False Consciousness Theory in Feminism and Anti-Speciesism

high_heelsBoth feminist legal theory and anti-speciesism make use of the concept of the Marxian false consciousness, described here by Engels in his 1893 Letter to Mehring:

Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker consciously indeed but with a false consciousness. The real motives impelling him remain unknown to him, otherwise it would not be an ideological process at all. Hence he imagines false or apparent motives. Because it is a process of thought he derives both its form and its content from pure thought, either his own or his predecessors’.

From the feminist perspective, the false consciousness critique is typically used to devalue (as “inauthentic”) a choice made by another.   The example I use in teaching this concept to students is a woman’s statement “I like wearing high heels.”  Her feminist critic might say, “You think wearing high heels is your personal preference, but you have been conditioned by an androcentric society to want to wear high heels, because that is what men like and benefit from.”  (Note to self: If CBS News broadcasts “Tips on How to Navigate High Heels” here, shouldn’t this be an indication that it heels aren’t functional footwear?)

Between and among anti-speciesists, the imagined exchange might go something like this.

Person A: I choose to have a fish as a pet and I think there is nothing wrong with that because it makes me happy and it makes the fish happy.

Person B:  You think it is ok to have a fish as a pet because society has conditioned you to think that it makes you happy and makes the fish happy, because that is what a speciesist society likes and benefits from.

The argument, in both feminism and anti-speciesism, is that when the chooser chooses a pre-chosen choice, that choice is less authentic, valid, worthy of respect than a choice that is not pre-chosen.  But if we embrace the implications of the Marxist critique, then there shouldn’t be any intellectual room for an unchosen choice.  In other words, the critique itself arises out of culturally constrained circumstances that shape the critique.  The self-superior tone of the false consciousness critique is especially problematic for feminists, for whom choice is a dominant value.  Choice can double back.  If I chose my choice, even if my choice was pre-chosen, one might argue that the choosing is what matters, not the choice itself.  Yikes.

-Bridget Crawford

cross-posted in Feminist Law Professors

One Response

  1. Neat photo there.

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