I went to a hilariously misguided forum on 'grievance feminism'

Christina Hoff Sommers

Christina Hoff Sommers

On Tuesday, the Centre for Independent Studies hosted a forum on 'Grievance Feminism' and why it's allegedly a threat to "serious feminist and humanitarian issues". Panelists included journalist Janet Albrechtsen, "omniexpert" Brendan O'Neill, UK academic Andrea den Boer and author Christina Hoff Sommers.    

Probably the best moment of the  panel was when Sommers, a Gamergate supporter who has been at war with feminism for over two decades, claimed that when she spoke at Oberlin, a liberal arts university in Ohio, she "triggered a dog" who had to go into a "safe room" with its owner and 30 other triggered students.

'Fainting couch feminism', she said, leads young, privileged students to complain that she "gives them PTSD or something" and these complaints and protests represent an infringement of her right to free speech.

Though Sommers' turn at the microphone was by far the funniest, the same aggrieved and reactionary tone was replicated throughout the event. Janet Albrechtsen put her public speaking gifts to good use by making trigger warning, safe space and feminist Jazz Hands jokes within the first minute. With speed, erudition and considerable charm, she  covered off all the familiar dot points like feminists have forgotten about freedom; social media mobs; Julia Gillard is bad, and so on.

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Brendan O'Neill, by comparison, was far less impressive, especially given his clownish contrarian persona. I can barely recall what he said, but my notes inform me he also believes modern feminism to be a dangerous repudiation of the liberal politics that have shaped society. "Feminism is an attack on Enlightenment values," he says in the most sombre tones. "Feminism sees women as weak victims, requiring protection from the harsh truths of the public sphere."

You can see the thread here. Committed at a fundamental level to the half-understood philosophical concepts the speakers vaguely remember from first-year tutorials, they speak with a force unwarranted by their thin and embarrassing knowledge of the issues at play. It's no wonder Sommers is so oversensitive to colourful college politics: those naive kids, thrumming with outrage, are operating on the same level she is.

The basic thrust of the discussion through the night seems to be that feminism, at some point in the past, embraced the mainstream (small-l ) liberal view of freedom, but sometime since Andrea Dworkin showed up in her overalls to complain about porn, it's all gone wrong and we've become censorious harridans who mince little boys for food and hate sex.

Again, I just can't help but laugh. None of the panellists seem to have read beyond, or indeed prior to, the basic texts of the Enlightenment.

 Brendan O'Neill argues because modern feminists speak about ways in which the public sphere is hostile to women, and seek redress for those hostilities, we demonstrate contempt for women. (In other words: Feminists point out ways in which women are harmed by unwelcoming and abusive practices like catcalling, sexual harassment etc; therefore, feminists think women are weak and stupid.) This is a remarkably sclerotic position that ignores socially produced disadvantage. 

What he, Albrechtsen and Sommers all fail to understand is that feminists, or me, at least, do not believe that pointing out the ways in which our political status quo reduces women's capacities is somehow an insult to women. I believe, more than them, I think, that women are just as strong, resilient, and intelligent as men: the difference is that women must contend with a range of oppressive and dangerous forces that influence our psychology, relationships, careers, personal safety, and ultimately our ability to participate as full adults in society.

Women have it much harder than men, in short. Starting from a relatively equal baseline of potential and capacities, women are worn down each and every day in a way that men are not. If men were subjected to these forces, I have no doubt they would react in similar ways.

The flaw in the panelists' argument emerges here: if, as we all seem to agree, women have collectively organised against forces we perceive as oppressive, one of two situations must be true. Either you believe women and men are fundamentally equal, and women's political action is a rational reaction to existing forces of oppression; or you think women are lying bitches who make shit up, or else are so weak and frail that we can't handle a public sphere that treats us the same as men.

This is why I find the CIS guests' "actually I think you'll find it's you who is the oppressor" tactics so droll: anyone who's actually thought about this beyond Baby's First John Stuart Mill pop-up book realises that the issue is far more complex than three-word slogans can handle.

The interplay of public discourse, insidious social sexism and understated political philosophising is difficult terrain. But still I am disappointed in Albrechtsen especially, who could be putting her massive brain to use on something other than the political equivalent of a snotty kid screaming I KNOW YOU ARE BUT WHAT AM I as they're dragged away to detention at the end of recess.

On the way out of the panel I picked up a single Cheezel, an odd snack choice for an event held on the 10th floor of the Macquarie building in Martin Place. As I got into the lift a male guest invited me to enter ahead of him, which I did, with what I hope was a polite smile.