Saturday, October 13, 2018

Feminism, postmodernism, and politics

Because this post may easily make some people angry, I shall begin with a statement of what I am, and am not, trying to do with it.  I have no illusions that I can affect the ideological and emotional movement known as #MeToo, which burst upon the national scene once again last month in connection with Justice Kavanaugh's confirmation.  It is well established and its impact is going to continue.  It has helped to bring one prominent criminal to justice and may do the same again.  It has created a new orthodoxy within the Democratic Party.  My goal is simply to identify some of its intellectual origins, to explore some of the implications of its ideology that have emerged quite clearly in several contexts, and to assess its contemporary political impact.  I plan to stay away from any explicit value judgments about it and I hope that people of all political stripes might be able to get something out of this post.

The movement, of course, grows out very real problems, sexual violence against women and the exploitation of power by men for sexual purposes.  The intellectual fashions of the last few decades, however, have moved those problems in to a particular context and addressed them with particular language.  We must begin with those fashions.

To those who want to understand those fashions and what has happened in academia since the 1980s I comment an essay by a young British intellectual, Helen Pluckrose, entitled, "No, Postmodernism is Not Dead (and Other Misconceptions)."  Ms. Pluckrose's name is in the news because she, along with two authors, wrote a series of hoax articles based on grievance politics, some of which were accepted and published by academic journals.  She appears to have the makings of a Millennial Camille Paglia, not only because of her clarity of thought, but because she lacks the histrionics and extreme edginess of her Boomer counterpart.  Her essay, a serious piece of intellectual history, begins at the beginning and tries to distill the essence of Lyotard, Foucault, and Derrida, with particular attention to their view of the relationship between language and reality. Language, they argued, did not and could not objectively reflect reality, but served as a tool to situate people of different kinds within a hierarchy of power.  I would add, although she does not say this, that many postmodernists, consciously or unconsciously, have come to regard language as the only meaningful form of power, and indeed, to reduce real political events--up to and including the Second World War--to symbolic statements about power that resonate in people's memories (another favorite term.)  This has always looked to me like an easy trap for a professional academic in the relatively stable late twentieth century to fall into, since in academia knowledge, or holding the right views, is power, and often prevails without anything resembling a real-world test.  I don't disagree that ideas can and do acquire a power of their own, but that often has to do with the degree of their correspondence with reality.

The original postmodernists, Pluckrose argues, weren't very political at all. They only wanted to undermine the idea of objectivity and replace it, really, with chaos.  "Deconstruction" wasn't followed by "reconstruction," it was an end in itself.  New generations, Pluckrose argues, went in an entirely different direction. "The next wave of critical theorists," she writes, "developed postcolonial theory, queer theory, intersectionality, and critical race theory."  I don't know why she left out "gender theory,"  since she proceed to discuss various types of feminism.  To explain the shift these strains represented, she quotes Kimberl√© Crenshaw, who defined the term“intersectionality.”

“While the descriptive project of postmodernism of questioning the ways in which meaning is socially constructed is generally sound, this critique sometimes misreads the meaning of social construction and distorts its political relevance… But to say that a category such as race or gender is socially constructed is not to say that that category has no significance in our world. On the contrary, a large and continuing project for subordinated people – and indeed, one of the projects for which postmodern theories have been very helpful in thinking about – is the way power has clustered around certain categories and is exercised against others.”

"Intersectionality" refers to multiple categories of oppression.  Dominant ideologies might subordinate an individual because she was female on the one hand and nonwhite on the other (as Crenshaw is), or as LGBT.  More importantly, however, Pluckrose says that "intersectional feminists. .  .developed a strong focus on identity politics which the earlier postmodernists had not, following Crenshaw and those who expanded upon her work. This form of feminism dominates the academy and activism now."  And she might have added, I think, that elite institutions have mainstreamed these ideas about liberals, as contemporary commentary and reporting on issues like Kavanaugh's confirmation shows.

To be specific I shall now focus on two specific controversies that have upended our political and intellectual worlds over the last month or so.  One, of course, is Kavanaugh's confirmation.  The second was the publication in The New York Review of Books--for half a century our outstanding intellectual journal--of a lamentation, "Reflections from a Hashtag," by Jian Ghomeshi, who was for some years a radio star on the Canadian Broadcasting Company, hosting a popular program on culture.  In 2014 the CBC fired him after allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault, and in 2016 he was tried for three charges of sexual assault brought by three different women.  The judge acquitted him for reasons which any readers can look into on a very detailed wikipedia page about  his trial. The Crown dismissed a fourth charge after Ghomeshi posted a peace bond and apologized for his behavior.  Notwithstanding his acquittal, he became a pariah in intellectual circles and the target of a widespread campaign on social media.

Just last month, the New York Review of Books published a long article by Ghomeshi detailing, not his version of the events which had led to his termination and trial but his experiences as a target of that campaign.  A firestorm of criticism immediately engulfed the New York Review and its editor, the very respected Ian Buruma, who had replaced the late Robert Silvers less than one  year ago.  Confronted by threats from university presses to pull the ads on which the publication depends, Buruma resigned as editor.  The current issue concludes with 36 different letters about Ghomeshi's piece, 31 one complaining about it (and a few canceling their subscriptions) and 5 approving of it.  It also includes a letter from more than 100 contributors to the magazine--really a kind of Who's Who of the intellectual elite of the Silent and Boom generations--praising Buruma's editorship and finding it "very troubling" that he could have been forced to resign because of one article, "repellent though some of us may have found this article." 

Both the feminist reaction to Christine Blasey Ford's testimony, in my opinion, and the negative letters about Ghomeshi's article, illustrate some essential principles of feminist activism today which, as Plumrose points out, reflect basic tenets of postmodernism in its two phases which no longer need to be spelled out, and which some protesters may not even explicitly understand themselves.  I would state these as follows.  Modern western society is characterized by the domination of men, especially straight white men, over women.  That domination is expressed both through language and through acts, which are themselves a form of language.  Any form of sexual assault is such an act.  (For decades feminists have argued, without systematic evidence of any kind, that rape is about power, not sex, and that its very purpose is to subjugate women.)  Straight white men also exercise domination by inflicting trauma--and any act that reflects their dominance can inflict such trauma.  This is the theory behind the idea of "microaggressions" which is a feature of campus ideology today.  And critically, every form of trauma experienced by any member of an oppressed group--that is, any nonstraightwhitemale--is simply one tiny part of a much larger trauma that straight white males have been inflicting for millennia.  That is why even hearing Christine Blasey Ford's story of 35 years ago, many women said, triggered their own traumas.  It's also why feminists claim that reporting an assault, much less bringing the accused to trial and testifying publicly against him and undergoing cross-examination, is a further trauma that victims should not have to undergo.  Let me say again that I am not taking any position on these tenets of the new ideology, I am merely trying to report them.  Everyone can decide for him or herself whether to accept them.  There is some reason to think that Blasey Ford accepted them herself.  That may be why she actually believed that by giving her story to her Congresswoman she might stop Kavanaugh from being nominated or confirmed.  Here Senator Feinstein, in my view, did her a grave disservice.  When the accusation reached her she should have told Blasey Ford that she had only two choices. She could come forward publicly, at great personal cost--a cost reflecting the political stakes involved in the appointment--or she could decide to remain silent.  There was no third way--and in a free political system, there should not be.

It is because every violation of boundaries, from actual rape to an unwanted hand on the posterior, supposedly symbolizes a much bigger system of oppression, I believe, that feminists have thrown out any concept of degrees of severity where these issues are concerned.   No less a figure than the junior Senator from New York, Kirsten Gillibrand, stated this very clearly in a famous facebook post in which she explained why her colleague Al Franken had to resign from the Senate because a news reporter said that he had given her more of a kiss than she had bargained for, and a few women said he had patted their rear at campaign stops. I quote:

"
The pervasiveness of sexual harassment and the experience women face every day across America within the existing power structure of society has finally come out of the shadows. It is a moment that we as a country cannot afford to ignore. . . . To achieve lasting change, we will need to fight this everywhere on behalf of everyone by insisting on accountability and working to bring more women into leadership in each industry to fundamentally shift the culture. .  . .
"We have to rise to the occasion, and not shrink away from it, even when it’s hard, especially when it’s hard. That is what this larger moment is about. So, I have spent a lot of time reflecting on Senator Franken’s behavior. Enough is enough. The women who have come forward are brave and I believe them. While it’s true that his behavior is not the same as the criminal conduct alleged against Roy Moore, or Harvey Weinstein, or President Trump, it is still unquestionably wrong, and should not be tolerated by those of us who are privileged to work in public service.
"As the mother of two young boys, we [sic] owe it to our sons and daughters to not equivocate, but to offer clarity. We should not have to be explaining the gradations between sexual assault, harassment and unwelcome groping. And what message do we send to our sons and daughters when we accept gradations of crossing the line? None of it is ok and none of it should be tolerated. [emphasis added.]
"We should demand the highest standards, not the lowest, from our leaders, and we should fundamentally value and respect women. Every workplace in America, including Congress, needs to have a strong process and accountability for sexual harassment claims, and I am working with others to address the broken and opaque system in Congress.
"While Senator Franken is entitled to have the Ethics Committee conclude its review, I believe it would be better for our country if he sent a clear message that any kind of mistreatment of women in our society isn’t acceptable by stepping aside to let someone else serve."

Any transgression, in short, by any man against any woman, should evidently result in the termination of whatever his career happens to be, followed by an indefinite sentence as a social leper.  Neither exoneration in court, nor offenses that (as in Franken's case) could never be subject to prosecution, makes any difference--because every offense is part of something much bigger, a generalized series of offenses by men against women in which each must be punished for all.  And for the same reason, any man who defends an accused man, or even gives a public forum--as Buruma did for Ghomeshi--must be severely punished as well.  

To this must be added another tenet: that women's accusations against men should, by their very nature, be believed.  The general model of oppression helps get around some of the problems inherent in this tenet.  Ghomeshi was acquitted partly because he was able to produce a morning-after message from one of his accusers in which she spoke very warmly about the encounter that she later claimed to be abusive.  Many feminists would argue that this message merely proved the depths of her oppression.   

And behind this controversy lies the biggest question of all.  Has western civilization been mainly a system that allows straight white men to oppress anyone else? Or is western civilization characterized, especially in comparison to othercivilizations, by certain ideas of equality that initially applied only to white men but which inevitably have spread to include everyone else?  Forty years of academic postmodernism, I think, have brought the first view into the mainstream and into our politics.  I do not share it.

And thus, from the moment Christine Blasey Ford came forward, millions of women and many men immediately trusted her story and assumed that Kavanaugh, based on what she said he did 36 years ago at age 17, must be denied his seat on the Supreme Court.  Here, however, ideology met reality.

Numerous commentators and op-ed writers have suggested, in effect, that President Trump and Republican Senators stood up for Kavanaugh not in spite of the accusations against him, but because of them.  In this view they were defending their "white male privilege" and reasserting their contempt for women.  Only in the postmodern vision, however, does this  hold water.  I did not, as I explained here earlier, want Kavanaugh confirmed, either before or after the allegations.  The Republicans wanted him confirmed for one reason: that he would hand down the kinds of opinions that they wanted handed down.  (These do, to be sure, include overturning Roe v. Wade, but they include a lot more besides.)  They think his legal opinions are more important than what he may have done when he was 17 or 18.  The Republicans, unlike the Democrats (see Franken, Al), believe in strong party loyalty, which is one reason that they have achieved such dominance in our government at this time.  Now it turns out that the whole controversy has energized Republican voters and, crucially, made it easier for Republicans to turn red state races into referendums on national issues instead of local ones.  If they retain control of the Senate, which seems likely, Donald Trump may choose yet another Supreme Court justice.
To repeat: I have tried to describe the ideology of feminist activism accurately and to assess its effects.  In our hyperpartisan climate, many people, I think, are lining up behind certain ideas without really understanding where they came from or what their implications are.  I am asking readers to think about certain hard questions.  In another, quieter time, I think that other answers will emerge.



7 comments:

Bozon said...

Professor
Great stuff. Bravo.

Things I would disagree with but no one agrees with everything.

It sounds like gender got subsumed under both postcolonial and intersectional rhubrics in that so called analysis of Pluckrose's.

All the best

Ed Boyle said...

Now obviously historically this will be seen as a transitional phase of female uncertainty in their climb to equality of power at all levels of society. When a female, unlike in earlier times, works beside male colleagues in every area as equal or as boss, can choose lifestyle, from single, gay, marriage, cohabitation as she will and when males are massively leaving the workforce, leaving it to females(% of woking population stats) it seems that the preponderance of power, even ideologically has shifted in their direction. I think that in younger generations becoming used to these changes but still needing affection will lose their reticence. Female sexual 'harassment' of males will be welcome, when males are told that nothing is allowed. Aggressive flirting would be a green light for the male to be less afraid of a lawsuit and career loss. And the boomer self righteousness could give way to more natural humour in some years towards new realities. Males at home caring for kids doing gig jobs while power lawyer/doctor mom earns real money. Academic grind seems to suit percentually females better, excepting excessively technical areas where males still dominate. Factory jobs with good wages are gone. Otherise both are equally suited generally but men are less detail prone and disciplined and most office, medical type jobs are just that. So male aggression, creativity is unneeded in a maturing society. So males turn to playing computer games, fitness studios, substance abuse. The conscientious disciplindd female wo still fits into the increasingly difficult, grinding workaday life nevertheless wants partnering. Of course not all men have been defanged sexually or lost economic power. A girl placing her hand on my posterior(or more lkely on a young colleague's) still seems unlikely although if she were the boss and he the 'secretary' function with a shaky job prospect this could be likely. Still male sex drive is higher. Females feel more sensitively. Increasingly male sensitivity and female aggression(reversing yin and yang) leads all too often to an increase in homosexuality and lesbianism, gender confusion essentially and not to PC heterosexulity where males becomes loving and kind and females learn to become sexually aggressive. Balance between the sexes changes also over that 4 generational cycle. Boomers have a female tilt, hero generations a logical mascuine emphasis. The other two generational archetypes are transitional. Xers have more yang than boomers, i.e. conservative masculinity and silents started giving females more rights, i.e. to feminize role playing. So we see it is as always in history, linear via technological advancement but cyclical in human emotional cycle. This will continue. I for my part have a bristly wife who doesn't like casual touching. I deal with all sorts and ages of colleagues over years with whom it utmost sensitivity develop for each individual. Physical and verbal cues, eye contact, tne of voice all signal humour, stress, exhaustion, boredom. Some colleagues form cliques of friends, male and female, some marry. One gets used to new colleagues of either sex and fornms behavioural rituals, from a nod to a boss, high five to a male colleague, light smile, hi to a young female. Over time, years perhaps, natural affinities between persons develop organically. I find this comes from personality structures. My hobby of astrology and knowledge of colleague's birthdays allows seeing what exact influences makes differing cliques of friends tick. So ideology, postfactual ivory tower philosophy is ok for quantum particles but not in hospital work under daily stress with all ages, both sexes and high professionalism. Times change, patterns emerge, submerge, reemerge like clothing fads. Wev will see where socirety ends. Without peace between the sexes the species is doomed. To paraphrase Hamlet, the rest is nonsense.

Douglas Ptacek, Jr said...

While I’m inclined to believe Dr. Ford more than Judge Kavanaugh simply because she had nothing to gain and lots to lose by coming forward, one thing that bothered me about the media coverage of the confirmation was how everything suddenly became about her allegation and his response. There were plenty of other issues that deserved more attention, such as some questions about his finances as well as his history as a Republican Party apparatchik, as you brought up in a previous post.
You’ve voiced the best criticism of Senator Feinstein’s handling of the situation I’ve seen, but in the end I don’t blame the Democrats too much for their approach. They were playing with an extremely weak hand and used the best card they had.

Jude Hammerle said...

Dear Dr Kaiser,

From the perspective of strategy alone, a player's (or a faction's) response to an opponent making the statement "I dominate" should almost never be "(No,) I dominate." because such a move results at best in an impasse and at worst in a war. In other words, the move places the player in a position from which (s)he cannot win without a war.

Instead, the player (or faction) should respond with one (or more) of the other three statements humans use in competition, because any one of these statements creates an opportunity to win on the first move.

An exception to this guidance is embodied in the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and response, but such circumstances are (and should be) extremely rare.

Jude Hammerle

Bozon said...

Professor
This seemed to me to perhaps be a useful comment for some readers on some topics in this post. I posted it on my site, but here it is, only slightly revised, if you care to publish it here too:

"...Her essay, a serious piece of postmodernism, begins at the beginning and tries to distill the essence of Lyotard, Foucault, and Derrida, with particular attention to their view of the relationship between language and reality. Language, they argued, did not and could not objectively reflect reality, but served as a tool to situate people of different kinds within a hierarchy of power. I would add, although she does not say this, that many postmodernists, consciously or unconsciously, have come to regard language as the only meaningful form of power, and indeed, to reduce real political events--up to and including the Second World War--to symbolic statements about power that resonate in people's memories (another favorite term.)..." DK

The relationship between language and reality or realities is not especially either close, synonymous, analogous, suggestive, isomorphic, etc., etc., etc.

It is certainly not tantamount solely to a tool to situate people of different kinds within a hierarchy of power, or as the only meaningful form of power,...

Wittgenstein, who had tried, among others, early in his life, to describe a very close logical and pictorial relationship between language, perception, and the factual world (not reality; and definitely not the world strictly of power), had later come to a very different description of the role of language. This view also has its limitations, but it is useful to counter a plain reductionist theory of language as reducible to power, or vice versa, power reducible to language:


"65. Here we come up against the great question that lies behind all these considerations.-For someone might object against me: "You take the easy way out! You talk about all sorts of language-games, but have nowhere said what the essence of a language-game, and hence of language, is: what is common to all these activities, and what makes them into language or parts of language. So you let yourself off the very part of the investigation that once gave you yourself most headache, the part about the general form of propositions and of language."


And this is true.-Instead of producing something common to all that we call language, I am saying that these phenomena have no one thing in common which makes us use the same word for all,-but that they are related to one another in many different ways. And it is because of this relationship, or these relationships, that we call them all "language". I will try to explain this.


66. Consider for example the proceedings that we call "games". I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? -- Don't say: "There must be something common, or they would not be called 'games' "-but look and see whether there is anything common to all. -- For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don't think, but look! --"

Bozon said...

Professor
Just to try to put this domestic feminist discussion into a wider, and a civilizational, and a global, context, amid NYT's new call now for a Leftist Nationalist Movement (presumably mostly of color), I would make this observation.
When other rival nations, of color, decide that they don't like trying to like descendants of imperialist white men in the West anymore, they will not be too careful to differentiate white women they had also claimed to like from white men they now claim to detest.
All the best

RUNNINGDOGLACKEY said...

Well said.
NOTE: is even the WORD: CHIVALRY forgot now?
I should think it is worth resurrecting, perhaps as a meme.
Perhaps a new troll farm dedicated to the elevation of public thought rather than disinformation...?
Or projecting it on the walls of the White House and other Trump properties...?