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Wednesday, October 19, 2005

the beauty of "New Feminism"

When I went to Government Professor Harvey Mansfield's speech last night calling for a "New Feminism," I didn't expect to leave feeling inspired. I figured that I would go, listen to him say provocatively sexist things for an hour, and leave spitting mad and ready to argue with someone. But it didn't happen. It's not because he did something other than what I expected. He did, in fact, spend the hour saying provocative and sexist (as well as homophobic and transphobic) things. He also essentially spent the hour defining men as aggressive and unloving dolts and women as passive, caring baby-makers (I'm exaggerating a bit, but that was the gist of it). But, rather than being disgusted, I left inspired.

He seemed almost benign, a sad throwback to another time grasping for some sort of relevance as the rest of the world moves on. More importantly, those that challenged him, feminists of various strips, queer activists and other audience members, appeared radiantly confident, had sharper points, and also themselves seemed more bemused by this strange old man than offended. Not to say they weren't offended, his words still attempt to marginalize entire communities of people and pigeon-hole women. But his words also seemed so stale that their punch was more of a pinch. The people who challenged him did so comfortably and confidently, knowing that theirs was no longer a marginalized position but a fully formed political force that could easily stand up to this towering and mythical conservative pseudo-martyr figure. That is why I left feeling inspired.(more in expanded post)

What the Crimson story today failed to note (among many things too long to list in this post), was the fact that most of the audience spent most of his talk holding back laughter and looking at each other with amazed bemusement. Mansfield wasn't just ideologically (i.e. "subjectively") wrong, his understanding of feminist theory was shockingly elementary and the philosophical groundings of his ideas were sketchy at best, nonexistent at worst. And, contrary to the Crimson article's claim that he "felt most comfortable when answering questions from the audience," he spent most of the questioning period on the defensive, uncomfortable and unable to answer even the most fundamental challenges. Instead, he responded by doing one of three things: repeating back a point from his main talk and adding a dismissive attempt at humor, claiming that such situations were "exceptions" that didn't need to be handled in regards to his point, or noting that this was a good question but, while he simply didn't have the time to give it a fair response, to "trust him" because he did, in fact, have a good answer to that point.

We could repeat the argument itself here if someone wanted to, I don't mean to dismiss his ideas off-handedly (although we already have been having this conversation to some extent). But rather than doing so immediately, I wanted to recognize the beauty of the situation and how inspired I was to see a room of brilliant young thinkers, activists and students respond with such confidence and coherence, knowing that his is the way of the past and theirs is the way of the future.


At 12:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What an unbelivably arrogant post, Golis. Maybe it's your understanding of feminism that is suspect, rather than a very great scholar's. Also, I suspect you don't know Mansfield very well. When speaking he seems somewhat awkward -- I was surprised the first time I met him in person, because although the words themselves that came out of his mouth were as eloquent as his writing, their deilvery was not. That does not affect his meaning, however. Basically Mansfield was arguing that men and women are different in some ways -- not in all ways -- but in some ways that are important not only in biology but in society. Further, he argued that some of these differences make society a better place, and trying to sweep away certain differences makes society as worse place. Some students objected that this theory didn't account for transgendered people, to which he replied that this is an exceedingly minor objection . . . which it is. That is not a homophobic or transgender-phobic statement, it's simply a fact. I saw a bunch of angry, pensive, aggressive students who didn't care to listen very much to his lecture hurling simplisitic questions. I wish more students would have been able to consider the issues thoughtfully and have a real debate. Only in your own very insular intellectual community would you think that traditionalist view of society have no relevance. I'm not saying that they are the end-all-be-all either, but your statement is one that only a very insulated person could provide.

At 1:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

amen to the first the first comment. i don't see what the problem is in acknowledging differences. as long as you treat people fairly in the end that's what matters. this idea that by stripping people of their identity, be it gender, race or religion is somehow bringing about a better good is too simple. a more nuanced approach, with the overriding rule of treating eachother as people and not as objects will do.

and so what if he wanted to focus on relationships between men and women. golis, if you want a discussion on homosexual or transgender issues, set it up yourself.

At 2:05 AM, Blogger andrew golis said...

the fact is, Mansfield's understanding of feminism was actually or simply presented as superficial. His entire argument rested on, as one questioner wisely pointed out, the naturalistic falacy that was "is," either biologically or culturally, should be. He failed to address not only the entire queer population (including those who identify as bi, trans and homosexual), but also single parents, parents with women providing the economic basis, and everything else. His arguments simply lacked a fundamental intellectual basis, and his inability to respond to any of the objections brought was sad and kind of shocking. He literally argued that people who had non-heterosexual identities simply acted that way as a form of rebellion against the norm, that they should remain marginalized because otherwise they wouldn't be able to rebel, that women should prefer a "manly man" who they "admire" over a "sensitive man" who cares about them, that while "civilization is a woman's best friend" ("not diamonds") because it stops them from being beaten by men, that what men "naturally do" is best... and on, and on, and on.

As I have said before, people can make serious arguments for "traditional" family/gender roles. I think they're wrong, but I can respect them when they come from a. an understanding of feminism that acknowledges that there is not a block of "THE feminists" b. an argument for why the "natural" is the "good" (Steven Pinker specifically debunks this in his second lecture, I believe), c. an understanding of different forms of sexuality that does not base queer indentity on a general social rebellion without explaining how he could possibly believe this, and many other things.

Again, it is not really his opinion that was relevant. It was how inadequate he seemed in comparison with a group of smart, probbing and confident dissenters. There are always turning points when the old becomes stale and recycled and the new gain a level of confidence that allows it to stand up and be recognized as something other than an "alternative" opinion. I, admittedly, am not old or wise enough to trace broad social patterns (at Harvard or anywhere else really), but it certainly looked like that kind of point.

At 4:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

hey andrew, maybe a thread on old values versus new? something contrasting the belief of liberal/secular/scientific america in the future bringing constant progress v. the belief of traditional/christian america in the bible offering eternal truths. that history is more like a circle than a linear path upward and onward. where the US of today isn't very different from the rome of back then.

i hope you get the gist of what i'm aiming for. i think it'd make for interesting comments. thank you for this blog =]. however much ppl disagree, i still listen because the people responding to me are occasionally extremely clear of thought and reasoning.

At 9:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Mansfield was arguing that men and women are different in some ways -- not in all ways -- but in some ways that are important."

This is a dumb thing to 'argue,' unless you have meaningful evidence and a careful definition of what counts as important. It's either self-evident or just raw opinion. More likely he was simply *claiming* that gender differences should guide behavior, without evidence, (as if they didn't ipso facto) which makes the notion that people should turn out to hear his views on the topic all the more absurd.

His being a very great scholar is immaterial. Let him speak on the things he studies and has scholarly knowledge of. Noam Chomsky is a very great scholar of LINGUISTICS, but that doesn't make him worth hearing on the meaning of 9/11.

It's getting where I have no incentive to sign these things. Should we make this login-name only? How annoyed will I be by the process of getting a login name?

At 1:03 PM, Blogger andrew golis said...

it'll take you 2 and a half minutes.

At 5:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Try reading the syllabus for Mansfield's course on Manliness a few years ago to understand how one could approach these questions in a sophisticated manner, and how a lifetime of the study of political philosophy is not immaterial.

At 8:19 PM, Blogger deborah ho said...

It's difficult to take a professor seriously when he makes eurocentric generalizations of the "natural" and thus "good" family being that of a father, a mother and children. Many cultures are based on and function well with an extended family structure, or even a "takes a village to raise a child" structure. You can't dismiss all of those cultures as exceptions too!

Professor Mansfield really lost me when he said that there are three problems with hookup culture for women in particular: 1) Women get STDs more easily, 2) Women are the ones who get pregnant and 3) Women have a greater danger of falling in love. He then went on to state that men had greater capability to focus on one thing, that this was inherent, and that women were more prone to "distraction" and thus more suited to bringing up children.

It was less his understanding/lack of understanding of feminism (I personally know little about the literature and thus went in very open-minded to hear his take), but rather his unfounded generalizations and his assertions that these were the "truth" that bothered me and made me unable to respect what he was saying.

At 10:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that one of the unfortunate consequences of Prof. Mansfield's approach is that it undermines some of the more pervasive and complicated aspects of social life today. It is true that there is a double standard which is more damaging to women than men in a "hook-up" culture- the pervasive "she's a slut/he's a player" dichotomy. But the approach Prof. Mansfield took to examining this dichotomy is troublesome- that there is something intrinsicly different within women that makes them unable to successfully exist in such a culture. I think what needs to be addressed are the beliefs and stereotypes that sustain such a dichotomy that portrays women as "more likely to fall in love" and as these emotionally dependent individuals that are merely looking for the security of monogomy to give their lives meaning. So while yes, I did find it encouraging that there was such a powerful presence of questioning at the Mansfield lecture, I think that allowing issues such as gender disparities in a hook-up culture to be addressed in such a superficial manner is ultimately detrimental if only because it masks the questions that need to be answered before anything can actually be changed.

At 2:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

instead of being offended with the idea that women are hurt more by the hookup culture more than men, why not question the hookup question in the first place?

in the end such a culture and many of the other values of our secular culture are equally damaging to men and women. c'mon ppl, get with it. wait 'til marriage until having sex.

if you're arguing about whether or not women can just as easily navigate the hookup culture is missing the whole point. and i agree with mansfield that the hookup culture is especially damaging to women as it end up objectifying them. and hurt men too as they don't learn any better.

At 2:19 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Back in the day, Harvey Mansfield used to teach his classes at Harvard that there was a pyramid of races. Guess which one was on top? I mean, yeah, I guess he has a long history of this kind of scholarship...that doesn't seem to mean much.

At 5:13 AM, Anonymous Guess Why said...

It's a shame that Mansfield didn't take seriously the impact of the hook-up culture on men. I think in a culture that condones the idea of women as being primarily or potentially reducible to sexual objects, women can become means to an end for men, which is a fundamental violation of what I believe to be a moral truth that all human beings and their interests deserve equal consideration. I think Mansfield understands that part of it. But I don't think he understands that such a culture also can encourage men who have trouble shoring up their self esteem in alternative respects (intellectual acheivement, athletic accomplishment, being a great parent, etc.) can often seek to use women and sex as a means of reaffirming their self-esteem and "dignity" at the expense of women. I think one of the reasons you hear women mentioned in the same breath as cars and money on rap songs is that they become means to affirming a self-worth that is, for whatever reason, damaged. Moreover, in an environment like a college campus, where hook-up culture takes on the character of normativity, then even people who wouldn't in other circumstances be predisposed to seek self-worth through sexual conquest end up doing it as well. I think it is terribly damaging for the male ego to be so irrevocably linked with the quantity and quality of sexual escapades-- it damages your ability to see women as equals, provides no long-term emotional fulfillment, and encourages an exceedingly risky behavior pattern in the age of HIV/AIDS and STDs.

On another point, I think that third wave feminism of the post-Judith Butler variety (I do not think all feminists are the same dear Andrew) have made a bit of an unconvincing conceptual leap in the idea that all sexual and gender identity is socially constructed. I definitely think they are right about the prevailing view of sexuality as two discrete sets of sexual behaviors- homo and hetero-- (and bisexuals being aberrations from this norm) being anthropologically inaccurate. There is no evidence that I have found convincing that homosexuality has been thought of in the way that it currently is throughout human history. That being said, I do think that there may be some genetic basis in social differences between men and women (putting aside the exceedingly rare case of transgendered individuals). Now before I fall into a Summers-esque trap, I want to make this very clear. I think that genetic differences are not absolutes-- they occur on ranges of potential and possibility. It may be more possible, say, for a Dutch person to be over six feet tall than an aboriginal Australian due to genetic drift-- it's not impossible for there to be a short Dutch person, it's just not as likely. In that same case, I think there are documented physical differences, neurological differences, and hormonal differences that could and perhaps maybe should produce substantive social differences in human beings. I just don't agree that based on the highly conceptual readings of third wave feminist anthropology and philosophy that we should reject out of hand the numerous discoveries in modern cognative and biological science that suggest that a lot of difference is not socially constructed in the extreme way it is often presented. If it is true, as some scientist claim, that after birth the mother's body release a chemical that increases a person's capacity for affection and emotion-- would it not be at least plausible to consider that while this does not preclude men from being active childrearers at all, it could still suggest that there may be a natural predisposition towards females providing primary care that might be unwise to ignore?

At 3:56 PM, Blogger deborah ho said...

I actually was most shocked by Mansfield's "hookup culture" comment in how it was just an opinion and a gross generalization, stated as a fact but based on nothing, with no discussion of how this point came to be made. I agree that hookup culture is a complicated social phenomenon that I personally disagree with on many fronts, including some of those mentioned above, but my point was not about hooking up, it was about not backing up or explaining points, and using opinions as facts.


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