When I went to Government Professor Harvey Mansfield’s speech last night
calling for a “New Feminism,” I didn’t expect to leave feeling inspired. I figured that I would go, listen to him say provocatively sexist things for an hour, and leave spitting mad and ready to argue with someone. But it didn’t happen. It’s not because he did something other than what I expected. He did, in fact, spend the hour saying provocative and sexist (as well as homophobic and transphobic) things. He also essentially spent the hour defining men as aggressive and unloving dolts and women as passive, caring baby-makers (I’m exaggerating a bit, but that was the gist of it). But, rather than being disgusted, I left inspired.
He seemed almost benign, a sad throwback to another time grasping for some sort of relevance as the rest of the world moves on. More importantly, those that challenged him, feminists of various strips, queer activists and other audience members, appeared radiantly confident, had sharper points, and also themselves seemed more bemused by this strange old man than offended. Not to say they weren’t offended, his words still attempt to marginalize entire communities of people and pigeon-hole women. But his words also seemed so stale that their punch was more of a pinch. The people who challenged him did so comfortably and confidently, knowing that theirs was no longer a marginalized position but a fully formed political force that could easily stand up to this towering and mythical conservative pseudo-martyr figure. That is why I left feeling inspired.(more in expanded post)
What the Crimson story
today failed to note (among many things too long to list in this post), was the fact that most of the audience spent most of his talk holding back laughter and looking at each other with amazed bemusement. Mansfield wasn’t just ideologically (i.e. “subjectively”) wrong, his understanding of feminist theory was shockingly elementary and the philosophical groundings of his ideas were sketchy at best, nonexistent at worst. And, contrary to the Crimson article’s claim that he “felt most comfortable when answering questions from the audience,” he spent most of the questioning period on the defensive, un
comfortable and unable to answer even the most fundamental challenges. Instead, he responded by doing one of three things: repeating back a point from his main talk and adding a dismissive attempt at humor, claiming that such situations were “exceptions” that didn’t need to be handled in regards to his point, or noting that this was a good question but, while he simply didn’t have the time to give it a fair response, to “trust him” because he did, in fact, have a good answer to that point.
We could repeat the argument itself here if someone wanted to, I don’t mean to dismiss his ideas off-handedly (although we already have been having this conversation to some extent). But rather than doing so immediately, I wanted to recognize the beauty of the situation and how inspired I was to see a room of brilliant young thinkers, activists and students respond with such confidence and coherence, knowing that his is the way of the past and theirs is the way of the future.