Published on November 14th, 2012 | by Daniel Siksay0
Equal isn’t equal: how the concept of equality became unproductive
I had a discussion a few weeks ago with an acquaintance who, indignant to feminists for “pushing too far,” as he put it, claimed that Western society had already recognized the ideal of equality, legally and socially — and so feminists are just blowing a lot of smoke when they talk about things like gendered privilege and implicit bias. “I’m an egalitarian,” he said. “A humanist! I treat people fairly and with respect. I’m not sexist, but sometimes feminists can be a bit too nitpicky.” But he’s dating someone who he interrupts freely when they’re having discussions (especially when he thinks she’s wrong), he throws around words like “b*tch” and “r*pe” like they’re dollar bills, and insists on carrying things for her even when she gives protest and says she can handle the load. What a patronizing, condescending attitude towards this person who he supposedly treats like an equal! But I digress.
As the conversation came to a (predictably unproductive) close, my realization was that we were working from entirely different definitions of “equality for women.” For him, the word meant that women hold the same rights in society, and are protected by laws from coming into harm’s way through violence that commonly affects women as a group. The “nitpicky” social stuff like the way he interacts with his partner in public, the way his relationship is expected to play out, and the way privilege manifests itself in social spaces involving women didn’t seem to count towards the “tally” of equality he appeared to have built for himself. This seemed like a curiously skeletal definition to my feminist-allied ears. What about the social roles that men and women fill and fit themselves into, and how they maintain systems of oppression and perpetuate harmful stereotypes? How about our society’s tendency to blame victims of r*pe and abuse as if these people brought it on themselves?
The more I thought about it and the more conversations about “equality” I had with people who aren’t allied or involved with feminist movements, the more I realized that these and other social critiques (which, to me, convincingly reveal the oppression of woman-identified individuals as far more systemic than a revision of rights and laws) are extraneous to the common conception of equality. A shockingly large majority of the people I’ve talked to are suspicious of the idea, for example, that “r*pe culture” really exists as a significant, widespread problem for women’s autonomy and health — a bewildering realization for me to come to about our cultural self-consciousness, but there you go. Even more puzzling was the common refrain that choice negates oppression — as if an individual choosing to do something necessarily implies that said choice was free from coercion and social force; as if we can’t effectively, and unknowingly, choose our own oppression.
All of the things that, to me, seem so integral to a proper, productive concept of equality appeared to be excluded from the definition of the concept most active in my society.
My frustrated confusion aside, what we’re left with is a dire situation; the word that once so aptly announced the intentions of women’s rights movements has been altogether stripped of its radical and emancipatory value, reduced to a lazy watchword with a meaning ambiguous at best, counter-productive and contradictory at worst. “Equality,” for all the ideality and importance we attach to the word, has become a practically unproductive concept to mobilize in modern society. This is true, most egregiously, because so many people have ceased to attach a meaning to the word that is synonymous with the meaning feminists intend. When it’s used in its most important context (to stand in as an image of the kind of world feminists and their allies want to live in), it fails because its definition is so often seen differently by the receiver. “That’s not equality, it’s wishful thinking,” or “that’s not equality, that’s the political correctness police knocking on your door.”
For me, this state of affairs prompts the question: should we just move on from the word and concept, and find a better way of presenting feminist ideas? I’m sure a strong argument exists for the rehabilitation of the word, but for the moment I’d like to propose having done with it entirely. For one, re-articulating feminist diagnoses through a new set of concepts might serve to ignite fresh discussion into a commons that frequently only understands feminism by its strawmen and old-hat stereotypes.
In addition, I’m not so sure that replacing “equality” with a new set of articulable concepts wouldn’t be a move in the right direction, anyway. Far from lamenting the loss of this historically-important word, perhaps we should take this as an opportunity to unveil a more specific watchword for feminist goals and ideals. Even before the current nebulous state of the word became an issue, there’s always been plenty of reason to take issue with the word “equality.” One of those reasons is that the word has always required a clarification of how it extends beyond the scope of rights and the law — does it include the visibility of voices in a community? The extent to which individuals feel comfortable and free to act in public? The recognition of otherwise-imperceptible differences? Or their elimination / resolution? Social and economic opportunity? Non-gender-specific definitions of strength? Beauty? Non-binary conceptions of masculinity and femininity?
Suspicions and productions.
No one wants to come out and say that they’re suspicious of equality, because let’s be honest, it just looks bad. But when it’s next-to-impossible to actually pin down a specific, detailed definition of what a real picture of equality looks like — and even harder to rescue that difficult-to-grasp image from misogynists and status-quo liberals who take the word to represent something else — maybe such suspicions are in order. Especially when the word is so often used to perpetuate more “nitpicky” social oppressions (apparently “r*pe culture” is a “nitpicky” form of oppression? I don’t even know…), it’s more important than ever for feminists to separate themselves from such confusion. When “equal” isn’t really equal anymore, maybe it’s time for some creative conceptual action.
What comes in place of the word? Perhaps a pondersome piece like this isn’t the place to announce something so grand and nuance-demanding as that. I can’t begin to say what it would look like, given that I’m by no means an expert on every current feminist theory and/or space. But it seems to me that what has usually been included in feminist conceptions of equality (and not in the status-quo liberal one I’ve been picking at above) has been the idea that equality implies more than codified laws and rights. It also includes (and perhaps, even, in a more primary way) a concerted critique of the way social and interpersonal expectations inform and program our actions around others. It means paying attention to the way we evaluate others, and thinking critically about what those evaluations imply about our own perspectives.
Feminist articulations of equality have also noted that the recognition of difference is central to such an ideal; when concepts, institutions and narratives in society cover over the realities of so many individuals (think here of trans-identified individuals, non-sexual individuals, intersex-or-genderqueer-identified individuals), it’s more important than ever to part the seas of normativity so that commonly-imperceptible perspectives can be recognized broadly.
Cutting off the confusion.
Feminism is commonly associated in the media and in conversations between those not identified or allied with feminism with a “fight for equality” for women. From my perspective, this apprehension now does more harm than good, and often obscures a more subtle and urgent diagnosis of society in favour of a quick explanation. It’s time to leave outdated, simplistic notions of “equality” to the status-quo liberals, and start creating new words and concepts that can do better justice to the more empathetic, difference-recognizing world feminists envision for women and everyone.