“These women are gender traitors,” snarled the New York Times following the election of Kavanaugh. “They’ve made standing by the patriarchy a full-time job.”
I’ve been thinking again about that election of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court last year. Not because I want to rake up old coals or claim he was innocent (for all I know he could well be a rapist – I’m not in the business of defending rightwing politicos).
No. I’m interested in Kavanaugh because of the reaction it provoked.
The article was by Alexis Grenell and attacked women for not siding with the Democrats against Kavanaugh. If they were women, it concluded, they had a “duty” to the left.
Duty? Women? It all sounds a bit nineteenth century to me. When did these people swear an oath of allegiance to their gender?
Attacking professional women for the crime of simply acting as free thinking individuals feels more than a little misogynist.
It’s not the first time I’ve seen this kind of thing. I remember being at a bar near the university; some PhD students I knew were sitting around and somehow the conversation had got round to sex. People were a little drunk. Perhaps the edge had been taken off.
And that was when Jana decided to speak.
Jana was a tall, shy Lithuanian woman who’d been chasing a set of post-grad funding opportunities around the globe. She’d spent a few years in the US and was currently in England – Manchester – for a while. She was working in a pub and had apparently met some local bloke who was “rough” (she didn’t specify how) and had a drinking problem.
“We’ve been together for two years,” she told us.
“Don’t you mind that?” asked one of the students. Middle class girls who do post-docs don’t generally go out with rough guys with drinking problems.
“Oh no,” Jana replied breezily. “I like a strong man.”
The temperature dropped by a couple of degrees.
“A strong man?” said the girl sitting next to me.
“Someone who dominates me,” said Jana.
There was pin-drop silence.
Now let me just repeat: I do not endorse her view. Not even slightly. I don’t think relationships should be based on power or inequality or “dominance” (what a horrible word). I’ve never sought any of this myself in my dealings with the opposite sex – frankly I find it hard to imagine myself “dominating” someone if I wanted to.
But here’s the thing. I also believe in the right of all human beings to their own beliefs and opinions.
Needless to say my friends were not going to let Jana’s comments go unchallenged. A heated – actually, appalled – debate ensued. How could she say that? Didn’t she know how sexist that was?
Now, it’s a free country, and my student friends had as much right to challenge Jana’s views as she did to express them. What bothered me was that they weren’t just challenging her views. They were questioning their very legitimacy.
And here’s the thing. They were doing so chiefly, it seemed to me, because she was a woman.
Jana was lying; Jana didn’t know her own mind; Jana had been brainwashed by the patriarchy. Running through it all was a general outraged incredulity that she could dare to express such a regressive opinion.
Now, I’m not blaming my student friends. I think they were only reacting in the way most artsy liberals would have reacted.
But I really, really disliked their line of argument. To tell a woman that her opinions are the result of brainwashing by powerful men seems extraordinarily patronizing to me. No, worse, than that: dehumanizing.
For a start, I don’t think it should be a crime to admit a fetish for power. Or hard drinkers. In many parts of the Eastern bloc the comment wouldn’t even seem all that controversial. I remember girls I met telling me they wanted a guy with a tinted Merc – a “businessman”. If you want proof that strong male figures have a cache out there just look at Putin’s bear hunting selfies. (I didn’t do well romantically in Russia).
Personally I think powerful men are massive pricks. Gym-bunnies, hunters, bear-trappers, Russian presidents – all pricks. But, you know: each to their own.
I hate to remind everyone, after all, but Kink is a major part of modern sexual activity. There’s a niche – but significant – number of people experimenting with various forms of roleplayed dominance and submission. Walking past Ann Summers will remind you. It’s not all one-way either. A good number of men also like to be tied up / hit / spanked.
So answer me this: why does a fetish for powerful partners suddenly become illegitimate the minute a woman expresses it?
The new left tends all too often to view people as defined by their class, gender or sexual orientation. They’re seen as products of some chain of hierarchy and “oppression” – and that on this basis they should act accordingly.
In this schema an American woman who supports Trump or Kavanaugh is a “traitor” – because she’s not a free-thinking human being, but rather a product of biology, femininity and patriarchy. In the identitarian mindset this seems to mean that she should espouse the “right” views. In other words, the left ones. The views that the liberal left approve of.
If she says things the left agree with, we celebrate her intelligence. If she doesn’t, we say she’s been brainwashed.
And it’s not just women who suffer from this kind of thinking. Just look at black conservatives who “dare” – the idea! – to vote Conservative. Or to challenge #Black Lives Matter or affirmative action. Or Muslim women who complain of sexism and misogyny and then find themselves getting rape and death threats from white liberals.
In 2015 Goldsmiths University Feminist Society eagerly joined in support of the Islamic Society to ban the feminist Maryam Namazie from speaking for being “dangerous”. Namazie’s crime is being an outspoken feminist Islamic apostate. Consider that for a moment: a society of feminists choosing to silence a woman for the crime of daring to speak out against a conservative religion run largely by men.
Once upon a time feminists were applauded for doing exactly that. Now we silence them. If this happened in Iran we’d call it oppression.
It’s not like this is even confined to minorities. The left is currently really fond of explaining Brexit – and the rise of populism in general – as the result of rightwing propaganda infecting the stupid, sheeplike brains of the “left behind” white working classes. Those poor dears! Little did they know that they didn’t actually have the power to form their own opinions. Media moguls, press billionaires, Putin bots, Cambridge Analytica: that’s what did it. In fact – given that these stupid working classes are just helpless unknowing victims of propaganda – perhaps we should think about stopping them voting at all?
Of course that would ever happen. Except – oh wait – it did.
But there are gaping paradoxes here. If rightwing women or working class Brexiteers are brainwashed, then what’s the magic pill that protected you from the same process? Reading the Guardian? Blogging for Buzzfeed? Does that make you automatically superior to these easily manipulated masses?
One of the victories of twentieth century feminism and civil rights was to make it clear that – no – women are every bit as capable of holding intelligent independent opinions as anyone else. This is a huge step forward for equality. So let me spell it out. A woman has a right to her views because you have a right to yours, and so do I. Even if she’s a rightwing woman. Or a black person who opposes Islam or #BLM. Or a working class person voting Brexit.
That’s what tolerance means: tolerating people whose views differ from yours. It’s not easy. But then why should we expect something like that to be easy?