Saturday, 8 March 2008

Citoyennes and their others

It's International Women's Day, today, and I'm pondering my feminism (and navel). I'm wondering if feminism is the right word for what I call feminism. I want to eliminate from reformist and revolutionary talk all those old oppositional categories (man and woman, worker and boss, child and adult, animal and human). I want to do away with thinking that propounds the rights of women, or the rights of workers, or the rights of animals, or the rights of refugees.

I want the categories of "woman", "worker", "animal" to become politically meaningless. I want everyone who can feel pain or happiness to count as a person. I want it not to matter if you're two years old, or forty years old, or a dog, or a possum, or Greg Norman, or very ill, for everyone you encounter to treat you with empathy and respect.

I know I sound like a romantic nit (speaking of nits, someone will rightly shout out, "What about the fleas? Do they get empathy and respect too?"). I'm quite earnest, though. I have belatedly decided that empathy isn't just an important virtue in some airy sense, but is the key to lasting political change.

Coming up next: The Problem of Evil, Solved.


Martin Kingsley said...

I'll drink to that, even as the malignant glands responsible for my enlarged misanthropy clamour for attention and emit more of their noxious toxins directly into my cerebral cortex.

Also, I'll look out for that rather charming photo gleaming glossily back at me from the inside cover of a spiffy hardback, shall I? It's rather a good 'un.

Martin Kingsley said...

Rather, rather. Also, rather.

/eyeroll at my own inadequate editorial policing

Ampersand Duck said...


Can't wait for the evil bit.

eyrie said...

Well, my feline sweetheart didn't feel all that equal when I took her to the vet this morning, even though I assured her that it was because I love her like my own child and feel the pain of her funny bottom troubles most keenly and empathetically.

How do you wear scarves so well? You and my sister both. I bet you also do a sideline in crocheted beanies rakishly askew. I never know what to do with such things.

(With apologies for lowering the tone).

alexis said...

Ach, sorry to the cat of your heart, Eyrie. Bottom troubles sound like no fun at all.

I'm not sure that talking about "equality" is all that helpful. We're not born the same, with the same capacity to attain intellectual or bodily strength, and a movement towards making everyone equal presupposes a norm that we're all being pushed towards: agitating for women to be "equal" to men, for instance, suggests that men inhabit a normal (and desirable) status. What I would say, though, is that everyone's happiness matters whether a person is well-equipped to pursue and attain that happiness or not. Does everyone's happiness matter equally? I don't think that a snail's happiness is as important as a human's, so maybe I do think there are gradations of entitlement to happiness, but I'm not sure in what those gradations consist, and I'm viscerally appalled by the idea that an intelligent sensitive person has more right to happiness than someone who's less so.

alexis said...

Thanks for the resounding affirmation, Ampersand & Kingsley. I was worried I sounded a bit fey and whimsical. What I meant to say was that it's no good to do away with oppression ranged along the lines of, say, sex, if you perpetuate oppression ranged along some other lines. But that's not to say that a fight against oppression in general can't take up specific and local projects that only affect a small number of people. Small numbers of people are people too!

alexis said...

The photo's going on the dust jacket of my forthcoming biography, My Life as Sir Edmund Hillary.

eyrie said...

I will pass on your regards. I had thought that bottom troubles were more the lot of the boy cats, but, alas, my little pikachu has been lucky thus far.

I think empathy isn't so much about seeing others as being the same as oneself as it is about recognising that a different mode of being is just as legitimate as one's own. I probably take a more prosaic view- it's not difference which is at issue but the way difference has been and is still exploited economically.

nandi said...

Dear Lexicon Harlot,

I am writing from the city where we once met for a day in a large and central park with the squirrels. It has been a long time since then, and I've been admiring your posts from afar. I have been drawn to reply to this one.

I am worried about your proposal to give up on several of our concepts, and I don't think doing so will serve your very proper concern with empathy.

There are a few reasons I think this. One is that in giving up 'woman' or 'animal' or 'black' (say) we are giving up so many ways of making sense of our lives, including the forms of oppression we can suffer. Maybe an example would help explain what I mean. Take J.M. Coetzee's novel Disgrace. That the protagonist helps himself to sex with 'exotic' young women (the student he rapes, the prostitute he sleeps with are dark skinned or haired) is informative about the kind of man he is, and about the kind of wrong he perpetrates. It matters that he is a white man losing his power at the dawn of the new South Africa, and that these are women he sees in a certain way. Without these oppositional categories, as you call them, we couldn't understand any of this.

I think it is important to recall the good of our concepts. Concepts make our experience articulate. Do we want to flatten our descriptive resources so that persons are the only subjects we can speak of?

You might say there are certainly concepts we would do well without -- derogatory concepts, say. But even here it is important to remember how concepts can be re-claimed by those they have been used to oppress, and projected in new ways. The history of the term is important to this form of conceptual overcoming.

I'm also not sure what it would mean to give up the concepts you list, what would be involved in doing that. Can we still make sense of the very different roles fleas and women have in our lives?

Finally, I want to hear more about why oppression is wed to conceptual distinctions, on your view. Human beings and primates and birds are all vulnerable to suffering and capable of joy -- what is wrong with putting it this way? Why do we have to say 'persons'? The concepts 'bird' and 'primate' don't seem to have written in to them 'less worthy than human beings'. If that is often how these concepts are used or understood, then that, it seems to me, is an argument for getting us to think about the lives of birds or primates differently. Doing away with the very concepts will only forestall our efforts. Or so it seems to me.

nandi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
alexis said...

Nandi, my heart did a little leap when I saw your name! How lovely to hear from you! I hope you're bearing up well with the slings and arrows and Eliot Spitzers of New York.

I don't have time right now to reply to this excellent 'pistle from you, but I will reply, soon.

Meanwhile, here is sumpin' I just read:

"Personality essentially involves the capacity for rights and constitutes the concept and the basis (itself abstract) of the system of abstract and therefore formal right. Hence the imperative of right is: 'Be a person and respect others as persons.'"

- Hegel, Philosophy of Right

I haven't thought long enough about this to want to say what I think of it. I'm still trying to work out what I think of rights discourse: I like the idea that being-able-to-feel (which I want to say, in my clunky way, is the same as personhood - but perhaps you'd stipulate for self-consciousness) qualifies you for consideration; but in fact there are egregious differences between human rights discourse and practice, and in theory, I'm not sure how much appeals to a person's rights help us make moral decisions.

But more later, when I surface from schedule.

Much love,


alexis said...

"Surface from schedule" - title o' my new poe-tree anthology, which is to say "surface from my schedule of markings, lectures and leisurely pootles round the internet".

alexis said...

There's something kinda tautological about all this: a person has rights because she is a person, and persons have rights.

nandi said...

Dear Alexis,

It's lovely to be in touch! This will also just be quick. I have always found the discourse about rights unsatisfying. I have a right to my personal space, or my property. But where our relationships with animals and human beings are concerned, I feel we need more substantial notions -- love is one, justice is another. The first is, I want to say, higher than 'rights', the second is more stern.

Lovely to be having a conversation with you,