Why feminism can no longer be the shield I carry

“It is the business of youth to recoil from the counsel of gentleness, of scepticism. Doubt becomes an obstacle, for a youth has need of faith and ideals to give free rein to the impetuosity borne within. And even the most radical, the most absurd illusions, as long as they inflame, would in his eyes have more importance than the most profound wisdom, which saps the strength of his will.”

-Stefan Zweig, Montaigne


If I were guilty of one thing– and I know that I am guilty of more than just one– it would be the overzealousness that comes from attaching oneself to an idea (or an ideal) and then proclaiming that idea as truth wherever one goes. This is often associated with youth, as Stefan Zweig captures eloquently in the quote above. In youth, everything is new, and that newness translates into a lens through which we view the world. How could we not have known? we ask. How could they have kept this from us? Even believing we have seen it all and that there is ‘nothing new under the sun’ is an overtly cynical stance we embody when we go through our angsty, misanthropic phase. There is no such thing as moderation. We know only the extremes. And by ‘we,’ of course I mean ‘me.’

As a young Christian, I was staunchly on the side of the Christianity I was fed. I bought it, and I believed it was right to try to sell it, too. I wish I could say that I dropped proselytization when I dropped the label of Christian for myself, but I’m afraid that I just gave it a makeover when I put on a new suit: that of the Liberal Feminist. My eyes were opened to the world, and I thought that everyone else’s should be, too. This happened again and again, like when I learned of the horrors of meat processing and became a vegetarian; when I found out about the atrocity that international adoption often is; when I learned about sweatshops overseas and decided to buy only clothes made in the States or already used (an admittedly brief stage)– all of which are worthy causes (my intention by mentioning them is not to discredit them). I tried all of these on for size– and even ended up keeping some– because someone with conviction told me to. Energy is contagious. That can be a really useful thing, and I always hope that my enthusiasm will in turn inspire others. It’s just that I have become wary of myself and of my proclivity for being persuaded by a well-made documentary.

Which is an ironic statement, because the reason I’m now writing this is that I watched a documentary yesterday. The Red Pill is a film by Cassie Jaye about the men’s rights movement. As a self-proclaimed feminist before she started working on the film, she delved into the ideas, statistics, and passion that fuel the movement– and she found that it’s not all bad. In fact, it’s not bad at all. Men do have a hard go of it: they are disproportionately killed in combat, on the job, and by suicide, disproportionately convicted of crimes and imprisoned for them, disproportionately left with little to no rights in custody battles, disproportionately drop out of (or don’t even enroll in) school, and more. This doesn’t also mean that women don’t have a hard go of it. It just means that gender roles hurt both men and women, and that we can’t just focus on one, especially when the other is deeply hurting. (Brené Brown learned this and changed the direction of her research based on the epiphany. Read Daring Greatly for the wonderful insight she shares.) Equal rights should mean that we really and truly look at all sides of the issue to make it equal for everyone. Unfortunately, as it is, we have replaced one status quo of privilege for another, and it’s not making things any better.

I could write a lot more about The Red Pill. It ignited that old familiar spark in me that would have me standing in the town square, yelling to all the other villagers about the truth of the world as I’ve discovered it to be, if only I lacked any social awareness. But something bigger than the movie happened: I realized the futility and danger of sticking a label on oneself. If only I could be like Montaigne– that ‘patron saint of all thinkers on this earth’ (Stefan Zweig again)– who distrusted labels from the very beginning, seeing how they cause unjust prejudices and serve as a hindrance to the thinking mind. He even had a mistrust of stating anything too strongly: “Assert nothing audaciously, deny nothing frivolously.” He was a great observer. To be able not to deny anything frivolously, one has to be able to observe, to take in, to listen.

I think this is one of the biggest problems we have as a society today, that we don’t listen enough. And not just to each other in our personal lives, but (especially) to each other in our political ones. The ‘Us vs. Them’ mentality is prevalent no matter which side you’re on. It’s heartbreaking. Labels mark the divisions, but they also provide a sense of community, however false or loosely connected it may be. With a label, you’re at least part of a group. Who cares if you don’t see the other side as full human beings? You’re on the side with only ones who matter anyway.

This is what I think feminism has become. It has become the great security blanket for anyone who has taken the right college courses and read the right books and wants to be included with the right people as being on the right side of history. It has become an umbrella term for whatever we want it to mean, as long as it means we show up where all the other feminists are and use the same hashtags as the other feminists and take the same angles as the other feminists. It has become the mask we wear to fit in rather than a lens we use to consider one of many sides to a situation; the rule book we’re given with all the answers written out so that we don’t have to come up our own. In other words, it’s become a religion for those of us who thought we forsook religion long ago.

That’s an uncomfortable thing to admit.

But it is not just a problem for feminism, or liberalism, or radicalism. It’s a problem for any ideology, where dogma trumps doubt, and questioning is viewed as disloyalty. Problems are not usually mutually exclusive, though from the reactions of those within groups, you would think they were. I believe strongly that the way women are treated and viewed is often degrading and objectifying, but I also believe strongly that the way men are expected to provide, to sacrifice, and to shoulder every burden stoically is detrimental for everyone. Everything is interrelated– issues are almost always intertwined. What is so difficult about trying to allow for the complexities, for the paradoxes, for the both/and? Uncertainty. And who wants to live with uncertainty? Ideologies have given us an out: they will provide certainty; all they ask in return is for our unquestioning devotion.

Only now am I beginning to see how frightening that is.

The inimitably wise and magical Amy Krouse Rosenthal wrote, “I’ve come up with this explanation: people change. It’s as uninteresting as that. People change. […] We use these defining truths to help us stay in the lines of ourselves. We think we have to hold on to these labels, we feel comfortable holding on to these labels, but it turns out the labels are removable, you can peel them right off.” I think that’s what I need to do now. Strip myself of a label I’ve clung to for years, one that is much easier to continue wearing than it is to shed. It’s a long time coming– from conversations I’ve had to reading thinkers I admire deeply, who eschew the comfort of conforming to party lines in favor of thinking with their whole minds and thereby being true to themselves– but it is still scary. As my boyfriend put it, it’s like leaving the cult, which is no easy thing.

I have to, though. I don’t want to shy away from the ‘counsel of gentleness, of scepticism.’ I don’t want to pursue radical and ‘absurd illusions’ instead of wisdom. I want to think for myself and decide the best that I can what is right and wrong and worth fighting for. I want to engage with the world from a thoughtful, curious, open place. And I want to do the hard work of wrestling with ideas rather than allowing a label to do the work for me. I just don’t think I can do that if I continue to call myself a feminist.


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