For this lecture, please read chapters 1 & 2 of John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism.
The last class focused on the beginning and cause of an action rather than the end and consequence. Today, we focus on the opposite position, that of John Stuart Mill and Utilitarianism. Mill opposed Kant, and argued that morals and laws are merely tools we use to make ourselves and others happy. Mill says that if we take the long term view and the social view, trying to produce as much happiness and prevent as much suffering as possible, we can change and break the rules however we like. Like Robin Hood, Mill believes we should be ethical rather than merely moral, seeking genuine lasting happiness rather than merely following the law.
Both Kant and Mill agree that our desire to be ethical is unquestionably good in itself and that ethics must be securely grounded, but for Kant this means obedience to duty, while for Mill it means striving for happiness. For Kant, if you start with good morals, you are being ethical regardless of the consequences. For Mill, if you aim for good ends, you are being ethical regardless of following the rules. While Kant appreciates happiness, and Mill appreciates morals, Kant puts morals above happiness and Mill puts happiness above morals. Kant says: Always follow principle, and you will hopefully be happy. Mill says: Always follow happiness, for others as well as yourself, and you will hopefully be principled. Both positions have strengths and weaknesses. Kant would not waver in the face of temptation, but Mill would change when the rules are wrong. Kant gives us a fixed understanding, while Mill gives us adaptable reasoning. Kant is better if we want to divide the good from the bad, but Mill is better if we want to see the good in the bad and the bad in the good.
Do the ends justify the means? Sometimes yes, and sometimes no. We can and should balance both positions to better understand the judgements and choices we make, defending as well as adapting to maintain and improve our lives. In Mill’s Utilitarianism, he argues that we should always look at our actions and ask if the consequences are ethical, producing the most happiness and preventing the most suffering for the most people. Mill specifically says that Kant is wrong about principles and mentions Aristotle’s virtue ethics as well, claiming that these two conceptions ignore how we use principle and virtue as tools for happiness and reduction of harm by taking each as a good in itself out of context. For Mill, there are no absolute morals or virtues that are good in all circumstances. Rather, we must determine whether or not we are doing good by consistently weighing the consequences and results of our actions.
Mill said that if you call it Utilitarianism, people think it is dry and boring, but if you call it Principle of Happiness or the Pleasure Principle, people think it is hedonistic and decadent, and this is why people called Epicurus of ancient Greece a hedonist. Mill gives us a brief history of consequentialism, which begins with Epicurus.
Epicurus (340-270 BCE) was the founder of Epicureanism in ancient Athens. The word ‘epicurean’ is often used today to mean gourmet or enjoying the finer things in life, often food and drink, such as fine chocolates and wine (hence the recipe website, epicurious.com), but this is only a partial grasp of the ancient school of thought. Along with Platonism and Stoicism, Epicureanism was one of the more popular philosophies of late ancient Greek and Roman times. Only fragments of Epicurus’ works survive, quotations in the works of other ancient authors. After traveling and teaching for some years, Epicurus returned to Athens to found a school in his private garden. Known as ‘The Garden’, it was said to have been situated between the Academy of Plato and the Stoa of the Stoics. While women were only admitted into other circles of philosophy as exceptions, Epicurus made his Garden officially open to women and slaves.
On the gate of the Garden was an inscription, “Stranger, you would do good to stay awhile, for here the highest good is pleasure”. Epicurus taught that good and evil are pleasure and pain, a doctrine for which he and his school were attacked by many others, labeling them as gluttonous hedonists. Many scholars argue that early Christians of ancient Greece and Rome were opposed to what they saw as the hedonism of the Epicureans, and as Christianity rose in popularity in ancient Syria, Greece and Rome, the popular schools of Cynicism and Epicureanism gradually gave way to Platonism and later Aristotelianism, schools of thought which taught that one should pursue the good and fulfill one’s purpose regardless of pleasure or happiness. Mill argues that the Christians misunderstood the Epicureans.
Epicurus argued that the best way to make oneself happy is to make others happy, and so we should practice reciprocity. Confucius of ancient China and Jesus both expressed reciprocity as doing for others as you would have them do for you, and not doing to others what you would not have them do to you. Epicurus argued that it is impossible to live pleasantly without living wisely, and it is impossible to live wisely without living pleasantly. Living wisely for Epicurus centrally involved friendship and working for the greater good. Sometimes, Epicurus argued, we do suffer pain willingly, and this is for the purposes of greater pleasure. For example, when one sacrifices and suffers for one’s friends or family, this is because one gets greater pleasure out of one’s friends and family over the long term than one gets out of what is sacrificed. At other times, we pursue pleasure without thinking of the pain that we will suffer later, but this will prevent us from being tranquil and at peace, which will prevent us from being happy over the long term.
Epicureanism became one of the most popular schools of thought of ancient Rome, rivaled primarily by Stoicism but also by Skepticism, Cynicism and Platonism. Lucretius (99 – 55 BCE) was a Roman poet who wrote the philosophical poem On the Nature of Things, a central source for Epicureanism. Other famous Epicurean Roman poets include Virgil, Dante’s guide through the circles of Hell, and Horace, famous for his Carpe diem, or “Seize the day” (what some now unfortunately call ‘YOLO’ on the internet). While Epicureanism largely died out with the conversion of Rome to Christianity by Constantine and the fall of the Roman Empire, it was known in Islamic lands through the work of Lucretius and other philosophers.
Omar Khayyam (1048 – 1131 CE), the Persian philosopher, poet and mathematician, discovered Epicureanism through Lucretius, who became a great influence on his own poetry. Born in what is today Iran, Khayyam was a follower of Avicenna (Ibn Sina), arguably the greatest philosopher of the Islamic Golden Age, whose philosophical and medical works significantly influenced Medieval Europe, evident in his name being Latinized. Khayyam is seen by some Islamic and European scholars as an agnostic hedonist, who wrote poems of sharing wine with friends (in spite of this being prohibited by Islam) and wondering who knows what for sure. Others see him as a Sufi mystic, who found the rapture of the divine in the simple beauty of experience.
In Europe, Epicureanism was rediscovered in Renaissance times and revived in the 1700s with the rise of scholarship and science in Europe. Epicurus had an influence on both John Locke and Thomas Jefferson. John Locke argued that people should have the political right to life, liberty, and property, and his political philosophy had a significant influence on the American Founding Fathers. Jefferson, who considered himself an Epicurean, gave Locke’s triad a further Epicurean twist, and wrote in the Declaration of Independence that people should have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Jeremy Bentham (1750-1830 CE) was the first to come up with Utilitarianism, but Mill gave it the name. Bentham was a friend of Mill’s family, and Mill’s father encouraged him as a boy to learn from Bentham. Bentham argued that the goal of ethics is the maximum happiness for the most people, which Mill complemented this with the inverse idea of minimum pain for the most people. Bentham also believed that simple and common pleasures are just as good as sophisticated, saying the common plays are just as good as fine opera. Mill rejected this, believing that fine society was of a higher happiness than common culture, as mental pleasure is superior to physical, as selfless pleasures (giving to others) makes one happier than selfish pleasures (receiving from others). Bentham actually suggested that the state be run according to a felicitous calculus, a mathematical analysis of the degrees of twelve pains and fourteen pleasures that actions cause for the public. While Mill took much from Bentham, he did not attempt to complete or create a precise calculus of pleasure and pain.
John Stuart Mill (1806-1873 CE)
Born in London, Mill was influenced by Ancient Greek, French, and liberal thought. His father wrote a history of India, and Mill was for a time involved with his father in the British East India company, the corporation that helped Britain maintain their hold over India. Mill’s family was friends with the Bentham family, from whom Mill took up his consequentialist, ‘happy principle’ thought. However, it was Mill who found the name ‘utilitarian’ in a Christian text talking about how evil it was to fall into it rather than believe in the principle as good, and he added the name and developed the thinking, becoming its famous spokesman. Mill is a central thinker in Logic, Economics and Ethics. His liberal social thought is his most famous. He argued for equal rights for all, the end to the subjugation of women and slavery.
Mill completely agrees with Kant in so far as we need a test for principles and an overall principle to serve as this text. For Kant, this test is ‘can it always be followed?’, while for Mill the test is ‘does following the principle make people happy as a consequence?’. Both come up with a supreme principle. Thus, for Kant, one should never lie because the principle is most important as beginning or all good action, while for Mill, one should never lie as long as this has good consequences because this is the most important as end of all good action. Both also come up with a pure ‘good in itself’: Kant’s is intention (the good-in-itself beginning of an act) and Mill’s is happiness (the good-in-itself end of an act). Both say that it is impossible to argue for this good-in-itself, but it simply shows itself in us.
We can see two sides to Utilitarianism, maximizing positive and minimizing negative. Bentham says: Always act to maximize happiness. Mill agrees, but says the MOST important thing is to minimize the negative (at least, this is what scholars concur in reading his writings and comparing them to Bentham’s today). Thus, we see the whole principle is ‘max happy and min pain’, but one can lean either way on it. There are times when maximum happiness can cause much pain (majority over the minority, which Mill speaks about vs. Bentham), and there are times when minimum pain hurts maximum happiness (overprotective parenting, insurance issues, have to break some eggs etc). Mill admits that there will be continuous problems whichever way we use the principle, but we are evolving in a positive direction slowly and we should stick to the Utilitarian view even when there are problems if we truly (and he thinks we do) desire good consequences basically as human beings.
Mill addresses many attacks on Utilitarianism. One is the interesting problem of the Bad as Good Example. Everything terrible that happens is good, because it serves as an excellent example of what NOT to do in the future. We can compare PBS documentaries on slavery and the US overcoming slavery as freedom and our view as Americans of the type of place South Africa is. Are America and South Africa excellent places because they rose up against oppression, or are they terrible places where oppression likely still exists? If there is a movement to overcome oppression, this could be celebrated as proof that the problem is over, or it could be viewed with suspicion as proof that the problem remains. We can compare this to the typical prosecuting attorney arguing that a criminal past is evidence of a repeat offender, and the typical defense attorney pointing at the same criminal past as evidence of reform and pulling one’s life together after a bad upbringing and environment.
The American philosopher Daniel Dennett uses Three Mile Island as an example of the good in the bad. After the nuclear reactor there exploded, it led to much better nuclear standards and restrictions. This might lead someone to conclude that causing harm can be beneficial and affordable if more good than the initial harm is the result. Consider that we love villains who go from good to bad and heroes who go from bad to good. We can very easily see bad as good and good as bad. The attack on Utilitarianism says that it is prone to confusing bad with good especially compared to systems of principles or rights that are given, not based on their consequences.
Consider animal testing, as well as the infamous Tuskegee Study. In 1932, the US Public Health Service began studying the effects of untreated syphilis in black men who believed they were receiving treatment but were in fact guinea pigs, a study which lasted forty years until 1972 when its existence was leaked to the press. Consider Nazi scientists, the most infamous being Dr. Mengele, the Angel of Death from Auschwitz, who, in part inspired by American Eugenicists, did experiments on Jews, including Jewish children. Mill and Utilitarians would of course reply that such experiments do more harm than good if we take the long and social view, as it would create a culture in which human life has little value or respect.
Many could say that ‘use’ and ‘happy’ can easily lead to how we abuse the environment. More relevant today, Mill loved deep forests and argued that wilderness was necessary in the long view of use and happiness. We will read on wilderness for environmental week. This poses us an interesting question: when utilitarianism asks us to take the long view, how long a view can we take? If we pollute the earth and ignore it for hundreds of years, our long view could still be too short for comfort.
Karl Marx, who was much into progressive change in society, attacked Utilitarianism in a different way. He asked: Who are the ones who tell us what is useful or makes us happy as a society? It would be the rich and powerful, the upper class, who use the lower class as labor. Obviously, it is the task master or overseer and not the worker who gets to say who is useful in their place and how happy the system is overall. Mill in fact did approve of war to advance civilization, and he approved of colonialism for improving the lives of the “uncivilized”. Marx could criticize him for this short sightedness. However, much as Epicurus made his garden and school open to slaves and women, Mill was an open advocate against the enslavement of Black people and the second class status of women, an early champion of both. He writes in The Negro Question of 1850:
It is curious, withal, that the earliest known civilization was, we have the strongest reason to believe, a negro civilization. The original Egyptians are inferred, from the evidence of their sculptures, to have been a negro race: it was from negroes, therefore, that the Greeks learnt their first lessons in civilization; and to the records and traditions of these negroes did the Greek Philosophers to the very end of their career resort (I do not say with much fruit) as a treasury of mysterious wisdom.
For this lecture, please watch this documentary about feminism in America.
Overt & Covert Prejudice
Before talking about sexism today and racism next class, we need to consider prejudice as a whole, and consider the difference between overt and covert prejudice. A friend of mine had a horrible experience when I was preparing this lecture for the first time. He was playing video games online, and one of the players asked if anybody playing was black in the most offensive way possible. Hopefully, this requires no further explanation of what word was used. My friend said he did not know how to respond and simply said nothing in return. He said he was still wrestling with whether or not he should have said something, and that this was the first OVERT racism he had experienced in the new millennium.
He made a further observation that is quite valuable in describing racism and sexism in America today: While OVERT prejudice is most often and in most places rarer today, COVERT prejudice is constant and continuous. While slurs, mob violence and other open acts of racism are rare, we still live in a culture that is racially divided with institutions plagued by institutional racism. While women wear pants and are not openly called “doll” or “baby” so much anymore, the glass ceiling remains alive and well.
Just a little while ago, overt prejudice was the law of the land. Women were told openly, by teachers and scientists, that they were intellectually and socially inferior to men. I have an older co-worker who told me that when he was in elementary school in San Diego in the early 1950s, his class put on a production of Little Black Sambo, a British children’s story about a boy in India. He got the main part of Sambo which he performed in blackface, applied by his teacher. Because the British called Indians and Africans “blacks”, but this term is not applied to Indians in America, the children in the chorus were dressed up in overalls and mammy dresses and the teacher had them sing ‘Camp Town Races’ and other traditional black songs from the days of slavery even though Sambo is Indian and not ‘black’ or from the South.
It is a sign of progress that overt racism and sexism has become covert. This change has happened almost entirely in the last 50 years, since the 60s and the triumphs made by the civil rights and feminist movements. Unfortunately this change has convinced many, both right and left wing, that racism and sexism no longer exist in America, or that it still exists but is marginal and best to ignore. The media, which downplays America’s social problems (as we looked at with propaganda), ignores racism and sexism for the most part. Worst of all, the few times it pays attention to these problems is when they serve the interests of the dominant majority or powers that be. As my friend noted, if you point at covert racism as a marginalized person, YOU are called racist. We hear about white people losing opportunities to affirmative action policies, but not about racism against minority groups that cost them the same sorts of opportunities. Just after 9/11, feminists made brief appearances on news programs to tell us of the evils that traditional Islamic culture inflicts upon women, and then feminism disappeared again from our televisions.
I enjoy looking at the animal kingdom to see the root behaviors of our human problems. While the apes are our most direct ancestors, the octopus is studied by researchers as one of our most important and ancient ancestors because it has a brain very much like our brain stem, the most basic and early part of our brains. Thus, studying octopi allows us to study the most basic behaviors of animals and ourselves. In one study, researchers took an octopus and shocked it whenever they showed it a teddy bear. Quite understandably, the octopus soon became very scared of the bear, but the experiment did not stop there. They took a second octopus, put it in a separate tank next to the other traumatized octopus so the two could not communicate other than by sight. They then showed the teddy bear to the first octopus, and let the second octopus watch the first be frightened. They then took away the first octopus and showed the second the teddy bear. Surprisingly, the second octopus was even more frightened of the teddy bear than the first.
The researchers concluded that octopi can watch each other, as all animals with brains can, and learn about what they should like or fear from the behaviors of others. They also concluded, important for considering prejudice, that the second octopus was more scared than the first because it knew it should be scared of the teddy bear but did not know why it should be scared. Consider that covert and institutional prejudice are learned reactions and fears, and they need never be consciously or overtly expressed or explained by those who teach or learn these reactions. In this sense, covert prejudice can be more severe and harder to unlearn because it is never consciously or overtly expressed and so there is no opportunity for direct criticism.
A good (or rather horrible) example of covert racism is covered in a famous work The Myth of Model Minority. The article was written in the 90s by Rosalind Chou, then an Asian-American college student who was upset by many articles in Time and Newsweek that warned of rising Asian-American voices as a new “special-interest” group. These articles seemed to speak with the voice of the “average” American, in the name of “the common interest”, a voice that feared Asian voices becoming like African and Latino voices of dissent. Apparently, the “common interest” is threatened by minority groups who have “special interests” that can pull in the opposite direction, and warns that while Asians have been quiet and supportive of the common interest in the past there are signs that they are becoming dissenting opinions like the voices of Africans and Latinos. Chou notes that Time, Newsweek and the mainstream media often speak with such a voice, a voice which does not identify itself as particular or white at all but is speaking in opposition to all other interests. Why are Asian and African and Latino American interests not “our” common interests? This is one of the dominant ways that covert racism remains a constant and very real experience for many Americans.
Today, we cover sexism and the reactions of feminists to the oppression of women. Just like for Asian Americans, feminists are not “us” in the media but a special interest group that opposes the common interest.
The gender mythology of our culture and many other patriarchal cultures is that women are docile, non-violent, unconfident, incompetent, and emotional. Lt. Col. Grossman in his excellent book On Killing tells us that there is no difference between men and women in combat physically or psychologically. Women are capable of violence and even rape, though our society does not recognize this yet. There is rape and torture among female prison inmates. There have been documented instances of female gang members gang raping men. Women, including young girls, have been said to be more psychological than physical in bullying compared to men and boys, but they are clearly not docile, unconfident or incompetent.
What, then, are the differences between men and women? Most obviously, there are physiological differences that relate to sex and procreation. In addition, there is one dynamic of psychology in which women relatively differ from men. Men tend to seek power through NOT being social, isolating themselves and their opinions, whereas women tend to seek power through BEING social, interacting with others. The two best examples are 1) classic women ‘let’s talk’ vs. men ‘I don’t want to talk about it’ that becomes strained in many heterosexual relationships (like choosing a restaurant, where women wants to discuss and man wants her to just pick), and 2) male boss ‘don’t bring it to me until it’s done and done right’ vs. female boss ‘let’s go over the details so we are on the same page’ difference of support offered.
In apes and the most ancient nomadic and tribal societies, there is evidence that women often had status and leadership positions. Women were shamans, leaders, and there were often central female mother gods. As people began to collect into city states, we can see patriarchy increase. Why did this happen? The best explanation so far, one that does not rely on any inability of women, is the increased size of the community. When people lived in small communities, women could raise children at the center of the village, as the political center. As city states increased in size, it made it increasingly difficult to raise one’s children at the public center. Thus, women retreated into the home, and men, who had to be the go-for before now were the ones who could venture out of the home and into the centers of political activity. Today, devices allow both women and men to raise children while fully participating in public life, but women are still somewhat confined to the home in balancing life between home and career.
When we look at the cultures of the world and their historical development, we can see that many cultures have taken part in a similar oppression of women, but at the same time women have had increasing power in society and new movements have to appeal to women to take off. Consider that Buddhism, Christianity and Islam (the three largest cultures yet) all had to offer women better status and rights than they had previously (Naga princess story of Buddhism, stories of Jesus involving women and men cheating equally bad, Islamic law and divorce and consensual sex), but all three oppressed women. Consider that in Christianity and Buddhism, traditionally nuns can only teach kids, not adult men.
Modern society has continued the trend, such that today women have equal legal status in many nations but covert sexism and a lack of women owning property persists. A united Nations 2004 report claims that women work 20% more a day on job and home together than men do (10 ½ hours to men 8 ¾ hours). Women are 51% of the population (technically the MAJORITY of the population), do 66% of the work, get 10% of the income, and worldwide own 1% of the property. Thus, sexism (overt AND covert) is quite alive, in spite of counter claims.
Mass media has done little to help the situation. Women are typically portrayed as secondary to men, and largely important as romantic interests. A recent study by San Diego State’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film showed that in the 100 top-grossing films of 2013, women represented only 15% of protagonists, 29% of major characters, and 30% of all speaking characters, and that very little has changed since 2002. Many feminist critics have argued that TV and movies today SEEM to be pro-feminist (Sex and the City, Ali McBeal, Brigit Jones’ Diary) but in fact they are stories where a working white woman (and her friends) try to find the perfect man to find happiness.
Feminism is the movement in reaction to sexism and prejudice against women. The basic idea is that women should have the same status as men in society, or “women are people too”. Back when I was in high school, I was impressed when, representing the National Organization for Women, the largest, most influential feminist organization in America, Kate Weber asked the student body in assembly, “Who thinks women are equal to men?”. When most everyone raised their hands, she replied, “Then you are all feminists!”. It is a shame that people, men but ALSO women, are afraid of calling themselves feminists, largely from the backlash of the 80s between the second wave and third wave of feminism which said that “militant feminists” “hate men”. While it is true that feminists are people, and some people, in the name of any ideology, can be bigoted and dogmatic, feminists in general are interested in women’s progress and equality, not in belittling or repressing the rights of men.
Historically, many consider Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) to be the first major feminist work, arguing that women and men should have equal rights, and that women are not rationally inferior to men, but appear so because they were not educated to the degree that men were. Two years before (1790), Wollstonecraft (1759 – 1797) had written Vindication of the Rights of Men, a justification of the French Revolution and progressive values such as equality that were being attacked by conservatives and traditionalists. In writing the influential work, arguing that doing away with nobles and slavery benefits society as a whole, she began to conceive of her second Vindication, a work centered on progress towards women’s equality.
Like bell hooks would much later, in the 1980s, Wollstonecraft argued that improving the lives of women such that they are regarded as equals will make them better wives, better mothers, and benefit everyone socially. Women are perceived, genuinely or falsely, to be superficial only because they are denied equal education. Women are taught that it is beauty, not intelligence, that counts, and so many are left no option other than “to adorn its prison”. Because women are the early educators of both daughters and sons, they should be educated such that they can be better educators and parents. Both boys and girls should be given the same public education to help society progress as a whole.
The Three Waves of American Feminism
In America there were three waves of feminism, each building on the last and addressing new issues from the last wave. The first wave was the women’s suffrage movement of the 1920s in America and Britain. In the same way that World War I was not known by that name until World War II, the first wave was not known as such until the second wave of the 1960s. The most famous first wave figure is Susan B. Anthony. She argued that the abortion issue should be set aside to concentrate on women’s right to vote as an adult citizen and women’s right to refuse sex to their husbands (note Mohammed in the Ahadith says this in 600 CE, with problems today). The first wave, not of course known as that till the second wave, ended in 1919 with 19th amendment to the constitution.
The second wave was the civil rights movement, the late 60s and early 70s which is also called the women’s liberation movement or ‘women’s lib’. Defined by Carol Hanisch’s phrase “The personal is political”, took off in early 60s and culminated in the civil rights act of 1966 (backed by both NOW and NAACP, the biggest US anti-sexism and racism groups together). While the first wave said ‘this is America so we deserve to vote’, the second wave was part of anti-establishment left movement that said that America was a corrupt institution that needed to be changed.
Simone De Beauvoir wrote The Second Sex in France in 1953, arguing that women had been marginalized as ‘The OTHER’ by men using Hegel’s idea of the master-slave dialectic. I fondly remember my German Hegel professor struggling to recall the phrase, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”, speaking of feminists using Hegel in the name of progressive values. De Beauvoir was one of the original Existentialists, along with Sartre, Fanon and Merleau-Ponty. Existentialism, founded by Sartre and inspired by Nietzsche, argues that we are each individually responsible for giving meaning and purpose to our lives, and that when we rely on cultural norms or institutions to give our lives meaning we inauthentic and ignorant, failing to live up to our individual potential.
The Feminine Mystique (1963) by Betty Friedan was another big book of the time (much more published in America than Marxist De Beauvoir’s), arguing that women were not feeling fulfilled as homemakers and mothers, and they needed an identity for themselves as individuals beyond the identity of the family. In the 1950s, doctors were prescribing Valium to depressed housewives, as somehow they had 2 1/3 children and a white picket fence, but were not feeling fulfilled with a life of vacuuming and baking muffins.
The third wave rose in the 90s after the 80s backlash against the 60s progressive movements and continues today. The third wave tried to not only pay attention to black women, Latina women, third world women, but also to break down the idea of women as essentially different from men but equal.
The major criticism of the movement as a whole, which only fully rose in the third wave, was much embodied in the work of Gloria Jean Watkins, known as ‘bell hooks’, an early critic of 2nd wave as white middle class women empowerment that ignores all else in the name of ‘feminism’, thus hooks’ ‘womanism’. bell hooks, her name uncapitalized on purpose, argues that issues of oppression are more complex than some feminists have considered. Courageously, she argues that white women can be oppressors, and not simply the oppressed, just as black men, in oppressing black women, can be oppressors as well.
This criticism fits well with the idea of cultural hegemony, a concept proposed by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci while imprisoned by Mussolini and the Italian fascists. Gramsci argued that while Marx and Engels reduced all conflict to the struggle between workers and owners, between the rich and the poor, society is more complex and certain groups dominate others (ex: Christians are predominant in America and this can lead to demonization of Muslims, just as Europeans are predominant such that minority groups are suppressed). The process by which these dominant and marginal forces work out their struggles is known as hegemonic discourse. Just as bell hooks argues, oppression is complex, involving several factors, and cannot be boiled down to one simple issue. Unfortunately, some progressives have argued and still argue that their fight, such as class war, feminism, or anti-racism, is the REAL struggle, and that the others are simply counter-revolutionary diversions that distract from what is important. As bell hooks recognizes, progressives should work together as allies rather than oppose each other if they want to make genuine progress.
The two big feminist issues, which are still being fought out today, are 1) Is gender a subjective construct (in the mind) or social reality (in the world)? And 2) Did feminism accomplish what it set out to achieve, or should it change in response to criticism of the movement? I was talking with a fellow BCC instructor, and she said her son and his friends in high school think that feminists are all hippie women who don’t shave their arm pits, hate men and that they don’t understand that oppression of women is a thing of the past, thinking that all feminists are anti-male and anti-sex and not recognizing that much of the struggle is still ongoing.
De Beauvoir famously wrote, “One is not born a woman, one becomes a woman”. Judith Butler, one of the most famous of American philosophers today and a professor at UC Berkeley, says that gender identity is performative. Both of these figures thus back the Poststructuralist conception, that identity is created and performed. If a woman puts on makeup and wears a short skirt, is she being oppressed or is she actively expressing her individual sexuality? Second wave came under fire from the third wave because feminists often told women that if they tried to be sexy they were being deceived and made into property. This drew a fight between anti-pornography and prostitution feminists and younger pro-sex feminism.
On the pro side was the Grrrl punk movement of the 1990s, lead by the group Bikini Kill as a band of the third wave branch. Notice the t-shirt that lead singer and band founder Kathleen Hanna is wearing, displaying a man as a scantily-clad sex object, and putting this on display as a reversal of gender norms. Judith Butler may well have enjoyed the performance.
Here is a link to an extensive three part documentary on feminism and the women’s movement: