Donald 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.