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Toward a Definition of Misogyny

One of the sticking points in the last few months of discussions about the role of women in the skeptical and atheist movements is the resistance to the use of the word “misogyny.” In its general form, the argument goes: “Hey! There’s no evidence that this person actually hates women. Using that word is an exaggeration/hyperbole/an unwarranted attack!” Then all other discussion must grind to a halt while this argument happens. Again.

There’s a little problem with that. “Hatred of women” is not a definition of “misogyny”. It’s a translation. To have an actual working definition of the word, we’re going to have to do a little more work.

Misogyny is a special case of misanthropy. It is a special case in that it is applied only to women rather than to humanity as a whole. And while “misanthropy” translates as “hatred of humans,” that isn’t actually how we use the word.

Wikipedia currently has a pretty good working definition of “misanthropy“:

Misanthropy is generalized dislike, distrust, disgust, contempt or hatred of the human species or human nature. A misanthrope, or misanthropist is someone who holds such views or feelings.

Hatred is a subset of misanthropy under this definition, but it isn’t the entirety of the phenomenon. A misanthrope may be someone who doesn’t believe there is a minimum standard of treatment to which we all have a right. They may be someone who is annoyed or on their guard when other people are around. Or they may be, as in the classic Tartuffe play, someone who is constantly disappointed by the people around them.

Understanding that misogyny is a special case of this phenomenon makes it much easier to understand the usage to which the word has been put recently. Someone who doesn’t want women around unless the women abandon their “feminine” qualities is a misogynist. Someone who believes women generally lie about things for attention or “use” men for some kind of personal gain or think women are generally bad at this, that, or the other is a misogynist. Someone who doesn’t believe that women have a right to the same minimum standards of treatment as men is a misogynist. Putting misogyny is concrete terms isn’t difficult.

Nor is “misogynist” some kind of epithet. It’s a description of the views of the person in question. That people frequently disagree and disapprove of those views doesn’t change that.

Of course, this isn’t the definition you’ll see in most dictionaries. They will include the translation, not a definition that has real-world application. However, this doesn’t reflect how we actually use the word. It does reflect political pressure to minimize the perception of misogyny, but that’s a lousy basis for defining words. Definitions are supposed to reflect how we actually use words, and this is how we use “misogyny.”

Comments

  1. julian says

    playing devil’s advocate

    But what about the loaded nature of the word? Especially within ‘egalitarian’ circles where charges of bigotry or reinforcing bigotry carry more weight. If the word is indeed inflammatory, shouldn’t some consideration be given to trying to mitigate that when discussing misogynistic speech or attitudes?

  2. crayzz says

    Julian: “…shouldn’t some consideration be given to trying to mitigate that when discussing misogynistic speech or attitudes?”

    Nope. Misogyny is misogyny, and we call it misogyny. If your feelings are hurt by someone pointing out your lack of respect, your contempt, etc. for women, to bad. You loose. Calling people racist is very often inflammatory, no matter how true it may be. Calling theocratic fascists exactly that pisses them off to no end (well, except those who embrace it), and damn if don’t call them on it.

    Yes, the word misogyny has a lot of weight behind it, and it should. But, if one were to freak out for being called on their bigotry, so long as the charge is legitimate, only the bigot is responsible for his/her reaction. Being called on one’s misogyny (misogyny being a subset of bigotry) should work the same way.

    Basically, it’s not our fault if someone else flips out from our legitimate criticism.

  3. LeftSidePositive says

    Crayzz, thank you for saying exactly what I wanted to on that “oooh, but it’s too inflammatory” nonsense. It’s similar to me to those who say something unbelievably racist or dog-whistley and then play the victim with “but, it’s so horrible to be called a racist!” Arghhh.

  4. LeftSidePositive says

    Oh, and another thing: if it’s soooo important to mitigate social inflammation–irrespective of how self-entitled, narrow-minded, or just plain feigned said inflammation is–I guess we should never EVER dare to do anything so inflammatory as paint a bus with “Don’t believe in God? …You’re not alone.”

    Eyeroll.

    The fact that “egalitarian” communities get so inflamed about discussions of racism or sexism may actually indicate that they’re not as egalitarian as they like to think they are.

  5. anfractuous says

    ” If the word is indeed inflammatory, shouldn’t some consideration be given to trying to mitigate that when discussing misogynistic speech or attitudes?”

    I believe that very tactic is used on atheists these days in order to pressure them to be nicer to the theists. I believe we call them accommodationists. “ac•com•mo•da•tion•ist (-km-dsh-nst n. One that compromises with or adapts to the viewpoint of the opposition” Gee, that’ll get us a long way, now won’t it?

    Perhaps you’d like to suggest an acceptable word for those who wish women would just STFU and stay in their place? Perhaps another word for men who think they should be allowed to hit on women at any time under any circumstances because they carry around a vagina? Perhaps there’s a better word for a man who doesn’t believe any woman should be considered for a job/promotion/”best of” list because men are the obvious and only choices? Perhaps you know a great word for men who believe that women’s interests are just too silly to be considered for (fill in your occasion). Maybe there’s even a perfect word for men who think blonde jokes are just sooooo typical of those silly females?

    Or maybe we should just label them all under the same general term which indicates distrust, disgust, dismissivity, etc? Yes, it’s pejorative. So?

  6. Azkyroth says

    If the word is indeed inflammatory, shouldn’t some consideration be given to trying to mitigate that when discussing misogynistic speech or attitudes?

    Not when we’re discussing actual misogynistic speech and actions. I agree with what you’re probably getting at, that labeling every single manifestation of any degree or intensity of sexism that targets or affects women as “misogyny” is problematic – though the tactical ramifications, for me, take a back seat to the fact that it invites analogy with the statement “as I strolled down the street, a gentle hurricane rustled the leaves in the trees above me.”

    Continuing the analogy, we really need a word for “breeze.”

  7. aspidoscelis says

    Stephanie Zvan:

    Hatred is a subset of misanthropy under this definition, but it isn’t the entirety of the phenomenon. A misanthrope may be someone who doesn’t believe there is a minimum standard of treatment to which we all have a right. They may be someone who is annoyed or on their guard when other people are around. Or they may be, as in the classic Tartuffe play, someone who is constantly disappointed by the people around them.

    Understanding that misogyny is a special case of this phenomenon makes it much easier to understand the usage to which the word has been put recently.

    I’ll refrain from the cheap shot, but you might want to be careful about what this implies for the term “misandry”.

  8. Ysanne says

    They may be someone who is annoyed or on their guard when other people are around.

    I guess it’s an allusion to women who are careful around men in a number of contexts, for fear of being assaulted/harassed/raped.
    Which then could be construed as misandry, completely ignoring the tiny detail that most of these women are careful in situations that they consider risky, as opposed to men in general and all the time.

  9. Caravelle says

    “Is homophobia the fear of gay people?”

    I have actually seen quite a few people make that exact argument to complain about people labeling some behaviors as “homophobia”. There are not enough palms, or enough faces.

  10. says

    @anfractuous

    I’d like to propose that the following amendments be made to your second paragraph:

    Perhaps you’d like to suggest an acceptable word for those who wish women would just STFU and stay in their place? Perhaps another word for men people who think they men should be allowed to hit on women at any time under any circumstances because they carry around a vagina? Perhaps there’s a better word for a man person who doesn’t believe any woman should be considered for a job/promotion/”best of” list because men are the obvious and only choices? Perhaps you know a great word for men people who believe that women’s interests are just too silly to be considered for (fill in your occasion). Maybe there’s even a perfect word for men people who think blonde jokes are just sooooo typical of those silly females?

    Sadly, there are plenty of women who are misogynists too.

  11. jamessweet says

    Yeah, people wanting to be over-literal with words like “misogynist” and “homophobic” is really annoying.

    One thing I will say, however, is that while I don’t hesitate to classify words or actions or what have you as misogynist/racist/homophobic/etc., I reserve a relatively high bar for classifying people as such. For instance, I would say “Calling someone a ‘cunt’ is a misogynist thing to do”, but I would not typically say “People who call women ‘cunts’ are misogynists.”

    I won’t never say it — sometimes the shoe obviously fits — but unless there isn’t the slightest question about the person’s intentions, I try to avoid it. This is especially true if I am trying to get a person to change their behavior. “Your actions have misogynist consequences” does tend to put people on the defensive, but not nearly to the extent that “you are a misogynist” does.

    For example, when you say:

    Someone who doesn’t want women around unless the women abandon their “feminine” qualities is a misogynist.

    I would say that if that is the person’s explicit position, then yes, that person “is a” misogynist. But there are lots of people who can behave like that without necessarily meaning to, and in that case would say they are “behaving in a misogynistic fashion”, but would probably avoid calling them a misogynist.

    Perhaps one reason I say this is because, although I like to consider myself a feminist, I know I do things that have misogynistic consequences, and I probably even hold some unexamined misogynist attitudes (it would be remarkable if I didn’t).

    One thing I do, I am a loudtalker — I have a difficult time helping myself — and I have become aware in the past couple of years that this means I disproportionately exclude women from conversations in which I am participating. It’s not because I don’t want women to participate, not at all!… but women, on average, have voices that are less able to compete with mine when I get to talking loudly. I try not to do this, but it’s a habit that is hard to break. I don’t think that makes me “a misogynist”, but it is a habit that most certainly has misogynistic consequences.

  12. jesse says

    Hmm. This got me thinking about whether the definition of misogyny might be too expansive.

    Let me explain: I use the term “fascist” sometimes, but I try to be rather precise when I use it. It doesn’t mean “anyone I don’t like politically” or “anyone who infringes on my freedom to do whatever I want” or any of that. It refers to a very specific set of things in a political system.

    I try to be just as precise when I say that what someone has done is racist or sexist. (To a degree I think the above definition seems to fall under sexism, more than misogyny per se).

    I have a similar problem with the way “addict” gets defined, because too often I could just as well describe every human being on earth as addicted to something. (There’s a whole industry that seems dedicated to the idea that you are an addict if you desire anything at all, which makes me wonder if AA wasn’t actually founded by secret Buddhists or something).

    I’m not saying to be sensitive to the feelings of someone because they are (insert here)-ist. I’m just thinking about what these things are supposed to mean and from a tactical perspective how you use them.

    I’m reluctant to say to someone “you are a racist” for instance, because it ends the discussion and lends itself too easily to just defining someone as a racist ever and always — there is no way out. It becomes the equivalent of a believer saying “you are evil!” Cue end of discussion and that person walks away even more secure that they are right — a result precisely opposite of what I was shooting for.

    The definition of misogynist given above could similarly apply to every single person I have ever met at one time or another in their lives. In that light, I’m not comfortable with it, even though I think it covers the right things.

    I’m not sure what to do with this, I am sort of thinking out loud, and this kind of thing is something I struggle with a lot.

  13. Pteryxx says

    @jamessweet:

    “Your actions have misogynist consequences” does tend to put people on the defensive, but not nearly to the extent that “you are a misogynist” does. (etc)

    That’s really not the fault of the term “misogyny” though. It’s just a consequence of actions-versus-person criticism.

  14. jamessweet says

    That’s really not the fault of the term “misogyny” though. It’s just a consequence of actions-versus-person criticism.

    I agree, though I will say that the “actions-versus-person criticism” effect seems to be intensified when you are talking about labels like sexist/racist/homophobic/etc. Even people who are explicitly racist, for example, generally do not like to be called racists. I think it’s particular important to get the actions-versus-person thing right when talking about these labels — and as I said, I think that goes even more so when you are talking about someone whose mind you wish to change.

  15. jamessweet says

    The definition of misogynist given above could similarly apply to every single person I have ever met at one time or another in their lives.

    Yet another reason to distinguish action-versus-person. I think it’s probably safe to say that virtually everyone behaves or thinks in a racist or misogynistic fashion from time to time, or at the very least engages in behavior that has unintentional racist or misogynistic consequences. I have heard people say “We are all racists”, but I think that makes the word useless.

    I pretty much only call a person a racist/misogynist/homophobe/etc. if their explicit positions unapologetically display these characteristics.

  16. says

    +1 on the Action vs. Person distinction, though as others have said as well, there are definitely times when a person needs to be accurately labeled.

    I, personally, often refrain from labeling a person or even a behavior as “misogyny” because, at one point, I was spectacularly unfeminist, and I’ve been close to other men who were (or still are) as well.

    Even if we accept that the common usage of the word “misogyny” is closer to the expanded, broader definition outlined above (which I’m not quite convinced of), the discussion will still completely fly over the head of a guy who absolutely does not intend any “dislike, distrust, disgust, contempt or hatred of” women at all.

    In my experience, most of the time, it’s a simple disdain for other people in general, with a (completely unintentional) disproportionate degree of mistreatment being aimed at women due to being sexually attracted to them. I think to most people, the “misogynist” label implies a conscious, intentional mistreatment of women, an intention that almost always isn’t actually there.

    Not that the label isn’t very often deserved, I just find that it overwhelmingly hinders rather than helps communication.

  17. aspidoscelis says

    19, Flimsyman:

    Not that the label isn’t very often deserved, I just find that it overwhelmingly hinders rather than helps communication.

    I agree. Even when the label is used perfectly accurately as a description of a person’s actions or attitude, it’s likely to be heard as a pejorative and produce a defensive response… and understandably so, since rarely (perhaps never, when the speaker self-identifies as a feminist) is the term “misogynist” used without indicating strong disapproval.

    That said, it isn’t easy to find a way to indicate that someone has qualities of which one strongly disapproves without it being (or being interpreted as) pejorative.

    9, Askyroth:

    See comment 10 by Ysanne. The only thing I would add is that the “tiny detail” may or may not be relevant depending on whether someone were describing a person as a misandrist or a person’s specific actions as misandristic.

  18. says

    I have heard people say “We are all racists”, but I think that makes the word useless.

    It does not make the word useless. If we are all racists–and I’m not going to argue against the idea that very few of us, if any, are free from racism entirely–then the phrase “we are all racists” is accurate. Useful, even.

    Refusing to identify a problem by its right name because it’s so widespread is an avoidance tactic. Coming up with words that mean “we’re not all racist” to avoid hurting feelings solves the problem of hurting feelings only. The Action vs. Person situation makes it too easy for everyone to blow off responsibility because they aren’t the ones who are racist. Or sexist. Or misogynist. It’s easy to just blame all those other people for it.

  19. SallyStrange (Bigger on the Inside), Spawn of Cthulhu says

    I dunno. I’m white, and I’m happy to say that usually, if and when someone calls me out about saying something racist, I don’t get all fucking bent out of shape and throw a temper tantrum. I consider my words, and whether they matched my intent, and whether they match a well-established pattern of racist speech and behavior that exists independent of my intentions. My best friend and lover of six years now is black, so it’s not like it doesn’t come up. And not just with him–my interest in anti-racism has gotten me into some interesting and heated discussions about racism on the internet. Ditto for homophobic and ableist stuff I say too. I’m still working on the latter, ableist expressions are much more of a verbal tic for me than any of that other stuff. It’s easy to get defensive, but it’s also pretty easy to let that defensiveness go by reminding myself that it’s not personal, it’s not all about me.

    So, am I just better and smarter than the rest of you all, or is this malarkey about “misogynist” being inherently alienating really just a bullshit cop-out? I don’t really believe I’m better than anyone else, so the question is, how do we get from point A (“SHUT UP I DON’T HATE ALL WOMEN!!11!”) to point B (“Geez I guess I could come across that way, using that particular combination of words in regards to this particular subject. Not my intention, won’t happen again, etc.”)?

  20. says

    So would anyone like to point us to the people who are routinely getting through to others on the topic of misogyny without using the words, so we know what the magic words are that do work?

  21. Das Froot says

    um, you might want to read the posts, Stef. The magic is not in the words but the usage. “That’s a sexist thing to say” does not label the person as sexist at their core, but focuses on the action. Not as much fun as essentializing and demonizing them, but more likely to lead to a discussion instead of a defensive shutdown.

  22. LeftSidePositive says

    um, you might want to read the posts, Stef. The magic is not in the words but the usage. “That’s a sexist thing to say” does not label the person as sexist at their core, but focuses on the action. Not as much fun as essentializing and demonizing them, but more likely to lead to a discussion instead of a defensive shutdown.

    Bullshit. A person who is privileged (and/or outright sexist) is going to react negatively to whatever you say, and in my experience will be quite adept at trying to twist even the most action-focused language into “You just hate me!!! Waaaaahh!!!!”

    Quite often I think a lot of this, “here’s how you have to say it” type of “advice” is really just people who don’t want to deal with any type of unpleasantness or confrontation under any circumstances dictating the terms of the discussion and trying to make people tone down their message and avoid real & persistent problems, with the dubious claim that it “works” better.

  23. julian says

    The magic is not in the words but the usage. “That’s a sexist thing to say” does not label the person as sexist at their core, but focuses on the action.

    Whenever I’ve expressions like that used it’s lead to the exact same friction.

    Just throwing that out there. Describe someone’s behavior as sexist or misogynistic and you’ll get Bryan Long accusing you of saying he’s a rape apologist and at least one Nasrallah saying they’re not offended therefor stfu.

  24. jamessweet says

    It does not make the word useless. If we are all racists–and I’m not going to argue against the idea that very few of us, if any, are free from racism entirely–then the phrase “we are all racists” is accurate. Useful, even.

    Refusing to identify a problem by its right name because it’s so widespread is an avoidance tactic. Coming up with words that mean “we’re not all racist” to avoid hurting feelings solves the problem of hurting feelings only. The Action vs. Person situation makes it too easy for everyone to blow off responsibility because they aren’t the ones who are racist. Or sexist. Or misogynist. It’s easy to just blame all those other people for it.

    No, the useful phrase is “we all have unexamined racist attitudes and/or engage in racist behaviors — whether consciously or not — from time to time.” The reason this is useful is because “racist attitudes” and “racist behaviors” still mean something, because not all attitudes are racist and not all behaviors are racist (even if all people have some racist attitudes and behaviors).

    “We are all racists” is useless because I might as well have said “We are all zaxoflaxians.” If “racist” is a synonym for “homo sapiens”, then why not just use the latter?

    I suppose you could make an argument that “we are all racist”, i.e. as an adjective, is at least somewhat useful. You can talk about a category and make a useful statement that every member of that category possesses a certain trait. But it’s not useful to have a category, and say that it’s not synonymous with another category.

    By reserving the category “racist” for those whose hold opinions which are explicitly and unapologetically racist, or who consciously engage in racist behaviors, we now have a useful distinction.

  25. scenario says

    I agree with the idea that actions should be labeled misogynist rather that people until a person has shown a repeated pattern of this type behavior. Most rational people will be more likely to stop and think if you condemn what they say rather than who they are.

    I’ve never heard this definition before. The common definition of misogyny and only definition I’ve heard or read before is hatred of women. It would be better if there were two words, one stronger than the other.

    There really isn’t a good, commonly used word for people who distrust or make over generalized negative assumptions about women for no valid reason. If someone says woman are all (negative stereotype), it would be nice to have a commonly used word that fits the definition of misogyny listed above rather than implying the person hated all women.

  26. says

    By reserving the category “racist” for those whose hold opinions which are explicitly and unapologetically racist, or who consciously engage in racist behaviors, we now have a useful distinction.

    I still don’t think it’s a useful distinction, because it is a pointless distinction when we are trying to eliminate racism. Who cares, really, if people are unapologetically or consciously racist when the outcomes of behaviors and beliefs and attitudes are the same, unconscious or not? Making distinctions between the word that refers to a “Not-Us Kind of Racist” and only carefully condemning the behaviors of a “Not Like All Those Other Racists I’m Talking about but Not You even Though You Sometimes Do Those Things by Mistake Maybe but It’s More Important for Me to Protect Your Feelings than the Feelings of the People Who Your Unconscious, Apologetic, Indeliberate Racism Hurts” is only useful if your goal is to keep people’s feelings from being hurt and not if you are trying to solve problems caused by racism.

    “We are all racists” is useless because I might as well have said “We are all zaxoflaxians.” If “racist” is a synonym for “homo sapiens”, then why not just use the latter?

    Because we are not trying to solve the problems of zaxoflaxianism or homo sapiens. We are trying to solve the problems of racism, and we have to use the right words, the words that address the problem so we can focus on the issues that accompany that specific aspect of being human.

  27. LeftSidePositive says

    KarenX, I think I love you.

    Adding to your comment, there’s also (I believe) a multitude of people who actually ARE consciously or unapologetically racist, but who will insist, when called on their racism (**either** of their character or actions), that they’re not at all racist, they love all people equally, how dare you impugn them, they have black friends, they just thought that cartoon of Obama and a bunch of watermelons and fried chicken was innocently funny but didn’t see anything racial about it, blahdeblah-blah, but when they are among friends they will say some abundantly naked, race-based, hateful shit.

  28. LeftSidePositive says

    Oh, and the people I mentioned above will consider themselves “persecuted” that they have to pretend not to be racist for “the PC police.”

  29. jamessweet says

    Well, all I can say is that for me at least, it would make a lot of difference in how I received a criticism. I gave the example earlier that I have started to recognize how my habit of loudtalking has unintentional misogynist consequences, in that it disproportionately excludes women from conversations in which I am participating. It was hard enough to accept this as it was; if it was presented to me as part of “You are a misogynist because…” there’s absolutely no way I would have listened.

    To be clear, here are a couple of things I am NOT saying:

    1) I am not saying you can’t use racist/misogynist/homophobe as nouns in that way. I’m just saying I personally find it useful to distinguish. I am not being the tone police; use whatever tone you want, I’m just saying I find that using those words as nouns in the way you propose makes them a lot less useful to me.

    2) I’m not saying that you’ll magically have some success if you refer to people as behaving in a misogynist fashion as opposed to call them a misogynist. Both tend to provoke inflammatory and defensive reactions. I just think that one is slightly more likely to get through to a potentially receptive person. Again, I’ll use myself as an example: It is difficult enough to hear that something I am doing is having a misogynistic/racist/homophobic effect, but I try to be humble and listen to criticism. I don’t always succeed. If the person trying to raise my consciousness says that I am a misogynist/racist/homophobe, I am almost certainly going to fail to be humble and accept the criticism at face value. Because I try hard to think about what unintended effects my actions and attitudes might have, and while I am surely not always successful, I do try, and using those nouns on me seems to imply that I’m not even trying and/or that I’m no better than somebody who doesn’t even try.

    3) I am not saying that people who are unapologetically racist/misogynist/homophobic (and therefore deserving of the noun usage even in my book) consider themselves to be racists/misogynists/homophobes. I completely agree with LeftSidePositive in this regard:

    Adding to your comment, there’s also (I believe) a multitude of people who actually ARE consciously or unapologetically racist, but who will insist, when called on their racism (**either** of their character or actions), that they’re not at all racist, they love all people equally…etc.

    I’m pretty sure even neo-Nazis typically don’t identify themselves with the label “racist”. But that’s tangential to what I am talking about. I feel it is worth distinguishing between someone who is trying and not always succeeding (i.e. everyone who is trying) vs. someone who is not even trying. This is irrespective of whether the latter person claims to be trying.

    If you don’t think there’s any difference, I think you are being rather obtuse. But I’m not going to call you an obtuse person, because that’s not how I roll :p

  30. jamessweet says

    Another way of looking at it is this: If you call someone a racist/misogynist/homophobe, you have pretty much given up on trying to convince that person of anything. Which is okay! Oftentimes, we are not trying to convince the person we are arguing with; we are trying to convince others who are listening. This is a common theme in regards to outspoken atheism, and I believe it applies just as well in regards to race, gender, and LGBTQ issues.

    I find it useful to distinguish, because I think that sufficiently receptive people can be sometimes argued out of unintentionally racist/misogynist/homophobic behavior. Sure, people tend to get defensive when you use those words even as adjectives, but there’s still a slight chance of changing the mind of a sufficiently receptive person.

    If you all are deciding that this is not your target, that you are going to aim only at changing the minds of bystanders, I can’t say I hardly blame you. That’s more or less the position I take in regards to atheism/religion.

    What I’m finding obtuse is the denial that there is at least potential value which is discarded in failing to make the distinction. Most gnus agree that while Christianity is very foolish, not all Christians are fools per se. We all see the value in this distinction, even if a lot of us don’t particularly endeavor to reach that small segment of Christians who would be receptive if we called their beliefs foolish but not if we called them foolish.

    I’m not saying “Be nice to those who are behaving in a racist/misogynist/homopobic fashion”. I’m just saying that there’s a useful distinction here, the same way that there is a useful distinction between “Christianity is foolish” and “Christians are fools”. You don’t have to care too much about the distinction, but to deny there even is one… I don’t get it.

  31. says

    I’m just saying that there’s a useful distinction here, the same way that there is a useful distinction between “Christianity is foolish” and “Christians are fools”. You don’t have to care too much about the distinction, but to deny there even is one… I don’t get it.

    There is a useful distinction between Christianity and a Christian. One is an idea, one is a person. You’ve altered the language choices significantly to make your comparisons. Also, you’ve added a pejorative to the construction, whereas we were discussing descriptive language (misogynist, racist) that were supposedly causing offense. If you don’t get it, it’s because you probably didn’t realize you have significantly changed the structure of the sentences we are talking about when you came to your conclusion, almost to the point of changing the subject.

    We aren’t talking about distinguishing between people who say “Racism is foolish” and “Racists are fools.” We’re talking about the distinction between “You are a racist” and “You are acting like a racist.” Those are descriptive sentences, and removing the label of “racist” off of a person who is doing racist things is not helpful. It removes responsibility for being a racist from people who are racists.

    All racist means is that you do racist things, like typist means you type. It’s simple, it’s straightfoward, and everyone knows what it means. If people don’t want to take responsibility for something they’ve done that earned them the label, that’s not a language confusion issue.

  32. says

    (I hit submit before I finished the last paragraph; oops!)

    All racist means is that you do racist things, like typist means you type. It’s simple, it’s straightfoward, and everyone knows what it means. If people don’t want to take responsibility for something they’ve done that earned them the label, that’s not a language confusion issue. If you don’t want to label people by the word that describes them, that is also not a language confusion issue. If just means you have prioritized other goals–like sparing the racist person’s feelings–above directly confronting racism–by not mincing words. I can think of a million reasons why someone would want to prioritize their goals for a conversation, but none for why they would want to pretend that’s not what they were doing.

  33. aspidoscelis says

    30, LeftSidePositive:

    Adding to your comment, there’s also (I believe) a multitude of people who actually ARE consciously or unapologetically racist, but who will insist, when called on their racism (**either** of their character or actions), that they’re not at all racist, they love all people equally, how dare you impugn them, they have black friends, they just thought that cartoon of Obama and a bunch of watermelons and fried chicken was innocently funny but didn’t see anything racial about it, blahdeblah-blah, but when they are among friends they will say some abundantly naked, race-based, hateful shit.

    The question is:

    Is that the discussion you want to have, and would avoiding labeling people with stigmatizing terms like “racist” (and “misogynist”, etc.) increase your chances of having some other, perhaps more fruitful discussion?

    Of course, any critical statement might get a defensive and unhelpful response; that can’t be avoided, but there are some obvious triggers that seem to make it more likely.

  34. LeftSidePositive says

    @36, aspidoscelis:

    Those people, who are overtly racist (or, analogously, overtly misogynistic) who deny it when it is convenient for them are not those who will lead to any productive discussion–they will just temporarily agree with you, like Bill O’Reilly does when he goes on the Daily Show and agrees with Jon Stewart every time he gets cornered, and then he goes back to the same old shit on his own show.

    People who are so dishonest, denialist, and/or self-serving are not the ones you want to convince, they’re the ones who need a good dose of social shaming to demonstrate to everyone else that these attitudes are not acceptable.

    And, for those of us who actually ARE affected by misogyny (or, I imagine, racism), the whole idea of “having some other, perhaps more fruitful discussion” apart from whether or not we’re whole human beings is just plain laughable. The point is not to have pleasant discussions, it is to identify, expose, and solve problems that we are having that affect every aspect of our lives. That “blowup” that annoys you and eats up your pleasant blog-reading is actually necessary for ideas to be challenged and change to be made.

    The people who will engage in these defensive and divisive behaviors regularly (in the subset of overtly bigoted people, not the “honest-mistakers”) do not go from being reasonable people to unhinged bigoted because of what we do–they were always unhinged bigots, and other people’s delicacy allowed them to hide it.

  35. LeftSidePositive says

    @32, jamessweet:

    The fact that you are even aware of how your actions have misogynistic consequences, and are concerned about that, puts you soooooo far out of being representative of People On The Internet that what you will or won’t respond to is not exactly illuminating.

    Now, I will definitely approach someone differently who made an honest mistake, and I will focus on behavior and not speculate on identity. At the same time, I think one’s identity is comprised of how we treat others, so at a certain point someone is described by what one does, especially what one does habitually. (Another thing is, I get sick of people *expecting* to get a pass on “honest mistake,” which seriously makes me question how honest the mistake actually is!)

    Even when a person makes an honest or unconscious mistake, I do think it’s necessary to say, “that is misogynistic behavior” or “that action/statement contributes to misogynistic social norms” or “that action/statement was based on misogynistic assumptions.” (I generally don’t think we need to label the person *in that instance* as “a misogynist,” above and beyond the cultural water we’re all swimming in, but with enough instances one can and should.) But, it is important to use the word instead of sparing feelings for minor infractions, since that perpetuates the false belief that misogyny or racism is The Other and only perpetuated by Every Body Else, but not by You, The Nice Person and that absolves people of responsibility for their actions. We need to acknowledge that we are comprised of all our actions, great and small, and they all reflect on us, and we need to care about and correct our actions and beliefs that harm others.

  36. aspidoscelis says

    37 LeftSidePositive:

    Those people, who are overtly racist (or, analogously, overtly misogynistic) who deny it when it is convenient for them are not those who will lead to any productive discussion

    Yeah, there are some people out there with whom one cannot have a meaningful discussion. OTOH, this joke comes to mind:

    ‘Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy takes out his phone and calls the emergency services.

    He gasps: “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator says: “Calm down, I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a gunshot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says: “OK, now what?”‘

    The point is not to have pleasant discussions, it is to identify, expose, and solve problems that we are having that affect every aspect of our lives.

    I guess I was assuming that we were hypothetically talking to, rather than about, our hypothetical racist (or misogynist, or whomever). If pursuing meaningful dialogue (whether pleasant or not is a whole different question!) is not the goal then, yeah, perhaps labeling such a person for the benefit of the audience and then moving on is the right approach.

  37. scenario says

    “All racist means is that you do racist things, like typist means you type.”

    Things plural. I have to see a pattern of racist things before I’ll call them a racist. Once or twice over a period of months doesn’t count.

    There is a difference between someone who says racist things once in a while, who apologizes and rephrases it when called on it and someone who constantly says racist things and refuses to listen when it is repeatedly pointed out.

    The first person may or may not be a racist. The second one is one.

    I also look at it from a third party new to the blog, who doesn’t know the history. If everyone calls him or her a racist on his or her first or second remark, without even giving him or her a chance to explain, you’ll probably never hear from them again. If you say this remark is inappropriate for this reason and give them a chance to explain, you might change someones mind.

    Of course it depends on what was said. Some things are so over the top, you have to call the person on it in no uncertain terms.

  38. SallyStrange (Bigger on the Inside), Spawn of Cthulhu says

    I don’t think anybody here has been disputing that labeling actions and speech, rather than people, as “misogynist” or “racist” is the superior tactic, both for education and finding allies, and also for exposing the true bigots.

    What was at question was whether the words themselves, “misogynist” and “racist”, are inherently alienating and, in addition to focusing on actions rather than the person, we shouldn’t perhaps try to find some other word that means “misogyny lite” or “racism lite” so as to defuse some negative defensive reactions.

    Unless you sincerely think that protecting the feelings of people with privilege who inadvertently contribute and reinforce bigotry and injustice is THE most important goal for social activists, the latter suggestion is nonsensical.

    The tactic of labeling speech and actions rather than the person still evokes very negative responses. However, as Jay Smooth (the guy who popularized this approach with his “How to Tell Someone They Sound Racist” youtube video) observed in his recent TEDx talk on the same subject, you may be able to get through to someone perhaps 10% of the time. And, the rest of the time, consider it a benefit for yourself and any onlookers, because it’s impossible to truly know the inner mental state of any other person. I can’t prove that Newt Gingrich is a racist for sure. But I can easily demonstrate that he says things that are racist as fuck, on a regular basis. It’s a more evidence-based approach, as is appropriate for skeptics and freethinkers.

    I have this idea, which I have articulated several times already, and when I finally get around to starting my own blog (sometime in February, if all goes according to plan), it will probably be the subject of my first post. The idea is this: racism and sexism are patterns. Patterns of social organization, patterns of thought, patterns of speech, patterns of behavior. In order to really end either racism or sexism, we must break these patterns at all levels. Obviously, the levels which are under our personal control are our own speech and behavior. So, how to combat bigotry? I believe this applies to all of the -isms we are attempting to confront here.

    1. First, acknowledge that there are sincere bigots out there who really think that women are inferior to men, that black people are lazier and less intelligent, that gays and lesbians are disgusting deviants, etc. A lot of people who aren’t active bigots sometimes have trouble acknowledging that this is a problem.

    2. Study the behavior of the bigots. Observe how they act, speak, what political parties they support, what products they buy, etc. Observe that there is a pattern at work. Part of this is listening to the people who are impacted by the bigotry, since they will have far more data on the type of bigotry that affects them personally than anybody else, barring scholars on the subject, will.

    3. Choose your words and actions so that there is no possible way that they could be mistaken as fitting into that pattern of bigoted behavior. Warning: this may entail dreadful personal sacrifice, like, say, not cold-propositioning women in elevators, or not jokingly referring to your white pals as “my nigga.”

    My three-step program for combating bigotry does involve a small amount of work. However, nobody is obligated to follow it. It is a suggestion, not a command. Just keep in mind that, if doing this small amount of work is just too much effort for you, you should probably resign yourself to occasionally being confronted by accusations of bigoted behavior.

  39. Jesse says

    I’ll throw in one thing here about the “sparing people’s feeling” thing. It arises from two things: first, there is a vast difference between on line and real-life behavior.

    That is, when you are standing in front of someone actually talking, there’s a whole set of cues and such that affect the interaction in a way online doesn’t.

    So in the former case I am more careful about stuff. And since people can see each other’s feelings better that way, there’s tactics that will work better, especially among friends.

    For instance. I had a friend who has been unfailingly good to me and nice for years. I always knew he was a bit of a right-winger on many issues but I let that alone a lot of the time since there was other stuff we could agree on and politics wasn’t a big discussion topic anyway, for all kinds of reasons.

    One day he send out one of those email stories and I had to call him out on the fact that it was a) wrong and b) bigoted. I did not say “you are a bigot.” or even call the email out that way. I said “you hurt my feelings.”

    That last thing got a much better response I think. I would bet he learned from it a lot more. He stopped doing that kind of stuff at least to me. He has shown a better understanding of those issues.

    Now YMMV. But I use this incident to illustrate that sometimes our code-words and terms turn people right off. That’s because for people not in the know they are at best opaque and at worst alienating. If I had said “you just forwarded a racist story” he would have focused on “racist” to the exclusion of all else. End of discussion, no learning.

    SO Stefanie, I will say that I don’t have magic words. But in one case I got a better result by abandoning all the vocabulary I learned in (insert here) theory class and asking myself, how do I make it clear that he is hurting someone in a way that he will empathize with?

    This will only work, I expect, with people who are otherwise decent folks and not sociopaths. But it’s one method I have found. And it isn’t my grat original idea — I thought about it in terms of judo (turn force against itself) and some stuff from Dave Niewert’s blog (Orcinus) about reaching people in right-wing authoritarian movements, and turning them around. (I won’t bore you with the details, I’ll just say that a right-wing-ish worldview tends to focus on individual feelings and actions. Therefore any mention of stuff in a group context falls on deaf ears — there’s no common ground to even start on institutionalized effects and behavior, at least at the start).

    Like I said, it worked in that case and I have found it seems to work in others, too.

  40. LeftSidePositive says

    @42, Jesse:

    But you already knew that person. He (apparently) had a lot invested in that friendship. Whereas in other situations “you hurt my feelings” carries absolutely no social weight and the person has no reason to learn from your point of view. Furthermore, at least in a public discursive context, you have provided neither argument nor education as to why your feelings were hurt or why that would be common to many people. Besides, just getting this guy to stop being rude to you is not the point, because privilege is systemic. Moreover, you have, by your own admission no evidence if he actually learned from this or changed his behavior and outlook–for all you know, he may think you’re just unreasonably touchy on this subject but still values your friendship in the same way you overlook all of his rightwing shit, and just “swept it under the rug” and modified his email-blast list accordingly.

  41. says

    You say that it is “misogyny” to “think women are generally bad at this, that, or the other”.

    How is that misogyny?

    Let’s say that I’m a scientist, and I discover that women are, generally, bad at something. How does that justify you branding me with the label of “misogynist” – a deeply stigmatizing word which is understood by everyone to mean “hater of women”?

  42. says

    In addition, the working definition you gave spoke of generalized dislike (for humanity, or for women). And yet when people very specifically dislike radical feminism, and don’t dislike women generally, they are still labelled “misogynists”.

    So, either your definition is wrong, or you are misusing the term.

  43. says

    Kevin, those are interesting hypotheticals. We can talk about them when they happen.

    Scientists get called misogynists for claiming women are generally bad at this, that, or the other instead of saying, “Under these circumstances, with these methodological limitations, women on average (which is different than in general) perform worse on this task than men.” Scientists who correctly say, for example, “Women (the sex, not the gender), do not produce sperm well”, don’t get called misogynists. See the difference?

    You also seem to have trouble telling people who have specific criticisms of radical feminism, such as critiquing the strain of transphobia found among many radical feminist groups or objecting to a tendency to speak for sex workers instead of allowing them to speak for themselves, with those who show up every time feminism is discussed, screaming about how feminism is evil because this or that said this or that thing. Again, the first group don’t generally get called misogynists and would not legitimately be called so under this definition. The second group would and do and weep bitterly about it. Again, do you see the difference?

  44. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    The common definition of misogyny and only definition I’ve heard or read before is hatred of women. It would be better if there were two words, one stronger than the other.

    There really isn’t a good, commonly used word for people who distrust or make over generalized negative assumptions about women for no valid reason. – scenario

    Sexist? I’m certainly not going to complain about others doing otherwise, but I tend to restrict “misogynist” to the more overtly unpleasant end of the spectrum, using “sexist” (for behaviours or individuals) more broadly. But maybe there are shades of meaning I’m missing.

  45. says

    I’m certainly not going to complain about others doing otherwise, but I tend to restrict “misogynist” to the more overtly unpleasant end of the spectrum, using “sexist” (for behaviours or individuals) more broadly. But maybe there are shades of meaning I’m missing.

    I used to. Germain Greer said that women don’t realize how much men hate us. I read that in her book and was confused for awhile, but over time the observation gained more and more traction with me. It became apparent that men who were sexist towards me weren’t just lacking education or empathy, they got something out of treating me (and women in general) poorly. They had everything to gain at my expense and did so all the time. In the mainstream imagination women are synonymous with femininity, and it is perfectly normal to express an outright hatred for all things associated with women. Why else would men have such visceral objections to things like being treated like women (especially sexually), or acting like women? They hate our guts.

  46. Coco says

    Thank you for a well researched, sophisticated analysis of the word misogyny. There is a debate raging in Australia at the moment after our first female Prime Minister Julia Gillard called out the male leader of the Opposition for his misogyny. See youtube for 15 minute blistering smack down @ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ihd7ofrwQX0 if you want to watch it.

    The backlash has included journalists scurrying to dusty dictionaries to look up the meaning of misogyny and writing articles that read like a High School debate that open with the narrow dictionary definition of women hater, which then argue the Opposition leader was unfairly labelled. The Opposition meanwhile are referring to the PM and other women politicians supporting her as “the handbag hit squad” amongst other things.
    My view is that using a narrow and often old dictionary meaning of misogyny is as useful as relying on it for the meaning of “gay” which using the same arguments would mean happy.
    Your analysis of the modern meaning of misogyny is therefore very useful in this current Australian context. Thank you for the work.

  47. Guest says

    You are ignorant of the arguments against your position or deliberately misrepresenting it, the argument is that just because people hate you doesn’t mean they women as a group.

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