Tyler on Feminism: My Reply
Last week, Tyler Cowen partially critiqued my new Don’t Be a Feminist: Essays on Genuine Justice. Here’s my reply, point-by-point. He’s in blockquotes; I’m not.
To counter Bryan, many people are trying to cite the “official” definition of feminism, which runs something like:
feminism, the belief in social, economic, and political equality of the sexes.
Who could not believe in that? But here is a case where the official definition (which comes in varying versions) is off base.
Bryan’s preferred definition of feminism is:
feminism: the view that society generally treats men more fairly than women
That also seems off base to me. If you were a feminist, but all of a sudden society does something quite unfair to men (drafts them to fight an unjust and dangerous war?), does that mean you might have to stop calling yourself a feminist?
When you claim that society “generally treats a one group more fairly than another,” you are picturing many forms of durable unfairness. Taking one action that is “quite unfair to men” is highly unlikely to change this general assessment, especially if the unfairness recently began and could easily end in the near future.
If, however, you were to grant that (a) women in our society have have long received equal pay for equal work, (b) men have long done their fair share of household chores, (c) men have long been the primary victims of violent crime, and so on - and still declare, “I’m a feminist,” almost everyone would be puzzled - and rightly so.
One complexity: Identity is protean. Christianity traditionally required belief in the resurrection of Jesus, the Trinity, and so on. Yet somehow, many people now reject these doctrines but continue to call themselves “Christians.” I can imagine a future world where almost everyone admits that the doctrines of modern-day feminism are false, but redefine the word to keep the label.
For the time being, however, the doctrine that society generally treats men more fairly than women is the core of feminism. If you believe it, you almost surely consider yourself a feminists. If you doubt it, you almost surely don’t.
Somehow the definition ought to be more weighted toward the status of women and remedies for women, rather than treating men and women symmetrically. It seems weird to get people thinking about all of the injustices faced by men.
Yes, it is weird. But not because the issue isn’t central to feminism as almost everyone uses the word. It’s weird to get people thinking about “all the injustices faced by men” because feminism - as well as the general human tendency to care more about female well-being - make the subject awkward to broach.
I don’t go around calling myself a feminist. There is too much in “the other people who call themselves feminists” that I don’t agree with. And it seems to me too aggregative a notion, and furthermore an attempt to win an argument by putting forward a definition that other people will be afraid to countermand. Nonetheless here is a view I do agree with:
There is an important emancipatory perspective, one that would improve the lives of many women, and it consists of a better understanding of how social institutions to date have disadvantaged women, and a series of proposals for improvement. Furthermore large numbers of men still do not understand the import of such a perspective, one reason for that being they have never lived the lives of women.
I maintain that my definition encompasses Tyler’s view. Despite his denials, he’s endorsing a form of feminist. How so?
Talking about an “important emancipatory perspective” makes little sense unless the group under discussion has been singled out for especially unfair treatment.
Saying that “institutions to date have disadvantaged women” is a version of “society treats men more fairly than women.”
Calling a “series of proposals” that “would improve the lives of many women” an overall “improvement” again presupposes that our society treats men more fairly than women.
“Large numbers of men still do not understand the import of such a perspective.” Unless men are in fact being treated less fairly than women, it is the feminists who lack understanding.
“One reason for that being that they have never lived the lives of women.” Again, a thinly-veiled accusation of not just unfairness, but excess unfairness. After all, women have never lived the lives of men, but almost no one uses this fact to impugn their “understanding of the import” of anything.
Unlike Bryan’s definition, this puts the treatment of women at the center of the issue.
I put the treatment of women at the center of the issue, too. But the issue can’t simply be, “Women receive less than perfect treatment” or “Once in a while, our society treats men more fairly than women, though perhaps the reverse is just as common.” As I explain in my essay, that’s like defining feminism as the view that the sky is blue. Feminists believe this boilerplate - and so does everyone else.
And unlike some of the mainstream definitions, it does not focus on the issue of equality, which I think will be difficult to meet or even define. Do we have to let men play in women’s tennis? In women’s chess tournaments? Whether yes or no, I don’t think the definition of feminism should hinge on those questions.
I specifically focus on “fairness” rather than “inequality.”
If you want to call that above description of mine feminism, fine, but I am finding that word spoils more debates and discussions than it improves. I won’t be using it.
Not identifying as a feminist a good first step. The next, though, is admitting that Tyler’s “emancipatory perspective” is wrong for the same reasons that feminism generally is wrong.
I also would stress that my definition does not rule out emancipatory perspectives for men or other gender categories, or for that matter other non-gender categories, quite the contrary. Freedom and opportunity are at the center of my conception, and that means for everybody, which allows for a nice kind of symmetry.
If your position amounts to, “Everyone should enjoy freedom and opportunity,” there is no reason to focus on women. Unless, of course, our society generally treats men more fairly than women. Which, to repeat, is the core issue. If you want to join me in engaging this issue, great.
In the meantime, I will read Bryan’s book once it comes out Monday. I’ve seen its component pieces already in Bryan’s other writings, I just am not sure which ones are in the book.
I look forward to further reactions from Tyler and anyone else.
By the way, I wonder if Bryan’s views on gender are fully consistent with his views on poverty. He advocates marrying, staying married, etc., that whole formula thing. But if men are treated so badly in society, maybe in many cases there just aren’t enough marriageable men to go around? What are the women (and the men) to do then?
I do not claim that “men are treated so badly in society.” Rather, I say that the unfairness men and women endure in our society is very similar overall.
Even if men were treated very unfairly, however, the standard Beckerian market-for-mates prediction is that single women who wanted to get married will have to moderately lower their standards. “Marriageability,” like quality, lies on a continuum.
To close on a meta note: Tyler, like many academics, savors complexity and subtlety. Sometimes this is warranted, but in this case, it’s not. To repeat:
Virtually all feminists think that our society clearly treats men more fairly than women. Obviously.
Virtually all non-feminists, in contrast, are agnostic or disagree. Again, obviously.
Tyler should just accept my definition of feminism, then tell us who’s right, and why.
Tyler seems to be trying to build a sort of ecumenical definition of feminism, where feminism is defined more by chosen point of emphasis rather than overall worldview, and therefore actually consistent with advocacy on male issues, just as one can be anti-cancer and anti-malaria at the same time, but choose to focus on one. Some feminists even take this tack in the abstract, saying things like 'men should do their own advocacy rather than expecting feminists to solve all of men's issues in addition to our own' when asked to explain the asymmetry of their interests.
In practice though, 'male issues advocates' and feminists inexorably clash. They clash of course because where male and female interests conflict (e.g., debates over parental custody, treatment of people accused of domestic violence), feminists often take the side of female interests over procedural equality, but also because choice of emphasis is viewed as a zero-sum game. Most feminists believe women's issues are much more severe than men's and therefore view the 'men's issues' side of things as similar to advocating for the oppressor; even when morally correct in theory, it is seen to reflect a ridiculous disproportionality; e.g., setting up a fund to defend rich southern plantation owners falsely accused of crimes in the South in the 1850s. Sure, there are probably some such cases genuinely warranting redress, but it reflects absurd priorities.
Some self-identified feminists do of course take a fairly ecumenical view of gender issues, but they tend to struggle to find acceptance among mainstream feminists.
You guys are placing an awful lot of eggs I the social justice/equality/fairness basket here.
Quite frankly, you're arguing about feminism like....men (nerdy men at that).
I prefer the Steve Sailer definition of feminism, which he phrases a few different ways about amounts to "I, woman with more masculine than average disposition, should rise in relative status to other women who have more feminine dispositions."
(or hilariously in the trans age, that literal men should rise in status as women above normal women)
This especially explains why a lot of feminism is about arguing with other women.
All the rest of it is just words. You start with the vibes and regurgitate the talking points you think will actualize the vibes.
Take "slut walks", the feminist cause of the day when I was a young man. The idea that such nonsense could slot into some logical discussion of gender fairness is laughable. Sure, they regurgitate a bunch of easily refuted stats about rape or something. But really, it sure looks like a bunch of not so attractive women who want to not feel so bad about what they have to do to get male attention.
When I worry about what my daughters will take away from feminism its an awful lot of bad habits and attitudes unrelated to fairness. I wouldn't want my daughter being in a slutwalk even if the gender pay gap wasn't made up.