Feminism And The “Best Looking Attorney General” Comment

I consider myself a pretty dedicated male feminist, but this whole backlash to a comment President Obama made about California attorney general Kamala Harris has left me wondering. I guess I just don’t see what is gained here; in my opinion, there’s a lot more to lose.

This might be one of those things that proves what some have argued: that men can’t be feminists. Certainly, I don’t know what it is like to be a woman; all I have to go on is whatever approximation I can reach through sympathy. Maybe I’m caught up in my own male privilege here, though I sincerely hope not. Regardless, here’s my case for why I think the reaction to President Obama’s comment has done more harm than good.

Like all causes, feminism is out to win hearts and minds. That’s the core of the issue, of any issue and virtually any “ism:” try to get people to agree with you, because only through agreement can we achieve the egalitarian society that is at the heart of feminism’s goal.

I hesitate to call this a “game” because that seems denigrating. It’s not a game; we’re talking about the lives and well-being of people. However, the same can be said about politics as a game; it’s a deadly serious game for which the stakes are the lives and well-being of people. These games have certain rules and more importantly, certain strategies.

I try to be more of an idealist than a pragmatist, but at some point, pragmatic concerns must be taken into account. I want feminism to “win,” by which I mean achieve all of its goals and foster a culture where feminism and humanism can be truly synonymous in all respects.

The problem is that this goal cannot be achieved by force. It cannot be achieved by browbeating or shaming or any form of negative reinforcement. No cause can win through these means. The Pondering Humanist articulates this point very brilliantly and although the context in this quote is for atheism rather than feminism, I believe the logic is applicable:

For those of you who have escaped religion, I don’t need to explain how hard it is to get your mind out of the pew. But for the benefit of those out there slinging insults like “Religitard” or “Creationshits”, allow me to explain why you need to turn down the heat. As the entertaining and enlightening Seth Andrews says in his book Deconverted: The Path from Religion to Reason, no one was ever “brow-beaten into an epiphany.” The louder you yell, the ruder you get, the less anyone listens.

I’m not calling feminists rude. However, at some point, we must realize that to win hearts and minds, that means overcoming the patriarchy that has permeated our society. That means realizing that there are those men who are, quite simply put, afraid of feminism are the ones that we most need to convince. It doesn’t matter that they are wrong in being afraid of feminism. It doesn’t matter how misconceived these fears actually are. We know that feminism isn’t going to put every man in chains and remove the “taint of masculinity” from the world. But they don’t know that, and that’s the problem.

When those fearful men see this kind of reaction to what they perceive as an innocent comment, they aren’t going to follow the train of logic about how comments like this are reinforcing a pernicious belief that women are judged by appearance. They are going to see a reaction that confirms their fears about feminism and they are going to dig their heels in and resist listening to everything else feminism has to say. They are going to believe that feminism will create a world where a man has to be afraid of everything he says. Again, it doesn’t matter that that’s wrong. It’s a real fear for him and it will cause him to oppose feminism simply because he fears it, because he does not understand it, and because he fears what he does not understand.

No, it’s not right that these small-minded fears being allowed to “get their way.” It should be incumbent upon those fearful men to open their minds and grow up a little. But if they were capable of doing that on their own, they would already be feminists and the world would already be better. Feminists have to be more than just “right” in this scenario; feminists have to be out to win.

I don’t think the reaction to the comment was oversensitive, like others have claimed. I understand the reaction and I understand how much it rankles to be told to allow a comment to pass, because isn’t that how we got into a rape culture in the first place? However, I do think that this time, it did more harm than good to the overall cause of feminism. I think that it was a battle that should not have been fought, because whatever victory was gained through President Obama’s apology was lost by all the men who don’t identify with the feminist cause and are now shaking their heads thinking that all their heads and thinking “man, those feminists sure are crazy.”

What it comes down to is the tired, but nevertheless accurate statement: “pick your battles.” Or, if you prefer, the Confucian saying “the man person who chases two rabbits, catches neither.” This doesn’t mean to simply allow any comment to pass unchallenged for fear of alienating non-feminist men. It does mean, however, realizing that any cause, no matter how noble, no matter how just, only has so much capital to spend in the arena of public opinion. Shouldn’t we be saving that capital for the kinds of comments that truly garish and offensive?

Sticking to your guns wins battles, this is true, but diplomacy end wars. I think that this was a battle that feminism should not have fought, because the media firestorm eclipsed whatever progress was made. But maybe all that does is prove that men can’t be feminists and I’m completely wrong in all of this. That’s entirely possible, too.