The most important contribution of deconstruction to the success of race-gender-class [discourse], however, was its making respectable a mode of argument that had always been despised in the academy, namely, ad hominem argument.
John M. Ellis, Literature Lost [Yale University Press, 1997], p.215
Department of Philosophy
Los Angeles Valley College
5800 Fulton Ave.
Van Nuys, CA 91401-4096
6 April 1993
Frank Dilley, Editor
Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association
University of Delaware
Newark, Delaware, 19716
To the Editor:
It is a good and healthy thing that the controversy swirling around Christina Hoff Sommers, despite its sometimes personal and vituperative aspects, has been allowed to play out in the letters to the Proceedings of the APA. However, the most recent installment (January 1993) contains only letters that are critical of, and none that are supportive of, Sommers. If the concern of the editor is primarily fairness, I trust that the debate will continue at least to the extent of publishing more supportive letters.
If the complaints in the controversy are about invective, name calling, "chilling effects," harassment, etc., a complete stranger to this debate might at first think that both sides display so much of them that the disinterested party is merely reduced to the unedifying question, "Who started it?" Whether or not that can be answered, it is probably not the most important or interesting question. The philosophical debate is about the legitimacy of Sommers's term "gender feminism"; and the professional debate is about her charge that what has become an academic establishment of feminism in fact subscribes to the ideological tenets of this "gender" feminism and employs political means to enforce it.
The "diversity" of the feminism lumped by Sommers into "gender" feminism is insisted upon by her critics. However, I would sincerely like to know if anyone among academic feminists, the feminist radicals, socialists, Marxists, deconstructionists (Derridans, et al.), lesbians, etc., etc. would disagree with any of the following propositions: 1) the personal is political; 2) everything is political; 3) reality, including gender, is socially constructed; and 4) the nature of gender is a proper object of political action to reconstruct it. I would also like to know how many of these, even if not all, tend to the following views: 5) capitalism is an expression of patriarchy and therefore of the wrongful subordination of women; and 6) socialism, which will abolish all distinctions of race, class, and gender, will be the result of progressive political action. Part of Sommers's complaint about academic feminists is that many who hold these views do not candidly air them in public. Since I know from personal experience that many do hold such views (and I have seen them in the APA's own newsletter of feminist philosophy), but I do not hear them on the likes of the CBS evening news, I am inclined to credit Sommers's point.
Sommers quotes David Hoekema -- faithfully I trust -- that he is "convinced of the truth of the central feminist tenet that philosophy, like other theoretical endeavors, always reflects the gender, and class identity as well as the historical situation of the philosopher." The term "reflects" allows some leeway; but to the extent that the views of a philosopher do not reflect the nature of their objects but only the nature -- race, class, and gender -- of the one who holds them, then they are without truth value and the discussion properly becomes focused, not on their merits, but on their causes. Since much of the controversy about Sommers's views revolves around who is using the ad hominem arguments against whom, it is worth noting that this "central feminist tenet" provides nothing less than a justification for ad hominem argumentation. It is not what is said, but who says it, that is important; and if reality is socially constructed in an absolute sense, then no belief or argument ever need be dealt with in its own terms. The sexist does not, after all, believe false things, but he (or even she) does need to be politically reconstructed.
This all seems to me a false and horrible view, ripe with the seeds of tyranny. It is nevertheless a serious, common, and venerable view of things in the 20th century, with secure roots in Marxism, if not in Rousseau. If Sommers's critics do not actually subscribe to something very much like this, I would be very surprised. And if they do not admit to subscribing to it despite confessing to views of the sort of 1), 2), and 3) above, then I think they are deceiving either us or themselves. If everything is political, then it is not surprising that a number of Sommers's critics seem to attribute much importance to characterizing her, or the National Association of Scholars, as "conservative" or "right wing" and to connect them up to political power structures. What is surprising is the impression the critics give that they are innocent of corresponding political biases or connections: that is simply not consistent with their own principles, as I understand them. A corollary, indeed, to the theory of the social construction of reality is that "everything is bias." If pressed, I have seen people defending these views admit that their views were all bias too -- just "good bias" instead of "bad bias" (however we are supposed to determine that). But before such admissions, it is clearly a kind of sophistry that is being practiced: "bias" is a pejorative term, and it is freely and strongly used with pejorative effect, even though its emotional and normative force must be lost once the admission is made that "all is bias."
These reflections leave me far more sympathetic with Sommers than with her critics. But if mainstream academic feminists do not believe that the personal is political, reality is socially constructed, all is bias, etc., I will be pleased to be informed of it.
Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D.
|Pages on Feminist Issues|
|Feminism||Against the Theory of "Sexist Language"||Anaesthetic
|Women in the Apology|
|Abortion||Gender Stereotypes and Sexual Archetypes||Pornography||Letter in defense of Christina Hoff Sommers sent to the Los Angeles Times|
Ethics, Critique of Feminism