Thinking about Feminism

I know, I’m wading into controversy. I want to share some thoughts about feminism. But actually, I should say up front that my whole approach to feminism aims to minimize the opportunities for controversy and self-superiority and bitterness, from all sides. It probably doesn’t succeed fully in that goal, but it’s the best thing I’ve found yet.

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(In fact, maybe feminism is not as controversial today as it was half a decade ago. I know there are many feminists who, in trying to stay true to their feminism, are today considered regrettably bigoted, so please forgive me if I’m too far behind the times. See my post-script at the end of this post.)

I started out staunchly opposed to feminism. After some initial confusion and uncertainty, I had a professor who was very bright, very engaging, and quite dismissive of feminism. I remain indebted to this professor for so much of my intellectual development, but in some respects it has taken me several years to extricate myself from a few of his more flamboyant positions and think through the questions for myself. Thus, for some time I was convinced against feminism.

The first cracks in my anti-feminist position appeared when I observed how often my feminist friends would accuse those who were self-avowed non-feminists of being opposed to higher education for women and votes for women, since those things came from feminism. At first these accusations caused no trouble for my views, since they seemed an obvious instance of the fallacy of composition. Just because we call the people from a century ago by the same name as the people from today, that doesn’t mean they are or represent the same thing.

However, at some point it occurred to me that there was something implicit in the accusation which I had missed the first several times I encountered it. If not being a feminist meant you were opposed to women having higher education and votes, then was it also true that if you were in favour of higher ed and votes for women, you would be right to call yourself a feminist? The conclusion seemed to follow. I wasn’t sure about this, but it was something to consider.

Some time later, I heard a short staged debate on the radio between three women: a “radical feminist,” a “moderate feminist,” and someone who denied that she was a feminist. What was fascinating to me was the way the two feminists related to the non-feminist; everything she said about feminism, every reason why she didn’t like it or disagreed with it, was answered with something like “well you don’t have to believe that to be a feminist,” or even, “I’ve never met a feminist who believes that!” The non-feminist was very intelligent and brought up many of the points which were convincing to me, and many more besides: feminism thinks there are no differences of significance between men and women, or it thinks we should try to make men and women as similar as possible, or it thinks that women should be shamed for not being more like men, or it tries to hold men today guilty for what past generations have done. For each point, the other two didn’t try to defend the positions but simply said, you don’t have to believe that.

Hearing this debate was a real turning point for me. It helped me see the diversity in what had seemed the unified edifice of feminism. There is room within feminism for disagreement. It sounds so obvious, saying it now, but at the time it was a revelation! Being a feminist doesn’t mean signing off on a particular creed or agenda. There is a small non-negotiable core to feminism, and beyond that core there is room for debate.

So then what is this non-negotiable core? The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says there are two basic propositions which must be affirmed by someone who wishes to be a feminist: that women should not be treated badly or unfairly on account of their being women, and that there are women in the world today who are being treated badly or unfairly on account of their being women. Thus, there is a normative and a descriptive component.

According to this standard, a great many people who don’t consider themselves feminists actually are.

It will be immediately clear what is lacking from the non-negotiable core: an account of fairness/unfairness, justice/injustice, goodness/badness. Different feminists will construe justice differently, and that is completely acceptable.

Why then waste time arguing about who’s a feminist and whether feminism is good or bad? Let’s all count ourselves feminists, since by this account we all are (or certainly we all should be). Then our quarrels will all become quarrels within the family, rather than conflicts between distinct tribes. That won’t solve all our problems, but it may bring us a considerable step closer to resolving our differences, and that seems eminently worthwhile to my eyes.

PS: It is my guess that I would try to follow this same approach with those other intellectual approaches which have been offshoots of, or greatly intermingled with, feminism, such as those contemporary theories dealing with race, disability, sexuality, gender, etc. However, I have not thought this approach through as carefully in those areas and so for now that idea remains only a conjecture.

Mysticism and Memory

Is it possible to remember experiences of God?

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If someone isn’t thinking of God in such a way that God’s presence (or absence) can be felt, might it be at all comparable for that person to be thinking of a memory of such an experience? And if not, what do memories of God actually recall?

I’ve been thinking a bit recently about the relationship of memory and mysticism, and the ways that memory can assist us in the mind’s itinerary toward God, or can even be a part of that journey.

In one sense, memory can never take the place of mysticism. Mysticism is necessarily characterized by immediacy. It is the flight of the alone to the Alone. Memory, however, always mediates, and so it is something entirely other, something entirely unlike mysticism.

Not to mention, mysticism is always within grasp. What it requires is not any special equipment or preparation but only an orientation of the soul, a turning away from the changeable toward the eternal, a movement of the will. We can do this even in the midst of the mundane distractions of life in the world. So then, what could be the point of focusing on memory when it is always possible to seek mysticism itself?

In another sense, we must rely on memory to sustain and direct us. We can’t reach a destination without some sort of map or set of directions, which will have to be held in memory, just as much for the mystic as for anyone else.

Of course the map doesn’t replace the reality. Or does it? It seems to me that perhaps this is where the analogy breaks down. I have an intuition, I suppose, that memory and mysticism can fade into one another. At some point, remembering the experience of turning toward God becomes the act of turning toward God. How could it not?

And that’s where things get really interesting to me, because remembering doesn’t only have to take the form of personal recollection. It can also be dwelling on the testimony of other trusted voices from past and present. I can remember what has happened to me, but I can also remember, in a sense, what has happened to others who share their own experiences of a transcendent reality. I can remember their experience with them, because they have shared it and made it available to me, even though I was not experiencing it with them at the time. I can know, from them, what I have never known for myself. And what might that mean for the mystic?

Moral Disarmament

What I am calling “moral disarmament” refers to the idea that a person can’t stop being a cheater, a liar, a thief, a thug, a flatterer, a glutton, a philanderer, until everyone else has done so as well.

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Perhaps that position sounds ridiculous (it is), but then again, it’s also shockingly common. Perhaps on reflectionit will be clear to some why this idea can seem so compelling.

Let’s suppose many people around us are regularly and casually lying to enrich or protect themselves. To tell the truth would be a great disadvantage in such a situation. In such a case, we might hear “I’d love not to lie, but if I don’t then everyone else still will and I’ll be the one who ends up getting punished! I don’t want to be punished for doing the right thing while everyone else goes unpunished for doing what is wrong.”

Suddenly, it’s not so hard to imagine feeling that way.

Suppose that it’s possible to cheat the system, and that there’s a small number of people who do so, taking scarce resources that others should have access to. “If I don’t cheat and get someone else’s share, then someone else will cheat and get my share. How would that be right? I don’t have a choice. I don’t want to blow my chance and come out of this looking like a fool.”

One person is on a diet, trying to eat in a way that is healthy and reasonable, while it seems like everyone else eats whatever they feel like with no care for the consequences. “It’s awkward for me not to eat like them. It makes them think I’m judging them, and it makes me think they’re judging me. Plus it makes me so sad not to be included in the things they enjoy together and to share in the conversations inspired by their enjoyment.”

There are many different situations which can bring about the condition that I’m calling moral disarmament. (I know it’s not at all a precise phrase, by the way, but it captures something of the dynamic I’m trying to describe.)

I’m willing to try to be better, we might say, but not until everyone else is ready to try as well.

It seems sensible. After all, why should I deliberately choose to be worse off?

The solution to this problem has to do with a complete inversion of how we see the world and what we care about.

We have to see as most precious, beyond anything else, our moral maturity, our interior strength, our integrity, our virtue. We need to learn to see these things as far more desirable than material goods or reputation or superficial friendships.

Once we start to make that switch, we can catch glimpses of the truth: that those who do the right thing, even without reward or praise or recognition, already have their reward because of who they already are, and because of who they are becoming and will soon be.

It is challenging to see the world in that way. We will need to be constantly fighting against how we are naturally inclined to perceive things, especially at first. But I can hardly think of a more worthwhile endeavour.

The Harmony of Philosophy and Religion

I really like Leo Strauss and the Straussians. I even appreciate much of what he has to say about religion, insofar as he recognizes that philosophy does not have (and cannot have) the capacity ever fully to disprove the possibility of revelation, which means that the philosopher must always keep open the possibility of the truth of revealed religion.

However, I have never been entirely impressed with his thesis that a person must ultimately (as I understand it) make a choice between the philosophical way of life, which questions and challenges established orthodoxies, and the religious way of life which is characterized by such orthodoxies. No one can really be both, according to the Straussian view (or maybe I could say instead, according to Straussian orthodoxy?).

I realize that to many today, including many religious people, and to many intelligent people on both sides, it will seem like a reasonable line to draw, and more than that, it will feel intuitively true.

However, in my experience so far, the dissonance which is felt is something that belongs to those who have not progressed far along either path. (I don’t mean to say that Strauss himself had not progressed far, only that this fact makes me wonder why he spoke of the matter as he did.)

Of course, we must all start in immaturity. And it is a very real dissonance we encounter in those early stages! I don’t want to discount that in any way. It can be a serious, unsettling, dreadful dissonance to endure. I’ve felt that, lived it, passed through it.

Thus, speaking in social terms, there truly can be an uncomfortable tension between those with more of a tendency to embrace religion and those with more of a tendency to embrace the questioning stance of philosophy. Strauss recognizes this, and points out traces of it through the history of philosophy, and he’s not wrong to do so.

However, if we think the challenge is insuperable, I suspect it is only because we have not thought about it sufficiently.

In philosophy, we start out exhilarated and awed by the weight of all the questions we can ask, all the doubts we can summon. Did you know that people haven’t always and everywhere thought parliamentary democracy was the best political system? Hey, were you aware that natural science was long ago already proven to be built on a foundation of fallacies, fallacious all the way down? Say, how would we really know if God actually spoke to us sometime in history, and then how could we even be able to understand what the revelation itself meant?

All good questions, and worth investigating. But just as we don’t have to end up rejecting politics or science because of all the questions we have about them, we likewise don’t need to end up at odds with religion — although we will surely start out at odds with all of them, if those are the kinds of questions we find ourselves inclined to ask.

The philosopher cannot help but begin with questions and doubt, and some never progress past that stage. But many others will apply themselves to finding what answers there may be, about how the world is and how it should be and who I should be within the world. As part of that quest, it is entirely possible that a person will end up reconciled to revealed religious faith in one of many possible ways.

In religion, something similar happens. Earlier on in a life of faith, there is a temptation to see hard lines drawn everywhere, where the believer must be right and so everyone else who isn’t on the same side must be wrong. Even if in principle the zealous believer can admit that others might possess some portion of the truth, in practice everyone else looks like a blood-stained idolater in need of repentance, and to find any agreement with them would almost feel like making a pact with the devil.

With maturity, though, what can happen (and in my view it can be beneficial that this not happen too soon in a religious person’s development) is that the religious person comes to see the truth and beauty contained in other ways of seeing the world, and can begin to discern a friendly desire to learn together and grow further with others from outside one’s own particular tradition.

In this way, just as the rebellious philosopher can develop an openness to the dogmaticism of a religion, the faithful religionist can develop an openness to the philosopher’s search for truth and wisdom wherever it may be found and in whatever form it presents itself.

Now, let me anticipate one more set of objections, one from each side. The philosophers may think that a religious philosopher has ceased truly to be a philosopher, and the religious might say that a truly philosophical believer has ceased to have proper faith.

Even if it is possible for a philosopher to accept religious faith, on this view, in doing so one must choose to renounce the life of philosophy. Likewise, the believer who becomes so catholic and ecumenical that every possible source of truth will seem worth learning from, has transcended religion and ceases to owe allegiance to any one revelation, we might be assured.

Neither objection needs to be true. Faith and philosophy can coexist. They can be treated as different and complimentary ways of knowing which need never come into conflict if we have understood them properly.

It is nonsensical to say that a philosopher ceases philosophizing by coming to a considered conclusion about religion, just as it would be nonsensical to say the same about a philosopher who came to considered conclusions about politics or science. And it is the same from the side of religion.

But let’s just say that the philosopher did cease to philosophize, and that the believer ceased to have faith, when either one approaches the other, so that we keep being sent back and forth between them and end up somewhere in between or outside, occupying a position not really comprehensible from either of these other partial and partisan viewpoints. Who is to say that where we will have ended up is somewhere inferior or undesirable? If nothing else, we should expect to find it a place inhabited only by the few and the brave.