Ariel Pontes, YouthSpeak March
As a feminist I am often confronted, especially online, by self-declared antifeminists who passionately denounce the ideology resorting to all manner of creative accusations. But is there any basis for so vehemently attacking feminism? With the occasion of the women’s month, I present the most common fallacies that compromise the antifeminist discourse.
Straw man argument
Feminists are oversensitive man-haters and a threat to free-speech! All they do is self-victimize and vilify men and the patriarchy! They can’t take a joke and accuse everybody of being sexist contributors to rape culture! They’re radical and will and do anything to advance they’re agenda!
The straw man argument consists of misrepresenting your opponent’s view so that it’s easier to attack them. This may be intentional or a result of a genuine misunderstanding of the opponent’s ideas. While I agree that the behavior described above is ridiculous, none of it follows from the definition of feminism and it’s profoundly questionable whether they even apply to a significant number of self-proclaimed feminists.
“Feminism, the belief in the social, economic, and political equality of the sexes.” – Encyclopædia Britannica
How is it questionable? It’s clear! Look at what feminists have said:
“I feel that «man-hating» is an honorable and viable political act, that the oppressed have a right to class-hatred against the class that is oppressing them.” – Robin Morgan
“To call a man an animal is to flatter him; he’s a machine, a walking dildo.” – Valerie Solanas, author of the SCUM manifesto
Cherry-picking, also known as the fallacy of incomplete evidence, is selecting individual examples or evidence that support your argument (just like you pick good cherries) while ignoring the evidence that contradicts it (the bad cherries). It’s an instance of confirmation bias because it ignores that there are several feminists out there with a much more egalitarian discourse.
“We don’t often talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes but I can see that that they are and that when they are free, things will change for women as a natural consequence.” — Emma Watson
“A feminist is anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men.” ― Gloria Steinem
But most of the feminists I know are super radical! Look at this 9gag link and this screenshot from a comment on imgur!
Anecdotal evidence is evidence from informal accounts of personal experience. It is fallacious to draw conclusions from such accounts because it ignores the fact that one’s subjective experience is rarely representative of reality overall. That’s why proper science is always struggling to control for cognitive biases. It employs double-blind trials, reproducible experiments, rigorous sampling techniques, makes sure to propose falsifiable hypotheses, etc. In the context of feminism, the accusation of extremism should be at least backed by poll data in order for it to have any substance. I couldn’t find any. If you know of one, please share in the comments. Until then the accusation is baseless.
It doesn’t matter. Even if the radical voices within feminism are a minority, one bad apple is enough to spoil the bunch!
The double standard fallacy consists of using different standards to judge similar things. In this case, it is an instance of in-group favoritism: the antifeminist is lenient when judging the groups he or she belongs to, but has unrealistic expectations from the group he or she opposes. The truth is any movement is vulnerable to the rise of radical voices within it. This is not to say criticism is pointless: these voices must be criticised. It would be unreasonable for moderates to dismiss criticism with this argument. But it’s as unreasonable to claim a whole social movement is illegitimate just because radical voices within it exist. If this was the case it would follow that no social movement can ever be legitimate. After all, none of them is ever completely immune from the danger of radical voices sprouting up. That, clearly, is absurd.
Appeal to worse problems
Feminists are too worried about trivial issues and make a big deal out of their stupid first world problems while children are starving in Africa!
Also known as the fallacy of relative privation, it consists in disregarding an issue because there are other more serious ones to be solved. It is a fallacy because it relies on the unwarranted assumption that attempting to solve a less serious problem is somehow an obstacle to solving the more serious ones and working in parallel to solve both is impossible. Taken to the extreme, this reasoning would imply that before spending time on any problem, we should arrange all the problems of the world on a list ordered by importance and start working on them sequentially from the most to the least serious, which is absurd. Of course, this is not to say that spending an outrageous amount of resources on problems that are recognizably low priority should be accepted, the point here is to show that things are not so black and white as they may originally seem.
Besides, the gravity of some problems often makes them harder to solve as well. Demanding that Western feminists stop female genital mutilation in Africa, for example, is an unfair demand. There are many people trying, but it is a tremendous diplomatic challenge to enforce human rights on countries with different cultures while respecting they’re sovereignty. This brings us back to in-group favoritism: one’s group is judged lightly while the out-group is judged with unreasonably high expectations.
Equal treatment fallacy
Why would you separate women from men? How is this supposed to help? Why should they get special treatment? Women are not dumber! You shouldn’t make special events for them as if they were handicapped! Don’t they want equality? Then treat them equally!
The equal treatment fallacy consists of a naïve interpretation of egalitarianism which leads to the false conclusion that, in order to be a true egalitarian, you should always treat people equally.
“In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal loaves of bread.” – Anatole France
In an egalitarian society, different people should be temporarily treated differently whenever this contributes to achieving equality in the long run. And don’t say “men and women are already equal to me!”. There’s a big difference between wishful thinking and reality.
“When an individual (or a group of individuals) is kept in a situation of inferiority, the fact is that he is inferior. But the significance of the verb to be must be rightly understood here; it is in bad faith to give it a static value when it really has the dynamic Hegelian sense of ‘to have become’. Yes, women on the whole are today inferior to men; that is, their situation affords them fewer possibilities. The question is: should that state of affairs continue?” – Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex
A spin-off of red-baiting, PC-baiting is how I name the rhetoric artifice whereby a claim is rejected by accusing the adversary of being unreasonably sensitive and politically correct. It is a type of ad hominem and guilt by association because it is based on a feeling of distrust in the individual him/herself rather than the claim. Once the opponent is associated to a movement or ideology with a low enough reputation, any claim can be discredited. In red-baiting they’re accused of being communists. In PC-baiting of being politically correct social justice warriors who police people’s discourse, vilifying and publicly shaming well intended people for minor, arguably harmless slips. It is also a form of appeal to fear. This reasoning is fallacious because it doesn’t provide any argument attempting to demonstrate that the claim in fact crosses the threshold between a legitimate critical attitude and unreasonable over-problematization. It is also an example of black and white thinking and of the false-consensus effect because it fails to recognize that people will never agree on where to draw such a threshold in the first place. Of course, there must be a limit between legitimate and exaggerated problematization, but it lies in a continuum and therefore accusations require justification.
The root of the issue here seems to be whether to judge feminism based on its definition or on the current situation of the movement. Some say the definition is ok, but that the movement is rotten. As I argued, the truth is that in the absence of opinion polls we can’t be sure. And even if opinion polls do reveal extreme opinions to prevail in the contemporary feminist community (which I doubt), this will only be a valid objection to feminism as it happens to be at the moment, not to the ideology in principle. Feminism in one form or another is supposed to have existed at least since antiquity . Is rejecting the term altogether really the only legitimate attitude even in the scenario of the movement actually having become infected with radicalism? I for one would rather try and steer it back on track.
On top of that, there are those who refuse to accept the term itself, saying it’s improper to use the label “feminism” for a movement that claims to defend equality. Indeed, I think the label feminism stuck because it expresses more than simply the defense of equality. For me, feminism can be defined as the ideology that believes the following:
The second statement is very important. It’s the reason why I identify as a feminist and not merely a “gender-egalitarian”. There are many who claim to be egalitarians but identify as antifeminists and deny that women suffer an unfair share of the harms that result from society’s gender inequality, even flat out rejecting blatant truths such as the fact that females are much more likely to be victims of gender-based violence.
The bottom line is that feminism is imperfect and vulnerable to the rise of radical voices within it, but so is any other movement. Identifying as an antifeminist, therefore, is a needlessly hostile and terribly undiplomatic attitude that couldn’t be less constructive. Declaring yourself anti-anything should be reserved for seriously dangerous movements such as fascism and jihadism, which show scarcely any hope for debate, not feminism, Islam or religion in general, for example.
I for one used to declare myself anti-religion, but eventually realized that hostility is not pragmatic. Calling myself a critic of religion instead saves me time that used to be wasted working out tribalistic tensions. Still want to declare yourself an antifeminist? Fine. Just don’t claim to be rational, progressive and a supporter of gender equality and civilized debate. If you really think you’re all these things at the same time you’re clearly missing something.
Ariel Pontes is a Humanist from Brazil and is a member of Liga Humanista Secular do Brasil and Asociata Secular-Umanista din Romania.
The views expressed in opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the policy or views of the IHEU.