National Post

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Saturday, June 03, 2000

Feminists' culture of victimhood coming back to haunt them
Words, symbols being appropriated by men's groups
Anne Marie Owens
National Post

LAKE LOUISE, Alta. - Feminist academics are beginning to hear their own words come back to haunt them by men's rights groups who have appropriated the traditional language of feminism and used it to successfully articulate their own struggle for social and legal reforms.

Notions such as the culture of victimhood and the discourse of oppression -- hallmarks of feminist theory -- have been taken over by men's rights advocates and used to bolster campaigns that are often completely counter to the ones in which they were originally employed.

It is a topic that has occupied much of the discussion at the annual meeting of the Canadian Law and Society Association, which has featured academic papers from law and criminology experts entitled: Backlash in Child Custody Law: Appropriating the Discourse of Oppression, Men's Rights Backlash as a 'New' Social Movement, and Swinging the Gender Pendulum.

In the opening panel, Claire Young, of the law faculty at the University of British Columbia, examined how the advocates of non-custodial parents in divorce cases effectively used the focus on fathers' rights to shift public discussion away from traditional feminist topics such as deadbeat Dads and taxation of child support to focus more on shared parenting and what she calls "the post-divorce family unit."

In another panel examining the gradual shift in child custody law, Susan Boyd, also of the University of British Columbia's law faculty, said the traditional feminist focus on the dangers of a motherless society is now being eclipsed "by the terrible consequences of fatherlessness."

She cited the example of a high- profile custody dispute between a young single mother and Theodore "Blue" Edwards, a basketball player who was married to someone else when he fathered a child during his season with the Vancouver Grizzlies. She said the case has so far shown that the law favours "an efficiency argument," where it is easier to grant custody to an affluent, married couple rather than expecting society to assist a single mother.

Another paper at the conference examined "the insidious inversions" of feminist language being employed on Internet sites devoted to men's rights groups and anti-feminist organizations.

Robert Menzies, a criminology teacher at Simon Fraser University in B.C., described how his preliminary examination of hundreds of these Internet sites has already uncovered such common themes as the language of rights, the idea that women are powerful, the discourse of damage and blame, the claims of victimhood and the disempowerment of males.

"There is an appropriation of some very important feminist symbols," he said. "This inversion is a very powerful force because it has implications for how we go about responding: Do we ignore it, or do we enter into a discursive and social war that may have no end?"

While there is a consensus among many of the academics gathered at the conference that feminist language has indeed been appropriated by the very forces that often oppose feminism, what is debatable is what, if anything, feminists should do about it.

Hester Lessard, who teaches law at the University of Victoria, articulates the dilemma as a struggle between an initial response of "rushing to reverse the reversal," and a sober second thought that even entering into this debate is giving in to a narrow reading of complex issues.

She said this backlash concept was popularized by Susan Faludi, the American author, as "resistance by attack," but feminist scholars have always seen it more as "a rhetorical strategy of reversal, where dominant groups become innocent victims and marginalized groups become the oppressors."

Yet even her colleagues argue that it may be impossible, and perhaps perilous, for feminists to ignore the demands of this new battleground.

"This is a backlash that is vigorous, sustained and sweeping and it has already shifted the parameters of the debate and is making its way into law reform," said Ms. Young.

"When it comes down to it, I'm not so terrified by the fringe," said Mr. Menzies. "What I'm concerned with is the reasoned male response, the so-called liberal rights discourse which is both a co-option and an inversion of feminist theory. It's very carefully couched, mostly led by white affluent males, who are presenting their arguments in the language with which feminists are very familiar."

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