Wednesday, June 18, 2008

how to be unpersuasive

I've been trying to get more reading done lately, grabbing the books I've collected off my shelves and actually looking at what's inside. The latest book I began to read was Susan Brownmiller's Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape.

It's a famous feminist book, but what struck me about it is how little it bothers to actually try and persuade anyone at the beginning. First there's an interesting intro in which Brownmiller says she herself once didn't take rape too seriously. That's a nice, disarming way to start. Then she spends a couple of pages pointing out how thoroughly ignored rape was by people like Freud and Krafft-Ebbing, which is well worth noting. But within a couple of pages she wanders into pure conjecture, using the phrase "must have" repeatedly in sentences like "one of the earliest forms of male bonding must have been ... gang rape ...." She ends with a remarkable blanket statement, stating rape is "a conscious process of intimidation by which [i]all men[/i] keep [i]all women[/i] in a state of fear" (her italics).

I have two problems with this. As a reader I just don't like sweeping statements and generalities, because I feel they are almost invariably false. But I have a greater problem with the book as a writer, because for me this book represents a soft-headed preaching to the choir approach that will resonate with those who already agree with Brownmiller while alienating everyone who doesn't.

Great feminist literature like The Second Sex or Backlash (two of the most elegantly reasoned, insightful and persuasive non-fiction books ever written) makes a case the way a lawyer does, introducing evidence and drawing conclusions based on that evidence. To refute a book written like that, one would have to do research, find flaws in the evidence and holes in the logical approach to analyzing that evidence. It's not that it can't be done, you can pick holes in anything, but it would be a lot of work. But it is no work at all to pick apart a book that keeps saying this "must have" happened or that is "probably" the case. If you say, "prehistoric man must have learned to flavor meat with garlic early on," I can say "prehistoric man probably believed garlic was poisonous." We would both just be talking out of our asses if we couldn't offer evidence to support our positions.

There's probably something of interest and value in Against Our Wills. It's almost 500 pages long and it's a famous book, so I will give it that much. But by tossing away all pretense at objectivity or scholarship by the end of the first chapter, Brownmiller fails to make a case for herself as the person qualified to analyze the place of rape in civilization, and thus failed to convince me that it was worth slogging through her seemingly baseless opinions to find what was of value in her book.

For the angry feminists of the 1970s, the book was probably great, because there was a lot of justifiable resentment at the way women had been (and continue to be) treated in society. But that's the problem with the book; if you're not angry already, you are going to instantly notice that Brownmiller is talking out of her ass. And that is no way to convince anyone of anything.

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