Tuesday, December 08, 2009


There's a meme I met at Tasting Rhubarb: three questions about feminism. About "what feminism means to me." Jean's response is incredibly thoughtful and spot-on: I love what she says about feminism and buddhist practice.

I don't remember who said it: feminism is the radical idea that women are people. But that's the heart of feminism to me. I use it by metonymy to mean even more than that. Women are people. Blacks are people. Asians and Native Americans are people. Muslims and Hindus are people.

It goes further than that: children are people. And it goes on to things that most of my countrymen find either dubious or ridiculous: dogs are people. Mice are people. Mosquitoes are people. And on to ones that even most of my fellow Buddhists find dubious or ridiculous: trees are people. Mountains are people. Rivers are people. The things you dimly sense walking in the sky, the alien-feeling thoughts that flicker in your head -- they're people too.

Once you start questioning: once you let go of the conviction that only you and a few people like you matter -- that you are the real people -- the whole house of cards begins to totter. And the centerpiece of that conviction, in this mildly dimorphic species of ours, has almost always been: men are really human: women are the lesser kind of human being. The kind that don't matter so much. The kind you don't have to take seriously.

Once you've taken that step -- some people you don't have to take seriously -- all the evils of the world are ready. If original sin were part of my world-view, that would be my characterization of it. That some people don't matter. Their suffering isn't important. Their opinions don't need to be heard.

And I don't care where you draw the line: who you include and exclude. Ultimately it's drawing the line that matters. I have had friends who really didn't think wealthy capitalists were people. These friends seemed gentle and reasonable. But they were Stalinists waiting to happen. Let the wave of history break just right, and they'd be in the foam of atrocity.

And like Dick Jones, I locate the transmission of this original sin in one particular place: in child rearing. It's how we treat children, at home and in school, that determines whether we pass this evil on. Are you automatically a real person, or only conditionally one? Or are you one at all? Those are the questions a child is asking as he or she grows up. We answer them, implicitly, all the time. And a person who believes his or her membership in the club of real human beings -- the club of people who really matter -- is at stake, is capable of almost any cruelty, any abomination.

So to me, the message of feminism is: the subjectivity of other people is as real as mine, and it matters as much as mine.

It makes for a muddy, confusing, difficult and inefficient world. One in which it's hard to know what to do for the best. But it makes also for a world of endlessly ramifying richness and beauty: huge, wild, and unpredictable. Feminism says that I, a prosperous white male American, don't get to be a member of the exclusive club of people who really matter, any more. But what it offers me in return is full membership in a messy and enormous universe of infinitely diverse, cranky, dangerous, wonderful, and intractable sentient beings. I'll take it, gladly.

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