In Defense of the Moral Cause of Feminism

In the last few years I have written a lot both on behalf of social justice and on the need to elevate the discourse surrounding it. I can say unequivocally that the feminist blogosphere and my activist feminist friends have made me a far better ethicist, a far better person, and a far better man than I was before they became a regular part of my life. I have been challenged immensely and grown immensely. The process has quite often been painful in the right ways. It is painful to read things that challenge many of one’s ingrained and reflexive “common sense” beliefs and assumptions. Human brains tend fundamentally towards conservatism in beliefs and practices . The default is towards defending our gut reactions rather than unsparingly pulling them apart.

And this seems especially true when it comes to our moral beliefs and our moral values. And feminism, at its core, is a moral movement. Just making the laws of the land formally fair to women is not enough morally if the ways women are effectively thought about and treated in countless other spheres of life remain unfair. We have a myopic tendency in modern Western culture to think that all public arguments should be about laws and that as long as the laws are fair there is nothing to debate. The elision of the moral from the public debate has two ugly possible consequences. For one thing it means that those who want moral change default to thinking of the government as the best enforcer of all moral goods when it’s not. Dangerous authoritarianism and loss of pluralism and freedom of conscience are at the end of that path.

On the flip side though, there are people who want to silence all critical moral discussion which threatens their existing values as though moral arguments are tantamount to calls to restrict their rights and consciences legally. The very attempt to say “your thoughts and actions are morally fucked up” is heard as “I want to change the laws to coerce your thoughts and actions against your conscience” even when no such thing is being said. In this culture and specifically in our debates about feminism and other social justice issues, we need to square away what the moral limits of legal remedies are while acknowledging what the far reaching extent of compelling moral arguments should be. Many a resistance to a moral argument conveniently likes to confuse the point and take the legally sacrosanct right to freedom of conscience as an excuse to shutdown all feeling of conscientious need to be scrupulously responsive nonetheless to moral arguments even when they carry no legal compulsion.

And moral arguments are hard to listen to when they threaten to disrupt our lazy complacency and, worse, expose our past behaviors, or entire cultural norms we have passively accepted, as fundamentally harmful when we have never realized they were before, nor meant them to be so. And arguments for changes in our moral values are frequently hard because in large part we automatically default to assessing moral arguments by our existing moral values. If our existing moral values are at odds with what others are impressing upon us should be our moral values, it’s going to be an uphill climb to get the necessary critical distance to reassess them.

The strongest appeals will be those made to our existing moral values in ways that elicit us to more adequately and conscientiously understand their implications, change our thought patterns, and live more genuinely, tangibly, and effectively by them. But we are prone to reflexively resist even this process because it is onerous and it has the likely result of making us feel like shit about the past and making us feel like shit as we regularly screw up out of culturally ingrained habits day to day. Many resist feminism for the same reason children resent disciplining and the same reason people of all ages resent church; it is interested in moral formation, which means it is interested in fundamentally reshaping your thoughts and feelings and behaviors in ways that go against your grain as you are. It demands constant introspection, constant vigilance against your habits of thinking and acting and frequent remorse over failures. Moral growth is hard. A good culture teaches good moral habits so that many of them become relatively easy. We are always going to have some psychological tendencies that will chafe against the great number of responsibilities and burdens that are ultimately in our best interest for living in civil society harmoniously, and so morality will never be completely easy. But it can be easier to the extent we are habituated into it. But when a culture systematically normalizes and habituates us in bad ways of thinking and acting, it is an uphill struggle against them.

And so that’s why some people disparage feminism as being “like a religion” and want to dismiss it as such. In Western culture it is hard to think of anyone more brazen, unabashed, self-certain, or pushy about telling others how to think, feel, and act than religious institutions and zealots. And Western religions give moralizing a bad reputation for a couple reasons. One is that they are often going against even what is good and right in our nature and demonizing it out of the frequently religious tendency to be regressive or stagnant in values, being as they often are excessively resistant to the value of moral situationalism and moral empiricism, and being excessively deferent to tradition and prone towards absolutism and authoritarianism. Western religions often give moralizing a bad name because they do it in some of the worst ways possible–teaching us to see our natural drives as fundamentally corrupted and as enemies to ourselves, and teaching us to accept dogmatic dictates rather than figure out our values experimentally and constructively in terms of what leads to the tangible thriving of ourselves and others simultaneously the most.

Moralizing also gets a bad name because when people feel themselves to be on the side of moral righteousness there is an insidious temptation to feel like anything they do on morality’s behalf must be justified. A great deal of fundamentally immoral hatred and authoritarian bullying hypocritically is psychologically baptized with a feeling of intense moral superiority when it is done in the name of morality. The most vivid, detailed, and happily relished rape fantasies I have ever read in my life have come from those high on righteous fury towards child molesters who in their moral outrage and with feelings of moral pride fantasize about the inflictions of the exact cruelties that they want to see punished. This is a sick and dangerous tendency in human nature. Quite possibly the worst threat of great evil in human nature is our tendency to think evil done in the name of the good is especially righteous. Most people can be shamed out of ordinary evils. But the moral zealot turns his conscience into an accomplice to his evil, which cannot be reasoned with.

This is one of the many reasons that I think perpetuating the idea of an absolute deity who determines right and wrong by His own will is so fraught. Believing that such a being is the arbiter of good and evil can easily slip into believing anything done on behalf of that being’s will or to that being’s benefit fundamentally cannot be evil, no matter how awful, since there is no standard outside of serving that being’s will and benefit by which to assess anything to be bad. (Hence the appalling and unreflective willingness of Christians to “lie for Jesus” or of absolutist religions worldwide to impose their religious teachings legally against the consciences of people who don’t belong to them, for just a couple examples.)

Because feeling oneself to be on the side of moral right can be so intoxicating and can so easily tempt us to indulge in cruelty while feeling morally rewarded, I am vigilant and adamant about arguing that moral causes be fought in self-scrutinizing ways. And this is a big part of why I make such a big deal out of calling for my fellow atheists and my fellow proponents of social justice to renounce abusive tactics for winning logical and moral arguments.

If we are proponents of reason, then we should prove we can win using reason. If we resort to underhanded psychological manipulation in order to coerce agreements, then we become what we say we’re against. If we are proponents of the effective moral liberation of all, whereby the full humanity of all people is respected, then we should commit to winning in ways that respect the freedom of conscience and full humanity even of those with repugnant beliefs. If we resort to attempts to emotionally terrorize and dehumanize our dissenters into submission, we become what we say we’re against.

It is incumbent on us members of the political Left to remember that morally horrific and unjustifiable bloodbaths in the ostensive name of equality occurred in the French Revolution and with shocking regularity in communist revolutions around the world in the 20th Century.

We must aspire to live as scrupulously as possible by our own ideals even as we fight for them. Even more, we should fight for our ideals precisely by living according to them. If they are true ideals and not hypocritical ones, they should prove themselves in reality by not relying on their opposites in order to attain to what will amount to merely lip service recognition.

So this brings us back to the moral causes of feminism and social justice more broadly. How well do they live up to these standards? I think feminists and social justice advocates are far better at being unlike religions than they are often given credit for. As moral reformers trudging through rivers of shit that they’re told to accept as sweet chocolate, and having buckets of shit thrown in their faces routinely just for complaining, they have a fucking hard task and their anger is usually incredibly well justified and their complaints deserve to be read widely. Does it justify them reaching into the shit, pulling out giant chunks and shoving it down their enemies’ and even each other’s throats and shouting, “how do you like it? does it taste like chocolate now??” No. It doesn’t. They really shouldn’t do that. But if you think that just pointing out when they do that is enough and feel no active compulsion to also clean up Shit River yourself, then you should be ashamed of your moral laziness and what cheap excuses you use for letting evil and oppression continue to flow. If all you are focused on when thinking and speaking about feminism is the “eat their own” tendencies it suffers from sometimes and the excesses of call out culture and the recourse towards vigilante abusiveness, etc., and not on all the shit that makes them explode in the first place, you’re not being fair or constructive in the big picture. Be a vocal part of the constructive solution if you want to tell others how they’re doing it wrong.

Most of what feminists complain about does not amount to demonizing or pathologizing human nature the way authoritarian religious moralizing tends to. Their criticisms really are grounded in observations of tangible harms. Empirically, by numerous metrics women, gays, blacks, ethnic minorities, immigrants, trans people, the mentally or physically disabled, the less educated, the lower classes , and countless other marginalized groups come out unjustifiably behind more privileged groups of people. And as pedantic, nit-picky, picayune, and ad hoc as their every dissection of language usage and loaded cultural assumptions may seem (and at its self-parodic extremes might actually be ), they are fundamentally right that our unexamined language gives an extraordinary, unearned advantage to dominant power structures and to privileged people that makes it seem like that it is just the way of nature for those currently dominant to have their unearned place in the social order.

The uphill battle cultural reformers face is that the winners do not only write the history books but they also write the language and they code it with a million self-serving value judgments that valorize and normalize precisely the conditions of their own thriving, and demonize and marginalize those less advantaged than themselves. Since our concepts can so overwhelmingly bias how we see the world and both our language and the existing social and moral orders, all of which reinforce each other, can have such power over our concepts, the status quo power relationships can so easily be seen as inviolable facts of both how things just are and how they should be. And this means that even if the moral and conceptual reformers have an objectively more rational schema that would actually also lead to the maximum empowerment of the maximum number of people (which I argue in detail elsewhereis the highest good we should hope to instantiate) they will sound like they are going against the inviolable order of reality and morality when so much of our language and social reality is biased against them.

Informal power structures infuse nearly everything we do. Everything we do is open to scrutiny in principle. It is a moral obligation to actively look for the wrongs worth complaining about and not just wait for them to become intolerable to speak up. Offense is not just a weakness of feeling. It is a moral response that must either be refuted as mistaken or responded to with adequate apologies and rectification if correct. The initial strangeness or apparent pettiness of a given complaint is not an automatic refutation.

Now quite often power is not monolithic. Power structures are multiple. Patriarchal structures are not the only ones in place. Neither are white supremacist ones nor heteronormative ones, etc. And as every feminist meditating on intersectionality will readily admit, being privileged in one area does not exempt you from marginalization in another one, and being marginalized in one way does not exempt you from being privileged in others. And multiple ways of being marginalized compound into distinct forms of disadvantage. And it also seems too simplistic to try to understand every power dynamic in terms of a privilege/marginalization dichotomy. The world is complex. People don’t need to be marginalized to be disadvantaged. They don’t need to be privileged to be advantaged. It is possible to recognize harms to both women and men without always explaining them by reference to patriarchy. There can, for example, be ways women or men are systematically disadvantaged that might be explained by some different, better conceptualization and be in need of different remedies. Totalizing accounts which try to explain every ill by one dynamic or structure wind up becoming unfalsifiable hindrances to creative thinking.

When we see women or men suffering in some way that is gendered, we need to do more thinking than just finding another confirmation for a dogmatic assumption that the only kinds of gendered harms could be patriarchal in nature. And on the flip side, men’s rights activists really need to stop leaping with no justification from the existence of harms disproportionately experienced by men (prison, work accidents, violent assaults, homelessness, deaths as soldiers, suicide, etc.) to feminism as their cause. These issues are complicated and need to be treated with nuance rather than ideological dogmas and accusations.

And those making rejoinders to social justice complaints really need to stop excusing the injustices and sufferings they point out by simply raising the issues of injustices and sufferings of others. It seems as though the implicit assumption is this: if in the broad economy of human interaction, everyone endures injustice and suffering, then the burdens and benefits are roughly fairly equivalent and so no one should complain about their uniquely allotted burden to bear. That’s a cop out. If you want to supplement the foci of social justice advocates by also raising more injustices and sufferings you think they omit, then do that constructively, with an eye towards improving everyone’s lot. Don’t do it as a complacent argument for the status quo that tries to deny the marginalized their right to complain about their sufferings and the ways they are unjustly held back. It is myopic and unimaginative to simply assume injustices and sufferings are irremediable and that everyone should be satiated and silenced from complaining just because they’re not the only ones with burdens and that they have some unjust benefits too. There is no reason to dogmatically assume we can do no better and try to silence people on that account. That’s just a self-fulfilling prophecy that serves the status quo. If you’re ticked that a feminist is complaining about an injustice when you feel like you’ve been stoically dealing with your own set of injustices, don’t blame her for speaking up about her problems and don’t use your problems and the way you’ve borne them silently as reason to get indignant with her. Join her in a project of improving circumstances for both of you. (Much more on my critique of this kind of quietistic, perverse twist on stoicism is in my post on how you can’t kill hateful words’ powers by just ignoring them. And relatedly, I’ve addressed victim blaming and just world fallacies here.)

Finally, some thoughts on privilege. The problem with the nature of most evil in the modern world is that it’s so banal. We oppress people by doing such passive and seemingly morally neutral things as buying a head of lettuce for $1 when that head of lettuce only costs $1 because of grinding exploitation of impoverished people who picked the lettuce and who live under oppressive political and economic conditions because of ruthlessly amoral, violence-underpinned power dynamics. Literally centuries’ worth of expressly violent force and implicit threats of violence shape more of the contours of our social, political, economic, and legal realities than we could ever adequately analyze.

The insidiousness of it all is that the explicit violence of the past and the often blindly mechanistic automatic implicit violence of the present make it so that relatively few people need to act out of willful, conscientious malice in order to oppress others. They can, in most of their daily interactions be genial, thoughtful, sweet, caring, generous, and otherwise good natured and conscientious people, and yet be living and thriving to a significant extent due to systemic, unjust, violence-based advantages that favor them over others. It is not coincidence when formerly colonized and exploited Third World nations are still destitute, and riven with civil wars, starvation, or tyrannical governments. It is not coincidence when the heirs to slaves make up a disproportionate number of the prisoners and the impoverished in the first world. These are legacies of formerly explicit violence.

So, for we who are relatively more privileged, which in one way or another is anyone even with access to the internet and the education to even read this article, we get to benefit from violence without requiring a violent bone in our body. Lucky us! And we are at a point where so many unconscious biases, rigged institutional systems, and deeply linguistically ingrained “common sense” beliefs and values and assumptions can all do oppressive, violent work with minimal need for hateful thoughts or express violence. We can be people with a wide range of virtues and harm others by what we simply passively accept that comes our way unearned to aid us, which at one point or another was denied to others by unjust systems.

Many people accuse the concept of privilege of functioning like Original Sin. We’re all born guilty. We must condemn ourselves and hate ourselves and repent and prostrate ourselves for our fathers’ sins. We can never wash ourselves clean but must live in self-mortifying misery as penance. So they’re repulsed. “How can you blame us for what our parents did? We don’t hate. We don’t pick up weapons against the innocent. We don’t deliberately write unbalanced laws. We just do our jobs and we treat those around us without malice and often we treat them with a good deal of kindness and compassion and affection.”

But the rise of the moral fervor for the concept of privilege is not (or should not) be about guilt. It should not be about feeling bad for what you did. It is about taking proactive, constructive responsibility for what both your inaction and the evils of the systems you benefit from do and trying to find ways to resist and change those systems. And those systems include systems of feeling and judging and behaving–not just state-backed laws. All of us just peacefully “doing our jobs” does not absolve us from the moral responsibility to face up to and denounce the cumulative destruction of real people’s lives that our economic arrangements “just happen” to do with no one having to aim at it. All of us white people just not thinking racist thoughts or treating other people in expressly racist ways won’t stop the perpetuation of racist structures from continuing to impoverish, jail, or kill a disproportionate number of blacks. All of us men nebulously “believing in equality” and “supporting equal rights” legally won’t stop women from being alienated from their own sexuality and from the workplaces where they could fully realize their talents. It won’t suddenly make it where they are talked about or represented in art as full blooded and interesting human beings as often as men are. It won’t end their terrorization at the hands of real living misogynists in our midst.

We need to understand that moral improvement is not just a matter of not doing anything expressly wrong. It’s about figuring out how to actively do more that is right. It is about exhaustively examining ways that we can hurt people without trying to or meaning to. I get it that it hurts to feel accused and berated for what you didn’t mean to do or be a part of. Insofar as it’s very tempting for the oppressed to impute the intention to hurt to everyone who has the effect of hurting, it can be all too easy for them to irrationally feel and treat your ignorance and passive participation in unjust structures as though it were willful villainy. That’s not an excuse to stop scrupulously examining how you might be hurting others though. Sure, you shouldn’t be demonized when you’re not trying to hurt anyone . But you also shouldn’t go out of the way to feel demonized personally when general patterns of privileged advantage you benefit from are pointed out to you, either.

True moral conscientiousness demands nothing less than that you be perpetually on guard to realize how you can passively receive benefits from oppression without having to do or think anything explicitly evil. This is not a matter of seeing yourself as terrible. It’s a matter of understanding the terribleness of social structures that have always been forged with a great deal of violence and require immense work to be made more just. It’s not about your soul. It’s about your society. But changing your society means becoming a better person than existing social and moral norms are forcing you to be at present.

Privilege is blinding in a similar way to how all limitations on experience and perspective are blinding. The problem with privilege though is that it’s a blindness that can compound your passive, unwitting harmfulness to others that happens while the explicit violence of other people and implicit violence of institutions do all the dirty work of weighting others down for you so you don’t even realize you’re winning a rigged race in life. And it’s also important to remember that often the marginalized have more access to the privileged’s perspective in advance and so already can anticipate and possibly already have very good reasons for rejecting their perspectives. The privileged should be aware of this and not talk down to the marginalized like they must just not be seeing something obvious or are closedminded, accordingly.

“But isn’t privilege called out too much and too reflexively?” Yes and no.

First of all, appeals to privilege, while mistaken for offensive or abusive way too often, are actually especially civil and charitable in many cases. Often they represent an acknowledgment that the target is not explicitly and deliberately trying to be racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, etc. Saying you’re privileged is a way of saying you have a blindspot and a kind of ignorance that is bequeathed to you by social structures that make it harder for you to grasp how things actually work out for others. It’s the opposite of accusing you of malice and poor intentions. Calling someone privileged is not itself calling someone anything abusive. It’s not calling you an “asshole”, a “douchelord” , “stupid” , etc. And it is not making the potentially fair moral charge of actual bigotry. In many cases, calling someone privileged represents giving that person the benefit of the doubt that they’re not a bigot . (Similarly, it is to feminists’ credit that they’re in the frequent habit of calling things problematic . No, they’re not saying otherwise good things with some unfortunate sexism are totally irredeemably evil. They’re saying they have problems and inviting a discussion .)

But is it fair to assume that a person from a more generally advantaged group is always ignorant and wrong in a dispute and that a person from a generally disadvantaged group is always enlightened and right in a dispute? No, that’s not fair either. It is possible for people from more privileged groups to hear out those who are more marginalized in a given area with respect to them, learn from them, and well enough internalize the insights of their experience to make independent judgments about morality and pragmatics. It is quite often possible to hear out a marginalized person and disagree for good intellectual and moral reasons. And it is also quite often possible for a marginalized person to know intimately what it’s like for things to be fucked up for them without thereby automatically actually understanding what will actually fix things or why things wound up fucked up in the first place. It’s one thing to know what oppression is like to suffer from. It’s a harder thing to know the intricacies of cause and effect that both make and end it. There are, no doubt, veritable wealths of insights that come from the intimate detailed experience of oppression in all its nuances that can invaluably contribute to diagnosing and fixing problems. But it doesn’t turn the marginalized into unquestionable authorities. There remains need for all people to participate in the dialectical public debate to work out solutions.

Finally, when two people disagree and the one is more privileged than the other, the privilege can be a hypothesis as to why there is a disagreement. It requires reasonable evidence to be taken as a fact. Sometimes it’s not that the person in the more privileged position is simply ignorant because of privilege-blindness. The more privileged person has reasons they simply think prevail over the arguments of the more marginalized even after they have attentively listened to all the insights from experience the more marginalized have marshaled. We all must still think for ourselves and have our intellectual and moral consciences persuaded rationally. That means listening greedily to those with perspectives and emotionally powerful experiences we lack that they may inform our thinking. It does not mean just parroting what they say and fearing to ever raise our objections. We will only improve our thinking if we feel comfortable to express our sincere disagreements without fear of morally cutting accusations or, far worse, verbal abuse and social coercion. When debates about social justice deteriorate in this direction, it’s counter-productive.

Feminists are not always right. Feminism needs constant criticism, reassessment, revision, and responsiveness to reality and its changes, just like any other political movement or philosophy does. Feminists should resist dogmatism and self-righteousness conscientiously. But fundamentally feminists are right to pick moral fights and, in my estimation, they are flat out right most of the time and at least pulling in a right direction even when pulling too far. In the great moral tug of war for the power in humanity, they are fundamentally on the side of empowering the most people and everyone will ideally benefit from that. They are right to perpetually challenge us to reexamine our language, our implicit systems of violence and oppression, and our fundamentally privileged perceptions of reality that all too frequently serve political, economic, social, and moral injustices without our ever having to lift an evil finger.

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