Sunday, January 25, 2009

chuckling digs a deeper hole

You may not know this, but chuckling is a regular reader of Pandagon. If you are unfamiliar with the publication, I think it’s safe to describe Pandagon as a leftist/feminist blog, or maybe feminist/leftist. Virtually all of the posts fall into one or both of those categories. Though I am in general agreement with both leftist and feminist critiques of American society and politics, I don’t read writers simply because they agree with me. I read writers because they write well; writers who are able to make their stories compelling through some combination of story structure, subject knowledge, insight and humor. I never just decide I’m going to read a blog because of its ideological content. It’s the quality of the writing that either draws me back or doesn’t. So I like Pandagon as a publication and Amanda Marcotte as a writer.

As you might expect, Amanda’s writing attracts a lot of right wing kooks and anti-feminist misogynists. Because she is so effective a writer, she is one of the most hated characters on the political internets and has taken a sickening amount of abuse over the years. Of course I’m not in agreement with her, or anyone else, about everything. But given the amount of abuse she gets from nutzis of various stripes, I am hesitant to publicly argue with her. I have, for the most part, stayed out of Pandagon’s comments section even though I am often tempted to write something.

Anyway, by now you’ve probably figured out that all this explication is a preamble to me criticizing something on Pandagon. Yep.

As you would no doubt expect from a feminist blog, abortion is not an uncommon topic. Amanda regularly observes that most, if not all, of the men she has interacted with who are opposed to legalized abortion are also misogynists. And the way I read it, she goes further and argues that it is not possible to be opposed to legalized abortion without being a misogynist.

An important premise of that argument is that there are no rational secular arguments against abortion.

One of the reasons I suspect this issue fascinates me so much is because it’s one of those issues where there’s not actually a legitimate disagreement, so long as everyone in the debate accepts the idea that ours is a secular government and religious oppression is wrong. There are no rational (secular) arguments against legal abortion …especially with current restrictions that protect the fetus after it really has developed into a baby that feels things and could survive outside the womb.
Well, I disagree with that. Although I am pro-legalized abortion, I can see how someone could make a rational, secular argument against it. All it requires is the premise that a fetus is a living human at the time of the abortion. If that premise is true and is coupled with the premise that killing innocent humans is wrong, then it logically follows that legalized abortion is wrong. That is a rational argument. It may not be valid. The first premise may not be true. But the argument is both logically sound and secular.

From there, the argument at Pandagon moves to the question of whether a fetus is a living human. Or more precisely; when a fetus becomes a living human. I think it’s safe to say that the general agreement is that a fetus becomes a human when it is able to feel things, and possibly when it would be able to survive outside the womb. And that makes for a logically sound argument as well. If the premise is that a fetus that cannot feel things is not a human, then one can believe that it’s wrong to kill innocent humans and still rationally believe that legalized abortion is not wrong.

Note two things: One, in both examples, the agreement is that it’s wrong to kill an innocent human. Two, the first premise in both cases requires a definition of what constitutes the beginning of life.

As far as I know, the identification of the precise sequence of events that must occur for human life to begin has not been settled scientifically. "Somewhere around 29 weeks" is neither precise nor anywhere close to being universally agreed upon in the scientific community. Hence, it is a matter of educated opinion and well-meaning people can disagree without the burden of any kind of religious mumbo jumbo.

My personal opinion is that life begins before a fetus can feel or survive outside the womb. Admittedly, since science is not definitive, I base that opinion largely on what it felt like to take part in an abortion. I favor legalized abortion because I reject the second premise that it’s necessarily wrong to kill an innocent human. In the case of an unwanted fetus, I think it’s often a greater wrong to bring it into the world. That, plus the same logic that was used in Vietnam when they gave new recruits the most dangerous combat assignments. The veterans, it was reasoned, had already suffered and deserved a chance to return to a regular life more than someone who had yet to suffer.

But even if I didn’t believe those rationalizations, greater principles are at stake. Given that so many issues surrounding the abortion argument are ultimately a matter of opinion, it would be wrong for me, and certainly for the government, to dictate what people, particularly women in this case, should do with their lives. I recognize abortion as a matter of privacy and personal conscience.

Nevertheless, it’s clear that one can make a rational, secular argument against it. I just did.

The question then, in Amanda’s framework, becomes whether having that opinion marks one as a de facto misogynist.
Anti-choicers like to defend themselves against the charge of misogyny by saying they simply believe that life begins at conception. What they fail to understand is that “life begins at conception” is a misogynist statement.
Why is that a misogynist statement?
It’s the erasure of a woman’s role in making new people, and a claim that the only effort that counts is the effort a man put into ejaculating. Abortion is horrifying because it’s a reminder that men do not actually make babies, but that women do through a 9 month process, and that if a woman chooses to interrupt that process, there will not be a baby. Which is pretty conclusive proof that men don’t make babies. Which directly contradicts the misogynist belief that only men are capable of really doing jobs worth doing. Really, it should be blatantly obvious that women make babies, not men, but psychologically distracting ourselves from this truth is the whole reason we even have a patriarchy and traditions like naming children after their fathers and not their mothers, as if the fathers were the ones who deserve the credit for making the baby. Even writing this paragraph is hard for me, because I know that saying something like, “Obviously, babies come from women supplying every bit of the material and energy except for 50% of the DNA,” will not be a statement that’s greeted with open arms. It may be a bona fide taboo.
Although some form of that logic may be valid when limited to strict biology; the myriad realities of human interactions introduce a staggering number of complexities based on the perceptions of individuals, individual couples, and the legal apparatus of the state. And that ability to divorce biological from social truth is a big part of what separates humans from other mammals. The social truth is that society functions better and people are generally happier when men take personal responsibility for their offspring and participate in their development. And legally, that is a very good thing. Without the perception that men are as responsible for pregnancy as women, there would be no such thing as child support. If the biological truth of the matter were enshrined in law, women would be a helluva lot worse off. We all would. I don’t see how that argument is misogynist?

I think a big part of the problem is that the definition of “misogynist” is a bit slippery. As far as I know, the only universally agreed upon definition is “someone who hates women.” I suspect a lot of people, particularly over at Pandagon, use the term “misogynist” when the mean “sexist,” which is commonly defined as prejudice or discrimination based on sex ; especially discrimination against women; or behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex.

I can see several ways in which someone could rationally make the argument that shared responsibility for pregnancy is sexist. Same thing with being opposed to legalized abortion. But necessarily misogynist? And theocratic? I don't see any valid logic to support those theses.

So then, perhaps, the question becomes: why do I care enough to spend so much time arguing these points? Am I just another insecure male with an incurable need to put a strong woman down? Am I like all those other nutzis trolling over at Pandagon?

Well, you can argue amongst yourselves on that one. But I don’t think so. You know I’m a sucker for questions regarding logic and rationality and Amanda provides an interesting context in which to play those games. I also have some personal experience in the matter which has caused me to think deeper about these issues than I otherwise might. And as I stated at the outset, I like to read good writing. One of the common aspects of good writing is the presentation of an argument that raises important questions and causes the reader to think more deeply about the given subject. That’s why I enjoy reading it. That’s why I enjoy responding to it.