Star-Fired Beef

The Dangers of ‘Equalism’ and ‘Humanism’ in social justice discussions of gaming

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Back when, at Blizzcon 2013, the Warlords if Draenor expansion was announced, there was a surge of criticism on blogs and other social media about the representation (and presentation in general) of women in WoW. Again. And how, after years of this criticism, Blizzard writers are still not doing anything to address it in the major or prominent lore. Most of these criticisms came from bloggers who are quite confident in calling themselves feminists, and often do so in their writings.

And then, in response, there came the backlash of those who didn’t see what the problem was, or were not personally upset by it, or who thought the feminist criticism was overblown and exaggerated or not even valid at all. While reading through Navimie’s post on the subject and her roundup of the opinions she found noteworthy in the community, I was concerned to see an opinion I’d encountered outside of the gaming community when feminist issues were discussed: people claiming that they were not feminists, they were either equalists or humanists. This was somehow better than being a feminist because while you worked toward the same goal as a feminist, you were dropping the gendered, divisive label which put so many people off. From Navi’s post, quoting Zuulzilla:

… if you’re going to call yourself a feminist and say you stand for equality, you should maybe refer to yourself as an equalist instead of defining your beliefs by a gender-specific connotation. This will probably make me unpopular with a lot of folks, as I have a handful of followers and friends who call themselves feminist. By no means am I trying to start a riot or offend anyone. It’s an alien subject to me and believe me when I say I’ve tip-toed around the idea of even mentioning it. For all I know, my perspective on the “we need more female leaders” thing could be because I’m gender-blind and just don’t see what everyone else is seeing.

I’ve also seen quotes from various celebrities, such as Madonna, maintaining they hate calling themselves feminists, they think of themselves as humanists (i.e. working toward the betterment of all humanity). The implication I see here is that the terms ‘feminist’, ‘equalist’, and ‘humanist’ are all interchangeable. Or, rather, that IF YOU STAND FOR EQUALITY, then all three labels refer to the same thing, but ‘feminist’ is misleading and exclusive (rather than inclusive) and therefore should be replaced by one of the other two to prevent misunderstandings. I have a major problem with this line of thinking, as it misses a series of points that are crucial to keeping the three terms distinguished from each other. Let’s examine them in turn.

First of all, ‘humanism’ has been wildly misused in this context. According to the wiki page, humanism is a philosophical system rather than a political stance, and is concerned with the biggest picture:

The ultimate goal is human flourishing; making life better for all humans, and as the most conscious species, also promoting concern for the welfare of other sentient beings and the planet as a whole.[68] The focus is on doing good and living well in the here and now, and leaving the world a better place for those who come after.

This is a completely different focus from feminism, and while the goals of feminism also advance the goals of humanism, it would be a grave mistake to claim that they are even similar in scope – you cannot simply convert ‘feminist’ to ‘humanist’. It is possible to be humanist but not feminist; it is also possible to be feminist but not humanist.

Equalism is much closer to feminism in practice, and I can see the attraction of wanting to merge them – on the surface they have a lot in common. However, I think there are major differences in the way that equalism and feminism accomplish their goal of equality. The thing with equalism, is that it has an end goal of equality – but it doesn’t have a single defined path to that goal. When you talk about men and women being equal, or all races/ethnicities being equal, or all [insert characteristic] being equal, you have two main ways of achieving that: either you work to raise up the less privileged, or you work to tear down the more privileged (or a combination of both). Either strategy is viable and consistent with the goals of the movement, but do we really want to bring more suffering, or less? It’s all very well to say that, for example, since there are just as many ads objectifying men, it’s all equal now so women have no right to complain about their objectification. Or, let’s cut men’s average wages so that they are on par with women’s. Or, let’s encourage women online to harass, verbally assault, and send death (and other) threats to men who write things they don’t like, so that it becomes more like an even battlefield (i.e. to give as good as they get). Is that really the kind of equality we want? The race to the bottom?

Now, I am not saying that equalism is necessarily about that race to the bottom, but to call yourself an equalist is to allow for that kind of behaviour. It gives you a certain amount of negative latitude in how you go about achieving your goals. The other thing is, I feel that very few people can rightly call themselves equalists, because no matter how open-minded we think we are, most of us have some hangups about something. This is evidenced by the numerous times I have seen commenters claiming to be equalists (NOT feminists! no no no not that!) and then go on to make horribly racist, homophobic, transphobic, or misogynistic remarks. I don’t think this is a difficult thing to find if you trawl through the comments section of articles or blogs about gender issues in gaming.

As far as I am concerned, feminism is a positive sociopolitical movement whose goal is the social, political, economic and cultural equality of men and women. I admit there are a few more radical versions of the movement, which seek to punish men or are basically female supremacists; those are not what I am discussing here. One major difference between feminism and equalism is in the path to equality: feminism seeks to improve the treatment of women, either by actively increasing benefits (for example, closing the wage gap or greater representation in media) or reducing harmful effects like hiring discrimination, body image propaganda, or sexual objectification. Feminism does not desire nor intend to drag men down to be treated as badly as women in order to achieve equality.

The other major difference between equalism and feminism is that feminism has a very specific focus: women. The only time men’s issues are addressed is when they coincide with women’s issues.  I have seen a number of objections to this, basically along the lines of “well if you care about equality then why won’t you address men’s issues too?” This boggles my mind, since when you think about it, women having ‘equality’ necessarily means there must be something to compare to, i.e. men! While inequality still exists, it is a bit disingenuous to demand that feminists leave off their efforts in order to address men’s issues. And when (I am optimistic) we do reach a good approximation of equality, then we can all work to solve those issues! Huzzah! Until then, however, it is a beneficial side effect of the approach to equality that feminism takes, that many issues that men face are actually addressed indirectly by feminist goals.

Equalism does have a very broad focus, ostensibly covering gender, sexuality, race, size, ability, etc. Feminism has come under fire by its own members who object to the racism/ableism/sizeism/other-isms displayed by other feminists. Intersectional feminism does seek to address that, and while the focus remains on women, the lessons learned from intersectionality do help to make feminists aware of issues affecting men in regards to race, sexuality, etc. Finally, being a feminist does not preclude you from being active in other social justice areas like racism or sexuality.

I hope that I have demonstrated the differences between the three labels, and why calling yourself a feminist – which does in fact mean you are working for equality – does not make you an equalist or a humanist. These terms should not be used interchangeably, nor should one be viewed as a better version of another. I’d love to hear your feedback!

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2 thoughts on “The Dangers of ‘Equalism’ and ‘Humanism’ in social justice discussions of gaming

  1. We often discuss the concept of fairness v. equal. It’s difficult to know what someone needs/wants unless they say so. This starts to fall into “separate but equal” nonsense, but they are not the same concepts. Someone used the analogy, if two children are present, and one needs braces but the other doesn’t, is giving both children braces fair? It’s equal, but not necessary. Ultimately it’s about access and opportunity. I don’t think I will live long enough to ever explain why two people from similar backgrounds choose very different paths when equal opportunities were given. We are complex creatures, and there are a lot of micro and macro forces at work. I think where folks start getting prickly is when labels or ‘isms’ become the armament and not the cause. But what the hell do I know. Thanks for the interesting reading, as always!

    • Sorry Matty, but I’m not exactly sure where you are going with this. I actually started to attempt to link equalism to segregation – your “separate but equal” thing – but it got ridiculous so quickly that I abandoned it immediately. My initial idea was using gyms: at first glance equalism would support the segregation of gyms by gender. But then you’d have to divide again by race, and then sexual identity, and then and then and then….yeah. Ridiculous.

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