Whose job is it anyway?

Every few months I seem to come across an example of a feminist trotting out a variation on the line, “It’s not my job to educate [non-feminists]”. I find this incredible. Do people honestly believe that mass political change is going to be achieved by undecided or sceptical people independently seeking out opposing views, reading them dispassionately and objectively, and then giving up their formally deeply held beliefs with a minimum of fuss? I cannot imagine what tiny minority of people might be convinced in this fashion, but I’m certain it does not include most of the people we wish would come around to our way of thinking.

When people say, “it’s not my job to educate you”, this assumes that the only obstacle to agreement is that the other person is ignorant. The tone of most Feminism 101 articles belies this; those I’ve read may as well be calculated to alienate people who are on the fence. They are patronising. They communicate, clearly, an assumption that all opposition to feminist views is based solely on rank ignorance or self-interest, and that all that is required is enlightenment. They address adults seeking political and philosophical argument the way I would address a child attempting to learn arithmetic. This is hubris.

Disagreements about feminist issues are, in my experience at least, only rarely disagreements about facts. They are far more often disagreements about values and attitudes. Saying you refuse to “educate” someone assumes that what they require is more information, which is often not the case. Most people engaged in political debate aren’t looking for facts; they looking for arguments in support of a position. What you’re actually saying if you refuse to “educate” others is that it’s not your responsibility to defend or promote feminism to skeptics. If it’s “not your job” to present the case for feminist positions in an attempt to convince more people to support feminist causes, then I really have to ask: what is your feminism intended to achieve? What is its goal? Unless they are regularly involved in some form of direct action, I simply can’t see what such people contribute.

A great many people in our society think that the only legitimate work of feminism was finished as soon as women got the vote. They think the extent to which the burden of child rearing continues to fall on women is right and natural, rather than the unacceptable consequence of personal sexism and systematised discrimination. They have attitudes towards women’s sexuality that are mired in the taboos of the 1950s. There are millions of young men out there who truly believe that women are less intelligent than men, less capable of rational thought and responsible decision making, and that we succeed in our endeavours largely through exploitation of our sexuality rather than though talent, hard work, or competence. That’s the state of play. We don’t live in a world full of pliant 22 year old boys taking second year gender studies subjects and reading de Beauvoir to better themselves. We live in a world full of sceptical, subtly sexist young men who might discuss feminist issues with women only a handful of times in their entire lives. Those are the people we need to convince if we are ever to have any success, and they are not going to be convinced by Jezebel.

The young men who would laugh out loud at the content of a gender studies class are the guys who perpetrate street harassment. Those are the guys who consider picking up their own children from school as on par with breastfeeding, something having a Y chromosome renders them congenitally unable to do. Some of them will become managers and executives who discriminate against their female employees. Some of them will commit violence against the women in their lives. Many, many more of them will look the other way when other men do these things, regarding it as the natural order of the universe rather than a system they have chosen to participate in. They can’t be beaten: they have to be convinced.

They’re not going to read Feminism 101 websites, and if they did, they would only be alienated even further. If they are to be reached at all, it will be through conversation with people they have some basic level of respect for. Some of them have strong opinions and want to discuss these issues, even with people who disagree with them. If any of those guys ever show enough interest to participate in a conversation with you about feminism, you have a responsibility to engage with them seriously. You have a responsibility to listen to their views, which may appal and enrage you, and to provide strong, persuasive counter arguments. As long as they appear to be participating in the discussion in good faith, you have a responsibility to be respectful, because nobody is won over while they’re being insulted. This is where the fight is.

A favourite blogger of mine wrote earlier this year that “feminism has to win for the world to be moral”. If you believe this, you have a responsibility to convince others that feminist values are worth holding and defending. There is a multitude out there that is not going to come around on its own. Those people need to be convinced that feminism still matters, that our grievances are legitimate, that justice demands the remaining inequalities in our society are rectified. Those people need their attitudes challenged by people who are willing to engage them in considered and respectful conversation. It’s exhausting, infuriating, boring, confronting work. It has to be done. We have to do it.

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