(This article has been cross-posted to Medium)
Coercive conversion is when members of groups/ideologies label non-members as members, regardless of whether the non-member is comfortable being labeled.
The ideology that is probably best known for doing this, is liberal feminism.
When you Google the term “you’re a feminist” this is the first result. It’s a “comedy” song, passive-aggressively entitled “Sorry Babe, You’re a Feminist.”
The video opens with quotes from female celebrities clearly stating their rhetorical boundaries regarding the feminist label. And what does this singer, Katie Goodman, do? Oh, completely disregards those women’s boundaries and calls them feminists anyway, of course! Like any Good Feminist™ would!
Some gems from this song include:
You must not know what feminism means
Right — because women who don’t want to be labeled are obviously ignorant. There is no other possible explanation.
You’re “not a feminist” — and you know who else isn’t? Boko Haram. Rush Limbaugh. The Taliban. [So] you might wanna call yourself a feminist.
(see: the logical fallacy reductio ad Hitlerum)
And the whole second verse of the song implies that modern-day women are morally obligated to be feminists because historical feminists died for our rights. Which sounds a lot like….
If you think I’m just cherry-picking, I’ve got more examples of this phenomenon:
Emma Watson, #HeForShe ambassador, for InStyle:
“Men think it’s a women’s word. But what it means is that you believe in equality, and if you stand for equality, then you’re a feminist. Sorry to tell you. You’re a feminist. You’re a feminist. That’s it.”
Read: “You’re a feminist because I said so!”
(Also, what’s with the “sorry not sorry” tone in these headlines? Can you say “passive aggressive”?)
Okay, one more:
Wow, that’s…. not domineering at all.
An illuminating quote from the article, by Suzannah Weiss:
In case there’s still any doubt left, Pulptastic created a quiz to tell you if you’re a feminist, and it only has one question: “Do you believe women and men should have the same political, economic, cultural, personal, and social rights?” Indeed, no matter what dictionary you ask, feminism boils down to gender equality: Dictionary.com says it’s “the doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men.” And Merriam-Webster calls feminism “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.” Yet there seems to be a misunderstanding about this — because 82 percent of people believe “men and women should be social, political, and economic equals,” yet only 20 percent call themselves feminists.
Did it ever occur to this writer that the dictionary is not the final authority on a word’s meaning? A word’s etymology, connotation and cultural context can all contribute to one’s personal comfort level with that word.
If that’s not complex enough for you, there are words within the dictionary definition of feminism that have disputed meanings, such as “equality,” “rights,” “doctrine” and even “advocating.” So someone might consider themselves a feminist who doesn’t believe in equality. Likewise, someone might stand for equality but prefer the term egalitarian or humanist. None of these perspectives are wholly invalid, so to forcibly label someone based on the assumption that they don’t have a good enough reason for avoiding the label, is disingenuous, if not downright controlling.
What is the purpose/function of coercive conversion?
Groups that practice coercive conversion may do so for the following reasons:
- To make their movement appear larger (and by consequence, more powerful) than it actually is
- To set the stage for future games of True Scotsman, No True Scotsman
Since #1 is pretty self-explanatory, let’s skip ahead to exploring #2:
By pre-emptively defining feminism as something positive-sounding, feminists later have a means to disassociate from anyone who makes their group look bad. This is called a No True Scotsman.
The No True Scotsman (NTS) fallacy is a logical fallacy that occurs when a debater defines a group such that every groupmember posses some quality. For example, it is common to argue that “all members of [my religion] are fundamentally good”, and then to abandon all bad individuals as “not true [my-religion]-people”…. Before argument, someone preemptively defines some group such that the group definitionally must be entirely “good” or entirely “bad”. However, this definition was created arbitrarily for this defensive purpose, rather than based on the actual qualities of the group.
– RationalWiki. Read the whole article, it’s great.
By oversimplifying feminism and defining it as fundamentally good, the feminists in question here are avoiding more nuanced, and necessary, discussions that would actually be far more beneficial to women everywhere. What does it mean to belong to, and/or represent, a movement? Who gets to decide what the movement is all about? And who gets to decide who-gets-to-decide?
How it backfires
Notice, in the examples listed above, women who go around forcing the “feminist” label on people en masse fall back on the same exhausted buzzword: EEK-WALL-IT-EE. Based on this fact alone, I’d venture that these women probably aren’t aware that there are countless schools of feminist thought — if they were, would they really be so likely to parrot the same ideas? Somehow, all these different women arrived at the singular conclusion that there is One True Feminism, it is a synonym for EQUALITY, and that’s it. Forget history, forget nuance, forget diversity. It’s simple. SO simple, in fact, that they have anointed themselves with the authority to decide what Is Feminist and Is Not Feminist.
This problem of oversimplifying a globally diverse idea leads to further sub-problems, like…
… atrophying integrity. If all someone has to do to qualify as a Feminist is ~believe~ in eek-walliddy, then feminism means absolutely nothing. Observe: “It’s a real shame that women are trafficked, raped, beaten and murdered at such high rates. But I BELIEVE they should be treated better! I think positive thoughts at the problem instead of actually doing anything to change it! There, I’ve done my part.”
I personally think feminism should be a title that is earned, not arbitrarily claimed as a personality descriptor. This can’t be policed by any singular authority, but it’s something to keep in mind if you consider yourself a feminist. What actions do you take to help women?
… rapists under the feminist umbrella. Again, if acquiring the feminist label only requires a belief in equality, then anyone can claim to believe in equality while practicing otherwise. And plenty of misogynists do this. Any good predator will tell you that hiding behind a positive, charitable-looking label makes you look more trustworthy, which makes potential prey flock to you. It’s why so many abusive people seek leadership positions in churches and social justice movements. I’ve written more about the problem of misogynistic male “feminists” here.
What I want to know is why any feminist would be so eager to slap the feminist label on masses of strangers, knowing that this practice ultimately works against women? In general, bonding with strangers strictly based on shared beliefs is dangerous. Beliefs can be, and often are, faked.
Before closing, I’ll take a second to acknowledge that the “f-word” as is often called, is very misunderstood. Demonized, in fact. Perhaps this is what drives so many feminists to go around aggressively convincing people that they’re Actually Feminists Though. It’s a PR move. I understand, I really do!
But… I can’t help but wonder how things might be different if all of us were less concerned with being feminists in title, and more concerned with being feminists in practice.