Sunday, 20 March 2011

Anecdotal evidence: why we still need feminism

A column from a couple weeks ago, Lucy Mangan's The feminist fight is not over yet, and especially the criticism in some of the comments that it is all anecdotal and therefore meaningless, has clearly been percolating in the back of my mind since. I've heard more instances than I can count of similar, purely anecdotal, stories—on Twitter, overheard on commuter trains, from friends, in the news—that support my original reaction that the power of these anecdotal stories is precisely their representativeness, that we don't find them surprising. They're anecdotal, but they're not one-offs. This makes anecdotes powerful tools of argument in a way that an anomaly isn't; a two headed-lamb isn't an argument for anything, since it's unique or vanishingly rare—something that surprises no one is a powerful anecdote because it isn't rare. It's not a statistic, but it's a digestible instance of a bigger truth.

Arbitrarily I'll take Mangan's five examples and argue why I think they're representative, anecdotal or not.
  1. 15 year-old wolf-whistled: if this were a one-off, it would be upsetting and obnoxious, but it wouldn't be an argument for awareness-raising or the need for social change. But it isn't. I've heard so many stories recently (and forever) of women saying how unsurprised they are by street harassment (physical as well as verbal), that it's a daily occurrence, that the first time it happened to them they were 12; and seen people harass others online, on the train, in the workplace, that's it's hard to believe some people are still surprised when they learn things like this happen. Objectification and harassment, and the fear of it, is a daily fact of many people's lives, and it. Shouldn't. Be.
  2. Berlusconi: this might look dangerously like a two-headed lamb, but do you really not know anybody who has said, "So he slept with a teen call-girl, so he's a red-blooded male..."?
  3. Funny porn: this is already not really anecdotal, since the argument relies on large numbers of instances to start with, but there is a point here about (a) the nature of pornography (women inserting ridiculous objects in various orifices is not in any meaningful way an erotic display), (b) the lack of judgement of men in sharing such images and (by extension) their own interest in the source of such images, without wondering whom it might offend, or disgust, or trigger a traumatic memory, and (c) the casual and socially acceptable objectification of the female body in popular culture.
  4. Top Gear: again, everyone knows that the two-headed lambs that are the presenters of this repugnant show are pathetic, popularizing throwbacks, so why quote them and pretend to be shocked? I'd be a lot less shocked by their puerile nonsense if it weren't spouted on network television to a huge popular audience that admires their iconoclastic "outspokenness" and laddish "naughtiness".
  5. Casual domestic violence: the sad thing about this story is not that one man somewhere was physically cruel and disrespectful to his partner one time (and that she accepted it as unpleasant but apparently unremarkable), but that (i) he did this in a public place, with apparently no expectation that anybody would object to his treating his partner like chattel, in a way it's no longer acceptable to treat a child or an employee; (ii) that more than one woman present on the train had the same thought, that this was horrific treatment, that they recognised the pattern of abuse it foreshadowed, and were clearly personally touched by it; (iii) that nobody present felt able to say or do anything about it (and even a commenter on the Guardian blog felt the need to protest, "how dare you presume to know what this means in the context of their relationship?"), as if public violence suddenly becomes acceptable so long as it's performed by a man upon a woman of his house.
The fact that these five classes of sexist behaviour and attitude exist in our society are all arguments—not the only arguments, and not the strongest arguments, but arguments nevertheless—that feminism's work is not done, that we all, women and men alike, need to work for a more respectful and egalitarian society.

(Sadly comments on Mangan's column are now closed, but I've used rev="comment" microformat attributes in my links above to make this response discoverable.)

No comments: