What’s the difference between sexism and misogyny?

WordsDonald Trump, the now official Republican candidate for the 2016 Presidential elections in the United States, is often called a misogynist. I have also recently been called a misogynist on that most august locus of intellectual interactions, Twitter. Something doesn’t add up, since I don’t really think I qualify for the appellative, and I’m not completely sure even about Trump…

First, let me give you the details of the Twitter episode, so you can judge for yourself.

What happened was that I posted a link to an article describing a rare instance in which Democratic senators have at the least made a show to stand up against Republican obstruction and the National Rifle Association (a rather misguided attempt, as it turns out, since the law would actually have targeted a specific religious minority and ethnic background, but that’s another story). My accompanying comment was along the lines of “it looks like the Dems are growing some balls.”

Perhaps predictably, someone immediately observed that “growing some balls” is offensive to the half of humanity that doesn’t biologically come equipped with them, suggesting that I should have said something along the lines of “is growing a spine.”

The point is well taken, of course, though — rhetorically speaking — growing a spine just doesn’t pack nearly as much punch as growing some balls. Besides, of course I had used that phrase simply because it is commonly used in such circumstances, i.e., unreflectively, without a conscious intention to offend anyone.

But what struck me as interesting was that my interlocutor accused me of being a misogynist because I had used that phrase. I pointed out that misogyny means hating women, and that the above phrase — as debatable as its use may be — hardly indicated any hatred of women on my part. I suggested instead that the phrase may be more reasonably interpreted as sexist, though again this doesn’t imply that I am a sexist person, just someone who has unreflectively engaged in a sexist remark without meaning to.

(We could have a whole interesting conversation about whether sexism, or homophobia, or racism, can be unconscious, and what the difference is between an unconscious attitude over which one has little control and the conscious expression of certain behaviors, over which one presumably does have some degree of control. But that also is another conversation, to be had at another time.)

To be fair, my Twitter friend readily agreed with my suggestion and we parted ways amicably, in and of itself something to be celebrated, given the prevalent internet culture.

Some time passed, and then I saw a number of articles about Donald Trump’s alleged misogyny, referring for the most part to behaviors of his that I do find despicable, but that I would have naturally classed as sexist instead.

Time to reach for the dictionary. Here are the basic definitions of the two terms (from my conveniently handy Dictionary app):

Sexism: 1. Attitudes or behavior based on traditional stereotypes of sexual roles. 2. Discrimination or devaluation based on a person’s sex, as in restricted job opportunities; especially, such discrimination directed against women.

Misogyny: 1. Hatred, dislike, or mistrust of women.

It is also interesting to look at the etymology of the second term: 1650s, from Gk. misogynia, from misogynes “woman-hater,” from miso- + gyne “woman.” (Apparently, there is such a thing as misandry, or hate of men.)

It strikes me as obvious that sexism is milder than misogyny: a sexist person doesn’t hate women, he simply thinks they ought to be relegated to certain stereotypical social roles, typically considered inferior to those of men. (Note also that sexism, unlike misogyny, is gender neutral, so someone could, in theory, have a sexist attitude about men.)

Indeed, I would guess that many sexist men not only don’t hate, but don’t even dislike, and possibly don’t mistrust women. Trump seems to like a lot of women very much (though in an obviously sexist fashion), and he trusts at the least some of them enough to help him run his businesses and now political campaign. His attitude, one more time, is consistently and despicably sexist, but I’m not entirely positive it raises to the higher standard of misogyny.

Some have argued that Trump only helps women by whom he doesn’t feel threatened, while hating, disliking or distrusting others. This is probably true, but I’m pretty sure he also hates, dislikes or distrusts any man who may be in competition with him or who somehow threatens his interests.

My point here is most certainly not to defend Donald Trump, he is way beyond redemption. Far less it is my intention to condone any form of sexism. But I find it interesting that public discourse — on and off the internet — lately seems to be reaching for an escalation of terminology because old critiques (and even insults) are just not good enough anymore. It is nowadays so common to hurl (often justified) accusations of sexism to people that they don’t have began to sound woefully inadequate. So one reaches for the next level up, misogyny.

But that way we do a disservice to both language and public discourse. Yes, yes, I know that languages change and evolve with usage, and that dictionaries are in some sense descriptive. But they are also prescriptive, meaning that they do tell you about correct and incorrect usage right now. And perhaps it isn’t too late to reverse the tendency to reflexively reach for the strongest epithets available and then begin to treat them as synonymous with milder ones. Failing to do so we become more imprecise, less nuanced, and we oversimplify our language. And as George Orwell argued, that’s the way toward tyranny.


Categories: Social & Political Philosophy

68 replies

  1. Massimo,

    We each know that Virtue42015 has no evidence to support the claim that PF displays hatred of, or repression against, women. Instead it was her apparent anger itself that I found interesting (which was surely amplified when she could provide no evidence.). Thus I’d hope for you to not take such accusations personally, but rather use them to potentially glean associated insights. Why might women be somewhat angry with your highly male dominated profession? Perhaps because they think your kind tends to consider them intellectually inferior? I wouldn’t expect Virtue42015 to back me up on this however, but instead state something like, “Wrong! We don’t give a shit what you think of us!” Theory of Mind can be funny like that.

    In the past I have noticed some women intentionally choosing genderless blog aliases, with one over at “Conscious Entities” explaining that she thought her gender might otherwise serve as a distraction. Thus it may be that we here aren’t quite as “boys club” as suspected. Furthermore I’ve theorized that if we were to consider the ideas of others in less personal ways, and so display somewhat greater objectivity (and for this think “Socrates”), then perhaps more women would participate. I can’t say if this is true, though diversity isn’t actually what I’m after — I seek the most objective community possible.

    (See? There I go using women again!)


  2. Why are we even having this conversation. The idea that PF is either misogynistic or sexist is neither credible nor serious. Do we seriously have to agonize over every utterance by every troll on the internet?

    A heavier filter is all that’s needed to deal with such things. She can go on a street corner and carry a sign if she wants.


  3. Only recently there was a campaign in Australia to try to address male suicide rates – trying to get men to seek help.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Eric,

    As Dan said, I think we are wasting far too much time on a random internet troll. Still, the general point is that I am more than happy to address specific complaints about how this site is run. But no, Virtue42015 has given us absolutely no reason for her (if it’s a “her”) random accusation, so this is indeed the last comment I’m going to make on the issue.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Robin: All I can tell you is that whenever anyone in the US tries to suggest institutionalized bias against men to explain everything from skewed numbers in child custody battles to girls-stacked rules in pre-school and elementary school, they are either ridiculed or accused of sexism for it.

    The point just is that this only goes one way. “Disparate impact” is taken as prima facie evidence of discrimination against women, but is not when the impact skews against men. To suggest that it is not — at least in the US — is only possible if one is not paying attention.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. The derision aimed at anyone suggesting that in some instances males get the worse deal is another of those specifically American ideologies. (Sorry, USAians, but some ideological wars in the US seem really weird to outsiders, attitudes to gun control being the most notable example.)

    In the UK it is mainstream to be concerned about the deal boys get (while recognising that women are probably more discriminated against overall). Nowadays, for example: “Female 18-year-old pupils are now over a third more likely to start a degree course than their male counterparts, and those from poorer backgrounds are more than 50% more likely to enter university.”.

    [Though one can also ask whether the males are being astute; a middling-ability teenage boy who apprentices himself as a plumber is likely to end up earning far more in today’s Britain than a typical person going to university to study, say, English literature, and incurring tuition-fee debt. ]

    Along these lines, this is from the “acceptance” speech by our brand-new Prime Minister:

    “That means fighting against the burning injustice that, if you’re born poor, you will die on average 9 years earlier than others.

    “If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white.

    “If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university.

    “If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately.

    “If you’re a woman, you will earn less than a man. If you suffer from mental health problems, there’s not enough help to hand.

    “If you’re young, you’ll find it harder than ever before to own your own home.”

    Liked by 3 people

  7. I’m a little late to this conversation… I’ve been reluctant to join in, as a member of the silent female minority here (do we have data on that?) who read every posting–including all the commentaries. I don’t care if you males spar with each other. (ok, at times it’s annoying.)
    But I appreciate the thoughtful male philosopher’s community here. And does anyone know if Virtue42015 is male or female? Did you all just assume that a criticism about Philosophy’s possible sexist bias must come from a female? (now that’s sexist!)
    So, my experience with this topic is as follows. Sexism: I have experienced institutional sexism in Academia. Examples: after the first semester of my PhD program, the head of my department (humanities, but not Philosophy) informed me that I was “not intellectually qualified” to get a doctorate and then suggested that I should teach high school. I interpreted it as a personal remark about my abilities, and this kept me sitting in silent fear at the back of the seminars for years. I was one of two females in my program, and neither of us received a stipend (and each of the eight men did). This meant I had to take large student loans and work two jobs through the program… in the end I was one of three (out of ten) to pass the PhD qualifying exam (thus finally proving I was qualified), but I wasn’t awarded a stipend (they didn’t expect me to pass the exam) so I had to go and beg for money to continue school.
    Misogyny: I have also been, as many females have, the victim of misogyny and sexual violence. In this regard, I agree with Christoph Allin’s remark above that “Misogyny refers to hatred in someone’s heart… unrepentant misogyny may well lead to very harmful sexist behaviour.” I think that is an understatement. Misogyny in fact leads to female infanticide, genital mutilation, forced marriage and human trafficking, child abuse, physical abuse, rape, and the persistence of degrading public displays of sexual assessment of women’s value (i.e., Trump’s Miss Universe Beauty Pageant industry). A deep, impersonal misogyny creates the foundation for the unconscious sexist biases that females experience. Misogyny is the root of institutional practices that have prevented half of humanity from moving forward (i.e. in the U.S.: only 97 years of voting?, still an unequal paid wage for females?, 87% of rapes on college campuses go unreported?, 44 presidents and only now the first female who might attain that spot?).
    Misogyny (dislike or mistrust of women) is the deep core of the U.S. public’s feeling about Hillary, and one that Trump and his group have been playing up. The majority of people who will vote for him feel victimized by an increasingly powerful and visible coalition of minorities, women, immigrants, and disenfranchised poor people who are visibly angry about continued injustices.
    Since Massimo said he won’t comment again, I would like to bring back the core of his original argument: sexism and/or misogyny. This question is bigger than a tweet. While I stay far away from Twitter, I do believe that his “balls” comment is merely a harmless (“unreflective”) metaphor–not an indication of either inherent sexism or misogyny. But I can also understand where someone might question a metaphor claiming that courage has to do with the production of testosterone. It is an irritating metaphor to any woman who tries to be courageous in this world.
    Finally, the rhetorical use of the word misogyny may actually be useful to us (women) because it has a shock value that directs attention to “hatred towards women,” the deepest basis in persistent violence toward females. If Trump’s denial that he raped his wife because “you can’t rape your spouse” is true, then I would call him a misogynist and use that word in every context when he utters a remark that degrades women. Virtue42015 wrote that “Woman is problem, a sore spot, an anchor to the animalistic…” and in many societies being female is being vulnerable to physical and psychological violence (the opposite of having “balls”). Even in the U.S. this is still a vulnerability that many men don’t acknowledge.
    The difference is that some men can make this distinction, admitting to be “someone who has unreflectively engaged in a sexist remark without meaning to.” It takes self-awareness to change bias. I thank you for your attention and a place to post my reflections.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Vienna,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments, they are much appreciated, and I don’t really find anything to disagree there…


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