Sunday, October 30, 2005

Being Fair Does Not Mean Being Balanced

I hadn't intended to write a post today because I am trying to finish grading a stack of papers. Eek. But, I need some interlude from the hundreds of pages I am reading. My blog is such a refuge at the moment.

I was unable to meet my Friday drinking buddies this week. I had a college award ceremony that required my attendence. I am sorry I missed it because I understand that the conversation was quite animated and partly inspired by my blog entries this past week.

Another rumor I heard, and therefore, cannot confirm, is that one of these present was bothered that when I linked to the Dickinsonian article in this entry, I didn't include the opening lines which discussed Clinton's sexual indiscretions (shall we say) which lead to his impeachment.

Ok, I am guilty of editing it out. But, I assure you, it was not because I was trying to make it seem like all Republicans/Christians are bad and all Democrats/Atheists are good. I simply do not look at the world through such a narrow and politicized framework.

I know, it's hard to believe (yes, I am speaking to many of my conservative readers here).

I am a liberal. I am, for the moment, a Democrat. But, I don't embrace either of those identities in a tribal way. That is, I don't root for my team in the sort of maniacal way that sports fans do. I see so much of American politics as dominated by this winner-take-all, Manichean perspective. How I wish we had a parlimentarian system where surprising alliances are made. But, alas, we do not have that system.

I do believe that above all I am a philosopher. Second to that aspect of my identity is feminist.

When I claim that I am a philosopher, that means I am beholden to truth and yet am eternally a skeptic. I do not accept an argument based on who made it. I accept an argument based on how well it was made. I tend to loathe almost all political speeches, from either "team," for their ornamental rhetoric and simplistic formulations. I long for real debate, with actual claims that can be supported, demonstrated through evidence, and clear avoidance of fallacies. You aren't going to see alot of that among politicians.

The second part of my identity, feminist, means that I challenge, whenever I can, clear examples of sexist assumptions, policies, actions, or statements that malign women. I don't think women are better than men. I think women, in fact, can act as basely and dishonorably as men. That is part of being a feminst. I challenge any idealizations of women, whether the culturally familiar icon of the mournful mother or the chaste and modest young woman. I don't think that women, as Victorian mythology would have it, are more naturally moral or empathetic than men are. I think women are humans, which means, they are as wonderful and as awful as men are.

I don't think that feminism should lapse into a party line or talking points. And, the philosopher in me works very hard to keep that tendency of mine in check. When I defend the political positions that I consider feminist, I offer reasons, consider thoughtful counterarguments, and above all, am willing to be convinced by further evidence that I am wrong.

When I teach Women's Studies (in my view, an unfortunate name for feminist inspired courses), I challenge my students not to lapse into any certainty about what feminism means, who counts as a feminist, whose experience gets to define feminism, and what political policies count as feminist. I don't let my students think that feminists are always right or even always better than non-feminists.

I point out, for example, the persistent passive racism of white feminists. When we discuss masculinity (the gender expectations of men) I try, with all my might, to not let students fall into the essentialism traps about men's behavior if they are going to challenge the cultural picture of what women are like. The most influential book that I have ever read is Simone de Beauvoir's Second Sex. In the Introduction, de Beauvoir points out that essentialism is untenable by any modern notion of science or ontology. Darwin's theory of natural selection should have put to rest any residual notions of Aristotle's definition of essence. There is no eternal feminine as there is no eternal masculine. People are a product of their situation as much as their biological potentialities.

Let me try to pull this post together in a way that addresses, I hope in a meaningful way, my Friday friend's concern that my posts are just too partisan. He is worried that I don't present "both sides" of the foibles among politicians: I am not balanced in my sweeping criticisms of politicians.

My answer, however unsatisfying as it may be, is that I am not a critic of : W, Scooter Libby, Karl Rove, Tom Delay, Public Choice economists, uber-conservative Christians or evangelicals, etc. because I am a liberal if what you mean by that is I am rooting for my team and categorically hate all conservatives or Republicans. I am not capriciously criticizing them. I do not think they are worse than any Democrat, or liberal.

I also don't think that I have to prove that statement by including a criticism of a Democrat or liberal everytime that I critize one of people from the category I outlined above. If Tom Delay is convicted or Scooter Libby is convicted, I don't have to remind myself of the countless corrupt Democrats. That is distracting from the point, isn't it?

I don't have to prove that I am a critical, thoughtful thinker by being "fair and balanced," if that means: match a criticism of a conservative with a criticism of a liberal. That is a very simplistic and arbitrary way to prove subtle thinking. I also think it usually devolves into a red herring strategy: let's take the focus of the current outrage, e.g. the indictments that Fitzgerald just handed down or abstinence-only education, by pointing out the other side does bad things too. When the "other side" does things that outrage me and offend my reason as much as the current powers that be, you'll see me criticizing them too.

Let me end by saying that I try, in all things I write, to never be a moralist. I will admit that I fail on that score at times. But, I hope that I never become the sort of person who condemns others rigidly, who holds others to narrow and impossible standards for any human to meet. I tend to distance myself, as often as possible, from any political approach that thinks they embody the true and proper path.

Hell, I am still searching, in earnest to find that path. I want sincerely to figure out what it means to be good, to be just, to treat people with dignity. And, when I think that policies or politicians are failing to do that, I will more often than not share that with the readers here who care to listen. When I turn out to be wrong or hasty in my judgments, I hope that I will be courageous enough to admit when I was wrong. Finally, when I can learn from others who are wiser and more thoughful that I am, I will eagerly pay attention and take seriously what you say.