Susan Mendus: American Values and a Defense of Feminism
In this blog post, I will analyze Susan Mendus’ treatise, “Losing the Faith: Feminism and Democracy.”
- I will first outline Mendus’ thesis and discuss her perception of democratic theory and some of the criticisms she raises to feminist theory.
- I will then look at Mendus’ analysis of equality, difference, and American values.
- Finally, I will argue with Mendus that American values are predisposed towards men and that we can find parallels between the way our thought-processes are exposed to inaccuracy and in how our values are exposed to inaccuracy.
Mendus recognizes that democracy has accomplished a lot of good for society (409). Her critique of American society does not commence with democracy in and of itself but rather with the negatives that democracy has smuggled in with it. Feminists have justly argued that the patriarchy runs deep not only in totalitarian countries but also in most of the West. This can be exemplified with the overt representation of males in almost all fields of power and authority especially in political life where diversity should be of the most value. Without equal representation in politics, how can we assure the equal application of policy towards the disenfranchised and marginalized in society?
Democracy, albeit flawed it is, has at this present stage given feminists the opportunity to promote disagreement and discourse, however. Mendus acknowledges this and rightly criticizes a complete dismissal of democracy and of the philosophical values that were given by Enlightenment intellectuals.
She writes that claiming that democratic theory is devoted to maintaining the patriarchy is in itself “serious, depressing, and even dangerous” (410). It is true nonetheless that the modern state creates an unfavorable gap between the individual and the community making it difficult to care for the common good (410). That does not mean that apathy is intentional, however.
Furthermore, Mendus acknowledges socio-economic disparities in equality between men and women in what she calls their “criterion of citizenship” (412).
Feminists have recognized that society is structured around the freedom and privileges that men often have by dominating the public sphere for millennia.
Losing for feminists is thus chiefly about losing the discussion surrounding this distinction on difference and whether it is important to focus on it or not.
The point of controversy here is in how we attain equality most effectively. For Mendus, we start losing the discussion if we start by presuming that equality can be attained without acknowledging difference.
The point of democratic theory is not for all of us to be the same since if we were to achieve that we would strip ourselves of the rationale for a fair democracy (415). Mendus is thus in agreement with Mill’s sentiment for the ideal political future. Difference, for Mill, should not be disparaged considering that it is the most essential component of a well-ordered democracy. Many democratic theorists start with the principle of equality. Mill, on the other hand, starts with an acknowledgment that difference inevitably challenges the desire for equality (415).
Difference, for Mill, should not be disparaged considering that it is the most essential component of a well-ordered democracy.
I agree with Mendus in her focus on difference and emphasis on variety in culture and “criticism” in the democratic order, quoting E. M. Forster (415).
Despite this crucial note that variety is important in society, we should also acknowledge that American society has been structured around the freedom that males tend to have due to some of these biological differences (416).
To use Mendus’ example, we should change Parliamentary hours to be more inclusive of the demands women have towards domestic responsibilities surrounding child-bearing. Clearly, if we do not warrant this important distinction between responsibilities, we are preventing certain positions that require equal representation from being represented equally.
Society is evidently built on the lives and values of men and not women (416).
My Contribution: Thoughts & Values
I would like to expand on Mendus’ claim that male values structure our society.
We currently find a productive and successful life alluring in society. We do this because of factors we had little to do with. Almost everyone thinks that gaining a financially rewarding wage is a commendable aspiration. What if this proclivity is due to our evolutionary origins in society where food and resources were scarce and achieving some level of comfort in them would promote the survival of our species? In other words, it is likely that we are persuaded by reasoning that we have not deliberately chosen and should thus reevaluate.
I will explain this with a thought experiment.
If you observe the nature of consciousness and how your thoughts arise, you will notice that the thoughts that arise in consciousness are random in the sense that you have not specifically picked to have each and every one of them.
This can be exemplified by our inability to stop thinking.
You are not able to stop thinking even if you put all of your efforts into this seemingly straightforward task. If you take the same walk a thousand times, for example, you are almost guaranteed to have thought differently every walk. This can make us conclude that our thoughts are confined to a set of experiences we have little influence over.
If I were to tell you to imagine a movie, you are once again limited to a category of movies you know about and perhaps another category of movies that you have recently thought about.
Values are similarly given in the confines of the subjective experience that humans are put into. Currently, as was expressed by Mendus, our values in American society are predisposed to letting men dominate almost all fields of power since these fields require sacrificial devotion in personal life. If we were to reform our values in society, however, to values that focus more on domestic aspects and leisure, we would appreciate jobs that have almost no monetary return, at least not initially, such as child-bearing. In that sense, the nature of thoughts and the nature of values are similar.
Both rely on structures that already exist in society. These structures, however, are entirely open to fallibility and should be questioned. In other words, we can not picture a world that does not appear in consciousness. What is appearing is something we have little control over. The fact that we value success, passion, and sacrificial devotion only testifies to our inability to step outside of the confines of the subjective experience.
We should, together with S. Beauvoir, S. Mendus, J. Butler, and others, question the structures that have emerged from the beginning of civilization. The question for another essay and further analysis of this issue is, how can we consider an ethical way of restructuring our society that has not yet arisen in consciousness?
Values are similarly given in the confines of the subjective experience that humans are put into.
Stewart, Robert M. Readings in Social and Political Philosophy. Oxford University Press, 1996.
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