Calling yourself a feminist if you’re not a woman seems odd to some people. It can seem even more odd if you’re male, white, straight and middle class, the only members of society not to fit into an identity movement and therefore the ones least expected to support an identity movement. To the minds of some, calling yourself a feminist if you’re not a woman is a denial of truth, because to them ‘self’ (or ‘selfishness’) and ‘other’ are two entirely separate things that do not correlate. What other people do has nothing to do with you, and vice versa. Therefore to claim that you care for other people, such as through the lens of feminism, is a denial of your inherent selfishness, which neither cares for nor so much as coincides with others.
We live in an age of selfish individualism, made to believe that ‘vice is a virtue’ and sheer egotism is the only ‘genuine’ way to live. It might therefore seem logical for the dominant male class to dislike feminism, because we’ve had it drilled into us that human beings want nothing but power for themselves. We have been told that helping others is not only wrong, but unnatural: hence the prevalence of Richard Dawkins’ ‘The Selfish Gene’ in modern political discourse.
So why should I, as a member of the straight, white, male middle classes, call myself a feminist? Is it because I’m an egotist wanting to pose as a social justice warrior? Or because I can’t see that all feminists are man-hating fanatics? Or is it because I am genuinely selfless?
The answer, funnily enough, is the precise opposite of all these things. I am a feminist because I am selfish.
What we do not acknowledge in political conversations about human nature is that there are two kinds of selfishness: selfish selfishness and selfless selfishness. The first kind tends to attract people who believe that human behaviour is determined mostly from birth – biological determinists, those who favour nature over nurture. It results naturally from believing that the environment we’re born into is largely irrelevant, because human nature is innate and our behaviour unchangeable. As such it makes sense to only be concerned with yourself because other people cannot be altered by what goes on around them. ‘Best just to leave them alone – trying to help will only weigh you down.’
Selfless selfishness, on the other hand, is the kind that understands that human relationships are inter-relational; that is to say that the way one person behaves to another will condition the way they behave back. If, for example, I am dismissive and condescending to you all the time, you will probably get angry at me and we will have a bad relationship. But if I am always considerate, making sure that you are as happy as you can be, chances are you will do the same back to me and we will both benefit from the relationship.
This is the basis for my being a feminist: that what I am involves what you are. If I look after you then you will look after me, because my happiness is your happiness.
It is plainly obvious that we live in a world in which women and minorities are second-class citizens while the white, male middle classes work a system that was designed for them. Most women experience some form of harassment on a weekly or often daily basis; they often find themselves being talked over, being paid less and, at the extreme end, being victim-blamed for crimes like rape. They face a media onslaught about how they ought to look, how they ought to behave and how they ought to treat men. Mentalhealth.org says women are more likely than men to have a mental health disorder, and twice as likely to suffer from anxiety.
And the thing is of course that men suffer from many of the same things. Body image issues, mental illness, sexual violence and the immense pressure to ‘man up’ and not address your emotions are all linked to how we see ourselves as men. And these gender problems are not separate. Masculinity and femininity are two halves of the same whole: if you want to change one then you have to change both.
So on the emotional level we can see that it makes sense for you to help out the other gender. But, vitally, it also makes sense on the economic and political level.
In a report entitled ‘Women, Work and the Economy’, the IMF pointed out that gender inequality in the workplace is losing countries money. It claims that closing gender gaps in the labour market would earn the USA an annual extra 5% in GDP, the UAE another 12%, and Egypt a whole 34%. Business In The Community reports that companies in all sectors with the most women on their boards significantly and consistently outperform those with fewer. Similarly, the International Finance Corporation found that better employment for women can contribute to increased productivity and profitability. From there, with more income and financial independence, women can also increase household spending.
And, on the political level, having more women in government will not only come closer to achieving actual representative democracy, but female politicians often prioritise issues that can be overlooked by their male counterparts, which in turn can lead to broader political debate.
The evidence that it is in all our interests to invest in women, the poor and ethnic, sexual and cultural minorities is extremely compelling. It is stone-cold logical for men to be invested in women’s issues because it will solve our problems as well, and exactly the same goes for class, sexuality, race and every other social category under the sun. They all carry their own problems and those problems affect all of us; therefore, if we want to solve our own problems, we must help others solve theirs.
If we want to live in a more efficient, productive and happy society, we need to invest both financially and emotionally in one another. We do not do that through inequality and self-interest; we do it through equality and giving to other people.
The principle is clear: the more you give away, the more you receive.