I try not to write about politics as politics here, but I do want to write about language, and language and politics are deeply bound together. Here’s a good example.
I have recently been struck by the near-total demise of the word “sexist” in online political interaction, at least from my own anecdotal vantage point. I can’t verify that absence in an rigorous way, but if someone in sociology or communications or similar fields wanted to investigate it, I’d be very interested in seeing the results. So this is all provisional and speculative, and I might merely be wrong about the relative decline of the term sexism compared to misogyny. But as someone who consumes a lot of online political writing, it certainly seems to me that you’re just far, far more likely to see people described as misogynist than sexist these days. This is interesting on a variety of levels, particularly given that for a long time, misogyny was a rare word, and I think perceived as academic in its character.
Sexism and misogyny are not exactly the same things. Sexism, to me, refers to the systemic ways in which women are excluded, degraded, and oppressed, and generally to the ways in which gender is used as an excuse for women’s inequality. Misogyny refers specifically to hatred of women. There is no doubt that these concepts are linked, and also no doubt that many men who are responsible for sexism are themselves guilty of misogyny. But I don’t think it is helpful, politically, to conflate the two terms, and the preference for one over the other strikes me as indicative of the problems with contemporary social liberalism.
Among the strangest and most frustrating changes in radical politics during my lifetime has been the wholesale abandonment of structural critique in favor of individual critique. As the radical child of radical parents, I grew up into a mental and political world where the assumed work of politics was in changing unjust structures rather than attacking unjust people. The two tasks were inevitably connected; oftentimes, the former necessitates the latter. Powerful individuals are often an impediment to structural change and thus have to be criticized. But the critique of individuals was always understood to be in service to the effort to enact real, material change, in large part because that’s the only way to help people who need help. An individual CEO might be a crook and might deserve prosecution, but removing any individual CEO does not actually change the system. The transition from the Bush administration to the Obama administration brought with it many positive changes, even for a committed Obama-skeptic like me. But it also revealed the ways in which major problems were embedded at the structural level, which meant that the transition between individuals couldn’t fix them.
So consider sexism and misogyny. You can certainly call misogyny a structural problem with our culture– I would. I think hatred of women is embedded in our cultural heritage. But misogyny is inherently an emotional term; it describes the internal state of individuals. It’s bad if men have hatred for women. But that hatred is not what actually hurts women. What hurts them is the way in which they are, from birth, systematically excluded from full and equal participation in human success, whether that success is economic or political or personal. The way to end sexism is to achieve full equality across all genders and all gender identities. Making individual dudes not feel hatred for women would be nice, but it does not actually help actually existing women. I am frankly deeply skeptical that we can ever eliminate emotional sexism. Living in a virulently sexist world, I’ve come to the conclusion that the anger and resentment that many men feel towards women is a permanent, terrible feature of human life, at least for the foreseeable future. I don’t mistake ending material and economic gender inequality for an easy task. But I would know when we had achieved success. How would you know you had eliminated hatred from the hearts of angry dudes, particularly as they grow savvier about how they express that hatred publicly?
Racism is not exactly the same, but for me, the same dynamic broadly applies: after working on it for several decades, I see no end in sight to personal, emotional racism. I am discouraged enough to believe that there will be human beings who feel racial animus as long as they can perceive racial differences. What we can do is to bring force to bear on the economic and material inequalities that harm the lives of people of color, which would help to render racial animus irrelevant. People hate the rich, too, but it doesn’t matter; they have power. Empower women and people of color and the hatred of white men goes from being destructive to being pathetic.
Besides: on an analytical level, I think that there are many ways in which sexual inequality is spread or deepened that are not based on hatred. Now this is where I’ll likely get myself in trouble, because I will be perceived as minimizing the critique of sexists, but that isn’t the case. I think that many men who contribute to sexism do so while sincerely believing that they love women more than anyone, that they in fact honor women by participating in their exclusion. Think of the Catholic Church, which has justified centuries of oppression and exclusion under the logic that it actually loves women more than anything. Again, I’m sure some will see this as expressing understanding for sexists, but in fact I find this point far bleaker than the alternative: the oppression of women can be deepened even without men feeling hatred towards women. Indeed, even men who believe they are working towards eliminating sexism, men who are well read in feminist discourse and who mean well, can easily contribute to sexism. It is comforting to believe that bad is only done by bad people, but the essential political lesson of early-21st century life is that good people can do bad. Happens every day.
Finally, I just think it’s politically useful to retain the ability to make distinctions between different levels of critique. To use the race analogy again, I think our anti-racism efforts suffer because racism is seen as such an existential, permanently-disqualifying charge that people can’t be socially corrected. We have the ability to tell friends and peers when they are being a little bit of an asshole, and in that way we can condition them not to act badly again. But with racism, too many white people cannot abide any suggestion that they have been racially insensitive at all, so we lose the ability to correct them. Since all white people are at least occasionally guilty of racial insensitivity or casual racism, myself certainly included, we need a way to say so that is unflinching and unapologetic but that does not mean “you are a bad person who should be abandoned by all good people forever.” Similarly, all men are sometimes guilty of sexism. It is necessary to correct them in a way that educates them while expressing the certainty that their behavior is not acceptable. I don’t think you can accomplish this by telling them that they hate women.
The question is whether some of the people making these critiques actually care about education, about changing people. I think part of the reason that misogyny has become the term of choice is precisely because it is more inflammatory. As I will continue to point out, political critiques are subject to competitive social behaviors, and in the social networks where so much political critique happens– Tumblr, Twitter– what is rewarded is the critique that is most brutal, not the critique which is most effective for creating change. In that context, the word misogyny is a better tool than the word sexism; if sexism is X bad, then misogyny is X+1 bad, and so that term gets used, regardless of whether the situation described actually involves the hatred of women. I find this, frankly, a deeply misguided way to conduct a movement for social justice, and I think the people who take part in this kind of critique– many or most of whom are white and affluent, given the demographic nature of social networking– are ultimately privileging what makes them feel good over what is effective, even if they are completely sincere in their efforts. And this is very challenging for a lot of people who engage this way online, because they are deeply invested in a vision of politics in which there is no space whatsoever between the nobility of their intent, the purity of their politics, and the value of what they say. For me, the most important political lesson of my adulthood has been the sobering knowledge that I can be entirely noble in my intent and entirely destructive in my effects.
The question of the terminology that is best for feminism is a question to be resolved by feminist women. I can’t do more than offer my own perspective and trust that the women who work daily to eliminate the enormous evil of gender inequality will work through these issues and arrive at the best route forward. As someone who would like to think of himself as a feminist man, it seems to me that people should reconsider defaulting to the term misogyny and abandoning the term sexist. Perhaps time will tell.