What’s the Use in Universals?

I’ve been reading a book recently called Feminist Theory and Christian Theology  by Serene Jones. While some atheists might find it odd to read books on theology, I’ve always found it interesting and important to see what currents are moving in other people’s lives and in other groups of people, particularly when those groups of people have a great deal of power over politics and culture and are likely people I will interact with in my life. In addition, I find feminist theology absolutely fascinating, both to see how individuals interpret feminism within the context of their lives, and to see how people can perform some amazing mental gymnastics to make two contradictory ideas fit together.

However the first chapter or two of the book are simply about explaining some of the fundamentals of current feminist theory, and I have a bit of a bone to pick with some of the things that it had to say. It identified two main camps of feminism, essentialism and constructivism, and it identified pros and cons to each one. In order to find the middle ground and gain the pros of each, she introduces a variety of feminism called strategic essentialism, a position that allows for universals as long as we only use them for emancipatory purposes in women’s lives.

One of the ideas that undergirds this position is the idea that taking a radical constructivist position doesn’t leave any way for us to imagine a better future because it doesn’t have any normative force, and that it doesn’t provide a basis for community or agency.

This doesn’t seem to make any sense whatsoever to me. Now first of all I suspect that Jones is using the term “universal” differently from the way I do. She seems to accepted that there can be bounded or constrained universals, universals that are accept as true for a particular time and place, or accepted temporarily with the knowledge that they probably aren’t true. This seems exactly the opposite of what a universal actual is. Definitionally a universal should be…well universal. It is not constrained, it holds in every time and every place. It holds throughout the whole universe.

Now it seems to me that no rational personal would invoke universals, because let’s be honest, the odds are against you, but when you believe in a God, they seem far more plausible and can be very appealing. They’re a cheat sheet to bring people together, to simplify things, to create identity…but are they really useful or even truthful when talking about feminism, oppression, and women’s experiences?

Jones suggests that we can temporarily adopt universals to give us forward momentum, while also recognizing that these universals will likely change, grow, or be replaced. It seems a bit like lying to oneself though. If you know that the world doesn’t actually have the universal that you’re holding to, but you still act in accordance with it, won’t you act dishonestly or improperly at some point? Won’t your actions not fit the facts? While sometimes it can be useful to take up a tool that we discard later, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” and universals are sure as heck the master’s tools. If we’re going to make any progress, we have to be intellectually honest and work from the facts instead of using a pre-ordained conclusion that women should be emancipated to mold the facts to our beliefs. Lying is not an appropriate tool to use towards women’s lib, particularly not lying to ourselves.

Beyond the practical fact that temporarily taking up a universal we will later discard is essentially lying, it’s an extremely limited view of the world that sees only universals as the ways to build community and agency. To look at a real world example, psychology manages to find similarities between human beings in useful ways by looking to patterns and tendencies. While it’s not always an ideal system, it does help people create communities and identities, and no symptom in any diagnosis is universal. Something does not have to hold in every case to provide a sense of community, and oftentimes when we assert a universal to build a community, we end up silencing and excluding a good number of people who don’t fit into our preordained universal.

One of the wonderful things about many feminist communities is that they recognize and celebrate differences (and those that don’t better get their asses on that train, because that’s where the future is sitting right now). There are TONS of ways to create communities and connections between the people with differences, and perhaps it requires more time and effort, but you get a stronger community for it. You can find similar values with people who are otherwise completely different from you, or you can encounter someone radically different and grow. That often creates the strongest bonds because you grow towards each other and learn from each other. In addition, we all have uncountable facets to our selves. While I may not have the same thing in common with every person that I feel a sense of community with, I have SOMETHING in common with nearly every person on this earth. We can have overlapping identities that allow us to relate to a variety of people in different ways, and when you bring a group of people together, nearly all of them have some way to relate to each other. Again, it requires more work to find these similarities when they aren’t laid out for you as a universal, but it’s far more honest and it doesn’t open the door for us to be constrained or excluded by a false universal.

As for the question of normative force, there is a huge difference between a universal ethic and a claim of universality (of a train or behavior). Jones needs to make sure she clarifies the difference. When we suggest an ethic, we’re suggesting the ideal way everyone should behave, not how they actually do behave, or even how they’re all capable of or naturally drawn to behave. And yet despite there being no universal claims about the world as it is in an ethical claim (usually), they still have normative force.

In addition, we have found ethical systems in the past that even in their suggestions for the future don’t really rely on universal claims because they are built to be context sensitive (utilitarianism is the quintessential version of this, and although it has a few vaguely universal claims about people wanting pleasure, they’re pretty mild). When we suggest that only universals have normative force, we’re demeaning the ability of our fellow human beings to think in nuanced ways. We can imagine a better world simply by imagining choice for all, not by imagining one thing that will be ideal for everyone else. We can be flexible with our normative claims and be sensitive to context and difference. There is no need for the language of universals.

While I could see arguing for the differences between constructivism and essentialism by pointing to facts, I’m not sure that it makes sense to point to the pragmatics of each position. They are claims about the world, not claims about strategy, and it’s generally just a bad idea to put truth second to strategy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s