A loaded question
The question “do you believe in gender equality?” has been used countless times to semantically co-opt people into the feminist movement against their will. The argument typically starts with someone declaring that they aren’t a feminist in the presence of a feminist. The feminist asks the speaker if they believe in gender equality. At this point, the feminist’s new victim is put on the spot with two options: try arguing a position that, without recourse to scripture or a misguided appeal to nature, is basically untenable or sheepishly answer in the affirmative. “Aha!”, exclaims the feminist in a smug tone, “you are a feminist”.
The argument sometimes works in practice because it disarms people and gives them no chance to think of a reasonable response. This post is my personal response to the argument.
What is “gender equality” anyway?
I have a qualm with the term “gender equality”. What does it actually mean? Is someone who holds complementarian views but believes the genders are of equal value a supporter of gender equality? Do you have to vehemently oppose gender roles in order to promote gender equality? The term is simply too nebulous to be used in an argument that relies entirely on well-defined terminology. I’d personally request a clear definition of “gender equality” before answering the question. For simplicity’s sake, let’s define “gender equality” as “equal rights in law for all genders”.
In theory, the argument is logically flawless provided that you agree precisely with the other person’s definition of a feminist — once again, an immaculate definition must be requested. If the given definition is very strict (i.e. someone who believes in equal rights for all genders) then someone who believes in equal rights for all genders is necessarily a feminist. When someone uses this definition, however, there’s no need to agree with them (in fact, you’ll find that many dictionaries will back you up if you don’t). If you disagree with any of the axioms, definitions or premises used in or by an argument then there’s no reason to accept the argument’s conclusion, even if the argument itself is internally valid.
In practice, “feminist” is an overloaded term — and the dictionaries that feminists are so fond of support this assertion. “Feminist” almost universally implies both “someone who believes in equal rights for all genders” and “a supporter of feminism”. The reason you can be one and not the other – thus in disagreement with the person posing the question in the title – is that feminism, itself, is a movement, which you may not want to consider yourself part of.
A movement consists of a set of actions carried out by loosely-connected parties. Even if you support the ideology driving a movement, you may still disagree with the vast majority of actions that occur as a result of that movement. In progress, movements have a tendency to spawn ad-hoc “sub-beliefs” that are not part of the ideology’s canon (e.g. in the feminist community, it is sometimes held that rape jokes are universally unacceptable). Merely agreeing with a movement’s ideology does not imply an agreement with its working system of sub-beliefs. It’s entirely possible to diverge from the feminist movement while still supporting the idea of equal rights.
Let’s be charitable
Let’s be charitable for a moment and define a feminist as simply “a supporter of equal rights for all genders”. You should never do this in a real world setting because you wrongly cede ground by doing so but I want to talk about the feminist bait-and-switch argument from every angle.
Firstly, it’s probably worth noting that any definition that explicitly includes the word “rights” is obsolete in the Western world. In every advanced Western country I can think of, women already have the same legal rights as men. The rights feminists claim to covet are already enshrined in law. In many cases, women have more rights than men (maternity leave laws come to mind). Earlier waves of feminism made this kind of “appeal to law” redundant. In fact, given the inextricable connection between “rights” and “laws”, astute feminists may wish to cherry-pick their definitions even further so as to avoid any reference to the legislature. Nevertheless, let’s stick with our game of make-believe and carry on discussing the common definition given above.
It has been repeatedly suggested by many men and women that the words and actions of the typical modern self-described feminist are incongruent with the definition of a feminist given in the opening paragraph of this section. I don’t recommend engaging the argument on these terms but it should be quite possible to show that the average feminist doesn’t actually live up to their own definition of feminism. If you really want to fuck with a feminist, you can make a convincing case that you are, in fact, the real feminist and they are not. If you want to go a step further, you can try to force the feminist to deploy the “no true Scotsman” fallacy repeatedly until you finally demonstrate that there’s no practical example of a modern “feminist” who qualifies as a feminist by our given definition.
Words mean what people think they mean. Right now, people don’t think that “feminist” describes a supporter of equality. It’s all very well waving a dictionary in someone’s face but nobody trusts the self-described patriot who hates his country. Anyone can give themselves a label but if they fail to act in a way that justifies the label, they will be judged to have misapplied that label. If this happens on a sufficiently large scale, the label itself and its definition will be called into question. This is precisely what’s happening with feminism. People are struggling to reconcile the popular definition of feminism with their first-hand experiences of feminists.
Meanwhile, back in reality…
I believe the ambiguous definition of “feminist” is often willfully exploited by those who ask the question posed in the title. In the eyes of the overwhelming majority of people, there is no separation of a feminist as a supporter of equal rights from the mass of connotations given to the word by the feminist movement. By identifying as a feminist, you signal tacit endorsement of a range of beliefs and actions taken to further those beliefs, which are beyond – and far more concrete than – “equal rights for all”.
Some of the actions taken by self-described feminists may not even further the “equal rights” agenda (many would argue that they don’t). That is the nature of movements; they are not static statements of beliefs or values. There are a number of reasons you might not want to be considered part of the feminist movement. You may object to being labelled a feminist simply because you don’t support or want to be associated with the actions and beliefs of the feminist movement. You don’t even need a reason not to consider yourself part of a movement, which is an active entity that no-one can be forced to participate in.
I choose not to identify with the feminist movement for myriad reasons. Not least is the intellectual dishonesty rampant within the movement. The words “academic integrity” simply aren’t in the feminist lexicon. In my experience, there is a general willingness to support a point with poorly derived statistics if doing so leads to the “right” conclusions. The CDC studies on the prevalence of rape, for example, are rendered worthless by profound methodological flaws and anyone parroting the “1 in 5” line is naive at best. Similarly, the “wage gap” has been wildly inflated by studies not using suitable controls. There’s a plethora of horribly flawed “research” that appears to have been carried out with the sole intention of providing feminists with tasty soundbites. And, as far as I can see, the vast majority are gobbling it up without a second thought or primary source. I don’t want to be associated with a movement where this is commonplace.
The intellectual dishonesty of many feminists extends to the way they conduct and manage discourse and, more specifically, dissent. Silencing tactics are exceptionally common. Accusations of “sexism” and “misogyny” can and will be used liberally to shut down any uncomfortable argument. “Misogynist” has become a byword for “someone who makes my emotionally-based reasoning sad”. The most egregious silencing occurs whenever men try to organise to discuss issues that disproportionately affect them — as if an all-male conversation is now an existential threat to the female race. Conferences designed to address the disproportionately high rate of male suicide, unfair custody rules and other “male” problems have been interrupted by gate-crashers (often armed with whistles or loudspeakers) or just cancelled completely (usually as a result of pressure on local government officials, fake bomb threats or petty vandalism).
Many activities of feminists paint a rather dim picture of both the methods and motives of those involved. Rarely are they condemned by other feminists. When pressed for a response from the feminist masses, you might get a lazy excuse coupled with an insincere statement full of politicking and words like “condone” and “unacceptable”. Other responses in their repertoire include stony-faced denial and enthusiastic support. The one thing you won’t see is genuine disapproval. All is fair in love and man-hate. The problem is that when you identify with a movement, these actions are being transitively carried out in your name (at least as far as public perception is concerned).
Are men welcome anyway?
I’ve spent a considerable amount of time observing feminist “spaces”. Call me crazy but I think you should have a very good understanding of something before you criticise and dismiss it. I’ve noticed that female feminists have an uneasy, fractious relationship with their male “allies”. Most often, the relationship is one of subordination: “you’re welcome to come along for the ride but you have to follow everything we say and voice no opinions of your own”. The modern consensus seems to be that men can be bit-part mini-feminists. There is, perhaps ironically, no notion of gender equality within the feminist movement itself (which, to me, intimates an admittance that the feminist movement is, in fact, a movement to advance women’s collective position in society rather than a movement for gender equality — if men need feminism too and these women care so much about gender equality, where are the male seats at the top table?).
An older view contends that men can never be true feminists, which is to say that they should not refer to themselves as feminists. Although less popular now – partly due to widespread acceptance of the fact that male participation and assistance are essentially necessary for enabling modern feminism – this purist perspective is far from dead. The school of thought that male and female feminists are of equal value is embryonic in that it doesn’t really exist outside of theoretical discussion. Feminists will almost invariably argue that it shouldn’t exist and they’re probably right. All of this can leave a man wondering if they’re being co-opted into a movement where they’re not even really welcome.
I’ve spoken to many men who once considered themselves feminists. A lot of them were just attempting to white knight (some even admitted it) until they realised that – how do I put this delicately? – 99% of women don’t actually want a man who willingly allows himself to be subjugated. Not to put too much focus on anecdotal evidence (or, indeed, anecdotes in general) but sycophancy leads to a lack of respect and a lack of respect leads to a lack of sex. Some of the male ex-feminists I’ve spoken to were involved in the movement for the “right” reasons but inevitably became disillusioned by the level of man-bashing rhetoric and the concomitant insecurity and cognitive dissonance accompanying a lack of belonging. Most people don’t stick around in friendship circles to experience disdain or antipathy. It’s a strange practice to “encourage” (ensnare, force, guilt trip; take your pick) men to identify with a movement where their welcome is heavily conditional; an invitation contingent on their utility.
Feminists would have us believe in a false dichotomy: “feminist” or “sexist” — pick one. Of course, it’s a ridiculous assertion — in fact, I would say that the current dichotomy is between feminism and free speech, which seem mutually incompatible. What about those men and women who fully support gender equality but believe that the current generation of feminists aren’t actually working towards anything of the sort? An increasing number of people, I feel, are becoming disillusioned with modern feminism (and rightly so). Those who wish to sidestep the false dichotomy minefield have taken to using terms like “egalitarian” and “equalist” to describe a belief in gender equality without the feminist connotations. Is this the start of a euphemism treadmill? I don’t think so. People who describe themselves as “egalitarians” or “equalists” tend to have a willingness to also work on issues that disproportionately affect men.
For all their attempts to monopolise gender equality activism, I’ve never seen a feminist pay more than cursory attention to men’s issues. Pretending to care about problems that disproportionately affect men is a favourite tactic amongst feminists. By being vaguely aware of the statistics and saying the right things, feminists can basically starve men’s activists of oxygen by making a show of “taking on” their issues and redirecting the attention to their own cause. They’ve used a similar tactic with minority groups under the umbrella term “intersectionality” (see also: Gays Against Feminism).
In terms of male issues specifically, every “male” issue is conveniently explained by the “patriarchy”, which feminists often use as a point of convergence to garner bilateral support for action that, in practice, very heavily favours women. If you can project every social evil onto the patriarchal bogeyman, you can continue to justify ignoring everyone else’s problems in favour of fighting the patriarchy. By constantly redefining and expanding the boundaries of “patriarchy”, the goalposts can be moved again and again so that only women’s issues are ever actually addressed. This is by design. In reality, I think that many feminists would love nothing more than for the other activist groups to disappear overnight. In lieu of such a neat solution, however, they’ve mastered the art of conglomerating and co-opting other groups in a way that furthers the feminist agenda (far more than those of the groups they exploit). It’s tyranny of the female majority writ small.