“No battle for equality has ever been won by alienating good people.”
-Stephen Knight on his Godless Spellchecker blog
In the blog post linked above, Stephen Knight details a Twitter exchange with Mona Eltahawy, a feminist activist and writer working primarily on Arab/Muslim issues. In their exchange, Mona asserts that women should be the ones leading the fight for women’s rights. She further suggests that men should “[…] shut up and listen to women about women’s rights. Women lead feminism. Not men.”
I find this argument problematic. Full disclosure: I’m a white male, so if you’re the sort who thinks my race or genitalia automatically disqualifies me from having a worthwhile opinion on women’s issues then you can save yourself some time and browse elsewhere. (I highly recommend Sarah Haider’s presentation on Islam and the Necessity of a Liberal Critique at the American Humanist Association last year.)
Ok. Now I’ll certainly admit that Twitter, with its 140 character length limit, is hardly the place to have careful reasoned discussions about complex topics. And were I a part of this discussion, I would have done my best to charitably interpret Mona’s comment. Perhaps she wasn’t intending to completely discount male contributions to feminism? Perhaps she really meant to just say that men should simply do more listening? If so, I think she’d be right. Far too many dudes go about their lives far too ignorant of what it’s like to live as a woman in their culture. We do need to listen more.
Unfortunately, when questioned by multiple folks, Ms. Eltahawy doubled down and resorted to criticizing the identity and motives of those questioning her argument. She even went so far as to very negatively generalize and disassociate herself from ex-Muslims, suggesting that too many of them have allied with “right wing, racist shits.”
This is really a case study in how not to defend your position. Recognizing and avoiding these kinds of abusive or “guilt by association” ad hominem arguments is one of the first things you learn in any introductory philosophy or rhetoric course. And if you’re still reading, it seems safe to assume that you see the problem with arguing that the value of a person’s ideas or contribution is determined by their genitals, race, religion, hair color, favorite food, etc… (We have a word for that kind of thinking)
Typically, I only see this kind of logical fallacy employed when someone is embarrassed at the lack of reasons available to support their argument and wants to try to save face. That seems very likely to be the case here for Ms. Eltahawy, though I’ll add the caveat that I’m no mind reader.
But what’s most frustrating in all this is that Mona Eltahawy, Stephen Knight, and Ex-Muslims in general are natural allies on a host of issues, not the least of which are gender equality, religious freedom, and the right to live without someone else’s religious beliefs being imposed upon you. They certainly don’t agree on everything (who does?), but it seems an utter waste of pooled resources to alienate someone like Stephen or all Ex-Muslims just to save face. Liberals can, and should, do better than this.