Feminism or Humanism: do we have to choose?

*This article is written by Matthew Reyes and was originally posted on WhyFeminist.com

Whenever an argument against feminism arises, whether online or in-person, it usually centers around the belief that it only benefits women. More often than not, people railing against feminism, which promotes the political, social, and economic equality of the sexes, say it is too exclusive. You’ll usually hear these people say that they believe in equal rights for all. Not just women.

The reasoning goes something like this: everyone faces discrimination of some kind in their life, so why focus on one group more than others? Why should we focus solely on women’s struggles? If you truly believe in equal rights for everyone, why not be a humanist, who fights for the equality of all people instead?”

This reasoning causes many to be skeptical about feminism, and honestly, it’s hard to blame them. No ethically conscious person wants to be part of a narrow-minded movement. But how valid is this line of thinking? We need to consider whether feminists actually overemphasize women’s issues or whether that’s just an unfair stereotype. If they simply brush aside the concerns of other oppressed groups, they are contributing to their marginalization. At the end of the day, if we have to choose between a movement that represents everyone and a movement that seems only to focus on sexism, for many, the choice seems pretty easy.

But here’s the thing: we don’t have to choose! The apparent predicament is not a predicament at all when examining what humanism requires to really work. In fact, I’d argue that to be a true humanist you actually need to be a feminist too.

Humanists believe that all people should be treated equally. Sounds great! But simply saying that everyone deserves equal rights doesn’t really do all that much. The idea is enough to make us feel good, but not enough to encourage us to focus on specific existing injustices. Saying that everyone deserves equal rights is a good start, but what we need to do is fill in the rest in order to turn ideas into action. That’s where feminism (and many other important causes) comes in.

One would think humanists would be the first to get behind the fight for gender equality, but that’s very often not the case. When self-proclaimed humanists emphasize that they are not feminists, they’re skimming over the countless instances of sexism that women and gender non-conforming people battle on a daily basis. As Daniel Fincke points out,this isn’t exactly a new problem:

The reason for a distinguishable feminism is that in egalitarianisms and humanisms past, women were significantly left out. People didn’t automatically understand that egalitarianism or humanism meant all humans. They were capable of saying “all men are created equal” and calling that “egalitarianism” while “all men” was defined to exclude women and blacks and even non-land owning white men.

Sometimes people who claim to defend human rights end up ignoring the concerns of people who are different from them. So if we want our humanism to actually mean something we need to address the particular forms of discrimination that are so prevalent, such as racism, classism, and sexism. Humanism that doesn’t focus on these specific issues is not really acknowledging individual struggle, and is at risk of becoming something entirely different, something potentially toxic. Because it ignores the particular battles, it often ends up defending the status quo and silencing oppressed groups.

In moments of social crisis, hashtags can reveal a lot about individual experience in larger movements. A famous example is the Yes All Women social media campaign, which went viral in the wake of Elliot Rodger’s misogyny fueled shooting-spree. Women around the world used the hashtag to share their stories, making the “constant barrage of sexism that women face” undeniable. In the wake of such a horrific tragedy it was an important form of activism; a space where a marginalized group of people could raise awareness of a particular and dangerous societal flaw.

The Yes All Women campaign directly countered the preexisting and frustrating Not All Men hashtag. This hashtag gained an increased popularity alongside Yes All Women, with men persisting that they shouldn’t be lumped in with obvious sexists. There are several things wrong with this mentality. Not the least of which is the fact that men can engage in unconscious sexist behavior and benefit from it in dangerously subtle ways. As Laurie Penny says, “You can be the gentlest, sweetest man in the world yet still benefit from sexism. That’s how oppression works.”

Laurie Penny: Unsagbare Dinge by Rosa Luxemburg-Stiftung
Laurie Penny: Unsagbare Dinge by Rosa Luxemburg-Stiftung

The Not All Men hashtag is a prime example of this subtle misogyny in a particularly disturbing way. The overly-defensive response refuses responsibility to change things, and totally belittles the issue of gender inequality. As Erin Gloria Ryan says, ”the bearer of Not All Men is more concerned with saving face for themselves than, you know, actually acknowledging the concern that another person is expressing.” In relinquishing responsibility for these problems, they’re also pulling focus away from them and prolonging a solution. In this way, a “non-feminist” humanism can be dangerous in dismissing sexism as a secondary concern, as it does not appear to concern everyone.

But it does involve everyone. And whether or not we feel the effects of gender inequality, as true humanists, we need to recognize everyone’s individual experience. Our humanism needs to be conscious of the fact that we are all in different situations; the particular battles that one group faces need to be acknowledged, and not dismissed, in order to start moving towards true equality. That’s why we don’t have to choose between being humanists and feminists. We need to be both. To be a humanist in the best sense is to fight for all equality, gender included, and that’s what feminism focuses on. A humanism that denies individual experience does not truly represent equality for all. Claiming to be a humanist and not a feminist is dismissing gender inequality as a secondary concern. That type of humanism is limited, narrow-minded, and not worth defending.


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