Can Feminism Endure Questioning?

At Feministing, Juliana Britto is impatient with privileged white males who, in conversation, play the “devil’s advocate” for non-feminist perspectives. Here are three quotes from her essay (as a representative taste):

  • These discussions [surrounding patriarchy] may feel like “playing” to you, but to many people in the room, it’s their lives you are “playing” with. The reason it feels like a game to you is because these are issues that probably do not directly affect you.
  • It is physically and emotionally draining to be called upon to prove that these systems of power exist. For many of us, just struggling against them is enough — now you want us to break them down for you?
  • Some might challenge that I am shutting myself off to new ideas and censoring important opportunities for growth. But these ideas you are forcing me to consider are not new. They stem from centuries of inequality and your desperate desire to keep them relevant is based in the fact that you benefit from their existence. Let it go. You did NOT come up with these racist, misogynistic theories. We’ve heard them before and we are f*cking tired of being asked to consider them, just one. more. time. So dearest devil’s advocates: speak for yourself, not for the “devil.” Teach yourself. Consider that people have been advocating for your cause for centuries, so take a seat. It’s our time to be heard.

I don’t like this. This way of talking sounds too much like the complaints a religious fundamentalist might make on hearing skepticism directed at religion. “What, you can make critical observations and walk away? It’s because you haven’t had my experience. You’re an outsider. You cannot possibly understand.” Well, yes, of course. That’s it. I am obviously not capable of imaginative sympathy, otherwise I’d agree with you completely. It’s not because your claims are in need of sustained critical scrutiny.

And no one is responsible for other people’s education. The breaking down of a point for others in conversation is fine only insofar as you actually want to do it (or are being paid to do it as a teacher). If you don’t want to do it, you can point them to a book and be done. If they don’t read it, that’s their choice.

I’m a feminist, I’m raising feminist daughters, and the surest way to make more feminists is to encourage, not discourage, persistent interrogation of claims, however dearly held. All claims. From any person that makes them. The hope of the world is in critical thinking.

Feminism is on the side of critical thinking and reason. It will win wherever it is in contact with reality and given space to speak in competition with other ideas. It can endure questioning and will evolve in the furnace of hard questions, even questions delivered ironically, in bad faith, or accompanied by a lack of empathy.

What we take seriously can be in the same room with another’s resistances and ironies. Coming out of closets (as gay, feminist, religious, conservative, fundamentalist, atheist, liberal, Marxist, libertarian, Muslim, etc.) doesn’t mean that this creates a social obligation upon others to step into closets themselves. Coming out of closets is not a zero-sum game. We can all be out of the closet about our thoughts and stay in the room together. We can work with each other’s perspectives. And if we don’t want this–if we want to cloister ourselves with the like-minded (as, say, the Amish do)–we can do that as well.

But dialogue requires patience and raising questions, including questions posed in the form of “devil’s advocate.” Nobody needs to shut up or temper such questioning. Adults can hear words, ideas, and questions–even irreverent and seemingly gratuitous ones. It may seem like a distraction or the long way around, but it’s actually the path of progress. If feminism is true, there’s no reason to especially fear or loathe questions and skepticism directed toward it.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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14 Responses to Can Feminism Endure Questioning?

  1. andrewclunn says:

    Well this is an easy one. No, feminism can not endure questioning.

  2. Staffan says:

    It depends on your definition of feminism but most forms seem to embrace the blank slate which is now throroughly disproven. All evidence suggest that you can’t raise your daughters to be feminists or anything else for that matter. That’s what’s referred to as shared environment which has zero or close to zero influence. The evidence is pretty solid and also relatively new, from the 1980s. They can’t refute it; that’s why they are angry and defensive.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Staffan,

      It’s always been a matter of genes AND environment (about 50-50 is a pretty good rule of thumb on most measures). Twin studies tend to put most traits at around the 50% heritable range. This means that development, environment, and learned habits should not be downplayed. Feminism of course can adapt to reality and endure questioning because so much of feminist thought accords with reality and is true.

  3. Staffan says:

    Your position is what I refer to as half slatism. The 50/50 rule is easy to remember and you still find it in introductory textbooks, but it’s nonetheless wrong. That which is called environment is actually environment and measurement error. Over time some researchers have conducted more accurate measure thus minimizing this error and these studies typically have heritabilities around 0.75-0.90. And the trend is clear: better measurements yield consistently higher heritabilities. The only behavioral trait with a low heritability is homosexuality.

    Equally important is the distinction between unique and shared environment. The latter is things like parents, school, local community. As I mentioned above, this influence is estimated at around zero for just about every behavioral trait you can find. All research show this but the study of adoptive siblings illustrate it the best. These children are raised together but share no genes. By early adulthood they do not resemble each other any more than two persons picked at random. It’s incredibly difficult for most people to accept that.

    And that’s what feminists and other social engineers have to work with – zero. That’s where the anger comes from. Yes, there is still an environmental factor, some 25 percent of the variance at the very most, but even if it’s 5-10 percent it’s still important. But that’s unique experiences, and it’s actually one of the big mysteries of our time (at least to those who are aware of this) what these experiences consist of. But we know what it’s not – parenting, type of school, information campaigns, diet etc. Some of it is likely to be non-social experiences like viruses, allergies etc.

    You can find more about this research and a discussion of its implications at Jayman’s blog, http://jaymans.wordpress.com/

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Staffan,

      First, your 75-90 (or even 100%) genetic determinism claim doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Genes code for proteins, not behavior, and those proteins can get turned on or off in response to environment. For example, an otherwise normal child genetically can have trauma in the womb, during development, that can have a large effect on the rest of that child’s life. Example: a woman who smokes during pregnancy, or a woman who is living in a time of war during pregnancy, is going to expose the fetus to chemicals and hormones that can trigger developmental pathways that are different from what might happen in a cleaner, calmer uterine environment. I do know of at least one study in which uterine exposure to high stress hormones is predictive of anxiety disorders later in life.

      As to development outside the womb, let’s say that a child with a genetic disposition to being overweight is not exposed to high calorie and fatty foods. There is a good chance that the child will maintain over her lifetime a body-mass index that is better than she might otherwise. This would come about by creating HABITS of eating that reinforce certain neural pathway/reward centers in the brain (ones that reward healthy food choices).

      And I have on my lap the Bible of neuroscience as I type this. It’s a textbook you should own as well. You can find an older edition at Amazon for perhaps 10 bucks. Mine is the 4th edition. It’s titled “Principles of Neuroscience.” It’s the most widely used textbook on the subject. It’s really fascinating reading, even for non-specialist/lay persons like us. The third chapter goes into a detailed discussion of genes in relation to behavior. It simply does not support your 75-90% idea. It’s much closer to 50% on most every measure, and it covers a lot of measures. For example, monozygotic twins and alcoholism are correlated at only 25% in females and 40% in males (pg. 58).

      Anyway, here’s the link. Feel free to respond. I have to be somewhere in about 10 minutes, so I’m cutting my argument short in this post:

      http://www.amazon.com/Principles-Neural-Science-Edition-Kandel/dp/0071390111/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1403550186&sr=8-3&keywords=principles+of+neuroscience+4th+edition

  4. Staffan says:

    “First, your 75-90 (or even 100%) genetic determinism claim doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Genes code for proteins, not behavior, and those proteins can get turned on or off in response to environment.”

    Sure, but if genes coding for proteins didn’t translate to differences in behavior then there would be zero heritability. Sure there are epigenetic effects but they have been greatly exaggerated in the media. And sure, at the individual level anything can happen – I can get hit by a truck and become a vegetable. But that’s not what heritability is about; it’s about how much of the variance in a population is due to genes.

    “There is a good chance that the child will maintain over her lifetime a body-mass index that is better than she might otherwise. This would come about by creating HABITS of eating that reinforce certain neural pathway/reward centers in the brain (ones that reward healthy food choices).”

    This is speculation. Fact is bodyweight and BMI have about the same heritability as intelligence and personality – and again, no shared environment. When two adoptive siblings are grown up there will be no more similarities on these measures either.

    As for your “bible” it matters little how good its reputation is. This is appeal to authority rather than science. You have to understand that there is a political aspect of this. The psychologists who do this research are 95 percent liberals who themselves admit to discriminating against conservative colleagues (yes, they said so anonymously in a large poll). When you start challenging this consensus your career goes down the drain or you simply get ignored. You don’t get to write the bible on neuroscience and you don’t get publicized in the MSM.

    But the “good” news is that the studies themselves are available online these days. So you can see for yourself. Alcoholism is of course not exactly like personality or obesity because access varies with local culture and legislation. So we’d expect a slightly lower heritability for that reason. I scholar-googled it and found studies indicating 61, 50, 55, and finally one that specifically stated that they had taken measures to minimize error variance. Here is a quote from it,

    “Accounting for errors of measurement in a multivariate twin model, the heritability of LTH-AD increased from 55 to 71%.”

    I bet Kandel didn’t tell you that.

    A similar study on regular personality traits,

    “Our analysis of self-report data replicates earlier findings of a substantial genetic influence on the Big Five (h2= .42 to .56). We also found this influence for peer reports. Our results validate findings based solely on self-reports. However, estimates of genetic contributions to phenotypic variance were substantially higher when based on peer reports (h2= .51 to .81) or self- and peer reports (h2= .66 to .79) because these data allowed us to separate error variance from variance due to nonshared environmental in-fluences.”

    And as I said, the trend is increasing heritabilities since then (the quote above is from 2006).

    Look at the actual evidence. It’s all there.

  5. Staffan says:

    The book looks interesting nonetheless, featuring some decent people like Uta Frith. I’ll have a look at it.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Staffan,

      Is it possible that you’re attacking a media/social policy advocate straw man rather than what the authors of “The Principles of Neuroscience” are actually saying? The authors of the text are researchers in the fields of medicine and neurobiology, not social scientists. The lead author won a science field Nobel Prize in 2000. You don’t think the textbook authors have thought about the issues you raise, have weighed them, and made unbiased range determinations on heritable traits? Really? They’ve already “conceded” that roughly half of behavior, temperament, etc. is due to inheritance. That’s not a blank slate, popular view of these matters. The sciences, including the social sciences, have largely moved on from the blank slate. Heritability, and its relation to policy, raises sensitivities, but the basic facts are largely admitted. The neurobiology textbook is weighing the basic facts. (Also note that I have the 4th edition, not the 5th. For all I know, the most recent edition has upped the percentages as additional research has come in.)

      But roughly 50% is still not enough for you. You want the “full Monty” of pessimism about human possibility (a much too bleak approach to democracy, to social experimentation, in my view).

      And I think the sort of straw man you’re attacking is the idea that with sufficient pumping of resources into a kid, that kid can go from an average math student to a math student who could get a degree in mathematics from Berkeley. That’s might be the implication of some media and policy advocates (“You can be anything you want to be!”), but that’s not what I understand scientists to be referring to in terms of heritability. If your genes would put you in the height range of 5’8 to 6’1, environment could nudge you toward the lower end of this range or the higher end, but it’s never going to make you a center for the Los Angeles Lakers, enjoying a height of seven feet. The same holds for your math range and your temperamental range (whether prone to introversion or extroversion, etc.).

      –Santi

      • Staffan says:

        “The authors of the text are researchers in the fields of medicine and neurobiology, not social scientists. The lead author won a science field Nobel Prize in 2000. You don’t think the textbook authors have thought about the issues you raise, have weighed them, and made unbiased range determinations on heritable traits? Really?”

        You sound overly naive here. That sort of respect kept the Freudians dominant for most of the 1900s – and they had nothing. I think Kandel and colleagues will do what most people regardless of educational level do – compromise, conform and try to get along and get ahead.

        “They’ve already “conceded” that roughly half of behavior, temperament, etc. is due to inheritance. That’s not a blank slate, popular view of these matters. The sciences, including the social sciences, have largely moved on from the blank slate.”

        “But roughly 50% is still not enough for you. You want the “full Monty” of pessimism about human possibility (a much too bleak approach to democracy, to social experimentation, in my view).”

        You make it sound as though we can negotiate about scientific research. To me it’s just a matter of going with the evidence – or not. But if you don’t go with the evidence I think you owe the creationists a big apology. And incidentally, I don’t want the pessimism – can you really believe I wouldn’t want some drug, therapy or other environmental factor that could enhance my abilities? But again, it’s not about me or your – or the prestige of certain people in Academia – it’s only about the evidence.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        Staffan,

        I feel like I’m debating a climate change denier who doesn’t apportion his own beliefs to the range of evidence at hand because he ignores what climate scientists say about the matter. In other words, expert testimony itself is a form of evidence. Expert consensus–arrived at by experts weighing and debating the details of the evidence–is itself a form of evidence to the lay person (especially on a matter requiring so high a degree of technical fluency, as is the case with neurobiology).

        Your position is thus grounded in your own half-assed, non-expert reading of data accompanied by a conspiracy theory designed to downplay the testimonial evidence at hand. Your conspiracy theory is that Nobel Prize winning scientists and leaders in their fields of study cannot write reliable textbooks or be trusted to be in the ballpark in making certain judgments because they are part of a community that enforces mores on its members. But this is far, far too cynical and simplistic a notion of how scientific disciplines function and arrive at consensus.

        You, as a lay person, thus have zero warrant for excess of confidence about the role of genes in behavior precisely because you KNOW that you are going against the consensus of experts. Put another way, you are not apportioning your belief to the evidence–all the evidence (which includes expert testimony). If you were being sensible in the way you are approaching this issue, you would say, “From what I can understand of the data and of the science of genetics, it seems to me that genetics plays a larger role in behavior than about 50%. But I also recognize that there is a consensus of experts that says it’s about 50%. Therefore, if I’m going to apportion my belief to ALL the information available to me, I should show some degree of doubt and distrust concerning my personal conclusion, and not be so cocksure that my lay person’s take on what I’ve read is more likely to be correct than the consensus of experts reading the evidence.”

        You wouldn’t contradict a consensus medical opinion arrived at on your behalf if 100 physicians diagnosed you one way and your personal physician diagnosed you another. And if your family doctor made more sense to you, you still wouldn’t take the opinion you share with your family doctor over the consensus. Why? Because you would be ignoring a key piece of evidence before you: the evidence of 100 experts who say your family doctor and you are full of shit.

        Another piece of evidence you’re ignoring is the status of the expert making the pronouncement. I shared a Nobel Prize winning scientist’s book, a highly esteemed expert who edited and wrote a text that included other highly esteemed colleagues from the best universities and medical schools. The book is widely regarded as the best general text in the discipline, used by medical schools the world over, and in the best universities. Put another way, other experts see the value in this text, and assign it to their students.

        The level of confidence with which you express your opinion on this matter is thus disproportionate to the evidence as a whole. The evidence you have right in front of you, and that you’re ignoring, is this: the testimonial evidence of the consensus of experts in the fields of genetics and neurobiology.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      As for the implication for feminism, I don’t see why what we know about genetics and hormones doesn’t make it triumphant. Where biology is destiny, feminism wins; where biology is not destiny, feminism wins; and where biology is only half of destiny, feminism wins. Why? Because feminism is an assertion of individual choice, of individual freedom. If I’m female and inclined to like traditional roles, I can be a homemaker; if I’m female, and attracted to other females, I can be an out-of-the-closet lesbian; if I’m interested in politics, I can enter the realm of politics; if science, science. An individual woman ought to be free to go wherever her skills and interests take her; she can be a maker of any sort, not just a homemaker.

      • Staffan says:

        If feminism was all about free choice, then I’d be a feminist too. But as far as I can tell, they tend to see equality of outcome as evidence of free choice – which presupposes that no biological differences between the genders can lead to different outcomes. Which is blank slatism.

  6. Staffan says:

    “I feel like I’m debating a climate change denier who doesn’t apportion his own beliefs to the range of evidence at hand because he ignores what climate scientists say about the matter. In other words, expert testimony itself is a form of evidence. Expert consensus–arrived at by experts weighing and debating the details of the evidence–is itself a form of evidence to the lay person (especially on a matter requiring so high a degree of technical fluency, as is the case with neurobiology).”

    “Your position is thus grounded in your own half-assed, non-expert reading of data accompanied by a conspiracy theory designed to downplay the testimonial evidence at hand. Your conspiracy theory is that Nobel Prize winning scientists and leaders in their fields of study cannot write reliable textbooks or be trusted to be in the ballpark in making certain judgments because they are part of a community that enforces mores on its members. But this is far, far too cynical and simplistic a notion of how scientific disciplines function and arrive at consensus.”

    Expert testimony is only as good as the evidence it presents. And you don’t have to be an expert to understand the science behind it. Anyone with a decent IQ can read and understand it. And a lot of it is available online. So why do want a secondhand opinion when you can see for yourself?

    “You, as a lay person, thus have zero warrant for excess of confidence about the role of genes in behavior precisely because you KNOW that you are going against the consensus of experts. Put another way, you are not apportioning your belief to the evidence–all the evidence (which includes expert testimony). If you were being sensible in the way you are approaching this issue, you would say, “From what I can understand of the data and of the science of genetics, it seems to me that genetics plays a larger role in behavior than about 50%. But I also recognize that there is a consensus of experts that says it’s about 50%. Therefore, if I’m going to apportion my belief to ALL the information available to me, I should show some degree of doubt and distrust concerning my personal conclusion, and not be so cocksure that my lay person’s take on what I’ve read is more likely to be correct than the consensus of experts reading the evidence.”

    This might be a good strategy if they had some explanation to why they disregard the studies that have made an effort to improve the quality of measurement and focused on those that didn’t. And if I thought there wasn’t a shred of political implication in psychology or that psychologists, as I’ve mentioned before are 95 percent liberal who admit to discriminating against conservative colleagues. It’s these issues that make me skeptical of the expertise, not overconfidence.

    “You wouldn’t contradict a consensus medical opinion arrived at on your behalf if 100 physicians diagnosed you one way and your personal physician diagnosed you another. And if your family doctor made more sense to you, you still wouldn’t take the opinion you share with your family doctor over the consensus. Why? Because you would be ignoring a key piece of evidence before you: the evidence of 100 experts who say your family doctor and you are full of shit.”

    I’d go with the evidence if I could understand it. If not I’d go with the consensus – knowing that there isn’t any politics involved. That changes the situation completely.

    “Another piece of evidence you’re ignoring is the status of the expert making the pronouncement. I shared a Nobel Prize winning scientist’s book, a highly esteemed expert who edited and wrote a text that included other highly esteemed colleagues from the best universities and medical schools. The book is widely regarded as the best general text in the discipline, used by medical schools the world over, and in the best universities. Put another way, other experts see the value in this text, and assign it to their students.”

    And this could not be a matter of politics? You seem to regard Academia as incorruptable. You fail to ask the critical questions: Why is research based on better measurements disregarded?

    “The level of confidence with which you express your opinion on this matter is thus disproportionate to the evidence as a whole. The evidence you have right in front of you, and that you’re ignoring, is this: the testimonial evidence of the consensus of experts in the fields of genetics and neurobiology.”

    Not really, because your idea that evidence is somehow linked to the prestige of whoever presents it and that this increases its value is simply wrong. Their endorsement of evidence doesn’t in any way change its quality. As someone clearly more conservative than you I shouldn’t have to tell you this, but you really need to question authority more.

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