Friday, January 22, 2016

When Feminist Ideals Clash With Other Political Ideals. The Cologne Events and the US Democratic Primaries.

What do people do when their political ideals clash?  What happens when one set of those ideals is about gender equality?

I've been researching the gender-political reactions to the Cologne mass sexual assaults by putting on my hazmat suit and then diving into the right-wing sites in Europe and the US, such as  After decontamination I returned to do the same with as many "mainstream" sources, left-wing sites and feminist sites and writers as I can find.  Then I detoxed. 

You may or may not get the fruits of all that research delivered to you on a pretty blogging plate, with a sprig of intellectual parsley to decorate it.  Much depends on how suicidal I am, because the world I've spent days in, to do that research, is a Bizarre World where the anti-feminists are suddenly the feminists and the feminists, well, they are suddenly in-general-concerned-but-there's-nothing-new-here people.*   Or silent. 

I have noticed that pattern before in cases where misogynistic acts are carried out by members of groups which in the West might be hated, reviled or oppressed on some other dimension than gender.

Ideals then clash and one ranks above the other:  To caricature,  right-wing anti-feminists can swallow a certain amount of pretend-feminism in order to be able to carry out anti-Muslim bigotry.  Feminists, on the other hand, can set aside concerns for women's rights** if those appear to clash with refugee rights or with anti-racism work, multi-culturalism or the work to fight against general bigotry towards Muslims.

Mmm.  I really should write about something more relaxing, such as how to endure multiple root canals without anesthesia.

I see something slightly similar happening with the Clinton-Sanders fights in the Democratic primary battles.  Commentators who believe in both women's equal representation in politics and progressive income redistribution or more economic equality must choose their candidate.  And that choice involves a clash of ideals.  The one that is ranked higher, at least in the short term,  will then have to be defended.  Some of the chosen defenses get very ugly.

When this happened in 2008, in the juxtaposition of race and gender,  I was unprepared and pushed into a state of mental and emotional dizziness which was both interesting and frightening.  This time I am prepared, but it's still disheartening to see the mud slung and the main reason why I have  not written on those primaries.

But the similarity of these two examples on the clash of ideals is instructive. The Cologne debates can be mined for people's deepest views on women, gender and the tasks of feminism.   They also helped me, at least, to understand why fast global progress on women's rights is as likely as a coffee cup giving birth to a puppy.

To draw lessons from the US presidential primary debates is more difficult, because Hillary Clinton is almost the only very powerful woman in the country.  A sample size of one doesn't let us draw conclusions about how other female candidates would be treated, because Clinton-the-person matters more than the fact that she is a woman and that this country has never had a female president, despite currently having more women than men in it.

So many see Hillary Clinton as divisive, hawkish, part of a family dynasty,  a low-cal alternative to the Republicans who desire to build a banana republic.

Clinton's alternative has strawberries, too!  Many truly detest her politics and her policies, and do not wish to support them, even if she is a woman and there has never been a female president in this country, despite its population currently tilting female.

At the same time, it's possible to see deep and unconscious forms of sexism working in some of the writings about her***.  She is an egomaniac, and ambitious politician, not someone we can connect with.

What are the other people wanting to run the most powerful country of the world?  Unambitious and retiring kind people who spend their days in soup kitchens or baking cookies for little children?  But they are men, so we don't require that they "connect" with the voters in quite the same way, and we don't really expect them to be sweet and gentle and unambitious****.  Gender expectations differ.

Then the usual warnings:  This post is not about whether Sanders is better or worse than Clinton and it is not about what the "true" feminist choice should be.  It is about the underbelly of our ideals, about the ring in which they come to box it out, and what happens in that particular situation and why.  We should be aware of those fights.  It doesn't matter which combatant wins our endorsement for that awareness to be valuable.
* To clarify, sites which have permanent sections for feminism-bashing suddenly worry about European women's right to go out unmolested.  But that worry is only when the perpetrators of sexual assaults are Muslim or Africans, and more careful reading of the sites tells us that the worry is interpreted mythologically, as "Germany/Sweden/Finland/Austria getting raped" or as "virginal innocence being destroyed," or as "our women being molested."

The average comments thread to one of these pieces also accuses feminists for all types of things, including being the real culprits in allowing and supporting the flood of refugees and migrants to Europe and focusing only on the bashing of white Christian men.

On the other hand, many (if not most) feminist sites limited their coverage to pointing out that odd sudden right-wing concern about the sexual harassment of women but only when the culprits were mostly Muslim.

What should have been a small part of feminist takes on the Cologne mass sexual harassment became almost the whole story about Cologne, though reinforced by evidence that sexual harassment was already widespread in whatever the European country under discussion, so it wasn't something the refugees and migrants brought with them.

Which is completely correct.  But the harassment in Cologne, Helsinki, Hamburg and other cities was a novel type for Europe. It consisted of many men working together to surround one or few women and then sharing the tasks of keeping the victim contained, keeping potential helpers out and the actual groping, stripping and finger-penetration of the women.  This form of harassment may not have been unknown in Europe, but I certainly had only heard about it in the context of the Arab Spring demonstrations in Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt.

As I mentioned in the post, all this really requires a thorough article, based on the myriad links I've collected and translated.  Would you like to do it for me?  I promise to organize the funeral of your reputation in return.

The bad taste in my mouth from reading so much on the Cologne reactions has to do with the actual women who were the victims.  They seem to have slipped through the political cracks in this debate, becoming tools for one political set of ideals or another.

**  Though this should be qualified.  I learned, in my travels that I may not have understood how feminism might be defined.  One Finnish feminist states in an interview:

Kirjoitit kylttiin ”Tasa-arvo on kaikkien asia”. Miksi?
Kolmannen aallon feminismissä ei enää ajatella, että feminismin ensisijainen tavoite olisi parantaa pelkästään naisten asemaa. On hirveän paljon sukupuolittuneita ilmiöitä, jotka vaikuttavat miehiin, naisiin ja niihin, jotka eivät sovi kumpaankaan kategoriaan. Puhun kriittisesti esimerkiksi armeijasta ja miehiin kohdistuvasta väkivallasta. Tasa-arvo ei voi olla vain yhden ryhmän tehtävä.

My rough translation:

Q:  You wrote on your sign:  "Equality is everybody's business."  Why?
A:  Third wave feminists no longer think that the primary goal of feminism would be to only improve women's status.  There are awfully many "genderized" phenomena which affect men, women and those who fit neither category.  For instance, I speak critically about the military and about violence aimed at men.  Equality cannot be the task of only one group.
 That's slightly confusing, because she seems to both argue that other groups should work for some of the issues which negatively affect, say, men, but at the same time suggests that they are among the tasks of feminism.  But I append that quote because it is one example of the many ways in which the definition of feminism has widened.  When that widening includes anti-racism and pro-refugee work the clash of ideals may enter the picture.

***  Google "Hillary Clinton age," then "Bernie Sanders age," and note the difference.  Or note that articles of this type cannot be written about male candidates, because the US has never had a female president with a spouse who could be held responsible for how he reacted when she turned out to have had an affair with her subordinate.  Or who could be held responsible for the policies his wife carried out.

****  The very small number of women in American politics really makes it difficult to completely distinguish between gender expectations and reactions to Hillary Clinton's actual personality.  We need more women in politics, not only for the usual good reasons from the left, but also so that we get lots more clearly sexist writings in American politics!  I'm sick.