smashes the p(aradigm)
June 18, 2011 15 Comments
I’m encountering some new ideas in my life through some radical feminist blogs. They have caused me to question my own feminist beliefs in some cases, and to face cognitive dissonance regarding my actions within the patriarchy and these ideas.
I’m currently reading Thomas Kuhn’s _The Structure of Scientific Revolutions_ . This book is about scientific paradigms, but it may have a lot to say about paradigm shifts in feminist thinking. As Kuhn states,
When examining normal science… we shall want to finally describe that research as a strenuous and devoted attemot to force nature into the conceptual boxes supplied by professional education.”
In other words, science is about taking the data we have and trying to make it fit within our conceptual boxes. More on this later.
The radical feminist blogs I read are influenced by what I (as a relative greenhorn) see as “2nd wave” or “radfem” feminist thinkers, while the current women’s/queer studies departments and so-called “fun fem” mainstream feminist bloggers are part of the “3rd wave” of feminists.
The 3rd wavers emphasize choice- indicating that feminism shouldn’t boss us around by telling us what is oppressive, whereas the 2nd wavers talk about choice in the context of the patriarchy, and how fully autonomous decision-making may not be possible (in cases like pornography, Girls Gone Wild, performances of femininity, etc).
The 3rd wavers emphasize “intersectionality”, or the way in which oppressions of all sorts (patriarchy, racism, transphobia, etc) intersect. Third wave feminists ask that we continuously “check our privilege” to make sure that we’re not oppressing anyone by what we say or do..
Second wavers recognize that there are intersecting oppressive forces, but don’t want to lose sight of the oppression of women. They may see 3rd wave feminists use intersectionality as a strategy for turning female energy away from female causes. These radfem thinkers are particularly concerned about transgender and transexual folk who are seen by the radfems as having hijacked feminism and our efforts toward women’s liberation and moved them into a more male centered direction. Trans women are also seen as male invaders to female spaces by these rad fems, and the fun fems think this view is transphobic.
An interesting critique of this privilege checking procedure is that any individual making a logical argument can be proven wrong by having not properly checked her privilege. So, by making trans critical arguments that do not align with the 3rd wave party line, an individual will be shut down as transphobic, and her arguments will not be listened to. This silencing tactic is particularly worrying to me as a person interested in the *truth*– rather than what is least offensive.
Additionally, this technique quells dissent, and turns 3rd wave feminist thought into an accommodation station for the rights of everyone but women. Women are last. It could be said that women are socialized not to rock the boat or hurt anyone’s feelings. That is why this silencing technique is particularly effective.
Another topic where radfem/funfem thinkers disagree is sex. Funfem thinkers are often described as “sex-positive”– meaning that they think we should take the shame of sex out of the equation, and encourage women to chose to have it whenever it brings them pleasure (or money). Radfems believe that sex (penis-in-vagina sex, or PIV) is harmful to women and causes pregnancy (or that contraception methods either alter the body’s inner chemistry in harmful ways, or aren’t effective).
I am in a sexual relationship with a man, and we currently engage in PIV. Nevertheless, the radfem line on this issue is interesting. It has raised my awareness of the complications of pregnancy and how common they are. Women are (physically and mentally) harmed by pregnancy and we spend huge amounts of time, money, and effort in preventing it that men do not. This makes PIV an unequal association of two adults, and that fact makes PIV an arrangement that feminists should at least be able to discuss without being dubbed “sex-negative”. The harm is *real*– it is possible that it may be mitigated by pleasure and intimacy, but we should be able to talk about this. Not so, say the funfems– sex is a tra-la-la choice!
Last night I met up with my brother and his lesbian feminist friend. Somehow we got on the topic of PIV and I brought up the perspectives I’ve recently been exposed to– namely, that PIV is harmful to women. The lesbian feminist friend– let’s call her B– told me that these ideas are outdated and old-fashioned. She and I don’t particularly get along anyway, but I think there’s more to her dismissive comments than our personality conflicts. This leads me, finally, to my point about Kuhn’s book _The Structure of Scientific Revolutions_.
Ideas and information that do not fit the current intersectional-sex-positive-choosy-choice-3rd wave-feminist paradigm are thrown out for being old-fashioned, not intersectional-enough, or not respecting women’s autonomy enough. In other words, they are dismissed for not upholding the current paradigm AND NOT BECAUSE THEY ARE WRONG!
To paraphrase Kuhn, 3rd wave feminist thinking is about taking the data we have and trying to make it fit within our 3rd wave conceptual boxes. This is what I see B to have been doing. However, I say: If my evidence tells me that my paradigm is wrong, I should stop shoving the evidence into the old paradigm to try and make it fit. I should smash the paradigm, and find a new one.
*Truth* is what we should seek–regardless of our current paradigm. B’s criticisms of my claim that “PIV is harmful” were an attempt to defend her own paradigm against other perspectives. She did not present good reasons why my points were incorrect, or poke holes in my reasoning. She simply said that my perspective was old-fashioned, and brushed it off. Her type of ad hominem attack is one used in internet and real life feminist discussions alike seemingly any time a radfem viewpoint is brought up. I am glad I’m reading this book, because it puts B’s comments in context.
Another friend of mine– let’s call her K- just got her PhD in Sociology this week. Yesterday I told her I’m worried that by performing femininity (makeup, occasional dresses, demurring at my work to the male boss, etc) I am supporting/bowing to the patriarchy. The performance of femininity as conformity to the patriarchy is a 2nd wave/radfem idea I’ve been trying on lately. K said my solution should be to “queer” my performance. I should “drag it up”. She said this turns the patriarchy on its head. I am not sure what “dragging it up” means, but my first thought is that it involves giant heels and hair. I think this is a classic 3rd wave solution. I don’t meant to straw man K’s response, but I don’t see how putting on more eyeliner than ever is going to subvert the patriarchy. I think K’s critique indicates a serious error in 3rd wave philosophy, and the radfem/2nd wave paradigm may be superior (superior= more correct) to this queer analysis.
I think about how the system of men in power (patriarchy) was threatened by 2nd wave feminism, and I believe that 3rd wave feminism *does not threaten it*. I think this may be why 3rd wave feminism is “allowed” to prosper. Forgive my dramatic analogy, but fun feminism is a mewling kitten, and radfem thought is a roaring lion.
We do need a lot of what 3rd wavers provide– belief in reproductive rights, a voice for domestic violence victims, and a visibility of women’s rights. But we need so much more.
I have recently joined a feminist reading group of what seems to me to be mostly 3rd wave women. One of the women asked if male feminists could come, because she wanted to bring her male partner. I suggested that they should not, and that since women only spaces are important, it would be nice if this feminist group could remain women only. I was told that such exclusion would “other” men (that is, would turn men into the “other”). I call bullsh*t! Men have the power, and therefore cannot be othered. *They* are the ones who other *me*! Inclusion may be fine for some, but I’m deny that I am “othering” people by trying to create women only space. I’ve decided to keep my mouth shut for a while to see how the group goes– though I do feel like patriarchy is an insidious member of this meetup silencing me.
I have so much to learn about all of this, and it fascinates me to learn it. I’ve been doing more feminist thinking than ever before, and I love it! Regardless of where I eventually stand on these issues, these are great moments of critical thought in my life.
Originally composed May 1st