An All-or-Nothing Proposition

I’ve been chewing on these thoughts for a while, but having had my head violently shaken by every aspect of the “Yes Means Yes” fiasco, I haven’t been able to read the “A-List” feminist bloggers without feeling the bile rise in my throat (side note: I also recently went back and checked out the infamous P’gon book cover thread; if I hadn’t been kind of insane back in August, I likely would have had my breaking point then).

This Hugo Schwyzer post has been thoroughly eviscerated by many more intelligent than I, but I’ve still been mulling over exactly how to say what seemed exceedingly obvious the minute I read it. First, the incredibly condescending “popularizers vs. purists” concept almost sums the exact problem that I have with the whole dynamic at play here–the cool kids are engaging in social competition and defining the terms of belonging vs. not.

But more importantly, quoth Hugo:

I said, quoting others before me, that I’d rather 97% of the world grasp 3% of feminism than have 3% of the world grasp 97%. That’s not a false dichotomy, that’s realism. 97% of the public will never read bell hooks or Helene Cixous. 97% of the public can, however, get the idea that women are of equal worth to men. 97% of the public can eventually accept the idea that biological sex is no barrier to any form of public or private achievement. 97% of the public can come to terms with the idea that “no means no” and “yes means yes”, and that we need to do everything we can as a culture to make certain that the “yes” is never coerced.

Since reading that, this thought has been in the back of my mind throughout all my real and virtual meanderings. I’ve always struggled to counter arguments of “realism” and “pragmatism” because I recognize myself to be…decidedly not pragmatic. I can barely do my dishes. And I’ve always been hesitant to be overly decisive or come off as arrogantly thinking that I’m right all the time, which is exactly what I’m criticizing in others (or a big part of it, anyway). But, you know…fuck all that.

Feminism is an all-or-nothing proposition. Mattbastard’s totally simple answer to the question “why vote for choice” smacked me in the head with this. Human rights are absolute. They are, or they are not. They are real, or they are not. They matter, or they do not. Feminism is about recognizing that women are human beings and therefore deserve human rights. Those rights include bodily autonomy and integrity and full and equal economic and political participation without added barriers. We can debate the methods of attaining those rights, and we can debate the specifics of what the barriers are and how to begin their dismantling, and we can have different priorities with respect to those rights.

But there is no feminism spectrum. There is no 97% of feminism, and just because Helene Cixous and bell hooks are complex writers and therefore maybe less accessible to a mainstream audience doesn’t make them more-feminist-than-thou, nor does it mean that the ideas they espouse should be excluded from the dialogue (for fuck’s sake, Cixous wrote in French, the idea that we should be translating the ideas seems kind of intuitively apparent, though honestly, I’m not that fond of what Cixous had to say).

The idea that “women are of equal worth to men” is not 3% of feminism. That, plus the idea that the social reality does not currently reflect that equal worth, is the sum total of feminism. That’s all there is to it. If you believe that–and I mean, believe that, not just say it because you know you’re supposed to, then proceed to write an article about how a lady voice coming out of the cockpit makes you all nervous, as in the link in my previous post–then “yes means yes” is not even an issue.

Now let’s add in the oft-made and yet oft-missed point that none of us is free unless we are all free, which is another all-or-nothing proposition, and how the hell does it become okay to talk about 3% of feminism being enough? This is in the context of a conversation where certain individuals with power, in whatever limited sphere that power is relevant, are also deciding which 3% comes first, which 3% is going to matter, and frankly, which 3% of women are going to be the ones to get their rights granted by that oh-so-generous 97%. You want to draw up that scale and decide what the most important 3% of feminism is, you’re also telling everybody else what falls outside of it, and in some (even many) cases, what falls outside is going to be exactly the need that is missing in someone’s life, exactly the human right that has been taken away from an individual, or a group-within-the-group. And it’s okay not to have time to talk about everything, and to focus on what you know, but it’s damn well not okay to shut everybody else up from mentioning that other 97% or all those silly, pesky human rights that aren’t being met.

This is all-or-nothing, this feminism thing. I know there are a lot of specifics I don’t know, and I certainly get that a lot of the particular dynamics of racism, heterosexism, ableism, fat-phobia and classism escape my notice because of where I’m situated, and I’m willing to debate how best to fight and what, exactly, needs a good fightin’, but if you aren’t 100% on this idea of human rights and on the definition of “human”, then I don’t really see how there’s a conversation to be had, here.

This is another one of those things that I suspect is really obvious to everyone but me, but my wishy-washy, equivocating Canadian ways (such are they are), and my desire to not be a fundamentalist, all-or-nothing kind of thinker have kept me from saying it until now.

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10 thoughts on “An All-or-Nothing Proposition

  1. BetaCandy says:

    *nods*

    My mom is really fond of looking askance at statistical probabilities and saying, “It’s a 50/50 chance: either it will, or it won’t.” Which I think is pretty apt here. Either you get that women are people, or you don’t. Either you get the difference between yes and no, or you don’t.

    This is one area where I think it’s okay to be all dualistic and black and white and Western in our thinking. “I think women are human except…” is not a feminist position. At all. Ever.

    Ditto on race and every other divider. Either you think people who don’t echo yourself back to you are just as real and confused as you are, or you don’t.

  2. Prole says:

    This is a fantastic post!

  3. purtek says:

    Thanks Prole. 🙂 I’ve been lurking at your site for a bit, so the compliment is well-received.

    Betacandy:

    Either you think people who don’t echo yourself back to you are just as real and confused as you are, or you don’t.

    Exactly. I’ve been all for nuanced morality, shades of grey, understanding different positions and all that, but…not here. Not anymore. “Human rights” is a term people toss around all the time, but few people recognize that it’s not something that’s just always been understood or always been true…it’s a concept you do have to get and learn and internalize.

    Lots of things are complicated. This is not. I don’t think it’s easy, but I do think it’s simple.

  4. Prole says:

    Please, don’t be shy about participating at ACR! I hope you’ll de-lurk yourself. We’re very nice, after all. 🙂

    Btw, you have been nominated for a Canadian F-word Award!

  5. purtek says:

    I noticed that nomination and blushed profusely, and then figured I should try to up my CanCon lest I be disqualified. 🙂

    And you are very nice. My lurker status is based first on a general policy to spend some time getting a feel for a site before I start commenting, and second on an across-the-board inability to keep track of too many conversations in too many places at once (ie. disorganization over shyness).

  6. A Landmark Victory For Reproductive Liberty

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    On January 28th, 1988, the Supreme Court of Canada tendered a watershed decision in the case of R. v. Morgentaler, rendering Canada’s restrictive abortion law null and void.
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  7. Oliver Jones says:

    This is completely tangental, but why don’t you like Helene Cixous?

    I haven’t read this blog for a while and I’m kind of backtracking through some of the entires here.

  8. purtek says:

    Hi Oliver! Good to see you…just when I thought it was safe to make a tangential, paranthetical comment again, sigh. 🙂

    I’ve only read a very small bit of Cixous, and it was several years ago, so maybe I’m wrong and would appreciate her a lot more now. From a linguist’s perspective, however, I was frustrated by the argument that seemed to suggest that language was inherently the sphere of the male, privileged through that association. I’m absolutely comfortable with the notion that male speech patterns and manners of speaking have been privileged via their association with masculinity, but iirc, Cixous was getting to the point of arguing a “non-language” communication for women.

    So thanks for showing up to call me out on the tangent I wasn’t really prepared to answer (you seriously always do that).

  9. Oliver Jones says:

    Yah, I’m not a linguist in any capacity, but I can see how one might read Cixous like that….regardless I’ll throw in my two cents: Cixous’s action was to undermine the phallic centrality of the ‘logos’ – I wanna say ‘sign,’ but the usage isn’t neccesarily Saussurian – to destabilize the phallic stance by subverting masculine “Truth” in discourse and language. It’s not that she was saying ‘language is man’s house’, or ‘language as a system in use is fundamentally masculine’. She is suggesting a phenomenon wherein’ discourse’ and discursive expression and evaluation are co-opted by a sort of conquering, oppressed/oppressive extension of masculine or phallocentric power. I mean, she concedes that you can’t do anything but write within culture or within language, but Cixous is interested in disrupting that co-option and rendering its power structures – pardon the pun, but I seriously can’t resist – impotent. The consequences for ‘the powerful’ with vested interest in the supremacy of masculine discourse and the centrality of phallic possession are earth-shaking, but I suppose those consequences only play out in, like, literary and discursive spaces.

    Anyways, I guess I’m trying to suggest that if feminism (I guess Cixous is post-feminism? I’m not clear on the distinction or if it’s even one I should be making) must be a ‘total’ practice of discourse (effectively, a re-constitution of the individual as an agent of revolution), then isn’t a discursive revolution like the kind that Cixous is advocating absolutely necessary?

  10. purtek says:

    Sorry it’s taken me a bit to get back to this. Your comments require brains when responding. Brains are not the default position for me sometimes.

    I agree with the way you describe the relevance of overcoming the conquering discursive style, but (again, keep in mind that I’ve actually read very little Cixous, so maybe she qualifies this in ways I haven’t really seen) I feel like, in classic deconstructive fashion, she’s gone a bit too far in its dismantling. You say she’s not saying that language is a man’s house, but I remember reading her and feeling like she was attributing “language” to man and this series of sort of grunts and emotive noises to woman.

    I may be over-assigning her definition of “logos”, and like I said, I do get that a good part of deconstruction is the first step of subversion, replacement of the one pole with the other before we can start with that spinning around the centre thing (yes, radical simplification, I know), but my reaction to reading her was that language as a construct/structure was male rather than simply human, and that would not fit in the linguist brain.

    (commenting too quickly still, I’m sure, but I have that thing called a job I have to get to)

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