Why it’s nigh-impossible to have a rational discussion about feminism

So I’ve been thinking – prompted largely by this post here (by Hugo Schwyzer, a male Women’s Studies professor) – about why it is that discussing feminism is nigh-impossible to do in a rational way when the crowd is co-ed.
I think the problem is that both the men AND the women feel threatened/insulted/etc. For example, I was talking with a friend of mine who is about to become a parent, and he said that he and his girlfriend couldn’t see themselves having an abortion because they weren’t “that shallow.” My hackles went up so fast that the fiancé actually left the room to avoid the pending shitstorm. Why did I react so strongly? Not because I’ve had an abortion myself but because I would have one in a heartbeat if I did get pregnant, and what he said sounded to me like he was saying I was shallow. Now, this dude is a little clueless at times but he’s a good guy and very much a pro-choice egalitarian — but he still said something that made me go from fine to angry with almost no in-between time.
The thing is, with a discussion of feminism, everything is personal. Saying something like “Well, there are plenty of false accusations of rape” will cause a feminist listener to think of the women she knows of who never reported their rapes because they thought they wouldn’t be believed, or who did report it and weren’t believed. Saying “men need to stop raping” no doubt sounds to a guy a lot like “you rapist! Stop it!” Plus, if you’re having the conversation with someone whose opinion you care about, that only makes it worse – if you hear their comments as an attack, you get all the feelings that come from feeling betrayed.
And pretty much all the time it isn’t even the case that they mean to piss you off! I mean, this friend of mine and I are close buddies, have been for years. He had no intention of saying anything mean about me, and was really shocked when I reacted the way I did. Fortunately, I was able to read that and rein myself in before dumping a vat of verbal hot oil all over him.
Somehow we (that’s a fairly global ‘we’, encompassing rational folks who talk about this kind of stuff) have become incredibly sensitive – not because of the people we are individually talking with, but (the same way that a lot of childfree folks get pissed off easily) because of all the discussions they’ve had in the past. It’s the death of a thousand papercuts. It’s ard to be calm and rational when a discussion is effectively putting new papercuts on top of barely-healed ones. And if there are a couple really deep ones from back in the day? Owie. Not good.
So what is the answer?

I think a huuuuuge part of the answer is to start talking about feminism in mixed crowds more.
…to do it with the aforementioned knowledge that it’s a sensitive topic. The discussion needs to start out with some sort of reassurance on all sides that everything is okay and we’re all friends or whatever. Then during the conversation, we need to consciously disengage our own personal feelings from what’s being said and stop reading general statements as personal attacks.
Now, this is difficult. There are a number of problematic trends I have seen over and over in online and in-person conversations about feminism.

  • Guys bring up male victims of sexism/domestic violence/rape/false accusation, thereby derailing the discussion from feminism onto their own issues. This triggers feminist anger because it’s easily read as “oh, you think you have it bad, stop whining you wussy women! Help us with our problems first!”
  • Women, especially if there are a bunch in the group, start trading stories of “sexist pigs I have known.” This is good for venting, but not conducive to actual discussion, and it often seems to unnerve the crap out of the guys. Plus, it riles up the women to the point where if the guys interrupt, they turn on ’em as if the guys they’re talking to are the guys they’re talking about.
  • The discussion devolves into a statistics war with guys on one side and gals on the other. (e.g., “one woman in eight is raped some time in her life here in the U.S.!” “bullshit! Besides, everyone knows that most rape allegations are false, I read it was about 80%”)
  • The feminists in the group see any questionings of their rhetoric as attacks and shut the questioner down completely.
  • The non-educated in the group want explanations of things the feminists have had to explain a billion times before (like how chivalry is sexist and demeaning) and the feminists get mad that the discussion is getting derailed into a definition fest (with plenty of arguing about definitions, probably).
  • Nobody wants to actually hear what the other person has to say, they just want to make their own point, which they see as correct, and sway everyone to their side.

I’m sure there are plenty more, and these problems aren’t unique to feminist discussions.
The more reasonable feminist discussions we can have, the better, for two reasons: one, because it makes it easier to keep one’s cool when talking about this kind of thing, and two, because feminism is a grassroots movement – for it to succeed, we have to change the culture. American law already reflects a lot of feminist ideals: abortion is legal in most places (for now), it’s against the law to beat or rape women, etc. (Not to say that the law is perfect; it’s not, but it’s better than the culture is. They both need work.) The more reasonable discussions we can all have about feminism, the more it will spread.
So. I think that it’s a good idea for people to discuss feminist issues. I think it’s also a good idea for the conversation to start with a formal recognition that it’s a touchy topic and for the participants to all agree that they’re going to work very hard not to attack each other or to interpret things the other people say as attacks and blast back. Feeling attacked? Let’s say so, but not attack back or get hyper defensive. I think the more civil conversations we can have about feminist issues, the better. I also think that most men and most women have such wildly differing views of the world (see the Male Privilege Checklist for a starting point on this), and this makes it incredibly difficult – and yet even more important! – to have these conversations.
Men and women are both oppressed by the current cultural setup in small, awful ways every day – ways that are frequently invisible to the other sex. And really, I think that that is something else that could use some discussion. For example, when I watched Moonstruck with my fiancé, he told me that it made him sorta irritated because it was so sexist and I was shocked. I had genuinely never noticed that all the men in the movie are basically total idiots. (Really, a feminist dissection of that film would be a hoot to do.)
I have a lot of trouble having a reasonable, rational discussion about feminism myself because I react incredibly strongly almost immediately – I know from second-hand info that I have apparently unnerved people and made them not say things that they would’ve said if I hadn’t been radiating feminist intensity everywhere. I need to work on this myself, a lot. I think a lot of my intensity comes from the fact that I have extremely strong opinions (Men and women are equal! Outlawing abortion is misogynistic! Rape and Domestic Violence are signs of our fucked up culture!) – but it also comes from fear. Fear that I’m going to learn my friends actually hold beliefs that will totally freak me out. Fear that I’m going to piss them off and make them hate me forever. Fear that our nation is going to outlaw abortion, roll back punishments for rape and spousal abuse, and generally give my gender the shaft. Fear that I’ve somehow become one of the radicalized over-the-top feminists I think are hurting the movement.
I’m sick of being afraid and totally pissed off all the time, and I want to have real discussions about this stuff, you know? Thoughts? Comments?
Please remember what I said above: this is NOT an attack, ok? Seriously. And any reader who thinks that I’m singling them somehow out is wrong unless they’re my aforementioned friend or my fiancé – who are only being mentioned as examples and should not interpret this as any sort of condemnation.

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