Morbid symptoms?

I’ve always been fascinated by the process of conversion, whether religious or political, having experienced a few myself. What does it actually mean to change one’s mind, and what is really going on when a person decides (or finds themselves compelled) to exchange one set of deeply-held beliefs for another?

For some, conversion may be a sudden, road-to-Damascus thing, but I suspect that for most the experience is rather more complicated and long-drawn-out. Converting to a new religious faith or adopting a new political outlook can often feel like a painstaking journey across an uncharted landscape, in which the familiar world you’ve left behind only gradually fades into the background, and the final destination only slowly comes into view.

One of the things I’m intrigued by is the way that, during the transition from one belief system to another, elements of one’s former worldview persist, even when the intellectual foundations that underpinned them have started to crumble. To quote one of the books I’m reading at the moment, paradigm shifts leave behind ‘untidy residues’ of the paradigm that they are superseding.* Or to repeat an over-used quotation from my erstwhile political hero Antonio Gramsci: ‘The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear’. In my current political transition, which I attempted to describe in a couple of the final posts on the old blog, some features of my old progressive leftism hang on in there, and I struggle to integrate them into my new perspective.

An example of this is my commitment to gender equality, which has always been a cornerstone of my politics, as well as providing the motivation for much of my work as an educator and researcher. As I noted in those earlier posts, the socialist outlook, of which pro-feminism was a key part, and the general Enlightenment-rationalist-progressivism that underpinned it, have lost their appeal for me. But this particular element of the superstructure that was built on those foundations doggedly persists.

Not only that, but fate (or Providence) appears to be playing an ironic game with me. At the very moment when these major changes are taking place in my thinking, and just when I could really do with some intellectual ‘down time’ to take stock and reflect, I’ve finally begun to achieve some success in my academic work on gender equality: winning a major research grant, being invited on to working groups, getting asked to take part in panel discussions with politicians and business leaders. I’ve even got involved in a couple of online spats with men’s rights activists (it’s not that I don’t agree that the wilder fringes of feminism need critiquing, but I tend to see the men’s rights movement, with its me-too victimology, as part of the problem, not the solution).

All of which is forcing me to do some difficult intellectual work, to clarify for myself what I now think about these issues. Specifically, I keep asking myself: what new grounds can I find for my continuing belief in gender equality, and to what extent might that new framework change the nature of my commitment?

These questions came into sharp focus for me recently when I attended a couple of conferences on men and masculinities in the United States. This is not the place for a general description or evaluation of those events, but I want to share a number of ‘moments’ when a sense of profound alienation from the general consensus among those attending really struck me.

  1. The big cheer for Planned Parenthood

One of the speakers at the opening night gala of the first conference was a local councillor, bringing greetings on behalf of the Democratic mayor of the city. He was keen to burnish his own pro-feminist credentials, and as an additional claim, to enlist his wife’s accomplishments – among which were many years working for Planned Parenthood. This was met with enthusiastic whooping and clapping from some parts of the audience, in response to which the councilman smiled and said, ‘Yes, that always gets a big cheer’.

Well, I wasn’t among those cheering. Planned Parenthood is ostensibly, of course, one of the major providers of family planning advice in the US, but it’s also responsible for around 300,000 abortions per year. Not only that, but its much-lauded founder, Margaret Sanger, was a notorious eugenicist and racist (and poor African-Americans still account for a disproportionate number of US abortions). This is not the place to debate the legality or otherwise of abortion, but whichever side of the divide one is on, surely the termination of so many potential lives should be a cause for regret rather than something to cheer about?

I was reminded of another awkward moment (for me, anyway), at a government-sponsored event in Whitehall, when I listened to a senior civil servant reporting back on some Europe-wide negotiations on a gender equality resolution, and noting that a clause on ‘reproductive rights’ had been vetoed by ‘an unholy alliance’. At this point, rather proud of his joke, he winked at the audience and added, ‘I think you know who I mean’. (He meant, of course, the Vatican and a number of conservative European political parties.)

Neither of these were comfortable moments for anyone who regards themselves as both pro-equality and pro-life, seeing support for women’s rights and for the rights of the unborn as part of a seamless web, what Catholic social theorists call a ‘consistent ethic of life’, along with with opposition to euthanasia, capital punishment and unjust wars.

Question: is it possible to be pro-feminist and also pro-life? Actually, I don’t need to answer that, since organisations such as Feminists for Life, New Wave Feminists and the Susan B. Anthony List have already gone there.

  1. The Steinem interpretation of history

One of the keynote speakers at the same gala event was a veteran American feminist. OK, it was Gloria Steinem (and I’ve written about her before.) For the first ten minutes of her talk, I thought Steinem was actually one of the better speakers, in an evening that inclined rather towards repetition of pious platitudes. But then she went off-script and treated us to a long historical excursion, in which we learned that everything in the gender garden was rosy until European civilisation came along and imposed inequality on an idyllic prelapsarian and gender-equal world.

Turning to her own country, Steinem claimed that Native American society upheld genuine gender equality and, once again, it was those pesky European settlers who upset everything. Well, one doesn’t have to be an apologist for western colonialism to realise that this was a load of hokum. In fact, a strong counter-argument could be made that it was only the combination of Greek rationalism and Judeo-Christian theology, bolstered by the Enlightenment, that made it possible to think of women as autonomous individuals with rights, rather than the chattels that they often were in the ancient pagan world.

Harmless nonsense on Steinem’s part? Possibly. But it could be argued that this skewed version of history is dangerous, because it plays into a wider regressive left narrative, in which ‘the West’ is to blame for all the ills of the modern world, and which non-western cultures are idealised and let off the hook, even when they perpetuate forms of gender oppression more egregious than anything in western democracies.

Question: Is it possible to be pro-gender equality without buying into the wider anti-western, culturally relativist narrative of the regressive left?

  1. All power to the state!

At one of the sessions at the same conference, a speaker on gender and care (a topic close to my own academic interests) spent a good deal of time and energy excoriating ‘neoliberalism’, that catch-all bugbear of the academic Left. His central thesis was that, as the role of the welfare state began to recede in many developed countries, care was in grave danger of being ‘privatised’.

But hang on a moment: isn’t care precisely a private thing, something belonging not to the state, but to the intimate bonds of affection and reciprocity between family members and close friends? OK, so there are certainly instances when family care breaks down and the state, on behalf of the wider community, needs to step in and play its part. But shouldn’t this be the exception, rather than the rule?

At the same conference, a keynote speaker argued that progressives need to ‘take back’ the idea of ‘the family’ from the Right. But does the Left, including the gender-equality Left, actually believe in the family, and accept that families have rights and responsibilities that are no business of the state?

Question: If you believe in gender equality, do you have to believe that it can only be achieved by giving the state greater control over people’s lives? 

  1. The apology on behalf of North Carolina

At the second US conference that I attended, one of the first people I met was a delegate from North Carolina. Almost his first words to me were a profuse apology on behalf of his home state. Why? Because it had recently passed legislation requiring individuals using public restrooms to use the facility that accorded with the gender of their birth. Transgender campaigners were up in arms about this, arguing that people should be allowed to use whichever restroom matched their chosen identity.

What irked me about my fellow delegate’s apology was his assumption that, as somebody who believed in gender equality, I would automatically sympathise with his position on this other issue. But, as it happened, I didn’t (though I kept quiet about it). Like a lot of people – including many women – I have strong reservations about a public policy that would allow individuals who are biologically male to enter facilities currently reserved for women and girls. And going further, although I accept that a small minority of people experience gender dysphoria and deserve sympathy and support, I don’t believe that gender identity is completely fluid or simply a matter of ‘choice’, nor that it is totally unrelated to biology.

Surely this is one of those issues where a newly-discovered ‘agenda’ actually conflicts with existing rights – in this case, the rights of women and girls to privacy and safety – and deserves a nuanced and cautious response, rather than simply shouting about a newly-discovered ‘oppression’?

I find this happens a lot on the gender equality scene, and on the Left more generally. If you’re known to be ‘sound’ on one issue, people assume they know what you think on a whole lot of other issues to (the most recent example here in the UK being the Brexit vote, of course). The progressive Left is actually incredibly homogenous: if you know what someone thinks on one issue, you can usually predict what their views are on other things. And then there’s what I describe as the ‘additive’ approach to oppressions: when a fashionable new cause comes along, you just add it to the list, even if the newly-discovered ‘rights’ actually conflict with those you already believe in.

Question: Can you be pro-feminist without buying into every one of the fringe issues that attach themselves to the gender equality agenda? 

So there you have it: a series of questions prompted by being in this strange transitional condition, having let go of one set of philosophical assumptions, but not quite secure in, or clear enough about, the new set of beliefs that I’m moving towards. Are my questions ‘morbid symptoms’ of a mind that can’t quite decide what it believes, or legitimate issues that need to be worked through, if my current ‘conversion’ (if that’s what it turns out to be) isn’t to be merely a reactionary swapping of one set of off-the-shelf nostrums for another?

I’m hoping that this new blog – or rather, this new incarnation of an old blog – will be a place where I can work through these and similar issues. I hope the debates that I have with myself might occasionally be of passing interest to others, even if you don’t always agree with my conclusions. Please feel free to join in the discussion via the comments.

*The Submerged Reality: Sophiology and the Turn to a Poetic Metaphysics by Michael Martin (Angelico Press, 2015)

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