Saturday, June 08, 2013

You're Doing it Rong. John Pilger Explains What Feminists Should Do.

In a Truthout piece titled "There Is a War on Ordinary People, and Feminists Are Needed at the Front."  By ordinary people Pilger means the poor and perhaps the middle class.  His argument is a class argument, though it's more than that, as I will discuss further down.

But for the time being it's enough to note that John Pilger wants feminism to be about class concerns and not about gender.  I guess the term "feminism" has so many definitions (lots of them  reviled and hated, many of them contradictory, quite a few of them unknown among the larger public) that it's no longer regarded as odd for someone to argue that feminism shouldn't be about gender.  But it's like saying that anti-racist movements shouldn't be about race.

There have been many,  many nights where I have lain awake, staring into the darkness while asking myself if I AM a feminist.

That's because of the many and very complicated debates that are ongoing within various circles interested in either explaining women's roles and economic lots in life or working to improve the status of women.  My mind runs around a squirrel wheel, going from "yes, but" to "on the other hand" and back again.

So far I think the important distinction when comparing and contrasting various groups of people in the Oppression Olympics is this:  Whatever our own activism,  we need to understand that  the underlying theories about why certain groups don't fare as well in the society are not interchangeable.  It matters to understand where misogyny comes from and it matters to understand where sexism comes from.  It matters to understand poverty and attitudes towards poverty, and it matters to understand the roots of sexism.  One single theory cannot account for all of those.

It also matters that feminists can be classist and racist, that anti-racists can be sexist and classist, and that those who fight classism issues can be at least sexist, if not racist (the latter depending on the country).

Back to John Pilger who will teach me more about what feminists are all about and what we should do.

He begins rather wonderfully, by arguing that the UK Daily Mail is a feminist publication.  It's an inauspicious opening if he wishes to persuade feminazis of my kind, because I have studied that publication intensively in the past, and here are the kinds of things the newspaper's Femail section, intended for women, gives us in the archives for searching the word "feminism":

Feminism was going to liberate both sexes, but instead it destroyed a generation of men

How feminism destroyed real men

Has feminism killed the art of home cooking?

Why I loathe feminism... and believe it will ultimately destroy the family

Feminism has turned men into second-class citizens, but have women's victories come at a price?

You've got what you want, girls, stop whining: Has feminism made women unhappy? (well THIS certainly will)

'Quit work to help your husband', says a controversial new book that has infuriated feminists

And so on and so on, for 407 references. 

Pilger goes on in his article in a way which suggests that he has been personally hurt and angered by feminist writings about gendered violence, feeling accused himself and feeling powerless to affect the debate, which he believes has been kidnapped by feminists:

This is now standard media practice. "Most weeks some lovely, caring berks tell me I am a man-hating witch," wrote Suzanne Moore recently in the Guardian, "so let's get it out there. Sometimes I am. The acceptable kind of suck-it-up feminism (I love men really!) is hard to sustain after yet more abuse stories … Do I think all men are rapists? No. Do I think all women can be raped. Yes?"
How quickly the broad brush of blame is applied to a rash of dreadful murder and kidnap cases. Throw in an abduction in Cleveland, and the arrest of "yet another TV personality," and, according to Cynthia Cockburn and Ann Oakley, this represents "the profound, extensive and costly problem of male sexual violence."
Part of the problem, another commentator insinuates, is that men don't care as much as women because they don't use Twitter enough to express their abhorrence of rape and kidnap. This all adds up to a "crisis in masculinity," requiring men to join in a "conversation" about their social and moral deficiencies on terms already decided.
The problem with media-run "conversations" on gender is not merely the almost total absence of male participants, but the suppression of class. It is tempting to say real politics are missing, too, but bourgeois boundaries and prescriptions are real enough. Thus, gender, like race, can be presented in isolation. Class is a forbidden word, and gender subordinate to class is heresy. The Daily Mail model is built on this.
One might argue that feminists "kidnapped" this topic because it was an orphan nobody else wanted at all.

But I can understand Pilger's hurt feelings.  Generalized guilt on the basis one's sex, race or ethnicity is not a terribly productive start for solving any types of problems in the society, as we should have learned from recent discussions of Islamic extremists, just as generalized prejudices about one gender or race are bad.  Still,  Pilger may be skipping stages there, by assuming that the "crisis in masculinity" is about men as biological beings or about something that cannot be changed, rather than about socially defined norms of masculinity, especially among teenagers, athletes and other groups which build their own sub-cultures based on the approval of others in those sub-cultures.

Whatever,  Pilger is  clearly angry and clearly not on the same side with feminists.  That's what makes his argument that feminists are not on his side interesting.

His side is classism, roughly.  But here's the deeper problem about Pilger's arguments:

Feminists have, for many years now, used the lens of intersectionality to gender issues, by noting that those issues intersect with race, income, ethnicity and religion.  Likewise, there are many, many feminists organizations which work on the issues of immigrant women in the US, on the issues of race and gender, on the issues of poverty and gender, on the issues of LGBT and women, and on and on and on.  Pilger probably didn't think of using Google to  research all that.

May I now say that I think Pilger is mansplaining a bit?  Giving us a hastily written and angry first draft, rather than doing the additional research that was needed?  Hmm.

Finally, there are problems with the assertion that feminists should stop caring about violence and other issues and focus on poverty and class issues.  First, many feminists are already focusing on poverty and class issues.  Second, if feminists don't talk about the gendered aspects of violence, then nobody will, pretty much.  And third, obviously there are feminist activists who are not into class issues, just as there are class activists who equally obviously are not into gender issues.