USA, World

When it comes to feminism, I’m a skeptic of the skeptics

Some people on the left are a little too righteous. They are holier-than-thou, overly sensitive, and speak with a political correctness that is as nauseating as it is pretentious. In the past, I’ve written about my support for those who are trying to take back the left and redefine what it means to fight for liberal values like free expression and human rights in the 21st century. In feminist circles, this attempted take-back is perfectly exemplified by the work that Christina Hoff Sommers is doing in her quest for what she calls “factual feminism.”

Christina Hoff Sommers identifies as a feminist. She regularly cites her support for the second wave feminism of the 60s and 70s that took on male chauvinism in the workplace and in the home, and won women unprecedented control over their own bodies via legal protections for their reproductive rights. But where Hoff Sommers differs from many of the feminists of today is not over what feminism was, but over her belief about what feminism has since become.

Hoff Sommers believes that modern day feminism is built on a collection of myths that over-exaggerate the ‘oppressed’ state of women in today’s world. She believes that leading feminists, particularly on university campuses, are instilling in young women a victimhood mentality, confusing them on what misogyny actually looks like and convincing them that they are victims of injustices that do not actually exist. She believes that things like the ‘wage gap’ and the ‘glass ceiling’ are feminist farces explained not by patriarchy but by natural, biological differences that exist between the sexes and the influences that those differences have on the lives that men and women freely choose to lead. She also believes that all of this has led to an unhealthy hatred of men and boys and a neglect of the unique problems that they experience in world.

I appreciate what Christina Hoff Sommers is trying to do. In thinking about people who have challenged my worldview, she has got to be one of the more thought-provoking voices that I have recently encountered. Her factual feminism makes worthy critiques of “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces,” “privilege checking” and “micro-aggressions.” However, after a long personal marination on the merits of her arguments, when it comes to the larger questions that she poses about the validity of modern day feminism, I’m still a skeptic of much of her skepticism.

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Hoff Sommers beef with feminism stems from a divide in the feminist field that dates back to the arrival of feminism’s third wave in the mid 1990s. This divide created two distinct branches of feminism—“equity feminism” and “gender feminism.” Hoff Sommers is the first one (although some have described her as more of a “libertarian feminist”). This means that she believes in equality of rights between men and women as well as equality of economic and social opportunity. However, when that equality of opportunity fails to translate into equality of results, Hoff Sommers hesitates to point her finger at the patriarchy. That’s because, in her mind, inequality does not necessarily indicate injustice.

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Men and women are different, and different is okay. It’s okay when competitive boys choose to play football and cooperative girls choose to be cheerleaders. It’s okay when risk-taking men choose to work dangerous jobs while nurturing women choose to keep the home and raise the children. And if these choices result in working men, on average, earning more money than working women, or men being more likely to ascend to leadership positions in businesses and government, that’s okay too. This does not mean that societal gender roles are prescribed. There will always be men and women who buck the proverbial trend, and they are and should be free to do so. However, we shouldn’t be surprised when, more often than not, those trends are widely followed.

Gender feminists disagree. It’s not that gender feminists disbelieve in biological differences between men and women. Certainly there are some anatomical differences that are difficult to ignore. What gender feminists question is the ability of biology to explain the myriad of gender-based differences that exist between the sexes in society today. More importantly, what they conclude is that many of the characteristics attributed to a certain sex are not the result of biology, but instead are created by human beings; they are social constructs.

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Biology does help to explain certain social phenomena. Perhaps evolutionary biology, for example, could help to explain why men are often seen as more independent and aggressive whereas women are viewed to be compassionate and nurturing. It does make some sense that these traits could have “evolved” in men and women after millennia of hunting and gathering, where men possessed the superior biological tools for capturing and killing animals and women the only biological tools for birthing and feeding babies. This example could also provide some insight into the evolution of the idea of men as “breadwinners” and women as “housekeepers.” Before the invention of agriculture, these roles were essentially required in order to create a nuclear family.

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However, when it comes to other gender related questions, biology provides very few answers. Does biology explain why girls like pink and boys like blue? Does biology explain why girls wear dresses and boys wear pants? Does biology explain why the girl with the shortest hair in the room still oftentimes has longer locks than the shaggiest boy? And does biology explain why centuries removed from the transcendence of our societal limitations in regards to food production and childcare, so many modern families still maintain the familial structure of our ancient ancestors? No, no, no, and no.

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Which is why I find myself questioning a lot of the arguments posed by Hoff Sommers and other like-minded thinkers. Women’s rights have come a long way, but the (socially constructed) patriarchy is still very much alive. Be it objectification, domestic abuse, and sexual violence at home, or forced coverings, arranged marriages, and female genital mutilation abroad, victimhood is not just a mentality for many women—it’s a reality.

What is more, much of Hoff Sommers’ “myth-busting” doesn’t hold water. Her attempted discrediting of the gender wage gap is a good example. The gender wage gap is a statistic that suggests that the average working woman in the United States earns about $0.79 compared to every $1.00 earned by the average working man. Hoff Sommers argues that this statistic is misleading because while it seems to indicate blatant systemic discrimination against women, deeper digging reveals the truth to be more complicated. Women are not being paid lower wages than men for doing more or less the same work—they are just doing different work. What this stat really shows, in Hoff Sommers’ opinion, is that women choose different professions, different fields of study, and oftentimes work different schedules due in part to the unique demands of pregnancy and motherhood.

What’s not clear to me is the why—why do women make these choices? Why do women so often choose to be the secretary in a male-dominated office? Why do women so often choose to stay home with the children when a man could easily do the same? Hoff Sommers would argue that these choices are due to biology—measurable differences in the brains and bodies of women that help to explain their unique preferences. Gender feminists, on the other hand, would argue that they are the result of social constructs—societal expectations placed upon women that influence them both directly and indirectly to make the career choices that they ultimately make.

And I tend to agree with the gender feminists. It’s not that there is anything wrong with being a secretary or a stay-at-home mom. A secretary is an incredibly important person in most offices and who better to raise a kid than their own loving mother. What is wrong is when women take these roles not because they want to, but because they feel like they’re supposed to—like it is their place as a woman to serve the man and keep his home or like they are incapable of doing jobs more often occupied by their male superiors. And even though there are endless examples of strong, independent women currently occupying positions of power and prestige, I think that anybody who pays even the slightest attention to the world around them could admit that we as a society still send some pretty strong messages to boys and girls about what they are supposed to be.

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It’s also important to note that feminism is not just for girls. For every girl that likes to play football, solve math problems, and get buzz cuts, there is a boy who likes to read love stories, carry a purse, and cry. Feminism is also for any person who identifies as anything other than heterosexual or cisgender. Feminism is about people being able to fully be the unique human being that they are in spite of whatever gender roles society attempts to ascribe upon them. By the way, this also means that if a young girl happens to like pink, pretty dresses, and Barbie dolls, she should not be labeled as a victim of the patriarchy. Feminism should be for her too.

Hoff Sommers’ voice deserves inclusion in feminist conversations. She’s a conservative intellectual that, if nothing else, certainly helps to counterbalance the extremist tendencies of some feminists on the far left and give interested people like myself something to think about. But when it comes to her attempt to dispel feminist myths and rein in the regressive elements of modern day feminism, I think that at the end of day, she is the one who sounds like the regressive.

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Politics, Religion, USA

Thinking Through Orlando

Another day, another mass shooting in the United States of America. That makes 176 and counting for this calendar year depending on who you ask. And even though this one is statistically the biggest, it feels the same. The conversations sound the same. The venue is different, as are the names and faces, but other than that, same.

I’m not sure that I have any answers. I’m not sure about anything. There’s a lot to think about, and this blog is my way of doing that. In some cases, we write not to say what we think, but to think. Hopefully by writing this, I’ll begin to figure out what the hell that it is.

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One of the most salient factors of this particular shooting is the Islamic one. The fact that the Orlando shooter is a Muslim makes this shooting a different animal, even if it shouldn’t. Our political leaders have exemplified the polarization on this issue via their polar opposite reactions. On one end, Donald Trump has renewed his call for a ban on all Muslims seeking entry into the country, whereas on the other Barack Obama has once again refused to even use the words “radical Islam” in describing the attack.

In no way do I sympathize with the sentiments of Donald Trump and other piece of shit Republicans whose animosity towards gays is only temporarily being overshadowed by their even stronger hatred of Muslims, but that doesn’t mean that I agree with Barack Obama either. I understand Obama’s rationale—anti-Islamic rhetoric is exactly what groups like ISIS want. Be it real or perceived, an American “war on Islam” plays right into the Islamic State’s playbook. It would alienate much needed Muslim allies at home and abroad, and in some cases, drive them straight into enemy hands.

What is more, American obsession with combatting the Islamic boogeyman can also create a self-fulfilling prophecy within American Muslims. As in other faiths here in the United States, many Muslims do not see their religion as a salient part of their identities. They identify as Muslim, but other than that, are not overtly religious people. However, when societal voices regularly emphasize the Islamic elements of their identity, especially through sweeping generalizations and/or discriminatory treatment, salience is exactly what their religion gains. In other words, you’re going to be a lot more aware of your own Muslimness if people are constantly reminding you of how Muslim you are.

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That being said, I think that ignoring the role of religion in this attack and others is a mistake. You do not have to be radicalized in order to subscribe to the homophobia inherent in the Islamic religion. In this case, it’s possible that the hatred that shooter Omar Mateen was feeling towards the LGBTQ community was also hatred for himself. Speculation that Mateen may have been gay could help to explain the enormous animosity that he felt towards that group, and as the Catholic Church has demonstrated, it wouldn’t be the first time that religious-based repression of one’s sexual identity led to unspeakable acts.

And while reminders of the violence and hatred also inherent within Christianity are warranted and sometimes necessary, I get a little tired of the liberals who, upon hearing a critique of Islamic ideology, reflexively respond by reminding the critic that other religions are violent too. Islamophobia is a real thing, and I understand why people are a bit touchy about it, but for atheists like myself who see religion in general as a detrimental force to humanity, this impediment to honest dialogue is annoying and counterproductive.

Liberals have also attempted to absolve Islamic ideology by labeling Mateen as a “lone wolf,” a self-radicalized anomaly whose actions were based on a perversion of the Islamic faith. But while it does appear that Mateen acted alone, anyone familiar with Islamic texts should not be surprised that he was able to arrive at such homophobic conclusions. The idea that homosexuality is a sin perhaps punishable by death is not as much of a perversion of Islam as it is a reasonable interpretation of it.

Which is why, in spite of my militant atheism, I have been so supportive of the efforts of people like Maajid Nawaz who seek to combat Islamic extremism through deradicalization and the promotion of more moderate manifestations of the faith. If it were up to me, we’d make John Lennon’s musings a reality and forge a world free from the manufactured divisions and diversions that religion creates. But since religion isn’t going anywhere, I guess that peaceful interpretations of violent texts like the Bible and the Quran would be something I could settle for. The vast majority of the world’s Muslims are already there. In fact, in the United States, Muslims as a group are actually far more accepting of homosexuality than their Evangelical counterparts.

But this attack and the homophobia that fueled it are a reminder of how far the LGBTQ community still has to go in its fight for acceptance and equality. The LGBTQ community has won a lot of battles in recent years. Some of us may have even thought that they had won the war in light of the 2015 Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. But Orlando was a painful reminder that the war against homophobia is still very much ongoing.

And then there are guns. The United States clearly has a gun problem. I would hope that at this point even the most ardent second amendment supporters could admit that when it comes to protecting the constitutional right to bear arms, the costs are pretty high, particularly in regard to human life. Also, while I suppose that there remains some rationale to argue that gun ownership offers individuals a way to protect themselves, even though statistics suggest otherwise, I am sick of the argument that their gun ownership protects others too. I think that we’ve witnessed enough mass shootings in this country to conclude that those ‘good guy with a gun’ scenarios are complete and total bullshit. No one person with their conceal-and-carry permit could have saved those nightclub victims from Omar Mateen and his semi-automatic assault rifle, and even if they could have, the suggestion that you should need to arm yourself every time that you go out to drink and dance with friends says all you need to know about the out-of-control state of firearms in this country.

Which is why I believe in the necessity and urgency for common-sense gun control legislation—laws that can help to limit the ability to acquire firearms for those people who wish to do others harm. However, the more I read up on the nature of the problem, the less sure I am of exactly what that might look like. To be sure, there are certain measures that should be no-brainers—closing the no-fly list loophole, required background checks prior to weapons purchases, mandatory waiting periods, etc. But while these reforms would technically represent “progress,” I’m not sure how many of the recent mass shootings such reforms would have prevented.

This leads me to believe that perhaps more radical reforms are necessary—something similar to Australia’s assault weapons ban accompanied by a government buyback. But with the lack of political will to pass even the most common sense control measures, more radical, meaningful reform, at least in the foreseeable future, is probably a pipe dream, even following the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.

Which brings us to another point of contention. While recent comparisons would suggest that headlines describing Orlando as the ‘deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history’ are indeed appropriate, critics have pointed out that more historic U.S. massacres, particularly the government-sponsored slaying of Native Americans at Wounded Knee, have witnessed much higher death tolls. In light of such criticisms, perhaps ‘deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history’ would be more historically accurate. However, while I usually consider myself somewhat of a social justice advocate, I feel that such corrections, in this case, are a bit out of place.

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There are always glimmers of hope in tragedies like these. Immense gratitude is due to our public servants, police officers and hospital staff, who prevented the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history from becoming even deadlier. The lines that formed outside of Orlando blood banks of people looking to literally give a part of the themselves to help their fellow Floridians in a time of desperate crisis were inspiring to say the least. Late-night television personalities like Jimmy Fallon attempted to restore our faith in humanity reminding us that this was a case of one bad guy versus forty-nine good, and that at the end of the day, in spite of such tragedies, there will always be more good in the world than evil.

But while that’s a heartwarming message, I’m not sure that I like it. It’s true that the good people in this world outnumber the evil ones, and I’m glad that it’s true. It’s a comforting thought. But I don’t want to be comfortable right now, and I don’t want anyone else to be comfortable either. Comfort inspires inaction, and inaction is something that we’ve had all too much of.

I’ve also had enough of prayers, and not because I’m irreverent. I believe in the power of sending positive energy, religiously or otherwise, to people who need it. But as @igorvolsky has pointed out, prayers don’t mean shit if they’re not accompanied by action, and unfortunately, they rarely are.

And that’s the big question—in light of Orlando, will we finally fucking do something? Will we create real reforms? Will we inspire meaningful change? Or will we find ourselves some weeks or months down the road having the same conversation in light of another massacre? My gut feeling tells me that it’s the latter, but I hope that I’m wrong about that.   As my good buddy Andrew Miller tweeted on the morning of the attack:

I hope that he’s wrong too, or at the very least, that we can change that.

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Correction:  In this blog post, I referred to the shooter’s weapon as a “semi-automatic assault rifle.”  It has since come to my attention that the term “assault rifle” is not an accurate description of this weapon.  Other than an extended clip, this weapon, while scary-looking, does not have the capacity to fire any faster than most semi-automatic hand guns.  What is more, an assault rifle ban would likely not include this particular weapon, another element that makes finding a sensible solution to America’s gun problem even more complicated.

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Education, USA

Public education and Teaching outside the ideal

The end of the school year is a reflective time for teachers. We think a lot about the things that we did well. We think more about the things that we could have done better.

There’s a lot of good vibes floating around. The end of the year offers us teachers an opportunity to admire the fruit of all the care and work and thought and love that we poured into our students over the months that we spent with them.  It’s a time when we can feel like we actually made a difference in their lives—a time when we can say things like, “Wow…I taught them that,” or for the less egomaniacal/more pretentious among us, “Wow…I helped to facilitate that learning.”

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Minnesota Regional History Day competition, St. Cloud, MN, 2016.  Some of the most inspiring young ladies I’ve ever had the privilege of teaching.

I’ve got a long way to go in my professional development. I’m still in the very early stages of crafting my curriculum expertise and honing my pedagogical skills. Hell, I’m still discovering who I even am as an educator. Looking back on my 2015-2016 school year, there is a lot that I would have done differently, and a lot that I will look to change heading into next year. But what is disheartening to me is that while my own personal shortcomings surely played a role in curbing my effectiveness in the classroom, I feel that the most limiting situations that I encountered resulted not from a lack of knowledge or ability, but from the impossible task incumbent upon me as a public educator in the United States today.

There is no perfect teaching job—no perfect set of circumstances in which an educator can completely and totally enlighten every mind that has been assigned to them. Even if there were, the teacher occupying that perfect position would still teach like an imperfect teacher. But the problem with public education today is not that the teaching jobs aren’t perfect, it’s that they are so far away from perfect that they make the fulfillment of our professional responsibility, the responsibility to provide a high-quality education to all students, damn near impossible.

Class sizes are growing. I have colleagues that see over 150 students every single day. That’s a lot of students for one person to educate. What is more, many of those students have individualized educational plans that call for special adaptions and modifications in order to meet those students’ unique learning needs. In an ideal world, every student would have one of those plans. In the real world, those students are often the ones who fall through the cracks.

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The deprofessionalization of teachers is at an all time high. Between the federal government, the state, the district, and the school administration, there are so many standards and mandates and regulations that seek to control what and how you teach that it almost makes you wonder why you even went to teaching school in the first place.

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Teacher bashing is everywhere. Many parents see teachers as incompetent, a sentiment often emulated by their children. To be honest, they sometimes are right, but that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy of the educational system, a prophecy that is bound to come true in a job that has become so undervalued, a job in which disrespect is such an inherent norm. Even for us teachers who feel tremendously appreciated, we as a collective bunch are still a far, far cry from the days when teachers were viewed as public intellectuals.

All these things work together to make my job very tough to do well. That doesn’t mean that I’m not doing my best. It just means that even my best is nowhere close to enough.

The decisions that I have to make on any given day reflect this dilemma. Do I spend my time trying to provide students constructive feedback on their latest exams, or do I put it into writing thoughtful lesson plans that will make for a richer in-class learning experience? Do I stay knelt next to the desk of Kid A and continue to provide them with the guidance that they desperately need, or do I cut them off early in hopes of addressing the raised hands of Kids B, C, and D before the bell rings? Most of the time you can’t do both, and sometimes, you can’t do either.

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It’s crazy how quickly you can get sucked into the trap. Less than two years ago, I was a spring chicken, an idealistic young whippersnapper hell-bent on taking on the status quo, on transforming social studies education into something deep and meaningful—something beyond the boring memorization of the names and dates and facts so often associated with classes from my department. Yet here I am two years later, bulldozing through content in hopes of getting my U.S. History students through the end of the Vietnam War, in turn satisfying the requirements placed upon me by my state and school.

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This is not a slight against my specific school district. The problems are much deeper and more systemic than that. Some teachers would kill to be in my situation, but I think that says a lot more about the undesirable circumstances of their job than it says about the desirable circumstances of mine.

You can’t always fix a problem by throwing money at it, and a lack of funding is hardly the only problem with public education today. That being said, some well spent dollars could go a long way in helping to address some of the things mentioned above, such as reducing class sizes and hiring more staff that can help meet the needs of all the unique learners that inhabit our schools. I know that spending like that would help me to do a better job and be a better teacher.

And at the end of the day, that’s all I’m really looking for. I don’t need perfect, just better. Better for me, better for my colleagues, better for the kids. I want to be able to do my job more successfully—to help kids think and learn and grow—to care for them and challenge them and help them to blossom into beautiful human beings that will make this world a better place to be. If education is something that we truly value in this country, better is exactly what we’ll do. We’ll fund schools, rethink curriculums, and turn teachers back into the respected figures that they need to be if schools are going to work the way that we want them to. But until that happens, us teachers are stuck with no other choice but to just keep doing the best that we can.

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