Recently a group of my friends and acquaintances had a long Facebook discussion about whether Jack Kilbride was right to criticize feminist commentator Clementine Ford’s perpetually irate tone. I stayed out of it—Facebook is a time sink and font of negative emotion, and I’ve been focusing on books instead.
But I’ve been thinking of the way one eloquent participant signed off in despair that it seemed impossible for people who disagreed to talk about the issue any further, and that contemporary identity politics had destroyed philosophers’ ancient dream of universal communication and understanding. In what follows, I speak of feminism because that was the ideology involved, but the observation applies to all identity politics, including those centered on ideas of class, race, ethnicity, and nationality.
The arguments on the radical feminist side were mainly that criticizing Ford’s anger is “tone policing”, an expression of the supposed male impulse to control women that feminism fights against, and that men must listen rather than comment in a discussion of women’s issues because they lack women’s experiential authority to do so (and again, because such comment would be a further attempt at patriarchal control).
The idea that members of group X cannot say anything about group Y’s problems (henceforth the idea), because they lack experience, denies that we can use our imaginations to understand what happens to others and what they think and feel about it, or that reason and ethics are universally applicable and can be discussed and applied to any situation by anyone. Accepting the idea damages our basis for communication with people who are not like us, and our ability to critique other bad ideas.
Many feminists love to disparage men’s rights activists (MRAs). The common (and false) characterization seems to be that MRAs are to feminists as white supremacists are to anti-racists. Yet the MRA movement, which should not be confused with masculinism or the manosphere more generally, is a mirror of the kind of contemporary feminism that insists men and women cannot discuss their issues together. The idea seems to lead inevitably to the forming and entrenchment of identity-based activist groups that do not communicate, are hostile to one another, and work only for the benefit of their ingroup—often while attempting to demonize the members of other groups and delegitimize their interests.
Some feminist participants in the discussion I mentioned above applauded Ford’s and other women’s anger and promoted the idea that feminism need not include men or accommodate their sensibilities. Perhaps the idea here is that by excluding men and others who object to angry discourse from the feminist movement, and in its spaces, that anger (which some feminists see as valuable) can be preserved and harnessed as women fight against their supposed oppression by men.
And yet, perhaps the anger is not being harnessed for the fight. Perhaps the anger is so conspicuous because some feminists have already, by employing the idea, done so much to segregate men and women (or feminists and non-feminists) in their discussion of issues related to sex and gender. When we do not talk to people who are different from us, and neither test our perceptions of them against their objections, nor inquire openly about how they see us (which means, particularly, not assuming they mean us ill), we make it easier to misunderstand and hate them, and for them to do the same to us.
In his book Prisoners of Hate, psychiatrist Aaron Beck identified a psychological process in which individuals and groups indulge in anger, othering, and demonization of those they perceive as threatening, ultimately leading to the dehumanization of and commitment of violence against the imagined enemy.
We can look at this and see that there is no greater enemy than the idea of the enemy itself. To be sure, there are often people or groups that act unjustly toward or even oppress others. These actions can be the result of a conflict of material interests. But they are perhaps more often a result of a lack of understanding, and of the unhindered progress of the process of demonization that leads to disenfranchisement and violence.
This is one of the major reasons why feminist anger (like xenophobic anger, classist anger, and interpersonal anger) is undesirable. Righteous or not, anger itself is inherently dangerous and unproductive. This point can be universally understood and applied.
It is also one reason that we should reject the idea. Anger, prejudice, and discrimination flourish where there is segregation, but tend to dissolve when superficially different people meet each other and talk together. The worst prejudice I’ve seen has been in Asia, where many countries are relatively monocultural—there, foreigners and ethnic minorities are deliberately excluded, disenfranchised, and discriminated against by the state. Such problems are least visible in the multicultural, democratic, and internationalist West, where, paradoxically, there is often hysterical outrage about the smaller inequities that remain.
The alternative to the idea is to remember, and insist that others remember, that imagination gives us the ability to understand anyone and their problems, and to evaluate and converse with them on any topic, including our interpretations of their experience or our judgment of their ideas. To be sure, we will typically know less about a person’s circumstances than they do themselves—but we can discuss them nonetheless and advance our understanding. So, too, we may talk with people who misunderstand us, and in the process refine our self-knowledge and our ability to communicate and persuade.