Against Dictionary Feminism

When feminists defend their ideology, they frequently retreat to the claim that feminism is merely about gender equality, and who could be against that? Even many people staunchly opposed to the modern feminist movement often say that they are feminists “in the original sense” or “according to the dictionary definition”. They then proceed to attack feminists for straying from that noble ideal. While this is a reasonable criticism, I want to take another approach here. In this post I’m going to argue that even feminism as defined by the dictionary is objectionable.

So how precisely does the dictionary define feminism? Turns out there is more than one dictionary (who’d have thought?) and thus several different definitions. The Oxford Dictionary gives the following definition: “The advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.” So what are these rights that feminists advocate for to make women equal to men? At least as far as the Western world goes, there are, as far as I can tell, no rights of any significance that men have and women lack. (The only exception I can think of is that in some jurisdictions, men are allowed to be topless in public, while women aren’t; this hardly seems a pressing enough issue to justify the existence of a multi-billion dollars grievance industry.)

So Oxford-dictionary-feminism seems to be a non-starter. Maybe we’ll have better luck with Merriam Webster. According to them, feminism is “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes,” or “organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests”. The second definition is similarly objectionable since organising on behalf of rights for women that men do not have means advocating for female privilege, not equality, and whether “women’s interests” are legitimate or justified must be decided on a case-by-case basis.

So we have to focus on the first definition. Presumably what is meant by “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes” is not that men and women are actually equal in these respects, but that they should be. We can further presume that this is not about equal legal rights (since any inequalities that exist in this regard between men and women in the West are in women’s favour), but about some kind of substantive equality.

Thus, dictionary-feminism is in favour of measures such as women’s quotas for positions where women are under-represented, all women shortlists in politics, and measures to reduce the gender pay gap. However, dictionary-feminism is also in favour of men’s quotas for positions where men are under-represented, and measures to reduce the gender gaps in homelessness, criminal sentencing, life expectancy, and violent crime victimisation. Curiously enough, actual feminists spend a lot of energy on the first set of unequal outcomes and next to no energy on the second (and when they do, it is usually on the side of preserving these unequal outcomes).

This hypocrisy is rightly criticised by mainstream anti-feminists, but I want to go deeper here. My contention is that even dictionary-feminism applied in a non-biased way would be deeply pernicious. Sex-based hiring quotas and similar affirmative action measures are harmful because they generally lead to less qualified people getting a position over more qualified people – if you select based solely on merit, you generally get more meritorious candidates than if you select on merit as well as sex. There are two cases where this does not obtain:

The first is a non-binding constraint: if you impose a 40% women’s quota for hiring kindergarten teachers, there won’t be any problem since way more than 40% of the suitable candidates will be women; such a quota would be both harmless and useless. The second case is if the decision makers are biased; if they for example consistently overrate the competence of male applicants and underrate the competence of female applicants, a quota forcing them to hire a certain minimum number of women might lead to a more merit-based selection. The problem here is that it is quite difficult to determine whether someone is biased.

Let’s consider the following example: Alice and Bob are in charge of rating job applicants for some firm. Alice consistently gives higher ratings to female applicants and lower ratings to male applicants than Bob does. Based on that, Alice might accuse Bob of being biased against women, but Bob might just as well accuse Alice of being biased against men. Any outside person brought in to arbitrate the disagreement might just as well be biased one way or the other.

A popular solution to this conundrum is to look at who gives more “equal” ratings, i.e. whose average ratings of male versus female applicants are closer. This person is then assumed to be less biased. However, this solution implicitly assumes that there are no relevant differences in the distribution of abilities among male and female applicants. Since we know that men and women in the general population differ greatly in their abilities and inclinations, this assumption is entirely unwarranted. Thus, even if we know that significant bias is involved (in our example we know this because Alice and Bob give systematically different ratings), we have no way of knowing whether instituting a quota will make the selection process more or less just.

The only somewhat reliable way of determining who is biased and who isn’t, is the market test. Put Alice and Bob in charge of hiring for two different firms and then see whose company posts the better results a few years down the line. This solution doesn’t require the government to step in as the market already has a mechanism for weeding out bad decision makers and rewarding good ones. Those who hire based on biases will have a less productive workforce and will tend to be outcompeted by their less biased competitors. This is neither an instant nor a perfect solution, but unlike the alternatives, it actually works.

Apart from usually making things less fair by giving positions to less qualified applicants, quotas and other forms of affirmative action also require resources to administer and enforce, lead to firms and other organisations expending resources to try to circumvent them, and create resentment against the groups favoured by such programmes. They also undermine the trust between employer and employee and promote conflict rather than harmony.

This theme of sowing disharmony continues when we turn to “social equality”. It cannot be denied that people typically treat men and women differently in a wide variety of situations. What does not follow is that those inequalities are pernicious or that we need a social movement to try to remove them. These social inequalities need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis to see whether they are beneficial, harmless, or harmful. Even if they fall in the latter category, we still need to consider whether there are feasible ways of bringing about equality and whether doing so is worth the cost.

Feminism, whether according to the dictionary or in reality, doesn’t seem to be interested in any of these questions. They just want to equalise everything (or in the case of real world feminism, at least everything they see as being detrimental to women). Fiat aequalitas, et pereat mundus. Never mind that many people – both men and women – actually like traditional gender roles. Never mind that in most cases it makes perfect sense for married couples with children to have the husband be primarily responsible for earning an income and the wife primarily responsible for looking after the children. If equality is the overriding concern, practicality and personal preferences will necessarily be trampled upon.

This obsession with equality has destroyed the previously existing more or less harmonious relationship between the sexes. It has set women against men and men against women, and in such a conflict, the only winners are lawyers, politicians and professional grievance mongers (if you excuse the pleonasm); ordinary men and women are sure to lose out.

Does that mean we should get back to the 19th century? Should we re-introduce coverture and rigidly enforce gender roles? No. I’m very much in favour of legal equality of the sexes. This gives people the freedom to negotiate their own identities. It allows those who chafe under traditional expectations to break free, while also satisfying the majority of people who prefer to follow something closer to traditional gender roles. Feminism, both in its actual manifestation and in the dictionary, constrains that individual freedom. This is why I’m not a feminist and why I will continue to oppose this ideology in all its guises.

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