Ev’rybody’s talkin’ ’bout
Bagism, Shagism, Dragism, Madism, Ragism, Tagism
This-ism, that-ism, ism ism ism
All we are saying is give peace a chance
In the 1980s, lefties like me dismissed John Lennon’s lyrics as utopian hippy bullshit. Those people who identified as Socialists, Marxists, Maoists, Trotskyists, Communists, Feminists, Fabianites, Anarchists etc. were dismissive of those mindless ideology-free fools. If you couldn’t put an -ism to your name, what kind of spineless person were you?
It became apparent as I grew older that -isms are not so much about believing strongly in something as wanting to belong to a tribe. And who doesn’t want to belong? I used to think that people like Marx and Trotsky had created brilliant new ways of looking at the world. And I still do. But I suspect that Marx and Trotsky would be deeply embarrassed at most of the Marxists and Trotskyists in the world. Great men are great for the very reason that they think for themselves. The reason so many people like -isms is because they would rather let somebody else think for them.
These labels of tribal identity have become so ossified that they have lost their meanings. I’ve met conservatives who call themselves Marxists, and progressives who think they’re conservatives. A label comes with a handy set of “beliefs”, which people can adopt without going through the tiresome process of actually thinking.
As I’ve blogged before, it’s not that I’m no longer left-wing – it’s more that the left has become dogmatic, conservative and stupid in its thinking – the very opposite of what it used to be. All groups become stale and stuck in conservative ways of thinking. The left’s intellectual heyday was in the 19th century – no wonder it is tired and conservative these days.
Feminism is another label that has lost all sense of its roots. First wave feminism fought for the vote and women’s property rights in the 19th century. Second wave feminism fought for gender equality, the recognition of rape as a serious crime (including in marriage) and sexual liberation for women. Having moved on from these goals, 1980s feminism split into various opposing fragments.
Like all other -isms, most people call themselves feminists as a handy tribal label. Most feminists today don’t know much about feminist history, any more than Marxists have read Marx. I’ve heard people say things like “I’m a feminist, so I am opposed to porn”. This is dumb at two levels – first, that feminists don’t automatically oppose porn (though some do), and second because it isn’t a reasoning process, but a mere statement of identity. People who make such statements have clearly not thought through the issues for themselves, but simply adopted somebody else’s ideas as their own.
I’ve written quite a lot about conservative feminism vs. sex-positive feminism. Some people who haven’t paid enough attention have accused me of attacking feminism; and yet, I’m pointing out that feminism has been attacked from within. Social conservatives have adopted the feminist label in order to make their ideas seem progressive, and in doing so, have undermined feminism itself.
I’m both amused and pleased that my writing has not only persuaded some progressives that they are no longer feminists, but that I’ve also persuaded at least one male conservative that he is in fact a feminist.
Today marks a day of protest to end violence against sex workers. Although sex workers are of both genders, most of the stigma associated with sex work, and most of the violence, is targeted at women. If there is a cause for feminists to embrace today, this is it. Feminist sex workers are on the front line in this battle, fighting for recognition and against criminalisation. And yet, the most vociferous opponents to recognising sex worker rights include both the religious right and “radical feminists”. These two groups come from very different roots and use very different language, but all too often share platforms to fight for the same goals: censoring sexual expression, stigmatising sexuality, criminalising prostitution, closing down striptease and burlesque venues.
Sex workers have little doubt that criminalisation and stigmatisation increase violence against them. Yet some feminist groups refuse to listen to the workers, claim that no woman in her right mind would choose sex work, and call for the trade to be pushed underground. Feminists succeeded in this goal in Sweden, which introduced the so-called Nordic Model to criminalise the sex trade and push it underground. The Nordic Model is being held responsible by sex workers for the murder of a sex worker and activist known as Petite Jasmine, an event which triggered today’s protests.
I personally doubt that anti-sex work feminist groups genuinely have women’s interests at heart; they have been caught twisting the facts too often to be credible as feminists (as Brooke Magnanti exposed in her book, The Sex Myth). But if they want to call themselves feminists, that is, of course, their right.
As for me, I’m in favour of decriminalising sex work, and agree with sex worker advocates that the Nordic Model is bigoted and dangerous. Does that make me a feminist? Ism ism ism… I’m with John Lennon on this one.