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Do strawmen dream of rhetorical sheep?


Andrew Sullivan has a huge platform, so it’s arguably worth killing a few brain cells to point out that his argument about the terrible social and political effects of what he calls “left feminism” is terrible. His argument is that:

(1) Men and women are not the same.

(2) The left feminist argument that the only reason they’re not the same is because of the invidious effects of the so-called “patriarchy” is disproved by Science.

(3) Now that the United States has been transformed into a radical lesbian commune in which men make great pets, it’s taboo to mention either of the first two points.

Sullivan begins by relating his participation in a science experiment with an n = 1:

A long time ago now, I came rather abruptly face-to-face with what being a man means.

I don’t mean the gay thing. Figuring that out in the 1970s hadn’t been easy, but I’d never questioned my sex or my gender, whatever occasional taunts came my way. I mean the fact that, in the years of being HIV-positive, my testosterone levels had sunk, and I decided, given my lassitude, depression, and lack of sexual desire, to go on hormone replacement therapy to get me back in a healthy range for a 30-something male. It was a fascinating experience to witness maleness literally being injected into me, giving me in a sudden jump what had been there all along, and what I now saw and felt more vividly. You get a real sense of what being a man is from an experience like that, as the rush of energy, strength, clarity, ambition, drive, impatience and, above all, horniness overcame me every two weeks in the wake of my shot. It was intoxicating. I wrote about this a couple of decades ago, in an essay I called “The He Hormone.” The visceral experience opened my eyes to the sheer and immense natural difference between being a man and being a woman, and helped me understand better how nature is far more in control of us than we ever want to believe.

It turns out that the science of testosterone is a wee bit more complicated than this, but moving right along:

I mention this because in our increasingly heated debate about gender relations and the #MeToo movement, this natural reality — reflected in chromosomes and hormones no scientist disputes — is rarely discussed. It’s almost become taboo. You can spend a lifetime in gender studies and the subject will never come up. All differences between the sexes, we are now informed, are a function of the age-old oppression of women by men, of the “patriarchy” that enforces this subjugation, and of the power structures that mandate misogyny. All differences between the genders, we are told, are a function not of nature but of sexism. In fact, we are now informed by the latest generation of feminists, following the theories of Michel Foucault, that nature itself is a “social construction” designed by men to oppress women. It doesn’t actually exist. It’s merely another tool of male power and must be resisted.

This is, however, untrue.

I’m no expert on gender studies as an academic field, but I find it difficult to believe that the bolded statement is a fair statement of anyone’s view, let alone a universal orthodoxy, as Sullivan says it is. In any event, his failure to provide any support for his claim (a single quote would have been nice) is striking.

I do know something about Foucault, and Sullivan’s description of Foucault’s position is farcical. (Foucault, along with an enormous number of other people who don’t have scary-sounding Gallic names, argues that human beings have no access to a pre-interpretive “nature” that isn’t mediated through our social constructions of that concept, and that this mediation has consequences for our understandings of natural phenomena).

In any event, after erecting and then incinerating a field of strawmen, Sullivan indulges in the rhetorical pleasure of making an utterly banal observation sound like an act of revolutionary dissent from a stultifying orthodoxy:

But it is strikingly obvious that for today’s progressives, humans are the sole species on this planet where gender differentiation has no clear basis in nature, science, evolution, or biology. This is where they are as hostile to Darwin as any creationist.

And this is stupid. The alternative explanation — that these core natural differences between men and women have been supplemented by centuries of conscious oppression — is staring us in the face. The fascinating conundrum is where one ends and the other begins. How much of this difference is natural and how much is social? That is the question. And the answer is a tricky one.

What’s most striking here is Sullivan’s use of scare quotes around “patriarchy.” Is he denying that there is such a thing, and that one of its effects is to create and enforce socially oppressive gender roles? Would he put scare quotes around “racism,” while insisting that many differences in the social status of various ethnic groups were products of natural differences in abilities between those groups, rather than of some “racist” conspiracy?

Oh wait . . .

Anyway, this is example #1,794 of how reactionary caricatures of real intellectual debates are a lot easier to get away with in this country if delivered in an Oxbridge accent.

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