Sometimes it’s hard having conversations about feminism. Talking about feminism in a way that is critical of it can be a scary proposition at times. What if you say something wrong, offend someone, or say something misogynistic without realizing it? What if people get pissed at you?
I have worried about these things. I do worry about these things. I know that other genuinely well-intentioned people do, too. Yet, at the same time, when I have had the conversations that I’ve been nervous about, I have generally gotten very thoughtful, reasoned responses from the feminists I know. For example, when I talk about why I don’t identify as a feminist, the conversation usually ends with feminists saying that they don’t think it matters that much. No explosion of anger, no offense taken, none of the things I get nervous about.
There certainly are people who identify as feminists who respond to things in irrational ways (just like the rest of us do at times), but it seems like a lot of the conversations that I have seen people have about feminism that they were nervous about having have been responded to in very reasoned, proportionate ways. That being my experience, the question that I’ve been asking myself is: if the responses by feminists to discussions of their issues tend to be reasonable and proportionate, how does it become so intimidating to talk about those issues?
In asking this question, a hypothesis occurred to me the other day. In order to explain it, I’m going to introduce a term that popped into my brain while thinking about it: domain-specific acuity. It roughly means, “Your ability to distinguish between different ideas about a particular subject.”
Domain-specific: Pertaining exclusively or primarily to a particular subject or problem (the domain, e.g. biology, computer programming, feminism, the arts, politics, Lego building, etc.). For example, HTML is a domain-specific language – it is designed exclusively for webpages; rape culture (while it affects all of us) is a fairly domain-specific vocabulary word used in the context of discussions about misogyny, feminism, etc. Using a stick shift is a domain-specific skill – it is pertinent solely to driving cars.
Acuity: The capacity to see fine detail, measured by the finest detail that can just be detected (definition slightly adapted from dictionary.com).
Domain-specific acuity (DSA): The ability to understand and distinguish between different concepts pertaining to a particular subject or problem. For example, in math, this might mean knowing the difference between real numbers and natural numbers. In discussions of gender identity, this might mean understanding the difference between “genderqueer” and “genderfluid”.
In the context of discussions of feminism, some people understand the relationship between victim blaming and rape culture, and some don’t. Some people understand the difference between saying “You are a bad person” and “What you said was problematic” and some don’t. Some people understand the difference between “Shut up and listen” and “Shut up forever and never speak again”, and some don’t*. Also, sadly, it seems some people understand the difference between “disagreement” and “rape threats” and some don’t. A person who does understand these distinctions has a higher feminist DSA than a person who doesn’t.
There are good examples of this with respect to atheism as well: someone with a high atheist DSA would be more likely to know the difference between strong atheism and weak atheism, the difference between evolution and abiogenesis, the difference between saying “Religion is a bad idea” and “Religious people are stupid”, etc., etc.
When I was first getting into atheism, I watched a lot of debates between atheists and theists, and read a lot of related books. Over time, I got better and better at being able to tell when people were arguing disingenuously. The first time I read The Case for a Creator, I thought it was an interesting and powerful read that made a number of strong points against atheism. When I went back and read it a few years later, it was painfully obvious to me that the author was lying his ass off, both about the facts, and about his claim to have approached the issues from the standpoint of a neutral party interested in a rigorous investigation of the truth.
The second time I read that book, my atheist DSA was far more precise than the first time I read it. I understood the concepts better, and I was more easily able to see where the author was blatantly lying or presenting things in a disingenuous way. If someone had told me that the book was a load of bullshit after the first time I read it, I probably would have read that person as overreacting. Now, that is more or less what I think of the book, myself. Mitch with a low atheist DSA couldn’t detect the bullshit that Mitch with a high atheist DSA can nowadays.
By the same token, a person with a high feminist DSA may be better at recognizing someone who is JAQ-ing off (alternate explanation) than someone with a low feminist DSA. When the person with low DSA sees someone who appears to be Just Curious excoriated for JAQ-ing off, feminists will look absurdly oversensitive to that person because that person cannot distinguish between the Just Curious and the JAQ-offs, and the feminists can. In the same way that The Case for a Creator was indistinguishable from honest intellectual inquiry for me with a low atheist DSA, JAQ-ing off maybe indistinguishable from honest intellectual inquiry for someone with a low feminist DSA. Similar things may happen with ideas like “Shut up and listen”, “Check your privilege”, the difference between calling harm and calling foul, etc.
When I first saw people being called out for JAQ-ing off, I couldn’t distinguish between JAQ-ing off and honest inquiry, and that made me afraid to express an opinion. It made me afraid that I would be perceived as JAQ-ing off as well. I did not have sufficient acuity to distinguish between what was okay and what wasn’t. Sometimes I still don’t. Yet, I have generally found that when I have asked questions in good faith, I have gotten responses that assumed my good faith. The more time I have spent following feminists and reading about feminism, the more I understood why. As my feminist DSA has improved, I have become more easily able to perceive why the questions I have asked have been seen, generally, as acceptable, where some others have not.
I’ve written before about the idea that social justice movements are going to tend to look whiny if you don’t understand their issues. I think the idea of domain-specific acuity is a good model for understanding why this is. If your DSA in a specific area is low, you may not be able to tell the difference between what is okay and not okay and why, which is a scary place to be. If you were foraging for food and these red berries were healthy to eat, and those other red berries were toxic, and you weren’t sure you could tell the difference, then you might reasonably conclude that the best course of action was to just avoid red berries altogether. By the same token, when your feminist DSA is low, you might conclude that it makes more sense to simply bow out of the conversation than to risk mistaking a harmful comment for an innocuous comment.
Misogyny, victim-blaming, privilege, entitlement, essentialism, etc., these are some of the toxic ideas that feminists tend to have a lot of experience with, and a high DSA for. If a particular person doesn’t have a high feminist DSA, then not only can they not distinguish between toxic ideas and useful ones, they also can’t distinguish between toxic and helpful people. Not only can they not tell whether their own ideas might be harmful, they also can’t tell why some of the people expressing ideas in feminist spaces take so much flak, and others don’t. From the standpoint of someone with a low feminist DSA, feminist responses will necessarily appear random until they develop a sufficiently high DSA to be able to tell the difference between toxic ideas and useful ideas.
This state of affairs is, of course, further complicated by the fact that, even among feminists, there is not universal agreement on what is harmful and what is helpful. Feminists can disagree and be wrong as well, even when they do have a lot of experience with these issues and a high DSA (and, furthermore, not all feminists have a lot of experience or a particularly high DSA with all of the issues they may be writing about). A person with low DSA has very few tools at their disposal to distinguish between a feminist who may be being unreasonable and a feminist who is expressing an idea that they don’t yet understand well enough to critique.
There is a very real barrier to entry here. It’s a barrier that is almost guaranteed to exist in the context of any awareness-raising social justice movement. It isn’t the fault of the movement, and it isn’t the fault of the people just learning about the issues, but it is important for everyone to be aware of. I don’t think that there is any easy solution, but I think there are two things to take from it: first, that being aware of this problem and its implications is important**, and second, that continuing to have discussions about feminism and feminist issues is hugely important – it’s the only way to bridge the gaps in acuity that make this unfortunate phenomenon possible.
* One might reasonably say, for example, that Ron Lindsay, having apparently recently come to understand this distinction, now has a higher feminism-specific acuity than he did before.
** Corollary: If you get nervous talking about feminism, know that that is a totally normal way to feel.
Sidenote: Another interesting hypothesis on why talking about feminism can be scary.