Is there no such thing as “structural misogyny,” or do we just need better arguments for it?

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Today I’ve been trying to respond adequately to a message from my friend and fellow novelist Justin Evans, in which he talked about my recent article on being a PUA in the context of the Elliot Rodger case.

A friend responds

Please note, in the below, that what I have to say about Evans’ points reflects my interpretation of them. I’m also not intending to present him as an antagonist—the later parts of this post that talk about illegitimate rhetorical strategies refer to the journalists I linked to yesterday and to impassioned Facebook commenters. One of the key reasons I value Evans’ friendship so highly is we can talk about issues where we have clear disagreements, in a way that I know has the potential to change my mind.

Evans pointed out to me that public intellectuals have a role in pointing out how journalists’ coverage of individual events might be contextualized or generalized. Coverage of this case, unusually, began from the premise that Rodger was to be treated as part of a pre-specified general phenomenon (an overarching misogynistic culture) rather than treated as individual. But comment then continued to argue that this contextual element of Rodgers’ case had been overlooked, when in fact it had already been assumed.

He also mentioned that this pre-generalization mostly obscured discussion of other factors that might have been discussed in relation to Rodger, including race (mentioned in this article at the Guardian) and class.

Another interesting point was that by pushing the burden of guilt for “structural misogyny” (I’m using Clementine Ford’s words here) onto particular groups, MRAs and PUAs, commentators get to avoid talking about the role that we all play in perpetuating the structure. Such commentators get to posit misogyny as universal while washing their hands of it at the same time.

But none of these observations are particularly the sort of thing to keep me awake at night thinking about how to respond. What I do feel that way about is the point that Evans and I disagree about whether “structural misogyny” exists. I do think we disagree substantially in our approach to the issue, and I don’t think Evans misunderstands me, either. But I was conscious, as I began to respond to him, that others might be getting the impression that I don’t think there’s anything much going on for women to be concerned about, or any kind of structure at play in these kinds of issues.

And that’s not true.

A legacy of discrimination

There is what I might call a legacy of discrimination against women, that includes such things as:

  • unequal lifetime earnings and disproportionate participation by women in part-time work and low-wage roles and positions (often misleadingly presented as “the gender wage gap”, creating the illusion that men and women are routinely being paid unequal hourly rates or yearly salaries for identical work)
  • under-representation as CEOs and heads of government
  • the (unrehabilitated) idea of the slut
  • attitudes held by some law-enforcement personnel that discourage reporting of sexual offenses

There is no disputing that at the beginning of the twentieth century:

  • women were treated unequally by the law
  • women’s involvement (or lack thereof) in the workplace and in government was radically different
  • on average we held different ideas about women’s sexuality and paths to self-realization than we do today
  • different technological and economic development underpinned the state of gender politics and relations

…and that those early-twentieth century conditions (or worse) still persist for women in some countries with a non-European heritage.

It is also relatively indisputable that though conditions have changed markedly, historical systematic discrimination against women has lingering and undesirable effects. People may, I think, legitimately disagree on what these effects are, what degree of injustice they represent, how urgent it is to stamp them out, relative to other problems, and whether it is possible to stamp them out at all.

What is structural misogyny?

This legacy of discrimination could be the same thing, or part of the same thing, that people are talking about when they mention “structural misogyny” or some similar concept of widespread, mainstream misogyny.

I’ll exclude “rape culture” from my attempt at conciliation here, as it’s a more specific concept that I find far less meritorious. A society where sexual assaults are illegal, in which many thousands of men yearly are prosecuted for such offenses, and in which vocal commentators regularly have access to mass media outlets in which to make the case that sexual assaults should be further reduced, should not be considered to condone rape.

So here’s my problem. When the average gender feminist commentator talks about structural misogyny or something similar, I have barely any idea what they are even talking about.

I don’t mean that in the sense that I don’t know or am unwilling to accept the claims and observations that about one fifth of women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime, that feminists get rape threats on twitter, or that many women have body image issues that intersect with mental and behavioral disorders as well as what they believe men and other women expect them to look like. I don’t mean that I don’t know there are guys out there who openly ascribe negative qualities to women at large, or that there are patterns in the way women are depicted in the media that some feminists find objectionable enough that they will devote their careers to critiquing them.

I do mean that when you lump these things together into an overarching “structural misogyny”, I cease to understand exactly what is being objected to or how it’s supposed to fit together. I especially have trouble with it given the way that the word misogyny has come to be used so carelessly and no longer strictly means “hatred of or unwarranted ascription of negative qualities to women in general,” but can mean “any activity or opinion related to women that at least one woman objects to and wants to politicize.”

But I do understand that a bundled concern for all these issues, and a willingness to treat them as though they were part of a monolithic phenomenon, is a signifier that forms part of many people’s social and professional identities. I also think that in an intellectual sense, picking teams and carrying banners is bullshit, whatever side of an argument you’re sitting on. I will admit that it can serve a necessary purpose in achieving collective goals, but it’s best kept to the absolute minimum.

Structural misogyny as unfalsifiable

Those identities will prevent many from taking a statement like the following seriously, especially because it sits alongside a large amount of actually misogynistic comments on the website Return of Kings and they’ll have already made their mind up it’s nothing they should listen to:

The catch-all phrase “misogyny” has quickly turned into the internet-feminist’s version of the “War on Terror,” a never-ending conflict with an invisible enemy that can never be defeated and could be anywhere. (link).

I know if you’re offside that you might have written me off for even mentioning anything on Return of Kings in a positive light, and that’s a problem. Because Tuthmosis, the author of this post, is trying to make a crucial point.

Accuse me of misreading the “rape culture” and “structural misogyny” memes, but at their least rigorous, those who use them will take almost anything as evidence of what they paint as an omnipresent phenomenon.

Here are the most important claims in this rhetorical strategy:

  1. We live in a rape culture/patriarchy/structural misogyny/etc.
  2. That I feel I have to even talk about this is evidence that it’s true.
  3. Any criticism or denial of my claim is further evidence that it is true.
  4. Criticism or denial of the claim is evidence of the critic’s inferior mental, personal, and moral qualities.

They are not always used all at once, but they sometimes are.

Use of this sloppy reasoning doesn’t make one’s claims untrue, but it does make it impossible to talk about them in a constructive way, particularly between parties that disagree. Point (3) specifically precludes discussion of multiple viewpoints, and (4) is rude and vacuous, and should be beneath anyone who sincerely cares about the case they are trying to make.

Philosophers have attacked the subject of “arguments it’s not possible to talk about” from various angles. Here is David Hume in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion. (link).

Elsewhere, we have Karl Popper and others championing the idea of falsifiability in science. The idea here is:

  • Even very large numbers of findings that support a claim do not actually prove it; the best that science can give us is claims that we consistently fail to falsify.
  • To do even minimally decent science, we have to set up our hypotheses in a way that they could be falsified, e.g. by identifying what kind of evidence would falsify them. We would then conduct experiments that aimed to falsify the hypothesis, and the repeated failure of those experiments to provide counter-evidence is our substitute for proof.

I don’t mean to say we have to take a rigorously scientific approach to misogyny or any cultural issue, or to inject the language and methods of science into places they don’t belong in an act of disciplinary imperialism. But if we examine the positions we take for claims that are unfalsifiable, it can help us pick up places where we have formulated our arguments very badly, and where we have practically no chance of convincing those whose first intuition is to disbelieve us.

This isn’t the only realm where we find unfalsifiable arguments. The whole thing reminds me of Freudian literary criticism. Don’t believe my reading of Poe because you can’t find adequate evidence in the text? Of course you can’t—he repressed it! Its absence is the evidence that he held such motivations in his unconscious!

I don’t even know where to begin. There actually is nowhere to begin except by writing it off as nonsense and asking the critic to start again from scratch.

Possible objections

Because the structural misogyny thesis is unfalsifiable and my criticism or denial will be viewed as proof that it is true, it is practically pointless me raising the following objections for discussion, unless you happen to already be on side.

There is no mainstream

I’m 32. I haven’t watched broadcast television regularly since 2001, and by now, most of my close friends don’t watch it, either. Instead we download shows and watch them on our computers. We don’t listen to the radio any more either, because we get the music and comment we want from iTunes, Spotify, and podcasts. With paywalls now going up all over the place, many of us don’t even read what used to be called “the newspaper.”

While feminists are reading Jezebel and/or their sites of preference, manospherians are reading Return of Kings or their sites of preference, and Elliot Rodger and his fellow travelers were until recently raging on PUAhate.com while others spent hours on 4chan or their favorite subreddit. None of these people any longer have it in common that they tune in their televisions for the six or seven o’clock news on a choice of just a few channels.

Those who do still listen to the radio, read a paper, or watch broadcast television will over time form another subculture or group of subcultures that determinedly or by habit cling to the media consumption habits of the past.

Society is arguably more fragmented than it has ever been in recent history, and it is easier than ever before to use media to consume and associate with nothing but your own subcultures’ ideas and people while at the same time picking out a subculture (or set of individuals) you despise and presenting it as representative of a mainstream trend that threatens everyone.

Misogyny, especially subcultural misogyny, can’t be mainstream, because the mainstream no longer exists.

(This is a deliberately polemic and overreaching point, but it may prove increasingly true.)

Social media amplifies our perceptions of tragedy and depravity, but they remain a minority experience

Feminists and women in general will be targeted by horrible threats on Twitter. As of February 2013, Twitter had around 200 million followers. If you receive threatening messages from 1000 users, it’s objectively a large and terrifying number … but it only represents .0005% of the user base: one in every two hundred thousand users.

Similarly, if roughly 20% of women are sexually assaulted in their lifetimes, there’s a potential 20 million stories for #YesAllWomen. Everyone experiences the terror of hearing about them, especially on such a large scale, but sexual assault still does remain, statistically, a minority experience (in the sense that it affects well below 50% of the population), and is caused by a even more minuscule minority of men—around 0.4%.

I do not mean to insinuate that minority issues should be disregarded, but their minority nature makes them not mainstream.

Minority actions do produce the mainstream experience of knowing we live in a world where women have a 1 in 5 chance of being sexually assaulted in their lifetime, and probably a 100% chance of being verbally abused or threatened on Twitter. But looking at an offender rate of 0.4% or less doesn’t suggest that changing our entire culture is likely to be the most effective way, or even an effective way, of reducing that incidence.

The discourse of “misogyny culture” consistently makes careless “all” claims and then refuses to admit the significance of counter-evidence

Writers’ careless use of all claims is a major problem in comment about these issues. For instance, in writing about the Rodger case, Amanda Hess says “Pick-Up Artists, by the way, refer to women they would like to have sex with as their ‘targets.’ “

You might accuse me of being pedantic here, but English grammar makes most of us understand this sentence as saying “All pick-up artists refer to women they would like to have sex with as their ‘targets.’ ”

Hess presumably will not be remotely interested in revising her article in light of my observations or anyone else’s that not all PUAs refer to women as targets or harbor misogynistic attitudes.

Let’s be as generous to Hess as possible. We won’t say that she’s willfully ignoring the very likely possibility that there is a counterexample out there somewhere, for ideological reasons or out of having picked a side and letting it determine every aspect of her position.

The most generous we can be to Hess is to say that she’s seen a lot of examples that confirm her observation, not looked around for counterexamples, and then carelessly failed to put “Some” or even “Many” at the beginning of her sentence—which would have limited her observation to a specific domain and rendered it absolutely true.

By exhibiting such care, Hess may have managed to write a vastly superior article about PUA culture, more like this one by Clarisse Thorn. Thorn’s observations about the worst aspects of pick-up (where I tend to focus on the best, to put the counterexamples out there) are restricted to a specific example and domain. She recognizes that PUAs belong to a subculture, and doesn’t collapse it into the mainstream.

Thorn’s observations, restricted as they are, are absolutely true. We and others might disagree about to what level the despicable practices promoted by some on the Real Social Dynamics (RSD) forum prevail within the subculture as a whole, to what level they have infiltrated Australian or American culture at large (to the extent that such a thing even exists), and on what we should do about them. But by being ready to make our observations specific and limited in scope, we might more readily discuss the issue on the basis of available evidence.

It counters factual claims with emotive, subjective, and ad hominem rhetorical tactics

Lately I’ve been getting involved in these discussions about misogyny in relation to Elliot Rodger, raising counter-evidence in the form of stories about PUAs who are not misogynist or using tactics that dehumanize women. I’ve also done some (admittedly amateur) analysis of ABS statistics that seems to show that in Australia a tiny proportion, probably no more than 0.4% of the male population, is responsible for the sexual assaults roughly 20% of women will experience in their lifetime. And I’ve argued that this proportion is not large enough to be evidence for a mainstream culture of misogyny.

Part of the response to my involvement in these discussions now and at other times is for others (not all of them women) to say, and I’m paraphrasing, here:

You’re boiling this all down to a matter of statistics and it doesn’t capture the lived reality for me or the women that I know who have been abused or who feel afraid of men. You’re over-intellectualizing the issue and not being sufficiently empathetic, and it’s insensitive of you to be talking this way when we are all so upset.

Now, I’ll take the point that I might be an insensitive jerk for treading on some people’s delicate sensibilities, but this does nothing to further our understanding of what’s really going on, to identify concrete phenomena and establish clear goals and strategies for eliminating or reducing tragic outcomes.

To those bringing the issue of empathy into the discussion in this way, let me take a line out of Hume’s book and say you might as well take those blogs you’ve been reading, and everything you’ve been posting on Twitter and Facebook, and just throw your whole computer in the fireplace on top of a burning log. There is nothing of merit in it.

The desperate need for better arguments

These are serious issues, and they deserve more careful treatment. When someone comes to you in good faith and points out that you make too many “all” statements, that your thesis is unfalsifiable or needs further specification and substantiation, or that you too often argue to the man instead of to the point, they deserve a more serious response than to be accused of lack of empathy or over-intellectualization.

These issues deserve, in fact, that you revise your argument and tighten your rhetorical strategy when it’s pointed out to you that those in opposition or just plain sitting on the fence are not going to be moved by what you have to offer.

It distresses me that so little of this is done. It distresses me even further that why we won’t do it is because we tend to surround ourselves only with the like-minded, and to form our arguments as though the only people who matter are those who already agree with us. It distresses me that we form professional and social identities around rigid opinions that we insist everyone of good character must hold and express or be thrown into the pit of the giant sarlac to be slowly digested over a thousand years … otherwise known as the outgroup.

One of the implicit arguments in Ian Ironwood’s deliberately confrontational book The Manosphere is that masculinist subcultures are forming because feminist positions are framed in a way that precludes dialog with their detractors or consideration of facts and experiences that might be relevant counterexamples to feminist arguments. Many men view these positions, so framed, as hostile to them, their fathers, sons, brothers, and friends, and to men in general. At the very least, they are not being spoken to in their own language, and they will not be convinced.

Ironwood’s response to the current state of feminist discourse seems to be that men might as well not bother to engage with it, choosing instead to revalorize masculinity and pursue their own interests as men while disregarding those of women. He also issues a warning: (gender) feminists, this is happening because of the way you have conducted your crusade.

It is now traditional to squeal abuse when someone suggests there might be reasons to reproach a feminist, and Ironwood is aware of this. But to put it in terms that people with a range of identity politics (particularly those with a background in postcolonial theory) may appreciate, when you make unwarranted generalizations, especially to the point of demonization, and fail to engage in dialog, negotiation, or compromise because you think those who disagree with or oppose you are beneath contempt, you make enemies who may one day destroy you.

Thinking a little past Ironwood’s own contentions, it is possible to see within them the specter of a world descended into outright gender warfare, where hostile feminist and masculinist subcultures that have captured the support of a large proportion of the relevant sexes engage in unrestrained competition with each other for esteem and resources. For want of dialog, we may see hardened misandry pitted against a resurgent and willful misogyny that will make us reminisce about the good old days when, out of ancient naivety, men thought that the womb roamed about the body and caused women to go mad.

We desperately need to raise the average standard of debate on these issues, not just in the media but within our social circles. The alternative might be a dystopia most of us would prefer not to contemplate.

Author: Ben Hourigan

Ben Hourigan is a novelist from Melbourne, Australia. His books Kiss Me, Genius Boy and My Generation’s Lament are Amazon category bestsellers, and are available wherever good books are sold online. Ben also works as an editor, copywriter, and self-publishing consultant at his own firm, Hourigan & Co. For news and book release updates, sign up to his email newsletter.