Philosophy  •  January 7, 2011

Moving Beyond “Feminism”

When feminists criticize or analyze men, they usually assume that all men are like Napoleon, Type A personality, aspired to be a leader, wants to conquer the world and leave his name in history. This is equivalent to assuming that all women want to stay home and raise children. I believe at least half of men do not aspire to be like Napoleon or Bill Gates; they just want to live a simple, modest life. Think of the father of Tiny Tim in “A Christmas Carol”, Bob Cratchit. If it were culturally acceptable for him to stay home with his kids, wouldn’t you think he would have loved to do so?

In my view, one of the most significant hurdles to achieving true gender equality is men’s unwillingness to admit what we are feeling inside. We men live a life of “quiet desperation” because we are culturally expected to. This has to change if we were to achieve true gender equality. Like women, we need to have the courage to admit our feelings.

The counterpart to the feminists on men’s side is a group of men who are willing to admit that they don’t want to work, or want to work only part time. The reason why such a movement has not caught on is because it could potentially cause serious damage to their reputation. Feminism is a positive movement; it demands something positive (or at least culturally perceived as such). Men asking not to work, or work less, is a negative request that would be interpreted as being lazy, cowardly, and irresponsible. If you are part of such a movement, and if it is publicly known, you would probably have a hard time finding anyone willing to hire you. But the reality still requires us to make a living. So we suck it up.

Why we want to or should work is a rather philosophical question. I heard an interesting story on NPR that sheds some light on why most men are driven to work. One mother was telling a story of how she used to turn everything into a competition in order to get her son to do anything. For instance, she would tell him, “Let’s see how quickly you can clean up!” and start timing him. This would motivate the boy to clean up, but when she tried the same trick on her daughter, she simply responded by asking, “Why?” That is a good philosophical question. It’s essentially a rhetorical question that implies that there is actually no point in cleaning up as fast as she can. Men can see almost any task at hand as having divine significance. Men are more autistic in this sense. We become so single-minded that we cannot see the big picture. We do not have the so-called “central coherence” to see the pointlessness of the competition. But this is not true with all men. Some men are wise enough to see the pointlessness like many women do.

Extend this analogy to our careers. At one extreme is a man like Scrooge who is so single-minded about making money that he cannot see how pointless money ultimately is. Such a stupid man is quite useful for women who enjoy being at home with their children. Just as Scrooge realized the pointlessness of what he was doing at the end of the story (finally gained the “central coherence”), many men do reach that state towards the end of their lives. From this perspective, it can be argued that, in the history of mankind, men have been suckered by women into toiling away at something meaningless like the mother in the NPR story did to her boy.

When I read the controversial article, “The Opt-Out Revolution”, by Lisa Belkin (published on New York Times in 2003), my sense was that some women have finally realized that the grass isn’t actually greener on men’s side. These elite women have been there and done that, and realized that they don’t want their careers to be their first priority in life, or not a priority at all. That is, the “why” question started popping into their heads.

This is also happening to men too. In 2002, a film called “The Twilight Samurai” became a big hit in Japan. It is about a samurai who lost his wife to terminal illness and was raising two girls on his own. It takes place towards the end of the era of samurais where they had to work as accountants because there wasn’t much for them to do. The main character, Seibei, was called a “twilight samurai” because he would never join his coworkers for drinks after work. Every day, he quickly clears his desk and goes home to his daughters. He admits that he enjoys spending time with his girls despite the fact that they are struggling to make ends meet. He has no ambition at work, and even declines opportunities that would allow him to move up. One day he is ordered to go kill another samurai who locked himself in a house refusing to come out. The idea that he might die from this assignment, leaving his daughters with no parent, drives him into despair.

In short, this is a film about a man who finds his own meaning of life that is traditionally associated with women. And, this film became a big hit in a country often criticized for being sexist. I watched this film while my wife and daughter were visiting a relative for a few days. It’s somewhat embarrassing to admit it, but I was crying like a baby as I was watching this film.

The changes are happening everywhere, slowly but surely. And, I believe that these changes would have happened whether feminism as a movement existed or not. Thanks to the technological advancement, compared to a few hundred years ago, parenting and housekeeping today is quite easy. Cooking, cleaning, and running errands now take a fraction of time they used to take. We spend 10 minutes clicking away on a computer, and we can get groceries delivered to our door. Doing laundry is about throwing dirty clothes in a machine and wait for it to be done. These are tasks that full-time mothers used to spend hours doing. Any self-respecting women would have felt guilty just doing these easy things. Especially after the kids start going to school, what would women do with all that time? If it weren’t for the feminists, men would have started complaining sooner or later. (I have a friend who told his wife to start working even if she makes close to no money because it would at least prevent her from spending money out of boredom.) It wasn’t so much about the nature of domestic duties that was a problem, domestic duties themselves were disappearing. So, there was nothing fulfilling, challenging, or rewarding about staying at home. Women joining the labor force was just a matter of time, and it will eventually happen to all countries. As I will explain later, the market forces will make sure of it.

In reading “Opting In: Having a Child Without Losing Yourself” by a self-professed feminist Amy Richards, I got the sense that much of the debate among feminists is about the language, not about the actual issue of gender equality. When you use a word to mobilize people, you are trying to conveniently ignore individual differences for the sake of achieving the total that is greater than the sum of its parts. Not everyone who fights for gender equality agrees with the philosophies of so-called “feminism”. We do not apply a single label for all who fight against racism because there are many different ways to fight it. Likewise, there are many ways to fight for gender equality too; the feminists’ way is not the only way. In fact, I believe the use of the word “feminism” gets in the way of the efforts of individual women to think for themselves because use of any word has normative effects. Furthermore, if feminism is about achieving gender equality, why use a word derived from the word “feminine”? Why should this word be gender-specific? Isn’t that an oxymoron? What the word implies is a female-biased movement for gender equality. Equality is equality; couldn’t we drop the bias?

When activism or ideological movement under the same banner continues for too long, its members become more interested in maintaining the existing power structure than doing the right thing for their cause. That is, even after the banner outlived its usefulness, its players insist on using it as it is too closely tied to their own identity and power. In my view, if we are truly interested in gender equality, it’s time to leave the word “feminism” in history just as we do with most cultural movements like “Modernism” or “Abstract Expressionism”. And, I would propose creating a new “ism” more appropriate for today’s generation (“gender-equalism”?). It would be free of the burden of the past, so we wouldn’t need to keep defending, rationalizing, criticizing the old banner. It would be much more productive and constructive to spend the same energy in just moving forward.

To move forward, and to define our own “ism”, we also need to re-evaluate the common language we use in this debate. For instance, we often assume that “choice” is a good thing, but as Barry Schwartz have recently demonstrated in his book “The Paradox of Choice”, it’s neither good nor bad. I would go even further. Choices are making us feel more miserable in general. The stress levels are going up for everyone because we feel we are losing control, which in turn is caused by our assumption that we should be in control in the first place. And, this assumption is an unintended consequence of having too many choices. We feel self-remorse when we lose control, only because we have so many choices; we feel that, given all these choices, we should be in control of everything. If not, it must be our own fault.

Not so long ago in our human history, people saw life as a matter of fate. All that they cared about was to do the best they could given whatever cards they were dealt with. Being a woman was a fate that came with certain cards, and being a man was also a fate that came with certain cards of its own. Being born into a family of farmers, being born in a city, being born poor, being born tall, etc.. All these came with specific cards of their own, and your game was to make the best of them, and you died thinking about how well you did relative to where you started, not where you ended up on the social ladder. This was particularly true for the cultures with caste systems.

Today, we are not happy with that interpretation of life. In fact, we cannot rationalize life in that way because we have so many choices and so much more equality. But even with the multitude of choices we face today, nothing really changed fundamentally. The bottom line is that we cannot re-live to experience the choices we did not make. Whether it really was a choice or not is only a philosophical question if we cannot ever know how the other choices would have unfolded in our lives. A fork in the path is not a choice if we do not know where each path leads to. We would never know that for sure in life. As a parent, if you were to say you regret having a child, you are only speculating since you do not really know what it’s like to be childless all of your life. By the same token, saying you do not want a child is technically meaningless since you do not know what it’s like to have a child. The only thing that changed over the history of feminism is how we interpret our fate. Making a conscious and deliberate choice every step of the way would lead to an illusory sense of being in control but you are no more in control with that choice than simply tossing a coin. Even if you concluded with research, reason, and intuition that X is a better choice, you don’t truly know that unless you can re-live Y to see if your speculation was correct. The word “choice” is really just a euphemism for “fate”, like “pre-owned” is for “used”.

The following Taoist tale illustrates how the Eastern cultures accepted their fate:

One day this farmer’s horse runs away, his neighbor says to him, “I’m sorry to hear that you lost your horse.” “Well, who knows what’s good and bad?” says the farmer. The next day, the farmer’s horse returns to his stable, and it has brought along another horse. The neighbor congratulates the farmer, but he replies, “Who knows what’s good and bad?” The next day, the farmer’s son rides the new wild horse, gets thrown off of the horse, and breaks his leg. Their neighbor offers condolences, but the farmer once again says, “Who knows what’s good and bad.” On the following day, his son gets drafted to the army, but he is excused because of his broken leg. The story goes on forever in this manner.

In “The Opt-Out Revolution”, Lisa Belkin says: “Of white men with M.B.A.’s, 95 percent are working full time, but for white women with M.B.A.’s, that number drops to 67 percent. (Interestingly, the numbers for African-American women are closer to those for white men than to those for white women.)” It’s quite obvious to me why black women have to work as much as white men; it’s because they have no choice. It was actually a “fate”, not of their own making, but as part of the change in our economic environment.

Economy has a way of achieving an equilibrium between what people are willing to pay and what people need to survive. In a market economy, we do not get paid for our productivity; we get paid for our relative productivity. That is a big difference. If we were paid for the absolute level of productivity, we would all be billionaires by now. For instance, what we can compose using a word processor and a laser printer today is something that took a whole team of people many days to do even a hundred years ago. Today, I could do it in less than an hour, but do I get paid the same amount of money that would have been paid to a whole team of people for many days? No. My pay is determined by the relative level of productivity in our market economy. This means that, at the bottom of the social ladder, the market economy will always make sure that people are working as many hours as humanly possible to survive. (If not in your country, then in some other country.) Today the American economy assumes double-income households as the norm, and in order to survive, the lower class women have no choice but to work full-time. As soon as technology improves our productivity and there are some extra hours available to the lower class people, the market economy will make sure that they need to work those hours too! “Choice”? Hardly. And, it makes you wonder “why” we bother increasing our productivity, doesn’t it?

Because of this substitution of these words, “choice” and “fate”, we’ve forgotten how to accept fate more pragmatically. Some people are born at 0 and reach 10 on their social ladder when they die while some others may start at minus 3 and end at plus 7. Either way, what should count at the end of their lives is that they climbed 10 steps. I was born Asian, so I technically belong to a so-called “minority group” with less privileges. I could either spend my energy feeling angry about it and take only 7 steps from -3 to +4, or use the same energy to climb up 10 steps to +7. Which would serve myself and our society better in the end?

Because of the slew of medical and technological choices available, some women in their 40s who are experiencing infertility become obsessed about getting pregnant. If they could eventually get pregnant, it’s not so bad, but some end up failing even after trying for years and spending a fortune. Imagine what else they could have achieved with the same money and time if they were able to accept their infertility like everyone did in the old days. Are we really empowered by these choices or are we victimized by them? It’s hard to say.

But this does not mean that ideological progress is meaningless. We should, and I want to, strive for more equality. The only difference lies in our expectations. If we see equality as a right, something that nature should have given us but didn’t, then we pit ourselves against our own nature and we end up alienating ourselves. Nobody actually wins in such a battle. When we ignore our nature, and bulldoze over it with our ideals, we end up hurting ourselves and others. The wounds that it would cause would undermine the progress that we would otherwise achieve. Rushing isn’t always the quickest way to reach our destination.

One woman I know used to claim rather definitively and self-righteously that she didn’t ever want to have kids. She even went as far as to call people with kids “breeders”. Ironically everyone around her knew that she was lying, not only to us, but to herself. Sure enough, when she became pregnant by accident, she changed her mind and decided to keep the baby. From the perspective of her boyfriend who was a good friend of mine, their relationship was based on the mutual desire not to have any children. So, when she declared her intention to keep the baby, he panicked as he would still be legally liable for the baby. I personally got involved in trying to persuade her into aborting the baby and using a sperm bank paid for by her boyfriend (as she said she was willing to raise the kid by herself). The final twist to this story is that when the baby boy arrived, my friend changed his heart too. Now they are living and raising the boy together.

What an enormous waste of energy! This isn’t something unique to them. We’ve all made priestly claims, only to change our minds later, confronted by the profound forces of nature. Why are we so dishonest with ourselves? It’s because we identify with our own egos more than we do with our own nature. An ego is an idea of self which is not always in harmony with what we truly are. The reality is that we have to fight for both. We can’t just fight for one or the other because our existence is not just an idea. In fact, when a parent gives unconditional love to a child, she is embracing both the natural and ideological aspects of the child. When she loves only the former, the child would be spoiled, and when she loves only the latter, the child would forever be unhappy because achieving ideological goals would be the only way he would ever be loved by anyone (so he would assume). And, there is no end to human ideals.

To achieve our goal of gender equality, we must accept both our nature (albeit often irrational, selfish, and unjust) and our ideals. We must accept ourselves for what we are first, before we push our ideals forward. Otherwise, true change will never come. I’m being hypocritical in saying this as I am far from being able to do this myself, but alas such is the yin and yang of our nature and ideals.