20 March 2010

Why Citations are Important

Isn't it great when an argument that seems to be undermining one's own position in a debate is demonstrated to be based upon faulty research? Or, in this case, deceptive (and I hope not intentionally deceptive) citations.

Zuska's excellent post on "femsplaining" -- the mistaken notion that some men have that women who see sexism often in daily life are somehow overreacting or imagining it -- resulted in a debate in which Michael Hawkins persistently insisted that the feminists listen to him expound upon the importance of Kant. Or as he puts it, "Kant and co." I'd like to know which philosophers he includes in the "and co." but that's a question for another day.

Intentions are important, Hawkins argues, using Kant to support his argument. Therefore, when my 60-year-old professor insisted on kissing me on the cheek on the first day of class, his intention to give a friendly greeting (if that was his intention) overrides my interpretation of his gesture as sexist (he did not kiss the male students, only the [two] female students [ah, gender balance in film school]).

I suggested that Hawkins check out Jane Flax's paper "Is the Enlightenment Emancipatory?" on the gendered metaphors that inform Kant's writings, from her monograph "Disputed Subjects." With all due respect to Kant, I find her reading of his work to be particularly interesting because she doesn't simply point to his infamous assertion that women cannot participate in the Enlightenment:
The guardians who have so benevolently taken over the supervision of men have carefully seen to it that the far greatest part of them (including the entire fair sex) regard taking the step to maturity as very dangerous, not to mention difficult.
Kant, "What is Enlightenment"
...but conducts an analysis of the way language is employed and the assumptions about binary oppositions which pit qualities overdetermined as feminine (domesticity, the bodily, the private world, and dependence) against those overdetermined as masculine (the public world, the mind, thought, independence). Therefore, her conclusion that Kant's writings are in some senses problematic doesn't just stem from that one simple phrase that can be written off as a product of his time, but addresses our current mental models of maturity and adulthood (many of which came into play in Hawkins' discussion with those at Zuska's blog, in which he insisted that describing a woman as "screeching" had nothing to do with sexism because it was an infantilizing adjective rather than a sexist one).

When I read Hawkins response to my reading recommendation, I was struck by the fact that the quote he pulled from Flax in his rejection of her position seemed to roundly contradict what I know of her work. I wondered if it was from a different book, or if it was from a part of the article I overlooked in my enthusiasm for the analysis of language. However, when I looked at the pdf he linked to through Flax's name, I found that it was an article by Ruth Dawson that paraphrases Flax once ... only to distance Dawson's argument from Flax's position on the Enlightenment. While Flax is concerned with the underpinnings of the philosophy itself, Dawson is interested in the historical portrait of women's lives at the time. Both interests are equally valid -- but Dawson's article has nothing to do with Flax's analysis.

And thus Hawkins rebuttal of Flax's position doesn't only falter -- it goes up in flames.

A story I can tell my students when they want to know why proper citations matter.


  1. Also, Hawkins writes of feminism that:

    "It is not a philosophy of fundamentals but rather one of contextual consequence; it therefore must either rely on or refute the philosophies which penetrate more deeply, more universally...."

    Context/environment/body/feminism is fundamentally LESS THAN that which is universal/of the mind/philosophy penned by males. No comment

  2. Thanks for this. I was in that thread at Zuska's, and I had not even heard of Flax when you brought her up. Now I have more interesting reading to do, and a great new blog to follow.

    Speaking of sloppy research, Hawkins insists that women are not held responsible for being raped, that the idea is a "strawman", and that "the only argument that actually gets made" (nice passive voice there, btw--who makes the argument and why?) is that it's a "good idea" not to walk alone at night.

    His position is demonstrably false, yet he bases his rejection of the Finally Feminism 101 blog upon it.

    I said in Zuska's thread that I won't spend time engaging anyone who demands that women pony up with a "case for feminism" before he'll do any listening, and I need to stand by that by not commenting on his blog. But he's spreading misinformation, so it irks the crap out of me.

    Finally, "Kant and Co." sounds like a zany comic strip.

  3. Haha, I can only imagine what would happen in "Kant and Co." The story of well-intentioned Dead White Men with great ideas but certain limitations trying to find their way in the world....?

    And yes, his whole argument was frustrating, and it's clearly not productive to engage. Learned my lesson! It's nice to know that in the future we won't have to deal with him sending Zuska's threads off-topic.

    Jane Flax's book looks very good overall, but I've only read the one chapter thoroughly. She is a practicing psychoanalyst and many of the other chapters are based more on her in-the-field experiences. I'd be very interested in hearing what you think about the Enlightenment chapter!

    Thanks for your comment! I feel a bit like the new kid on the block since I've been reading a circle of feminist blogs for a while but only recently started my own and started commenting. I'm looking forward to adding your blog to my reading list!