People as Moral Agents


On Christmas Eve, my friend Preston tweeted an article at me, with an accompanying joke about how some blogs seem to try to sneak their controversial-yet-terrible articles in on December 24th. This piece was no exception – it’s a terrible amalgamation of every bad argument against feminism. It’s so bad that I half-asked myself, “Is this a parody?” Nope, it’s not. And in that regard, I think it’s worth examining the arguments as they represent a lot of what people say about feminism and about humanity.

The article appears on Thought Catalog, an online magazine of sorts aimed at white, 20 something hipsters, and is titled “Why We Don’t Need Feminism.”

You see why Preston sent it to me.

The piece is shallow, jumping from one argument to the next, as though the whole of a multi-century movement  can be brought to its knees by 2,000 words of survey-class-level arguments on the internet (spoiler alert: it can’t, and it devolves into transphobic reductionism on its way down).

In the first point, the author – Emily Matters – starts out by talking about male apes who violently rape as part of their chimp tribes. No, seriously. That’s her argument – that apes show us that violence, aggression, and yes, rape, are hardwired into male humans because TESTOSTERONE and that fighting it with feminism is useless because misogyny isn’t the whole cause.

You balk, but this is an actual argument people make.

If you’re a cis-man reading this, you should be insulted by Ms. Matters’ argument – she is literally comparing you to an ape. What a low, base view of men* – that they can’t help but rape, that they are slaves to their testosterone and “natural” aggression, that violence is an inherent part of the masculine being, rather than an aberration. Not to mention that this is a rather horrific view of what makes someone a man or a woman – as though gender is biological sex, which it is not, and once again defines masculinity in violent terms.

But even if violence is “natural” in apes, it does not begin to excuse it in humans, because – again – that basically says that human people don’t have brains with which to make decisions, that they are unable to reason things out and become moral agents in their own lives.

Matters’ argument is based in an incredibly low and narrow view of masculine identity. She glosses this over by talking about male on male violence, and how this is evidence that cis-men are just inherently violent. But rather than say that this is a masculinity problem that emerges from a desire to prove that a man is defined by that which is not womanly, she chalks it up to biology and a shrug.

We need feminism because people are moral agents with a conscience, not slaves to questionable biological instincts.

Matters’ second point is a confusing mess that is a prime example of how not to read statistics and studies. She cites the wage gap, and says that it’s not discrimination that cis-women are paid lower than cis-men because they choose fields that are naturally low-paying, as though it’s simply coincidence that fields historically dominated by cis-women – like education or nursing – are also some of the lowest paid career choices. She also ignores that the studies on the wage gap account for career choices, benefits, children, education and other factors. Even with all those things accounted for, for cis white men and cis white women working in the same job with the same skill level and education, the men are still paid more than women. There is a gap that is not explained by anything but systematic discrimination.

And it’s important to note that this applies to cis white men and women. Once you factor in race, the gap increases even more. White women don’t make a lot compared to the white man’s dollar, but they’re still more likely to make more than a cis black man, and it’s almost assured that a white woman will make more than a cis black woman for the same work. And all of them likely make more than trans* people.

Socialization seems to mean nothing here – on the one hand, cis-men are driven by their “natural” aggression to commit terrible violent acts, and on the other hand, this “testosterone driven” aggression is a good thing because it makes them good at business and innovation. Social conditioning isn’t even acknowledged – the idea that workplaces are socialized to reward male aggression and punish female acts of the same isn’t even in the thought catalog here.

It is here that Matters says something utterly baffling: “The answer here isn’t that we need more feminism or coddling, it’s that women must learn to embrace more conventionally male traits of assertiveness and dominance (and to try to produce more testosterone?) if they really care about making more money.”

I’m so confused. Feminism is coddling? Not the gender roles that call women weaker vessels and tells them not to worry their pretty little heads about things like finances?

We need feminism because people are individuals and need to be embraced and viewed on the merits of their individual characteristics, not on their conformity to some larger ideas of aggression and submission or masculinity and femininity – however the larger culture defines it.

I am a feminist because I believe people are better moral agents than apes, because I believe we, as a society, can rise above deterministic, transphobic, crap that passes for social argument. I believe that people are people and men and women can both be better than the “roles” society hands us.


*It should be noted, too, that this kind of biological reductionism is quite transphobic – people who identify as men are men regardless of the level of testosterone in their body and women who identify as women are women regardless of the level of testosterone in their body.