Guest post: Change always inspires reactionary backlash

Originally a comment by thephilosophicalprimate on I’d love to agree, but…

Change always inspires reactionary backlash. Indirectly, the increasingly crude, loud, shouty open misogyny is evidence that feminism is winning. Actually dominant social views don’t need to resort to such open methods: Their very omnipresence makes them subtle and hard to focus on, like the air. What we’re seeing is the flailing, spastic death throes of dying attitudes, lashing out in desperate hope of fighting off the forces of change that are killing them — but it’s ineffective thrashing, and it’s only deepening the wounds. As Penny argues, their antics aren’t winning them friends and influence, but rather the opposite.

The open racism of the Tea Party — which is ultimately indistinguishable from the Republican “base” that the Southern Strategy worked on for years, even in the North — has much the same character. Racist attitudes are also mortally afflicted by cultural change and brute demographic facts, but by Gawd they’re going to go down screaming and flailing for all they’re worth!

In the end, though, I suspect that reactionary sexist and racist backlash is mostly sound and fury, signifying much less than it may appear. It’s an inevitable response to real change, but it doesn’t have any real potency to STOP the change. If anything, exposing its poisonous ugliness to the light of day only accelerates the pace of change.

Or at least, that’s what I think on my more optimistic days.


  1. Nick Nakorn says

    It doesn’t feel that way to me. Here in the UK there seems to be a genuine rise in Nationalism, sexism and racism as the whole of party politics realigns around a more right-wing agenda. If Scotland votes “Yes” I fear the next UK government will be a Tory-UKIP coalition and with it will come not the death-throws of patriarchy but a new beginning.

  2. says

    I was thinking along similar lines after reading the original comment. I was reminded of what seemed like an explosion of racist sentiment following the election of Obama and again after the killing of Trayvon Martin. I sincerely hope you’re correct that this backlash lacks the power to slow or prevent change! It’s difficult at times to not see it as a reason to abandon all hope!

  3. sonofrojblake says

    If Scotland votes “Yes” I fear the next UK government will be a Tory-UKIP coalition

    The depressing truth is that if Scotland votes “Yes”, the Tories won’t ever need to go into coalition with anyone ever again. The only reason there’s ever been a non-Tory government since just after the war has been because Scotland votes solid Labour. Without them, the UK becomes effectively a one-party state.

  4. Dunc says

    The only reason there’s ever been a non-Tory government since just after the war has been because Scotland votes solid Labour.

    Actually, although that’s a common belief, it’s completely untrue. There have only been 4 occasions since WWII where the Scottish vote has affected which party ultimately held government, and 3 of them were extremely marginal and temporary. For details, see:

  5. quixote says

    You’re right that dying attitudes lash out while the meek inherit the earth. Yes, I know which blog I’m on here, but, really, look at the last 5000 years of history and the meek are inheriting all over the place.

    But at a finer scale than millenia, there are ups and downs. And in that I have to agree with Ophelia. The last, say, 40-50 years have seen a regression in attitudes. The laws against discrimination are still somewhat better (although the forced pregnancy crowd is working on that), but the attitudes are worse. You would have had to have been mixing with the Hell’s Angels or somebody to get the kind of crude erasure of women that’s just college banter now.

    Nobody thinks anything of it. (Well, we do here, but you know what I mean.) That, to me, is the real marker of regression.

    Then, the truly foul flailing misogynists had no easy way to make themselves heard, and no way to infect millions of others with their brand of extreme toxin. The difference caused by easy and private access to them on the web, and to current versions of porn and to games like Grand Theft Auto, is that now they do. The result is the toxin is normalized. Really. It is. You can see that in the way people actually need to argue about whether spewing hate speech against women is okay or not. You even have to argue about whether the torture of women in porn is hate speech or fun. That’s what normalization looks like.

    The current anti-sexist troll backlash is just — finally! — some horror at what’s been normalized. If attitudes hadn’t regressed, we never would have had to hear anything like that crap to begin with.

    Personally, on a smaller scale than centuries, I’m not optimistic. When life gets difficult people lash out at the powerless. Women are being stuffed into that box all over the world. And we’re pretty well guaranteed hard times ahead by looming environmental disasters.

    Still, as Gideon Levy said recently, you have to be realistic enough to believe in miracles.

    (And, :much embarrassed:, sorry for the book length rant.)

  6. Brony says

    I agree with a lot of this. On a personal level and in a more meta sense.

    People get used to social routines. Routine is comfortable for many reasons. When you try to change a persons social routine often they find that very threatening on a personal level. These routines are (often unconscious) mutually agreed upon tools. If you change the routines you are taking tools from people and they will fight that with the ferocity and possessiveness of a child that does not want a toy taken away after misusing it. Shitty social tools like victim-blaming, pack-harassment used as emotional sociopolitical terrorism and more should be taken away. The counter-reaction is one to be prepared for and dealt with personally, socially, and strategically.

    But the behaviors are not dead yet. I see something emotionally similar to reactionary “micro-aggressions” in the behavior of Dawkins after Dear Muslima for example (I would like to know if this seems wrong). When his bad logic for wanting women to stop complaining was called out, he repeatedly kept engaging in a part of the behavior involved in the Dear Muslima incident for a long time afterwards, the casual pointless comparison of pain and traumatic experiences.

    Aren’t micro-aggressions little unconscious dominance behaviors meant to reinforce someone’s higher social position? These are not “micro”since they come from an authority figure, and they have to do with a larger social structure. But since the reason and logic of the pointless and insensitive comparisons has failed every time I keep wanting to find an explanation. Even a speculative explanation give room for strategy, and changing the explanation if wrong is implicit.

    Within this context the groups of people harassing women and other marginalized individuals makes sense also. It’s the human version dominance behavior in a pack (troop in this case maybe). People used to getting to act dominant will keep using the behavior in order to assert that dominance. A reaction where someone or a group engages in a criticized behavior more and more intensely after the criticism seems to fit right in here (and also matches up with more childlike behavior).

    Finally while I was a substitute teacher I never saw a bully yell louder or protest more vigorously than when they were caught and in trouble. Getting their signal over the “noise” of the victim and anyone else is another childlike behavior that seems to apply to groups as well.

  7. lpetrich says

    Sort of how trolls feel grievously wounded when anyone restricts their trolling with bans and blocks and the like.

  8. lakitha tolbert says

    @6: So, what you’re explaining is what my friends call the “doubling down” syndrome? Where someone is called out for some wrong and not only do they continue to do it but then make up reasons to defend the behavior.

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