Kicked out the Window
There is an incredibly important but too little discussed topic in Political Science called the Overton Window. Jonathan Overton theorized that the socially acceptable positions on a given issue are fewer than the possible positions. If a position is acceptable, it is within the window, and those unacceptable are considered outside.
Why do feminists keep becoming enraged every time someone says they are not a feminist? The mission of many feminists has become to move any position that is not feminism outside the Overton Window. This isn't nearly as conspiratorial as it sounds. Like all of us, most feminists are overconfident in their beliefs. They probably think there are no reasonable reasons someone would not chose to identify as a feminist. Those who don't identify as feminists are bigots, and as such have no place in national discourse. I want emphasize that we all are victim to our own overconfidence in our beliefs, and should consciously fight the tendency to believe our opinions with absolute certainty. Not all of us, though, try to push ideas that we are confident are wrong out the Window. For feminists, this begins by giving feminism an incredibly charitable definition: The belief in the equality of genders. But with any political or social label, it is never as simple as a definition. Like liberal, conservative, progressive, and really any broad political label, individual members of the label have incredibly disparate ideas of what it means to be part of said group, or rather tribe. Really, all it means to be a conservative is to identify and associate with other conservatives. The same is true for feminism. The label signifies membership.
What if membership begins to mean being tied down to dozens of positions you would never endorse? I am comfortable identifying as a conservative as it is an incredibly broad term, and when sentences start with “a real conservative believes,” I am more often than not in agreement. I also respect and agree with many of the great conservative thinkers, historically and currently. When someone isn’t a conservative, I don’t react by saying, “What? You aren’t a conservative? A conservative is just someone who values the Constitution!” Instead, I accept that their values aren't in line with my ideology.
Now consider a movement like libertarianism. I respect and agree with many of the great libertarian thinkers, but also vehemently disagree with many of them. Enough so that even if someone came up to me and said, “What? You aren't a libertarian? A libertarian is just someone who believes in Freedom!” I wouldn’t feel compelled to suddenly adopt the term.
Now consider feminism. I do accept the work of many feminists as incredibly important, but I disagree with the vast majority of ideas espoused by major feminists outlets and thinkers today. Thus, I don’t consider myself a feminist. When someone come up to me and says, “How can you not be a feminist? A feminist is just someone who believes in gender equality!” - This leaves me unconvinced. But what if non-membership is pushed out the window?
They say you have to be a feminist if you believe in gender equality, then this:
And all of a sudden you are associated with, if not explicitly held to, positions you do not hold, frustrated because you didn’t even want to be a part of all of this in the first place.
The existence of the Overton Window probably isn't a bad thing. There are select issues that society has overcome any reasonable debate on, like the abolition of slavery and universal suffrage. It's not that we need to avoid these issues because they are offensive, but because they are essentially solved issues. We don't debate the correctness of the Pythagorean Theorem in every Geometry class. We might prove it to remember why we know it's true, and if someone suddenly has a credible explanation of why every proof is wrong we may re-engage in the debate; notwithstanding that there is no reason for the issue to be constantly debated. If we lived in a world with unrestrained time and resources, it might make sense to constantly rehash issues, but in our world of trade offs, this is a waste of time.
We do need to beware though. While there are issues that are sensibly kept outside, some groups try to systematically push reasonable positions outside the Overton Window, stopping potentially informative debates.
Larry Summers knows this too well. When Summers publicly mentioned the possibility of a reasonable position endorsed by many scientists and economists alike, that neurological differences could possibly partially explain the gender gap in STEM careers, he felt how cold it is outside the Overton Window.
I'm not going to take a position on the specific issue, but it is surely fair to say the scientific community has not conclusively ruled on this debate. But because of the efforts of some to taboo the discussion of possible neurological differences, a public figure cannot publicly discuss them without fear for his or her job. This is a misuse of Overton's Window.
We see attempts to shove perfectly reasonable positions out the Overton Window often. For example, after an ISIS associated terrorist attack, any suggestion that Islam could be even a partial motivator is tabooed. On social media, people are quick to proclaim that it is inconceivable that terrorism could be connected to any religion, especially Islam. And this stands true even if the perpetrators emphasize that their religion motivated their act. These proclamations in themselves should at least make us consider the possibility. It is becoming taboo to even say that the Islamic State is connected to Islam, when there is a reasonable case to say that it is.
The Overton Window should not be used as a political weapon. It should not be a tool we use to avoid tough arguments. The Overton Window is a tool to avoid wasting time on easy arguments, so we have the time and energy to have the hard, pressing debates. Used incorrectly, the Window is detrimental to our national discourse. We lose exposure to potentially interesting and persuasive ideas. We build off possibly false presumptions. In some ways, the Rise of Trump is the story of part of the country prematurely pushing beliefs out the Window that large groups of people still hold. By not finishing the national debate on these issues first, we leave them to be taken embraced by an opportunistic politician. Then American Media is surprised when debates over racism and xenophobia resurface.
So, when you ask me whether or not I'm a feminist, one reason I will be saying no is to fight to keep non-association safely inside.
Photo Credit: Yulya Balaeva via Flickr