On New Year’s Eve of 2015/2016, mass sexual assaults took place against women in several cities across Germany. Most famous is the incident in Cologne, where 2000 men of Middle-eastern and North African descent sexually assaulted 1200 German women.
Coordinated mass sexual assaults by men against women should be a feminist cause if there ever was one. Yet to the surprise of most Europeans, many familiar feminist bloggers, pundits and writers across northern Europe did not come out to denounce the attacks. Instead, many talked about how these mass sexual assaults were no different from what white European men do to women every weekend at clubs, how there is rape in every culture so it would be irresponsible to just single out these Middle Eastern perpetrators, and so on.
How could we have come to a point where leading European feminists cannot bring themselves to speak out against mass coordinated sexual assaults against women? The answer has to do with what we call the contraction in modern feminism.
Feminism was originally a movement rooted in the broader values of the age of enlightenment. The foundation of classical feminism was the belief that all citizens should be treated equally by the state and be able to lay claim to the same rights, privileges and responsibilities, regardless of gender. At the time when feminism was conceived, the application of this principle meant expanding women’s rights to be on par with men’s.
The values of the enlightenment were universalist and went both ways: If men had somehow been the ones to be short-changed by society, then the same principle could have been applied to further men’s causes. Enlightenment feminism wasn’t about being a man or being a woman. It was about being equals as human beings. Enlightenment values were also individualist. If certain traditions, cultures, and religions mandated that men or women be treated differently, then these collectivist social structures had to be combated, since the individual’s free choice was unequivocally more important.
However, in recent years, feminism has also absorbed ideas from movements very different from the enlightenment. Some of the names used to describe this type of feminism 3rd and 4th wave feminism, intersectional feminism, and so on.
Where enlightenment feminism had been universalist and individualistic, many modern feminists regard the whole tradition of the enlightenment as suspicious, exclusively Western, and perhaps even imperialistic. If other cultures have different gender roles, then who are we to say they’re wrong?
In other words, the philosophy inherent in much of modern feminism has more to do with the philosophical responses and counter movements to the enlightenment, than they have to do with the enlightenment. Specifically, much of it is indebted to the philosophy of the romantic era, where it was thought that the individual’s values could not be formularized as a list of abstract rights and ideals, but were deeply rooted in culture, community, and personal identity.
In other words, where the enlightenment was universalist, rational, and impersonal, the philosophy of the romantic era was particularistic, experiential and personal. They are and were two completely different ways of viewing the world.
So where Western feminists used to be unequivocally opposed to traditions, cultures, and religions that stood in the way of their enlightenment values, the picture is now less clear cut. It is not that modern feminists don’t care about the plight of women outside of their own culture and ethnicity, as right-wingers often like to accuse them of being. Rather, it is that modern feminists tend to see the traditions, mores, and religious of individuals belonging to other cultures as vulnerable components of their identity. If these were steamrolled by Western pundits, this might result in an empowered majority culture subjugating a vulnerable minority. In the eyes of many modern feminists, lecturing people of other cultures about what values they should have can very easily border on cultural imperialism and be disempowering to minorities.
This is where the confusion comes in: Prosaically speaking, worrying about steamrolling minority cultures has very little to do with women’s rights and very much to do with an overall agenda of fighting racism, where modern feminists see themselves as the defenders of vulnerable minorities.
This is why leading feminist pundits all over northern Europe were left speechless when 2000 Middle Eastern and North Africa men stage a massed sexual assault on 1200 European women. Obviously these men were trampling the rights of women underfoot. But they were also part of what many modern feminists perceived as a vulnerable minority culture. They wouldn’t risk being the enablers of cultural imperialism.
In this way we can see how modern feminism is trapped in a contradiction between two philosophical traditions that simply cannot be synthetized. The enlightenment one, that cares about equal rights and is rational, individualistic and universalist. And the romantic one, which places more stress on the personal, the particular, and on protecting minorities from cultural hegemony and imperialism. And this is what we call The Contradiction in Modern Feminism.