Arguing with strawmen

by Guest Blogger // 31 August 2011, 21:36

Tags: arguments, feminist

A photograph of two women, wearing hats made out of newspapers. They are photographed side on, they are facing each other with their faces close together, and are both shouting. This is a guest post by Natalie Dzerins, who tweets as @thenatfantastic. It is an edited version of her blog post, Arguments I Will No Longer Have.

Certain arguments in comments on feminist blogs are as predictable as the rising of the sun, the passage of time, or Dorries being evil. I'm sick of explaining them repeatedly, so decided to compile a handy list:

1. "Prove it"

Some things are such common knowledge that not everyone feels the need to link to them every time. For instance, Women are paid less than men. Arguments are not ruined by not referencing the obvious every time - you don't need to link to evidence that water is wet.

2. "Stop being angry"

Presenting a fact in a way you don't like doesn't make it not a fact. This post explains:

The tone argument - essentially "I'm more right because you weren't nice about my being wrong" - is absurd and a means of derailing in the first place... Women are expected, socially, to not get angry. They are expected to remain calm and emotionally available at all times. Thus, when men use the tone argument on women they are essentially relying on patriarchal gender constructs to help them win an argument and to undermine that woman's message. They are using their privilege to their advantage to silence women.

3. "You're using ad hominem, so I'm not going to listen to you!"

Possibly the most misused accusation on the internet. Ad hominem is a logical fallacy where an irrelevant personal characteristic is used to disregard an entire argument. For example, "You can't talk about economics, because you don't have a job" is an example of ad hominem. "You're a mansplaining wanker, and here's why you're wrong..." is not. It is an insult, followed by an explanation. Oh, and "You use ad hominem, so I won't listen to you talk about feminism!" is ad hominem.

4. "What about men?"

Surely you know how "whatabouttehmenz?" arguments go by now, but here's some examples:

a) Feminist writes about problem of female rape victims being disbelieved unless they are blonde nuns who have never even seen alcohol, were wearing a suit of armour at the time and have a signed confession from the rapist. A comment appears saying "but men get raped too!". Yes - and this is obviously disgusting, but if they are brave enough to come forward, they're not asked what they were wearing like it ever made a difference. That's the problem we're discussing. HINT: We know all rape is bad.

b) Feminist discusses problems of intimate partner violence (IPV). A comment appears saying "Men suffer IPV too, and they don't have refuges so you're all evil". This type is particularly interesting, as what they are really saying is "I am aware of a problem, yet I refuse to do anything about it, and instead expect you to drop whatever you're doing and FIX IT IMMEDIATELY".

If these people are so concerned about men's issues, why not fight for them themselves, instead of telling me I have to spend 50% of my time and energy doing it for them? These are the people who would rather close down women's shelters than fight for men's shelters.

5. "Well X isn't a feminist and she doesn't notice the things that piss you off"

Probably because she's preconditioned by a patriarchal society to see things like street harrassment and rape culture as an expected inconvenience in her day to day life. If you asked her to think about the times she'd been treated badly because of her gender, chances are she'd come up with a few examples. Try it.

6. "She's a woman, you should support her"

Newsflash: Just because she is a woman does not mean she is a feminist. It's idiotic - "HEY LADIES. Michelle Bachmann wants you to be submissive to your husbands, take away your right to bodily autonomy and demonise you if you end up as a single mother, and you should totes support her, because she has a vagina!". Just... NO.

7. "You're censoring free speech!"

Last time I checked, one feminist blogger calling someone out for being a misogynist didn't stop them speaking. Here's the deal - I defend to the death your right to free speech, but I also defend my right to call you out for being a dickhead. If you're stopping me doing that, guess who's denying who free speech?

[The image is a photograph of two women, wearing hats made out of newspapers. They are photographed side on, they are facing each other with their faces close together, and are both shouting. The photo is by Ian Quantis and is used under a Creative Commons License]

Comments From You

Schlomo // Posted 31 August 2011 at 23:00

Thank you thank you thank you. Especially number seven. It seems to be the one I encounter most often, at least, and I can't believe how often I have to point out that freedom of speech is reciprocal (i.e., I'm not obligated to like X just because Y has the right to say it).

Sebastian // Posted 01 September 2011 at 02:30

Generally awesome piece, but you might want to reword number 6 - not all women have vaginas....

All the best

Sebastian
(a bloke with a cunt)

Troika21 // Posted 01 September 2011 at 08:21

I take issue with the first item on your list. Asking someone to provide evidence for what they assert is always a good idea. I accept that some things are common knowledge, but they might only be considered that by your own group. Sceptics run into this problem alot, what we assume people know about the world, they quite often simply don't.

More importantly though, what you believe might simply be wrong, or be ideology rather than information.

Your're not wrong about the sentiment, I'm not taking issue with that, as we can both agree some things are readily avaliable to know. I simply disagree with what ammounts to a blanket statement condemning evidence-seeking.

Nat // Posted 01 September 2011 at 09:35

Hi Sebastian,

I totally get what you're saying and I'm sorry. I had to halve the original length of this piece for inclusion on here, and I've obviously lost some of the tone. The original piece says:

"Newsflash: I don't choose who I like based on the fact that we share the same reproductive organs! Radical, I know, but hear me out - just because a woman is a woman does not mean she is a feminist. If all she is doing opposes everything I stand for, I will not support her. Much like I wouldn't not support someone purely because he is male. It's completely idiotic. "HEY LADIES. I know Michelle Bachmann wants you to be submissive to your husbands, take away your right to bodily autonomy, demonise you if you end up as a single mother and doesn't even believe in homosexuality, you should totes support her, because she has a vagina! That makes her a feminist!". Just... NO."

I also included this caveat at the end (pre-publication!):

"N.B. I am aware that I have approached this post from a cis-normative point of view, and I'm sorry. This is because these arguments are usually approached this way. I have also seen these arguments used on trans* activist blogs, and feel they may be read similarly from both approaches. I haven't forgotten"

My point was supposed to be that vagina =/= woman =/= feminist. I'm sorry if my hasty editing (or crap writing) lost that nuance, and I hope this clears things up.

Also, I'd like to thank you for calling me out on this, because although I try my damndest to be a good ally, sometimes I fuck up, and once again, I'm sorry if anyone felt excluded because of this.

Nat x

Jennifer Drew // Posted 01 September 2011 at 10:40

Already claims are being made that feminists must always 'prove' statements they make. Proves once again challenging male supremacy is seen as heresy because default human is male. For example herstory proves that it is men who are the ones who have committed and continue to commit violence against women but no this fact continues to be claimed as 'lies concocted by those nasty man-hating women' because women supposedly commit violence against men in equal numbers if not greater numbers.

glitterary // Posted 01 September 2011 at 11:29

I've just recently had a bit of a think about the Tone Argument, following being accused of it. I had written a comment on a blog without knowing about the larger argument surrounding an issue, and instead of pointing me to resources which would help me understand, a commenter interpreted my comment as a purposeful and misogynistic derail and responded very aggressively. Because she still hadn't explained the context, I asked her to be less aggressive; if she'd given me a link to an appropriate discussion instead, I would have immediately apologised and read up before continuing the conversation.

And this is where I think perhaps we should be careful about the Tone Argument. I've identified as a feminist for long enough now that I know that sometimes you've got to shut up and listen, and this really, really upset me. If I'd been a teenage girl who'd just discovered feminism, I might have written a similar comment and that response would have chased me out of the feminist blogosphere forever. If I'd been a man who was only just realising he didn't know much about women's experience, the same thing could have happened and I'd have left thinking, Sod those feminists; they're crazy and over-sensitive.

It would be appropriate to tell both those people, and myself, to go educate themselves before contributing to the discussion. But if we want feminist spaces to be a place where people can learn, they need to be places where people are assumed to be present because they don't understand everything yet, not because they're trolling. Otherwise we are shooting ourselves horrendously in the foot; no-one, women or men, will stay to learn in a place they've only just discovered when rookie mistakes get them screamed at. We don't need to respond to stupid points with caring, long-winded explanations; a direction to a relevant site or discussion is enough. But I think there should be one comment's grace period in which ignorance rather than malice is assumed, so we don't scare off potential allies.

Jennifer McMahon // Posted 01 September 2011 at 13:37

@Troika21

As a fellow sceptic I agree with you about backing up assertions with evidence and that this is an important tool in recognising what is simply common "wisdom" and what is truth.

However, I often find that being asked to "prove it" during arguments regarding feminism (say, being asked to prove the low rape conviction rape, for example) usually has little to do with asking for evidence but is rather being used as a derailing tactic. I don't think Nat was blanket condemning evidence-seeking, but rather condemning those who use it to stop or disrupt a conversation.

It is easy to search out the statistics that women are paid less than men; those that ask you to "prove it" are not looking for evidence, they are attempting to stop you talking about the issue by side-tracking you into an argument about whether there is an issue AT ALL. It can be very tiring to have to argue the need for feminist action over and over and over again because someone is demanding that you prove there is a problem before you can go on to talk about solutions!

Troika21 // Posted 01 September 2011 at 14:18

Jennifer, I presume your refering to my comment. And,as I'm sure you can see from my comment, I accept that some things, as the writer says, are common knowledge.

But, as a general rule, simply asserting something is not good enought to get people to accept it as true. Nor did I claim that everything that was said by feminists was untrue, as you seem to be implying.

I simply felt that Ms. Dzerins was advocating a blanket statement that amounted to trying to make the assertions of feminists automatically true.

Li // Posted 01 September 2011 at 20:06

@Troika21

I don't think you're really getting what's being discussed here. There's no reason why you should have to accept anything someone says just because they are a feminist. But even i you don't accept them, the burden is on you to do at least some of the work in checking assertions. "Hey, so I tried to find some sources backing up your assertion that [insert assertion here], but I couldn't find any/those I found seemed to contradict it. Do you have a link to any sources that back that up?" is not derailing. "Having done no research of my own I am going to demand that you do additional labour in providing evidence that fits certain criteria (where criteria will be almost inevitably moving to disqualify anything you provide me) before I am willing to listen to you or allow you to continue with your discussion without my spamming you with accusations of bad faith and incompetence" is derailing.

Note that again, there is no requirement for anyone to believe anything anyone says. But demands that feminists repeatedly do the work of providing documentation for phenomena that are already very heavily and publically documented is 1. a derailing tactic and 2. frequently a manifestation of men's entitlement to women's labour. You don't believe someone? Do your own damn google search.

Jennifer McMahon // Posted 01 September 2011 at 20:27

@Troika21

I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to imply that you claimed everything said by feminists was untrue! I didn't mean that at all! I meant that I thought Ms. Dzerins was saying that some people use "prove it" as an attempt to derail discussions even when they know something is true; not that evidence in itself is unneeded. I hope that makes sense!

Troika21 // Posted 01 September 2011 at 23:37

@ Jennifer McMahon, I was refering to the comment made by Jennifer Drew. Not to your comment which I felt was thoughtful and interesting.

I'm sure as you know from being a sceptic, what is being argued over today are quacks, psychics and conspiracy theorists - same as ten years ago, same as fifty years ago. But sadly, the same arguements have to be made again and again, I don't think that this is because people are stupid, but because each generation will need to re-learn something, and of course, there will always be someone new, who does not know - not angry, not stupid, just unaware. Putting them on the right path requires a little patience and repetition.

sian norris // Posted 02 September 2011 at 14:04

As the blogger who Nat's piece was written in response too, i thought i'd drop a word in!

What happened recently on my blog was i mentioned the 1 in 3 women globally sexually assaulted and beated stat, and the low UK conviction rate stat. Because i was rushing, and because i know that most readers of my blog know the figures and know that i have cited them in other posts, i didn't link or cite the BCS report.

The first comment on my blog wrote in response that my argument was weak because i had not cited the stats and that actually, all rape accusations could be false seeing as i wasn't backing things up with evidence. Which rather snapped my temper! When i provided the links, he continually repeated how not giving them in the first place had undermined my entire argument. He then proceeded to do everything Nat says in her post!

So i think what's important is - as jennifer mcmahon said - that there's a difference between being asked to 'prove it' aggressively and then refusing to engage with the evidence when it's presented, and actually being helpful or open to discussion. I think people forget that actually most bloggers are, you know, people who aren't paid or blogging for any fame or fortune, we just write because we like it and whilst we welcome debate and comment, it needs to be respectful and engaged, not aggressive, or unjustly critical.

The blogpost ended up with 88 comments, i reckon about 55 of them said the same thing over and over again! :-)

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