Friday, August 1, 2014

The person is not the movement

Lately I have been seeing a lot of confusion between movements and the people that identify within them.  The one that made me the saddest by far is Women Against Feminism.  It is mostly a bunch of pictures of women holding up placards that describe why feminism is bad and they aren't part of it.  It contains lots of treasures like this one:

Look, I know jars are a serious problem but even if feminists generally wanted to kill or banish all the men there are nifty tools that let you open jars.  They have a handle and a circular piece of rubber that fits over the jar lid.  So really, don't worry about that.  Also seriously feminism is not about murdering, imprisoning, or sequestering all the men away.  It is about securing equal rights for everyone not forwarding the cause of jars at the expense of women.

I get why this lady thinks this.  She probably got exposure to some self identified feminists who really hated men and spent a lot of time vilifying them and that was not appealing.  If you think that feminism is all about hating men then rejecting it isn't just understandable - it is the only reasonable choice.  What positive endgame can a movement based on nothing but hatred have?

Pretty much all of the other pictures posted in that forum follow the same tale, though by and large they are more tragic than humorous.  They generally assume that feminism is synonymous with rejection of heterosexuality, child bearing, and having happy relationships of any sort with men.

Here is the thing.  There are people who claim they are feminists who believe those things.  A few radical feminists regularly argue these exact points and like most extremists they get more press than the middle of the road people who have much more representative and reasonable viewpoints.  When you openly reject a movement that has such admirable stated goals though you owe it to yourself and everybody else to take the time to seek out those moderate views.  There is always a danger in assuming that a single spokesperson adequately represents an entire group.  Particularly when you see a huge movement that has a huge number of members and which does not control who is a member you absolutely need to avoid finding the most ridiculous person that is part of it and projecting them onto the whole.

Another good example of this issue is Richard Dawkins as a figurehead for atheism.  Dawkins really knows his evolution and when he is talking purely about science he is a good person to listen to.  He is for many people the de facto spokesperson for atheists.  Unfortunately he sometimes goes on to talk about things he really doesn't know anything about and ends up saying things that range from somewhat problematic to really awful.  When he does this he ends up with a ton of atheists defending him from criticism because they identify him as such a critical part of their in group.

I am an ardent atheist and thus I would really like it if Dawkins as a prominent atheist was always right.  But he isn't.  He bones it up and when he does I absolutely have to call him on it.  Trying to defend him in order to defend atheism only ends up painting atheists as dogmatic and selfish, not to mention often as misogynists.  Plus people campaigning against faith as a way of life should really recognize just how much better their case is when they demonstrate the ability to change their minds and only support that which is logically and morally defensible instead of mindlessly defending The Cause.  Don't confuse Dawkins' blunders with the group as a whole - he is a widely recognized member, not some invincible avatar of scientific skepticism.

Humans have a remarkable tendency to get too wrapped up in our leaders.  We imbue them with magical powers and think of them as either evil incarnate or without flaw.  We also conflate supporting a cause or set of beliefs with supporting those associated with it.  Ideas and causes can be flawed but they are often a product of the imagination of many minds and much iteration towards excellence.  People on the other hand are a total mess and much more prone to screwing things up.  Whether you love a cause or hate it you really ought to very firmly and deliberately separate the cause from the foolish exploits of a tiny number of prominent people who are involved with it.

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