Losing Ground: The Balancing Act of the Radical and the Practical

My mom and I talk often about feminism and feminist issues, as these are questions close to both of our hearts. However the two of us come from very different eras of feminism: my mother came of age in the time of free love and (supposed) bra burning. She fought to let women keep their own names when they marry, for contraception rights, against painful and oppressive clothing, against sexual harassment in the workplace, against unequal pay and unequal hiring practices. She did some damn amazing things and her generation set the groundwork for the conversations my generation is having now.

But my mom and I disagree on a lot of things. An example: one of the conversations in feminism right now is about presenting as femme and how that presentation is often devalued. Many people have come to accept that wearing make up and dressing femme are personal choices and there’s nothing wrong at all with presenting as feminine (thinking there is may actually be the problem). A lot of people are embracing fashions from Mad Men, vintage clothes, high stilettos and reimagining them in ways that they find empowering.

My mother is appalled by this. She fought so that women didn’t have to balance on spikey little heels that destroyed their backs and made it impossible for them to move or do much of anything physical. She thinks we’re losing ground. She thinks women have forgotten what it used to be like.

So who’s right? It seems to me there are valid arguments on both sides: choosing to wear clothes that hurt you and render you physically helpless seems like a pretty bad idea and fairly oppressive. At the same time, telling anyone else what they need to wear and implying that things coded as feminine are bad is really not ok. Are we losing ground or are we coming to a more complex understanding of what clothes signify and how “femme” coded things are often viewed distastefully?

Well both. Here’s the thing: feminism is always a balance of the practical and the idealistic. When we tell young women that they shouldn’t have to protect themselves against rape, that they should be able to wear the clothes they want to wear, we are imagining an ideal world and we are trying to force that ideal world to exist with our actions. When our mothers tell us “please be safe, please think about how you can protect yourself” they are desperately trying to be practical and keep us safe because they know that the world that exists now is not ideal.

We need both. I would never shame someone for their clothing choice but I also sure as hell would never leave my drink unattended at a party. Even if we try to . We live in a world that is not ideal and yet we are hoping against hope that we can make it closer to the ideal. This is a difficult place to be, because when we fall on the wrong side of the balance either we get hurt or someone else gets hurt.

When I look at the differences between earlier waves of feminism and today’s feminism, that question is often what I see: should we aim for the practical or the radically idealistic? Those of us who are working on feminist issues today are in the incredibly privileged position that we even get to look at the ideal. For my mom, that was not always an option: asking men to respect you whatever your clothing choices took second fiddle to actively protecting yourself from rape, assault, and abuse, and if that meant wearing a different set of clothes then so be it.

There are all kinds of issues that this crops up in: we only get to debate the ideals of consent because our forebears put in place protections against rape that have given us the space to breathe. We need both the practical and the idealistic, but we always need to be keenly aware of who might be hurt and who might be helped by any of our rhetoric.

It also seems that if we reimagine the differences between the various waves of feminism in terms of where they draw the boundary of radical and practical, we may come to a better understanding of why people did what they did and how we can build off of their successes. Perhaps this can also lead current feminists to be less defensive about their choice feminism and recognize some of the practical aspects to their choices: while it’s great to imagine a world in which femme-coded clothing is on par with masculine clothing, in the here and now that clothing was designed to be limiting to your body and your abilities, and that is a reality that needs to be taken into account.

I’m not sure where the balance is on a lot of these questions. I do take steps to protect myself from rape, even as I try to explain to the men in my life how they can keep from putting women in uncomfortable and bad situations. I have no idea how possible it is to act consistently while being both radical and practical. I’m sure that there will always be swings back and forth between them.

One thing the feminists of today do need to keep in mind is that the space we have now to imagine the ideal was not always there and is not a guarantee. We do need to remember what things have been like and why, and remind ourselves that whatever steps we take in moving forward, we must be careful to protect ourselves from the potential of moving backwards. Perhaps instead of reclaiming heels and tight skirts we could work to create a new sexy, a new femme, because we remember the oppressive nature of those items in the past.

What does seem clear to me is that many of the debates that are happening in the feminist world right now are about how safe we feel and about whether we want to take clear, practical steps in the world as it is to protect ourselves or whether we want to begin to act as if the world is the ideal one we aim for. If we were all perfect, brave, impossible feminists, we would make this world our ideal. We would not flinch when we act radically outside of the norm and put ourselves in potential danger. But I can never fault someone for trying to keep themselves safe and healthy in the world that they live in here and now.

Reality Informed by Emotion

Disclaimer: I was in a car accident on Thursday and am still a little loopy from a minor concussion. If this post makes no sense, I blame it on the fact that my brain was forcibly rattle less than a week ago.

Reality is something that confuses and bothers me. After spending enough time in any philosophy class, it becomes fairly clear that we never will have an objective access to reality. We have subjective access, but our perception of reality is always filtered through our senses and our mind, and distorted in some fashion or other because of these things. Obviously this can be taken to the extreme, a la The Matrix or the Brain in a Vat thought experiment, or we can simply ignore it and say that our senses are the best we have and we can use scientific instruments to measure the world. Most people don’t think a whole lot about this. We assume our senses are basically ok, or that if we verify with another person we can work around any potential problems we have in our perception of the world. Most people are ok with an intersubjective reality.

I am not.

The reason I am not is because intersubjectivity means that everything is a matter of perspective. While we can do our best to put as many perspectives as possible together, things will always look different when you’re standing in a different place, and you can never look at something from all angles at once. You never get a complete picture of reality, and you never get unfettered access to reality. To me, this makes all my conceptions of truth extremely shaky. Particularly in a world where every scientific study has a corresponding paper that says exactly the opposite, and where every therapist has a counterpart telling you exactly the opposite, it’s hard to figure out what is reality. Most people would suggest that being out of touch with reality is a pretty extreme version of mental illness, but let’s look at something that I struggle with every day:

Am I fat? This might seem like an easy enough question for most people to answer. No, Olivia is not fat. You can look at the numbers and see that her BMI falls in the normal category, look at her clothing sizes and see that they are on the small end of average, and look at pictures of her and decide whether she looks fat. That is all information that I can take in and understand. However I can also take in the fact that I am not in the underweight category of the BMI scale, regardless of how much I restrict, that I can see fat on myself, that when I look at myself I can see where I think there is too much fat, and that people similar to me in appearance have been called fat. I have all sorts of contradicting information from internal and external sources, and often I find myself utterly incapable of figuring out which one is “reality”.

It seems to me that this is one of the most important roles that emotions play: telling us what is real and what is not. In studies of individuals who have brain damage in emotion processing areas of the brain, scientists have found that they are incapable of making basic decisions such as chocolate or vanilla. I think that ascertaining basic reality is very similar to this. If you can logically examine something from absolutely every angle but never have that moment of gut certainty that something is right or is what you want, you’ll be left confused and frustrated nearly indefinitely. Emotions spur you to accept something as plausible or real. Now of course they need to be tempered with logic, but trying to exist strictly in a logical mind leaves one incapable of functioning or accepting anything without 100% proof.

Our emotions help to determine our reality, and having any sense of reality seems to me to be impossible without an emotional compass. It also seems to me that emotions are further evidence that we do exist in some exterior reality that acts upon us: while they are primarily made up of brain responses, they do have physical symptoms and these physical symptoms can sometimes trigger the brain response. While it’s possible that these exterior reactions are also only being felt in the brain, it is interesting that if we focus on the physical symptoms of an emotion and calm those, the emotion calms as well.

It seems clear to me that while we have some evidence for the existence of reality, the exact nature of that reality is absolutely something that we have to take at least partly on faith because we have no better information. This bothers me, especially as someone who hangs around skeptics who continually focus on the idea that we should not accept things without adequate evidence.

Faith and emotion often get conflated in situations like this. When you “go with your gut” you’re just taking something on faith because it feels good or right. In reality, our emotions are actually a source of good information about the reality around us. They’re a very quick way to process information. Most emotions have a content or an object: you are angry at something or disgusted with something. Each emotion tells us something specific about its object. Anger tells us that something might harm us or something we care about. For some reason I have spent most of my life discounting the information that emotions provide, despite the fact that it can be understood just like any other source of information.

Reality requires the information of emotions, otherwise it is incomplete and we cannot ascertain the best possible intersubjective reality. Emotion also can give us some sense of comfort or certainty in our reality. Most people who are out of touch with reality are those who spend too much time in their emotions and cannot bring themselves back to logic to analyze different perspectives or possibilities. It’s important to recognize that the opposite is also true: someone who lives their entire life in a philosophy class or a science lab will not have an adequate conception of reality.

So how do we bring ourselves back to reality and trust reality? How do we sort through which constellation of facts constitutes “reality”? Most likely through some form of emotion. Sorry skeptics.