he or she will not walk through that neighborhood at night. Using more ubiquitous examples, if one believes that everything written in the Bible is true, then one will be behave as if he or she will go to Hell if he or she commits a sin, or if one believes that a certain group or race of people is inferior to another, then one is likely to treat that group as inferior. It wouldn't make a whole lot of sense for someone who believed that eating meat was morally wrong to indulge in a steak every other evening. (2): Some ideas are better than others. Don't get me wrong; I am certainly a proponent of the idea that everyone is entitled to their own opinion. At the same time, however, it should be pointed out that "being entitled to one's opinion" does not justify having bad beliefs or adhering to absurd ideas. Being entitled to one's opinion does not unreservedly justify one in believing that Jews should be exterminated from the planet, for example, particularly if this belief manifests itself as a behavior. (3): The credibility of a particular idea or belief is contingent on how close it is to the truth. And since many people believe that the truth of something can be measured using science and reason, the preceding point can be understood as saying that the credibility of a particular idea or belief is contingent on how well it is grounded in science and reason. (4): Bad ideas should be resisted. This seems like the inevitable conclusion of the previous points; if someone has the bad idea, for example, that everyone who has pre-marital sex is actually a demon in disguise and, subsequently, goes on a shooting spree to eliminate the demons, I would be inclined to think that the overwhelming majority of people would have a problem with this. Of course, such behavior can be stopped by force, but this does not necessarily remove the bad belief, which is the root cause of the problem. On that note, lively, engaging discourse and activism seems to be the best way of countering bad ideas.
          With those assumptions laid out, I am now in a better position to defend Brink. There are three photos that would seem to serve as a good first example, one from the Women Against Feminism Tumblr, and the other from Brink. The photo from the Women Against Feminism Tumblr presents us with a rather normal-looking, dark-haired girl holding up a large note scribbled on notebook paper that reads "I don't need feminism because I am NOT a 'victim', there is NO war against me, I have & will continue to succeed in life, because I work for it, NOT used my gender as a 'get out of jail free' card. I love to be sexy for my man & cook for him...in the KITCHEN!!" Juxtapose this photo with one of Brink, donning a red, short-haired wig, holding up a note that reads "I don't need feminism because the only way I think I can get along in this world is by pandering to the status quo and shitting on other women." I am inclined to think that Brink is referring to the same kind of thing that our girl on the WAF Tumblr is referring to: the tendency, nay, norm, for women to spend more time at home and serve their husbands while the male is the "primary bread-winner" of the household. And such a phenomenon certainly does appear to be the norm; pewsocialtrends.org reports that, while the number of stay-at-home fathers does appear to be growing, men still only make up 16% of stay-at-home parents (it would also be interesting to point out that the report also notes that one of the primary reasons for the uptick in stay-at-home fathers is because the men supposedly cannot find jobs) [6]. These stats are also supported by Time magazine, which published a graph that visualizes just how jarring the disparity between the number of stay-at-home mothers versus stay-at-home fathers really is [7]. And after looking at these statistics, the inevitable question that follows is, quite simply, "why?"
          The traditional explanation that I have heard is that "women are inherently more caregiving, therefore belong at home." I never understood this explanation, since it really only takes one counterexample to prove the falsity of it. And such counterexamples certainly exist; as just mentioned, there are a number of men that are able to be stay-at-home fathers, suggesting that this trait is not unique to women, and, at the same time, there are women who are work-oriented businesswomen or adventure-seeking daredevils, not at all concerned or interested in staying at home and supporting a family or a husband, suggesting that this trait is also not inherent in women either. Of course, a possible reply to these points is that these are outlier cases, that they don't reflect the general human condition, that there is something wrong with the man that wants to spend time at home to take care of the children or the woman that aspires to be a business executive or an exotic dancer. In one sense, there is only a slight merit to this reply, insofar as it is indeed that case that these are the outlier cases that don't really constitute the norm. But to say that what makes these men and women the outlier cases is some kind of defect with, or deviance from, the normal human condition is a laughable one. This is most evident if one were to question the criteria upon which one establishes the "norm"; proponents of the idea that the reason some men want to be stay-at-home fathers or some women want to be daredevils is that they have some kind of neurological defect try to justify this claim by pointing out the fact that this does not appear to be the norm. But such a criterion is hardly permissible; a bunch of people once believed that the Earth was flat and the center of the Universe. However, the fact that many people believed this and accepted it does not make it any more or less justified.
          Subsequently, one must entertain alternative explanations as to why men are the "primary bread-winners" and women tend be "care-givers" or homebodies. A more feasible explanation than a mere "defect" is that there are underlying cultural or social norms, usually referred to as "gender roles", that dictate how men and women are supposed to behave. The notion of "gender roles" is an ancient one; one simply needs to look at Ovid's Art of Love or the historical role of women in politics before the 20th century to get even a slight idea of how grounded in tradition gender roles have been. And this notion of "gender roles" serves as a nice answer to our above question; women are statistically the primary care-givers because traditional American gender roles dictate that they should be. Likewise, the explanation for the comparatively low number of men serving as stay-at-home fathers is because traditional American gender roles dictate that men should be making the larger income that supports the household. A similar theory would also explain why there are so few successful businesswomen or female adventure-seekers; it goes against their gender roles. And this is, of course, not to say that contrary examples don't exist; for example, when I was living in California, I was very familiar with a couple where the woman in the relationship had the higher income and the man was still living with his parents. I also saw both of them criticized for the relationship; he was often criticized for being outdone by his girlfriend and still living with his parents, while she was often questioned for dating him. However, such a hostile attitude towards this couple raises some reasonable questions: a) Are these gender roles a good thing, and are they grounded in anything scientific or reasonable? and b) is the hostility towards those that deviate from such gender roles justified? Enter Rebecca Brink.
          I interpret the "status quo" that Brink is referring to in her photo to be these aforementioned gender roles and the inevitable results that stem from them and the negative attitude directed towards those that deviate from them. In many ways, such gender roles don't seem to have any rational foundation; there doesn't appear to be any good explanation as to why women cannot succeed in the sciences to the extent that a man could, yet, according the National Science Foundation, women made up less than 25% of science and engineering majors every year from 2001-2011 [8]. At the same time, the potential of women in science and mathematics is evidenced by the likes of Danica McKellar and Maryam Mirzakhani, debunking the idea that "women are inherently bad at mathematics" that John Bohannon describes on sciencemag.org [9]. That is, unless one wants to try and account for such cases are outlier cases of women with neurological "defects" that make them excel at mathematics, which, of course, is laughable.
          The next explanation, then, for the statistics that the National Science Foundation presents is that there are underlying social constructs, these gender roles, that women are sub-consciously conforming to that prohibit them from participating in things like math and science. Brink recognizes this phenomenon as the "status quo" and deems it a bad thing. And perhaps this is the one point where one can really question Brink; there isn't really much of an explanation from her photos as to why the aforementioned gender roles are a bad thing. However, such an attempt to question Brink's conclusion is a stretch; I can augment Brink's point by noting that, given the statistics provided by the National Science Foundation, women are missing out on any potential benefits of devoting their lives or careers to mathematics and science, all because modern American gender roles tell them not to. It would also be important to point out that these gender roles are preventing not just women, but men as well, from doing certain things without being met with hostility. There are numerous unfortunate circumstances that can befall a man such that he is not the "primary bread-winner" of the household, and he should be able to occupy this position without being met with ridicule or hostility. Likewise, women should be able to partake in math or science or business or alternative lifestyles without being ostracized by other women. Thus, when some women on the Women Against Feminism Tumblr promote the status quo of women serving as stay-at-home mothers and shying away from such endeavors as mathematics or science, and the negative attitude directed at those few women that do experiment outside of these defined gender roles, Brink has sufficient grounds to engage them.
          Another large point of contention between Brink and the supporters of Women Against Feminism centers around women's sexuality. Again, I should point out here that some might say it is not my place to participate in this discussion, but, as I mentioned before, insofar as the consequences of this discussion have a direct impact on the way women may interact with men, I think that I at least have grounds to make an observation. This point of contention can be captured by a different set of pictures from both Brink and the Women Against Feminism Tumblr. One young woman on the Tumblr page, who obscures most of her face, holds up a sign that reads "I need feminism because I need an excuse for when I act like a drunk, empty-headed slut and cheat on my boyfriend". Before presenting Brink's response, it should be pointed out that the negative disposition towards women who liberally engage in sexual conduct displayed by this poster need not meet the conditions aforementioned by the above poster (i.e. being drunk); such an attitude is oftentimes targeted at women who liberally have sex who are not drunk or cheating on a lover, as characterized by Rush Limbaugh's "slut" comment towards a Georgetown student who was asking for easier access to birth control [10]. And, on that note, Brink satirically responds to this attitude in another photo, donning a purple wig, obscuring part of her face (suggesting that this response is directly targeted at the same poster on the WAF Tumblr), holding up a sign that reads "I don't need feminism because I spent my childhood around people who told me that women who had sex before marriage were sluts and whores so now I'm afraid of my own body". As the comments by Limbaugh and the sign on the Women Against Feminism Tumblr show, there is an underlying negative disposition against women who engage in sex outside of marriage, especially when one considers the amount of support that both the Women Against Feminism Tumblr and Limbaugh have. Again, one must wonder whether or not there is any kind of rational foundation for this attitude. And while there certainly does appear to be a similar kind of attitude targeted towards men who also sleep around, it doesn't appear to be nearly as strong, nor is it invoked as often. This is notable insofar as, as The Atlantic points out, women's sexual desires are comparable to that of men [11], which begs the question as to why men are not held to the same sexual standards as women (or, perhaps for the better, why the standards applied to women are not just done away with altogether). Similarly, Dr. Kristen Mark reports to the Huffington Post that the idea that "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus" is nothing more than a myth, and that men and women have more similarities than differences when it comes to sexual desire [12]. Brink recognizes this myth as well and attributes its perpetuation and support by the Women Against Feminism Tumblr to the same set of cultural norms being taught to girls at a young age, again captured by this underlying notion of "gender roles".
          Ultimately, Brink is justified in her response to the Women Against Feminism Tumblr. The reason for this comes back to an axiom I proposed early on: bad ideas are to be resisted. And, as mentioned in the previous paragraphs, the ideas put forth by the Women Against Feminism Tumblr are bad ideas, with no rational or scientific justification for them. And defenders of the Women Against Feminism Tumblr have criticized Brink for doing the very thing that she accuses the WAF Tumblr of doing, i.e. "shitting on other women". However, this criticism of Brink also has no merit to it. If one really wanted to analyze Brink's manner of engagement, it should be pretty obvious that Brink is being satirical towards the Women Against Feminism Tumblr, and this shouldn't strike anyone as particularly problematic. Satire has been a literary and rhetorical device for millennia; indeed, one simply need to look no further than the comedies of Plautus or Voltaire's Candide for traditional examples of satire, or, since I brought up the Democratic Presidential Debate at the outset of this piece, the subsequent satire of the debate that Saturday Night Live that aired the following evening (and this is saying something, coming from me; I have never really been a fan of SNL). Thus, insofar as Brink is employing a traditional rhetorical technique in her criticisms of bad ideas, which is to say, ideas that have no rational or scientific basis, Brink is justified in her course of action.
          On that note, there is one last photo from the Women Against Feminism Tumblr that I think I should bring attention to. One young poster, a fair-skinned girl with blue eyes, attributes to feminism the idea that "males are inherently bad". This concept of feminism is later supported by another young woman who understands feminism as making the claim that "men are inherent rapists and women are perpetual victims". I confess myself initially perplexed by these signs. I never really got the impression that feminism maintains any of these positions, and Brink certainly doesn't appear to be proposing these ideas. My initial reaction to these women on the WAF Tumblr was that they are just further confused about what they are talking about. But then I remembered Valerie Solanas and the attempted assassination of Andy Warhol and then realized that such ideas do actually exist and are attributed to feminism. It is here, then, that I return to a point I made at the outset of this piece: the one glaring criticism of feminism that I see that has the most merit to it is this splintering into poorly defined factions. I don't get the impression that Brink is a follower of Valerie Solanas, and it seems clear that some of the women on the WAF tumblr are conflating what Brink is doing with the kind of militant feminism represented by Solanas, which would be a mistake. Again, the feminist movement would be well-served if it took a page from the various anarchist communities and better defined its different sects, such that further confusion could be avoided. Despite this confusion, however, this doesn't render Brink's point inaudible, and the supporting points I mentioned above still remain.
          Ultimately, the Women Against Feminism Tumblr is strewn with bad ideas, and insofar as bad ideas should be resisted, Brink seems perfectly justified in her satire of it. Again, the attitudes represented on the WAF Tumblr don't seem to have any basis in science or reason, and many of the criticisms leveled at Brink seem to conflate what she is saying with a different, more militant kind of feminism that most certainly appears to be the minority. Hopefully, the statistics that I presented in support of Brink help to illuminate both the position that Brink is coming from and bring to the purview these various social issues, particularly in today's social climate where we may very well have our first female president in the near future.

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