On Feminism, Things, Virtue, and Power

“Is ______ a Feminist?”

It seems to be a persistent question whether some prominent female celebrity can truly be considered a feminist: Ivanka Trump, Emma WatsonBeyonce, some Kardashian. I usually do not care about the answer to this question (for the most part), but I am very interested in why people ask it and how people try to answer it.

For example, when  Emma Watson was “accused of going against her feminist values” by posing with her breasts partially exposed in her cover shoot for Vanity Fair, She was “quietly stunned” that this controversy arose. So was I. I have not been a particular fan of the school of thought that has become Feminism. (Depending on the circumstance, the word is defined either so broadly that I have never met anyone in my life who is not a feminist, or so narrowly that only young, atheistic, radically pro-abortion, and hyper-progressive liberals who write about vaginas are.) 

However, since Feminism is widely deemed praiseworthy, and since even Emma Watson, a UN goodwill ambassador for women and girls, can be caught in the crosshairs of critics for her transgressions of Feminism, I think this is an excellent case study to explore exactly how this confusion came about and perhaps shed some light.

Things are Just Things 

Before we examine this subject, I must lay down the ground rules. I will do this with some abstract questions and answers.

Is strength something worthy of praise? Well, sort of yes. Complimenting someone on their “strength” is completely understandable, and lacking strength is not necessarily a good thing. Since compliments are like small praises, it seems we’re getting somewhere. But there still seems to be something inherently bad in my gut about saying that “having strength” is praiseworthy. Didn’t we learn that “Might makes right” is bad?

A better explanation is that “strength,” just like many other things — like success in business, wealth, athleticism, beauty, knowledge — these are just “things.” They are not good things. They are not bad things. They are just things. Having them is good, because it’s better to have something than not, but not having them is not bad. Saying “strength” is bad is like saying a hammer is bad. A hammer increases the ability of someone. This hammer can bash someone’s head in. But it can also build a house. The real thing that makes a “strong” thing (or a “wealthy” thing or a “productive” thing, etc.) either good or bad is how it is used.

What we have named — strength, wealth, productivity– are characteristics and abilities, not virtues. In this basic form, they do not constitute anything “good” or “bad,” in a moral sense. They hold only the ability to magnify the underlying “goodness” or “badness” that is already there. Summarizing C.S. Lewis, a rock can be good or bad, but not very good or very bad. Mankind has faculties that allow him to be extremely good or extremely bad. A superhuman spirit? All the more.

“Things” can be praised. There is nothing wrong with that. But you need something more to be praiseworthy.

Virtues form Worth 

The real measure of goodness and badness is not a measure of characteristics like “strength,” “beauty,” or “productivity.” Instead, Virtue fills that void. And virtues have been long forgotten.

Plato in The Republic gave four main virtues, and he got these from his three main parts of a human. Prudence/Temperance is the first, which is when the appetites of your stomach/body like hunger, sleep, and sexual desire, are properly indulged, not overly gratified. The second is Courage, which is when your passions of the heart, like your anger, love, and spirit, are rightly governed. The third virtue is Wisdom, where your mind’s faculties, its wisdom, contemplation, and logic, are rightly ordered (which is vastly different than merely its capacity being filled). The final virtue is Justice, which is achieved to the degree that all of these virtues are present in an individual or society. Justice is the virtue of all things working together as they should.

Aristotle more thoroughly spoke on virtues. He was both different and similar. Aristotle’s explanation showed that any virtue is a “golden mean” (an average) between two extreme vices on either end of that subject. And we can find this mean through experience. Therefore, a virtue like “Courage” is the perfect average between the vices of an inactive and weak cowardice on one hand, and a reckless rashness on the other. His work “Ethics” chronicles such “golden means” as courage, temperance, liberality, magnificence, magnanimity, pride, patience, truthfulness, wittiness, friendliness, and righteous indignation, along with their corresponding excesses and deficiencies.

In Christian thought, borrowing from the ancients and also being quite innovative from scriptures, too, has three theological virtues — faith, hope, and love/charity — and four cardinal virtues — prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude — whose contrasts are the well known seven deadly sins: pridegreedlustenvygluttonywrath, and sloth. A host of other virtues — generosity, piety, kindness, humility, peace, patience — also exist beside these.

Notice that the lists are different. If you read up, you can see that different approaches arise from different views of human nature and cosmic order. For this reason one virtue, “humility,” for example, may contrast with another list’s virtue “magnanimity.” It makes for an interesting discussion on how exactly to be the best person.

But the good news is no matter which way one goes, one is thinking rightly about being a good person. How do you encourage one to attain the Aristotelian virtue of “truthfulness?” Is someone naturally inclined to speak about his abilities and claim that he is able to overcome any obstacle? Well, then, he probably needs to be pushed in the direction of humility and towards the vice of “understatement.” Is someone naturally inclined to underestimate his abilities and think himself unable to do any task? Well, then he probably needs to be pushed in the direction of confidence and towards the vice of “boastfulness.”

The beauty of virtue is that it is impossible to have “too much” of it. Even if we say that someone is “too loving,” what we really mean is that they might be too affectionate when true love, wishing the good of the other person, requires that they be a little judgmental: “tough love.” We may say that someone is “too patient,” but what we really mean is that, rather than being on the much-more-common side of vice — impatient — he falls on the side that it so uncommon that we struggle to think of a word for it. (Aristotle’s translated word is “unirascibility” which does not exactly exist in English.) Our language has lost the ability to communicate the idea. Sad!

To the modern us, the opposite of a vice (impatience) is a virtue (patience). However, under a different and older way of thinking, the opposite of a vice (impatience) is another vice (unirrasciability), with the virtue in the middle. The opposite of that virtue? Well, maybe it is another virtue (righteous indignation?). Good question. If our thought were sufficient enough, we might be able to debate this.

“Things” may invite praise, but Virtues are the characteristics that are actually praiseworthy.

We may praise people for the possession of “things” like strength, but virtue is the thing that is actually praiseworthy. It is impossible to have too much virtue.

When we praise someone for “courage,” we do not merely praise for “fearlessness” alone. There is an unspoken virtue assumed, but never spoken. When this unspoken virtue is forgotten, people get angry, leaving the forgetful confused as to what the problem is. Don’t believe me? Just ask Bill Maher. “Fearlessness” is just a thing. “Courage” is a virtue.

The Important Difference

Fearlessness is usually perfectly fine and admirable. But fearlessness and wrath together are a terror. It may be alright to feed one’s appetite for food or sex, but one can feed these appetites too much or in the wrong way. One may be naturally hard working and “productive,” and another may be naturally “lazy.” Depending on which way one is, that is what determines which way one must be pushed. It is Virtue tha shows us where to go.

Virtue is the measure of all things.

Distinguishing between Virtues and Things

So, let us return to the original example of Emma Watson. She was accused of not being “feminist” because of the way she showed off the beauty of her body in a magazine. 

Before I criticize the way that we measure Emma Watson against “feminism,” let me ask a question. In fact, let me ask several. 

What is “Feminism”? Is it a virtue? Is it a thing? Is it a vice? Is it an incorrectly valued virtue? Is there a virtue out there in the ether, and “Feminism” is the direction we should push our society? 

What is beauty? Is it a virtue? Is it a thing? Is beauty distinct from physical beauty? Is that a virtue? Is that a thing? If it is a thing, how does one use it in a way that pursues virtue? How does one use it as a way that leads to vice? 

If I may be so bold, let me say Feminism is not a virtue. It is a characteristic, a thing. It is a direction individuals would like to push society. It is one of the sides that, on its extremes, is a vice, but in the “golden mean” is the virtue of “Justice.” Where all things work together as they should. 

Likewise, “beauty” is a virtue, just like “courage,” but it is not the same as “physical beauty,” which is a thing like “fearlessness.” Like “strength,” beauty can be praised, and it can be unapologetically pursued. However, like strength, physical beauty can be wrongly used and dangerously valued. It is dangerous when it becomes our object of worship.

When a Thing is Valued as a Virtue.

Far be it from me to decide for Emma Watson whether or not she should have posed somewhat topless for Vanity Fair. I am no woman, and I am no father. I do not know the answer to how a young and physically beautiful woman should use her physical beauty (and a bit of photoshop) to achieve the virtue of true beauty. I may have an opinion, but I am not so stupid to put it here. All I ask is that the question about virtue be considered by those who are in a position to answer it. All I ask is that people understand the value of virtue, think about it deeply, and seek to achieve it. 

I ask because there are serious dangers for those who do not pay attention.

Feminism as a Different Thing, Which is Our Collectively Pursued False Virtue

There is a great disappointment for me in all of these questions about whether Emma Watson, Ivanka Trump, Kim Kardashian, Beyoncé, or anybody else is a Feminist. The disappointment I see is not that Feminism is some modern “bad thing” and therefore must be disliked. In fact, Feminism is quite  amorphously defined, and therefore a very difficult thing to call “bad” in any complete sense. The issue is something else entirely. The problem is see with Feminism is not so much that it is a “thing,” but that it is a stand-in for a different thing that is treated as a virtue. 

The more I look, the more I find that Feminism is another word for “Power.” 

Our society’s universally pursued virtue is Power. We seek power. We love power. We value power. We do not see any way that we can have too much power. Oh, surely someone else can have too much power. That is unquestioned. But the solution to their vice of power is the solution of “us” gaining that power. The power may move around, but it is never collectively diminished.

So men occupy the spaces of power in corporate America? Women often do not and often occupy certain job markets, many of which are specifically designed to balance time with family? Apparently this is bad. So what is the solution? Change how we value leadership in corporate America? Value family more? Maybe. But the biggest feminist push seems to be to get women into the power of corporate America. Is that a good thing? I don’t know, personally. After all, it’s merely a thing. 

Some Feminists see the disturbingly dehumanized tales that pornography tells about women with sex. What is their solution when the powerfully ubiquitous forces in our culture push that narrative in our society? Apparently, it’s to get women into the positions of power in the pornography business. (Don’t worry, that link is not porn, but rather a Wired story about the phenomenon, though it does include a TEDx video that contains some pretty NSFW verbal descriptions). Feminism has avoided virtue in the face of wrongly exercised power, and instead chased after the power, thinking that gaining it is the solution to the injustice

This problem is not unique to Feminism. But Feminism will suffer from it, just like all of us will, until it recognizes this problem. After all, what is the Emma Watson controversy except an argument about whether that show of physical beauty increases the power of women or submits women to the sexual benefit of men? It’s not a question about Feminism. It’s a question about whether that picture is power or submission. 

Make no mistake, physical beauty is a source of power. Have no doubt about that. It is a power disproportionately given to women, and it has a pull on men. It often arouses the power disproportionately given to men, their strength, to do either great or terrible things. Physical beauty and strength can be wonderfully enjoyed if Justice — that is, all things working together as they ought — is the rule of the participants. 

“I am beautiful and proud of my body,” she may say. But usually, she will only say it if the power of another does not overshadow her own power over herself. Her body may just as easily be a source of shame, rather than pride. Should she seek this pride? Should she seek this beauty? What type of beauty does she seek? Is it a virtue? Does she even know what that is?  

By all means, let us speak of beauty, and let us speak of Feminism. Let us speak of our bodies, and let us speak of our strength. But let us also remember our virtue, and let us pursue the most difficult of all: Justice, where all things work as they should. Only then can we talk about Feminism, beauty, men, women, society, and power correctly. 

Virtue is the measure of all things, including Feminism, Emma Watson, and Vanity Fair.

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