Semantic Activism in the Service of Ideology

A review of Kate Manne’s Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (Oxford University Press: New York, 2018).

“So maybe the thing to say,” to the apathetic, indifferent masses perniciously ignorant about the misogyny prevailing in our culture, Manne writes near the end of her book (page 290, to be precise), “somewhat reluctantly is—fuck ‘em, in the limited sense of ceasing to even try to catch the moderate with mild honey.  Perhaps we should just start with more radical, if acerbic, but I now think more accurate, default assumptions.”  This caustic attitude arrives at the heels of five chapters (out of 8, plus an introduction and conclusion) which detail some truly awful behavior by men towards women, in a variety of ways: from Elliot Rodger’s attempt to slaughter an entire sorority or Chris Foster’s murder of his wife and children before his own suicide, to the habitual victimization of women in fictional media and the election of Donald Trump despite his “locker room talk”, and many other examples.  If Manne’s only goal were to lay out a bleak picture for women in this world, her book would be an unqualified success.

But while there is much worthy of remark in the second half of her book, it is the first half—or really, the introduction and first three chapters—that deserves close attention.  For the various forms of what Manne identifies as misogynistic action in her second half depend upon the definition of misogyny which she advances in the first; the quasi-ethnographic investigations are slotted into a theoretical framework which seems to have been erected for the sole purpose of justifying those truly horrible incidents as symptomatic of a larger, systematic problem.  That is, according to Dr. Manne, we are all, probably, at least, from time to time, consciously or unconsciously, agents of a misogynistic society.

From a strictly linguistic point of view, most people will balk: I don’t hate women; my mother doesn’t hate women, nor my brother, my friend Steve, my professor, my girlfriend—we all might dislike some particular women, but none of us hate women in general. That is reserved to the continually jilted, or those who have been abused by women, either by their mother or older sisters or something, right?  Not so, says Manne; for (p.19) this “naïve conception” of misogyny—an individually-possessed, psychologically-rooted hatred of women based strictly on the fact of female identity—“is not helping its victims, targets, or those accused of misogyny who are genuinely innocent.  It makes misogyny a virtually nonexistent and politically marginal phenomenon, as well as an inscrutable one.”  There is a partial truth here: misogyny being defined as a psychologically-rooted hatred of women based on their female identity, with no other evident causal basis, is indeed inscrutable (cf. p.44).  For that matter, so would be any arbitrary hatred.    I will return to this point later.

In the meanwhile, Manne’s other claim about what the naïve conception does—making misogyny a “virtually nonexistent and politically marginal phenomenon”—is a curious statement; does Manne mean that she has already taken it for granted that misogyny is a widespread, systematic force?  It seems so; but why?  A brief investigation, before beginning a critical analysis of her theoretical discussions, is worth our time.


There are two presuppositions on which Manne’s thesis seems to rest.  I am, of course, doing a bit of guesswork here, since she at no point goes into any depth on these presuppositions, but mentions them in passing.

The first is that we live today in a patriarchal society (or, at the absolute least, one which retains the vestigial structure of patriarchy).  Manne is quite clear about this, though a little thin on description of what it means to have a patriarchal society.  The only description aiming at even a vague definition of patriarchy—at least, that I could find—comes at p.107 but requires some supplementing: “if patriarchy is anything here and now, that is, in cultures such as the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia, I believe it consists largely (though by no means exclusively) in this uneven, gendered economy of giving and taking moral-cum-social goods and services”[1] where (p.45) “all or most women are positioned as subordinate in relation to some man or men”.  Listening closely, one hears the echo of the Biblical description of Eve as a helpmate to Adam (Gen. 2:20).

The second presupposition is that any societal asymmetry between the sexes is a de facto injustice contributory towards the misogynistic social order (see, e.g., xiii, xix, and 266: “we often taken men and women to have fundamentally different, and nominally complementary, responsibilities”—something Manne evidently sees as unjust).  That any but a small amount of this asymmetry may be rooted in “natural” differences, i.e., social asymmetries stemming from biological asymmetries, is rejected (p.290): “[A viable alternative to the current societal presuppositions that we are genuinely treated equally today in Western cultures] involves granting the null hypothesis regarding people’s abilities and capacities for human excellence whatever their gender, unless there is persuasive evidence to the contrary.  And this is generally lacking at this historical juncture, for lack of a control group: i.e., a society in which people have lived for some time under genuinely egalitarian conditions.”  Perhaps I have read this wrong, but it seems Manne is suggesting that we cannot know whether gendered social asymmetry is justified unless we have a society in which gender has been all-but-eliminated.

Theoretical Framework

Given these two presuppositions, and the “inscrutable” nature of the naïve conception of misogyny, Manne proposes a radical, fundamental shift in conceptualizing misogyny.  To quote her (p.59):

…a shift in focus may be salutary.  Rather than conceptualizing misogyny from the point of view of the accused, at least implicitly, we might move to think of it instead from the point of view of its targets or victims.  In other words, when it comes to facing misogyny, we can focus on the hostility women face in navigating the social world, rather than the hostility men (in the first instance) may or may not feel in their encounters with certain women—as a matter of deep psychological explanation, or indeed whatsoever.

“This is the age in which offense having been taken,” to paraphrase John Deely, “is understood to mean that offense has been given—which is, of course, absurd.”  And yet, this is precisely what Manne seeks with her “shift in focus”: a woman feeling herself the recipient of hatred (Manne’s substitution of “hostility” being a sleight of hand) means that something has been hateful to her.[2]  Accepting Manne’s shift means believing in hate without anyone hating; hate evaporates from the person into the atmosphere, becoming impersonal, institutional, and a ubiquitous part of the cultural fabric.[3]

Building upon her concept of the patriarchal and the reconceptualization of misogyny from the point of view of its “targets or victims”, Manne makes a distinction between sexism and misogyny (p.20; cf. 33): “I propose taking sexism to be the branch of patriarchal identity that justifies and rationalizes a patriarchal social order, and misogyny as the system that polices and enforces its governing norms and expectations.  So sexism is scientific; misogyny is moralistic.”  Sexism therefore results from pseudo-theoretical justifications of a patriarchal order, and misogyny from women rebelling against it and needing to be put in their place.  Thus (p.64), “misogyny primarily targets women because they are women in a man’s world (i.e., a historically patriarchal one, among other things), rather than because they are women in a man’s mind, where that man is a misogynist.”  Further and (p.66):

derivatively, an individual agent’s attitudes or behavior counts as misogynistic within a social context insofar as it reflects, or perpetuates, misogyny therein… I hence suggest that the term “misogynist” is best treated as a threshold concept, and also a comparative one, functioning as a kind of “warning label,” which should be sparingly applied to people whose attitudes and actions are particularly and consistently misogynistic across myriad social contexts.

The upshot of Manne’s distinctions—between sexism and misogyny, and between misogyny and misogynists—is that no one need be either a sexist or a misogynist within their individual psychological make-ups in order for sexism or misogyny to predominate.  So long as any vestige of a patriarchal order remains, the potential for sexist belief or misogynist action does as well.  For sexism (p.79) “often works by naturalizing sex differences, in order to justify patriarchal social arrangements, by making them seem inevitable, or portraying people trying to resist them as fighting a losing battle”, and the “sexist ideology will often consist in assumptions, beliefs, theories, stereotypes, and broader cultural narratives that represent men and women as importantly different in ways that, if true and known to be true, or at least likely, would make rational people more inclined to support and participate in patriarchal social arrangements.”[4]  Sexist ideology, Manne adds, typically alleges (p.79) “sex differences beyond what is known or could be known, and sometimes counter to our best current scientific evidence” (but gives no examples of this) while misogyny “will typically differentiate between good women and bad ones, and punishes the latter.”

In sum, if someone holds that there are significant natural sex differences—such as would constitute legitimate distinction of social roles to which members of each sex[5] are at least for the most part differently abled—then they are sexist; if they object to and attempt to prevent women in any way from stepping outside these boundaries, then they are misogynistic.  If society maintains and enforces these differences, in any implicit form whatsoever, then the society too, is sexist and misogynistic.

Critical Analysis

I think Kate Manne is, sadly, very right about what is wrong with the way a lot of men view the women in their lives: as though women owe men certain goods (cf. 110-11): affection, adoration, indulgence, respect, love, acceptance, nurturing, safety, security, safe haven, kindness, compassion, moral attention, care, concern, soothing, and likely sexual gratification—not to mention, often, childbearing, rearing, and some degree of homemaking.  She is also sadly correct that a disproportionate degree of violence is suffered by women, and by women who have somehow angered men (which is not to say that more violence ought to be done to men).  The last five chapters of her book spill over with examples of such gender-specific injustices.

But I also think Dr. Manne has cast these horror stories into a framework that is not borne of philosophical insight or inquiry, but rather a “semantic activism”.[6]  In other words, Manne’s book is not an investigation into misogyny, but an attempt to change her readers’ minds about what misogyny is; not as, necessarily, a more accurate understanding, but as one ameliorative of the punitive nature of a patriarchal society (p.81):

I am prepared to… suggest that the ameliorative analysis, and with it the sexism/misogyny contrast I’ve drawn, is broadly in keeping with recent “grass-roots” semantic activism that has already pushed the latter term’s usage, and to some extent its dictionary definition, in this more promising direction.

This “more promising direction” of Manne’s semantic activism leads towards a society that effaces differentiation of the sexes.[7]  As aforementioned, Manne apparently takes it as a given that societal asymmetry between the sexes is inherently unjust.  To be sure, it is an unavoidable metaphysical truth that two things which differ, in the precise regard that they differ, cannot be equal—different but equal is not really equal.   This is true.  But what if the sexes really are and really ought to be different?[8]  That is, what if the typical differentiation following the Y chromosome’s presence or absence and the resulting phenotypic development is itself an ordering that finds fulfillment in asymmetrical social structures?

That is not to say that any asymmetrical social differentiation of roles for men and women is just: certainly, denying women education, the ability to work, the right to vote, and any construal of women as somehow less in their humanity when compared to men is an unjust social structure—for it is out of keeping with the kind of being that a woman is; and, perhaps, even more salient for this discussion, it is out of keeping with the kind of being that a man is, too, for neither sex is bettered by the oppression of the other.

This, I think, is the ideological rot at the heart of Manne’s book; most men do not hate women, which isn’t to say some men don’t hate some women, but the men who really do hate all women—the true misogynists by Manne’s distinctions—are rare.  It does not take a “truly egalitarian society” for men, or women, to realize that mutual love and support is better than oppression or domination by one of the other.  By depersonalizing hatred and ascribing hostility to the belief that different genders come with different roles, Manne really does make nearly all of us practitioners of misogyny, and, simultaneously, philandry—unless, of course, one considers the superiority of the roles alternatively.  Men have shorter lives, higher work-related death rates, are characterized as sexually-obsessed, successful only by virtue of societal privilege and never by talent, seldom receive the benefit of the doubt in family courts, forced to conform to “masculine” attributes (such as being strong, fearless, providers), exist in continually competitive environments where one has to assert superiority or face rejection (sports, academics, business) and—some would argue—suffer genital mutilation as a common cultural practice in the act of circumcision.  Perhaps we practice not only misogyny, but also misandry.

Or, perhaps, hatred is always personal, and the reason that some men hate all women and some women hate all men is not so inscrutable; perhaps hate is not an epistemologically inaccessible mystery hidden in the unknowable depths of the psyche.  For why do we hate anything?  Because we believe it is actively preventing us from unity with a good we desire.  When a man believes women are a per se obstacle to his happiness, it follows that he hates women.  Perhaps these men are less rare than I would hope; probably, they are.  Certainly, there are and have long been many men who see women as indebted to them, and themselves as having no reciprocal obligations to women.  It is a short distance from such asymmetry—born not of sexist ideology but of habitual selfishness, and not exclusive to either gender—to hatred.

Does our society believe that women are an impediment to happiness?  I don’t believe so.  What it does believe, or has believed and still retains vestigially, is that there are distinct paths to happiness for men and women.  At times—maybe even often—it has unjustly insisted that women walk in the thick underbrush alongside their path (in bustle dresses, no less).  But perhaps the solution to this injustice is not to insist there are no paths at all, condemning us to wander aimlessly in the woods.

Undoubtedly, the Manne-loving feminist will say: all of your critiques are a result of your implicit masculine desire to maintain patriarchal norms that guarantee you the opportunity of power and privilege.   To which I respond: “An ideology is really ‘holding us’ only when we do not feel any opposition between it and reality – that is, when the ideology succeeds in determining the mode of our everyday experience of reality itself .… [and] really succeeds when even the facts which at first sight contradict it start to function as arguments in its favour.”[9]

[1] Manne gives a breakdown of the goods that are “hers to give” and “his for the taking”, as well as the obligations and prohibitions on women—all supported by ethnographic exaggerations—on p.130.

[2] “I am a victim of a hate crime!” Michael Scott exclaimed, in an episode of The Office.  When Stanley Hudson replies, “That’s not what a hate crime is,” Michael reacts: “Well I hated it!”

[3] Which, in my opinion, shows a remarkable short-sightedness on Manne’s part, regardless of the particular issue of misogyny: that is, if hate or hostility exists so long as someone feels themselves to be the target or victim of hostility, then everything and anything may be construed as a systematic, impersonal, institutional hatred.  While Manne does invoke something of a “reasonable person” standard (cf. p.60), such standards are highly contingent and—given how unreasoning people often believe themselves reasonable—not very reliable.

[4] Presumably this would include something like pointing out that in the most-supposedly-egalitarian societies on the planet, differentiation in occupation along gendered difference is more prominent than in less-egalitarian societies.

[5] Because they are 1) an extreme quantitative minority and 2) seemingly the sufferers of a non-beneficial genetic abnormality, I am refraining from any consideration of intersex persons.

[6] Lurking in the background of Manne’s whole work (and, as Manne among others pointed out to me, very prominently in the epigraph opening c.2, which I admittedly missed) is that (in)famous eleventh thesis of Karl Marx ad Feuerbach: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”  I do not agree with Marx, and think he set a bad precedent for later thinkers with his eleventh thesis.  I believe the very nature of philosophy to consist in critical reflection on the relationship between the concepts we possess (individually and as common among society) and the objects those concepts disclose. An attempt to re-form those concepts not in accord with the nature of the objects disclosed but in accord with a radical social constructionism—which sees culture as entirely separate from nature—is not an act of philosophical inquiry, but of activism.

[7] Marilyn Frye’s seminal essay, published in the 1983 collection, The Politics of Reality, p.17-39, seems prominent in the background.

[8] Objectors, no doubt, will invoke the “naturalistic fallacy”, i.e., the “fallacy” of deriving an “ought” from an “is”, as described by David Hume.  Against this—and its nominalist background denying any “inductive” or abductive validity—I hold to the theories of Charles Sanders Peirce.  See my forthcoming Intersection of Semiotics and Phenomenology (De Gruyter: 2019) for more.

[9] Slavoj Žižek 1989: The Sublime Object of Ideology (New York: Verso Books, 2008), p.49-50.


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