In the course of dispute, many a feminist will inform you that you “don't know what feminism really is”, and instruct you to “look in the dictionary”. They will pronounce this with an air of immutable finality, as if they had settled the question for all time. In deference to their wisdom, I share the following dictionary entry:
Feminism -n: 1 : the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.This definition is the source of the oft-heard claim that “feminism is about equality”, meaning that it seeks to establish equality of the sexes in the form suggested. We call this “dictionary feminism”, and if you enquire to know what feminism really is, it establishes a core minimum that nearly any feminist would publicly agree upon.
The problem with dictionary feminism is that it does not exist outside the dictionary. For this reason, we favor a more pragmatic or empirical way of knowledge. To us feminism is not merely a sentence on a book page, or even an ideology. It is a set of real-life practices - a dynamic pattern of things existing in the objective world. We see it, and we call it as we see it. From this we draw the counter-feminist maxim that “feminism is what we say it is”.
To say that feminism is “about equality” is useless because, frankly, what is this thing called “equality”? No ready answer presents itself, and we are left with no coherent explanation. That compels us to set aside the dictionary and map our knowledge from independent principles.
For that purpose, we now go to investigate the difficulties of the term “equality”.
One issue immediately crops up, namely, the rightness of this term in relation to “feminism”. One sees that “masculism” could be supplied in place of “feminism” with no harm done to the requirements of “equality”. Either term would be equally fitting, and provided both sexes came out “equal” it would all be good. (Ideally, however, both terms should be discarded in favor of something sexually neutral.)
Only if we assume that a present inequality exists, and that this condition disfavors women, can we justify using “feminism” according to the “equality” definition.
But not everybody would accept the notion that women suffer inequality. Many would find this notion problematic. Hence, the word feminism (as the dictionary defines it) is loaded. It is contraband language that smuggles a hidden premise into the discussion and tricks you into harboring an element of the feminist worldview. Like a thought-terminating cliché, it invites no cognitive process of discovery. So in order to ferret out the contraband in the dictionary definition of feminism, we should reconstruct the definition thuswise:
Feminism -n: Advocacy for women on the grounds that women are burdened with inequality.Granted, this doesn't quite tell us what “equality” (or inequality) really means. But it frames the talk in a way that precludes mischief, and puts us in a way to asking the relevant questions. In that spirit, we shall focus our lens narrowly upon the word “equality” itself. What does this word really mean? Here the talk gets especially interesting.
On the surface, "equality" would seem to be feminism's holy grail. Yet although this word is central to the dictionary definition of feminism, it is debatable whether feminism genuinely seeks "equality" between between the sexes. However, let's leave political questions aside for now.
The term is most at home in the realm of mathematics -- and we could argue that it's away from home anywhere else. Fundamentally, “equality” is where two sides of an equation are identical. Hence, X = X is another way of saying that “X is X”. Simply stated: anything is what it is. This is the law of identity.
Very well. The realm of mathematics is the realm of pure number, hence the realm of pure abstraction. A number is merely a conceptual quantifier. It may keep tabs on things in the real world, but a number in itself has no assignable quality apart from abstractness. Numbers are not hot or cold, wet or dry, sad or happy, male or female, socialist or capitalist. A number has no physical dimension, and it references nothing inherently.
So long as you stick to pure math, or anything that can be mathematically operationalized, equality is a workable concept. Otherwise, it is an essentially contested concept. The reason is, that when you apply this concept to human conditions in the world of lived reality, it turns into a hopeless muddle.
However, that does not stop legions of muddle-headed people from applying the concept of "equality" to the world of lived reality. They do this all the time.
The non-mathematical world is a world in flux, a metamorphosing world. It is a dynamic world, to say the least -- it never sits still for long.
In such a world, "equality" becomes a very tricky and complicated idea. So what does it mean as a core minimum? As a core minimum, any way you cut it, "equality" signifies "sameness" or "identity". Numerical quantities on opposite sides of an equation are always the same -- otherwise, the math is wrong.
This core idea of sameness carries over into the real world, but quickly goes south. That is because the only way to achieve universal "equality" in the human social world, or in the physical universe at large, is to create absolute SAMENESS of all things everywhere. Pure "equality" would equate to pure nothingness -- pure non-existence -- because it would annihilate the basis for all differentiation.
That's what you get, when you try to make a mathematical idea govern every facet of living reality. Mathematics is pure abstraction, hence pure nothingness, and when you force this upon the real world, the only logical outcome, is pure nothingness.
The real world is not only dynamic and ever-changing, but subject to countless frames of reference at any given instant. Would you make all of that "equal"? Then you must roll it flat, and convert it into . . . . nothing! No differentiation equals nothing. That's the rule.
Now, when feminists and various other people talk about this "equality" thing, they are simply playing with a noble buzzword that makes them feel warm and fuzzy because it conjures up glowing mental images of truth and beauty and universal justice. This is called the halo effect.
In feminist discourse, at any rate, equality breaks down into two forms:
1. Equality of opportunity -- also called "formal equality",
2. Equality of outcome -- also called "substantive equality".
Equality of opportunity can be achieved when you mandate "equal rights" under law, so that everybody legally has the same opportunity in situation X. It's about anti-discrimination.
Equality of outcome, however, goes deeper. It aims to rearrange the world so that no gross disparities of wealth or situation will be found anywhere. As if, eveybody has not only an equal right to pick in the orchard, but a positive guarantee they will come away with the same number of apples.
Equality of outcome can only be made real, when some superior force -- such as state power -- intervenes in the world of affairs and either redistributes the harvest, or handicaps some of the harvesters so that they won't harvest any more than anybody else does.
Furthermore, equality of outcome can only be made real, when the intervening force cuts deeper and deeper into the microcosm of life, to see that redistribution and handicapping are applied to even the smallest of transactions. There is no theoretical limit to this.
In a nutshell, equality of outcome is inherently a totalitarian project. That is the level of control it eventually requires - total.
Finally, it generates the biggest inequality of all, because the enforcers of “equality” will hold all the power and other people will hold little or none.
In the end, there is no ultimate "equality" in the real world. There is only endlessly redistributed inequality. That is where all of our efforts to achieve so-called "equality", in the real world, will take us. So if you want to worship "equality", be a mathematician. You will be on solid ground that way.
And never talk about “equality” in an abstract or freestanding way; never as a political catch-phrase or banner slogan. Any time you pronounce this word, you should directly follow up with a finite project or proposal where you hope to see some precise condition “equalized”. That is the only honest way to use this word: not as a glittering generality, not as a rainbow which invites pursuit, but as something immediate and quantifiable.