Today there was a minor kerfuffle about the Prime Minister’s refusal to wear a t-shirt that says “This is what a feminist looks like” after Elle, a women’s magazine, asked him to do so for a marketing campaign. Elle had a go at Cameron, saying that “It should be simple. Do you believe that men and women are equal? Do you believe men and women should have the same rights? The same opportunities? Yes? Then you are a feminist.”
Well, that sounds pretty reasonable! I don’t see how anyone could object to that. But the plot thickens later on. All these unobjectionable, bland claims apparently relate to quite specific public policy issues, like unequal pay and political representation for women. According to Elle, we need feminism because "for every £1 a man earns in the UK, a woman earns 80p. Women make up only 35% of senior managers in the UK and an estimated 30,000 women a year lose their jobs as a result of pregnancy-related discrimination. In politics, fewer than one in four MPs is a woman, and there are only five women in the cabinet out of 22 ministers".
In other words, we need feminism so we can do something about very specific issues (presumably in specific ways, since the Fawcett Society is involved which has specific policies to address all these things).
This sounds to me like a ‘motte and bailey’ argument. Scott Alexander explains in more detail in part two of this excellent essay here (if you have the time, read that, not this). The name come from medieval times, when a ‘motte’ was a defensible castle surrounded by a profitable village called the ‘bailey’. Everyone would work out in the bailey until they got attacked and had to retreat to the safety of the motte.
A motte and bailey argument starts off by defining itself in very defensible way. “Feminism means thinking that men and women should be treated equally.” That’s the safe, defensible motte.
It then extends that reasonable-seeming claim to all sorts of controversial claims – unequal political representation demands all-women shortlists; unequal pay demands more invasive laws to equalise pay between men and women. That’s the bailey where the actual (political or cultural) advancements can be made.
Let’s say you attack the bailey by saying that you're not a feminist because you think the policies advocated by feminists are bad, or the problems they identify are not even problems at all. Maybe you find, as Ben recently has, that “if you control for background (i.e. skills and talent) and exit (i.e. women staying in the workforce) women earn more than men and get more aggressively promoted than men”, which implies that the claims made by feminists about unequal pay needing new laws are simply incorrect.
Feminism may also be wrong about many other things, such as claims about men and women’s brains being biologically the same or the pervasiveness of a ‘rape culture’. These are substantive elements of what feminists define as feminism, and they may be right or wrong. It’s legitimate (albeit quite possibly mistaken) to think these claims are wrong, and hence to decline to wear a 'This is what a feminist looks like' t-shirt.
But do that and many feminists will retreat into the defensible motte, as Elle have today. David Cameron doesn’t think men and women should be equal! David Cameron doesn’t think men and women should have the same rights! Feminism is very simple!
This is dishonest and manipulative. And an open society requires honesty in political discourse. David Cameron is often accused of pandering to fashion. He deserves credit for refusing to do so this time.