Real feminism means dissolving extreme binary thinking. Binary thinking is what got us human beings into trouble in the first place. Think about it. Man/ woman, black/ white, old/ young etc. When we place anything into 2 distinct categories, we place those categories into opposition and competition with each other. We create dichotomies. One side of the spectrum is seen as superior while the other side is seen as inferior. One side is rejected while the other is valued. We limit humanity to two neat boxes. People think in binaries all the time to make life simpler and sometimes we do need to do this. When we do this with people though it means we split them up, cut them off and do not allow them the full range of their humanity. There is no room for a grey area or anything in between the 2 polarized categories, whatever they may be. Significantly we do not allow the two polarized opposites the possibility of actually containing each other when this is actually often the reality of life. Binaries can become oppressive and frequently the basis for discrimination. I hope this makes it clear how extreme binary thinking is inherently anti-feminist.
I’m mixed race. I live in an in-between place and have done all of my life, so thinking in binaries is something I reject daily because I choose not to see myself as black or white. I accept that I am both. That doesn’t mean I never fall into binary thinking myself because I definitely do, but I’m wary of it and try to think consciously about it. I know from my own life binary thinking can lead to a lot of problems.
I keep coming across ‘feminist’ articles lately where binary thinking is being applied. People are being positioned in these articles as strictly either sexist or just an ordinary person, or feminist or sexist. First of all what is this about? Why are people suddenly talking about binaries in connection to feminism/ sexism? Well it seems to be about two things. It’s about people either dodging the feminist label altogether, as is the case with the article on Maisie Williams from Game of Thrones (she just wants to be seen as ‘human’ rather than feminist and wants sexist people only to be labelled), or it’s about trying to get more people to take the feminist label, as though by just taking up a label that actually means something in itself. Newsflash – taking up a label on its own doesn’t necessarily mean anything and I’m extremely nervous about people advocating feminism in this way as if it’s a simple yes/ no option. I could go around telling everyone I’m a vegan because I like the idea of being a vegan in theory but that doesn’t mean I am one in reality. There’s nothing in my life that points to me being a vegan but if you flat out asked me yes or no, then yes I do think a vegan lifestyle would certainly be ideal. What I mean by this is that simply saying yes I agree with gender equality does not automatically translate to being a feminist. A feminist is an advocate and not just someone who holds a certain belief.
While it’s true that if you ask most people if they believe in gender equality they would be likely to answer a simple yes or no, the truth of whether many people really believe in gender equality in reality is more likely to be somewhere in between yes and no. We can’t assume people would always answer the question honestly anyway. There is to some degree after all, a societal expectation in many countries that we all should and must believe in gender equality. People don’t neatly fall into the categories feminist/ not feminist, sexist/ not sexist as much as we’d like them to and perhaps that it is part of the reason some people refuse to use the word feminist or even sexist to describe themselves. It’s because they are aware that they don’t neatly fall into the categories to begin with. Also I imagine most people are smart enough to realise that taking up the label feminist, if they choose to do so, means they will actually be required to DO something and this may well be what many people who are on the fence about whether or not they are feminists, are seeking to avoid. There is an underlying understanding that saying yes to feminism involves some kind of commitment and hard work. Not so simple after all huh?
We are also assuming from the outset when we ask the binary question people really even understand what feminism/ sexism is anyway. The truth is many people probably don’t beyond a very basic level. What I know about the meaning of feminism is very different to what I knew even a few years back.
Some people may regularly engage in sexist behaviours but not actually know or believe their behaviours are sexist. I’ve had quite a few misogynistic boyfriends but do you honestly believe if I went back and interviewed them all they would say ‘oh yes, I’m totally misogynistic!’ because I don’t? I’m sure they would at least actually agree with the premise that women and men are equal, especially if they had to answer in front of an audience. Before you can really know whether you are genuinely feminist or not some education and self-awareness is required. While we can’t clearly mark off everyone’s level of feminism (nor should we try), we can tell if they actually make any effort to regularly engage in feminist behaviour. Calling yourself a feminist puts you under a different kind of spotlight whether we believe that is fair or not. I think the people on the fence about feminism get this too. I’m not advocating policing people’s feminism here, I’m just trying to point out that thinking in binaries about feminism is a limited way of looking at something very complex. Calling yourself a feminist doesn’t make you one. Feminist is a doing word to me (and also by definition), not just a simple response to an either/ or question.
I would personally rather someone not say ‘I’m a feminist’ if their heart is not in it rather than them being cajoled into using the label because I tricked them into it with a binary question. I don’t want someone to call themselves a feminist just because they are terrified of being called sexist either. Some people are scared of the word ‘feminist’, some people don’t want to use it (and some have good reasons for using other words instead such as womanism), some people know they can’t live up to the label even if they don’t particularly see themselves as sexist, some people are in the grey area between sexist/ feminist for a very good reason! Let them have the damn grey area if that’s where they are. If we are honest with ourselves we all spend some time in that grey area but ultimately we decide for ourselves if we wish to take up the label feminist or not. I feel that I’m a feminist because I know I work hard to try to stay out of the grey area and the term suits me personally. I certainly didn’t take up the label because someone was chasing after me with a binary question. I chose feminism because I needed it and because it made sense to me at a deep level. Let’s stop trying to stuff people into boxes to suit our own agendas please.
My feminist community and blog: www.facebook.com/amixedracefeministspeaks