Previous generations of feminists have never questioned the relationship between feminism and humanism. In fact many of those feminists had gone so far as to believe that feminism is integral to humanism or vice versa. Who could blame them? Feminism and humanism have shared lineage in the Enlightenment, which posited such ideas as the human rational capacity, the demystification of oppressive superstition, and the natural equality between one human and all the rest.
It was very kind of those male philosophes to have invited their sisters onto the level plane of Enlightenment. No one denies that women have greatly benefitted from the inclusion. Thanks to that, whatever the candlelit corridors of the convents and cloisters had in store for us are matters on which we are free to grimly speculate and nothing more.
But the reasoning woman knows deep down that this Enlightened equality cannot persist. In part because the welcome to it was only so warmly extended; but also because the longer we stayed, the more constricted we felt.
As I wrote previously, equality is not the endgame for applied, triumphant feminism. With this follow-up essay, I move to suggest still another cherished principle of the humanist view that we feminists must set aside lest we obstruct the completion of our design for living: tolerance.
Tolerance has been the cornerstone of liberal humanism since its very inception. It is also the crowning virtue for Americans of a certain age. From the 1990s on, for proponents and detractors alike, it was an age of toleration. A Good Society was both diverse and cohesive. That cohesion was made possible through the tolerance we felt for the differences of our neighbor, whether in the open or in private. Though never mandated by law as such, tolerance was the guiding principle behind our anti-discriminatory laws and our general moral conduct as a community of individuals. Women were expected to benefit by this in their continued advancement out of subordination. True to its intentions, women were tolerated at previously unimaginable levels. Yet at the same time it is hard to say that they benefitted from tolerance in any real sense. I can’t say that anyone — even men — have ever really benefitted from it.
The Good Society that would arise from our tolerance grew instead into an Agreeable Society on top and a debating society underneath. For the agreeable, the Big Questions — the ideas — had profit margins too minuscule to give much attention to them; while the debaters took to the Big Questions like boys to G.I. Joes. In any case, on all matters we agreed to disagree. It was an impressive sleight-of-hand, I must admit. It was easy to go along nicely with it, at least while there was reason to be nice.
In this era, intolerance was simply out of the question. It was something you heard about and objected out of hand. You never knew anyone who was intolerant and never sought to foster intolerance in yourself. To do so was to succumb to corrosive thinking and bigoted attitudes. And in fairness, most wish that they could be anything but intolerant. It’s not a pleasant thing to be. But if someone is particularly sensitive to cultural ambiance, particularly if that ambiance is forged in tolerance, the likelihood of coming to not tolerate something to an intense degree is strong. Once the nice times give way to a time that is less nice, those intolerances only multiply.
Such is the burden of the intolerant, the definition of which, when we set aside the blinders of agreeableness, is one who is confirmed in the power of the idea. An idea is not a commodity, a plaything, or a personality affect. It is a potent infector. Yes, some ideas are worthless on their face and require no additional anxiety, but there are just enough to which so many are vulnerable. At the right time and with the right person, an idea can change someone from the inside out until their authentic self is no longer recognized by themselves or anyone else.
You have seen this, haven’t you? That daughter — the honors student with a fondness for animals and an empathy for many kinds of humans. Very practical but also idealistic, wanting, so you thought, to go into teaching, like you — perhaps in a low-income urban area or among migrant children, while somehow having a home in the suburbs. Something along those lines. Yet something went wrong. She slid away from that dream into the nonprofit cesspool of DC, carousing with a bad crowd who all carry Great Books by Russell Kirk and Ben Sasse under their arms. Every holiday is now a nightmare. She espouses redolent intellectual garbage as though it was small-talk about the weather. What do you do? You debate her; you agree to disagree. You bring out the turkey and the presents. A photo-finish of perfect tolerance. This is what you have been taught and what you have been teaching. What more can you do? You accept that she is a puppet of men, and a slave to one man in particular who smiles politely, wears a college football fleece all the time, is self-conscious about his thinning hair, and provides for your child with gains gotten through you know not precisely what means, but surely not honorable ones. Soon she will give him offspring; you will be a grandmother. Then it will be too late. But to do what? “Cut the strings”? To become “corrosive”? It never occurred to you in all your tolerance.
You would not be alone in feeling this way. Having moreover considered the consequences, doing nothing — agreeing to disagree — constitutes a form of abuse. In order to protect the dignity of our daughters or sisters, or the respect of our mothers, we must become corrosive to ideas that deserve such a penalty. We must not argue ourselves into a dead end of absolute blackness. We must bring those we love and everyone else in turn out into the light, into freedom and into the truth, forcefully but lovingly. This takes some dangerous doing: seeking out the most abject intellectual permutations and scorching them with the purifying napalm of your intelligence. These are damnable, ugly things not fit for consumption in any population. You alone, the intolerant righteous bitch, are able to confront them and banish them and all who are incurable of their influence. It is fair to say that you will earn little more than ire of strangers and loved ones. This is your sacrifice, but you do not bow to the fashionable or the conventional or to civility — the heating pads of the agreeable — you have a long game. For that you will be thanked and lauded, even if you are not around to receive it.
The gynopocene age will be forged by the efforts of such heroines of intolerance. The post-tolerance society we will foster will be one unencumbered by the obscurantism of civil mutual respect. Respect needs no emphasis, it is assumed, because so much will have been streamlined down to the essentials, or settled entirely. All but two primary lines of debate will remain to be addressed.
Or I should say two lines on one issue: men. Pleased as men always are to know that the womenfolk are arguing over them, for once it is a necessary matter related to them that cannot be handled carelessly. My foresight is not the sharpest, but broadly, the greatest minds of the Senate of Sisters (or whatever we’ll call it) will break down thus on the issue: gradualism vs. accelerationism.
The gradualist (or liberal) faction would favor a program basically in line with my own in spirit but minimalist in execution. They will perhaps favor familial re-allotment, select zones of segregation, and a more nuanced classification of the males between functional and useless. They will find it more prudent and less burdensome to just allow the males to degenerate at their own irreversible pace without our interference or close observation.
The accelerationist (or extremely liberal) faction, on the other hand, will be in favor of the complete and much more vigorous program of male disposal: systematic segregation, compulsory divorce and familial re-allotment, monitored and rigidly classified male communes, monitored reproductive activity, population regulation.
The sisters, make no mistake, will not be above debating; but it is a debate with a clear purpose in mind: disposing of men; or rather, non-women, which is going to happen no matter what we decide. In the gynopocene age, society will reach a point where it is impossible, logically, for a sister to betray the sisterhood. Not that we will be unprepared for certain lapses of judgment: such as when a sister starts to exhibit symptoms that cause her to see the non-women as redeemable. Such a sister will be taken to a convalescence center and given the most attentive care that will cure her delirium and reorient her to the task at hand.
I guess humanism was right about one thing: we really can educate ourselves out of any problem.