I declare I am right!

There are a lot of bad arguments that come from Suzanne Franks and friends. These are caricature feminists who seem to almost revel in the notion of ignoring every philosophy that isn’t feminism. They see to despise the notion that intention matters (a la Kant et al). One user even said this.

Before you bring up Kant on a feminist blog, you need to read and contemplate Jane Flax’s chapter on Kant and Enlightenment thinking in “Disputed Subjects.”

The point I was raising with Kant (and others, but Kant is the most influential) is that intention matters. Feminism is largely a philosophy of consequence, but unlike, say, utilitarianism or humanism, it does not deal well with philosophies which place an emphasis on will (or, specific to Kant, Good Will).

I am unable to locate the article cited by that user, Comrade Svilova, but this piece by Ruth Dawson summarizes Flax by saying,

Jane Flax…argues that Enlightenment depends on the unspoken occlusion of women…

Again, we see an argument premised in consequence. The issues raised by Flax have little to do with the value of intention; she cares about the context of the writings and what they meant for women at that time. This line of argument is irrelevant because no one today is arguing from an 18th century perspective. The invocation of Kant (and more specifically, will/intention) has nothing to do with how past philosophers and others may have implemented particular ideas. Instead, the focus is on how we can and ought to apply these ideas in the cultural context of today. Take this article on the founding fathers and rights. While same-sex marriage was not directly discussed, I specifically had it in mind while writing the piece. The ideas of those men resonate today because they espouse a strive towards equality that many people want. That doesn’t mean any of those men would have favored same-sex marriage. The point is the ideas, not the people who wrote them.

And there are more times where some of the more prolific feminist sites will ignore intention, going so far as to set up blatant and offensive strawmen.

FAQ: What’s wrong with suggesting that women take precautions to prevent being raped?

Short answer: Because it puts the onus on women not to get themselves raped, rather than on men not to do the raping; in short, it blames the victim.

What I think this is trying to articulate is that it is wrong for people to say “She had it coming”. The article does not actually address prevention, as seen here.

Left to my own devices, I never would have been raped. The rapist was really the key component to the whole thing. I was sober; hardly scantily clad (another phrase appearing once in the article), I was wearing sweatpants and an oversized t-shirt; I was at home; my sexual history was, literally, nonexistent—I was a virgin; I struggled; I said no. There have been times since when I have been walking home, alone, after a few drinks, wearing something that might have shown a bit of leg or cleavage, and I wasn’t raped. The difference was not in what I was doing. The difference was the presence of a rapist.

This points out that the author did not have it coming and that rape is not dependent upon how a woman dresses. (While rape is generally about power, it shouldn’t be ignored that many rapists do not arbitrarily choose their victims, often instead opting for particular characteristics or traits – and that is still the fault of the rapist.) This point is not about prevention.

What is being implied here is that there are actually a significant number of people who really do think it is a woman’s fault for getting raped. Instead, the only close argument that actually gets made is that it is a good idea for women to not walk alone at night in dangerous places or that women should carry rape whistles and/or cell phones. This is not a philosophical claim that has implications of blaming anyone for anything. It’s practical advice that acknowledges there is danger out there. This would be like someone saying, “Hey, you should do X, Y, and Z if you come across a bear while hiking”, only to get the response, “What, are you saying it’s my fault if I don’t do those things?”. No, the bear is still the root of the problem and we ought to do what we can to control the population, but you shouldn’t start trekking the Appalachian Trail without knowing the dangers.

The warnings women get are misleading. They leave out the acts of the rapist himself. They focus on the situation. They also may focus on the “kind of man” the potential rapist is. If he’s a friend of a friend, or your uncle, he’s “safe.” It’s the stranger who’s the threat.

Who is disagreeing with this conclusion? Yes, non-strangers are threats, but so are strangers. Control the bear population. That doesn’t mean you should walk into a dark alley because you aren’t the one to blame.

On another FAQ, the question “What’s wrong with saying that things happen to men, too?” is asked.

Nothing in and of itself. The problem occurs when conversations about women can’t happen on unmoderated blogs without someone showing up and saying, “but [x] happens to men, too!” (also known as a “Patriarchy Hurts Men, Too” or PHMT argument, or a “What About The Mens?” or WATM argument). When this happens, it becomes disruptive of the discussion that’s trying to happen, and has the effect (intended or otherwise) of silencing women’s voices on important issues such as rape and reproductive rights.

This undoubtedly happens. In fact, it happens over and over within scientific discussions that get derailed by creationists. The difference, however, is that “derailed” means that the original topic had nothing to do with creationism. On Suzanne Franks’ blog, she specifically ‘addresses’ those who dissent. (Here, here, and here.) Once that happens, the doors are open – especially if she is pointing to specific individuals. It is fundamentally unfair to say, “Here’s why you’re wrong about X…but you can’t respond because I don’t want a discussion. I just want to tell you things.” (It also seems to fit the piss-poor definition of “mansplaining”.)

To what this point really boils is that if someone does not want a particular point of view expressed in a particular place, then that person needs to start banning people. Franks has threatened to do that to me (despite the attention she is giving to specific people on specific topics – it isn’t logically tenable to claim to not want to discuss particular issues in particular ways only to then create posts which specifically do that), and that’s fine. I expect she’ll do it in short enough order and that’s her discretion, as logically inconsistent as it may be. (On the other hand, I consistently edited Comrade Physioprof’s posts because I was attempting to discuss a particular issue whereas he was spamming and trolling. Had my post been a trolling post or spam, then it might make sense for me to allow that guy’s garbage.)

What really bites my goiter about these caricatures and the more well-articulated Fem 101 site is that actual arguments are few and far between. More often there are declarations. Ask why something is so and the result is either a “You don’t get it” sort of response or a referral to a website which is more verbose in how it declares “You don’t get it”. This sort of stuff is okay for high school and lower-level undergrad philosophy courses because it does back up certain claims with further, deeper premises, but that’s where it stops. ‘Arguments’ like these don’t make it into philosophy anthologies, however, because they fail to reach more fundamental issues. How does feminism answer the importance of intention? How does it address the arguments of libertarianism? Utilitarianism? It is not a philosophy of fundamentals but rather one of contextual consequence; it therefore must either rely on or refute the philosophies which penetrate more deeply, more universally (i.e., it could attempt to rely on utilitarianism by arguing that equality maximizes pleasure, or it could refute libertarianism by arguing that too much liberty leads to inequality and inequality undermines liberty).

What I think most reasonable people want is not to be told “You don’t get it, so go to this site”, but rather “These arguments are premised on these more fundamental ideas.” If feminist sites and supporters actually addressed substantial philosophical values (where appropriate, such as in the examples I have given), then progress could be more reasonably and effectively made for all involved.

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10 Responses

  1. Flax is addressing language, and how the language of Enlightenment writers, as well as the metaphors, assumptions, and intentions of those writers implicitly or explicitly exclude (by definition) a large number of people from the Enlightenment project. This is not to dismiss Kant, but instead to come to a deeper understanding of the potential flaws in his work, allowing his work to be better understood.

    It goes beyond suggesting that Kant was personally a sexist and looks at the gendered assumptions that provide the foundation of the Enlightenment model. Unfortunately, as you’ve demonstrated, you’re not interested in the idea that anything has unconscious, unintentional gendered connotations. The duality of domestic/private/dependent/unfreedom versus liberated/public/intelligence that forms the model of the journey to Enlightenment in Kant’s essay “What is Enlightenment?” is read by Flax as a gendered duality, in which qualities that are overdetermined as female are (by definition) that which hinders Enlightenment.

    It’s a provocative reading, and I wish that you were willing to engage with the idea that there may be many sides to any philosopher; that sexism is part of language itself; and that cultural connotations do matter.

  2. The invocation of Kant and other philosophers/philosophies concerned with will and intention has nothing to do with 18th century or even generally male perspectives. This makes Flax irrelevant to my point, however otherwise valid her criticism may be. For example, “Good Will is important” is a phrase that is entirely focused on intention; it goes beyond gender – even if the original authors and historical times did not.

  3. You said: “Who is disagreeing with this conclusion? Yes, the stranger is the threat. Control the bear population. That doesn’t mean you should walk into a dark alley because you aren’t the one to blame.”

    This reveals a misreading of the original. The point there was that (among other things), all this advice about dark alleys and whatnot, puts the rape prevention burden on women, because it implies that stranger rape is the most common type of rape: that if women could just prevent that by their actions (and they easily could, but for some reason don’t bother to), they could control the threat of rape. (It also suggests that women are both stupid and complicit in their own victimization, because they won’t see the obvious and protect themselves. And that we have never ever heard this amazingly helpful advice before.)

    But stranger rape is NOT the most common type of rape. As with child molestation, it is not the stranger lurking in dark alleys, or behind shrubbery that we most need to fear: it’s the men we know (and yes, not all of them, not even most of them, just a small minority but you know, they don’t carry a sign). And no amount of not going into dark alleys, carrying whistles and so forth will protect against *those* men because they are already in our lives and in our homes, maybe even in our beds.

    All that well-meaning advice about dark alleys is largely beside the point: it ignores the realities. I think many women and men like to feel that if women just don’t go there, wear that, act like that, they will be safe. It’s so much easier to think that if women don’t do those things, it won’t happen to them, that they are in control. But the reality says different, no matter what we would like to think. And focusing on women’s behavior, and ignoring men’s behavior, sends the deeply destructive message that it’s women’s fault when they are raped.

    No matter how trustworthy you are as a man, it must be deeply disturbing to think that the women you know look at you and try to calculate whether you are a potential rapist or not. They do this out of necessity. There’s many a man who would not rape a woman in a well-lit space where others might hear, but he would if it were dark and secluded, or she were drunk, or he were drunk, or he’d spent lot of money on her, or he felt she’d led him on, or she was dating him, or married to him, or she … It is so much easier for a man to put rape on lurking strangers, some other guy, or the woman’s bad choices than to see that calculation in a woman’s eyes about himself, and admit it is justified. And no, women don’t make that calculation every minute of every day with every man. But we do try to make it, regularly, because we have to. Unfortunately, there are no obvious signs, no reliable indicators (at least at this point), so we are always guessing in the dark.

    Rape prevention has to look at *that* reality, but so many people don’t want to. So we talk about those alley lurkers, those bears. I think men do this more, because however much women would like to fool themselves, it’s harder for us in this case. We know the reality; we’ve either lived it, or have other women in our lives who have. Men can find it easier to gloss over it, and focus on stranger rape. The men I’ve known who have been raped were all three stranger raped. They were also young at the time, and isolated when attacked, and unwary (none were in prison or jail, BTW). Stranger rape is only true for one of the many more women I know who have been raped. For many people, wolves in the forest are very very scary, but it’s not them that are most likely to bite you. It’s the dog in your house, or your neighbor’s house you need to beware of. The issue is how to prevent THOSE bites. The wolves in the forest? yeah, don’t go there, carry protection, you can make yourself fairly safe. The dogs in your everyday life? How? How do we stop it?

    To me, you did what most men do, and many women too; run from reality. You blew by the point of the original post, and went right back to the safer issue of lurking strangers in dark alleys. The story was not about that. It wasn’t making the point that “the author did not have it coming and that rape is not dependent upon how a woman dresses”, although both points are true, and are reflected in the post. It was making the point that rape can happen because the man is in the woman’s life already, is known to her, and chooses to rape her. If that scenario is the most common, the most likely, and the stats suggest it very much is, then all this stuff about alleys is not only beside the point, it is destructive of real rape prevention. Because real rape prevention would have to focus on why men make that choice, why they believe it is a justifiable choice, and what goes into making them think that way. And in saying that, I’m not saying that men are all rapists at heart blah-blah-blah. But all the evidence suggests that the majority of rapists are not the lurking other, but ordinary men who in the course of their ordinary lives choose to rape women they know. They are not the majority of ordinary men, of course, but they do see themselves as ordinary.

    Maybe there is no true solution, maybe women should spend their lives looking at every man they meet, every man they know and wondering if he will choose to rape them at some point. And every man would then look at the women in his life and know that they are doing this. This is pretty much the world as it exists, and I don’t like it. I want to change it, and I would like to seek solutions. You seem to me to be ignoring it, closing your eyes to what is really there, and putting your fingers in your ears la-la-la-ing about dark alleys and bears in the woods. And that makes you part of the problem.

  4. I’ve edited one part of my original post about strangers being threats. I realized I mistakenly implied that strangers are bigger threats than non-strangers in terms of rape.

    This reveals a misreading of the original. The point there was that (among other things), all this advice about dark alleys and whatnot, puts the rape prevention burden on women, because it implies that stranger rape is the most common type of rape: that if women could just prevent that by their actions (and they easily could, but for some reason don’t bother to), they could control the threat of rape.

    I’ve addressed this. You’re making stuff up.

    There are two things going on here – a strawman and the truth. The strawman is that anyone is blaming women or anyone else for being raped. No one is doing that. The truth is that it is good practical advice to not walk into dark, unknown places (and for several reasons, not just rape). As I said (and you ignored), the victim is not to blame for getting raped (or mugged or scared or whatever) – but it is a good idea to be safe. Control the bear population, but don’t walk into the woods without precaution. Or, for another analogy, a defensive driver who goes the speed limit and breaks no traffic laws isn’t at fault when a drunk driver causes an accident, but that doesn’t mean the good driver ought not wear a seat belt or that anyone is blaming the good driver for a lack of precaution.

    It would be nice if someone could actually address these thought experiments. These are not abstract extremes I am choosing, so if your argument cannot hold up to them, then it has serious flaws. (Of course, until you bother to address what is actually being said, I’ll never know if your perspective can be defended here.)

    (It also suggests that women are both stupid and complicit in their own victimization, because they won’t see the obvious and protect themselves. And that we have never ever heard this amazingly helpful advice before.)

    Lots of obvious advice is constantly given out to people. Don’t smoke, wear your seat belt, don’t drive drunk. These campaigns of awareness are not useless, as you imply. And the advice to be careful about walking around alone at night in dangerous or unfamiliar places is for everyone, anyway.

    This last point raises an interesting problem with part of your argument: you say rape by strangers is not the most common form. That is obviously and, anyway, statistically true. Most robberies do not happen in dark alleys. So what? Because a threat is relatively rare, advice of precaution is sexist/stupid/useless? Is that really the argument you want to present? You say, “And no amount of not going into dark alleys, carrying whistles and so forth will protect against *those* men because they are already in our lives and in our homes, maybe even in our beds.” Can you tell me who, exactly, is giving advice relevant to “*those*” men?

    Rape prevention has to look at *that* reality, but so many people don’t want to.

    Who?

    yeah, don’t go there, carry protection, you can make yourself fairly safe. The dogs in your everyday life? How? How do we stop it?

    To me, you did what most men do, and many women too; run from reality. You blew by the point of the original post, and went right back to the safer issue of lurking strangers in dark alleys.

    Does that issue not get addressed? Is it not widely known that most rape is done by non-strangers?

    Most murder victims knew their killer. If I tell people not to go into dark alleys because they may get killed, am I blaming the victims? Is that bad advice? Should I forego practicality because of possible perceived offense? How is it not to “run from reality” to ignore the fact of the danger of being alone in dark, unfamiliar places?

    then all this stuff about alleys is not only beside the point, it is destructive of real rape prevention.

    The point was a strawman because no one disagrees that it is not the fault of the rape victim or that there are other, probably better ways of preventing/addressing rape.

    Why must this be an either/or scenario? Why can’t we say rape prevention needs to be done in X, Y, and Z ways because the victims usually know the assailant while we also say dark, unfamiliar places are dangerous? And is it sexist to say that they are especially dangerous for women (not necessarily just due to rape) because women are generally physically weaker (as a matter of fact, and no, not in all cases) and criminals tend to choose people they can out-muscle (or, at the very least, they think they can out-muscle)?

    When we boil this argument down, I don’t think we’re so far off. I agree with you that non-stranger rape is what needs to be addressed. I think that is what is generally done and we can always improve on it. The only point where we fundamentally disagree is on whether or not advice should also be given to potential victims. We do this all the time for car drivers, those prone to harsh storms, and even as a matter of financial advice (i.e., have diverse funds in case someone or some system screws you). I do not see this as blaming the victim. That happens, but this is where intention is again important and why feminism and other theories of consequence do not do well to ignore it.

  5. “Good Will is important.”

    Who defines good? How is it defined? Likewise with “Will.” Who is included or excluded in the definitions that inform the philosophy that proposes the aphorism?

    I’ll point out again that you’re selectively misreading Flax, but more interesting, I think, is the fact that you acknowledge that the philosophical position from which you speak emphasizes intentions over effect. And you admit that feminism is focused on the effects of institutionalized sexism. (One might ask how those effects are completely without intention.) But in any case, why do you keep trying to participate in discussions that you acknowledge have a very different philosophical leaning from your own? You refuse to acknowledge:

    1.) that privilege exists
    2.) that you might speak from a position of privilege (as do we all, in our own ways)

    …and thus when you read a text like that by Flax you dismiss all her analysis of the function of gendered language. So there’s nothing really to be discussed between you and the readers of Zuska’s blog. We want to analyze how sexism exists in the world, including through the gendering of supposedly “neutral” things like language. You reject that idea. Great. Conversation over.

  6. Wait, did you really link to a 28-page pdf of an article that summarizes Flax’s book briefly as part of its own independent argument? No wonder you missed the extensive language analysis Flax conducts in her monograph.

    The quote you attribute to Flax is actually written by a Ruth Dawson, the author of the article to which you link. Please double check your sources next time, and please correct the original post.

  7. We want to analyze how sexism exists in the world, including through the gendering of supposedly “neutral” things like language.

    This claim doesn’t fly when the posts are discussing the specific views of others.

  8. I should have noted that I was only really addressing the discussion about “screeching” and whether it is gendered or not. By extension, I thought it might be interesting to bring up Flax, who identifies some of the gendered assumptions underlying Kant’s writings that have persisted into our own day.

    Thanks for correcting the citation, but Ruth Dawson’s statement as quoted above is not actually her summary of Flax’s position but a statement in which she distances herself from Flax’s argument. Thus, it’s not even a summary of Flax’s argument (note where the footnote is placed in Dawson’s article…it’s right before the sentence you quote, not after).

    Why would someone as intelligent as you content himself with rebutting an incorrectly cited summary of an author’s position rather than addressing the actual work? Or if you don’t have the time or the interest to pursue philosophical questions about the gendering of language, then by all means abstain from the homework — but presuming that you can claim a “gender-neutral” status for a word without some background in the discussion of how language reinforces the dominant ideology (including that of patriarchy) is irresponsible.

  9. You’re right that Dawson is making her own statement, and I should have read that more carefully. But if her account is correct, Flax is still arguing from consequence. If you happen to know where the article or at least an excerpt is (I can’t locate one), it would be much appreciated.

    I am not claiming any status on any words where consequence is the issue*. The point I’m raising is that a focus on consequence is not valid when blame is being placed upon the person speaking or writing. Kant and others may be using language in sexist ways, but that does not mean the bare bones behind their words are invalid. That is, Kant’s overall point is that intention is important and it is that and Good Will which matter. That point taken by itself has no relation to gender. (To put it another way, I am arguing that we ought to take words for the value of their meaning and not the value of those who once meant them.)

    *Where intention is the issue, I do claim status for words. Status also exists in philosophies of consequence, but I am not concerning my argument with that.

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