Relative Moralism
March 11, 2012

Via Lee McCracken, here’s a particularly pungent example of how right-wing moralists like to abuse the term “moral relativism.” Our author, Gene Callahan, thinks that this is an example of the moral relativist position:

The Rush Limbaughs of the world don’t get to define the boundaries of appropriate sexual or moral behavior. But something is happening: Women are defining those boundaries for themselves, with many men alongside them, and they’re being reminded that there’s a concerted movement to take that right of self-definition away. And we’re mad.

That’s Irin Carmon, writing in Salon, and making the perfectly reasonable point that women have better knowledge of their own sexual behavior than Rush Limbaugh, and are entitled to regulate their own behavior without having to conform it to Limbaugh’s mouth-breathy demands. Callahan seems to think this is roughly analogous to arguing that serial killers are entitled to regulate their own behavior without having to conform to the demands of God, society, or the criminal justice system. In other words, he reads Irin’s position as being, “Moral truth is whatever I, personally, want it to be.”

Evidently, Callahan only read the very last paragraph of Irin’s column, and, lacking any real context, filled in the gaps with the stupidest and least charitable reading of her position that he could concoct. In fact, I don’t know how anyone who read the rest of the column could characterize Irin’s position as anything but a moral realist position: women have a right to autonomy and sovereignty over their own bodies, because they are full and equal persons to men in every respect. I suspect Callahan is doing all of this hand-waving about moral relativism either because he doesn’t have a counter-argument, or knows that the counter-argument is too ugly to say out loud.

Look, Ross Douthat and James Poulos have already tried similar stunts with at least a little more adroitness. It would be getting tiresome now, if it hadn’t always been tiresome. The popular moral stance among social liberals on this issue is a moral realist one; if you think that position is wrong, then state your case. But hiding behind cries of “moral relativism” and denying the moral urgency of your opponent’s argument is just another way of saying that you endorse existing hierarchies and inequalities for familiarity’s sake.

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What Is the Question “What Are Women For?” For?
February 18, 2012

Creation of the Sun and Moon by Michelangelo, ...

The Dude (via Wikipedia)

Now that everyone’s gotten in their shots at James Poulos (including my friend Lisa McIntire, who I think wins the award for both aplomb and bile), I’d like to skip ahead to his follow-up column and zero in on what seems like one of the more toxic premises undergirding this whole exercise (emphasis mine):

Women are largely freer than ever to pursue their life plans without the burden of a moral obligation to center their activity and their ambitions around exercising their unique reproductive capabilities.

Yet the story doesn’t end there. We still argue and wonder about which life plans to choose in a civilization that has greatly and productively loosened the once-intense moral link between women’s fecundity and women’s lives as unique individuals. And one area in which patriarchal dominance has persisted is in privileging some kinds of human pursuits over others. Philosophers from Plato to Rousseau to Heidegger have disapprovingly warned of the apparently natural propensity of men to fill up the world with stuff — machines, weapons, ideologies, and so on — that often objectifies and instrumentalizes people, and often distracts us from its own sterility as regards fruitful human living.

Difference doesn’t presume or ordain inequality. I’m not alone in thinking that women are uniquely able to help humanity avoid becoming enthralled to the more sterile cultural creations of men. But this sort of insight is far more circumspect and modest than the central principles of virtually all social conservatives.

While I was in Israel, I heard a Hasidic rabbi — new Hasidic, mind you, with an acoustic guitar and all the affectations of a totally chillaxed SoCal beach bro — make a very similar argument. His intention was to demonstrate to us that the convention of identifying God with the male pronoun “He” wasn’t really sexist or patriarchal, because all it did was link God to the male creator energy. The universe, he argued, had a distinctly female creation energy, which was great for women, because it meant that they were intrinsically closer to their creator — God — than us guys, who don’t hold within ourselves as much of the female creation energy.

According to Rabbi Jack Johnson, the reason why men observe Shabbat — during which time Jews are forbidden from participating in any act of creation — is to become, in a sense, more female, and therefore more receptive to God’s male creation energy. Women don’t have as difficult a time doing this, because they’re already predisposed, but — unfortunately, says the good Rabbi at this point — modern women have absorbed more of the male creator energy in recent years as they’ve taken a greater participatory role in politics, business, and other profane worldly affairs.

I don’t think I’m quite doing justice to how well the Rabbi framed this fundamentally conservative argument in the liberal-values-friendly vocabulary of hippie-dippie-dom. Lucky for us, he betrayed himself by blurting out the word “unfortunately,” thereby disclosing what the real implications of this worldview were. If women want to stay close to God all week — the way men try to get close to God from Friday evening through Saturday afternoon — then they need to abstain from icky male creator acts. You leave all the politicking, horse trading, art-making and craft-working to us menfolk, sweetie. That way it won’t soil your special connection with The Ultimate Manfolkperson.

Thus we see closeness to God become a consolation prize to be awarded to that underclass which Rabbi Duderino wishes barred — either by social convention or other means — from having any direct agency in worldly affairs. Poulos, along with the philosophers he enlists in his cause, appears to be making the same argument. Difference may not presume or ordain inequality, but I’d love to hear what makes this preferred state of affairs anything but deeply unequal.

UPDATE: Elias Isquith (whose blog you should be reading, if you aren’t already) tweets:

some men think if they turn up the “Madonna” and down the “Whore” in their Madonna/Whore complex, they’re feminists

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Shameless Self-Promotion
December 6, 2011

I have a new blog post over at Ms., called H&M Whittles Down Acceptable Body Types To Exactly One. The subject matter is even creepier than the title lets on.

And while we’re on the subject of sexism, Future of the Left’s new EP has the greatest, funniest, most biting song about male misogyny I’ve heard in a good long while:

Lad Mags and Policing Heteronormativity
June 2, 2011

That’s the subject of my latest post on the blog of Ms. Magazine:

What it tells us is that FHM and its ilk is about more than famous women in awkward poses and states of undress: It exists not just to titillate but to reaffirm the masculinity of those reading it. I submit that’s why the original Pejic entry, no matter what FHM says, is in keeping with the mission of the magazine. FHM readers are invited to sneer at him because he doesn’t conform to their notions of maleness. And identifying and isolating the “other” like that reinforces their own place in the boys’ club.

Which puts FHM writers in the difficult position of having to simultaneously acknowledge why their readers found him beautiful (which he is, in a delicate, almost angelic way) while also making ostentatious displays of their disgust. It’s a neat trick. But for me, anyway, it inspires more pity than anger. If you’re looking for affirmation of your identity in a lad mag’s heteronormative slurs, then dude, you need help.

Why Feminism is Good for Both Men and Women
August 18, 2010

Ms. Magazine was kind enough to let me write a guest post for their blog offering a male perspective on feminism—specifically why it’s in a man’s best interests to be a feminist, and what sort of anxieties and insecurities might prevent a man from understanding that. Or, to put it more succinctly:

This is the flipside of patriarchical advantage: Buy into the whole enterprise and you’ll spend your entire life trying and failing to become a Real Man. That’s enough to put anyone in therapy, if therapy weren’t for pussies.

More on what that means, and what to do about it, here.

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The Drama You’ve Been Craving
August 7, 2010

Speaking of baffling Mad Men criticism, it looks like the Atlantic is trying to corner the market. Exhibit B: Sady Doyle’s new blog post, that begins, inauspiciously, by dismissing discussion of the show’s narrative and character development as “pointless” because the show is, “ famous for a look and a mood, not a story,” and doesn’t really rebound from there.

Here’s the takeaway, regarding the show’s treatment of misogyny:

To be fair, Mad Men doesn’t hesitate to show the ugly side of these attitudes; they’re not glamorized in quite the same way as, say, drinking Scotch five times a day. But the show also affords viewers an illusion of moral superiority. We’re encouraged to shake our heads at these men and their outdated attitudes, but by presenting discrimination as a shocking feature of a past era, Mad Men lets us imagine that it’s just one more of those things that We Don’t Do Any More.

(Aside #1: I’d seriously contest Doyle’s claim that the show “glamorizes” heavy drinking. Don Draper’s drunkenness this season is a big part of what’s made him so pathetic. And don’t get me started on Freddy Rumsen before he hopped on the wagon.)

And here’s some of the evidence (emphasis mine):

But something about the show’s Grand Guignol presentation of discrimination and contempt for women makes it feel unfamiliar: Our own lives, after all, are nowhere near this dramatic. And the fact that it’s all being undergone by people in funny, old-fashioned outfits makes it feel comfortably distant.

I don’t really know what to say to this. Essentially Doyle seems to be criticizing Mad Men for being a work of fiction. Which is pretty much inarguable, so, er, guilty?

I can’t comment on how accurately Mad Men captures the experience of being victimized by sexism, since I’m obviously speaking from a position of privilege. But it seems to me that the purpose of fiction is not the same as documentary; a successful drama does not capture unedited real life, but a fully realized aesthetic vision that should be judged more by its fidelity to the spark of life than to the mundane details of life itself. Otherwise, why even bother with narrative art?

As for Doyle’s larger point: Any good period piece is as much about the time in which it is made (not to mention the timeless human concerns all good fiction must address) as the time in which it is set. I have no doubt that some members of Mad Men’s audience walk away feeling smug and secure in their belief that we have virtually eliminated misogyny in the modern world. But Doyle’s going to have to show more work than she does here to convince me that this is a flaw in the show itself rather than a flaw in interpretation. The casual harassment, coercion and rape that occur on the show are certainly things that can and do happen today, or else the show would not be anywhere near as vital and relevant as a piece of social commentary.

Sure, some of the audience will undoubtedly miss the point. That’s the risk with good art. It doesn’t hold your hand and force a lesson down your throat, because good art is more concerned with questions than answers. Freezing the frame at a moment of patriarchy in action and having Jon Hamm appear onscreen, Rod Serling-style, to say, “And the same thing is going on in America TO THIS VERY DAY,” would sap those scenes of their visceral impact, let alone any of their aesthetic qualities. Besides: It wouldn’t be very realistic, would it?

(Aside #2: For those keeping score at home, yes, writers for the Atlantic have now accused Mad Men of failing to be a totally accurate representation of real life; and also of failing to turn its characters into Brechtian archetypes. Confusing!)

Crossposted at Mad Men Shrugged.

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France’s Perennial Burka Ban Legislation
July 6, 2010

Burqa
Image by CharlesFred via Flickr

It appears that it is up for debate again.

This smells like a pretty transparent bit of Muslim-baiting in a country known for its antagonistic relationship with its Arab immigrants. But a friend of mine, in private conversation, noted that there is an ostensibly feminist argument to be made for the ban. Burkas can be, after all, a tool of oppression.

This is the position favored by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who calls the burka, “contrary to the dignity of women.” But I’m not so sure the argument flies, at least in a liberal democratic society.

The problem is that while the burka is frequently—and, in France, maybe even usually—forced onto the wearer by a family member, it is not impossible to conceive of a woman voluntarily donning such a garment as an expression of her faith. Legislation banning such expression, when it does no direct harm to others, is incompatible with liberal democratic principles.

So maybe the trick is to target the family members who coerce women into wearing burkas, and leave women wearing them voluntarily alone. That’s not what the legislation does—in fact, even in obvious cases of coercion, the victim is punished along with the perpetrator—but let’s try this new and improved law out for the sake of argument. The problem then comes from the impossibility of proving coercion. If you come across someone literally forcing a woman into a burka, there are presumably other laws under which that person can be charged. Anything less and the case is, at best, founded on hearsay. At worst, you get into horribly vague arguments about the nature of coercion and what kinds of psychological and institutional pressure count as something stronger than mere persuasion.

More to the point, outlawing its most obvious outward signifiers isn’t a particularly effective way of combating abuse. I’m not sure what this actually does for women in France beyond denying them one possible avenue of self-expression. Abuse spouses and family members have plenty of other ways of being equally abusive. And given that a near-negligible percentage of Muslim women in France wear burkas in the first place, it seems the primary consequence of passing this legislation would be the needless antagonization of France’s Arab population.

Which, as I said earlier, seems to be sort of the point.

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“Bracketing” and The Second Sex
May 29, 2010

Le Deuxieme Sexe
Image by ainudil via Flickr

Fortuitously, the day on which I was planning about writing about Simone de Beauvoir’s philosophy of love as articulated briefly in The Ethics of Ambiguity also happens to be the day that the New York Times decides to run a review of the newest translation of her landmark feminist work, The Second Sex. I haven’t read The Second Sex, but it’s the work that Beauvoir is most well-known for, so I was curious to learn a little about the content.

Here’s what I learned: If the passages excerpted in the review are any indication, then The Ethics of Ambiguity is the better of the two, by far. Here’s a taste from the review:

 Females of all living species are “first violated … then alienated” by the process of fertilization. Derogatory phrases like “the servitude of maternity,” “woman’s absurd fertility,” the “exhausting servitude” of breast-feeding, abound. (How could they not, since the author sees heterosexual love in general as “a mortal danger?”) According to Beauvoir, a girl’s first menstruation, which many of us welcomed with excitement and pride, is met instead with “disgust and fear. ” It “ inspires horror” and “signifies illness, suffering and death.”

Yeeeeah. Wow. But the misstep I find most intriguing is when Beauvoir insists that, “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” That sounds a lot like Sartre’s argument—which I criticized yesterday—that biology plays no causal role when it comes to sexual desire. Nor, Beauvoir argues, does it play any causal role when it comes to gender identity. Even if you think gender is fluid and malleable (which I do), that seems kind of absurd.

And it’s absurd for the same reason. Beauvoir and Sartre both, I think, ignore the lessons of the existentialist’s best friend: the phenomenologist.

Phenomenology is a philosophical tradition very closely tied to existentialism; so much so that many major works of phenomenology contain pretty major traces of existentialist thought (such as in Heidegger’s Being and Time), and vice versa (such as in Sartre’s own Being and Nothingness). This cousin to existentialism concerns itself with the study of being-in-the-world, or the organizational features of our experience of the world. Most works of phenomenology do this without making any judgments about the character of the world itself.

Husserl, one of the fathers of phenomenology, called this “bracketing,” by which he meant setting aside questions about the world around us. For example, a phenomenologist might describe the experience and sensation I have of typing out this blog post on a keyboard and staring at a screen, but he is describing it only as it exists in my head, without making any judgments about the nature of the actual keyboard or screen … or, for that matter, about whether they even exist at all.

Existentialism works best, I think, when it, too, brackets these questions. That’s because, while existentialist notions of the nothingness and infinite freedom of consciousness don’t seem to bear out from empirical study—human beings are fairly predictable and causally determined, by and large—it is an incredibly potent description of the phenomenological experience of being a person.

So Beauvoir and Sartre are correct to a certain extent. Sartre is correct that one doesn’t experience sexual desire as a purely biological sensation (what would it even mean to have a sensation like that?), and Beauvoir is correct that one experiences the behavior and social conventions we attach to gender identity as completely conscious, voluntary things that we could shed at a moment’s notice. But just because we experience the sensation of freedom, doesn’t mean we are free in anything beyond the phenomenological sense.

Update: Okay. Maybe I’m just digging myself deeper, but I feel like I need to clarify some things. So for the record, here’s what I was not doing in the above post:

1.) Offering a critique, in any way, shape, or form, of feminism.

2.) Offering any meaningful critique of the whole of The Second Sex. (It’s no sleight to say that it’s not as good as The Ethics of Ambiguity on a conceptual level, because The Ethics of Ambiguity is damn near perfect.)

3.) Dismissing Beauvoir (who, I should stress again, is one of my favorite philosophers).

4.) Suggesting that gendered behavior is solely the result of rigid biological determinism.

This post was meant mostly as a critique of existentialism. For that critique, I took as a premise that while much of gender is fluid and culturally constructed, biological/physiological factors are not completely irrelevant. That doesn’t just apply to gendered behavior but to a whole host of different character traits; I just chose to focus on gender specifically because it seemed timely with the review coming out today.

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