Monday, 18 November 2013

The problem with Feminist language

I feel that the biggest problem holding back a more effective discussion about gender equality is a problem of language.  What is alienating about the feminist movement is the use of somewhat exclusionary language.  I think in order to reach a broader spectrum of people, language must be carefully used when hashing out the important issues.

When driving any kind of revolution forward, I think it’s natural to create an ingroup.  This ingroup will automatically empathize with its own members.  This causes a kind of doublespeak in some internal dialogues.  Out of convenience, these movements will create their own words to describe certain concepts.   Like any kind of political party, nationality or ideology, it’s members know more about the “real” issues than outsiders.  Projecting an image of ignorance and incredulity on the outsiders of the movement.  

I’ve been a part of many of these ingroups which create their own mini-languages to explain the paradigm they’re attempting to overthrow.  Its very easy to sink into a closed off intellectual bubble, where only those who are inside can understand what you are talking about.  This becomes problematic when you attempt to relay these concepts to outsiders.  This is especially problematic if your bubble is intent on overturning the current system and replacing with their own way.  

It can be most easily seen in religious movements.  its very hard for religious to address the outside world if they’re so enveloped in the language of their tradition.  Words and phrases like “redemption”, “fear of God’ and “sinner” probably have a much different meaning to those who hear them outside of their religious contexts.  This can only alienate and confuse those well-intentioned outsiders.

This unfortunately, I feel is true about the feminist movement.  Any kind of group with an “ism” at the end of their name is going to encounter alienation problems.  While the ideas behind the movement are by and large good, they present an unpleasant and alien image to the outside.  The feminist movement is appealing to those who are already alienated from the male-dominated culture.  It’s language is appealing to those who have found alienation and emptiness in gender identities.  But it’s true intention is to change the culture.  It’s not going to be attractive to those still fully connected to the gender system who in fact need feminism the most.  

The first language problem I think stops most people is the use of the word “Feminism”.  “ism” is a sure sign of a political ideology.  The root, “feminine” denotes the inclusion of the female sex as the biggest component.  The word by itself is exclusionary to anything masculine.  If someone sympathizes with feminism as a man, they often must caveat their identity with “male-feminist”.  I believe that the true ideals of “feminism” would not need anyone to declare their gender identity.  

I think the word “feminism” is creating a problem that is counterproductive to it’s own cause.  Because of its name, it’s creating an ingroup of people, simply based on a single sex or a gender. Naturally It will gather together people who are alienated and angry at the gendered system we live in.  

Its a stereotype and an oversimplification of feminists that they are “angry at men”.  For the most part, I agree that its just a stereotype.  But even the most offensive stereotypes have their origins in some kind of small truth. To illustrate this point, I would compare this to people calling atheists “angry at God”.  While the atheist would say that they don’t even believe in God’s existence.  The theist may not properly comprehend the very idea of a godless world.  They can’t truly understand the mentality of an atheist.  So, to them it looks as if the atheist is behaving like a rebellious teenager against a parent.

When someone says “Feminists are just angry and hate men.”  That person is probably well situated deep inside the gendered system.  To an outsider, all they see is a group of upset women.  Since this person takes the notion of “men and women” for granted, who else can feminists be possibly angry at?  They are like the theist who doesn’t understand the mindset of a person without a belief in God.  The outsider to feminism doesn’t understand that the whole dichotomous gender system is what is being targeted, not men.  They can’t understand a world without gender as a personal identity.  Gender is such an important part of their world, its very hard to see these issues without it.  The word “feminist” enforces that mentality with its inherent dichotomy of feminine versus masculine.        

Are there feminists who do actually just hate men? Sure, I wouldn’t bet against it.  But they’re no different than those men who hate women.  I would say that these people have legitimate complaints about their gender and its relationship to the “opposite”.  But this negative energy is just missdirected.  Without recognizing the real source of their issues.     
I should expand this to all kinds of movements that are attempting to change gender and sexuality in our culture.  I truly believe these groups are trying to change the world for the better.  But the way they’re presented to the world is often in an unfavorable light.  Its often because of the language used.    

Words like “patriarchy”, “hegemonic masculinity”, “CISgender” “rape-culture”, “male privilege” have a way of unconsciously talking down to those who don’t know their meaning.  How many letters have to be added to the LGBTQ..(?) abbreviation to be politically correct?  Is it offensive to call someone “transvestite?”, “transexual?”, “transgendered?”.  It feels like if I don’t know the correct term, I’m a bigot.  It’s these sorts of concepts only privy to insiders have an alienating effect to those outside.

The word “rape-culture” is one such example of a topic worth addressing that is alienating to those who don’t know what it is.  When I first encountered the concept of rape-culture, it was in a dialogue in a university newspaper. I found the term to be unnecessarily aggressive and shrill.  Whoever was arguing against rape-culture, the writing seemed to be coming from a place of high emotion.  I can totally understand why.  But keep in mind, that kind of passion will be alienating to men who’ve never heard of it.  I was one of those men.  I didn’t know what it was, but the article certainly didn’t win me over.  From then on I associated that term with an air of confrontational feminism, which I had no desire becoming a part of.  As a man, “rape-culture” made me feel guilty by association.  I’m the one of most timid guys you’ll ever meet.  I felt I would never do anything to enable that kind of behaviour.  All it did was make me even more confused than I already was about how to behave around women I was attracted to.  

Keep in mind, I’m not trying to discredit any of the facts about rape culture.  I’m just trying to point out how the concept isn’t the most endearing to those uneducated.  Many men are probably now feeling the same way I used to about “rape-culture”.  

 It wasn’t until I took a sociology of gender course, that I began to really understand these issues.  It took maturing and self examination to see feminism as a good thing.  But it took a process of becoming fluent in feminist language to fully grasp what the intent was.  To be clear, I’m not proposing any kind of alternative to the words we use.  I wouldn’t know where to start.  I’m just trying to illustrate some of the unintended problems that naturally occur in social movements and language.       


  1. Very interesting read, and I think that I agree with many of your points. One point of contention however - my understanding (without having been formally educated on the subject, but after hours of discussion with passionate 'feminists') is that feminism is NOT about the total dismantling of the 'dichotomous gender system', but about removing the inequalities between the two, while recognizing that there ARE differences. I believe that in such a case, 'feminism' accurately describes a group working for the good of the feminine gender. Such an ideology could then theoretically be discarded at some point in the future, when equality has been reached.

    Alternately then, in the situation you are describing, 'feminism' would not accurately describe the ideology. I think it is important to recognize a middle ground between those advocating the dismantling of gender identity and those who are simply 'angry at men'.

    1. I can agree with that, perhaps again language has caused a problem.

      I will say that there is quite a bit of overlap between Feminism and those intent on dismantling of the 'dichotomous gender system'. Although I lean towards an ideal where gender is de-emphasized rather than only striving only towards gender equality. I'm not a fan of ideas that promote notions of "equal but different".

    2. > I'm not a fan of ideas that promote notions of "equal but different".

      That seems to have unfortunate consequences. Should we raise all children genderless? Should we pressure people who naturally display feminine or masculine qualities to even out and act more androgynous, even if that's in conflict with their natural predisposition?

      The idea that we all need to move towards some politically acceptable middle-ground seems ridiculous to me, and this is coming from someone who just naturally gravitates towards that point anyway.

      I think it's more reasonable to accept the entire range of the feminine and male behavior, regardless of the person's sex. Are you a girly-girl? That's cool. Are you a girly-man? Also fine. Are you a manly-man? Nothing wrong with that. Are you a neutral-undecided? Keep on keeping on.

      Freedom-of-choice is the name of the game.