It Isn’t Just the Principle That Matters: Liberalism, Feminism, and Equality

I’ve had some thoughtful questions posed in response to my last post on the abolition of the ban on women in combat, so I’d clarify why I don’t believe that “gender-equality” in a war-time military is an unqualified victory.  Indeed, insofar as the ability to be in combat is a “feminist achievement” for some women, it is a defeat for women of color or poorer white women who feel that their only available—or reasonable option is to join the military. These remarks expand on an earlier reply to a commenter.

It is possible to see the lifting of the ban purely as a feminist victory. Principles of most kinds—especially when they are couched as progressive—are more easily interpreted in the best possible light when they are separated from history and context, and not applied to examples.  It’s a classic liberal position, which allows a selective interpretation of the facts in favor of highlighting the “pure” principle. The brilliant effectiveness of liberalism is that it’s based on principles, and indifferent to the applications or details.  Moreover, separating the motives from the facts depoliticizes the policy (and strips it of its ethical content).  That is a great way to make a policy easier to swallow–precisely as those in power would like us to do.  By couching a strategic policy in the cloak of principle, it becomes much easier to co-opt a potentially progressive principle for political profit (P5).

But when we see these principles in conjunction with the way that they can (and often will) be exploited, such programs aren’t unqualified victories. The freedom to do something—without a range of options—can often be transformed into being forced to do something [The same does not necessarily apply to the freedom of speech. In fact, the opposite holds for speech: the freedom to speak is generally not transformed into being forced to speak].

Having said that, I’ll reiterate what some readers missed the last time I wrote it: I’m completely in favor of removing barriers to discrimination: sexual, marital, gender, racial.  Removing barriers to discrimination can lead to more options for some people—in some circumstances, in certain moments.  Removing barriers to discrimination is NOT, however, the equivalent of creating choices for everyone.  The freedom to do something is only a mark of progress when it becomes a legitimate option among several reasonable options.

Lifting the ban is consistent with the classic liberal feminist position, which favors the principle of “gender-equality.” However, the classical liberal feminist position is inherently problematic, since it prioritizes “gender-equality” without attending to economic disparities or racially relevant facts. Policies like allowing women in combat will affect women of color—especially single mothers–disproportionately: they are demographically more likely to have fewer employment options and thereby will be disproportionately inclined to join the Army–with its range of benefits. This is even more the case during difficult economic times. All women (and men) of color have to do is agree to be cannon fodder for an imperial war.

So, a “feminist victory” for those who actually have a range of options and decide that they want to be in combat positions, is not in fact a “feminist victory” for all women. It’s NOT an unqualified victory for many women of color—unless they choose to be in combat, given [and this is key] a range of several or many other reasonable options–such as a civil service equivalent, for example. It is NOT a victory for those who don’t want to be in combat and/OR who can’t challenge their superiors’ decisions to put them in combat positions, or for those who didn’t have many options for employment but are attracted by access to healthcare, childcare, etc. Such a position leaves those already vulnerable to the exigencies of authority, i.e., vulnerable to being exploited by those in power over them.

A non-conscription Army–in a society that suffers radical economic inequality (in wealth, employment, and healthcare)–is a classist institution that will disproportionately exploit the vulnerabilities of men and women of color. By ignoring this context, and the timing of this policy, one can trumpet the ‘victory’ or ‘principle’ without having to consider the implications for those who have to suffer through the exigencies of this policy.

This is similar to the “victory” of same-sex marriage, which can certainly facilitate lesbian and gay couples’ access to health care, living will decisions, adoptions, etc. However, it side-steps crucial implications, like (1) the national absence of health-care and (2) corporations’ decision to deny same-sex benefits to unmarried couples (because now everyone, including same-sex couples can get married–so they are forced to do so in order to have benefits). (3) the immigration policy that prohibits domestic partners from applying for visas to live in the US together regardless of marital status.

It’s a way to discipline citizens & residents into conforming to certain societal norms, while pretending that “progress” has been achieved.

One interlocutor pointed to the possibility that gender-equality had nothing to do with being anti-war.  But the idea that feminist equality should be favored over challenging violence or war is short-sighted–if not selective. Should violence only be challenged when it affects women in domestic violence or rape? Feminism and anti-war positions aren’t necessarily linked for everyone, but that does not mean that they have to be exclusive. Doesn’t violence affect others too? Isn’t part of the principle of feminism–any feminism–that human beings and their sanctity should be prioritized? Especially in the case of imperial wars that take brown and black bodies–not only as feed for army war-machines–but as the targets of drones, guns, bombs? For feminists like myself, feminism and anti-violence are intimately linked–especially, when I consider that the violence that has been disproportionately targeted toward black and brown bodies, male and female–here in the U.S. and internationally—in the last twelve years.

North American feminism is not monolithic–there are enormous variants and strands. But liberal feminism is often a conveniently myopic variety of feminism. It is one that cheers principle often when it won’t affect liberal feminists at all, even as it will affect many others adversely (and not by choice).

So, if it makes you feel good, then by all means, celebrate. But when it comes time to vote in our next election, I will refuse to accept this as a “progressive” achievement on the part of the Democrats.  The idea that it’s about principle is a dubious point at best—because it is a policy embedded in a calculation of timing and strategy–to win votes while costing even more Others their lives.


Author: Falguni A. Sheth

I'm a philosopher and political analyst who writes about all kinds of things, from national security, US politics, race, terrorism, miscegenation, feminism, philosophy, and whatever else captivates my attention. My views are idiosyncratic. I'd like to believe they're carefully considered, and I'm not particularly interested in following crowds.

12 thoughts on “It Isn’t Just the Principle That Matters: Liberalism, Feminism, and Equality”

  1. Dr. Nair,

    My gut (I don’t have a PhD, so I listen to that for now) tells me that the right thing to do was probably just to write, “Cool; if your readers are interested in reading more about these topics, please allow me to direct you to my editorial collective,” rather than what you actually did, which really only served to make a compelling case for the democratizing effect blogs like this one can have on these most vital of discussions. I don’t think anything exemplifies the spirit of classic academic elitism better than your odd, unsolicited credit refereeing of a fellow academic’s personal blog (a blog, I might add, that probably has a relatively small reader base anyway, or at least doesn’t carry itself as though it has a huge one) clearly taking precedence over what should really matter: the spread of difficult and challenging ideas in a way easy for the average person (ahem…) to digest.

    Dr. Sheth isn’t using this space to defend a thesis or publish groundbreaking, original scholarship (and I would echo her in asking if there is really such a thing), and her readers aren’t dense enough to think otherwise. I for one appreciate her approach, as she discusses tough issues in a very mindful, intelligent, and accessible way, all without being condescending.

    1. You’re entitled to your opinion, and to implicitly turn my comments into some kind of “odd” personal vendetta. As for how to respond: you might consider that Dr. Sheth might have served herself better without getting quite so defensive and then backtracking in a way that revealed so many contradictions.

      I’ve spent nearly a decade handling some of the most manipulative and even toxic comment threads on my numerous blogs, so I recognise an attempt to snowball and divert when I see one.

      If you read my words carefully, you’ll see that I’m in agreement with her about the issue of originality. My own statements are quite different. I see Dr. Sheth as a symptom of a larger problem, the issues with which I’ve already outlined.

      My points stand, regardless of the intentions you ascribe to them.

      If Dr. Sheth cannot stomach being questioned about her methods, she ought not to publish a blog with comment threads. And if you will not respond to what I actually wrote, it’s best not to respond at all.

      1. Dr. Nair,

        My post was mainly a response to how I perceived your attitude in this discussion and not a direct response to the points the two of you were discussing, although I did feel the need to show my support of this blog as a regular reader. In any case, I appreciate you validating what I wrote when you advised me to “not respond at all.”

        1. Dear Danny,

          I think you’re well aware that’s not what I meant. Now try this: Please read carefully or not at all.

          Have a great day. If you’ve got anything of substance, besides passive-aggressively worded insults that also distort my words, I’m happy to respond.


          1. If the first part of my original comment isn’t “of substance,” I have nothing else to say. You have a good day as well.

  2. So let me get this straight: I am somehow not a feminist if I oppose gender equality in every conceivable human transaction, be it just or unjust? Being a feminist means I must agitate for the KKK to elect a female grand dragon? I must defend to my last breath the right of a business woman to exploit migrant workers?

    I oppose participation by anyone, male or female, in the enterprise known as the U.S. armed forces. I’ve lived through a lot of armed conflict, and I can’t name a single U.S. military intervention during my lifetime (I’m in my sixth decade) that was undertaken for humanitarian purposes. And neither can anyone else.

    It has taken me awhile, but I now understand that the only thing that determines whether U.S. personnel and weaponry are sent abroad is the expected fortune that awaits the sender, be it political, financial, or a combination of the two.

    The women who engage in combat in U.S. uniforms will be killing a lot of females, while in many cases pushing the survivors into the arms of those who, while they might be capable of firing back, would never be confused with the American version of a feminist.

    So what to make of steadfastness in the face of such irony? A testament to one’s feminist commitment? Or to one’s stridency?

    Those who have appropriated the term feminism in pursuit of expanding the class of exploiters, bigots, and killers to include women have plundered the term of whatever ethical value it might hold. A feminism that elevates a rhetoric of gender equality over actual human survival is perverse, and in no way represents what I thought I signed up for.

  3. I cite the most relevant ones everywhere, and you chose one of the most topical pieces to make a point. The intention is not so much to generate knowledge of the literature as to indicate where one’s central ideas might have a place.

    In your case, you do nothing to indicate that others, like the very groups you are so careful to mention in critiquing me, have actually been thinking and writing about these issues, despite two blogs on the topic. When I cite the website of AE, it takes people to an entire body of work, including that of the people you reference – that’s the point of linking, which you don’t bother doing at all. AE is not a singular entity, but an editorial collective, and when I cite it, I am in fact citing a large body of work.

    I absolutely agree about moving against the academic convention of paying homage, often in the form of performing such. And I appreciate your point that ideas are not patentable. But if you are able to point out the very people who have, for instance, been critical of hate crimes legislation, then you are perfectly aware that several people in those same contexts have also been critical of the gay mainstream – in which case, as I pointed out, you have deliberately chosen to not reference them.

    No one is accusing you of not knowing your material – in fact, I’m pointing out that you do – as you’ve clearly indicated – and that you choose to not demonstrate the larger context of rich work already produced. You’re also no doubt not unaware that there is currently a great deal of discussion about the relationship between academic and activist/intellectual work, and not referencing the latter is not a way to push back against the fraught issues of copyright and such (all very important matters) but one more way in which academics have a habit of poaching from those outside the ivory tower.

    To turn this into a claim that you’re simply producing pieces which are less intimidating to a non-academic audience is disingenuous in the extreme, because anyone who spends time on the web is aware of how common is the practice of linking. It’s also quite insulting to your audience to assume that they wouldn’t want to see those links.

    I’ve looked at your previous work, and I think you and I along with the many people who write on these issues have been producing parallel work in the last many years. But it’s incumbent upon all of us to reference each other, and it’s also incumbent upon academics to be aware of their enormous privilege. You’re able to read, use, and circulate work and opinions that come out of a larger context and you are, to put it bluntly, able to leverage that work to gain intellectual and other profits that are then closed off to those who work outside academe. The most recent American Quarterly has a collection of essays on this very topic:

    I have no desire to decide whether or not you’re actually malicious in doing this, but I don’t think any of your claims above hold water. Instead of deciding that I’ve got some personal vendetta and combing through my work to find more examples, perhaps you might think of being more deliberate about acknowledging that there are plenty of people who think like you – as you’ve clearly indicated, you know who they are.

    1. I should also add that no one is requiring you to cite every single piece ever written by anyone else – this is not a review of literature exercise. And no one will hold you responsible for not being aware of some work. It’s less the particulars of that than the strong sense you produce, that your work emerges from an insular place.

      You claim that those who know your work and its genealogy can find more in the form of references in your work. At the same time, you’re claiming that your audience is the sort that might not want to see references (and perhaps you mean academic and non-academic audiences). In which case, the latter is also not likely to seek out the more formally footnoted work, by your own description. In which case, again, not referencing the larger context seems even more deliberate, to forge the very idea of “originality” which you claim to dispute.

  4. A lot of what you’ve written here and in your previous post is reminiscent of what Against Equality has been presenting on and writing about. In fact, several of the points here have been made in various essays that are available here and elsewhere:

    Given the corpus of work out there that challenges such forms of neoliberal thinking, it would be great to see a recognition of the work already done. There is, of course, much that comes from your own thinking and research, but I’m always somewhat disconcerted by academics in particular writing about issues as if they came upon them on their own.

    Yasmin Nair, Chicago

    1. Yes, there IS a substantial “corpus of work” that challenges “neoliberal thinking.” I agree. Critiques of liberal theories of rights are as old as liberalism itself. Most writers, myself included, do not give explicit references to well-known ideas or conventional criticisms of frameworks such as liberalism—either to individuals or specific texts–when they are broadly recognized within a community of readers and writers. If I was deploying concepts or ideas that were somehow unique or obscure, and for that reason few had ever heard of them, I would have given citations. Just to be clear: I have never before seen the website to which you refer.

      1. I write on these and other topics extensively, in many different venues, as do many of my more formally placed academic friends, and just linking to other critiques out there is perfectly commonplace. What struck me about your piece is the illusion it gives of complete insularity from a world of ideas, including radical feminist discourse, and a very rich field of intellectual inquiry that has produced such work. Citing that even in part doesn’t take away from your original work; it would add considerably to it and would be more generous. I think you’ll see evidence of that in the many, many pieces on the AE website.
        To be clear: this isn’t about simply referencing AE, but pointing out that your work exists in a wider context.

        1. I often link to others in my posts. By convention, blogs take on issues of the day with very light referencing—and certainly not to one’s intellectual genealogy. I just looked at your blog, and your posts don’t have many links. For example, your post on death and exceptionalism cites Glenn Greenwald and Rebeca Solnit, and a bunch of news articles. But Achille Mbembe and Giorgio Agamben have been writing about death and exceptionalism for more than 10 years, as have a number of other philosophers including Judith Butler, Wendy Brown, and Ladelle McWhorter, whom you haven’t cited. In your post on Hate Crimes, you cite the AE website and a book produced by AE (not to individual writers per se). But the lawyers from Sylvia Rivera Law Project, including Dean Spade and Pooja Gehi have been criticizing Hate Crimes Legislation for 5 years. There are no citations to them that I can find in your post.

          I raise these points not to be critical of your posts, but to point out that your patterns of citation are also in line with blogging conventions. For that reason, I find your criticisms of myself to be misguided, and to be blunt, ungenerous to the point of being malicious.

          It’s no secret to readers of this blog that I’m an academic. They are free to google my academic writings in the event that they are interested in copious footnotes, more extended and detailed treatments, dense philosophical categories and other accoutrements that accompany academic treatments of the subjects found on blogs like this. And btw, I have been teaching feminist theory since 1994. I’m aware that there is a rich feminist literature that began centuries before the world of blogging.

          I think most regular readers know that I have a genealogy from which I write. I often cite that genealogy when I’m writing more academic-y pieces. But one of the things that I find limiting about the academy (for example in philosophy) is the “disciplining” of thinkers by requiring them to pay homage to a range of “important” and “real” writers before one is ever able to utter (write) a conclusive sentence. This disciplining ignores that ideas are never original, nor under exclusive appropriation or, in fact, patentable—something that is forgotten in the monopolistic world of copyrights.

          This form of blogging can reach people who find themselves alienated from the academic mantle of authority, and weary (and wary) of academic citations/scholarship, but who are interested in considering the ideas in reference to some current issue. My interest is not insisting that these ideas are unique to me, but rather to be able to engage them without the shackles of philosophical deference or the necessity of a “calling card,” i.e. to prove my ontological/epistemological authority by pointing to my intellectual lineage.

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