Are you afraid of changing your mind about a deeply held belief, about an emotionally strong conviction that you have? A few years ago, I changed – as an environmentalist – my mind about GMOs. Since then, and due to my contacts with the effective altruism movement, I changed my mind about many beliefs that I had:
- I was a strong supporter of organic food, but now I am more sceptical,
- I rejected interventions in nature to decrease wild animal suffering, but now I am in favor of welfare improving interventions in nature,
- I had a strong confidence in the intrinsic value of biodiversity, but now I no longer give intrinsic value to biodiversity,
- I was in favor of some idealistic animal advocacy strategies, but now I am more supportive of the realistic, pragmatic strategies,
- I was very critical about speculative markets, but now I see the value of those markets,
- I was in favor of boycotting sweatshops, buying fair trade products, increasing minimum wages, and other economic issues, but now I am more sceptical about the effectiveness of these measures.
In the political spectrum I consider myself as a progressive left liberal, meaning that I value social justice and I am against all kinds of unwanted arbitrariness such as discrimination (racism, sexism, speciesism,…). I am part of the left, criticizing the right. Criticizing the right is easy, because right wing ideologies contain a lot of irrationalities (such as unwanted arbitrariness that violate the moral golden rule) and pseudoscience (such as climate change denialism). However, I start to realize that also in my left wing camp there are a considerable amount of irrationalities (such as the opposition against GMOs amongst leftist environmentalists, the criticism against vaccines or the strategies used by some animal rights activists, social justice warriors or people from the so called regressive left). As a rational ethicist, I not only want right winged people to become more rational, but I also want to improve rationality amongst leftist people. Therefore I also criticize irrational beliefs amongst left-wingers.
It is unlikely that all your beliefs are true. Even the beliefs that you strongly, emotionally care about may be wrong. I can say this, because that is what I experienced in my own life. Ten years ago I would have underestimated the amount of false beliefs that I strongly believed. I would have underestimated the number of moral mistakes I made. Now I realize that I should not trust my convictions based on emotions and gut feelings. So now I try to become less emotionally attached to my beliefs. When I am confronted with new evidence that contradicts my belief and I feel a strong emotional reaction that attempts to defend my belief, I become more alert and I try to suppress that emotional response, because I’ve learned that those emotional responses are unreliable. They have deceived me so many times. I should not have trusted them. These emotions generate all kinds of cognitive biases such as confirmation bias and desirability bias. As a consequence of avoiding emotional reactions, I became much more flexible to update my beliefs in the light of new evidence, ideas and arguments. And as a consequence, I changed my mind about many things. This strongly improved my rationality and my effective altruism.
So I want to create a culture where changing one’s mind is socially accepted and admirable. A culture where we dare to change our minds, to become more rational (meaning accurate in our beliefs, effective in our means and consistent in our ends). If you believe that all your currently strongly held beliefs are true, you are most likely wrong. If you believe that your strong emotions do not generate cognitive biases, you probably have a cognitive bias: the bias blind spot. If you want to become more effective in doing good, you will probably have to experience changing your mind about beliefs that you hold dear. You will probably have to swallow the red pill (as in the movie The Matrix).
Speaking about the red pill: I recently saw a documentary that I highly recommend: The Red Pill by Cassie Jaye. It is about a feminist’s journey into the men’s rights movement. The documentary is interesting because of two facts: first it tells about interesting facts and arguments made by men’s rights activists. Second, it follows the director Cassie Jaye in her struggle to change her mind about feminism and the men’s rights movement. She started as a feminist being very critical about this new movement that in her eyes was highly misogynist. But interviewing those men’s rights activists, it eventually resulted in Cassie Jaye saying that she no longer calls herself a feminist, even though she off course still shares the leftist values of gender equality and antidiscrimination (antisexism). Cassie Jaye is a prime example of a leftist person with good moral values, but who dared to change her mind about a topic that she held dear. She interviews people like Warren Farrell and Erin Pizzey, two persons who were deeply involved in the feminist movement but changed their minds about men’s rights issues (which resulted in receiving threats by feminists). In the documentary, we see emotionally strong reactions by feminists protesting against men’s rights activists. In a similar way, the documentary itself became highly controversial after its release, resulting in boycotts and feminist protests against its screening.
So, the documentary also changed my mind about gender issues. First, I believe that the feminist movement’s reaction against men’s rights issues is irrational, with feminists misrepresenting a lot of men’s rights activists as rape apologists. Second, I now no longer believe in something like a patriarchal system that systematically privileges men and suppresses women (at least in some modern western societies). The existence of a patriarchal system is a core belief in many feminist theories, so in that sense I no longer call myself that kind of feminist. The documentary gives a lot of examples that indicate that if there were such a thing as a patriarchal system, then that system is highly inconsistent. It becomes reasonable to doubt the existence of such an inconsistent system. Here are some examples.
–Child custody: if the judicial system is dominated by patriarchal, male judges, then why are children so often assigned to the mothers in cases of divorce, even when the fathers clearly state that they strongly prefer custody over the children? (It reminds me of the movie Mrs. Doubtfire that I recently saw.)
–Criminal sentencing: if the judicial system is dominated by patriarchal, male judges, then why do men receive 60% higher sentences than women for equal crimes? Arrested women are more likely to avoid convictions and are twice as likely to avoid incarceration if convicted. This is confirmed by other studies (and these studies were done by women, so no male privilege bias here). The latter research by Sigrid von Wingerden in the Netherlands indicates that when a woman kills a man the sentence is 1.6 years lower than when a man kills a man. And if a man kills a woman, the man gets a longer prison sentence than when a man kills a man. So when a man is murdered, it is apparently not as bad as when a woman is murdered, and if a man is the perpetrator, it is apparently worse than when a woman is the perpetrator?
–Health: if the scientific research and health systems are dominated by patriarchal, male researchers, and if the burden of disease, in terms of loss of healthy life years (DALY), premature deaths (mortality) and loss of health (morbidity), both globally and in the rich, western countries, is higher for men than for women, then why do female cancers (breast, ovarian and cervical cancer) receive three times as much funding than male diseases (prostate cancer)? (This statistic can be misleading, because the difference between the male and female burden of disease is not explained by cancers but is mostly explained by higher rates of smoking, alcohol use, suicides, occupational risks, road injuries and violence for men. Female cancers have a 3 times higher health impact than male cancers in the US. Still, if men were the boss and were male centric, one would expect other research priorities.)
–Mental health: if female suicide rate would have been 3 to 4 times higher than male suicide rate, feminists would have highlighted it, so why is it not highlighted in a patriarchal society that in the western world, male suicide rate is 3 to 4 times higher than female suicide rate?
–Military: if the military is dominated by patriarchal males, then why are men drafted? Why would those privileged men send men to die at the front? More than 95% of soldiers that die in war are men.
–Disasters: if there was a patriarchal system that privileges men, then why “women and children first” in case of a sinking ship?
–Dangers: if the man is in charge in the house, then why would the man risk his life to go downstairs at night when there is a burglar in the house? Why send men on dangerous exploration missions?
–Work: if the economy is dominated by patriarchal men, then why are more men doing the dangerous jobs? The death rate on the job is 11 times higher for men than for women. It is as if men are more expendable. Men are also doing some dirty jobs (sewer worker, garbage collector, miner).
–Education: if men want to have power over others, why would men allow more women to be in charge of education, risking their own children being indoctrinated with feminist ideas? There are more female school teachers. Wouldn’t it be better for men if men did the education part and women did the dangerous jobs?
–Higher education: if higher education is still dominated by patriarchal sexist men who privilege men, then why do more women than men earn a college degree? (The same goes for the Netherlands and Belgium)
–Media: if the news media is dominated by patriarchal male journalists, then why did the abduction of about 200 girls by Boko Haram in Nigeria receive more attention than the kidnapping and killing of thousands of boys by Boko Haram?
–Homelessness: if men are in charge of the social security system, then why are there about 4 times more men than women homeless?
–Interpersonal violence: if men create a patriarchal system, then why are more men than women victim of interpersonal violence (in terms of deaths and loss of healthy life years, both globally and in rich, Western countries)?
–Domestic violence: if politics is dominated by patriarchal male politicians, then why are there 2000 times more women shelters than men shelters in the US, for victims who want to escape from situations of domestic violence, even if domestic violence is close to gender symmetric? There are almost as much male victims and female perpetrators of non-reciprocal (no self defense) domestic violence. If the police were dominated by patriarchal male policemen, then why are women who assault their male partners more likely to avoid arrest than men who attack their female partners? When a woman calls the police to report domestic violence, the man is often arrested or ordered to leave the house, but if a man calls, the woman is almost never arrested or ordered out of the house, and even worse: the man who calls has a more than 10% probability of being arrested himself. Why would a man call the police if he risks being arrested himself?
All of this doesn’t make any sense in a patriarchal system that systematically privileges men. There are too many weird inconsistencies. And worse: if feminists target a patriarchal system, if the problem (patriarchy) is framed as being caused by men and the solution (feminism and women’s rights) refers to women, it might harm men even when those men are not the real problem. The real problem is gender roles that systematically disadvantage women in some ways and men in other ways. We should avoid a simplistic black-white male-female dichotomy where men are the privileged evil-doers. We should simply focus on eliminating all kinds of sexism and gender discrimination, of both men and women. And feminists should acknowledge that the men’s rights movement does not need to be silenced and that a lot of men’s rights activists raise valid concerns and are not rape apologists who hate women. Some but not all men’s rights activists hate women, but also some but not all women’s rights activists hate men.
If we focus on the small group of most privileged, dominant people at the top, their gender is mostly male. But if we focus on the other, less or non-privileged people, we see both genders. We also see more men than women at the bottom who are homeless, are victims of extreme violence, are not allowed to see their kids, cannot go to a shelter or commit suicide. For those men, it is unfair to point at their gender as the culprit. Speaking about ‘male privilege’ risks insinuating that those non-privileged men are privileged as well.
We can make a distinction between perpetrator-focused and victim-focused feminism. Perpetrator-focused feminism is the feminism that targets a patriarchal system and criticizes male privilege. We have to reject this kind of feminism because it might unjustly harm some men who are not privileged. Victim-focused feminism on the other hand is the feminism that promotes women’s rights and wants to improve the position of women in the areas where they are disadvantaged against men.
The ideas of women’s rights and victim-focused feminism are valid. Taking these ideas seriously means focusing on the victims and the non-privileged, instead of the perpetrators and privileged. However, if we focus on the victims and non-privileged, we should also focus on the men who are victims and non-privileged. This means the idea of men’s rights – improving the position of men in the areas where they are disadvantaged against women – is equally valid.
Calling myself a feminist risks being associated with the perpetrator-focused feminism. Calling myself a women’s rights activist risks being perceived as one-sided and neglecting the disadvantages of men. Similarly calling myself a men’s rights activist is too one-sided. So instead of calling myself a feminist, a women’s rights activist or a men’s rights activist, I prefer to call myself an antisexist and an equal rights activist.
PS: if you think the above implies that I minimize the problem of women rights violations, you have a moral gravity bias. The above should not be interpreted as an endorsement of suppression of women, because that would be a logical fallacy.
PS: the arguments only apply to our modern, western society. They do not always apply to our past (e.g. when women did not have the right to vote) or to non-western countries (e.g. muslim countries where women have fewer rights, poor countries where poverty is sexist and women do not have equal access to education, land, credit and legacies).