Tuesday, June 09, 2009

I often rail against the modern predilection to claim victim status based on any number of ‘-isms;’ it’s one on my major pet peeves. Whether it be race, gender, age, religion, etc., etc., ad nauseum, we can all find some status on which to claim discrimination, and it’s interesting to see the white male GOP reverse position and express those same fears in the debate over Supreme Court nominee Sotomayor. The newest -ism I have read about makes even less sense to me than most: ecological feminism, or ecofeminism for short. How can the contention be made that one must have a female perspective to be able to see the sense in preserving our natural environment?

Philosophers Karen Warren and Jim Cheney attempt to do so in an article titled "Ecological Feminism and Ecosystem Ecology,"
but it is so jargon-laden that the point is difficult to reach. “All ecofeminists endorse the view that an adequate understanding of the nature of the connections between the twin dominations of women and nature requires a feminist theory and practice informed by an ecological perspective and an environmentalism informed by a feminist perspective” (emphasis added). First I would suggest that the possibility of ‘all’ of any group agreeing completely on such a broad stance is highly questionable, but I quibble. More importantly, the statement seems akin to saying one must first be a feminist in order to understand the feminist perspective; all others need not apply.

By virtue of the collection of organs in this physical body I was born with I am a woman, but first and foremost, I am a human being. That, above all else, determines my response to the world in which we live. The assumption that one must be a feminist to properly care about the environment – or any other issue of importance – is short-sighted at best. Statistically, women are the majority of the population. We could stop the war in Iraq, improve public education, establish universal healthcare, and make life better for everyone (ok, except the misogynists) if we had the same vision for the future.

But guess what? We don’t, anymore than all the men have the same vision. Intellect and passion and common sense and humanism are not gender-specific. And until we get past the race/gender/ethnic/religious differences and the pseudo-divisions they create, we deserve the mess we have.

The notion and practice of feminine dependency is a construct of the patriarchal society and tradition which has evolved over time, aided by religious edict. Custom does not make truth, no matter how real the situation may seem. To insist as Simone de Beauvoir does in The Second Sex that women have “no past, no history, no religion of their own” seems a narrow view of humanity. Because the stories of women are not recorded in volumes in the libraries of the world, admittedly controlled for centuries by men, does not mean those stories don’t exist. Our stories are of daily life, not war; of art and nature and culture, not of politics. That does not make them any less real, or pertinent. With the rise of the written word and printing presses, oral transmission of tradition has lost its hold, but it still exists and “old wives’ tales” have their place.

If, in fact, women “avoid(s) the strain involved in undertaking an authentic existence,” the consequences of their bad faith are their own. Separate but equal for the sexes should be no more acceptable than for the races, and it’s up to us – male and female – to correct that historical inequality. Men may truly “fail to realize what they have to gain from the woman of tomorrow,” but if we become that woman of tomorrow today, they will learn. As we move into our true existence, out of bad faith and into a new reality, men will have no choice but to join us. They need us as much as we need them. We are first and foremost human beings; let’s start acting like it.

Kwame Anthony Appiah’s In My Father's House takes the discussion of discrimination to racial issues. I found his careful separation of racialism and racism, followed by extrinsic and intrinsic versions of racism, a bit hard to follow, but if I understood him correctly, there is hope for the extrinsic racist in that one can, possibly with difficulty, be convinced otherwise with appropriate evidence. Appiah identifies a cognitive incapacity which keeps the extrinsic racist from seeing all humanity as equal: “Many of us are unable to give up beliefs that play a part in justifying the special advantages we gain from our positions in the social order.” That is something we are all guilty of at times, whether motivated by race or some other notion of Other. The beliefs of an intrinsic racist are more intractable. They are ideological rather than cognitive, and are just as impossible to argue with as any other divisive ideology.

My contention remains that -ism differences are far over-emphasized in our society. We can all be victims in some form or other if we care to look for a label. Changing this narrow culture will not be easy; I’m not even sure wholesale change is possible. And as with any -ism, all I can do is change myself and my outlook on the world, and maybe have some small influence on my family and close friends; anything else is beyond my control. If those tiny ripples I can affect make a wave downstream, so much the better, but I can’t wait for it, agonize over it, or let my life be determined by it. All I can do is live the best I can, one day and one moment at a time. My life, and the environment, and humanity, deserve no less.

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