Subjectivism is a topic I used to talk a great deal about when I was writing about Christianity. Fundamentalist Christians typically claim to have an absolute moral system, an absolute authority, to have all the answers written black on white in the Bible, and so on. But the more you argue with them, the more their arguments plunge into relativism and subjectivism.
I don’t like using the words “objectivism” and “subjectivism” because they are used in many conflicting ways, so I want to clarify exactly what I mean by “subjectivism”: what I mean is any belief which attempts to justify a fact of reality by appealing to personal experience, like feelings or the imagination. If it ceases to exist once you stop experiencing it, it’s subjective (or as Philip K. Dick once said, reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away).
Or in simpler terms, your reasoning is subjective if you’re trying to argue that what’s in your head somehow changes the nature of reality. You may have a strong belief that you can fly with the power of thought, but you can’t actually do it. No belief should be held without some kind of evidence.
So for instance, when you ask Christians how they justify their beliefs, eventually you reach the bedrock of “I just feel like God is operating in my life” or “I have faith in the Bible as the Word of God.” There is no intellectual foundation of Christianity, only feelings and imagination. People don’t become Christians because of a scientific discovery or a logical argument.
Logical Christian arguments are marshaled in the defense of faith, not out of any search for truth. We can see this because the logical arguments used are extremely general and cannot possibly demonstrate what they are supposed to prove (e.g. the argument from design only proves that a designer exists; whatever that designer is cannot be deduced from the argument). Facts (and non-facts) are deployed in the service of feeling.
The same thing happens when you examine Biblical morality. When you start questioning rules from the Bible, you inevitably get the answer that those rules only applied to those people at that time. It takes very little effort to turn a supposed Christian absolutist into a Christian relativist: all you have to do is start asking hard questions.
Liberal feminism is also subjectivist. The main difference is that, while religion is only subjectivist when you question it, they’re subjectivist from the get-go. There is no veneer of reality there at all.
Meghan Murphy wrote an article about the most common rebuttals presented by proponents of burlesque, but her list applies equally well to any other feminist issue (prostitution, pornography, rape, BDSM, gender identity):
1) You haven’t done enough “research”
2) You don’t understand
3) Anything I do that makes ME feel good is feminist!
4) But there are women in the audience! Women erase sexism!
5) Boylesque [“men do it too”]
6) Different body types in burlesque = feminism
7) If you don’t like burlesque then don’t go to burlesque shows
8) You are turning me into an object by talking about the objectification of women
9) I’m not being objectified because I choose to objectify myself
10) You have to be on the inside to understand/form a valid critique
11) You’re a prude and you hate boobs
So there are two categories of arguments here, ones that are just plain subjectivism (3, 4, 5, 8, 9), ones that claim that the critic is just not good enough (1, 2, 7, 10, 11), and arguments that are just factually wrong (6).
I would classify the second category of arguments as being subjective in nature also; whether a critic doesn’t “get it” from your perspective, doesn’t like something, or is a prude, does not objectively make them wrong. In essence, the argument is that the evidence that the critic is wrong about burlesque is that the critic doesn’t like burlesque, but there is no connection between not liking something and being wrong about it. I don’t like murder but that doesn’t mean I must therefore be wrong in believing that murder is wrong.
If you come back to the subjective arguments, you see their nature very easily. Take for example rebuttal 3, “anything I do that makes ME feel good is feminist.” If you don’t debate feminist issues at all, this may seem like a straw man, but the fact is that if you go on Meghan Murphy’s blog and look at the comments, or any other feminist blog that talks about feminist issues, you will find that argument used regularly.
So you get people who complain that they like doing whatever and you can’t tell them what to do. But feminism doesn’t tell people what to do. The point of feminism is to make a systemic analysis of existing institutions and understand how they sustain the Patriarchy, not to tell individual women what they should or shouldn’t wear, what they should or shouldn’t do, and so on.
But my point here is that an argument like “anything I do that makes ME feel good is feminist” is subjective because it states that a person’s feelings determine reality. What is or is not feminist is a fact of reality, and therefore has nothing to do with anyone’s feelings.
Rebuttal 9 is another good example. The concept of “choice” is used constantly to justify the exploitation of women. At a superficial level, it’s a case of blaming the victim: they “chose” to be exploited or oppressed, so it’s their own damn fault. This liberal position must be absolutely rejected.
The other problem is that this concept of “choice” adds absolutely nothing to the argument; at best it can only mean that you believe you are in control of a situation. So even in that best case scenario all that’s being said is “I’m not being objectified because I believe I am in control of my own objectification.” So what? Again, you are free to believe you are capable of doing anything, but without any actual evidence, we’re not having a discussion about facts.
The other problem is that it’s not in fact true that we are in control of our own objectification, simply because we have a limited control over what other people think. Yes, obviously we can change how we present ourselves and that will change other people’s opinion of us, but that’s not gonna stop objectification within a given institution.
Take burlesque, for example. You can say it’s “ironically sexist” or “an affirmation of different bodies” or “art” or whatever, but what men see when they go there is a woman taking off her clothes. The objective you pursue when you take off your clothes does not change the objectification. So maybe you enjoy it, or you’re helping other women come to terms with their bodies, and that’s fine, but the objectification does not go away because these other things are also happening.
Oppression does not depend on you accepting it as oppression; in fact, the rulers are much better off if you refuse to accept that you’re being oppressed, or if you completely misidentify who’s oppressing you. They love it if they can get you to fight, well, pretty much anyone but them.
To me the most puzzling thing is that not only is the subjectivism front and center, but they seem even proud of it. In any other area of thought we’d consider this bizarre and irrational, but this doesn’t seem to even enter their minds. I can’t say why that is. I don’t think liberal feminism is particular irrational compared to, say, Creationism or Neo-Nazism or whatever. And yet I would guess that few Creationists or Neo-Nazis would brag about how subjectivist they are; people generally believe that their beliefs are generally factual (whether they are correct or not is another matter).
The concept of “empowerment” puts us through the same mental gymnastics. People do not use the word “empowered” to designate that a person has gained, you know, actual power: they use it to mean that a person believes that they have more power. Evidence for having been “empowered” does not consist of looking at actual power but rather of looking at how the person feels.
This leads to laughable statements like “stripping for men is empowering” or “beauty is empowering.” It may feel good for a woman to strip or be beautiful, but it does not in itself confer any power. Only looking at actual power relations can tell you whether an act is empowering.
Or an even simpler test: do men in positions of power do it? I know this is not a novel idea, but it works. Do the Koch Brothers strip? Does George Soros strip? Do they put on makeup every day? If not, what connection can there be between these things and power?
If anything, beauty is disempowering. This entry from Meghan Murphy discusses how the beauty mandate is used to attack both the women following it and feminism:
Beauty is not power. As evidenced by patriarchy. Pretty ladies continue to be exposed to sexism on a daily basis despite their “freedom” to “showcase their beauty.” In other words, if beauty were power then women would have real power in this world and would no longer be marginalized based on the fact that they happen to have been born female.
The myth that “beauty is power” is actually super destructive because it tricks young women into thinking that if men want them, they will be empowered, which is, alas, not true. Because the kind of “power” that comes from having men lust after you is fleeting and holds no real weight in the grand scheme of things. It might make you feel good momentarily, until you realize that men don’t respect you because they like your boobs, nor will your fuckability bring things like political power and freedom from male violence. As long as women are seen as (and see themselves as) pretty, sexy objects, they will continue to to be viewed and treated, primarily, as sex-holes for men (i.e. not full human beings but the kind of beings who were invented for men to use and abuse and play with and then discard when they get bored).
Also, friendly reminder that real “power” doesn’t run out when you turn forty. Men don’t suddenly become invisible and irrelevant when they reach middle age and that’s because they haven’t bought into or been fed the ridiculous myth that their power lies in their ability to be youthful and have a perky butt. Society treats older women as invisible and younger women as objects. That’s not power.