Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Feminism, men and the "authority of experience"

In the comments on the Feministe thread about sexism in Saudi Arabia and in the United States, a man's comment that "to say we have even a remotely similar patriarchal culture is an insult to America" earns him this response:

You don’t suffer this kind of s**t, Talldave, so f**k off. You don’t get to tell women what culture we have, what we endure, and what we live through. If you want to find out, try shutting up and listening.

This is a common attitude, albeit usually expressed in somewhat less obnoxious and less potty-mouthed fashion: women are the sole authority on sexism, and for a man to question their perception of the oppression of women in this culture is insensitive, chauvinistic, and indeed the mark of an oppressor.

There is, of course, the minor fact that not all women see themselves as part of the radical feminist "we." In my experience, the world described by some of the posters at Feministe — a world in which male physical and sexual violence toward women is as common as the common cold, and is condoned by most men except for a few enlightened specimens — bears little resemblance to reality. Of course, on the same thread, a woman who says that she works with domestic violence victims and does not accept the radical feminist view is dismissed as a liar, a wannabe man, or perhaps a man posing as a woman.

But that aside, what's wrong with listening to the male perspective? If men tell us that they don't see themselves as particularly powerful, or as having been granted full license to use and abuse women as they please, why isn't their side of the story worth hearing?

Crazy idea, I know.


Anonymous said...

While I disagree that those at feministe necessarily portray male-on-female violence as being as widespread as "the common cold" (and while I certainly agree with their argument that simply because other societies are much more misogynistic should not mean that America and other western countries are lauded and presumed to be blameless in that respect), at times I am rather uncomfortable with the "authority of experience" argument. Not because I feel it to be inherently unfair - most men *are* probably going to be less aware than women of sexism and the ways it manifests itself , not due to any kind of malice, simply because, as men, it is often not in their realm of experience - but because I feel that it is too widely applied, often in situations where it would be better to demonstrate why one feels that something is sexist. I think it is used predominantly in situations where commenters feel another commenter is being deliberately obtuse, or has an agenda that they are hiding. But yes, I agree that it is probably not the best argument (if one can even call it that) to use if one is attempting to convert anyone, and i do feel that the insularity of some feminist communities online does allow them to get too comfortable with the'shorthand'of the "authority of experience" rather than bothering to explain in more lengthy terms what they feel the commenter is missing.

Anonymous said...

is it so hard for us all to agree that life in the USA right now is certainly up in the top ten all time places for liberty, justice, and fairness, and that the drop off once you leave say the top 25 is pretty sharp, and yet still say that life in the USA is for the most part still a tough, unfair, cruel, unjust experience?

of course implicit in this is an admition that liberty, justice, and fairness are NOT relative terms.

Anonymous said...

The problem with "authority of experience" is that one's own experience (and that of one's friends) is not a statistically accurate reflection of reality. This is something that I've noticed many of those arguing from experience apply to the other side but not to themselves. For example if the argument is "I can speak about how women are victimized because I personally have experienced x," I've noticed the arguer often then fails to realize that it's equally valid for others to say, "I can speak about how women *aren't* victimized because I have had experience y."

Argument from personal experience often seems to me to be a lazy, sloppy attempt to automatically "win" by short-circuiting the need for facts through an appeal to emotion. After all, if someone says, "I'm a rape victim so don't you *dare* tell me that women aren't oppressed" in just those words, anyone posting later is going to look pretty insensitive by pointing out that just because the poster has had that experience, does not mean that all or even most men are evil rapist b******s, or that society condones rape. Furthermore, I think it can turn already heated subjects into flamewars, as people often then begin to interpret differing positions as personal attacks and to respond accordingly. I personally try to avoid using this kind of argument in my own postings, and also try to avoid those who engage in it, since it often seems to me that they aren't really looking for rational discussion so much as they are looking for a fight.

Anonymous said...

Actually, we listen to men's points of view ALL THE TIME.

The problem is that they, on the other hand, have the luxury of choosing to listen to women, or not as their fancy takes them.

Blogs and other forums are the ONLY places I have to actually hear women's stories and points of view, so yeah, it's pretty annoying when you continually get men coming in and attempting to divert all the attention away from what the women are saying to THEM, and THEIR ideas and THEIR opinions.

I'm more than a little tired of the fact that "patriarchy hurts men too" being used as an excuse to minimise or mask the damage that it does to women.

I'm also wondering why it should be considered so out of line to expect men to shut up and listen to women on a specifically feminist forum, the entire purpose of which is to give women a voice.

Crys T

Anonymous said...

Blogs are the *only* place you have to hear about women's stories?

I'm not exactly sure what you mean by this or how this could be--I'm looking over at my bookcase right now and it's *stacked* with biographies and autobiographies of women by women, including figures as diverse as Catherine the Great, Queen Elizabeth I, Temple Grandin (a woman who writes about her life as an autistic), Hillary Clinton, Mineko Iwasaki (a Japanese geisha trained in the classical tradition), Jean Sasson's writings on women's lives in Saudi Arabia and Iraq ("Princess" and "Mayada: Daughter of Iraq"), Helen Morrison (a forensic psychologist who works with serial killers), and Miriam Williams (a woman who has written about her escape from the cult "Children of God" IIRC). And that's just a fraction of my collection and doesn't even count the books that I didn't bring to school with me.

Yes, I have eclectic reading tastes.

Anyway, it seems to me at least that there are many places to hear about women's lives and points of view, and that blogs are just one of these. *shrug* But that's just me.

Iguana said...

Actually, I and many other men don't much care what the rebel-without-a-cause feminist crowd think or believe we should do.

We used to, I think. I we used to allow them to tell us to shut up and then hide behind the mantra of being women. But that has left half of the population without basic civil rights (ala VAWA).

So, you are seeing many more men speak up and speak loudly now. When someone is wielding a blunt and destructive instrument, it doesn't much matter what sex they are.

Cathy Young said...

Interesting comments all! Sorry I haven't had time to reply as yet -- will do so ASAP.

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