Tag Archives: egalitarianism

Suffragettes, Mandela and ‘just violence’

Background

After stating my position with regards to egalitarianism and feminism last week, it was almost inevitable that there would be some objections and feedback. Some of these are included in the comments, though others were received elsewhere. Here I look at two objections that were put my way on Twitter but which tweets of 140 characters would be insufficient to deal with. If you like, you can work out how many tweets this blog post would need to be divided up into. Below is the conversation that took place which triggered this:

Summary 1 Summary 2 Summary 3

Beatrix Potter

As an early aside, please allow me to deal with the point raised about my advocacy of Beatrix Potter could be interpreted as infantilization. Of course, Potter is best known as a writer of children’s fiction. Yet she was much more than that. The characterisations which she brought to her writings were based on observations she’d made during the time she worked as a naturalist. She was also a pioneer of conservation, long before it was fashionable. To dismiss an advocacy of consideration to be given to her inclusion on a banknotes as ‘infantilization’ ignores the fact that she was a polymath. Not only have her stories brought great joy to many in this country (along with Austen) but the breadth of her other work is, I think, a fine example.  If people are ignorant of other work, perhaps putting her on a banknote might even help educate them.

Nelson Mandela

With that aside done, one must address the key issue: whether or not my statement that the suffragettes were regarded as terrorists was true. The comparison that was drawn was to Nelson Mandela, so it is to him we now turn.

To my generation, the first time most had heard of Nelson Mandela was when he was released from prison. I remember it being a newsworthy event, but given that he had been imprisoned before my lifetime, I knew nothing of his earlier activities. To me, he was the president whose election victory marked the end of apartheid. The narrative at the time was that he was a political prisoner; i.e. that he had committed no crime, but was merely incarcerated for his political views.

Upon looking into his past, one can read that he was an advocate of non-violent protest, but that his involvement with Umkhonto we Sizwe deterred him from this route into more direct action. From what I was able to read over the weekend, I could not find any direct evidence that he took part in any of the terrorist activities that were carried out by the group he was a part of, though he seems reasonably possible that he did have a hand in the wilful destruction of property. He certainly didn’t condemn it at the time.

What this does illustrate is the maxim that someone who is regarded by one group as a terrorist, may be described as a freedom fighter by another. As I pointed out, to try to be so binary as to say that Mandela is either a terrorist or a statesman is a false dichotomy. Individuals are complex beings who generally live for a long time. Mandela certainly fits that bill. In his younger days he took part in terrorist activities and his later years he was a great statesman. Though I would refrain from using the term “great” I would cite as another example Martin McGuinness. One could ask: is he a terrorist or a statesman? The question is based on a flawed premise that he is one or the other, but that a single person cannot embody both in their lifetime.

So I would state that Nelson Mandela was a terrorist, but that to simply slap that label on him and say no more would be not be reasonable. Similarly, with the suffragettes, I stated “To label the movement as such is not an attempt at discreditation, but rather an accurate descriptor”. It was also stated that Thatcher thought that Mandela should remain in prison and that the ANC were “only a terrorist org”. It should be noted that Thatcher did change her mind and later advocated his release. To label the ANC as only a terrorist organisation is to be simplistic and not a position I would support.

Just violence

Given that, the apparent supposition is that the violence the suffragettes carried out could not be classed as terrorism because it was justified. The reason for this justification is a little vague, though given the character constraints on Twitter, this might be cleared up in the comments. All I have to go on is that there was violence against women at the time. It would help if this were more specific; i.e. what forms of violence were used, against all women or just groups of them, any examples/case studies which might illustrate this.

Since this point cannot be directly addressed, I will instead discuss a more general idea which would seem to be related: whether violence is justified. By violence, I am here referring to physical violence including, but not limited to, assault upon other people, destruction of property (including acts of arson) and attempted murder. To expand to other types of violence would require an even longer blog post than this.

I would state my opinion as being highly, but not absolutely, pacifist. To be absolutely pacifist, one would not so much as raise a hand in self-defence. I don’t think I could live up to that high standard. Given the classic hypothetical situation that someone is attacking my mother, I would attempt to stop them.

What I do not agree with is physical violence beyond the self-defence. I do not support pre-emptive strikes against an opponent, violence in retaliation for other acts of violence or physical violence as a means to react against non-physical violence (e.g. economic, political or verbal violence). This position is held in respect of the individual and of groups of people (whether they be politically motivated or not). The case of warfare is different and I think it is very difficult, possibly even foolish, to attempt to come up with a personal ethic of justified violence that can be extended to violence between nation states or a civil war without that ethic having to be altered. To do so would be like trying to liken the economy to personal financial management.

Consequently, I think it does little good, when considering the question of the suffragettes, to  question whether the Dunkirk landings were justified or the American civil war. They are certainly questions that might be asked, but they are peripheral to the question in hand.

If I could put it pithily, if you come running towards me with a big knife, seemingly intent on stabbing me, a justified level of violence against you would be to attempt to disarm you, causing as little pain or injury or as possible. Any more than that would be unjustified. I would not try to shoot you dead, I would not react by burning down your home or kidnapping your family.

Given this stance, we come full circle to the question of the suffragettes and whether their acts of physical violence were justified. It might be argued that in being denied the vote women were being subjected to a level of political violence. In this respect, their movement was an extension of the earlier Chartist movement that began in the 1830s, under the dual leadership of the more peaceful William Lovett (one of my political heroes) and the more firebrand Feargus O’Connor, whose tendencies towards destruction were later echoed by Christabel Pankhurst. For much more detail on their activities, I would recommend, if it is available on 4OD, a fairly recent programme that Clare Balding presented, called Secrets of a Suffragette.

Yet I am not aware of any campaign of physical violence against the suffragettes, based directly or indirectly on their campaign, for which the arson attacks spearheaded by Christabel Pankhurst could be deemed to be self-defence. They were provocative acts of violence, made to attempt to get the suffragette voice heard. As stated in my original opinion piece, this is not a wholesale denunciation of them. The careful reader will recall that what I was uncomfortable about was the unfettered praise the suffragettes often receive.

The impact of the non-violent

It is asserted that to abjure all violence would reduce one to being a “non-actor in history”. I have no particular expectation to be remembered in history; very few people ever have been. Some of those who are remembered are so because of their violent acts, whether they be Alexander the Great, Gaius Julius Caesar, Saladin, Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler or Osama Bin Laden, just to pick a few names spanning the history of civilization. I’m sure you could pick 6 others who would fit the bill just as well.

Yet some are remembered for their nonviolent protests. I would immediately think of Gandhi, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. I think making a nonviolent impact on the world is harder than making a violent one. But I would rather be blessed as a peacemaker and be anonymous than be remembered for a single act of violence. I would doubt that those who seek peace are “non-actors” – it’s just harder to push a stone up a hill than it is to watch it roll it down again.

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On egalitarianism and feminism

Egalitarian and equality logo

I’ve pondered long and hard about whether to write on this subject. In fact, the first draft of this post was started in November 2011, but it got shelved, along with several others that I may dust off and heavily edit sometime. I do not write this to antagonise or offend, but rather to clarify my thinking, communicate that to you coherently and hopefully prompt you to think. I doubt all will agree with me and indeed, you are welcome to disagree with me in constructive debate in the comments if you so wish. In trying to be clear, I have not tried to keep this short, so I apologise that it is quite a long read. I hope you’ll find it worthwhile.

The problems in writing on the subject

Though I write this blog pseudonymously, it is no great secret that I am a man. So, the first problem then is ‘can and should a man write anything about feminism?’ I would give the answer, ‘yes’. If the answer were otherwise, then I would view that as sexist. No person should be discriminated on the grounds of their gender (indeed, I struggle to think of grounds whereby discrimination ought to be acceptable, though I am focusing here on one particular set of prejudices).

Even if we can agree that the answer is ‘yes’, can any aspect of feminism be critiqued without being dubbed “anti-feminist”, “sexist” or “misogynistic”? Again, I would say that the answer to this is ‘yes’ and indeed I shall be critiquing some aspects of feminism. I hope in so doing that I will not be considered to be any of those things just described, though I cannot but help think that given if this post gains a wide enough audience, that some might well think that of me. It was for fear of being verbally attacked that I postponed this, as it is a highly emotive topic to many.

I am also conscious of the need for precise wording. In the past, if entering into conversations, I have used slightly the wrong word which then becomes the sole focus of a verbal attack, losing all sight of the main topic of conversation. I have tried to be careful in my use of words and have proofread this a couple of times, though I cannot rule out the possibility of a misplaced word or two. If you think I have used an incorrect word in places, whereby its correction would not drastically alter the direction of my argument, then please let me know. If such a change would have a significant influence on the argument, then it is probably fair to assume that I have said what I mean. Probably, not certainly!

My position and semantics

I am not a feminist.

I support equal opportunities and equal representation of genders. I oppose discrimination on the basis of someone’s gender. I do not support sexism or anything that could reasonably be described as the denigration of one gender by another.

But this does not make me a feminist. I am egalitarian.

When it comes to determining matters of prejudice and privilege, I apply a “mirror test”. I.e. if you think something is not sexist, or not racist or not religiously discriminatory, then swap the genders, swap the races or swap the religions and then see if you still think it is not prejudiced. It is for this reason that I do not think that simply by being a male, that any opinions one might have on feminism are, a priori, worthless.

Though we have a few physiological differences which need to be mutually understood and respected, we have far more in common by virtue of our shared humanity which can and should be celebrated.

In stating my position of equality, I am sometimes told that I am a feminist because some dictionary definitions state that it is about equality. I have a Collins dictionary at home and it defines feminism as “doctrine or movement that advocates equal rights for women.”

The same dictionary also gives the following definition of an egalitarian: “a person who believes that all people should be equal.”

These two positions may not appear to be all that different. Indeed, I would say they are not. So even though I do not align myself with feminism, I am not wholly opposed to it.

In referring to dictionary definitions, one must also be careful to avoid taking them as complete and accurate. Those who tell me I am a feminist are often keen to point to the dictionary and state that I fit the bill. However, dictionaries are not the be all and end all of semantics. I assume most readers of this blog are either christians or take an interest in religion, so let’s go there for an example. The same dictionary from which I plucked the above has this to say about ‘faith’: “strong belief in something, especially without proof.” I don’t know of anyone of any religion who would say that that is a fair or true statement. It coincides very well (maybe even being derived from?) Richard Dawkins’ erroneous view, as espoused in The Selfish Gene. The fact is, it’s a lot more complicated than that. So it is with feminism and egalitarianism. To strip them down to one sentence summaries does both a great disservice and over-simplifies things.

Some qualms about feminism

In explaining why I am not a feminist, I must point out some issues I have with the movement. Here I will look at three, which seem to me to be common. Please continue to bear in mind, this is not a wholesale attack on feminism, I wouldn’t do that. These are just issues that I see present which sit uncomfortably with me.

Praise of the suffragettes

When looking at modern feminism, one can hardly escape the impression made on it by the suffragette movement. In some ways, this might be considered the heyday of feminism, when it was at its most radical. Yet the unreserved praise that is heaped on it makes me uncomfortable. Though I admire the guts and determination of the women of this movement, as an advocate of nonviolence, I cannot condone all of the actions that were carried out in the movement’s name. It was, at the time, considered a terrorist organisation, just as the IRA was in the 80s and 90s and as Al-Qaida are today. To label the movement as such is not an attempt at discreditation, but rather an accurate descriptor given the acts of arson carried out and other acts of violence.

Though we now have equal votings for men and women, I am not one to say that the means justified the end. So when I hear unfettered praise of the suffragettes, I cannot help but be unnerved by the advocacy of violence that is latent within. To my mind, it went a step beyond civil disobedience, which I personally view as a totally acceptable form of protest.

In any good movement, there are often unsavoury elements. But these need to be dealt with head-on rather than swept under the carpet. One of the issues that has stirred up much debate over recent months has been the replacement of Elizabeth Fry on the £5 bank note with Winston Churchill and the subsequent campaign to ensure female representation on at least one denomination of banknote (though, for the record, having been forced to read Pride and Prejudice at school, I am no fan of Jane Austen and thought that Beatrix Potter would have been a better choice). Often coming near the top of ‘Great Britons’ polls and the like, Churchill was not exactly a paragon of virtue. Anyone who has looked into his role in the suppression of the Mao Mao uprising can testify to this. For anyone interested in a critical look at Churchill, I would recommend Richard Toye’s book, Churchill’s Empire.

A word

If there is one word that riles feminists more than any other perhaps, it is the one about which this paragraph is concerned. It is a word that is sometimes too easily used in the accusative, when it ought not to be. With any feminists with whom I have had discussions which cover the territory with which this blog post is concerned, every one of them has reacted with fury at the mention of the word, adamant that all feminism is free from it. Yet the evidence of what I read and hear tells me that is not wholly untrue. By using it, I would expect this paragraph to be the source of the most disagreement and the focus of any attack on me, if it is forthcoming. Though many, indeed most, feminists that I know of could not fairly be described as having this trait, I could not claim for it to be absent from all without telling a lie. What is this word? If you guessed it was misandry, then that would seem to be an acknowledgement that what I have said is true. As stated earlier, I would ask anyone who contests this to apply the ‘mirror’ test to statements made by, and in favour of, feminists. Though the majority will not be sexist, I’d be surprised if an unbiased application of the test came up 100% sexism-free.

Representation of all women?

The third part is the question of “who is feminism for?” The easy answer is to say that feminism is for women. After all, isn’t that the dictionary definition given above? Again, though, this demonstrates the deficiency of the dictionary definition. Feminism often fails to come across as an empowerment of women; it comes across as an empowerment of feminists. Yet one has to recognise that not all women are feminists and that some actively are against it. Yet when I read, hear or see debates between feminists and non-feminists I am appalled by the level of patronisation (and yes, I am aware of the irony of the etymology of that word) shown to the non-feminists, which are often in the same “you silly woman” tone that is used by misogynists when denigrating women.

One must then face up to the legacy and ideas on one figure of modern history: the late Margaret Thatcher. Though she did not align herself with the feminist movement, she was in many ways the epitome of it. She showed that a woman could achieve the highest position of authority in the land not bestowed on them by birthright (though it’s worth noting that the monarch has been a woman for roughly 125 out of the last 176 years). Yet I am uncomfortable with otherwise reasonable, liberal feminists who speak out in praise of her. To me, as an egalitarian, no one should have their ideas and legacy attacked because of their gender, it should be an irrelevant factor. Yet I would maintain that anyone can and should have their ideas and legacy attacked if they are worthy of being so. And I would have little hesitation (though Cameron is starting to be a serious competitor) in saying that she was the worst prime minister in my lifetime; I was born after she came to power. I say that not as an attack on her because she was a woman but because of what she did. It is the defence of her, because she was a woman, that I find I cannot agree with. Again, applying a mirror test, it would be to defend Cameron’s legislative programme attacking the most vulnerable in society because he is a man. In my view, it is simply wrong. Admiring the strength of someone’s conviction regardless of where that conviction is pointed is not an admiration I could ever echo.

Consequently, we must be careful to discern, when someone is being verbally attacked, between whether they are being attacked because of their gender or because of what they have said and done. The former is sexism and is not, in my opinion, in any way acceptable. The latter, however, if done constructively and with due grace, may be justified. If anyone attempts to use anything like the phrase, “[because you are woman/man]” then their credibility may well be damaged. If their argument rests on such a clause, I would consider them to have lost that argument.

What about christianity?

If I am uncomfortable to wear the label ‘feminist’, given its negative connotations, one might fairly ask of me, “why, then, are you comfortable to be called a christian?” Indeed, there are a great many evils that have been committed in the name of the christian faith. I hope to look at this topic on the blog soon, as it’s another post I shelved a while ago. If you wish to read about these, just pick up any book on the Crusades, the Borgias or on abuse that was at first committed and then covered up. The crimes committed in the name of the church are far worse than those perpetrated in the name of feminism.

So why do I call myself a christian? It’s because there is no commonly used alternative which is well-understood. If I call myself a follower of The Way, then someone who has either been a christian for a little while or someone who is otherwise biblically literate will likely understand what I mean by that, but I doubt the rest of the population might. When I say I am a christian, I often have to spend some time giving a nuanced and suitably detailed answer to the question, “What kind: catholic or protestant?” It would take even longer if I omitted the word christian altogether. Even though many have a flawed understanding of what a christian is, the image conjured up is not wholly removed from reality.

Another factor is that of etymology. Even though most people aren’t quite as passionate as I am about word origins, the root words in our nouns and adjectives are noticed by most people. In calling myself a christian, I make it clear that my identity is found in Christ. If I call myself a feminist, then my identity is clearly something to do with femininity. If, however, I call myself an egalitarian, my identity is clearly something to do with equality.

So here comes the nub of my argument: feminism is but a means to an end; that end being egalitarianism. The promotion of women’s rights is not complete, but it has made great progress in the last hundred years. Though, as mentioned above, I do not approve of some of the means used to achieve this. No reasonable person could deny that western society has been male dominated for far too long. In reacting against this, some aspects of feminism attempt to swing the pendulum too far the other way. But over time, I think we will obtain a fair, egalitarian balance, although it would be too optimistic to expect the elimination of all forms of sexism in my lifetime.

Conclusion

I don’t think any reasonable person can deny the evidence that feminism has elements of sexism within it. These are by no means present in everyone who labels themselves as a feminist and I would not label anyone a sexist unless that exhibited some evidence of a prejudice against a gender. If one is passionate about promoting equal rights and representation, then you are welcome to call yourself a feminist, though you may wish to clarify your position, as I hope I have clarified my position here, even if you don’t agree with it.

But my lingering question has to be, given the negative connotations that feminism has, why not call yourself an egalitarian? To me, it lacks the connotations that detract people from supporting feminism. One could spend time and effort trying to ‘correct’ public perceptions of feminism so that it is distanced from its sexist elements and the violence in its history, or one could drop the term, as the ‘black power’ movement became the ‘civil rights’ movement.

I will oppose the denigration or prejudice of anyone on the grounds of their gender, whether they be male or female. I recognise that the majority of such sexism is directed against women and so that is where the bulk of our attention must be. The so-called “trolling” of prominent women speaking out is abhorrent and must be opposed. Not because the perpetrators are men, but because what they say is abominable. I recognise that in many areas, not least in business, there are glass ceilings, holding women back. I fully support identifying how these glass ceilings operate and how to overcome them so that the best person, irrespective of their gender, gets the right job.

That’s my position.

I am an egalitarian.

Return from blogging break

Picture courtesy of Damian Gadal (Creative Commons)

Picture courtesy of Damian Gadal (Creative Commons)

Hello all. I’m back from my blogging break. There’s been an awful lot happening in the last couple of months. There have been lots of thoughts running through my head that have gone by without being written down or explored. I’ve made a few comments on other blogs or news/comment websites, but taking a break from the blog was necessary and I think it’s done some good.

I must confess that I have done some writing during the ‘off’ period, mostly in August. Though many are not finished, I thought I’d give a taster of what’s to come, either to whet your appetite or else warn you to stay away.

At some point, I plan to finish my series ‘The Nature and Origin of Morality’ which has lain dormant for a few years now. I tried an initial sketch when the opportunity arose when guest blogging for The Big Bible blog a few months ago, but I hope to build on this if I get a few days uninterrupted to think and write.

One of the main reasons for the break has been that I moved house. I have written two bits on this. One is a detailed account of the process; the other is a list of hints and tips that I either employed and found useful or things I wish I had done but didn’t. The former was written more for my own reference, but some of you may find it interesting. The latter is more for your benefit or, if I word it correctly for search engine optimisation (SEO) it might help a complete stranger.

Over the summer, one of the big buzz topics has been feminism and the online reaction to some of its outspoken advocates. I’ve commented a little on some points and offered messages of support who have been victims of online bullying, but this piece will hopefully clarify my position of why I will support many feminists but why I don’t adopt the term myself, preferring the expression ‘egalitarian’.

Another topic, as triggered by the cases of Julian Assange, Bradley/Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden is that of whistleblowing. I think, given this name of this blog, I ought to explore the nature of speaking the truth and what consequences that has and whether there ought to be any restrictions on doing so.

I’m working on a couple of pieces on christian belief, atheism and existentialism with the slightly provocative working titles of ‘Sympathy for atheists’ and ‘On the non-existence of God’. These are quite embryonic in their development and have yet to start their journey from my brain to my fingertips.

One piece that I started a couple of years ago, but have struggled with the wording explores the fallibility of human nature and the wrongdoings that are committed by christians, sometimes in the name of christianity. I’ve restarted it a couple of times and shelved it again and again. This time, I’m aiming to finish it. If you can goad me on or offer encouragement, then that’ll be much appreciated.

The most ambitious project, which I’ve started work on, but am a long way (maybe 2-3 years) from finishing is a statement of faith. I realise that I don’t have anything like that which is at all thorough on this blog, so my intention is to look at the 129 questions of the Heidelberg Catechism, looking at the answers given and giving my own response. I’m aiming to do one per week, in the hope that this will be as much an investigation into my own beliefs as it is an exposition. The objective, as ever, will be to provide food for thought.

In amongst these, I’ll also be putting in some book reviews. Specifically, these are:

Thinking in Numbers – Daniel Tammet
Dogmatics in Outline – Karl Barth
Borders: A Very Short Introduction – Alexander Diener & Joshua Hagen
From the Earth to the Moon – Jules Verne
Longitude – Dava Sobel
A Broad Place – Jurgen Moltmann
Dialogues and Natural History of Religion – David Hume
Around the Moon – Jules Verne
Mathematics: A Very Short Introduction – Timothy Gowers
History of the Peloponnesian War – Thucydides
The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories – H.P. Lovecraft
Robotics:A Very Short Introduction – Alan Winfield
Confessions – Augustine of Hippo

So that’s the plan. I can’t say it’s all a promise I’ll stick to. I may well get stuck with some of these posts and have to shelve them for a while. Other things may crop up which will intrude, either because they are interesting or there is some need that must be addressed. Meanwhile, the offer is always open to host any guest writers. Feel free to contact me if you’re interested. If you’ve got things you’d like to see here, whether it be a point of clarification over some issue or just something you think would be interesting, then please send your suggestions in. I’m always on the lookout for further book recommendations. I’ve got a few hundred on my reading list, but it can never be too long.

So what about you? Been up to anything interesting over the summer?