So who’s not interested in feminism?

There’s an issue which often bothers me slightly. Why do some things that are compelling to me, and to many of my friends, simply fail to engage the interest of many people?

I could be referring to any number of things- questioning body presentation norms, challenging institutional sexism, wondering how to confront problematic gender roles in personal life, offensive  gym advertisements, gender binaries, the problematicness of capitalism, actively engaging with climate change…

There are some friends with whom I talk about these things, because they are interesting. They matter. And there are other people who I get the impression just don’t really talk about these things. That’s generalising, as I can’t really divide people clearly into two camps like that, and I can’t really even place myself entirely in one, nor would I want to. There is something like that though, and I don’t have any sort of definitive answer as to why that is the case, or what is more important- whether this (at least partially imagined) division can be broken down a bit more by the way we act?

The ‘we’ I use is the ‘anybody who is interested in this’ we. I’ll go back to an ‘I’. I think I could potentially break down the classificatory division in my mind between ‘interested’ and ‘apathetic’ people if I try not to automatically choose to preach to the converted, to talk about things with people I know are already on the same wavelength. Being on the same wavelength means here to be interested, to share a conceptual vocabulary and basic assumptions, and an approach. Vocabulary is important. There are so many buzzwordish concepts- ‘feminism’ is one of them, like objectification, empowerment, institutional sexism (amazing how many people don’t get that one *ahevarsityarticlem*) that mean a lot with a common understanding, but are alienating (to use another one) to many. Restricting myself to conversing about these things with people I already share a great deal of common ground with means I miss out on enriching my understanding of other perspectives, which is problematic, because it increases the division I imagine between me and that woman with trendy clothes and impeccably typical gender presentation who I often chat to in passing, but have little understanding of their world. Without exploring each other’s views we are able to typecast each other, and feminists continue to feel they are challenging a dominant majority.

Maybe it’s just me who doesn’t challenge this ‘division’, and just me who imagines its existence. I don’t think it is though. I want to ask what our thoughts are. What can we do individually, and what can we do as Gender Agenda to reach out beyond the usual suspects? What can stop us personally from leaving our comfort zones to discuss things that matter to us with those with opposing points of view? Is this problematic, and how can it be overcome?

I’m going to post a link to this on some classy social networking site, hoping to draw people into this lovely Gender Agenda virtual space, and I’ll try and talk to someone about something I haven’t talked to them about before. And I really hope to hear some other people’s thoughts/experiences…

10 Comments

  1. I think basically what you’re asking is how do you change the world?

    Well, you can’t. At least not in the big suddenly-no-one-uses-the-gender-binary-anymore!-type ways. You just have to work with with the hundreds of people in the world who do care, and who are working to alter our society one tiny step at a time. There are so many amazing and inspiring organisations out there which do great work that over time does make small but ever-larger differences. You have to trust in human nature to slowly pull through. As students we don’t have as much time as others to contribute, but use what time you do have well. Be innovative, create new campaigns and initiatives. And even if you’re not organising and preaching to the non-converted, you can make a difference just with the people you know. Challenge their ideas. Maybe they’ll then challenge other people’s ideas.

    I know its not very helpful to say this stuff, but what can we expect? Of course the majority of people are bizarrely apathetic – they always have been and always will. Humanity relies on the people at the forefront of human progress to keep pushing back the boundaries and changing the species for the better. We probably won’t see massive results in our lifetime, but we can take comfort in the fact that we are part of a millennia-long tradition that has made huge leaps and bounds when viewed over the long term. So keep it up. I can’t really offer much more than that.

  2. I’ve been thinking about this recently. An idea I’m using is the idea that almost everybody wants the world to be awesome, but has varying thoughts about how much it’s possible to increase awesomeness and what the best ways are to do that. This puts everyone on the same side for me – the side of “let’s have more awesome” – but still allows for major disagreements about the methods (tactics) used.

    When I think about it like this, I find it easier to feel compassion towards people whose tactics I think are counterproductive and who don’t empathise with mine. This leads to less overall, “Why argh aren’t they feminists?” and more “Where can I spend my effort most effectively to increase awesomeness?”. When I ask the latter question, I mostly seem to come up with answers which are about talking to sympathetic individuals one-on-one, and trying to work out how to change institutions to be less sexist.

    @John: A specific response to your comment above. I think that the apathy you talk about is something else – I think it’s about living in a society which contains a combination of learned helplessness, aggressive negative PR and deliberate obfuscation towards issues such as sexism. I feel like most of that flows from institutions and that when I think about it, I become angry with those institutions and not as sad or frustrated with individuals.

    Of course none of the approaches are perfect, and of course I do find myself feeling anger and separation towards individuals quite a lot – and often, that anger feels strong and justified, especially when it is about specific acts. But it doesn’t raise the same kind of confusion and argh! in me that it used to at “why don’t these people GET IT?!” when I sit in the kind of worldview I describe above.

    • “@John: A specific response to your comment above. I think that the apathy you talk about is something else – I think it’s about living in a society which contains a combination of learned helplessness, aggressive negative PR and deliberate obfuscation towards issues such as sexism. I feel like most of that flows from institutions and that when I think about it, I become angry with those institutions and not as sad or frustrated with individuals.”

      I never said that I was frustrated with individuals. I definitely agree that it’s mostly the institutions that are at fault. But at the same time everyone does have different interests in life. For example, I’m much more inclined to dedicate myself to a life of activism in the name of gender issues than I am to activism in the name of world poverty – even though many people would argue that the latter problem ought to arouse my attention/ire more than the former due to being more harmful (maybe). Therefore, even if we had perfect institutions and everyone was interested and engaged with the problems of the world, there’d always be some people for whom feminism just isn’t that big a deal, even though they recognise how important it is.

      I know what I outlined in my first post is very cliched and oversimplified. Change does not always happen for the better. It develops in ways we don’t expect. And of course change is brought about by everyone in existence, not just progressive activists. My “anthropological profession of faith” (ie my trust in humanity) is just that – faith. I can’t prove it. But like all faith it is based on some historical evidence. It does strike me that there’s been a fairly consistent and linear trend of human society becoming more empathetic and altruistic. The bits that make us human as opposed to normal self-interested organisms do seem to become more dominant over time. And this has nothing to do with the debate here but I find it comforting. 🙂

  3. Reluctant to whip out a perennially divisive issue in feminism, it does seem relevant here; for me it’s not really a case of there being a division between politically aware/active people and apathetic people — that kind of distinction is pretty much a staple of any meritocratic system. We are in pretty grotesquesly privileged positions of being able to while away the hours talking to like-minded folk and accessing vast collections of informative material. Any meaningful feminist activism has to be done with this in mind; for the purpose of example, I guess you could say that campaigning against the sexual objectification of women in the media needs to be matched, if not exceeded, by campaigning against cuts to public services that will predominantly affect women. I’m sure that in many cases it is not that feminist politics are not engaged with by many people, but that feminist politics don’t seem to affect their lives in many meaningful ways.

    That said, in the context of grave misunderstandings about institutional sexism among many Cambridge University undergraduates (seemingly, at least), I really don’t know what the answer is!

    • beva

      May 18, 2010 at 2:11 pm

      revision + multiple internet activities meant I replied after faith’s post, without having yet read it, hence not acknowledging it at all….

      I read it first, thought ‘yes, of course I agree about addressing other forms of privilege… but that’s totally not responding to the things I was thinking about’. Then I realised that the categorising of feminist/ apathetic others that I was thinking about could be understood in a ‘few educated people’ vs the masses way. I had been thinking in a far more personal level, and I’m thinking as much of environmental activism and class politics as gender politics. I’m really wondering about how my engagement with politics can avoid dividing the world into people who ‘do’ politics or don’t, and the reason I’m wondering publically is because I think activist/feminist politics have a institutional tendency towards practicing this division . . . and I go through phases of being actively frustrated by this and thinking about challenging it more than I do, and stages of accepting it, because I like the grotesque privilege of being around likeminded people and I lack the feeling that challenges are being that effective.

  4. beva

    May 17, 2010 at 4:36 pm

    I think I am basically not asking ‘how do you change the world’ in a massive universal way at all.
    I am asking a bit ‘the world as it happens to come into contact with oneself’ way. I am noticing that I personally make more of a division than I want to between ‘us’ and ‘the apathetic’, while I would prefer cas’s wordview as they outlined. I rationally hold Cas’s worldview, but I realise I don’t live it in practice as much as I want to.
    I’m interested in personal responses/ experiences, and balances between avoiding for comfort’s sake uncomfortable subjects and areas of disagreement and adressing and breaking down those areas.

    cheers for the classicly generic, but so for the reason of being pretty sound, platitudes though, john. I’m not sure I share your worldview of progress for the better pioneered by a few though, as I think change is happening everywhere in many different directions and dimensions, that don’t map onto a simple millenia of progress.

  5. > I rationally hold Cas’s worldview, but I realise I
    > don’t live it in practice as much as I want to.

    Haha, I hear you. This is the worldview I talk to myself about and reinforce and repeat as much as I can, but man, I spend a lot of time anyway in the separateyness grrr! place. It’s only really this year that I’ve even come close to being able to see things this way some of the time (a lot of which is thanks to being exposed to L’s perspective and conversations there). I wish I’d emphasised this more in my comment above as I feel silly adding it now, a bit like I’m backtracking!

  6. I sort of agree with everyone already here, but will comment for the sake of ten more minutes not making mind maps. I think you can make anything interesting to anyone, it’s all in the way it’s presented and made relevant. As Cas said, things like feminism and environmentalism and so forth are systematically distorted and misunderstood by pretty much all of the communications based institutions that there are – the people with control internalise the distortions of the past, and continue to promulgate ideas that continue to benefit their day to day interests to the detriment of everybody else (it’s almost enough to make me believe in Marx’s theory of ideology. YES, COMBINING REVISION WITH PROCRASTINATION). But, I think as soon as you can break it down to people in ways that work for them, you can get people interested, at least more so than they would otherwise have been. If people start to hear a different side of the story from people who are their friends, in a way that doesn’t seem preachy and boring, I think you can start to change people’s minds. Also, its like MORE THAN ESSENTIAL that this stuff starts getting taught in schools.

    But I guess if you’re asking why it is that any given person is initially interested or disinterested in any given issue, beats me, but I’m sure it’s something to do with social conditioning. Or habitus and field, or something.

    Also, I reckon its possible to question body presentation norms and institutional sexism and gender roles and be a feminist and have trendy clothes and reasonably impeccably typical gender presentation.

  7. “its like MORE THAN ESSENTIAL that this stuff starts getting taught in schools”.

    YES. Which is why it’s more than essential that feminists campaign for free education as well. Intellectual and cultural disparities will only endure in a system where a privileged section of society owns all the cultural capital, no matter how enlightened to gender deconstruction education becomes.

  8. “If people start to hear a different side of the story from people who are their friends, in a way that doesn’t seem preachy and boring, I think you can start to change people’s minds.”

    Which is what Rhonda and I want to do with CFS next year. And what I try to do already. Whether that’s walking round NYC with my boyfriend pointing out sexism in advertising (he loved it by the end of that holiday…) or explaining to people on my corridor why it is I’m writing yet another article about institutional sexism in The Union, or even just relentlessly blogging/talking/thinking about it with people so that maybe people around me start to think about it. Or even just briefly examine their mindset and then retreat to their comfortable standpoint away from the short, hairy, angry girl in the corner. I do have the problem of getting angry about it, which probably doesn’t help.

    So what I want to next year is (as the lovely girl at the CUS/Women’s Campaign open meeting last week suggested) “Get Cambridge interested in Feminism”. Which a lot of it is, on a vague level. I guess if we can all start interesting a few people a week in it, maybe out of those there’ll be one or two for whom the ideas stick.

    “Also, its like MORE THAN ESSENTIAL that this stuff starts getting taught in schools.”

    Oh yes. Absolutely. I’m guessing there are campaigns out there lobbying the government. Where/what are they? I want to find one.

    I suppose going back to the original article, it’s very frustrating to be talking to people (particularly women) who can’t see the things that seem patently obvious to you/me/us. No-one can change a whole host of fairly entrenched attitudes overnight. I don’t know if there’s much, if anything, one person can keep doing by themself except to continue talking and talking about it…

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