• In Part I of this essay, I argued that there is a distinction between Definition Feminism (the pursuit of gender equality) and Action Feminists (those who advocate in feminism’s name).

    HIDING UNDER DEFINITION FEMINISM’S COAT:

    “There’s a special place in Hell for women who don’t help each other.”

    —-Madeleine Albright, campaigning for Hilary Clinton in 2016.

    By utilizing appeals to our compassion (for women) and to our fear (of being branded misogynists), Action Feminists have convinced the mainstream media and politicians not to question their status as perfect representatives of gender equality (i.e. Definition Feminism).

    They have achieved this result through a variety of false equivalencies:

    (1) CRITICISM OF ACTION FEMINISM = “HATE SPEECH”:

    SITUATION: I was going to send one of my arguments to the Hourglass Literary Contest, but I discovered in the magazine’s guidelines that they “do not tolerate… anti-feminism” because they have deemed such criticism to be a form of “gender hatred.”

    I think we can assume, by their open-ended use of the term “anti-feminism,” that the writing contest is not contemplating any distinction between the ideals of gender equality and the alleged efforts to produce it. No, evidently, criticizing feminism in any form is intrinsically “hate speech,” and thus is forbidden.

    More significantly, as I described in FREE SPEECH FROM FEMINISM, various critics of Action Feminism in Canada and the US have been protested by Action Feminists on the grounds that they are promoting “hate speech.” In some cases, the protesters have been so assured in their convictions that they have pulled fire alarms to disrupt the blasphemous talks. And the mainstream media rarely questions the righteousness of such accusations and tactics.

    CHEATS: If one pays attention to the actual content of feminism critics, it is clear that most of them are Definition Feminists. They too are arguing for the most gender equal-society we can create. But they disagree with mainstream Action Feminists about whether we currently live in a patriarchal society, rape culture, and systemically-unfair-to-women economic and political system. Moreover, they argue that in certain arenas in our Western society, male people have generally fewer privileges, yet more obligations, than female people.

    Of course, like Action Feminists who assume woman are always worse off, such critics are fallible. They might have their facts wrong; they might be offering bad solutions, and so on. But such disagreement over the facts does not prove sexism.

    CONSEQUENCES: By arguing that opposing claimants to the best path to gender equality are “hate speakers,” Action Feminists scare away reasonable criticism of their work. As I argued in THE USEFUL CRUELTY OF SCRUTINY, any ideology that does not benefit from rigorous criticism is in danger of being overtaken by its worst ideas.

    CONCLUSION: This contest to be the go-to representatives of gender egalitarianism ought to be covered by the media with a neutral curiosity. And the rest of us should do our best to criticize the media when they fail. Otherwise, they have no incentive to risk the misogyny-badge they would likely receive for asking feminists tough questions.

    (2) CRITICISM OF ACTION FEMINIST DATA = RAPE APOLOGIA:

    SITUATION: Whereas in science, skepticism is a tool to reduce mistakes, in gender studies discussions, skepticism of Action Feminist data is considered to be hateful towards the victims described in the data.

    For instance, Action Feminists have produced statistics that seem to suggest that approximately 20% of American college women will be sexually assaulted. However, critics, such as philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers, have argued convincingly that there are serious flaws in the studies (such as non-representative samples and strange interpretations of data) which have facilitated these shocking results. Dr. Sommers says that the best data shows the numbers are closer to 2%. A common Action Feminist response, then, is to accuse Dr. Sommers of being “a rape apologist.”

    CHEATS: There is nothing in Dr. Sommers’ argument that suggests anything but contempt for rape. She merely disagrees on the facts of how prevalent the cruel crime is.

    To argue that anyone who is skeptical of the scariest rape statistics is a “rape defender” is to put Action Feminists themselves in danger of being called rape apologists. After all, if they’re sure that 20% is the right number, it just takes one alternate Action Feminist to argue the number is 25% to make the first suddenly a rape apologist unless they immediately accept the higher number.

    CONSEQUENCES: Is it not obvious that this kind of “You accept the scariest numbers or you promote their cause” argument is inevitably going to facilitate a culture of rape research that is skewed? (As I’ve argued before, such a system provokes “rape culture” culture.) Indeed, under such high-stakes pressure to conform, how many social scientists will have the courage to resist?

    CONCLUSION: As Dr. Hoff Sommers argues, serious problems deserve serious statistics. The only way to achieve a true understanding of these issues is if we are allowed to make sure Action Feminists are not accidentally and/or intentionally steering the numbers to fit their expectations; and the only way to do that is to require that Action Feminists be subject to scrutiny like everyone else. “You’re with us, or you’re a misogynist” reasoning cannot be allowed to dominate the conversation.

    (3) CRITICISM OF FEMINIST ANALYSIS = A LACK OF COMPASSION:

    SITUATION: When critics of Action Feminist data argue there are flaws in the design and/or interpretation of feminist research, they are accused of disrespecting victims, and denying the “lived experience” of women.

    CHEATS: Anecdotal evidence is not valueless as an intuitive starting point for investigation, but it is not necessarily representative of a population either. In scientific research, those intuitions and individual experiences may guide the researcher as to where to focus their lens, but that is all it can do. Particular experiences cannot override the resulting data.

    Such a recognition that our intuitions do not always generalize does not mean we shouldn’t try to help those who are suffering, even if there are fewer sufferers then we anticipated.

    CONSEQUENCES: Action Feminists often get away with conflating legitimate skepticism of their conclusions with contempt for the victims they claim to speak for. They have been unnervingly successful in muddying these moral waters by utilizing noble-sounding phrases such as “believe victims,” and “listen to women.” With these emotional, faith-based slogans, Action Feminists have successfully created and nurtured the notion that questioning social scientific research is denying the “lived experiences” of individual victims.

    CONCLUSION: The truth is becoming tangential to these discussions. We must stop allowing unearned conclusions to be claimed without criticism.

    (4) INDIRECTLY CONTRADICTING FEMINISM = MISOGYNY:

    SITUATION: Action Feminism’s hold on our public conversation is illustrated not just in their reactions to cases where their allegedly omni-benevolent work is checked, but also in circumstances where a public figure says something which indirectly doesn’t coincide with a feminist conclusion.

    Recall the case of General Lawson, wherein the commander of the Canadian armed forces tried to explain the continuing presence of sexual harassers in the military by suggesting they were “biologically wired” that way. This was on the wrong side of the Action Feminist position that nurture (as opposed to nature) is always the culpable parent when it comes to creating bad characters.

    There was bi-partisan agreement amongst Canadian politicians (and the mainstream media that covered them) which contended that Lawson had been “offensive.” He apologized, but not without a call from then third party Liberal Leader (now Canadian Prime Minister) Justin Trudeau for the General to be fired.

    Meanwhile, brilliant screenwriter (and Action Feminist) Joss Whedon similarly discovered the danger of indirectly crossing feminist orthodoxy when he wrote a movie in which a female superhero lamented her inability to have children.

    Even though her male superhero counterpart was similarly disillusioned by his childless future, Action Feminists on Twitter railed against their feminist ally, Whedon, for allegedly imposing a traditional gender role on one of his female characters.

    CHEATS: Action Feminists are helping themselves to unearned interpretations of meaning. In Lawson’s case they are suggesting that, by blaming biology instead of society for bad sexual misconduct, he is not holding his soldiers accountable (since no one can control their biology). But, as I argued in WIRED FOR OFFENCE, if feminists are right that nurture is responsible for all of our moral defects, the soldiers have no power over that cause either.

    General Lawson stated unambiguously that he was targeting the sexual harassers in his charge. Thus, even if his one-sided understanding of the cause of the problem was silly, it seemed to have no effect on his intention to hold the assailants accountable.

    Meanwhile, in Whedon’s case, there’s nothing wrong with criticizing his artistic choices, but why are Action Feminists so certain that individual female characters represent a writer’s views on all women? (Indeed, feminists don’t need to travel far in the Whedon resume to see that he has written many “strong female characters.”) Moreover, why all the rage? Does everyone have to blindly follow every expectation of Action Feminism or be Twitter assassinated? Action Feminists seem to forbid any diversity of thought.

    CONSEQUENCES: Action Feminism’s speed of rage when confronted by innocuous, indirect disagreement surely encourages the sort of politically correct, sycophantic non-speak we hear from so many politicians and pundits (as I described in A NEW POLITICIAN’S GUIDE TO WAFFLING). Few people with a platform have the courage and/or will to cross feminist dogma, and so they play it safe, leaving meaningful and diverse conversation as the casualty.

    Meanwhile, it is often said that there are fewer nuanced roles for women in Hollywood than there are for men. If this is true, one possible contributing factor is that Action Feminists, such as the above Twitter assassins, have scared some writers away from creating interesting female characters. As Action Feminists demand female leads be beacons of feminist strength in all ways, the resulting characters become a wee bit boring. Writers can only have so many shiny lights of independence in one movie, so, when it comes to filling the imperfect (i.e. interesting) character roles, I can imagine some screenwriters erring on the side of making them male to avoid being accused of sexism.

    CONCLUSION: When Action Feminists attack, we need to do a better job of politely asking them to justify their assumptions.

    (5) CRITICIZING FEMINISM WHILE POSSIBLY BENEFITING FROM IT = UNTENABLE:

    SITUATION 1: When women criticize Action Feminism, they are often asked why they are betraying a cause that is trying to help them.

    CHEATS: It turns out that some people don’t define their values just by what helps themselves most. Moreover, some female critics of Action Feminism may believe that, despite Action Feminism’s theoretical concern for women, it does women more harm than good in practice.

    SITUATION 2: Men who criticize Action Feminism are often told that “Feminism benefits men, too.”

    CHEATS: In certain cases, I’m sure feminism does benefit men. If, for instance, feminism has helped to free us from the universal assumption of gender roles, that’s probably a benefit to many individual men and women. But that doesn’t mean such people can’t criticize Action Feminism for over simplifying the issue with their insistence that gender is entirely a social construct. Moreover, there’s no reason that said “benefitting” person can’t have other moral disagreements with the work of Action Feminists.

    CONSEQUENCES: Both men and women are told to support Action Feminism, not because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the selfish thing to do.

    CONCLUSION: We should demand that Action Feminists not use people’s gender to guilt them into agreeing with them. Instead, we should remind people that moral value is not necessarily predicated on personal value.  Moreover, the identity of one’s gender has no relevance to the validity of one’s moral argument.

    (6) CRITICIZING FEMINISM = BEING OPPOSED TO ANY OF ITS GOOD DEEDS:

    SITUATION: Consider feminist singer/songwriter, Katie Goodman, who song-ranted at young, female celebrities who said they weren’t feminists. She explained that, in fact, if they liked the benefits that feminism had helped them to achieve, then they were obligated to accept they were feminists. Sang she:

    Yeah, babe, you’re a feminist

    Just take a look at the checklist:
    Do you like voting?
    You like driving?
    You’re a feminist.

    Past feminists gave their lives
    To let you vote and be more than wives
    Saying you’re not a feminist gives them hives

    CHEATS: Here Goodman is ignoring any possible distinction between between Definition Feminism and Action Feminism. Just because I am critic of the general way in which Action Feminists ply their trade, does not mean I am obligated to disagree with every opinion they espouse, nor every good deed they achieve.

    If Action Feminists deserve credit for de-coupling gender from the franchise, great (although, as Janice Fiamengo describes, the situation may have been a little more complicated than celebrated), but such moral achievements don’t prove that every act performed by Action Feminists is as virtuous as their best.

    If you’ll forgive the harsh analogy, I also think giving toys to needy kids is a worthy endeavour, but that doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to criticize other activities of the Hell’s Angels.

    CONSEQUENCES: This is a problem with committed ideological affiliations: they disallow nuance. You’re expected to either take on the label of the ideology (and the baggage that it entails), or you must admit you’re opposed to everything ever done in its name.

    CONCLUSION: We need to start openly criticizing demands for intellectual simplicity and point out that Definition Feminism and Action Feminism are not always identical.

    (7) HAVING A MORAL HIERARCHY DIFFERENT FROM FEMINISM = MISOGYNY:

    SITUATION: When critics rank non-feminist imperatives over the goals of Action Feminism, such dissenters are immediately accused of being opposed to those feminist hopes. For instance, Action Feminists have attempted to change the legal system to make it easier to prosecute alleged sexual assaulters. This sounds like a noble cause, but the problem is that Action Feminist “solutions” may be putting due process in danger. However, when critics point out such concerns, they are accused of being “rape culture” advocates.

    CHEATS: Action Feminists appear not to understand the vital concept of moral hierarchy. If, for further instance, I value free speech over freedom from hate speech, many Action Feminists contend that I must agree with any bigoted language that free speech allows. They do not accept the possibility that someone could value public decency while choosing free speech as the more important necessity of a civil society.

    Action Feminists, of course, are entitled to their own moral hierarchy. If they want to argue that the good of convicting a higher percentage of guilty people is worth the sacrifice of also convicting more innocent people then that’s a legitimate philosophical stance to take. Similarly, it’s legitimate for their opponents to argue that keeping innocent people out of jail is more important than catching higher numbers of bad guys. It’s an interesting moral dispute. But to claim that due process defenders are misogynists is an intellectual cheat of the lowest order.

    CONSEQUENCES: As vital moral questions arise, criticism of Action Feminist solutions are demonized and thus dissuaded. Without such a filter, both the best and the worst ideas of Action Feminism get through. Soon, we may lose our rights to due process and free speech without having made our best cases for protecting them.

    CONCLUSION: We need to demand that Action Feminists argue fairly and not sideline important discussions with wild accusations of misogyny.

    (8) CRITICISM OF FEMINISM WHILE NOT BEING FEMALE = IRRELEVANT:

    SITUATION: Perhaps the most aggressive of Action Feminist silencing language comes in the form of the term “male privilege.” (I will write more about this term in a spin-off rant.) Men who disagree with Action Feminists are often dismissed because of their gender. That is, given they are male, they are described as definitionally privileged, and consequently disabled by their life-long advantage such that they cannot recognize their privilege, and therefore cannot be expected to speak reasonably on sexism.

    CHEATS: I’m not sure why Action Feminists are so confident that privilege universally harms perspective, and disadvantage automatically improves it. But let’s assume that those claims have proven to always be true.

    We’re all privileged and disadvantaged in some ways. And certainly, particular groups sometimes have widespread advantage or disadvantage. Whether men or women as groups are more advantaged or disadvantaged is an interesting question to which Action Feminists argue they have the unequivocal answer: any claim other than universal male privilege is apparently laughable.

    To make this broad case, Action Feminists point out certain inequivalencies of results, such as fewer women in high-paying jobs in general, and in politics and STEM fields in particular. But, if results alone prove inequality of opportunity, then there are lots of statistics that show men are also sometimes less equal (higher sentences for the same crime, lesser custody rights, gender quotas against them, more workplace deaths, more homelessness, fewer shelters, less medical research, and (thus?) higher suicide rates, lower life expectancy, and more). 

    Clearly, privilege isn’t as simple as checking one’s gender. But by dogmatically treating “male privilege” as a tautology, feminists have managed to undermine our collective skepticism. Indeed, men who don’t acknowledge their privilege are dismissed as the worst misogynists of all.

    Thus, men wanting to stay on the right side of Action Feminists not only cannot disagree with the ideology, but also must confess their complicity in provoking it.

    Moreover, even if one does legitimately come to the conclusion that men in general are more privileged than women, that does not justify assuming that every individual man is privileged. For instance, let’s say there’s a 20% advantage for men over women going into STEM, but a 10% advantage for women over men going into novel writing. While the former case might mean that men on average will fare better just because of their gender, the aspiring male writer may still be systemically disadvantaged in his life.

    CONSEQUENCES: Along with anti-male hiring policies in work and politics, pundits and politicians’ genders are often taken into account when assessing their arguments. Sometimes, for committing the crime of being male, pundits’ arguments will be dismissed on the basis that their privilege is showing.

    Also, sometimes individual men are excluded from discussions so as to ensure a panel is more gender balanced. In contrast, if a panel is unanimously female, Action Feminists celebrate the result as an achievement for inclusiveness.

    CONCLUSION: If we’re going to examine unfair advantages in work and play, we must not assume the very thesis that Action Feminists have a vested interest in proving. If Action Feminists claim a particular disadvantage, we should give it no more automatic weight than we would someone claiming any other fact of our society.

    Moreover, we cannot allow Action Feminists to exclude certain people from participating in discussions on the basis of their gender. Ideas should be measured by their content, not by their owners’ chromosomes.

    THE SHIPS ARE SAILING:

    “If you’re not a feminist, then you’re a bigot. I mean, there is nothing in between. It’s like being pregnant. You either are pregnant, or you’re not.”

    —-Gloria Allred, feminist activist and lawyer.

    These many examples of Action Feminist silencing behaviours have consequences beyond their individual cases. Surely, as politicians and media professionals witness the career disintegrations of resisters to Action Feminism, it is understandable that they prefer not to put themselves in the same line of fire.

    Consider incoming Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s delivery on his promise to gender quota in a balanced cabinet. Whether you agree or disagree with affirmative action discrimination, it is a decision that has serious consequences. Many moral questions should have been asked by the media of this Prime Minister.

    (For instances, if we let quotas instead of qualifications determine who is elevated to the top government positions, aren’t we by definition going to have a less accomplished group? Moreover, is it fair to the individual men who otherwise would have been promoted based on their merits that they be excluded because of their gender? Is there any evidence that such men were unduly advantaged in acquiring their resumes, or is it possible that other factors, such as general differences in female and male career interests, played a role?)

    But, instead of the obvious critical questions, the Right Honourable Justin Trudeau was asked the soft-as-a-feather question of why gender parity was so important to him. And he simply replied:

    “Because it’s 2015.”

    This resulted in approving laughter from his new team, but no follow up query from the media.

    Indeed, in my perusal of the mainstream media coverage, the only criticism I encountered of Justin Trudeau’s gender quota policy was one which argued that it would hurt women. I don’t doubt that such a quota system can have unintended negative consequences for women who, in particular cases, may be unfairly assumed not to have earned their position via merit. However, why is the media not looking at the consequences of this policy on men, as well as on the quality of the government?

    “Because it’s 2015” may sound vapid (and it is), but it also contains a warning:

    Given we now live in the modern era, it is embarrassing for us to still exist in a system which privileges men over women. And, if you question my policies, you are suggesting that it’s okay for men to be privileged over women. Go ahead and challenge me on these points, I dare you.

    I submit that Prime Minister Trudeau didn’t justify his gender quota system with clear moral arguments because he didn’t think he needed to. He figured the media would cower to his implied warning, and realize it was safer to leave the matter be: and he was right.

    Action Feminists have succeeded in making all criticisms of Action Feminism taboo. Indeed, even the most scary ideas within Action Feminism are now able to hide under the coat of its noble, Definitional godmother.

    Recall singer/songwriter Katie Goodman’s rhetorical question for women who don’t want to call themselves feminists:

    “A feminist is described as a person who believes in social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. Why is this so confusing?”

    It’s confusing because many people who advocate in feminism’s name are calling for policies that do not match the ideals of gender egalitarianism.

    The key to saving ourselves from the worst ideas of feminism is to demand the right to distinguish between the various ships that carry her name. Not all Action Feminisms are gender egalitarians; and not all critics of Action Feminism are opposed to gender equality.

  • THE SHIPS OF THESEUS:

    “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

    —-William Goldman (via his character, Inigo Montoya) in The Princess Bride.

    As imagined by the ancient thinker, Plutarch, there are two candidates vying for the title of the Ship of Theseus. First, there is the ongoing ship that has continuously flown Theseus’s flag for the past, say, 20 years. It has travelled from port to port, and floated on missions on behalf of Theseus with the same licence plate number throughout. (Let’s call this Continuous Theseus.)

    But, as it has been injured along the way, the Ship of Theseus has had its parts replaced one by one over that same double decade. In fact, we are to imagine that, as of today, every individual piece of the ship, whose escapades we have been following, is now distinct from its original part. Meanwhile, all of the discarded original pieces have been re-assembled by an archivist to recreate the original ship. (Let’s call this Original Theseus.)

    The question, then, is do we have a paradox of two ships that are the same ship?

    My answer has always been that the apparent contradiction is simply a linguistic dispute resulting from the fact that we have only one word for two concepts, functional vs. molecular identity. If you’re discussing the ship that has carried out the missions of the Ship of Theseus, then HMS Continuous is your boat. Whereas, if you’re interested in the very matter that was used in the first instance, then HMS Original will be your choice.

    So, in my view, this not a paradox; instead, there is more than one way to define identity (and both are useful notions that we should feel free to use so long as we’re clear about which we’re utilizing).

    Meanwhile, I believe that many discussions of our controversial friend, Feminism, have had similar identity confusions. Many self-described “feminists” insist that the work they do is, by definition, identical to their philosophical mission statement, i.e. the pursuit of social, economic and political equality between the sexes. (Let’s call said goal Definition Feminism.)

    Definition Feminism has a lovely, egalitarian sound to it; the trouble is, some of us perceive that, in action, many self-described feminists seem to be agitating for something that encompasses much more (and less) than gender equality. (Let’s call any of these applications of Definition Feminism, Action Feminism.)

    To avoid confusion, then, I contend that, we should do our best to distinguish Definition Feminism from those flying its flag while on board a different ship.

    THE SHIPS OF FEMINISM:

    A feminist is described as a person who believes in social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. Why is this so confusing?”

    —-Feminist and comedic singer/songwriter, Katie Goodman, in response to some young female celebrities not calling themselves “feminists.”

    If you consider yourself to be a feminist, I don’t ask that you immediately accept that any particular Action Feminism is distinct from the pursuit of gender equality. All that I request for now is that you consider the possibility that it could be. History demands that we recognize that sometimes philosophical ideologies that sound noble, by their definitions, can be misapplied (intentionally or accidentally) by their practitioners.

    (As always, consider George Orwell’s Animal Farm for an illustration of this phenomenon.)

    Such a distinction between theory and attempted practice is a natural consequence of human fallibility. Most of us are imperfect, and so our ability to apply our best ideas may be undermined by our intellectual and moral limitations.

    So, if it’s possible that an ideology—-even one as noble of spirit as Definition Feminism—-can be accidentally or intentionally misrepresented by imperfect practitioners, then a crucial means of protecting ourselves from such wolves in feminism’s clothing is to make sure that we question not just the best ideals of feminism, but also the arguments of its alleged advocates.

    If you are a feminist, you might believe that the majority—-if not the entirety—-of feminists are doing good work. However, how can we know this if there are no means of checking that those flying the flag of Definition Feminism are indeed matching its best intentions? Similarly, most scientists may be sincerely trying to produce the most reliable scientific studies possible, but we require them to use both a rigorous double-blind scientific method and peer review that try to disprove the resulting claims, to ensure that we catch errors (even unintentional ones). I cannot conceive of a reason that feminist philosophers and researchers wouldn’t benefit from the same oversight.

    Nevertheless, in the current state of gender discussions, many feminists—-whether they are as virtuous as their best definition, or as morally flawed as their harshest critics suggest—-have managed, by a variety of brilliant methods, to evade vital criticisms. Instead, when they do or say something that seems dubious to critics, in lieu of arguing their side, Action Feminists will often point to the definition of their movement, and suggest that those who disagree with their particular contentions clearly disagree with equal gender rights.

    This will not do. Perhaps such Action Feminists can prove all of their claims, but they cannot do so by using the best ideals of their movement as cover. The question remains whether they are, in fact, sailing the true ship of Definition Feminism, or some other ship, that looks like it in name and mission statement, but in fact is doing things beyond (and/or less than) feminism’s scope.

    In Part II of this essay, I will describe eight ways in which Action Feminists subdue criticism by appealing to the virtues of Definition Feminism for protection.

  • Previously in this “NEW CENSORSHIP” series, I have written about the power of political correctness to suppress speech via the magnitude of its proponents’ outrage and calls for punishment of those who stray from “acceptable” opinion. In this episode of “THE NEW CENSORSHIP,” I will examine the argument of a scholar who defends the increasing powers of political correctness.

    On June 21st, I overheard an interview on CBC’s The 180, in which interviewer Jim Brown asked a gender studies grad student, Zaren Healey White, whether Canadian universities have become too politically correct at the expense of free academic thought. The conversation had the veneer of a serious philosophical discussion, but to my ear, it evaded the most problematic aspects of limiting free speech at the behest of ideology, however well-meaning it may claim to be.

    Thus, I sent a message to The 180, articulating some serious issues that I thought were missed in the discussion. Since it has now been two weeks, and I have not heard back, I offer that letter here.

    (NOTE: The transcript of the interview is available as the first comment on this post. I won’t be offended if you listen to or read the interview before taking in my reply.)

    Dear Mr. Brown:

    I enjoy your show and interview style. Your attempts to unearth new perspectives in our little group think world is admirable.

    In keeping with your mission, I would like to provide a 180 perspective on your 180 interview with Memorial University Gender Studies Masters student, Zaren Healey White, in regard to her contention that increasing political correctness in Canadian universities is a positive evolution.

    Your guest was articulate and charismatic, and yet she sidestepped significant problems with her ideology.

    When you asked Ms. Healey White to explain how she defines political correctness, she said, “I just basically mean things that I think are values that I think we should value. So basically it’s not political correctness for its own sake, it’s that ‘Let’s be empathetic, sensitive, and aware—-let’s be aware of language and how the words we use could impact people.”

    Empathy, sensitivity, and awareness all sound like nice goals to strive for in theory, but in practice who gets to decide which language and opinions pass the test? As much as Ms. Healey White and her colleagues may have good intentions and talented brains, there are lots of smart and kind people who disagree with their diagnoses.

    As the late journalist and intellectual Christopher Hitchens argued, “Who is going to decide?… Who will you appoint? Who will be the one who says, ‘I know exactly where the limit [on free speech] should be. I know how far you can go. And I know when you’ve gone too far. And I’ll decide that’? Who do you think, who do you know, who have you heard of, who have you read about in history who you would give that job?”

    To my eye, gender scholars such as Ms. Healey White are currently the leading arbiters of politically correct speech in university culture, and it is they who teach the students who subsequently demand increasing “sensitivity” in academic discussion. So, when we give into student protests and limit who can speak and what can be said at universities, we are allowing a small group of gender scholars to have incredible power over all academic discussion.

    This is not merely a theoretical speculation. Gender studies ideology has made some scary changes to the definition of sexual consent on university campuses, including the new notion that participants—-especially female participants—-cannot consent while intoxicated. Meanwhile, at the University of Ottawa, after two male hockey players were accused of sexual assault, the entire hockey team was suspended for a year. Those who criticize such repressive and autocratic justice are treated as pariahs by the gender studies collective.

    This means that gender studies leaders design strange new rules of justice but will not accept feedback from those not accredited by them to speak on such matters. For instance, when erudite and polite critics of feminism such as Dr. Warren Farrell, Dr. Janice Fiamengo, Dr. Paul Nathanson, and Dr. Katherine Young have attempted to speak at Canadian universities, they have been denounced by feminist protestors as “hate speakers,” “rape apologists,” and “misogynists.” While the students had a right to these accusations, they should not be lionized for such hostile (and baseless) behavior, which inhibits legitimate discussion. Moreover, in some of those cases, the protestors blocked entrances to their opponents’ talks and pulled fire alarms, thus proving themselves literally closed to criticism.

    Far from advocating compassion for those who see the world differently, gender scholars seem to allow no room for “error” amongst those with whom they disagree. Once someone says the “wrong” thing, they are not merely criticized, they are called to be excommunicated from their careers. Such chilling results surely give pause to others who might not agree with every commandment of gender scholarship but don’t want to lose their livelihood over it.

    And note that such restrictions in current university speech is not just about limiting vicious words but also traumatic content. “Trigger warnings,” which began in gender studies, are becoming an expectation of university professors when they engage in material that students might find challenging or provocative. The theory behind this strange practice is that the warning protects the students who may suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from being further traumatized. Again, this sounds compassionate on the surface, but in reality it is based on speculation that traumatized students will be triggered by content that reminds them of their harmful experiences. According to philosopher Christina Hoff-Summers, who has reviewed the scientific literature, there is no psychological evidence for this conclusion; in fact, quite the opposite, as students who are never exposed to content similar to their trauma have little opportunity to get free of it. Thus, instead of protecting students from harm, it gives additional power to the trauma, while demonizing discussion about it.

    Meanwhile, even if trigger warnings were psychologically justified and there were an objective way to censor disrespectful language without limiting ideas, there is a double standard in favour of protecting gender studies from [being criticized for] its own sometimes hostile ideology. For all her calls for “valuing the inherent dignity of people and caring about them, and caring about their lives and their experiences,” notice that Healey White more than once dismissed critics of political correctness as “privileged.” For instances:

    “I haven’t come across a lot of marginalized people who have a problem with political correctness. It seems to be people who have a lot of privilege who say, ‘Well I’m used to being able to say what I want, and I want to keep saying it.’”

    And:

    “I feel like the people leveraging the critiques that the students are too sensitive are the people that have benefitted from getting to say whatever they want, and not having to worry too much about oppression.”

    How does Ms. Healey White know whether such critics have privilege or not? Generally, privilege is shorthand for “white,” “male,” and/or “heterosexual,” which of course is not exactly treating people of such blasphemous traits with empathy, sensitivity, and awareness: instead it paints all such people with the same insult: regardless of the individual circumstances in your life, you have, by definition, been privileged by your biological traits, and so therefore we cannot take your perspective as seriously as ours.

    Such blanket wielding of the term “privilege” is bigotry personified. I won’t presume that Ms. Healey White is motivated by such mean-spirited intentions, but nevertheless she is capitalizing on a currently en vogue expression that carries with it a lot of vicious baggage.

    Moreover, even if we assume the veracity of Ms. Healey White’s almost-impossible-to-verify notion that most of those who criticize political correctness have never experienced oppression (Ayaan Hirsi Ali being, I guess, an aberration), how does that prove their contentions incorrect? In philosophical argument, ad hominem claims (i.e. arguments against the traits of a person instead of their argument) are considered irrelevant. An individual can be both personally flawed and possessing of a good intellectual argument simultaneously, so by definition the person’s traits cannot prove or disprove the validity of their argument.

    For instance, even if I defend free speech solely for my own selfish enjoyment of saying whatever I want (as Healey White suggests), it may be the case that my defence of free speech is still, inadvertently, correct. Meanwhile, even if gender studies students, who are mostly women, focus primarily on women’s rights over men’s rights, it’s possible that the feminist conclusions they draw are valid. The best way to determine the answer to those questions is to look at the arguments we all put forward, and examine them on their merits.

    Sincerely,
    Seth McDonough

    (REMINDER: The transcript of the interview is available as the first comment on this post.)

  • In my last post, I worried about a new censorship from politically correct, but intellectually intolerant people accusing Dr. Phil McGraw of condoning rape when he asked a question about its definition. I argued that this kind of attack by extreme extrapolation has become a type of censorship as popular media and pundits are scared away from exploring ideas whose truth has already been settled by influential one-thought-fits-all agencies.

    This week an even more successful example of thought control has been realized in the form of a censorship crusade against the Nanaimo Daily News for publishing a letter to the editor by Bill McRitchie, which criticized the modern First Nations for “perpetuating the perceived notion that they remain under the heel of non-aboriginals” and for “making outrageous demands for land and taxpayer money.” I have read the letter and listened to Mr. McRitchie, who was interviewed on CKNW (after he was accused by many of being a racist not worthy of publication). He seems to be an articulate and well-meaning person who possesses a radical opinion, which, as he says, may ultimately be wrong or partially wrong, but which – in my opinion – is worthy of the public conversation, precisely because the current dialogue, so fearful of saying the wrong thing, has for many years been closed to nuance on this subject. It is my contention that (a) all reasoned ideas should be considered, and more importantly, (b) no arguments, barring those that promote violence, should be censored.

    Of course, people should feel free to criticize McRitchie in any way they deem accurate. However, I wish they would resist the urge to dismiss him as a racist, which, from my reading of him, is unjust. To defend himself, Mr. McRitchie noted that, according to the dictionary, a racist is a person who believes one race is better than another. He says he has no such belief; instead, it seems that he believes that modern First Nations as well as Canadians are misguided in their assumption about the means by which to reconcile. While he acknowledges that “North American aboriginals were treated terribly by those European nations that were compelled to spread their empires throughout the world and to subjugate any and all indigenous peoples who were perceived a threat to colonialism/imperialism” and that “Treaties were merely empty promises designed to overtly appease the indigenes while covertly exploiting them,” he believes that “As our country matured and demographics changed through massive immigration and the evolution of our society… the playing field began to level.” Mr. McRitchie may be wrong in this assessment, and while his motivation for coming to it might be racist (only he knows his muse), his conclusion does not suggest that the First Nations are a lesser people.

    Some critics have compared Mr. McRitchie to Holocaust deniers, noting that although he doesn’t deny the original historical horrors of colonialism (indeed, he acknowledges them up to the early 20th century), he nevertheless denies the long-term effects. This denial is similar, they contend, to the cleverer of the Holocaust deniers, who don’t so much deny the genocide as much as minimize its effects. It is an interesting comparison, but I think it is once again too simple, or at least unproven: not all cases that are similar in form are equal in content. Moreover, I’m not sure if Mr. McRitchie was saying that colonialism did not have a long-term effect on modern society. That is, I think it’s likely, or at least plausible, that he would agree to the proposition that the current suffering in First Nations communities is inextricably linked to colonialism. He argues, however, that the First Nations now have equal opportunity to everyone else, and so perhaps he thinks that maintaing a system of special status, counter-intuitively, perpetuates the disparity in well-being because people are best able to be resilient if they are treated equally to everyone else. (Again, this may be a flawed philosophy, but it is not racist to submit the idea for consideration.) I am no better able to prove this interpretation of Mr. McRitchie than are those who accuse him of being racist, but I think it is perfectly plausible, and yet, in our current public policy (of calling-people-a-racist-and-asking-questions-never), it was not given a chance.

    This closed-mindedness is evidenced by the fact that, not only were the opinions of this writer immediately accused, without evidence, of their worst possible motivation, but the newspaper who chose to publish the letter was publicly charged with crimes against decency. It is apparent to me that most Canadian media do not cover First Nations issues with the same multi-perspectival approach that they do other issues, and I can see why, when a newspaper cannot publish a letter to the editor on this subject without immediately being ridiculed for the alleged crimes and motivations of the letter writer. As a result of the outrage, the Managing Editor of the paper, Mark MacDonald, has said that he’s baffled as to what do with controversial letters in future: perhaps, he said, he would remove the letter to the editor section completely to avoid feeling obligated to censor his community.

    The issue of truth and reconciliation with the First Nations community is, I think, one of the most challenging in Canadian society, and Mr. McRitchie’s thoughts on it may be wrong, or mostly wrong, but I think it is unfortunate that the current conversation is too closed to hear him out. Regardless of the merit of Mr. McRitchie’s views, they are—-to use the PC term—-marginalized. Most media outlets in Canada avoid controversial opinions regarding First Nations issues likely because such perspectives are dangerous to their journalistic health. Paternalism against First Nations people, as exemplified in the residential school system, is one of Canada’s worst crimes, and so the media is loathe to question First Nations philosophy in any way that could seem like it is telling them what to think (see my rant against Vancouver Opera’s production of The Magic Flute, which tried so hard to compliment the First Nations that it forgot to be interesting). Consequently, First Nations society and leadership does not have the benefits and consequences of a rigorous and vigilant bi-partisan press that the rest of Canadian society enjoys. While such aggressive media can be a bully, it can also protect us from our own corrupt leaders.

    In trying to defend his newspaper, Mark MacDonald boasted that his publication has been “pro-First Nations” in its editorials and coverage, which would be considered bad journalism if it were applied to any other group. Perhaps such supportive coverage is what a suffering culture needs, but it doesn’t seem to have made a dent in the ills within First Nations communities so far. Thus, if there’s a chance that we as a society are approaching this subject from a wrong or oversimplified point of view, the only way we can recognize such philosophical problems is if we are able to criticize the orthodoxy. If it’s the case that Mr. McRitchie’s letter was unreasonable, then we should point that out, but when we won’t even allow the discussion, then we scare off other critics, who may be more helpful, from joining the conversation.

  • Recently TV psychologist “Dr. Phil” McGraw promoted an upcoming show regarding sexual assault via a question on his Twitter feed that asked his audience if it would be okay to sleep with a drunk female. From my vantage point, Dr. Phil’s question seemed crass, given that he was asking for a Yes or No response to an inquiry that should provoke us to consider the complex question of where we draw a line in the long and grey spectrum between consent and assault. However, I am much more disconcerted (although not surprised) by the politically correct club’s outrage that Dr. Phil had the audacity to ask his audience for their opinions on this topic: clearly (yelled the critics, in their usual fervor of trial by “ism”plication) Dr. Phil was looking to promote sexual assault in university dorm rooms.

    As Ottawa Citizen commentator Angelina Chapin noted: People immediately labelled Phil McGraw… a rape apologist. It was like watching a minnow dropped into a piranha tank. Aside from the innocuous snark that characterizes Twitter — “Aren’t you married?” — the criticisms were an ugly distortion of the original message.

    “Why are you looking for a green light to rape from Twitter?” asked Twitter.com/SettlerColonial and “You know good and goddamn well that ‘asking’ when a girl ‘deserves’ to be raped is a destructive question in itself,” tweeted Twitter.com/@femme_esq…

    The message spurred a change.org petition demanding Dr. Phil apologize and “produce a show that shines a light on survivors of rape and sexual assault and… a national conversation about the specifics of consent.”

    The change.org petition is the work of activist Carmen Rios, who was subsequently a guest on CKNW’s The Simi Sara Show. She argues that Dr. Phil’s inquiry is akin to the police asking a possible rape victim the ridiculous and irrelevant question, “What were you wearing [to potentially provoke this assault]?”; this is a straw man argument of the worst kind because she associates a question that apparently seeks to blame a victim with an important philosophical one that society ought to, and has a right to, ask. Even if this topic is as simple as Ms. Rios suggests (that there is no grey area between consent and assault), what has happened to our moral conversation that we cannot ask about it?

    Apparently, we’re now living in a moral orthodoxy that will ostracize not only those who disagree with it, but also people who have the temerity to inquire about it, by assuming the most sinister interpretations of their questions. And yet, I think Dr. McGraw’s inquiry (or, at least, the actual implications of it) is one of the most daunting in all of moral philosophy: how do we define consent? Finding an answer that takes into account our elusive line between protecting our citizens and allowing them the right to choose is tough work, and I fear any results arrived at through censored discussion.

    I think most moral philosophers would agree that a passed out or barely conscious person cannot give consent, but suggesting that people who are slurring their words can no longer choose, in that moment, to take someone home provokes difficult questions. For instance, where is the line between sobriety and the point at which a person is no longer aware of their circumstances enough to consent? (I’m not saying there isn’t a line, but it’s a tricky one for a reasonable person to define.) What about cases where two people are in a relationship? If a women comes home drunk from a work party, and initiates something with her husband and he consents, has he sexually assaulted her? Also, are inebriated males victims of sexual assault, too? If not, then we’re saying that drunk male citizens have the ability to choose while intoxicated female citizens do not. That’s a scary conclusion for both genders. Moreover, if both members of a sexual encounter are drunk, have both of them assaulted each other? These may not be the cases intended by arguments that one must be sober to consent, but they are logically in its catchment area, so how do we deal with them?

    The outraged social policy rulers are unwilling to consider any contemplation that does not fit within their rules of acceptable thought. Along with demanding an apology from Dr. Phil, Ms. Rios wants him to tailor his show to fit the philosophy she has prescribed for this topic; indeed, she notes that various media outlets need to do a better job, when covering such debates, of focusing on the victims. So, along with curtailing free discussion, she wants journalists to cast aside their oaths of objectivity when describing the conversation that remains. No need to look at more than one aspect of an issue, just read Ms. Rios’s blog and report her infallible opinion as fact.

    The new censorship is upon us.

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