28 January 2011

Theory on Theories

I have been trying to wrestle this post into submission for a while, and then I read a book that provided the perfect example of my point. I think this is still pretty much a jumbled mess of ideas that sound pretty good in my head, but it is heading towards something cogent. The book was Big Girls Don't Cry by Fay Weldon. How I have not read her stuff before is a mystery to me. She writes about women, and men, with such insight and scathing (yet humorous) satire…truly extraordinary. This particular book tracked the lives of a handful of women as they run a publishing company devoted to women. The company, the women and the feminist theory itself changes over the years and the narrative of these women not only tracks their stories, but provides a window into how extremism in theory can do much more harm than good.

The idea that taking any theory to extremes can cause more harm than good is exactly the point I have been trying to make in several drafts of this post. I have a theory about social theories. Basically, it all starts when something in society sucks, so people start a movement to change it and the movement eventually gets shortened down to a basic principle (a bumper-sticker message if you will…check out this post at a Moment to Think for a great look at how that evolves and its impact). Once that short and sweet message is out there it is easy to find a group of people who cling to it as if it were the only right choice in the world (love of a life-mantra is horrible millennial trait, but more on that one later) and now fanaticism is born. The idea of social change is lost and human nature makes it into yet another battle of "right" and "wrong." Apply it to anything and it seems to hold true. The original premise of humanism becomes lost as the culture embraces the idea in the name of righteousness.

Side note: This is why I dislike the term "feminism." Not in a "dowdy housewife who thinks this new-fangled feminism is only for spinsters, lesbians and women who don't know how good they have it with a nice man" kind of way, but in a "the word feminism itself denotes the exact kind of gender specific linguistics that everyone should be avoiding, can't you see what a parody of yourself you are" kind of way. I prefer humanism. Granted, I can say these things as a member of the late waves of the movement where women before me fought for my right to make my own choices, but none the less, it is about everyone being equal with equal choices. Not about women being better than men. Equal. Just roll that idea around in your head for bit. This is not "girl rule, boys drool" this is "gender shouldn't matter." I still use the term because it is theoretically synonymous with "equality" and "humanism," but it still bugs me on some level.

Anyway, back to the point at hand. While the book traces this progression through the feminist movement, illustrating beautifully how real progress can be lost in extremist rhetoric, I think it has never been better illustrated than in the classic hot button issues of parenting. Think about it. Natural childbirth, breastfeeding, parenting styles, educational methods…all of these came to light when people realized that something needed to be done to make life better for women, children and families. However, the nice idea of "choice vs. whatever the usually misguided institution was telling us" soon morphed into there being only one right choice. Now instead of rejoicing that we live in a society where c-sections save lives, medical technology means healthy outcomes for many, formula is far from perfect but certainly an acceptable substitute because you have the freedom of that choice and so on, we are blasted with militant messages that we are never good enough. It is all the same messages of there being only one correct choice, but a different source for that derision. Is any of this really helping anymore? See also: the green movement, gifted children, non-mainstream schooling, any political group…you get the idea.

The end game here is that social movements are great, but they straddle a fine line between progress and a new dictatorship of ideals. At the heart of the issue is that people need to think a bit more. Don't take the messages at face value. The same human nature that causes us to turn everything into a quest for being "right" makes us highly susceptible to those "easy" messages. Be it feminism, parenting, politics, religion or whatever, maybe we need to look past the bumper stickers and take a long hard look at what we really hope to accomplish. Also, read Big Girls Don't Cry, it was great.