Thursday, 11 February 2016

Feminism and Fortean Times


As I outlined in a previous post, last November I attended Seriously Bewitched, a conference organised by the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena (ASSAP), in order to give a talk on “The New Witches of the West”, a discussion of how the image of the witch came to be reclaimed in the twentieth century by practitioners of both Wicca and Satanism. During the day, I was briefly interviewed by the Reverend Peter Laws, a journalist and Baptist minister who has subsequently written up a piece on the day for the February 2016 issue of Fortean Times (featuring a photograph of yours truly, no less, alongside images of fellow speakers Helen Cornish, Charmaine Sonnex, and Bekie Bird). It came as something of a surprise for me to learn of my appearance in the magazine, but was undoubtedly a pleasant one, particularly as Fortean Times was a favourite read of mine as a child. 

In his review, Laws picked up on an incident which occurred at the conference and which I have mulled over in my head several times over the past few months. It all started in the Q&A session after my talk, when a young woman asked me what I thought about the reclamation of the crone as an image of women’s power within feminist-oriented forms of Wicca. In responding to her, I said that I was more than happy to share my knowledge on the usage of the crone within Wicca, however I stated that I did not want to say whether I thought that the use of the crone image by feminist women was a good thing or not. The reason for that, I explained, was because – as a man – I did not feel that it was my place to say what feminist activists should be doing to advance the feminist cause. 

This comment almost immediately resulted in disquiet among the audience. A number of voices began to call out “why can’t you speak for feminists?”, “what are you saying?” etc. Something that I thought was particularly interesting was that – as far as I could tell – every one of these comments came from a man, despite the fact that the audience was majority female. At least one of those commenting clearly thought that I was anti-feminist, but English was not his first language and it was quite apparent that he simply misunderstood what I was saying; he apologised privately to me afterward, and was clearly a nice fellow. However, I am not sure that all of the other commenters thought that I was being anti-feminist; rather, from the context in which they spoke, I suspect that some of them were shocked by the idea that a man should not speak for feminism. Perhaps they thought that I was symbolically castrating men of their right to freedom of speech? 

Laws' assessment of the situation
However, here I want to return to this issue, because it is something that I do feel fairly strongly about. Feminism focuses on the advancement of women’s rights and status in society in an attempt to secure equality with men; thus it is a movement for the liberation of women. Accordingly I believe that it should be led by women, dominated by women, and have its agenda set by women. Not by men like me. That doesn’t mean that men can have no opinions on this issue and should be prohibited from involvement in feminist issues (indeed, I would hope that feminist women do pay attention to male viewpoints, because it will allow them a more rounded understanding of the male-dominated system from differing perspectives and thus enable them to more effectively counter it). I would of course say the same thing for other liberationist movements; I don’t think that white people should really speak for the black liberation movement, straight people for the gay liberation movement, or wealthy people for the working-class liberation movement. Each marginalised group should set the agenda for its own struggle, even if that struggle is assisted by members of non-marginalised (or at least less-marginalised) sectors of society.  

To clarify my position, I believe that – in an ideal society – men and women (and those who find themselves outside of that binary paradigm too) should be totally equal, in practice as much as in theory. For that reason I support feminism. However, whether I am a “feminist” or not depends on the definition that one chooses to use. If by “feminist” you mean someone who supports the feminist cause, then yes I am a feminist. However, if by “feminist” you mean someone who is proactively involved in fighting for the feminist cause, then no I am probably not a feminist. I certainly try to ensure that I don’t get in the way of feminist activism and I try to live my life according to feminist principles, but at the end of the day I’m not a member of feminist organisations, I don’t march in feminist rallies, and I don’t take part in other obviously feminist activist activities. At most I engage in a bit of armchair activism, sign a few petitions, recognise and acknowledge my male privilege, ignore the restraints of gendered stereotypes, and try to ensure that I treat everyone equally regardless of their gender identity.

At the same time I would be lying if I said that I don’t raise an eyebrow at some of the more extreme manifestations of the feminist movement, particularly those sectors which appear hostile, aggressive, belittling or condescending to all men, highly prejudiced toward transwomen, or just plain nasty to other women who happen to disagree with them (for instance through the demonization and bullying of pro-life feminists); over the past few years, I have encountered all three of these tendencies. For instance, I am left a little uneasy by the tagline “kill all men” or “kill all white men”, which is currently en vogue among some sectors of the feminist milieu; even if it seems unlikely that many (or even any) of those expressing such a statement seriously endorse such a genocidal course of action, the connotations (and unintended consequences) of such sweeping and hostile statements are cause for concern. Similarly, I’m not fond of the tendency among some activists to dismiss any and all male perspectives regarding feminism or gender issues out of hand, often as “mansplaining” or “male tears”, without at all addressing the substance of said opinions, a textbook case of ad hominem argumentation.* I worry that these extreme manifestations of feminism will ultimately prove counter-productive to the feminist cause by feeding into the preconceived notions held by more conservative sectors of society, by alienating otherwise sympathetic men, and by contributing to the burn out of those feminist activists who disagree with such extreme perspectives (again, things that I have personally seen happen).

Perhaps there is a little hypocrisy here: after all, I am claiming that I don’t think that I or other men should speak for feminism despite the fact that I am expressing criticism of certain manifestations of feminism. For me it’s a difficult situation to reconcile, but I try to summarise it with the thought that as a man, I’m not going to say what is the right way to do feminism, because it isn’t my place to do so; nevertheless, I do fear that there is a wrong (or at least counter-productive) way to do feminism, and while I’m not going to go about publicly challenging those who embrace these latter approaches, I will not hide my misgivings if asked. 

By this point, perhaps some readers might be asking themselves: “well, if he says that he can’t speak for feminism, why is he posting about the subject on his blog to start with? Isn’t this more hypocrisy?” There may be some truth to that thought. Normally, I don’t use Albion Calling as a vehicle for the expression of my own socio-political views, regarding feminism or anything else; it’s usually just a space to talk about academic stuff to do with magic, ritual, and the preternatural. That being said, the fact that the controversy at the ASSAP conference has now been made public through the medium of Fortean Times resulted in me feeling that I really did want to publicly say my piece on this issue, clarifying my perspective in my own words and smoothing over any misunderstandings that have arisen. Hopefully that has been achieved.

* =  This isn’t to say that the concept of “mansplaining” as it was originally conceived doesn’t have value, for I think that it does. I’ve seen various instances where men have acted in an intellectually condescending manner toward women, even when those women are themselves clearly far better educated in the topic being discussed than the condescending man himself (although equally I’ve seen men act in the same manner to other men, women to other women, and indeed women to men, so I don’t think the phenomenon is inherently as explicitly gendered as the term “mansplaining” suggests). That being said, I’ve also seen the term “mansplaining” divorced from its original meaning in order to be used, particularly online, as little more than a catch-all anti-male pejorative to silence any opposition to a particular activist’s opinion; in these instances it can be used to shut down debate without the need to actually present any counter-argument, and given its gendered connotations it thus very much fits within the dubious realms of ad hominem argumentation.

[Some additional points were added to this article in April 2016, after further contemplation on the issue.]

2 comments:

  1. Great post, Ethan, and thoroughly agree with you; also with your decision to publish this viewpoint, in view of the contested territorial claims you allude to on both sides of the gender divide, which I have also encountered. Sadly, I have the feeling that male resistance to feminism and its perspectives has increased among many men whom I would otherwise expect to be supportive - perhaps classically reactionary response to encountering the more confrontational perspectives you mention.

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  2. You can definitely be a feminist without being affiliated with an activist organization. This hesitation in the older generation to take up the mantel of feminism on those grounds has always confused me. But if you support women and nonbinary rights, and work for political, social, and economic equality to men in whatever small ways you can, such as recognizing your privilege and stepping back and allowing others to speak -- which it sounds like you do -- then there's no reason not to proudly proclaim yourself a feminist. The big actions matter, but the small ones can actually matter more, affecting the individual lives of women and men, bringing that conversation to everyday lived experience. Sometimes, that can be more difficult for people than the occasional grand gesture.

    Thanks for posting this.

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