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Let’s Agree to Disagree

Let’s Agree to Disagree

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If you ask two people what they mean when they say that they identify as feminists, you’re more likely than not to get two different answers. Some might say that it’s just a matter of ideological variants but this cannot simply be attributed to different ‘kinds’ of feminisms. From person to person, there will be differences across how concepts are practiced and applied, which strategies are prioritized, as well as what beliefs and opinions advocated. That’s just as well; differences of experience should be our starting point, rather than elided or ignored. Rabid dogmatism can be undesirable, unsustainable, and furthermore, disrespectful to difference.

Maybe, if there is something feminists can agree on, it is working towards raising the position of women in society. Before we get into discussions on rights and dignity, empowerment and liberty; before we split hairs over equality, equity, and other goals we might have been distracted from – prior to all of that, is a recognition that something is wrong here, that we are unsatisfied with the status quo. Implicit in our understanding of ourselves as feminists, is a desire to see change. With this in common, there might be a compulsion on the part of some to emphasize our similarities and disregard our differences.

 

In the launch of the ‘HeforShe’ campaign, UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson “extended a formal invitation” to men to join the movement for gender equality. Does this accelerate or undermine women’s efforts?

 

If we focused on what we can do to contribute towards roughly the same goal, it certainly makes coalition activism easier. Wherever you stand as a feminist, you can work with other feminists; whether they are, say, Islamic feminists who have a different conception of gender and womanhood, politicians who take up the mantel of women’s rights to garner political support, supra- or international organizations that act in the interests of a global hegemon, or corporations that are driven by profit. The issue of feminism’s relationship to conflict-driven entities is, in practice, a question of strategy that is beyond the scope of this article. In my personal experience navigating both nominally feminist and non-feminist spaces alike, I will admit that splitting hairs sometimes has to take a backseat in the face of change that can be implemented and effective now. But those opportunities are few and far between, which is why working towards physical, material change is not the end all be all of activism. A lot has been invested in opening up spaces for dialogue and debate, to raise awareness and broaden minds. It is here, in the realm of opinion, that differences become glaring.

Can/should men be feminists? Are all men perpetuators of misogyny? Can patriarchal systems of social organization be salvaged? Are there situations where patriarchy is a good thing? Is freedom of choice empowering? I have myself been involved in and bore witness to these debates[1]. At the end of the discussion, it becomes clear that two opposing parties stand coming from completely different places. The discussion seems politically inert, because the two parties seem to be talking through each other, completely missing the other’s point. To end the debate, dealing the final coup de grace, someone suggests that, “This is just my personal opinion. Let’s agree to disagree.” With no recourse to immediate action (immediate change), this seemingly futile exercise justifies itself as activism in its own way.

 

Here I introduce to those unfamiliar the concept of freedom of opinion, which I will explain through the work of enlightenment philosopher John Stuart Mill[2]. According to social liberalism, progress is achieved through free and equal discussion. In the open market of ideas and opinions, everyone’s opinion is equally protected. Having an opinion is translated into an entitlement and a right. When this liberty is protected, you will be able to develop your individualism, unconstrained by social pressures to conform to an opinion and opened to all possible discussions so they may inform you. Mill calls for a celebration of those who go against received opinions for strengthening our certainty in truth or questioning falsities in our established convictions. Accordingly, it is the lack of discussion that maintains the status quo and atrophies progress. To put it simply, any and all discussion is good. The more there is of it, the better, and the likelier we are to progress. You can be offended by someone else’s opinion, but, as I’ve seen it quoted, you do not have a right to not be offended. Any discussion, after all, is better than no discussion at all, and everyone is entitled to their own opinion.

Debates of this kind are not held to find workable solutions. The point is to take into consideration everyone’s points of view and to find a middle ground. You might recognize this as underlying the advocacy for political moderation that is fast becoming popular in the country. Those who buy into the abovementioned conception of freedom of opinion shrug off allegiance to ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’ alike, believing that there is an apolitical, neutral vantage point better suited to affect progress.

However, this is (and has always been) fundamentally a liberal position. Freedom of opinion is inextricable from the liberal conception of freedom, where an individual’s liberty should be protected as long as it does not infract upon the liberty of another individual.

But those who subscribe to this ideal and apply it to their feminist discussions miss an incredibly significant element of feminism: that this liberty has never been the point. Values and priorities definitely come into question here.

 

If you value tolerance above all else, or if you prioritise quantitatively expanding feminism so it reaches more people, then proliferation of discussion can only be a good thing. But ultimately, this will shift the focus away from victims of oppression, as any ideology that prioritizes individual liberty and choice tends to do.

“It is my choice to wear makeup,” might be a great thing for you personally, but once it enters the realm of opinion, it competes with the opinions of those who have been harmed by the makeup industry. “I think not all men are misogynists, that’s just my personal opinion,” competes with stories of women who have suffered violence at the hands of men. “I think patriarchy can be a good thing, but let’s agree to disagree,” competes with detailed analyses and proposed solutions to a system that oppresses half of humanity. For those who argue that two opinions can be considered and respected at the same time without competing with another, I say: this is a free market of opinions. Of course there’s competition. Some narratives come out on top, while others get buried.

When we shift the focus away from the victims of oppression, we lose sight of the only thing we might be said to have in common as feminists: the desire to challenge the status quo and fight for change. If that is not your feminism, then what is? If we simply accept things as they are and support opinions that reinforce the status quo, how will things ever change? Being a feminist is not fun, it’s not comfortable, but at the end of the day, if we say we want change, then it comes through a rebuilding, a community-healing; through recognizing the invisibilized victims of patriarchy, the violence this system has wrought, and seeking alternatives.

 

Public discussions on feminist issues are becoming increasingly popular. Are they ‘effective’? Image via [https://japleenpasricha.wordpress.com/2015/04/30/50-shades-of-feminism-a-panel-discussion-on-feminism-and-pornography/]

 

The point is to challenge ourselves, to be uncomfortable, to grow. Merely expressing opinions does not lead us to this. Merely debating does not lead us to this, because we waste resources only to end with an oblique “agree to disagree.” There needs to be a chord of empathy that ties us together, and a thread of responsibility underlying every discussion we have.

Your experiences are your own, and they will inevitably color your opinions, but we come together as feminists to recognize the struggles of other women, to work towards change, to hope for a common goal. “That’s just my opinion, let’s agree to disagree” is, in its worst form, a stubborn refusal to learn from others that prevents us from ever moving forward.

This article is nothing more than a preliminary work, an exposition. I have highlighted the concerns I have regarding trends within local feminist discussion spaces, and have provided no cut-and-dry solution. It has always been my hope that we move ever closer towards more nuanced, critical spaces of discussion that recognize the fact that all opinions are not equal, and that feminism should prioritize the voices of those who have been marginalized. This issue may seem small, as I chose intersubjective disagreement as a starting point, but it can escalate and become a schism that prevent partnership, community, coalition building. But as I said, these are questions of collective strategy – how do we move feminism forward today and tomorrow? It is crucial we understand the totalizing nature of (neo)liberalism as an ideology here, as there is no way to play in the system that is not by the system, no route to groundbreaking change other than holistic revolution because all routes have been subsumed under something as simple as ‘freedom of opinion’.

But that’s just my opinion. We can agree to disagree.

 


 

Footnotes

[1] These debates are near fixtures on most discussion platforms. Regrettably, if you are not familiar with them, this article might not resonate, but I hope to address at least some who have encountered such or similar incidents.

[2] I refer to J.S. Mill’s On Liberty (1959). Avalaible online here.

 

*Cover image via Mangal Media [http://www.mangalmedia.net/english//feminism-under-clouds-of-war]

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