Many able commenters on the #MeToo phenomenon and the sex wars miss the most vulnerable dimension of feminism. The underlying issue is that feminism has not consistently held itself to standards of logic, evidence, and rationality. In fact, the rhetoric of feminism has long utilized postmodern disavowals of evidence and logic (labeling them “masculinist”). After all, asserting that “women must be believed” is not possible without first rejecting any need for objective and evidentiary standards — unless you’re also willing to say “everyone must be believed” – which neither feminists nor anyone else would say.
Decades ago, many feminists spoke of the “authority of experience” (a phrase borrowed from Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s tale) –and it has been a crucial aspect of the struggle against violence and abuse. But no justice and no rule of law are possible without recognizing that people can be mistaken, misguided, and intentionally deceptive. This week two men, convicted of rape in Central Park in 1992, have just been cleared — the woman admitted she had made the story up. VanDyke Perry served nearly 12 years, and Gregory Counts served 27 years.
Since miscarriage of justice is always a possibility, it makes no sense to exempt from scrutiny allegations made by half the human race or by victims of certain kinds of offenses (sexual ones) only. Feminists know this, and they certainly draw on statistics, evidence, data–even if not always accurately– when it serves their purpose. That’s why they adhere to scare statistics that vastly overstate the incidence of campus rape. They know they need at least to try to support their contentions of large-scale social problems with something other than personal stories, however compelling such stories may be.
A thorough transformation of research practices has taken place in the humanities and social sciences over the past few decades, in which feminists have played a major and proud part. Far from merely enlarging research practices to include qualitative research in addition to quantitative, feminists spearheaded attacks on the very notion of empirical research and the scientific method, as if this would help their case. True, qualitative methods (such as oral history work, which I have done) can indeed contribute to knowledge in a way that quantitative data by itself is unable to do, but both are needed to form a complete picture of complex social reality.
Yet, personal statements these days are often used as if they are a substitute for actual investigation, as routinely happens with charges of rape, or violence and discrimination due to alleged racism and sexism. The problem of incoherence invariably arises when someone (or an entire group) makes contradictory claims, insisting, for example, that “women don’t lie” when that’s useful while reverting to hard data when that better serves immediate political purposes. I call this opportunism, and it has characterized much feminist discourse and activism for many years.
The victim/oppressor dynamic becomes even more confusing when claiming victimhood itself turns into a power play — and is rewarded as such, as we’ve seen with the #MeToo phenomenon, now rising to a pitch of hysteria not seen in many years. Identifying everything one doesn’t like as masculine or masculinist has become a short-cut to garnering political power. It’s not so convenient, however, when women are on the receiving end of accusations – as also happens.
We know that women can and do initiate domestic violence (even by their accounts), and that violence also occurs in same-sex relationships. Remember Erin Pizzey, who in 1971 founded the first battered women’s shelter in the world? She later abandoned the movement because she saw it turn into a cash cow for feminists who routinely disregarded women’s violence against men.
And women and girls certainly know how much they can and do suffer at the hands of other women; see the book by the well-known feminist writer Phyllis Chesler, Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman, for just one such study that delineates and attempts to explain this inconvenient but commonplace fact.
Of course, some feminists blame all women’s bad behavior on Men and The Patriarchy – but this is a sorry effort, intended to exculpate women’s violence without having to let go of cherished beliefs about male awfulness and female victimization, just as when disproportionately high rates of black criminality are blamed on white racism.
The conclusion is an obvious one: people use whatever tools they have at hand. When claiming victimhood, helplessness is an effective (albeit entirely traditional) weapon; when claiming equal competence, self-reliance is the mantle they’ll wear. One must escape from the sex-war mentality altogether to begin to address these issues realistically, just as one can’t begin to address rape if one starts with the view that all men are potential rapists (are all women potential murderers of their children?).
The Infinite Regress
If, indeed, one wants to escape the infinite regress that never leads anywhere except to blame the evils of the world on The Patriarchy or Privileged White Men, there’s nowhere to go except to evidence, logic, and reason – which means claims and assertions must be evaluated with care and not simply accepted through the pressures of emotional blackmail rooted in identity politics.
Noretta Koertge (a philosopher of science) and I wrote about these problems nearly 25 years ago in the face of increasing emphasis on “standpoint epistemology”—the notion that race, gender, and other identity markers provide special access to knowledge. Without empirical evidence how could one ever demonstrate that the blood of passing menstruating women does not, in fact, curdle cow’s milk? How could one combat ancient theories of the “wandering womb,” which led to the view that education damages women’s reproductive systems? Or, for that matter (as Susan Haack, another philosopher of science who rejects the very notion of “feminist epistemology,” observes), how could one even know what women’s true interests are?
Playing the Victim
Oppressor and victim are two sides of the same coin, but who occupies which side can switch with alarming rapidity. Are there costs to women of playing the victim? Certainly. I think of that whenever I see one of those horrendous TV ads in which a woman endorses some beauty product by saying “because I’m [or: we’re] worth it.” I imagine the ridicule that would be heaped upon any man saying such a thing and am amazed that women (gorgeous models, famous actresses) are still willing to mouth such debilitating inanities, which surely must demoralize any thinking woman by suggesting that women are like sniveling infants, in constant need of reassurance and bravado.
But many groups play this game, not just women. And that’s because, as noted above, people easily grasp whatever weapons are available to press their case. We see this with race, with gender, with almost any category one can think of in the current passion for identity politics.
Lack of discrimination (in the positive sense) allows every sexual advance (or even look or overheard joke) to be seen as a traumatic offense. I offered a detailed analysis of the shocking persecution of men twenty years ago. Today, with an ever-growing list of protected identity groups, we see the same tactics extended to all spheres.
Even in the current atmosphere, I continue to think that it is not in the interests of women to make all men afraid of them. Most women and most men are heterosexual, despite decades-old feminist orthodoxy that heterosexuality is merely a “social construct” (but apparently, homosexuality and transgenderism are not). Permanent conflict is not something that benefits either men or women, though it may well benefit those whose actual goal is complete separation of the sexes.
Most men are not rapists; most women are not victims. What a disaster, when asking for evidence or merely questioning an “oppressed” person’s claim of oppression, is taken as de facto proof of yet further oppression!
It doesn’t help to extend the terminology of sexual offenses so that it loses all meaning, or to insist that alleged victims are the sole arbiters of the truth of an allegation, as many today seem eager to claim. This is a dangerous precedent that is not worthy of a free society or a free people. It’s fine to insist on “my truth” in certain discussions, but it’s a grievous error to believe this is the same as “the truth.”
When playing the victim entails substantial payoffs, one can expect more and more people to sign up. Those who yell the loudest seem not to give a thought to the kind of world they’d have if their efforts to micromanage daily life were successful.