There Was Some Feel-Bad Liberalism At The Victoria Women's March
Also, I'm being recruited into the "Intellectual Lite Web," which strikes me as being a whole thing
(According to feel-bad liberalism, many of these women should feel, well, bad. Via.)
I hate the polar vortex. I hope everyone has a place to stay warm during these bone-cold days.
Am I in the “Intellectual Lite Web”?
A writer named Jay Jeffers published a Medium essay last Friday that might be of interest to those who follow internet culture, the arguments over the “Intellectual Dark Web,” and so on. Jeffers critiques the IDW for having gotten stuck in an anti-SJW rut that sometimes causes its members to miss the bigger picture, and then argues that myself and the writers Katie Herzog, Phoebe Maltz Bovy, and Kat Rosenfield can be seen as comprising an Intellectual Lite Web. “There’s significant overlap with the IDW’s concerns, but I’ll argue the ILW is a much more sobered-up version of contrarianism,” Jeffers writes. I’m nothing if not sobered-up!
I have complicated feelings about all this this, partly because I have complicated feelings about the IDW concept itself and partly because I’m just not that into the idea of being in any non-boring-sounding writerly grouping, including ‘contrarian’ (it doesn’t really bother me if people consider me ‘progressive’ because yaaaaawn). Jeffers understands this risk: “[John] McWhorter and others have made the point that independent minded people aren’t ‘joiners’ so they likely won’t see any value in attaching a specific group-name to themselves.” Indeed, I don’t really see the upsides to being in any non-boring group that might impact my identity as a writer or journalist. I don’t want to have to think to myself “Hmmm, what’s the ILW stance on this issue?,” because why should that matter? That said, Katie and Phoebe and Kat are great and in a more general sense I’d gladly be in any group with them and you should check out their work if you haven’t.
Feel-Bad Liberalism in Action at the Victoria Women’s March
A couple weeks ago I tweeted some random, somewhat ranty thoughts about “feel-bad liberalism,” which I subsequently defined, provisionally, as “a style of liberalism that seems mostly concerned with expanding the list of things left-of-center people should feel bad or guilty about, often in ways that (I would argue) are much less tangibly connected to improving the world and addressing injustice than certain people claim them to be, and/or which rely on rather radical notions of politics or language that have little purchase in the real world.”
I stumbled upon a pretty solid example of feel-bad liberalism in the wild last week (which I noted at the time): Prior to this year’s Women’s Marches, the Victoria, British Columbia Women’s March organization posted a Google Doc (reported on by a student paper here) requesting that women who attend that march not wear pink “pussy hats,” mostly on the grounds that they are transphobic. “Unfortunately, the symbolism of the pink ‘pussy hats’ is based around the idea of biological gender essentialism, which excludes trans women and non-binary folks,” the document notes. “The pussy hats perpetuate the concept of shared womanhood, which ignores the complex ways in which women face different levels of marginalization based on race, sexual orientation, gender presentation, class and disability status.” The document goes further, explaining that not just the pussy hats, but a wider set of references and symbols are also exclusionary: “Not every woman has a vagina, and not every person who has a vagina is a woman. In addition, not every pussy is pink. Symbols that equate uteruses, vulvas and vaginas with womanhood are transphobic.”
The idea that cisgender women should feel guilty about connecting female biology to feminism, or to their own personal senses of womanhood, is a wonderfully clean example of feel-bad liberalism on multiple levels (and one that the Victoria Women’s March certainly didn’t invent). According to an article in Time from a year ago, “the most recent figures show that by the end of their childbearing years, 86% of U.S. women have had kids[.]” That means that for the overwhelming majority of American women, pregnancy and childbirth will play an important role in their lives at some point. An even more overwhelming majority will have to deal with menstruation, the possibility of becoming pregnant, and the other most important ramifications of having a female body. The subset of women who don’t have to personally deal with at least some of this stuff, because they’re transgender, have a medical condition, or whatever else, probably only make up about 1-2% of women or so. They’re still women, but in this particular area they are the exception rather than the rule.
So it isn’t exactly a mystery why certain types of biology-talk have become central to modern feminism: Women carry a much heavier reproductive burden than men do, and this goes a long way toward explaining why women constitute an oppressed group. Until recently, stigma shrouded female biology and stymied open discussion of it, and the law interfered with women’s ability to control their fertility — it wasn’t until 1972 (!) that the U.S. Supreme Court established that unmarried couples have the right to possess contraception. (Of course, abortion access is a whole other issue, especially in solidly red parts of the country.)
Many feel-bad liberalism arguments are premised on unorthodox understandings of language or politics or activism that people who aren’t well-versed in certain radical ideologies are unlikely to agree with. In this case, the claim seems to be that since something like 1-2% of women don’t have a strictly-personal investment in the subject of female biology as it pertains to issues like reproduction, female biology shouldn’t be portrayed as connected to feminism or to womanhood — such talk will “exclude” that 1-2%. This simply defies common sense, and also violates Organizing 101 principles about teaching people who may look superficially different from one another that they share common goals and sources of oppression. That is, if 98% of the members of a group have one thing and one thing alone in common, who in their right mind who cares about that group and its ability to advocate for its interests would argue that its members shouldn’t talk about that one thing? (It’s revealing that the Victoria Women’s March statement include the gobsmacking phrase “The pussy hats perpetuate the concept of shared womanhood” as though that’s a bad thing — feel-bad liberalism generally dislikes the phenomenon of big groups of people overlooking their differences to form politically meaningful, broad coalitions, because that makes it harder to divide them up into smaller and smaller subgroups and to subsequently set those subgroups against one another for FBL purposes.)
And what’s especially strange about this line of thinking is that I bet if you surveyed women who identify as feminists but for whom reproduction isn’t a personal concern for one reason or another, they too would view it as intimately connected to feminist activism and womanhood. Trans women and post-menopausal women and women who have had hysterectomies have sisters and daughters and friends for whom the possibility of becoming pregnant matters a great deal, plus they simply understand, like almost everyone else does, the rather obvious connection between womanhood and pregnancy. So while there’s no way to know for sure, I would imagine that only something like .01% of women who identify as feminists don’t think reproduction and female biology in general are important concepts to feminism. There’s just no way this is anything but an extreme outlier position given the extent to which modern feminism is directly concerned with subjects like abortion access and maternity leave that stem directly from biological processes. Even if I’m off by an order of magnitude and the true figure is 0.1%, in what other situation would it make sense to say, “We can’t talk about Subject X being connected to Group Y, because one in a thousand members of Y disagree that it is”?
But this is how feel-bad liberalism often operates: Its peddlers make sweeping, oftentimes morally thunderous assertions about the harmfulness of seemingly important or anodyne statements or actions without really doing the work of showing why people should believe those assertions. That thing I keep saying about how most people wouldn’t recognize these arguments as valid? Feel-bad liberalism has a countermeasure: It’s a style of discourse that depends a great deal on the fact that many good-hearted left-of-center people will switch off or dial down their critical faculties as soon as they see a sympathetic group paired with one of those charged terms like excluded or erased. Who wants to be the jerk who raises their hand and asks questions like “Is this a reasonable thing to ask of us? Are we really going to orient our messaging around 1-2% of our political community rather than 98-99% of it?” The social incentives to do so are almost nil.
Some might read this and say, “Well, it’s just radicals being radical — why pay attention to it?” To which I have two responses: First, there are obviously women who care about and derive energy and meaning from the Victoria Women’s March and the other institutions making this argument, and it strikes me as counterproductive and a bit cruel to give them, or anyone else, the impression that they should feel bad talking about their bodies or feeling a connection between their bodies and womanhood (especially given, again, the long history of stigma preventing so many open discussions in this domain).
Second, and related: Radical or not, these sorts of arguments have become common enough that last summer, Lena Wilson, a culture writer who is a millennial and a lesbian, lamented in Slate that in her circles, “anything that explicitly celebrates motherhood, cis female biology, or older lesbian generations is written off as a ‘dog whistle’ indicative of trans-exclusionary radical feminist, or TERF, beliefs.” If these ideas have bubbled up enough to warrant a Slate article like hers, they can’t be that rarely expressed.
I do think feel-bad liberalism arguments are becoming more common, for various reasons I’ll likely unpack at some point, in this newsletter or elsewhere. And it’s important to recognize the most common derailing tactic FBL advocates turn to when they encounter pushback from their ideological neighbors: You don’t really care about marginalized people, do you? They turn to this because they often have trouble defending their arguments on the merits in language non-radicals can understand and will accept during moments of reasoned deliberation. In this case, the logic goes that since the Victoria Women’s March claims that biology-talk excludes trans women and others and should therefore be excised from the conversation, anyone who disagrees with this argument must not care about excluding trans women and others, or must actively want to.
Of course this isn’t a real counterargument: It’s a way to shut off discussion by sweeping the spotlight over from the argument itself to the moral worth of the person questioning it from the crowd, at which point the argument can scuttle back behind the curtain, safe from scrutiny, while the crowd starts to murmur gravely about how maybe the questioner doesn’t have the right politics, because why else would they bring this up? People constantly make political arguments about how this or that is hurting a vulnerable population, and in other contexts we recognize that sometimes these arguments are wrong. When Janet Jackson’s nipple gave approximately 23 Focus on the Family voters the vapors, faux-scandalizing the nation, conservatives made arguments about the devastating impact that nipple would have on The Nation’s Children. If you disagreed back then and thought everyone was acting a little bit hysterical, did that mean you hated children and wanted them to suffer grievous harm? Of course not.
Feel-bad liberalism wastes a lot of time, causes political enervation, produce backlash from conservatives while accomplishing almost nothing in return, and often defies important common-sense norms pertaining to politics and logic and language. It’s worth not only calling these arguments out when they pop up, but better understanding the structural and rhetorical similarities they all share in order to counter them in the future.