• “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.


    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.

    Posted by SethBlog @ 1:01 PM

  • 2 Responses

    • Janice Fiamengo Says:

      I like this analogy, Seth! It’s a simple and helpful way to distinguish between what some feminists say they believe/pursue and the causes and ideas they promote.

      When the Ryerson Men’s Issues Society was denied club status by the Ryerson Student Union, I waited for the feminists who believe in equality to come forward and raise their voices against such blatant discrimination. I didn’t hear a peep.

    • SethBlog Says:

      Thanks Janice. Yes, I think that’s an important point of distinction. If feminism is always about equal rights, why do so few “feminists” call out sexism against men? Even if they believe that 90% of sexism is towards women, shouldn’t they still show their egalitarian colours when it’s against men?

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