Feminism, didacticism

2013 10 28

International Women’s Day earlier this year started freezing, literally zero degrees, the first gray-ceilinged freezing day after a long slice of sunlight and blue skies. I knew it first without knowing it: I was running, with a woman, down a sidewalk, and passed a teenager on her way to school. The teenager was holding a single red flower with a card attached; I couldn’t read the card, but it was enough of a thing that I said “Aww.” I found out much later it was Women’s Day, and my “Aww” took a different color in retrospect.

Women’s issues are things that I may or may not have opinions on. The state of my culture, and what is topical in my culture, impresses on me the privilege of my position. Specifically the responsibilities of that privilege, which, summed, resolve to something like “you ought to know better,” which I have no problem with, because it’s true. But this responsibility-creed has knock-on consequences. It can have the effect of stifling questions, especially when language is imprecise (as it is). It takes an intimate relationship to surface concerns freely; non-intimate relationships necessarily require the cognitive burden of carefully-crafted words, to avoid faux-pas and social damage.

Once, someone mentioned casually that complex ideas necessarily (ought to) place a burden of some prior study on people, before they’re free to participate in conversations on the subject. I objected, from a certain perspective: I thought this placed needless mountains of obligation between a mind and an understanding. I objected despite agreeing with the sentiment in its broad thrust. I’ve been part of a number of conversations on complex topics where newcomers derailed substantial thoughts with ignorant re-hashes and recapitulations of facially unimportant things. It was annoying, and as a participant I was annoyed; largely, I think, because the questions seemed to come from a place of bad faith. But I think there has to be a middle-ground: thoughts of good faith, no matter how naïve or unresearched, always have a place at the table.

The someone replied that everyone, regardless of background, is welcome to join a conversation as a learner, but only those with sufficient history are welcome as teachers. This explicit didacticism, learned and learner, works well in certain contexts, where the subject is a concrete thing, and can be rationally discussed outside the ego of the participants. Whole disciplines qualify: all of engineering. Even Platonic/Socratic themes can be a natural fit. But through my lens, feminism is a tricky subject, and the didacticism is less clear-cut. Who is learned and learner? Is it possible to discuss in the absence of ego? It is, after all, intensely personal; by definition personal, as the theme is here today discussed.

I realize someone in my position is easily made dubious. Insofar as didactic lines can be drawn, I am plainly on the side of learner. That’s the nature of my gender. I’m further discouraged by normative ideas of masculine feminists. I was reading “Under Western Eyes”, in which a main character is a facetious feminist, a feminist somehow in-name-only, a womanizing feminist, a man using the lever of feminism to his own end. I wonder how any man can cross this didactic threshold intact, without making himself suspect of ulterior motives. And, in a less self-centered way: without degrading the endeavor itself with his presence.

I realize some of these questions are neurotic. But for me, in aggregate, they form a natural membrane, and I’m hesitant to take the temperature of it. I acknowledge my position of privilege, and defer. I explore my thoughts in my own intimate relationships, where missteps carry a lower cost.

In this, as in all things, I aim to be a force for positivity and good. Sometimes -- and I believe in this case -- it’s not possible for me to square this desire with actual action. That presents a strange & uncomfortable space for me, which I resolve by broadcasting my thoughts into the Internet.