On giving feminism a bad name:

In her recent reivew  of Susan faludi’s “The Terror Dream,” Michiko Kakutani writes

This, sadly, is the sort of tendentious, self-important, sloppily reasoned book that gives feminism a bad name.

We (Jender) blogged about the Faludi book a while back, and the point here is not whether, as the present review points out, there are counter-examples to Faludi’s generalizations, but rather the opening sentence of the review.

If there were a class in how to write bad reviews, it could start with “Announcing your bias in the first sentence,” and use Kakutani’s sentence as an excellent example.  It implies:

1. Feminisim has a bad name
2. There’s something like a whole genre (“sort”) of tendentious, self-important and sloppy feminist books.

Really? Thanks to the efforts of so many people, the first may be true in some (large?) circles.  But don’t we need some evidence for the second? Dare one suggest that MK is the sort of reviewer who gives journalism a bad name when she writes tendentious, self-important and sloppy comments like this?

12 thoughts on “On giving feminism a bad name:

  1. I haven’t read Faludi’s book yet, but I was very irritated by the tone of this review–and by the opening sentence that you cite, in particular. I agree that she needs to offer evidence for both claims 1 and 2, and that she fails to do so. Ruthermore, even if both of these claims were true, it wouldn’t mean that the *reason* feminism has a bad name is because such books exist. In fact, there are some poorly argued feminist books (though not as many as MK suggests), but there are also many other reasons feminists are despised: the mainstream media often portrays feminists as crazy “man-haters” who are anti-family, anti-child, anti-sex (etc.). Certainly these portrayals contribute a great deal to the negative ways that that feminism and feminsts are viewed.

    It just really angers me when feminists themselves are blamed for the negative ideas people have about feminism. From my perspective as a teacher, it seems that many people (or at least my students) don’t really have much of an idea of what feminism is, but nonetheless they enter my class convinced that they are *not* feminists.

    In any case, I’m glad you posted this here since it’s been bothering me since I read the review…

  2. helenesch,

    Thanks so much for your comment!
    I heard just a few days ago about a paper arguing that the philosophy profession is sexist (imagine!), and was told that it is just the sort of poorly argued thing that gives feminism a bad name.
    If one starts out with “Of course, we know that much of this stuff is garbage,” one is not very likely to think through anything one doesn’t immediately get. It very, very irritating.

  3. Well, I generally find it helpful when reviewers announce their evaluative conclusions up front like that. Whether it constitutes “bias” presumably depends on whether it’s in fact grounded in reasons. I don’t see that any of us here are in a position to judge that.

    In particular, the lack of supporting evidence for implication #2 just means that the reviewer has not proven themselves unbiased. But it would be premature for us to therefore conclude that they are biased.

  4. Richard, Evaluative reviews are to be expected, and an early announcement of one’s evaluation is often helpful. But bias is different; among other things, once declared it should lead readers to accord less credibility to one’s word.

    One of the worrying things about bias is that even when it is openly declared, not everyone can see that it is bias. Given all the political forces aligned against feminism – the pro-life movement is just one – to assert as just obvious that the bad name of feminism is given by feminists themselves is clearly an instance of bias. Conceivably such a statement might be produced by extreme ignorance, but it is abundantly clear that MK does not think she is completely clueless, and I’m giving her the benefit of the doubt on that.

  5. I still don’t see the bias. There are many factors that contribute to image (‘bad name’) problems. One is obviously unfair demonization by third parties, and another – just as obviously – is embarrassment caused by group members themselves.

    Compare: Fred Phelps gives Christians a bad name. This is surely true. I’m hardly “biased” in saying so, just because there are also external forces (Dawkins et al.) aligned against religion.

    It should be utterly uncontroversial that some feminists give feminism a bad name. Practically any group has some members that reflect poorly on the rest. As I understand it, to say “X gives Ys a bad name” is pretty much just to say “X is an embarrassment to Ys”. I don’t see how such a claim is anything to complain about — unless it is false, of course, in which case one should want to defend X. But if it is true, one should surely be more upset with X’s lapses than with the messenger who informed you of them.

  6. Richard, I just did a quick check with some of my linguistic community on the statement “XY is the sort of person who gives black administrators a bad name.”

    Universal judgment (in this select group): that strongly suggests the utterer is racist. Why? It’s one thing to worry about so-and-so giving something a bad name and/or fear that that’s happening. To say that it has happened and to offer no statement that mitigates the implied negative judgment strongly indicates an attitude.

    I think where we are disagreeing is in the highly problematic area of truth-conditions vs. conversational implications/implicatures. As the famous example has it, I can think so-and-so has great handwriting, but saying it in certain contexts has very negative implications.

  7. I think JJ’s example works so well here because blacks–like feminists (and like women,too) do in fact suffer from discrimination and oppression. The fact that Christians do not suffer from discrimination and oppression (in our society, which is what’s at issue here) makes the example Richard offers different from the case at hand. As JJ notes at the end of the comment above, the *context* in which the comment is uttered does in fact matter.

  8. If a white male philosopher writes this “sort of tendentious, self-important, sloppily reasoned book,” does that give white male philosophers a bad name?
    Assuming, of course, that not only a — possibly — biased reviewer but readers as well agreed that the book was “tendentious, self-important, [and]sloppily reasoned.”

  9. Rosan, I’m not sure which side you are arguing on. There are plenty of people in academia who would describe much of white male philosophy in such terms. A lot of administrators make fun of such philosophy and allow departments to remain only because they teach tons of Intro courses. And within the field, many anglophone philosophers would dismiss the whole of continental philosophy on the grounds that they produce such rubbish.

    We could argue that their attitudes show a bias, which is one side, or that they don’t. One thing I am pretty sure of is that an administrator who says “He produces the sort of rubbish that gives philosophy departments a bad name,” is no friend of philosophy departments.

  10. Perhaps the problem is that “X gives Ys a bad name” further implies that X’s lapse exemplifies an especially common flaw of Ys. It wouldn’t make much sense to say that a white male philosopher who engaged in sloppy reasoning gives white male philosophers a bad name, because nobody takes that sort of flaw to reflect on the group as a whole. (It would be different if the white male philosopher were criticized for being excessively dry, technical, insensitive to pressing moral issues, etc.)

    That then explains why the black administrators example sounds racist: it presupposes that there is some characteristic flaw of black administrators. And that seems like a pretty racist kind of claim.

    So I take your complaint to be Kakutani’s presupposition that tendentious, self-important, sloppy reasoning is in some sense a characteristic flaw of feminists. Is such a claim necessarily biased? I’m not so sure. It obviously isn’t to claim that *all* feminists are flawed in this way, or even most. But just that insofar as feminists are flawed at all, this is one of the more common forms their human imperfection tends to take. This doesn’t seem entirely outrageous. (Indeed, it’s arguably the characteristic flaw of partisans/activists more generally.)

    As for the negative implications in context, that’s quite right, but if the criticism is warranted (as, for all you’ve said here, it could well be) then I don’t see the problem. Presumably the point of drawing attention to such flaws is to put pressure on group members to raise their standards, and be extra wary to avoid their characteristic flaw. At least, I assume that’s what people are aiming at when they criticize analytic philosophers for being dry, technical, morally irrelevant, etc. Similar for tendentious/sloppy activism. Such criticism can be helpful, if it really is on-target. (It may not be. But then it’s that which needs to be assessed.)

  11. Richard, of course if you see it as on the cards that feminist writing has a characteristic flaw of being tendentious, self-important and sloppy (characteristic enough to give it a bad name), then you won’t see that claim as biased.

    Actually, I do think that a great deal of philosophical work is very sloppy. I haven’t ever seen a published article survive a dissection by a group of philosophy profs. Even high points such as Naming and Necessity are often thought to be very sloppy, poorly argued, etc. I’ve certainly heard many people agree that Two Dogmas hasn’t any good arguments.

    In another thread I remark about a recent book receiving lots of attention that is generally discussed as very poorly argued. There are lots of papers coming out to say just that. (In fact, I disagree with the overall assessment and have a paper coming out on the other side, though I agree that there are gaps.)

    What’s going on here? Why doesn’t Naming and Necessity give philosophy a bad name? Two things: for some people it does. And: one element which helenesch and I have alluded to is one’s position in the power structure.

    Enough! Let me invite you to have the last comment on this.

  12. Well, I guess we’ve settled the main issue, so I’ll just add a couple of thoughts on the side issue you raise:

    1) Even if the very best philosophy, e.g. Naming and Necessity, is “sloppy” in some absolute sense, it shouldn’t be a mystery why this doesn’t give philosophy a bad name, so long as it is still better than the competition. A characteristic flaw is what sets one apart from others, and I don’t think anyone could seriously claim that analytic philosophers are set apart by their unusually sloppy argumentation!

    2) In any case, I don’t think general issues of “power” could be any sort of explanation here, because analytic philosophy actually DOES have a bad name (or well-known ‘characteristic flaws’) in certain other respects I’ve mentioned.

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