Monday, August 19, 2013

Hugo Schwyzer and what's broken in the market for Feminist Thought

There's a schism on my Facebook: left-leaning academics and law students from my under-grad debate career, and right-leaning economists and libertarians I've met since. One advantage is that I get access to juicy drama I'd otherwise never hear about from my current circles. A recent example is the meltdown of male feminist Hugo Schwyzer, the backlash, and counter-backlash that has resulted.

I had never really heard of Schwyzer before his scandal, but what I've gathered since: he has attained online recognition in feminist circles as a man who can write about gender issues without putting a foot too far into his mouth (a rare skill), and has been awarded tenure at a California college where he taught classes on gender and history... Until recently. He has published in no scholarly journals and admittedly took only two classes on gender in college. (With my concentration in gender studies, I feel positively over-qualified -- can I have tenure too please?)

Schwyzer has a checkered past, including drug abuse and sexual relationships with students, however these flaws have been woven masterfully into a redemption story and apparently make him qualified to talk about sex from a feminist perspective... Until last week, when he had a meltdown on Twitter and cut himself off from online communication. Describing himself as sociopathic, manipulative, drug- and attention-dependent, his recent Twitter self-flagellation is like an awful car accident: disgusting and cringe-worthy, but somehow impossible to stop looking at.

If there is an "economics of feminist scholarship", Schwyzer is an interestingly perverse example of unintended consequences at work. Here are some stylized facts and the interpretation I attach to them:

1. The feminist movement has gained increasing power in academia. The need to publish has pushed feminists in increasingly radical directions. Some branches of radical feminism seem overtly hostile towards men. Learning about these theories makes many men uncomfortable, so men who are formally educated about gender issues are rare (the supply side).

2. To continue advancing the goal of gender equality, most feminists would like to see men involved. Men can broaden the scope of feminist literature, and help counter the popular perception that feminists are "anti-male." Men who are marginally capable scholars but able to discuss feminist issues therefore have augmented job opportunities (the demand side).

3. Supply of male feminists is restricted, and demand is high, so economics would predict that the price (wage) for male feminists would go up. But, in most public universities, there isn't much flexibility in salaries -- and paying men in the gender studies department more than women certainly is not going to fly. How do markets compensate? Either male feminists get non-pecuniary benefits, or they offer lower quality services to compensate for the below-market wage. Schwyzer is an embodiment of both effects.

What is the economic prediction? Male feminists are especially likely to be opportunists. Maybe, like Schwyzer, they start off in another field (history) but then realize the pickings are better if they re-brand as feminists. Male feminist scholars then end up being lower quality than the female feminist scholars. Alternately, manipulative, borderline-sociopathic men recognize they can gain non-wage benefits from working around lots of young women (something Schwyzer admits to openly). Either way, the feminist movement feels betrayed from within.

Keep in mind that I'm speaking in terms of averages, and of course not every male feminist will be like Schwyzer. But, given the forces at work in the market for feminist scholars, I don't expect much great work to be done by male feminists, and I do expect them to be more likely to have personal scandals than the average professor.

One counter to this argument is to say that learning about feminism makes men more enlightened about gender equity so they are less likely to take advantage of women. Maybe this is true. But, learning how to use the rhetoric of feminism is also a powerful tool for manipulation if that man is not so genuinely enlightened. It's a scary prospect for feminists, as this whole Schwyzer scandal illustrates.

The problem I'm highlighting boils down to selection effects in the men who take feminist courses in college (and potentially pursue graduate degrees in gender studies to become professors). I'm not sure there are any good solutions.

Given the current feminist curriculum which focuses on women's experience, men who complete the courses are often either (1) largely in agreement with feminism, but realize that they don't have much to contribute without being accused of "mansplaining" or similar, so they either write extremely bland pro-feminist articles or specialize in a non-gender field or (2) are clever opportunists, and realize they can write articles aimed at "reforming men" while having extremely shallow adherence to feminist ideas, and then capitalize on the benefits that their "scarce perspective" brings to them, i.e. the Schwyzer path.

My prediction: like any expert manipulator, Schwyzer will claim to be reformed (again) in the next few months, will return to his old ways, and functionally nothing will change except the titles of the outraged Tumblr posts.

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