Defining the terms: racism, feminism, and the problem of identity politics
An obvious problem with the grievance aspect of identity politics is that the grievance needs to be perpetually maintained in order to justify the identity aspect of the politics. And in an era of academic specialization wherein just about every individual identity group has its own set of researchers and theoretical champions—as well as a widely accepted generic narrative of grievance—the observation that continued relevance (which translates into political power) is contingent upon the nursing and care of the grievance is something that too often goes unexamined by a society that, at base, really does wish to understand and fix the problems and frustrations expressed by individual identity groups.
All of which leads, I’d argue, to a cultural millieu that—perversely—is fearful of acknowledging its own successes, because to do so is to make irrelevant those who have been so adamant about bringing about those successes. The ends, ironically, have been subsumed by the means, and the means—or better, the structural apparatus designed to support and animate the individual identity group’s cause and promote its political agenda—have become more coveted, insofar as they carry all the institutional power, than the ends they claim to advocate.
This dynamic is spelled out nicely in today’s WSJ by University of Penn law professor Amy Wax and Philip Tetlock, the Lorraine Tyson Mitchell Endowed Professor in the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. From ‘We Are All Racists At Heart’ [subscription only; I’ll quote at length]:
It was once easy to spot a racial bigot: The casual use of the n-word, the sweeping hostility, and the rigid unwillingness to abandon vulgar stereotypes left little doubt that a person harbored prejudice toward blacks as a group. But 50 years of survey research has shown a sharp decline in overt racial prejudice. Instead of being a cause for celebration, however, this trend has set off an ever more strident insistence in academia that whites are pervasively biased.
Some psychologists went low-tech: They simply expanded the definition of racism to include any endorsement of politically conservative views grounded in the values of self-reliance and individual responsibility. Opposition to busing, affirmative action or generous welfare programs were tarred as manifestations of “modern” or symbolic racism.
Others took a high-tech path: Racists could be identified by ignoring expressed beliefs and tapping into the workings of the unconscious mind. Thus was born the so-called “implicit association test.” The IAT builds on the fact that people react faster to the word “butter” if they have just seen the word “bread” momentarily flashed on a screen. The quicker response suggests that the mind closely associates those concepts. Applying this technique, researchers such as Mahzarin Banaji of Harvard have found that people recognize “negative” words such as “angry,” “criminal” or “poor” more quickly after being momentarily exposed to a black (as opposed to a white) face. And this effect holds up for the vast majority of white respondents—and sometimes even for majorities of blacks.
What do investigators conclude from their findings that “blackness” often primes bad associations and “whiteness” good ones? According to some, it shows that prejudice permeates our unconscious minds and is not just confined to the 10% of hard-core bigots. Know it or not, we are all vessels of racial bias. From this sweeping conclusion, based on a small if intriguing scientific finding, social scientists, legal scholars, opinion leaders and “diversity experts” leap from thought to conduct and from unconscious association to harmful actions. Because most of us are biased, these individuals claim, we can safely assume that every aspect of social life—every school, institution, organization and workplace—is a bastion of discrimination. The most strenuous measures, whether they be diversity programs, bureaucratic oversight, accountability or guilt-ridden self-monitoring, cannot guarantee a level playing field.
What is wrong with this picture? In the first place, split-second associations between negative stimuli and minority group images don’t necessarily imply unconscious bias. Such associations may merely reflect awareness of common cultural stereotypes. Not everyone who knows the stereotypes necessarily endorses them.
Or the associations might reflect simple awareness of the social reality: Some groups are more disadvantaged than others, and more individuals in these groups are likely to behave in undesirable ways. Consider the two Jesses—Jackson and Helms. Both know that the black family is in trouble, that crime rates in this community are far too high, and that black educational test scores are too low. That common awareness might lead to sympathy, to indifference, or to hostility. Because the IAT can distinguish none of these parameters, both kinds of Jesses often get similar, failing scores on tests of unconscious association.
Measures of unconscious prejudice are especially untrustworthy predictors of discriminatory behavior. MIT psychologist Michael Norton has recently noted that there is virtually no published research showing a systematic link between racist attitudes, overt or subconscious, and real-world discrimination. A few studies show that openly-biased persons sometimes favor whites over blacks in simulations of job hiring and promotion. But no research demonstrates that, after subtracting the influence of residual old-fashioned prejudice, split-second reactions in the laboratory predict real-world decisions. On the contrary, the few results available suggest that persons who are “high bias” on subconscious criteria are no more likely than others to treat minorities badly and may sometimes even favor them.
There is likewise no credible proof that actual business behavior is pervasively influenced by unconscious racial prejudice. This should not be surprising. Demonstrating racial bias is no easy matter because there is often no straightforward way to detect discrimination of any kind, let alone discrimination that is hidden from those doing the deciding. As anyone who has ever tried a job-discrimination case knows, showing that an organization is systematically skewed against members of one group requires a benchmark for how each worker would be treated if race or sex never entered the equation. This in turn depends on defining the standards actually used to judge performance, a task that often requires meticulous data collection and abstruse statistical analysis.
Assuming everyone is biased makes the job easy: The problem of demonstrating actual discrimination goes away and claims of discrimination become irrefutable. Anything short of straight group representation—equal outcomes rather than equal opportunity—is “proof” that the process is unfair.
Advocates want to have it both ways. On the one hand, any steps taken against discrimination are by definition insufficient, because good intentions and traditional checks on workplace prejudice can never eliminate unconscious bias. On the other, researchers and “diversity experts” purport to know what’s needed and do not hesitate to recommend more expensive and strenuous measures to purge pervasive racism. There is no more evidence that such efforts dispel supposed unconscious racism than that such racism affects decisions in the first place.
But facts have nothing to do with it. What began as science has morphed into unassailable faith. However we think, feel or act, and however much apparent progress has been made, there is no hope for us. We are all racists at heart.
[all emphases mine]
That last bit—the assignation of faith where facts should stand—is, I should add, a professional kindness on the part of Wax and Tetlock; because a more cynical person (me for instance) might suggest that the only real “faith” these researchers and theoreticians have is the faith that a gracious society will accept and embrace such terrible flawed premises and, in doing so, help them retain their institutional and political relevance as purveyors of what I’ve come to believe is a truly dangerous bit of anti-individualist political manipulation that threatens the very principles on which this country was founded.
Which brings me to another interesting and related point: ownership over the terms deployed by identity politicians. I’ve discussed this before at some length with regard to “blackness” (most recently, using attacks on Michael Steele and Clarence Thomas as a jumping off point), but it bears repeating here: in a political culture increasingly reliant on identity politics, with its attendant voting blocs, those who control the designation and define the parameters for authenticity will own the power and can dictate the message.
Why this is particularly dangerous to individualism is that it conveniently factors out of the equation any of those who might ostensibly fit the identity profile (black, woman, Jew, Muslim) but who, because they refuse to adhere to the groups’ animating master narrative—generally one of grievance, generally framed as one requiring solidarity [the kernel assumptions upon which these narratives are formed I’ve discussed here, using “race” as an example]—can be excommunicated as “inauthentic” (or, at the very least, can be described as Uncle Toms, self-hating Jews, inauthentic Muslims, or, as is the case with women outside of the “feminist” mainstream, in denial).
Which brings me to this post, in which the author, Ampersand, tries to stake a claim on the “feminist” label in order to call into question the feminist bona fides of Reason and Boston Globe columnist Cathy Young—and by extension, to call into question any self-styled feminists who adhere to the equity feminist school, rather than the more institutionalized and academically-sustained gender feminist school. From “Feminism and Anti-Feminism”:
What if I called myself a conservative—but virtually all of my writings on the subject were devoted to passionately denouncing conservatives, and I didn’t actually favor any conservative policies to address any of today’s problems? What if I had virtually never published a positive word about conservativism (apart from “howeverÃ¢â‚¬Â¦” type passages in essays denouncing feminism?) What if my self-styled conservativism had the practical effect of giving myself a better platform from which to denounce conservatism?
My guess is that, if all that were the case, most conservatives would find my claim to conservatism suspect. Modern conservativism encompasses many different views, but it doesn’t encompass the view that modern conservatism is a terrible idea that ought be done away with.
From this opening, it is apparent what the gambit is going to be, and the argument of course fails immediately once you refuse to take the bait, which is precisely this: in order to accept Ampersand’s argument, you must first accept the implied definition of “conservatism” on offer—a definition that is dependent upon a rigid adherence to the current orthodoxy. But since we aren’t really talking about conservatism here other than as an analogy, I’m going to shift the terms and rephrase the argument: in order to be a proper feminist, you must embrace and adhere to an established narrative of proper feminism—and those who don’t can be factored out as in fact “anti-feminists.”
Feminism, however, is embroiled in its own internal struggle between second wave (gender feminists) and equity feminists like Young, who are hostile to the academic feminism that has established itself as the “official” feminist narrative after years of insinuating itself into academic, social, and public policy discourse. And so what we are really seeing here is an attempt by gender feminists to control the feminist label and excommunicate those who refuse to adhere to a particular narrative and a particular political strategy for the women’s movement.
Do I use “anti-feminist” as a pejorative – that is, as the OED puts it, as “a word or expression which by its form or context expresses or implies contempt for the thing named”? I don’t think I do. I use it just as I use words like “libertarian” “republican” and “conservative” – terms which describe political philosophies.
It’s true that in the loose talk of a comments section that was (at that moment) pretty much all-feminist, I wrote that Cathy said “stupid anti-feminist things.” In hindsight, I should’ve put that more diplomatically (i.e, “endorses terrible anti-feminist ideas”), but I’m sure I’ve also referred casually to “stupid republican things” at some point in my life – and I bet many conservatives have done the same with words like “feminist” and “liberal,” when they’ve been talking casually among the like-minded. That doesn’t make any of these words pejoratives which can’t be used in a good-faith debate.
Ampersand then goes on to define femism this way:
1) Believes that there is current, significant, society-wide inequality and sexism which on balance disadvantages women.
2) Advocates for the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.
…and an ”anti-feminist” thusly:
The Oxford English Dictionary defines an anti-feminist as “One opposed to women or to feminism.” Cathy doesn’t oppose women, but you’d have to impossibly distort her work to argue that she doesn’t oppose feminism; virtually all her writings on feminism are attacks on feminists and feminism. The OED offers a second definition: “a person (usu. a man) who is hostile to sexual equality or to the advocacy of women’s rights.” Cathy isn’t hostile to equality (and she’s not a man!), but her writing clearly is “hostile toÃ¢â‚¬Â¦ the advocacy of women’s rights.” She thinks women already have virtually all the rights they need, and therefore further advocacy is unnecessary.
[…] The danger I see in Cathy’s views is that, if they were generally accepted, the result would be that the word “feminist” would be drained of meaning. If Cathy is a feminist, then feminism is no longer “an organized movement for the attainment ofÃ¢â‚¬Â¦ rights for women” (to quote the definition of “feminism” Cathy cites). Feminism no longer means fighting sexism against women. Judging by Cathy’s writings, her brand of feminism involves attacking feminism at every turn while generally supporting men’s rights activists.
In Cathy’s view, being a feminist doesn’t require endorsing any feminist policy positions, or ever taking a pro-feminist stand in public, or being part of a movement for attaining women’s equality, or thinking such a movement can do any good at all. In the end, Cathy seems to think “feminist” is a term that can reasonably be applied to anyone who doesn’t explicitly oppose equality. But nowadays, virtually everyone says they favor equality, so that means nothing.
The key dodge here is that last bit: saying you favor equality and actually doing so are two different things, and so it is no argument at all to try to dismiss the equity component as the defining condition for feminism simply by pointing out that people are able to lay claim to it without really meaning it. After all, it is equally possible to say you’re for equality and then support a “movement” that is less concerned with “equality” than it is at giving women an institutionalized advantage by consistently playing on victimology and a public fear of being called sexist or misogynistic.
The bottom line is, Ampersand’s entire argument begs the very question it sets out to answer. First, the argument relies upon our willingness to frame feminism in such a way that in foregrounds the first item in the definition offered (belief that there is current, significant, society-wide inequality and sexism which on balance disadvantages women) while seeking to marginalize the second term as something that is easily faked (advocating for the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes). Importantly, and going back to the argument I made at the top of this post, what we can see here is that Ampersand, by embracing the first item, is embracing the means – the assertion that the struggle to bring about the equality that is the aim of feminism is always necessary, because women are in a perpetual state of social inequality—while refusing to accept that, as Young and the equity feminists argue, the ends have largely been reached (or, at the very least, the gender feminists are hurting those ends by trying to push the pendulum too far the other way).
For Ampersand, sexism—whether the facts say so or not—is always there, even if it is subconscious, and so the war to combat it is a necessity; but other feminists like Young argue that, in her words:
[…] in many areas, the so-called feminist movement in its present form is actively working against equality Ã¢â‚¬â€ e.g., demanding that female perpetrators of domestic violence be treated differently from male ones. (By the way, IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m a bit puzzled at the notion that a gender-egalitarian society would necessarily have a lot less domestic violence: isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t this idea thoroughly refuted by the fact that domestic abuse is no less common in gay and lesbian couples than in heterosexual ones? The notion that lesbians batter each other out of Ã¢â‚¬Å“internalized misogynyÃ¢â‚¬Â Ã¢â‚¬â€ see this article, for instance Ã¢â‚¬â€ strikes me as, to put it as politely as I can, unconvincing.)
By seeking to turn equity feminism into “anti-femism”—that is, by seeking to demonize those feminists who are unhappy with the current orthodoxy writing the official narrative of feminism—Ampersand is engaging in the same kind of power play that many blacks are engaging in when they seek to exclude those blacks who disagree with the means to reach ends—social equality—that are largely agreed upon.
(thanks to Terry Hastings for the WSJ piece)