Heads up, this is gonna be a looooooong post. But I am feeling REALLY passionate about this.
I first discovered Meghan Daum’s The Problem With Everything from a Sam Harris podcast episode, titled “Sex & Power” (linked here if you’d like to listen!) To my pleasant surprise, I really connected with Daum in this interview. In the recent past, when it came to discussing or debating feminism, I had always taken the side of what I now know to be a pretty extreme perspective. However, I was compelled by Daum’s argument, the effective and thorough conversation she had with Harris, and was intrigued enough to go out and buy her book. And I am SO glad that I did.
To preface this post, I’ve always considered myself a feminist. After all, the general definition of feminism, is belief of the social, political and economic equality of the sexes, and I mean like, duh, we should ALL be feminists with that definition. I’ve always wholeheartedly accepted that, and still do today.
But in recent years, I had adopted a radicalized perspective of feminism without even knowing it — and mainly because I would lazily scroll through my “explore” page on Instagram, which slowly but surely kept re-exposing me to memes and posts of some extreme, intransigent beliefs that, in turn, kept re-confirming the ideas I learned from the original posts I clicked on. It was years of falling down a proverbial rabbit hole of “feminism” that I don’t think I ever fully understood, and was never encouraged to question. I was a dormant, lazy, only-kinda-informed, naive, radicalized feminist, but nevertheless, was radicalized. And I thought I was being badass or woke or whatever term deemed appropriate at the time to describe a really hardcore, uncompromising “social justice warrior.”
And when I say radicalized — I mean that I was entirely complicit and agreed with the idea of “canceling” and enforced hyper-political-correctness, even got upset with the idea of the song “Baby It’s Cold Outside” as egging on rape culture. I was uncompromising and shut down any sort of debate about the topic, calling any dissent or questioning the result of internalized patriarchy or “mansplaining.” I viewed men as the enemy, fully-subscribing to the “humor” behind ironic misandry, which I’m now not so sure is mean to be truly ironic or if it’s only called so. I expected all women to conform to an outlined set of beliefs simply because of their gender, and considered them ex-communicated if they did not (ex. conservative women who voted for Trump). I was exclusive. In essence, I became exactly what a feminist touts not to be.
And funnily enough, what it took to slowly lead me away from this radicalized path was someone I dated last year. Of course, whenever he would challenge or question one of these pre-existing beliefs, I got upset at every word he said, because, you know, he was mAnSpLAiNinG mE and I was NOT about to listen to his stupid MAN opinion. God forbid. But… he did introduce me to Sam Harris, which in turn led me to start listening to a few more Making Sense episodes, and led me to one day decide to click on the “Sex & Power” episode, and voila: I was introduced to Meghan Daum. And I bought her book. And Daum’s narrative helped me fully realize that I needed calm down. So to credit this dismantling of radicalized beliefs, a wholehearted thank you to Chris, Sam and Meghan.
I felt very “seen” reading this book, and I laughed, a lot, at the ridiculousness of how far it’s all gone and at my own ridiculous behavior (though I can thankfully reassure you that I have never owned a pussy-hat. I never went that far). And after this book, I’ve adopted a much more progressive, empathetic, aware and poignant perspective of feminist issues, and beyond. And most importantly, I’m finally comfortable enough to question, debate, and push the bounds of what it truly means to be a feminist, every day. That how feminists before us progressed their ideas, got things done, and changed society for the better — and that’s exactly the legacy we need to continue today.
Alright, now on to the book. Daum is a op-ed journalist for publications such as the New Yorker and The Los Angeles Times, and most recently, has written this hilariously accurate and insightful account of the direction of modern-day feminism, “cancel culture” and social media mobs. The Problem With Everything is a must-read for anyone who wants a delightfully funny, refreshing and liberating take on the intensely divided, vitriolic climate our society seems trapped in with each passing day.
Daum first outlines the different “waves” of feminism: the first that was born around the arguments of women’s right to vote in the early 20th century, to the second, third (the wave Daum considers herself a part of), and now the fourth wave, which is driven mostly by social media and has become incredibly punitive and uncompromising than waves seen before. Of course, this fourth-wave brings up valid arguments, like all new-waves do, and ones that we should adhere to; but not all of them. And that’s why Daum wrote this book.
Daum tackles “culture wars” of society today, ranging from topics such as call-out culture, cancel culture, #MeToo, social justice warriors, safe spaces, intersectionality theory, victimhood, the commoditization of feminism. She really covers everything, and does so with humor, irony, and a gentle push to remind us all that we really need to have rational and sane discourse on the myriad of sensitive subjects being tossed around in the brutal culture of social media today. We NEED to be questioning and debating these dominant narratives, whose brashness, stridency and certainty do a great job of discouraging and shutting down dialogue.
“Today, social media can take a random conspiracy theory or misreported fact and turn it into a population-wide anxiety attack in a matter of hours” (44).
Social media has exacerbated these issues. It’s become an age of ad hominem attacks and swift indictments that last for years. In authoritarian measures, there is a group of “social justice warriors” and feminists who have taken it upon themselves to become purity-police, canceling all those who express a bad opinions and indicting them as hopeless cases (not cases for growth and understanding) for the rest of eternity. It’s a “you’re-either-with-us-or-against-us” mentality.
And it’s gotten REALLY out of hand. It has created a really toxic culture surrounding sensitive (and important!!!) issues, from racism to sexism, from feminism and intersectionality, to harassment and assault. What it’s really doing is an incredible disservice to progressive beliefs; it is drawing attention away from the important issues such as feminism doctrine to over-blown issues such as manspreading or mansplaining, micro-aggressions, etc. It is feminism that is devouring it’s own and canceling itself. It’s feminism that has, itself, become a moral panic. And as feminists, we should be panicking about that.
Take Aziz Ansari, for example. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, Ansari was accused of a “bad date,” making the woman uncomfortable and as she claimed that he did not, or would not, pick up on her “cues” that she was not interested in a sexual encounter (nothing blatant or explicit, like words, just “cues;” in essence, Ansari was guilty of not being a mind reader). Negotiating awkward or unpleasant sexual situations is something grownups must learn to do, Daum reiterates, and it’s hardly rare for any adult emerge from such situations with regrets. Why couldn’t this woman who wrote a 3,000-word piece of what’s now considered “revenge porn” about this “bad date” instead have simply cut off the unpleasant encounter while it was happening? Why couldn’t she “stand up on [her] two legs and walk out his door,” as Bari Weiss of the New York Times memorably put it? It’s not very feminist (or kind) to be silent and passive for a sexual encounter and then be ragingly nasty afterwards.
Of course, in cases like Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer or Donald Trump, obviously these accusations should be taken with grave seriousness. The accusers against Harvey Weinstein are far and wide, with concrete and back-able proof of their accusations. Similar situations with Matt Lauer or Donald Trump. [A side note: I’ve recently posted about She Said, the book written by the two New York Times journalists who broke the Harvey Weinstein story a few years ago. It is a PHENOMENAL story of the journalistic process and the birth of #MeToo. And it is the perfect example of kind of care we should be taking with every single sensitive topic or accusation in today’s age. It is a must-read.]
Daum invites us to consider accusations with a fair and unbiased lens — though it seems as if we’ve switched into a “guilty before proven innocent” era of accusations like these. Of course, the flip side to this is that it’s only in recent years that accusations of sexual harassment and assault have seemed to been take seriously; so the question is, where is the happy medium? How do we adequately address accusations of harassment or assault, without immediately indicting one party or another based on our political beliefs? Daum doesn’t have a perfect answer for that, and neither do I. But it must be understood that every claim of harassment and assault should be taken with a degree of nuance and understanding, of perspective and empathy: too decisive one way or the other only creates more problems.
Moreover, I chose to post on this book right now because the next book I intend to review, American Dirt, has been canceled by the social-media mobs as spoken of in Daum’s book. The author, Jeanine Cummins, is a white woman, who has written a fiction novel about a Mexican woman and her son fleeing Acapulco and attempting to cross the United States border. It’s harrowing, adrenaline-spiking, beautifully written and truly tugs at your heart strings, but has been canceled because its a white woman “appropriating” a culture other than her own, and who has written a novel based on stereotypes that are detrimental to the Latinx community.
It has, in my opinion, sparked an extremely important conversation about diversity and representation in the literary world — which is a just argument, because this representation of Latinx authors truly is lacking. But to cancel a book (a modern form of book burning), because of it? To cancel it because she wrote a fiction novel of a culture that is not her own? I think that’s taking it a little far (more on this in my next post).
Anyways, I cannot reiterate how much I LOVED THIS BOOK. Daum’s narrative really hit home in a lot of ways, and forced me to awkwardly admit my own previously-held extreme beliefs and to transition in a much more humanizing, empathetic and nuanced perspective of these issues.
To sum this up: we need to be kinder to each other. We need to stop censuring conversations, indicting too quickly, and calling-out people for the slightest missteps beyond the bounds of intersectionalist ideals (because this will happen, without a doubt, to all of us). We need to educate each other, elicit greater awareness and sensitivity about these topics in an empathetic way, debating sides before drawing conclusions. We are all human, after all. And humans are not perfect. Nor should we expect them to be.
See below for one of my favorite quotes from the book. More to come later! (And if you’ve made it this far in my post, kudos to you! THANK YOU for reading!!)
“The best way to be fashion-forward, it seemed, was to declare men the enemy. Here’s the problem with that sentiment: It may purport to diminish male power, but in my view it only bolsters it. It hands men power they simply don’t have, or at least they don’t deserve. It follows the logic of ‘punching up’ in comedy, which say that it’s okay to make fun of someone as long as that person intrinsically holds more power than you. It’s why it’s culturally acceptable to skewer a celebrity or a politician or even a random rich person but not a normal private citizen. But here’s what I think: when women apply this logic to men, bathing in their tears and shooing off their every utterance as mansplaining, they actually achieve the opposite of what they intended. They effectively put those men on pedestals they might not have been on to begin with. They lift them up in order to knock them down. They literally hand men their own power. It’s like doing a jujitsu move against yourself” (84).