Definitions depend on usage. For example, anyone is free to stipulate the definition of any word. One could, if one wanted to, define feminism as ‘the doctrine that women are fundamentally inferior to men and should serve them.’ This would certainly create an odd sort of ‘feminist,’ which is the main reason we try not to do that with important words. Definitions are meant to make something clear. Dictionary definitions are meant to make clear how a given word or term is actually used or has been used in a given language.
There are of course many dictionaries, and thus many “dictionary definitions” of feminism (and everything else), but this is the go-to one used in most public discourse on the internet, the one given by Google when you type “define feminism” into it:
Definition is something people do for a reason. It is an action that has an end, namely, to make clear the meaning or usage of the term being defined. It is thus possible to fail in giving a definition, by failing to capture the actual usage of a term. And like other human activities that aim at a definite end, definition has rules or guidelines; these rules are not compulsory rules, in the sense that “you morally ought to obey them,” but are similar to logical rules, in the sense that “if you violate these rules you will fail at your task”—whether that task be “making a valid argument” or “making a term clear in its usage.”
Briefly, the criteria of sound definition are
- A definition must be coextensive. It must catch every instance and exclude no instance of what is being defined.
- A definition must be unambiguous. Ambiguous terms in a definition cause the meaning to be unclear.
- A definition must be concise, not lengthy.
- A definition must be positive, not negative.
- A definition must be literal, not metaphorical.
- A definition must be non-circular.
I grant that, as far as I can see, the “dictionary definition” of feminism meets criteria 3-6.
Where it fails are 1 and 2.
The first point is fairly clear, and it is why most people get very annoyed when feminists appeal to the dictionary definition of feminism. It is annoying because they are very clearly NOT trying to explain what feminism IS, but trying to SELL IT to you by creating a false equivalence with something that sounds (and is) much better than feminism, viz. egalitarianism, as applied to the sexes.
This point is so stupidly simple, it can be put in the form of a diagram that even a child can understand. I apologize for insulting your intelligence, but it really IS necessary to hammer this point home with this lack of subtlety—because the people who cite the dictionary definition aren’t even trying to be honest, it is necessary to rub their faces in how wrong they are:
This is the basic problem. The sets of “feminists” and “people who advocate for women’s rights on the basis of social, political, and economic equality with men” are just not coextensive. Yes, they overlap somewhat, but there are very many feminists who do not advocate for equality, and very many people who do advocate for the equality of the sexes (and I am one of them) who are not feminists. And the reason that so many of us advocates of women’s equality are NOT feminists, is precisely because so many feminists are NOT advocates of equality.
Since feminism (femin-ISM) is an ideology, and ideologies are belief-systems, no one can force anyone else to subscribe to an ideology against their will. And yet, this is what those who cite the dictionary definition of feminism are trying to do: they are trying to FORCE you to self-identify as a feminist, on the basis of some of your beliefs, and they are trying to do it with a FALSE definition of feminism. And one thing that is, or at least should be, anathema in a pluralistic liberal democracy is attempts to FORCE others to believe as you want them to believe. In a free and democratic society, we use PERSUASION rather than FORCE, and ideally, RATIONAL PERSUASION, which is different from COERCIVE PERSUASION and MANIPULATIVE PERSUASION.
To be clear, I was using “force you to identify as a feminists” in the looser sense of “coercively and manipulatively persuade you to.” There have only been a few attempts to use genuine force (so far), as when a member of the E.U. Parliament attempted to make it a CRIME to criticize feminism. And of course, governmental FORCE was what Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn were asking for when they went before the UN, asking that the UN put pressure on national governments to implement feminist ideology by law. However benighted and ridiculous Emma Watson’s HeForShe campaign was, at least she wasn’t advocating that the UN take steps to see her ideology implemented by force of law.
So, while most feminists would LOVE to use actual FORCE to punish anyone who dissents from their ideology, they usually don’t have the power to do this, except in limited areas. Rejecting feminism will indeed get you fired as a matter of course at many colleges and universities in the United States, where feminist ideologues essentially control those institutions.
But let me explain why this is DISHONEST PERSUASION: it is (1) COERCIVE PERSUASION in the sense that feminists will do whatever is in their power to harm you if you do not agree with them, and it is (2) MANIPULATIVE PERSUASION in the sense that feminists deliberately distort the truth in order to sell and push their ideology. The basic move in the appeal to the dictionary definition is an appeal to shame. In a highly egalitarian society such as ours, people are very vulnerable to being socially shamed if they hold anti-egalitarian views. Feminists, by simply equating feminism with the egalitarian view in regard to the sexes, attempt to socially shame and stigmatize anyone who does not identify as a feminist or accept feminist ideology as being an anti-egalitarian or sexist.
This tactic is of course not limited to appeals to the dictionary; many feminists as a matter of course label anyone who disagrees with their ideological position as “sexist” or even “misogynist.” This is DISHONEST because it isn’t true. Most people in the modern West are egalitarians with respect to the sexes—ironically, the largest group in the modern West of non-egalitarians with regard to the sexes are certain kinds of feminists, who are female supremacists. So, a feminist tells a LIE (manipulative persuasion) by saying feminism and egalitarianism of the sexes are the same, and attempts on the basis of this lie to SHAME and STIGMATIZE you (coercive persuasion) for not being a feminist on the false basis that not being a feminist is equivalent to not being an egalitarian regarding the sexes, or worse, is being a sexist, or still worse, is being a misogynist.
All this seems pretty obvious. I’m only bothering to spell it out because I enjoy laying things out clearly.
The SECOND reason the dictionary definition of feminism fails is that it is not unambiguous. The problem turns on the word “equality.” As the philosopher Roger Scruton has observed, there is hardly a more important word in modern political discourse that is so entirely resistant to clear definition:
Almost everyone in the modern West is “for equality,” but at the same time is completely unable to say what it is, how we would get it, and why it’s so desirable in the first place. Almost no one, in the West or anywhere else, thinks that people should be treated “equally” in every respect. Nor is it clear exactly what it even MEANS to “treat people equally” in many cases.
Which brings us back to the problem with using such an unclear term in a definition. There are simply too many ways to take “equality” for the definition to actually make clear what it is talking about. Let me give just two examples of why this is bad:
(1) Since one kind of equality is identity or sameness, a stupid person who desires “equality” will tend to desire what we could call exactly-the-same-ness. The problem with this is the context of the sexes, is that men and women are NOT the same, but rather different in fundamental ways. This doesn’t mean, of course, that they should be treated unequally in the sense of unfairly, but remember, this is the stupid person’s reasoning we are going through. “The only way to achieve equality is by sameness,” the stupid person reasons, “so equality requires that men and women be treated the same, and even more, that they be made the same. And since it is a moral imperative that they be made the same, they must really be the same, metaphysically. So we must ignore any evidence of natural difference, for example, biology, and indeed more than ignore it, condemn it as sexist.”
Since stupid people tend to equate equality with sameness, they also tend to equate difference with inequality, and so a great deal of modern feminism, as an ideology, advocates biological denialism. MOST PEOPLE who are principled egalitarians and want to see justice between the sexes (which is most people) are NOT signing up for an ideology that requires them to deny biology and other inconvenient parts of reality. The dictionary definition of feminism does nothing to rule out the interpretation of equality as exactly-the-same-ness, which entails biology denialism specifically and more generally reality denialism.
(2) This one is also fairly obvious, given that it has been a point of contention in the West at least since Rousseau and the French Revolution, although it is probably more associated in the popular mind with Marx and Marxism. I am of course talking about the distinction between equality of opportunity, which holds there ought to be a “level playing field” in which no one “begins the game” with any unearned or unfair advantages or disadvantages, and that, so long as the game isn’t rigged, and the players play fairly, justice has been satisfied, even if the outcomes of the players may be widely different; and equality of outcome, which holds that the game must be rigged to ensure that no one wins or loses, and indeed, no matter what the players do or fail to do, they obtain exactly the same results in the game.
The trouble with the Marxist understanding of equality is that it is antithetical to the other primary modern Western value, freedom or liberty. The classical-liberal view accepts inequality of outcome, because it values both equality and liberty. So once again, the dictionary definition of feminism fails to tell us whether a feminist is interested in preserving freedom and liberty, especially and including women’s freedom, or whether a feminist, in Marxist fashion, is an authoritarian or totalitarian who hates liberty because it results in a kind of inequality which is deemed unacceptable. Most people in the modern West place a high value on liberty, and would not sign up for an ideology that is anti-liberty. However, there is also a rather sizable and vocal feminist minority (perhaps even a majority, certainly a plurality) who are more than happy to sacrifice liberty for the sake of their (Marxist) vision of equality—most of them are delusional or catastrophically naïve, and advocate the suppression of liberty on the assumption that it will only be the liberties of others which will be restricted.
I’m sure that if Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn got the censorship laws they advocate put in place, they would expect not ever to be subject to them—but that isn’t how things work, when you give the state broad powers to censor and control. For example, consider a case from the history of feminism itself: Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, thwarted time and again in their attempts to implement censorship laws in the United States (they were repeated blocked by the First Amendment) eventually turned their efforts to Canada, which has no equivalent of the US’s First Amendment. And they partially succeeded! It became part of Canadian law that certain kinds of books could not be imported into Canada nor sold in Canadian bookstores. Really, they should have seen it coming. Now, since the laws banned books that contain thing X, and MacKinnon and Dworkin write books about how awful a thing thing X is, it naturally follows that their books contain thing X—yes, it is there only in order to be condemned, but the law makes no distinction between various uses of thing X. So, to their surprise and horror, MacKinnon and Dworkin found that they had succeeded in banning their own books in Canada and among the most affected by the new censorship laws were feminist bookstores and publishers, who found they could no longer publish or sell feminist books thanks to the new feminist censorship law. Feminism had gotten what it had asked for, and it had succeeded in censoring itself!
In sum, the dictionary definition of feminism fails as a useful definition because it asserts something false to actual usage, namely, the identity of feminism and egalitarianism regarding the sexes—and it does this dishonestly, as a technique to coerce and manipulate by means of appeals to shame made on the basis of this conflation; furthermore, it fails to sufficiently make clear what “feminism” even means, with the result that entire point of giving a definition, to make the meaning of a word clear, is not achieved.
I could talk about some other things, such as the inherent sexism involved in term itself,
but that is more of a meta-criticism of the term “feminism” than the failure of the dictionary definition of it. So let this be enough for now.
I’ll leave you with a link to Satoshi Kanazawa’s article Why Modern Feminism is Illogical, Unnecessary, and Evil. Read it and think it over.