Let’s debate definitions!

[originally from December 15th, 2014]

Every time someone says something along the lines of “I’m not feminist, I just support gender equality” they are pointed out to a reliable source like Merriam-Webster – http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/feminism – that states that “feminism” is “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities”, thus by definition making the previous poster feminist. Merriam-Webster is kinda hard to argue against, and debating definitions is in the list of Officially Bad Kinds Of Arguments in philosophy books, but I’ll try anyway.

First of all, there are at least two kinds of things people can mean when saying “X is Y”. On one hand, it can be what the experts in logic actually mean by defining stuff – that is a shortcut for “there is this concept Y, but to avoid repeating Y all the time, let’s call it X”. This definition is undebatable. If someone says “some objects can be European, savory, or wooden, and for the purpose of this text let’s call them flambixious” it’s their right. If you feel bad about this definition, just use Find And Replace function to substitute the word with its definition, and the article should make perfect sense. That’s one kind of definition. But there’s the other kind of definition, which is a factual statement: “when people say X, they are most likely to implicitly or explicitly assume Y”. This is what dictionaries are supposed to give, and this is something that it’s possible to meaningfully disagree upon.

I would argue that in this factual sense, is much broader than what people – both those who self-identify as feminist, and those who don’t – actually use. Consider the following: this definition tells you nothing about the understanding of equal rights, the understanding of inequality, and the understanding of the strategies to be taken. It just says what is says: any idea that involves (according to its own claim, due to to absence of any objective indicators) the equality of men and women is feminist. That would label a lot of movements as “feminist”, even though they, the self-identified feminists, and everyone else would disagree with this definition.

Maybe someone argues that men and women are already equal – like the Soviet communists did, thanking the October Revolution for it, and claiming that the only source of gender inequality is Western capitalism. They probably wouldn’t argue against being labeled “feminist”, but any modern self-identified feminist knowing the Soviet culture, history, and politics good enough would label them as “blatantly patriarchal”, and not “feminist” at all.

Maybe someone argues that the only source of any sort of inequality is the government, like radical libertarians and anarchists do. You may disagree with this statement, but the definition we have doesn’t. Do they argue for the equality of everyone? Yes. Does “everyone” include men and women? Yes. Therefore, they should be all feminist, yet seldom anyone would call them so.

Maybe someone argues that it’s not women but men who are in a disadvantaged position like you know who. And no one will ever label the supporters is this thesis “feminist”, except for the very definition we’re using.

Thus, whatever want to express when saying “feminism”, this idea is much more narrow than “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities”. To prevent the most obvious failure modes listed above, we would have to say “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities, and that they don’t have the equal rights and opportunities already, and that most if not all of this inequality boils down to women having less rights and opportunities than men, and that this inequality may come from both the government and the society, and that we’re not done after only eliminating the discrimination by the government”. Suddenly “I’m not feminist, I just support gender equality” makes way more sense – they only have to disagree with one of the four extra rules to not fit the definition.

More speculatively, I would also suggest that if someone just started expressing first or second wave views today, not as something historical, but as the actual political position, they wouldn’t be very likely to be labeled “feminist” either (although far more likely than the anarchists are). To be really precise, we’d have to add the requirement to agree with at least the most crucial points of modern feminist theory.

I would not argue about whether it’s an honest mistake or intentional motte-and-bailey equivocation. In this case Hanlon’s razor comes to a vicious conflict with cui bono, and I don’t have good means to resolve it. However, the point stands: the definition provided is way too broad, and may lead to mutual misunderstanding.


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