Thursday, May 14, 2009

That Missionary Zeal

Last Monday, I had the opportunity to speak to Jessica Valenti, author of Full Frontal Feminism (which I discussed in a post several months ago) and co-founder of We read the book in my Women and Gender Studies class, in large part because Valenti was slated to speak at a convocation event in April. We were to listen to her speech, then follow it up with a private lunch where we could ask her questions and engage her in dialogue. Unfortunately, she became ill and had to cancel the event. With the end of the school year rapidly approaching and no time to reschedule, we opted for a phone chat, instead. So, after extensive planning, our large class huddled around an odd contraption for a teleconference.

It started out poorly. None of the students had prepared questions, and there was an awkward silence punctuated by our professor’s whispered, “Does anyone have anything to say to Jessica?” Valenti took pity on us and launched into a spiel about her new book while we worked hard to gather our thoughts. Then the conversation turned lively. Interrupted only by doorbell-ringing and dog-barking at Valenti’s home, we threw a string of questions and comments at her, often causing her to pause and think carefully before responding.

One girl asked her how she handled all of the negative attention she received for her very public feminist work. “I’m in therapy!” came the quick reply, accompanied by not-quite-sincere laughter. “No, seriously, I am. It’s hard…the weekend after my appearance on The Today Show, I received 500 hate mails. Five hundred emails in two days. It’s really difficult to deal with, but there comes a point when you turn to your friends for support and you realize it’s not worth worrying about. You can’t engage these people in dialogue—there’s no point in trying, because they don’t want to hear it. Don’t waste your time and reason arguing with them.”

I mulled this over for a moment, then overcame my shyness and leaned forward to speak. “Then how do you reach those people?” I asked. “The ones who are sending you hate mail—the ones who are so resentful—those are the ones who most need to hear your ‘message,’ right?”

“Well,” she said, “if they’re reading and responding so vehemently, that means they’ve heard your message. Otherwise they wouldn’t be writing at all—in effect, you’ve already reached them.”

This didn’t satisfy me.

But how do you answer that very difficult question?

I have found in my limited experience that even the most close-minded and angry of people will eventually cede somewhat and listen to the point they so strongly detest. Often they’ll consent that their opposition has a point, and if both parties can provide solid evidence to support their claims, they’ll be able to respect one another, agree to disagree, and coexist peacefully. Obviously, this is not always the case—far from it, in fact. I wish more people would be willing to give the method a try, though…the world would be a much more peaceful place.

But the next point is more of a philosophical one. How do we know that our ‘message’ is the right one? Feminism (or sexual equality/ egalitarianism, to use slightly less provocative terms) seems to be intuitive, a no-brainer for so-called progressives and liberals. But what about other topics? I can’t help but be reminded of the missionary mindset—the certainty that one knows the only right answer and has a responsibility, nay, a duty to spread the word and enlighten the poor, uneducated, uninformed masses. The absolute certainty of the superiority of one’s beliefs—it’s a thought that makes me cringe.

Reason, of course, can be employed to determine the validity of an idea, but we should still take care to avoid the trap.

(I apologize for the nonsensical ramblings. I just worked an eight and a half hour day, and I took a nasty final yesterday. That’s my excuse for incoherency.)


Anonymous said...

When one of my college students would make a side remark about femisinist I'd ask the class a series of questions - do they support equal pay for equal work, do they think women should have access to the same education, same rights and protections under th4e law. And as they raised their hands in the affirmative, I'd say, "Then you're all feminists."

Mozart said...

That's the point of Valenti's first chapter. "You're a feminist, I swear," she says.

I certainly sympathize with the movement (especially as a female, how can I not?!) and would identify as a feminist if asked, but I don't find the activist spark burning in me for this particular cause.