What is feminism? There’s no easy answer, since any term that a couple of billion people would use to describe themselves is clearly going to have a multitude of meanings that are each only shared by a minority at any one time.
Let’s try a different question: what does feminism mean to me? Or, why am I a feminist? I’m a feminist because I fundamentally believe that all people are equal. Every one of us, regardless of our sex, colour, sexuality, belief or whatever else you might like to pick as a division. I choose to judge each person I know on their individual merit, rather than by some arbitrary dividing line.
I’m a feminist because I believe that women, the majority of the population, are ill-served by society’s norms in the West (and worse elsewhere). Women are equal to men, but men have the power, because men have the money and also because most men have actual physical power – the power to beat up and/or kill most physically smaller females at their will.
It is, however, worth noting that most men don’t. Most men wouldn’t even consider it. Most men would cut their own arms off before they struck someone physically smaller and weaker than themselves, regardless of their sex. But a tiny minority don’t have this bar and it is (partially) because of them that I am a feminist.
Because I’m a feminist (and an anti-racist and so forth), I try to watch my language. The ball-and-chain sometimes complains about how politically correct I am, especially after I’ve barked his name at him sharply when he’s used a word I don’t like. I’m actually not very “politically correct” as some people define it. What I strive for is also known as “bias-free usage”. At the first approximation, bias-free usage means not using adjectives that are irrelevant to the subject at hand. So the person who drove my bus was a person, unless their sex or colour or whatever was relevant (it rarely is) and the story I’m telling requires I mention something like that. And yes, that does mean I suffer from The Dimbleby Problem: the person in the green shirt, no the woman in the green shirt, no the black woman in the green shirt. I can live with the fumbling that bias-free usage can force on you.
Now, how far does bias-free usage go? Well, I don’t expect it of others per se, but I will pull people up when they use badly biased words (as I define them, obviously). I’m more comfortable with writing and speech that uses “their” instead of “his” or “hers” – I’m afraid I don’t hold with the “xe/xis/xeir” neologisms when “their” is available (although I do use “s/he” at a push). If forced by style to give a gender pronoun in writing, I’ll generally use “she” rather than “he”, but I’d rather avoid doing it at all.
By now, a proportion of the people reading this will have given up, fed up of the rules I’m scattering in their path. But these rules are no harder than the ones on commas and apostrophes (and there’s only one: don’t use commas and apostrophes like an idiot). By all means use “he” when you mean a person in general if it sounds better. Just be prepared to defend it. It’s like rape jokes or jokes that take the piss of disabled people: I actually don’t mind, even if the joke in question makes me uncomfortable. But you’ve got to be prepared to defend it, and not in a Ricky Gervais “well, my fans aren’t offended and I’m best friends with Kevin Spacey” type of shit way either. There are actually no rules when it comes to word use, other than the speaker/writer being able to plausibly defend what they’ve said/wrote. If you’ve said it ironically or sarcastically or to make a point, then fine. If you’ve said it unthinkingly, then apologise and we’ll move on, both wiser. If you’ve said it because you don’t care or because you wanted to wound, even if you wanted to wound an individual rather than a perceived mass, then, well, we’ve got problems we need to discuss. Or you need to get the fuck out of my Twitter feed. Either is good.
Are there exceptions? Sort of. LGBT people can make jokes surrounding the words “queer” and “poof” and so forth. Women can call each other whores (except in the Daily Mail, because… well, we all know *why* you’re saying it, you holier-than-thou turd). Black people can use the N word. But again, context is king. There’s a difference between an LGB person saying “I’m surrounded by queers” and an LGB person saying “I hate and want to kill queers”. It’s a fine line, often hard to spot, but there is one, albeit surrounded by a lot of smudging.
What about oppressed minorities using derogatory language about the oppressors?
Well, it’s awkward for a bleeding heart liberal to take on the language used by the oppressed against their oppressors. But I’m not actually a bleeding heart liberal. I’m a strident socialist with Marxist tendencies who happens to be a born social liberal. If you’re using derogatory language against those you think are oppressing you, then fucking stop it. You’re playing their game. You’re giving the Daily Mail ammunition. You’re putting off the vast majority of the rest of the population of the world who are on your side. I know why you’re doing it, but you’re being counterproductive. You’re failing at what you hope to achieve and you’re making the oppressor feel better about their oppression (they’re oppressing you out of fear, not because they hate you for any rational reason).
And now we come back to feminism. Is the neologism “mansplaining” okay? According to a considerable number of my (now) ex-followers on Twitter, yes it is. Attacks on the oppressor (men) by the oppressed (women) are perfectly fine. Because they don’t mean *you*, they’ve excepted *you* from that attack. They mean every other man. So that’s okay then. When you point out the flaws in this insane argument, you’re (I’m) a misogynist. I’m siding with the oppressor. I’m a man and have no idea what discrimination really means (coz deaf gay guys with arthritis never experience discrimination). GBT men don’t live with *daily* discrimination like women do, so women are entitled to attack men verbally.
I thought the flaws in those statements were obvious. But the Guardianistas I follow(ed) didn’t. I was repeatedly declared a misogynist for complaining about the word “mansplaining” and then blocked. Ho hum: it doesn’t matter, since I don’t follow sexists anyway so I’m well shot of them and their sexist attitudes.
At the heart of this kerfuffle was how to define “oppressed”. When pushed, the ones who didn’t like me objecting to the word “mansplaining” said that only the oppressed themselves could define who was oppressing them. I pointed out that the total fuckwits in the so-called “English Defence League”, an off-shoot of the old National Front, defined themselves, wrongly, as “oppressed”. If we follow that logic, it means we’re not allowed to challenge the far-Right’s language and beliefs because they are oppressed (as they define it). But challenging their language and beliefs is something I believe in doing as often as possible (I can’t pass a so-called “Christian” with a selectively-quoted placard condemning gays to death without offering a heartfelt and sincere shout of “fuck you!” in response).
Sadly, a mention of the morons in the EDL was enough for some (otherwise sensible) people to declare loudly that they had been compared to the EDL by a misogynist. Really: if you need the word “compared” explained to you, then you have bigger problems than attempting to defend your use of neo-hate speech from fellow feminists. Then they and their followers blocked me en masse.
The experience has left me slightly hollowed out. I probably won’t draw attention to the use of anti-male language in future, so score that one as a victory, people. But then I probably won’t draw attention to the use of anti-female language either. But perhaps that’s a victory too. Perhaps there *are* feminists out there who truly *do* believe that it’s better to silence a fellow feminist they disagree with than to listen to what he has to say. I’m just glad I don’t have to mix with them, wha
tever sex, colour, sexuality, nationality, locality, religion or class they claim to represent. I’m happy sticking with the majority for once.