Talk to Me Like I’m Stupid: A Kind-Of-Sort-of Comments Rescue, False-Scotsman Edition
I have a TTMLIS question I’ve been meaning to ask for a long time now, but I keep struggling to find a way to put it into words in a way that makes sense. To that end, excuse my starting off with this bit of rambling, which may or may not help.
Consider this interesting chain of semantic disagreement:
- As far as what I believe, I am not a Christian…
- However, according to my family and my family’s Episcopal church leaders, I sort of am. Which I guess is kind of nice, except that…
- According to many other Christians — including some who used to blog here — my family’s say on the matter doesn’t really count because my family members by nature of their beliefs are not real Christians themselves. And even that wouldn’t settle it, because…
- Some of these “Episcopal-are-not-real-Christians” folks, however, are themselves not real Christians to all the other “Episcopal-are-not-real-Christians” folks because they added a part about Jesus visiting America…
- The remaining non-Jesus-went-to-America “Episcopal-are-not-real-Christians” folk, it must be said, do publicly agree that they are Christian — but that didn’t stop them from slaughtering themselves silly for hundreds of post-Enlightnement years over that very question. (And truth be told, even today it’s more of an agreed upon truce that’s been called in the name of battling the common enemy of secularism; most will tell you after a pint or two that the other guys really aren’t really Christians, deep down.)
The simple question of “Are you a Christian?,” in other words, is not as such an easy a question to answer.
I was thinking about this chain of semantic disagreement this morning when I was reading through the threads of a post on the Tea Party which had somehow morphed into a conversation on feminism. You can read the whole sub-thread here if you wish, but for our purposes the important particulars are three succeeding statement by j r, Chris, and James Hanley, which I present to you in highly edited form:
J R: In other words, Aaronson’s offense is not that he is anti-feminist, but rather that he is a heretical feminist.
CHRIS: Saying that you are a feminist does not mean that you are a feminist.
JAMES HANLEY: I think your comment implicitly rests on feminism being monolithic, or at least there being an indissoluble core of feminism that includes the particular X that [has been] violated.
But there are multiple feminisms; that is, multiple theoretical approaches to feminism and understandings of what feminism means and encompasses. There may be an indissoluble core common to each of these feminisms (I at least suspect there probably is one), but what that core is is probably contestable, and consequently whether it encompasses the the X that Aaronson and Dawkins have violated is contestable.
Consequently I think it’s probably too simplistic to dismiss them as not feminists. I’m not saying the case that they’re not feminists could not be argued; I’m saying it has to be argued, rather than asserted. And we need to be careful that we’re not dismissing them as not-feminists because they don’t meet all the standards of our own preferred approach to feminism…
Of course you’re right that simply calling oneself a feminist does not mean one is, and I’m not trying to suggest otherwise.
The question of who is and isn’t a feminist, as you will note, is essentially the same question as who is and isn’t a Christian. And for that matter, it’s essentially the same question as who is and isn’t conservative, left-wing, or libertarian. Which, when you stop and think about it, is a question that becomes more nettlesome the more you dig into it.
When I first came here, for example, I was of the mind that libertarians believed X. Thanks to people like Jason and James, however, I now know that libertarians believe Y. Expect, of course, that I really know nothing of the kind. Sure, I far prefer the Y-Brand libertarianism of Jason and James, but I also know that their kind is numerically dwarfed by those who champion Glenn Beck/Rush Limbaugh X-Brand libertarianism. So who am I to say that Brand-X is not libertarianism? For that matter, who are Jason and James? If you graphed out my positions on the role of government next to Jason’s, I doubt you would find that much variance; certainly, I would be far closer to Jason than most people who self-identify as libertarian. Does that mean that I am a libertarian, or that Jason is not? Or does it mean something else entirely?
To return to j r, Chris and James: The question of who is and isn’t a feminist is not a new one. From my outsider’s perspective, it has been the primary question being asked by feminists since at least the time I was in college. When I put on my Academic’s Hat, it seems like this would be the most important question in the world — at least in terms of the world of feminism. When I take that hat off, however, it seems to be the most among the most useless and distracting question to be asking. Moreover, I wonder to what degree the internal wars over who is and isn’t a feminist have cost feminism real public policy victories over the years, in the same way that the post-Bush wars over who was and wasn’t a real conservative cost the GOP the same.
And all of this brings me to my question, which sounds easily answered but I’m not so sure is:
How should we decide who is and is not part of a tribe that is so large and diverse that any decision is likely to be either self-serving, arbitrary, or both?
The current fashionable trend — using sub-category designations such as neo-liberal or postcolonial feminist — seems to give the illusion of a fix, by pretending that using, say, four categories rather than two (or eight rather than four) somehow fully encompasses the vast diversity of thought that actually exists in any large movement. The more historical trend of deferring to a majority-rules decision of who is in- and out-of-tribe can’t help but breed both intellectual stagnation and socially accepted oppression to those deemed heretics. And deciding that all claims to a tribal label are equally valid — that MRM leader Paul Elam, for example, has just as much claim to calling himself a feminist as does Gloria Steinhem — renders meaningless words themselves.
So I ask the hive mind: How do you square these circles? How should we square them? Can they even be squared? Is it possible — and FTR I hope that it isn’t — that despite all of our attempts to use epistemology to make ourselves sound intellectually better than we are, defining and re-defining who is and isn’t part our tribe is all that religion and politics are at the end of the day?
I have a hard time with these questions, so I turn them over to smarter minds in the threads below…