Definitional Games

A thread on Feministing straddles the line between being dismissable as a prime example of trivialization and being an instructive example of definitional games. In a nutshell, some commenters are complaining that people are afraid of the word “feminism” even when they agree with most feminist political planks.

For example, a year-old CBS poll reveals that in the US, 24% of women and 14% of men call themselves feminists, rising to 65% and 58% respectively when a dictionary definition is supplied. Ostensibly, it’s supposed to show that people really are feminists but just don’t identify that way. In reality, it’s yet another case of too many where people come to utterly wrong conclusions because they don’t understand how language works.

The definition provided is, “Someone who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.” With that definition, it’s hard to see how the majority would fail to describe itself as feminist. Equality is a motherhood value, like freedom, so everyone says he’s for it.

If someone came to Pandagon or Feministing, started disagreeing with the regulars too much, and defended his feminist credentials by pointing to the dictionary definition, he’d be laughed at. It’s not enough for one to profess to be for equality; at a minimum, one must also recognize the existence of serious inequalities, and preferably the need for social or political action to remedy them.

The civil rights movement is a good analogy. In the 1960s, plenty of Southerners, especially politicians, said things like, “Lynching is a tragedy; thank the Lord it doesn’t happen in my state.” And even people who opposed lynching often insisted that Martin Luther King’s movement stop engaging in civil disobedience and instead keep appealing to the courts. MLK didn’t think they were civil rightists, and neither does anyone who matters today.

Most movement feminists have a list of litmus tests for feminism: support for equal pay laws, support for laws against sexual harassment, a liberal position on abortion, even a liberal position on gay rights. In the US, far fewer than (65% + 58%)/2 ~= 62% of the people are pro-choice enough; support for abortion on demand is in the low 30s. The terms “pro-choice” and “Roe vs. Wade” carry a lot of power, but the median voter’s position on abortion is to the right of what is permissible under Roe vs. Wade (I have no idea about Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, which is less familiar to the average American).

Movements don’t arise in a vacuum. You can’t define libertarianism without reference for the fact that every non-marginalized libertarian has supported conservatives over liberals, often vociferously. You can’t define civil rights without reference to the state of race relations. And you can’t feminism without reference to the actual struggles feminist activists are engaged in.

3 Responses to Definitional Games

  1. neplusultra says:

    Feminism has a real PR problem no doubt. It also has some real-world problems that go beyond public perception.

    And, is it just me or, does Feministing sound like a trainwreck of “feminine” and “fisting”?

    Thanks for the blog.

  2. Roy says:

    I think that the problem is that feminism, like some other movements, is pretty broad, and covers a lot of topics. There are myriad issues that feminists have strong views on, and I doubt that you’ll find that all or even most feminists have like minds about all of them.
    And that’s part of why it’s hard to say whether or not a person who doesn’t personally identify with feminism has feminist ideas or not. Take the abortion issue- it’s certainly a hot-button issue, and one that many feminists are pretty vocal about. Is it possible to be a feminist but not support abortion on demand?
    I think that it is. Just as one could potentially be, say, a Christian who supports choice, or a liberal who doesn’t support gun control.
    If there are, say, 6 major issues (making up a number), and someone agrees with The Feminists on 5 of them, there’s a good possibility that such a person could be a feminist.

    But, I think you’re right, it’s problematic to assume that, because someone agrees with a particular definition, that they’re a feminist. Just like, to be fair, it’s possible to call one’s self a feminist (or anything else, for that matter), and not be that thing.

  3. Bruce says:

    Alon, I thought you responded very well to the issues I raised on that thread.

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