Saturday, November 2, 2013

Jerk Tweets Sexist Remark, Prompts Me to Muse About the Meaning of "Freedom"

"Feminism is the radical notion that women are people" - Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler
It took a long time before this saying made any sense to me. Surely everyone knows that women are people, right? What else would they be? Space aliens? Robots? Very convincing holograms?

That was a joke --- I knew, even when I first heard the saying, that it was referring not to the tautology that female Homo sapiens are Homo sapiens, but to the philosophical concept of personhood. At the time, though, I couldn't imagine that anyone did not extend personhood fully to women, so the saying still struck me as bizarre.

Well, here is a wonderfully clear example of someone doing just that:
Tweet from Pax Dickinson saying "Women's suffrage and individual freedom are incompatible. How's that for an unpopular truth?" Image taken from the Public Shaming tumblr
This guy was, until recently, the Chief Technology Officer at Business Insider, a popular news website with an emphasis on business and technology (particularly information technology) news.

But I don't care so much about who the speaker is so much as I do about what he is saying: Women's suffrage and individual freedom are incompatible. What? People are freer when fewer of them can vote? How does that make any sense?

I would submit that it only makes sense when you assume that the "individuals" he's talking about are men. Women's freedom is compatible with women's suffrage --- see recent elections in which women's votes made the difference between a Republican rape philosopher and a more liberal (if not always pro-choice) Democrat.

Women's votes made the difference in 2012 in the Indiana U.S. Senate race between Richard Mourdock (the "pregnancy from rape is God's will" guy) and Joe Donnelly*, in the Connecticut Senate race between Linda McMahon and Chris Murphy**, in the Massachusetts Senate race between Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren***, in the Ohio Senate race between Josh Mandel and Sherrod Brown****, in the Pennsylvania Senate race between Tom Smith and Bob Casey*****, and in the Virginia Senate race between George Allen and Tim Kaine. 

Women's votes failed to make the difference in the Wisconsin Senate race between Tommy Thompson and Tammy Baldwin, and in the governor's races in Montana and Washington --- if only women had voted, the Democratic candidates would've won those races, but the Republicans' advantage among men was strong enough to carry them to victory anyway.

(It should be pointed out that, for the most part, abortion and other "women's issues" do not drive the gender gap in voting behavior --- there are much bigger differences between the sexes on whether to strengthen or cut back the welfare state and whether to pursue a hawkish or dovish foreign policy, according to Rutgers University's Center for American Women and Politics. The hard-right candidates that women voters rejected in 2012 espoused both extreme anti-abortion, anti-contraception positions and a desire to greatly diminish the welfare state, so it's hard to tell whether their anti-choice zealotry was the deciding factor in alienating women voters. But the fact remains that, if only men had voted, a lot more of those anti-choice zealots would be sitting in Congress today.)


So, besides being more likely to vote against candidates looking to curtail their reproductive freedoms, women also vote for candidates they think will strengthen the social safety net. What does that have to do with personal freedom?

Well, I think having a robust social safety net is critical for maximizing individual freedom: there are a lot more choices available to you if you don't have to worry about losing your home and being unable to feed yourself and your family if you lose your job. You're more free to blow the whistle if you think your employer is doing something unethical, to fight against what you see as unfair or exploitative working conditions, and to engage in political activism or commentary outside of work without being afraid that these things will cost you your job. You are also more free to leave a job for whatever reason. There's a reason FDR named "freedom from want" as one of his Four Freedoms, and why he used that word --- freedom --- instead of, say, "rights" or "entitlements" or "needs."

There's also a subset of welfare-undermining measures that serve only to criminalize poverty, to subject people needing government assistance to intrusive, degrading treatment and erode their freedom. Things that fall into this category are mandatory drug testing for welfare recipients, requiring welfare recipients to document that they spent a certain number of hours each week either working or engaging in approved job-seeking or job-preparatory activity, tying the amount of money a family receives to how well their children are doing in school, or requiring people applying for welfare to be fingerprinted.

People who favor such mean-spirited measures usually think there are legions of idlers living on welfare just because they don't want to work, and spending their benefits on luxury items. 

(They are mistaken --- almost every form of public assistance that exists in the US is time-limited or situation-specific, like unemployment insurance (which expires after a certain number of weeks that varies by state), the program people are usually thinking of when they say "welfare" (which is officially called TANF: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which has, among many other limitation, a five-year lifetime cap on benefits), or WIC (which you can only get if you are pregnant, nursing, or have children younger than five years old). The one program that doesn't come with a predetermined expiration date is food stamps, which you can only get if you make 130% of the federal poverty rate or less, and which you can only use to buy food).

But whether or not the idlers exist, it's important to focus on the fact that these people --- the people who favor draconian measures to curb welfare fraud --- are more concerned with ferreting them out than with getting aid to those who need it, and subjecting those people to minimal state intrusion and hassle. That does not sound like a person who is concerned with human freedom; to me, that sounds a lot more like a person who cares little for people and a whole lot for pinching pennies.

There are some personal-freedom issues on which women tend to favor more restrictive policies than men do: according to this poll, women are less likely than men to support legalizing marijuana, to give just one example. But the conclusion one draws from that, taking into account everything I've said above, isn't that men are pro-freedom and women are anti-freedom; it's that most people favor at least some restrictions on individual freedoms, and that there are some differences between the sexes in terms of what should be allowed and what should be forbidden. The only way you arrive at "Women's suffrage is incompatible with individual freedom" is by defining "individual freedom" so selectively as to leave out any personal-freedom issue on which women are more liberal than men.

*Donnelly is pro-life, but unlike Mourdock he would allow an exception to a general ban on abortion for victims of forcible rape. He also voted for the Affordable Care Act and for the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.

**McMahon supported the Blunt amendment, which would've allowed employers to opt out of providing insurance coverage for contraception. She also wanted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which is slightly more popular among women than among men (i.e., for women it's almost a 50/50 split, while men are opposed by a slim majority). 


***The biggest issue at stake in this race was obviously regulation and reform of the financial sector, which is not a "women's issue" but is, according to Rutgers University's Center for American Women and Politics, a greater priority with women voters than with men, though this poll shows huge majorities of both sexes favoring reform.

****Mandel seems to have campaigned on his opposition to the Affordable Care Act, and the fact that his opponent, Sen. Sherrod Brown, voted for it. Mandel also opposes abortion, same-sex marriage and including sexual orientation and gender identity in anti-discrimination laws. 

*****Casey is pro-life, but unlike Smith he would allow an exception to a general ban on abortion for victims of rape or incest, or if the life of the mother is in danger. He voted for the Blunt amendment, but has also voted to protect Planned Parenthood's federal funding under Title X, and to rescind the Mexico City Policy (aka the "global gag rule" forbidding aid organizations from even referring people for abortion services). He also supported the Paycheck Fairness Act and introduced a bill to require colleges to do more to prevent (and track, and prosecute) sexual assault and domestic violence. Smith, as I mentioned, favors a total ban on abortion with no exceptions, and is one of the lesser-known Republican rape philosophers.

2 comments:

voxcorvegis said...

I too used to think that many feminist arguments were built against strawmen sexists--who could possibly deny that women were people? Or seriously argue that clothing constitutes consent?--until I discovered to my horror how incredibly common such arguments are.

Lindsay said...

@voxcorvegis - yeah, that's pretty much what happened.

For me, it was also a matter of realizing what "not thinking women are people" really means. Once I started thinking about that, I started seeing instances of it everywhere.