Feminism and the Tao

One day in my sitting room, my housemate, leering down at his phone screen, suddenly said: ‘I f*cking hate feminists’.

I’m the only self-identified feminist in a house of seven boys, so if I didn’t ask what had sparked this latest controversy I would really have been letting the side down. He pointed to his phone, on which there was a photo on his facebook news feed. The photo was a professional picture of a girl at a podium, looking rather angry as she read out a speech. The comments were all from girls congratulating this speaker on whatever it was she had spoken about, saying things like, ‘Go M, standing up for women everywhere!’, ‘Finally someone has said it to those b*st*rds’ and ‘If only more men could see this!’. He explained she was a member of a feminist society at another university.

‘I just hate feminists so much,’ my housemate went on. ‘They basically just hate men.’

I tried to assure him of the opposite but he was having none of it. He reeled off several examples he had come across of feminists preaching hate for what he saw as no more than men being men, and left it at that.

Now my housemate and I, great mates though we are, have very different takes on the world. He’s a Tory, I am not; I’m a vegetarian, he is not; he appreciates the complexities of horseracing, I don’t; I like feminism, and he definitely doesn’t. And yet I understand why he doesn’t like feminism – because he thinks it is man-hating.

If you were to ask the majority of feminists what their movement is about, they would tell you it is about gender equality. There is only a very small minority who genuinely believe in female supremacy, and who believe men really are just plain bad. This, to me, is evident. But the thing is that this is not communicated properly, and I’ll give you an example.

Last year the columnist Caitlin Moran wrote a fantastic article for The Times on two of the basic difficulties of being a woman, which are fear of assault and the pay gap. She begins it with the sentences, ‘Here are two big things that men truly don’t understand about women’ and ‘we are scared of what you can do’. She then goes on to explain the statistics for sexual assault and the courage with which women have to face the world.

This was definitely an excellent piece of writing, and a very necessary one. But that’s from my perspective. If my housemate had been reading it, I have no doubt he would have picked up the unintentional suggestion that men are bad and women just have to put up with them. He would have read it as a woman complaining about men.

Modern feminists have got, got, got to understand that if they are to achieve their aim of gender equality, they must win the hearts as well as the minds of the people they are arguing with. Unfortunately it is not good enough just to point out the issues; it must be done in a way that welcomes the perpetrators into the debate. If feminists want to achieve gender equality, they cannot afford to be angry.

Now let me be clear on something. I am deeply conscious of why feminists often come across as angry – I am not for a moment saying we do not have a right to be. When you consider basic injustices like the prevalence of sexual assault or the apparent obliviousness of men to its existence, it is hard not to feel angry. But feeling angry and acting on it are two different things. Let anger be the thing that spurs you into action, but let love be the thing that completes the task.

Feminists say people who turn a blind eye to suffering deserve anger. Better feminists say those people deserve patience. Getting angry at someone is never going to win them to your side, ever. Being patient and inclusive, however, will.

I appreciate that it’s very easy for me, a white, male member of the middle classes, to tell people in harder positions than myself to act with patience rather than anger. But this is such a vital recognition to make on the path to true gender democracy. I have a deep conviction that the meaning of all things is to realise unity, and unity will never be realised if we act in divisive ways.

Consider the Tao, potentially one of the oldest extant feminist philosophies. The central tenet of Taoism is the concept of mutual arising: that is to say, when one thing occurs, it has an immediate polar opposite. So where there is life, there is also death, because you cannot have one without the other. Similarly you cannot have black without white, you cannot have ‘self’ without ‘other’, and you cannot have femininity without masculinity. Although these two opposites appear different, they go together; they are two component parts of a wider totality. They are therefore perfectly measured against each other. ‘Yin’, the female component, must be exactly commensurate to ‘yang’, the male component. They rely on each other; they change together; they are, ultimately, the same.

If this sounds a little too abstract, I can bring it home by saying this: if we want our concept of femininity to change, we must also change masculinity. If we want one side to improve, then we must reconcile it with the other side. If we want women to improve their standing in society then they must be on the side of men, and vice versa – and vitally, they must make it obvious that they are on the side of men! Only then will my housemate look at his phone and see a picture of a feminist and say, ‘I like feminists’.

So there’s no point in femininity trying to shout down masculinity, or trying to blame all its faults on masculinity, or even just pointing out the problems without making it clear whose side it is on. It is sheer folly for one gender to try and exercise power over the other – both must strive for unity, and it is feminists who have to take the lead in this.

We need to show that gender equality will be good for both sides – because, really, they are the same.

As Alan Watts, a major Western interpreter of Eastern philosophies, said of people who misunderstand the principle of the Tao: ‘a magnet polarises itself in north and south, but it’s all one magnet… If you try to make the north pole get the mastery of the south pole, or the south get the mastery of the north, you show you don’t know what’s going on!’

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