Kate Cohen and the casual condescension of radical feminists

Yesterday I critiqued Kate Cohen’s recent piece in The Washington Post, Sorry, but these choices aren’t ‘feminist.’ They’re sexist. on substantive grounds.

It isn’t specific choices that make women feminists; it is the conviction that choices should be made BY them, not FOR them. It’s anti-feminist for women to knuckle under to specific choices prescribed by patriarchal societies but it is EQUALLY anti-feminist for women to knuckle under to specific choices prescribed by other feminists.

However the fundamental ugliness of the piece isn’t that it is substantively incorrect. It’s the casual condescension of radical feminists like Kate Cohen, a condescension that grievously harms the entire feminist cause. How? By accusing women, including other feminists, of false consciousness.

False consciousness typically refers to political beliefs. According to Dictionary.com, false consciousness is:

… a Marxist theory that people are unable to see things, especially exploitation, oppression, and social relations, as they really are; the hypothesized inability of the human mind to develop a sophisticated awareness of how it is developed and shaped by circumstances.

For example, Marxists insisted that working people who opposed Communism suffered from false consciousness. That inevitably led to the conclusion that the opinions of anti-Communists could be ingnored and that Marxists’ opinions were more valuable than those of people who opposed them.

Cohen insists that women who make feminine choices are unable to see things as they really are. They lack the sophisticated awareness that Cohen flatters herself in imagining that she has but the rest of us lack.

Cohen smugly declares:

Some argue that what matters is how a woman feels, not what she does. “The non-feminist likely shaves because she feels that she has to for others,” explains one blogger, “while the feminist will shave because she wants to do it for herself.”

Goodness, no. The feminist knows that the reasons she wants to shave are deeply compromised — and that as long as men aren’t expected to do it, doing it for yourself is an illusion.

It’s hard to imagine anything more harmful to a cause than the condescension of its followers.

As political theorist Steve Cook explains in ‘Why calling “False Consciousness”’ is dangerous and unreasonable:

The moment that someone believes that another agent suffers from false consciousness, then they risk denying the equality of citizens. If someone believes that another suffers from false consciousness, then they can discount any reasons the other gives. The agent believes that they have special access to the truth, which others do not. Once you have special access to the truth … then your reasons automatically count and another’s can automatically be discounted…

Is it any wonder that many contemporary women reject feminism when radical feminists like Cohen insist that their choices — like the choices to wear makeup, shave their legs or change their surname on marriage — aren’t merely wrong, they mark the women who make those choices as both unsophisticated and easily manipulated?

And the best part for Cohen is she needn’t disdain to consider those who disagree.

As Cook notes:

The only way to prove that you don’t suffer from false consciousness is to wholeheartedly agree with the one who believes that you suffer from it. Effectively, you are regarded as fallible, and they as infallible. This kind of thinking can easily provide a justification for them to impose their will upon you…

I have a tip for radical feminists like Cohen:

If your feminism allows you to denigrate women who make choices different from yours, it’s not feminism; it’s condescension … and it’s both ugly and unjustified.