Rebecca Goldstein gave a really fascinating lecture at the Women in Secularism 2 conference on the subject of “The Mattering Map: Religion, Humanism, and Moral Progress.” It is quite an interesting video in terms of understanding better the feminist psyche. This is Goldstein’s first lecture as a feminist; her first time publicly addressing “the gender issue.” Rebecca Goldstein was awarded the Humanist of the Year award in 2011 by the American Humanist Association so she has recently become a big name in atheism. In her lecture she mixes moral philosophy and human psychology in with standard feminist talking points to give a compelling explanation as to why what is termed “micro aggressions” matter. Even though I disagree with the overall theme of Goldstein’s lecture from the feminist frame of reference she made her argument very well.
The “feminist frame of reference” is the key point here. The feminist frame of reference is itself wrong so that which is derived from the feminist frame of reference is also wrong. What is the feminist frame of reference? That only the masculine sphere matters. That women only have value when they perform as well as men in the masculine sphere and that whenever women do not perform as well as men in the masculine sphere it must be because of “discrimination” and “the oppression of women” because it is unthinkable to think that women are simply not designed to perform as well in the masculine sphere as men are.
Rebecca Goldstein opens her talk with this:
“I’ve probably agonized over this talk more than any other talk in my entire career, which is why I actually wrote it out, which I never do. The source of my agony is this. Do I, for the first time in my life, publicly address the gender issue? My MO [modus operandi] has always been to try to behave as if my being a female doesn’t matter in so far as my professional life is concerned. I write my books, I give my lectures, I pursue and argue my ideas and I behave always as a matter of principle, and probably cowardice, as if my being female doesn’t matter. I try to behave as if the world is the way I know it isn’t in the hopes that my behaving as if it were will help, a little bit, to make it so.
My subject matter has never been determined by my gender. My academic training, my PhD is in philosophy of science, not a particularly female subject, and within philosophy of science I concentrated on physics. Also not particularly a female subject. And even as a novelist, as I do sometimes stray and write novels, I’m often described, or accused is perhaps more apt, of writing “not like a woman” although of course the accusation isn’t put into so many words. It’s never put into so many words. Rather I read such damning praise of my work as it’s being “coldly cerebral.” Doesn’t that make you wanna just run out and buy the book! And I know that my being described in such terms is much to do with my being a female and the unconscious expectations that are in play as soon as a reader, including a critique, knows the gender of an author.”
What I find interesting about this is that Rebecca Goldstein is admitting she has entered into a male dominant and masculine sphere as a woman and yet she is claiming to be “gender neutral” in her presentation style; as if her being a woman doesn’t matter. She is not trying to be “gender neutral” because there is no such thing as being “gender neutral.” Her only choices are to be masculine or feminine and she is trying to present herself in a masculine way so she will be more accepted and approved of in the masculine environment she has chosen to enter into. When critics then point out that her writing is “not like a woman” she gets upset even though her entire purpose in pretending that her gender doesn’t matter is to be “not like a woman” and therefore implicitly more like a man.
Yes, it is a critical comment when a reviewer points out that Goldstein’s writing is “coldly cerebral” and a reviewer has every right to point out such weaknesses in her writing. When Goldstein is criticized for “not writing like a woman” such criticism is perfectly valid because by trying to be masculine Goldstein is depriving her readers of her assumed feminine strengths. She is choosing to be “cold and cerebral” in order to be accepted as a pseudo-man when she could have instead been “warm and intuitive” more in line with her natural strengths as a woman. If a reader is going to read writing written by a woman they are looking for a woman’s perspective, they are not looking for an imitation man trying to be “just as good as a man” in a masculine sphere. By trying to be “just as good as a man” in her writing she deprived her readers of her natural strengths as a woman and is then being justly criticized for this when it is pointed out that her writing is “cold and cerebral” or “not like a woman.”
Furthermore it is wrong for Goldstein to try to impose upon others the fallacy that her being a woman doesn’t matter when in fact it does matter. Just because it is inconvenient for her to be seen as a woman while trying to succeed in a male field that doesn’t mean it is wrong for others to see her as a woman when in fact she is in reality a woman. Just because Rebecca Goldstein finds it advantageous to pretend that her being a woman doesn’t matter that doesn’t impose upon anyone else an obligation to pretend that Rebecca Goldstein being a woman doesn’t matter.
The main theme of Goldstein’s talk was “micro aggressions” and how they harm women’s sense that “they matter.” A concept called the “mattering map” has been developed based on one of Goldstein’s fictional characters in her novels. Goldstein is arguing that “mattering” is important to all human beings, very important, and that “micro aggressions” undermine women’s sense that “they matter.” This then is the basis for strong condemnation of “micro aggressions” against women.
Now what is a “micro aggression” exactly? Referring to “micro aggressions” Rebecca Goldstein said:
The Mattering Map: Religion, Humanism, and Moral Progress
4:53 to 5:38
“Almost to a woman they reported the experience of being in a discussion or at a meeting and saying something that nobody hears. It’s just as if they hadn’t spoken at all until the comment is picked up and repeated by a man and then everybody jerks to attention. You’ve all had the experience. Being unheard when you speak or being interrupted and misconstrued before you’ve had a chance to explain yourself; it’s just not one of life’s greatest experiences. It doesn’t contribute to the sense that one’s life is flourishing especially if the greater part of your life is devoted to pursuing ideas.”
I would characterize “micro aggressions” in another way. Micro aggressions are when men are assumed to have authority, when what men say is taken to be more important, when men are listened to more in conversation. When women are interrupted in what they say and are ignored by others when they make suggestions. This all boils down to men being assumed to be in authority and being objective and intelligent in their judgments.
So the claim that Goldstein is making is that men being assumed to be in authority and competent in leadership related functions leads to women feeling that they “don’t matter” which then is significantly injurious to the woman’s sense of well being and therefore a major harm committed against the woman and a serious offense.
I find Goldstein’s orientation problematic on a number of levels. First of all why are women competing with men for positions of authority in the first place? Secondly why should women expect others to grant them authority as readily as they grant authority to men? Thirdly why would a woman be seeking personal validation in a male sphere where she is obviously at a disadvantage to men because she is operating in a male sphere? Fourthly what about the man’s sense of mattering? It is much more injurious to a man to be displaced from the male sphere than it is for a woman to be displaced from the male sphere? Fifthly why is the woman’s psychological state of mind supposed to be of paramount importance as opposed to the actual contribution or harm caused by the woman’s actions?
This entire idea that women’s “sense of mattering” is undermined when women are not given as much authority as men are or taken as seriously in what they say as men are presupposes that only the masculine sphere matters or is important. Women don’t have to get their sense of identity and sense of purpose from the masculine sphere! In fact it is better in an objective sense when women mostly rely upon the feminine sphere to find their purpose and meaning in life. The feminine sphere matters! A woman doesn’t have to succeed in the masculine sphere to succeed in life. This is the great myth of feminism, that only what men do matters.
Women in Secularism 2
Held May 17 – 19, 2013 in Washington, DC