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Women’s Rights are a Pivotal Issue of the 21st Century; But The Public Image of Feminism is Doing More Harm Than Good

The pursuit of equal rights between genders should be a driving principle to any educated person in the modern world.  Developments in technology; specifically energy, food and healthcare now mean that the patrilineal structures that have characterised human organisation for over ten thousand years can be transcended. However the very thing that could allow us to step from the shadow of history could also signify our downfall if cultural change does not keep pace with that of technology.

Crucial in the cultural phase-shift that must occur is the issue of women’s rights around the world.  While work remains to be done rebalancing the law and addressing chauvinist cultural norms in the Europe and the Americas, the most pressing issues of women’s rights remain outside the West. This was driven home dramatically in a lecture by Sir David Attenborough on the threat to the natural world posed by runaway population growth. The gloomy and sobering picture of the collapse of the biological world has but one “glimmer of hope”;

“Wherever women have the vote, wherever they are literate and have medical facilities to control the number of children they bear, the birth rate falls. All those civilised conditions exist in the southern Indian state of Kerala. In India as a whole the total fertility rate is about 2.8 births per woman. In Kerala it is 1.7 births per woman. In Thailand last year, it was 1.8 per woman, similar to that in Kerala. But compare that to the Catholic Philippines where it is 3.3.”

For Attenborough, while advances in technology may give rise to another Green Revolution and squeeze more calories out of the thinning topsoil, the fundamental issues is that there will soon be more people than the planet than it can feed, and the consequence will be a devastated ecosystem, runaway climate change and a war over the remaining fertile regions of Earth.

Alongside developing new forms of energy, the rights of women are therefore one of the pivotal issues of the age; but feminism in the West has over the last few decades suffered a public relations disaster by allowing fringe elements to frame the discussion of issues. It has become dominated by assorted vocal radicals who define what feminism is in the public consciousness, and play into the hands of opponents who would see the movement as a whole discredited.

Adventures with Feminism
Two emotionally resonant events during my young adulthood introduced me to the world of feminism. One was at University when I was around 19, where we had a class on nature vs. nurture in which our lecturer told the class as fact that gender was entirely socially constructed. She argued that The Patriarchy had been forcing women into the role of child-rearing for thousands of years when they there was no reason the women couldn’t have been running things while the men raised children instead. Sheepishly – for this was a class of 90% females – I asked whether it wasn’t the case that the female body had evolved to produce and rear children – at least during infancy – and did this not explain in part why these roles may have evolved the way they did to begin with. I caveated the statement nervously that in the modern world, we could of course transcend this, but nevertheless was chastised – while under the steely glare of several dozen women – that this did not enter into the equation. It was a singularly humiliating event.

The second event was several years later in 2003, when one of my pieces of artwork was selected for an anthology of anti-war posters, and I was invited to London for the book launch to coincide with an anti-war march. Each of the artists were asked to bring a poster-sized print with them, to be displayed in the bookshop which I was told was of a left-leaning persuasion. On getting to the event, I handed over my poster – printed at some expense – to be told that they were refusing to display it. Why? Because the use of the acronym T.W.A.T would “offend feminists”.

Emotion is crucial in memory formation, and our imagination of the world is a potpourri of such moments that have sunk into our subconscious and guide our future emotional responses to situations. For many years these two events clouded my notion of feminism – one an act of public ostracisation, the other of irrational authoritarianism carried out in their behalf. As a consequence I developed a negative emotional response to the idea of feminism as a whole, and my mind concocted reasons to back up this emotional reaction.

This is not something unique to myself; it is simply how our brains evolved to cope with certain situations in prehistory. As much as we would like them to be, our minds are not by default politically correct and rely on cognitive shorthands like stereotyping to react to situations, something that can be overcome with the appropriate and detached assessment of empirical evidence. However the ancient emotion-centred parts of the brain are not easily subdued by the more recent, rational neocortex, and scheme to skew our perceptions while they masquerade as reason.

A Skeptical Schism
Recent events brought both of these issues to the fore. For those not embroiled in the politics of the last year in the Skeptical and Atheist communities, let me recap in as impartial a way as I can. An offhand comment by skeptical / feminist  blogger / podcaster Rebecca Watson on being asked back to an attendee’s room “for a coffee” in the seclusion of an elevator after a conference party, led to what can only be called a schism within the community over the issue of feminism. To an outsider that may seem an extremely peculiar turn of events, so let me elaborate.

Having just given a talk on the assorted threats of sexual violence she receives as a prominent blogger, Watson perceived the approach as somewhat insensitive and was attempting to tell others not do the same in such a situation. The result was a massive online backlash against her and accusations of her blowing the situation out of proportion, and politicising everyday flirtations between the sexes.  It became known as “Elevatorgate”.  It is fair to say the more nuanced debate was drowned out the disproportionately vicious. Some prominent figures like Richard Dawkins even chimed in, one imagines to a glass of brandy over a keyboard, saying the issues was trivial compared to issues like female genital mutilation in North Africa. There was then a counter response by another faction defending her – led by scientist PZ Myers and the blog network Free Thought Blogs – saying her mentioning the event was absolutely acceptable and the (over)reactions reeked of misogyny.

A year later, the scenario flared up again over the issue of harassment policies at an event run by Watson organised by Melody Hensley at which Watson was speaking. Without getting into the intrigues that surround this second round of the furore, the schism re-emerged as those supporting the policies, and those strongly opposed to it. The debate soon strayed from the issue of harassment policies and became something else entirely; an increasingly vicious and personal battle over the issue of the place of feminism in the world of Atheism and Skepticism. The result was a precipitous drop in female attendees to the 2012 Skeptical meetup TAM.

Because of the experiences outlined above, my initial emotional reaction was to side with the “anti-feminists”; but this was kept in check by my meeting with Rebecca at the very event at which “Elevatorgate” occurred; the World Atheist conference in Dublin. During our conversations I found her extremely pleasant, helpful and reasonable, completely at odds with the portrait of the raging misandry-fuelled headcase being portrayed by her opponents. When it became obvious that this was about something else entirely was when I compared the harassment policies proposed by Watson to those of other events, and found them identical – to the point one might call them a “cut and paste”.

Why the massive over-reaction to these policies when they are simply a matter of mundane conference organisation? Is the community really steeped in misogyny and sexism? Without some type of far reaching survey it is hard to answer this question, but given atheists represent a cross-section of society united only in their rejection of God, I would suspect that it exists at least as much in this community as much as it does in any western society. However for me the issue that has plagued the community over the last year is not about Rebecca Watson or harassment policies; it is about the idea of what Feminism is in the public consciousness, and these events have simply proved a trigger-point.

Popular Feminism
In researching this article I have read a fair amount around the literature of feminism, however, however my goal here is explicitly not to drill into the nuance of feminist theory, but to try and explain what it looks like from a distance, to those unfamiliar with any of the underlying philosophy and experience it though the osmosis of culture. Therefore, I will use the term “popular feminism” to encompass what is perceived as the most commonly used arguments and debating tactics. I say “perceived” because it is emotionally resonant quanta of feminism, not the more nuanced and complex ones, that are committed to memory and appear to be representative of it in the public consciousness, whether or not numerically this is the case. This is not to attempt to “straw man” feminism, but an exploration of what it looks like from an outside perspective and why it attracts such ire.

It seems evident from the online battlegrounds of blogs, twitter and various discussion forums, that popular feminism sees attack as the best defence. Consequently, those who have previously had negative emotional experiences with feminism or what they perceive it to be, come out the woodwork and project this onto the situation, and it acts as confirmation bias. This then results in a feedback loop whereby those who see sexism as everywhere, actually see it everywhere. In this frenzy of trying to identify either sexists or feminist radicals, there is much in the way of collateral damage. More moderate voices are drowned out or fear speaking up at all due to the fear of being branded a sexist; something that carries as much social impact as being branded a racist. Furthermore, we are largely arguing about ideas, not people, but actors on both sides imagine people as embodiments of these ideas in spite of their words. This is why the issue of harassment policies soon drifted away into a “them and us” scenario, which is cursed to perpetual animosity.

Also evident in these arguments is that sexism clearly does exist; but such situations magnify this aspect of the community and make it appear disproportionately large. So does creepy and shall we say ungentlemanly behaviour towards women, and such individuals seem drawn to leading feminists – especially those of fertile age – like moths to a flame. But while this is true, it does not simply make the opposing view right by default, and there are two problems with the approach taken by proponents of popular feminism in their defence of women’s rights; one is tone, the other is the narrative they are selling.

Hard and Soft Power
In the 1990s, renowned political scientist Joseph Nye coined the phrase “soft power” to describe the ability to influence behaviour through diplomatic means other than overt use of force. It was a big influence on democratic presidents Clinton and Obama, and represents a mature approach to foreign policy that seeks to avoid confrontation. It is also much more sophisticated than just dishing out aid that is essentially bribe money; it is rooted in how actors are perceived in the consciousness of the audience one hopes to influence.

He outlines the spectrum of “power behaviours” thus;

HARD — Command –> Coerce –> Threaten –> Pay –> Sanction –> Frame –> Persuade –> Attract –> Co-Opt — SOFT

Nye also outlines three “faces” or arenas of power rooted in their overtness. The First or “public” face uses threats and rewards to alter the behaviours of others, the Second or “hidden” face is agenda framing and limiting the options available to others, and the third or “invisible” face  of power is the ability to shape the underlying beliefs and perceptions of others without them necessarily realising. In each of these three arenas, hard and soft power tactics can be used. An example he uses is trying to stop a teenager from taking up smoking;

“Under the first face of power, the principal could threaten the student with fines or expulsion to change her desire to smoke (hard power) or spend hours persuading her to change her existing preference (soft power). Under the second dimension, the principal could ban cigarette vending machines (a hard power aspect of agenda-setting) or use public service advertisements about cancer and yellow teeth to create a climate in smoking becomes unpopular and unthinkable (soft power). Under the third dimension of power behaviour, the principal could hold a school assembly in which students discuss smoking and vow not to smoke (soft power) or go further and threaten to ostracise the minority who smoke (hard power).”

Reviewing the recent debates outlined above, the tactics used in general seem to be of a hard-power nature. Certainly my own emotionally resonant experiences with feminism fall into ostracisation and banning the display of my artwork, both hard power tactics. Those who have followed the harassment policy saga, will also recognise the overt use of threats of public ostracisation from the atheist community, shaming of those who disagree, and accusations of being sexist or worse a “rape culture apologist”. One could view the review of harassment policies themselves as a form of soft power, however, Nye also details that when soft-power tactics fail it is often the case that the cause itself (i.e. context) is thought to be deficient. He suggests three qualities one should strive for to attract others to your cause;

  • Benignity: Being seen as trustworthy, credible and sympathetic
  • Competence: How ones goes about things and how successful they are perceived to be
  • Beauty (or Charisma): The values that it adheres to, their internal consistency and how these ideas can inspire others

Nye continues that “Without such perceived qualities, a given resource may produce indifference or even revulsion”. In relation to feminism, this is why a simple issue of harassment policies had such a negative response. To many who have had negative experiences with “hard line” feminism, it is not seen as a benign force for social justice, but rather a malign ideology that seeks to criminalise everyday human behaviour. This is what was projected onto Watson.

Likewise the value system of popular feminism is seen as inconsistent due to various actors promoting, for instance, slut walks on one hand and deriding “objectification” on the other, without getting across the message that there is some internal debate on these issues.  Similarly the notion of gender being wholly culturally based is viewed as inconsistent with the movement’s embrace of LGBT issues, in which sexual orientation is explained as at least partially genetic. As agents of change, it is not enough to demand others read up on the finer points of feminist theory, the onus is on those promoting feminism, women’s rights and gender equality, to be better communicators and sell a cohesive and credible narrative. As Nye explains in the context of states, “Soft power depends on credibility, and when governments are perceived as manipulative and information is seen as propaganda, credibility is destroyed”.

The Dystopia of History 
Humans are hard-wired to understand the world in terms of narratives; something long known to politicians and advertisers. However having a narrative to sell is not the same thing as others finding it a credible interpretation of events, especially if it is not sold well. In Nye’s view, “narratives are the currency of soft power” and that ultimately it is about who’s story seems the most attractive and credible. The central narrative that binds popular feminism is the notion of The Patriarchy; an overtly left-wing interpretation of history that is essentially class war as applied to gender. In this narrative, men – specifically white men – are agents of oppression in its many forms regardless if they are consciously aware of it.

The closer one gets to the academic roots of the concept of Patriarchy, the more clear and less hyperbolic it becomes, but it still suffers from academic flaws. While there have been attempts in feminist theory to refine the notion of The Patriarchy as part of a “matrix of oppression” known as kyriarchy or intersectionality, this has largely not bled through to the world of popular feminism. Furthermore it is yet more radical, and represents a worldview whereby anarchism and rejection of any form of hierarchy is the only allowed path to gender equality.

These models are quite self consciously radical, and by the time they have reached the general public, comes across like the selling of a conspiracy theory in which men are the “They”. This is especially evident when one observes Western women being told they are oppressed when they do not believe they are, something which to outsiders has shades of David Icke telling people to “wake up”. Even if there are streaks of truth to the assertions of gender privilege, the manner in which it is communicated is often needlessly aggressive, and feeds into negative notions of feminism.

The Patriarchy as outlined in popular feminism fails to win people over not just because it casts as antagonists half of the human race and everyone to the right of the political spectrum; it also lacks credibility because of a dubious relationship to science and insistence of the “blank slate” model of the mind. There is solid evidence of physiological brain differences between genders; male brains are comparatively larger, but female ones contain the same number of neurones that are more densely packed. Likewise, females have a slightly larger orbitofrontal cortex than males; which are smaller still in those who are prone to anti-social behaviours. Such findings could lead to understandings of why males are more prone to violence than females, but popular feminism is opposed ideologically that any such differences can exist.  To popular feminism, neuroscience that explains behaviours are conflated with finding excuses for them. Evolutionary psychology is similarly dismissed outright by popular feminism because it threatens the “blank slate” model, and is often discarded wholly because of its association with the Men’s Rights movement, and not down to the evidence on a case by case basis.

In this sense, it shares a problem with the Green movement, which opposes nuclear energy and genetically modified foods outright purely on an ideological or political basis, and not on the basis of rigours scientific evidence. Likewise, evolutionary psychology offers to answer the question of why societies evolved around patrilineal lines to begin with; not to excuse them, but to explain the mechanisms behind them. Political scientist Francis Fukuyama asserts that dynastic and nepotistic urges in society are powerful, and reassert themselves time and again despite the State’s efforts to suppress them; a process he calls “repatrimonialization”. Recognising such social forces are at least in part rooted in evolutionary history is surely a step towards moving beyond them; to ignore or reject such ideas and stubbornly insist that it is wholly cultural leaves the doors open for it happening again.

In summary, a combination of aggressive “hard power” debating tactics and flaws with the core narrative that rests on a politicised reading of history, and a questionable relationship with science, feminism appear in the public consciousness to be unreasonable, unsympathetic and hardline. Because of this catastrophic public image failure, any message sent in such a context will be warped by such perceptions, even if the underlying intentions and goals are good.

Conclusion: The Long View
As noted at the beginning of this article, the rights of women should not only be sought on ethical grounds, but also in the context of the environment and the only ethically viable means of population reduction. In the West, by and large, women’s rights correlates with the steady decline of population size, while subjection of women – in the Middle East and India for instance – correlates with massive population growth. What, then, are the logical long term consequences of this? Cultures that enable female rights decline in size, and the growth in female subjugation elsewhere increases due to runaway population growth of societies with such ideologies.

If these trends continue, and popular feminism continues to hinder rather than help the idea of spreading women’s rights, spreading ideas vertically to cultural descendants is a narrowing path, while lack of soft power inhibits its spreading horizontally across cultural lines. Over the span of centuries, such ideas will eventually fade into history as patriarchies reassert themselves. The onus then, is for champions of gender equality to forge an inspiring new vision that can spread cross culturally, and turn feminism from a threat to an opportunity. Instead of selling a dystopic view of oppression in which all men are aggressors, a new story must be told, as positively emotionally resonant as the current approach is negative. A story not of the past, but of the future.

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Addendum: A friend pointed out that it may appear I am advocating equal rights purely as a means of population reduction. I should stress that women’s rights and gender equality are self evidently ethically desirable but at the same time fundamentally related to the issue of the environment via population growth, and my goal is to show the big picture / long view connection between the two issues. 

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