I think a lot of people are getting pretty sick and tired of tweet wars and endless bickering in the comment section of blogs trying to talk about feminism. It quickly breaks down in emotional tirades and name-calling, regardless of position taken. It is like getting stuck in world where everything repeats itself, over and over again ad nauseum. Progress is rarely made. Therefore, I have made a list on some ground rules that may be useful when trying to have an intelligent, productive and rational conversation about feminism. Alternatively, you might consider this a personal commentary on what I think is wrong with the current discussions about feminism in the skeptical blogosphere and some ideas for fixing it, or at least reducing the problem.
Acknowledge the diversity of feminist thought
“Feminism” is really a diverse and heterogeneous group of movements. We should be speaking of “feminisms”, not Feminism with a capital F. Generally speaking, one can safely assume that most versions of feminism think that women should have the same cultural, economic and political power as men. Exactly how the inequality has arisen, how big it is, what it means, and how to work against it differs among different forms of feminism. Therefore, it is meaningless to start claims with “feminists believe” or “feminists think” when discussion the specifics of particular versions of feminism. It will just come out as hasty generalizations that won’t benefit the conversation.
This has important implications. It means that individuals who are against feminism cannot use criticisms against a particular section of feminist thought as a bladestorm against all forms of feminism. Similarity, feminists that support a particular version of feminism cannot claim that a given person is anti-feminism because that person puts forward arguments against their particular version. It might as well be the case that the person subscribes to a different version of feminism, making it a debate between different types of feminism (rather than a discussion between feminism and anti-feminism). Of course, some commentators are so obviously just anti-feminist trolls and should be treated as such, but this should not be the default assumptions.
Accept that feminist movements have made many beneficial societal contributions
This is necessarily going to be an oversimplification of the history and contributions of various forms of feminism and I am not a feminist scholar. The main societal contributions of feminism revolve around things like women’s suffrage, combating discriminatory laws, reforming attitudes towards sexual abuse, increased reproductive rights of women and helping women in the workplace. So, in essence, feminist movements have a couple of victories in their baggage, although it is by no means attained the ultimate goal of having the same cultural, economic and political power as men in all areas. More work is left to be done.
The key here is that we must acknowledge that feminist movements have made improvements for society and for individual women. In that sense, the discussion should not be about whether feminism as a whole is a good idea or not, but how to improve feminism. This is no different that discussing in what ways humans contribute to climate change instead of talking about if humans are a part of it. Or in what way different taxa are related, rather than discussion if evolution has occurred.
Listen to understand, not just to gather ammunition
Why are you entering this particular discussion on feminism and feminism-related topics? What is your goal? What do you hope to achieve? Are you dropping a tightly argued case based on evidence? Or are you fighting back a wave of trolls? Adjust approach based on goal. In practice, this may mean keeping head cool when dealing with trolls, or applying active listening when having more serious conversations. This is difficult, especially if the majority of communication is against trolls. Against trolls, the general approach seems to be that you listen only in so far as you attempt to gather ammunition against them. No actual attempt is made at understanding the arguments made. This is of course not a bad thing. Almost all intellectual effort spent at trolls are a waste of time. The only exception may be to lift a particular misconception from a troll comment to a new blog post and discuss it in detail because it elucidates a particular problem or point. This method is not to be recommended as a general strategy. It is so much more helpful if you make an effort at understanding what is being said. More often than not, you probably did not understand the point. It is better to ask for clarification with the qualifier that you may be wrong on the issue, than to assume that someone has said or meant something they actually did not. Would you rather know what is right (i.e. performed a careful analysis of the evidence), than be right (i.e. knock down opponents regardless of the state of evidence)?
Restrict the use of emotionally and ethically charged labels
In certain situations, it may be very tempting for some to use charged labels like “misogynist pig” or “man-hating feminazi”. The drawback is that it will effectively annihilate any opportunity for a sensible and reasoned conversation among non-troll individuals with different positions and opinions. Even worse, it will put the person using them in a bad light in the eyes of onlookers. They might think that the person cannot remain calm and rational in the face of opposition. Granted, some people are just trolls, but even here it is a good idea to set a positive example for others on how to deal with trolls in a reasoned manner. Moreover, trolls do not deserve to have you get you all worked up about them. If you do, they win a small victory. Therefore, it may be a good idea to restrict the usage of charged labels until the evidence is overwhelming. Another good idea may be to ignore personal attacks and avoid getting worked up by the situation and just responding to the supposed arguments that are being put forward. Replying to trolls or borderline trolls with comments like “how unfortunate that you decided to start using logical fallacies instead of contributing to a reasoned discussion” or similar.
In other situations, the usage of charged labels could also be thought of as a fallacy or cognitive error in its own right: “the person has valid arguments that I cannot respond to, so therefore I am going to attached a charged label to that person and since his or her arguments come from that group of people (i.e. ‘sexist pigs’ or ‘feminazis’), the arguments must be wrong”. Obviously, no one explicitly makes this reasoning out loud, but may be a factor in certain cases.
Recognize that some fringe feminists and many anti-feminists engage in blatant pseudoscience
The main point here is that there really is no position that is not plagued by pseudoscience to a certain extent. This may be because strongly emotionally charged topics tend to make us lose our heads, preferring being right to knowing what is right. To elucidate this point more clearer, I will pick two examples of blatant pseudoscience from each position. I do not intend this to imply that pseudoscience is equally widespread in the different movements or that these examples are intellectually or morally equivalent. Also, while more text is devoted to describing fringe feminist pseudoscience, that is because they require more detailed explanations and qualifiers than the relatively simplistic pseudoscience from some anti-feminists. Although I have no particular evidence for this, my general impression is that, on the average, anti-feminists tend to rely more on pseudoscience than feminists.
1. The Swedish radical feminist Eva Lundgren has been a long-time proponent of satanic ritual abuse (SRA) conspiracy theories. A documentary on public television in Sweden in 2005 called The Gender War exposed her and the influence of her ideas on organizations devoted to helping abused women. One such group, called Bellas Vänner, kidnapped and drugged young women who were victims of sexual abuse, believing they were being hunted by a group of pedophiles with strong political influence (i.e. classic SRA beliefs). Lundgren has investigated for scientific misconduct, but was cleared of charges (although reviewers remarked that the research was scientifically weak). The documentary was found guilty of being biased because it did not include interviews with the women who allegedly kidnapped the young women. With those qualifiers in place, Lundgren clearly promotes pseudoscientific conspiracy theories about SRA and her influence (and the influence of other similar fringe feminists) over Swedish political policy has been noticeable.
2. Some anti-feminists like to point out that, on the average and controlled for body mass, male brains are bigger then female brains. While this is strictly true (the difference is minor), female brains have more tightly packed neurons and there is no particular difference in average IQ between the sexes.
3. Certain fringe feminists oppose empirical research on rape avoidance. The most common approach is rape prevention programs that attempt to increase knowledge about rape, disprove rape myths and so on. The problem is that these do not seem to have any long-term decrease in rape incidence or belief in rape myths when followed up. The research has shown that women who are subjected to a completed rape has worse mental health outcomes than women who have been subjected to attempted rape and thus focused on trying to discover what rape resistance strategies that work. Sarah Ullman (2007) explains:
Some feminists have expressed valid concerns that interventions targeting women that either teach self-defense or educate them about effective resistance strategies hold women responsible for rape prevention. However, as long as males commit rape, women and girls should be given information and training in effective methods of self-protection. Women also need access to knowledge about risky situations and behaviors, just as society helps people protect themselves from other public health threats such as HIV infection. This type of education can be done without holding women responsible for or blaming them for being assaulted.
Arguing for resistance and self-defense training based on extant empirical results do not mean that women are responsible for rape prevention, which is a pitfall of interventions aimed at women. However, there is a distinction between prevention that restricts women’s freedom (e. g., telling them not to go out at night or not drink alcohol) and prevention that enhances women’s freedom (e. g., providing information about risk, teaching self-defense skills). Failing to provide empirical information about effective resistance strategies and training in self-defense techniques allow men to continue to completing more rapes of women, which cause serious psychological and physical harm. Rapists admit planning their attacks and looking for easy targets. Thus, women who act assertively can thwart them by resisting attack. Assailants may be surprised when women actively resist, as they may expect women to submit. Educations should help women identify barriers to their own self-protecting, such as feelings of unworthiness, and help them to define men’s sexual aggression as wrong and the responsibility of men, not women
One should never blame the victim and not underestimate efficacy of improved rape prevention programs, but it is important to remember that approaches such as this one (i.e teaching women how to fight back) might in practice reduce harmful consequences for women. In the struggle between pragmatism and ideology, ideology has won for these particular fringe feminists. Most mainstream feminists, on the other hand, understand that any solution that actually works without restricting the freedom of women is a good solution and that many different approaches can be useful as long as they are based on evidence.
4. Finally, some anti-feminists blame rape victims and their “provocative clothing”. The problem of course is that most rapes are not stranger rapes, but rapes carried out by close male friends or relatives. Presumably, clothing has negligible influence in those cases. Any number of rape myths that anti-feminists contribute to could be listed.
In summary, flawed arguments made by embarrassing allies should never be defended. It should not be about trying to make your side “win” by defending your comrades to the last drop of intellectual integrity has been shed. In fact, it can sometimes make sense to be tougher on falsehoods promoted by those who share your position, since they can hijack your position and give it a bad reputation.
References and further reading
Ullman, S. E. (2007). A 10-Year Update of “Review and Critique of Empirical Studies of Rape Avoidance. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 34(3), 411-429.
Ekman, Ivar. (2005). Swedish feminism put to the test. New York times. Accessed: 2012-07-30