You Can’t Unsee Misogyny After Manne

Kate Manne’s outstanding book, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, is a powerful, beautifully argued work that could rightly have a warning its cover. Once you read it and think it through, it is impossible not to see gender relations in a new way. Manne’s nominal focus, misogyny, opens up realizations about greater issues of humanity, society and morality. It made me rethink issues of misogyny, sexism, and power. Truly, it made me reconsider so muchl, from workplace discrimination to anti-women violence, in real life and in popular culture, to how even basic language can reinforce patriarchal structures. This is philosophy book written by a young philosopher with scope and impact; it raises questions and has relevance across disciplines and in everyday life.

While the horrors of the individual actors and actions, can stick in one’s mind, Down Girl can shine a light of logic on the senseless. It also brought back memories of Dostoevsky’s classic novel Crime and Punishment, assigned to me in a class many years ago. The novel contains a shocking scene in which the protagonist, Raskolnikov, dreams about a horse being whipped to death. It is sad and searing. Once you read it, you will never forget it – just as my literature professor warned us before assigning it. She told us we would carry the image around for the rest of our lives, notably because of how Dostoevsky frame the violence within larger themes of power, cruelty and meaning. It’s a scene that once read and considered, cannot be forgotten. Manne’s book, non-fiction and academic, has a similar effect.

Manne begins with facts and cases, looking with fresh eyes the manifold ways in which we have normalized violence against women. Woven throughout cultural production and documented again and again in our legal system, violence and anti-women pressures are much greater than #MeToo. She emphasizes that there is are pressures for women to be of support, giving and moral, without similar expectations for men. If women and men share a common humanity – and Manne writes from an acknowledged position of privilege as an educated white woman – what is going on? Why the moral asymmetry? What is happening to perpetuate and reinforce patriarchy? To answer these and related questions, Manne systematically analyzes the nature of misogyny. She is an analytic philosopher and in this book, she connects the dots of different scholars and thinkers.

Possibly the most important move of Manne is to make us think of misogyny in terms of what it does to women. It is not about hatred of women, or of denying women their humanity. Misogyny is not the property of individuals. Instead, it is a social phenomenon that works to keep women down, the police arm of patriarchy. She takes care to differentiate sexism from misogyny. Sexism justifies the patriarchal order while misogyny reinforces it. “Sexism is scientific; misogyny is moralistic.” With this foundation, Manne steers us through how misogyny is a recurring manifestation of patriarchy. It is not the rare case, the incel here or the Harvey Weinstein there. It is central to how things are structured and ordered. It is a systematic social manifestation of power.

Manne’s explication of her larger argument takes on a thoughtfully crafted tour. She draws on contemporary events as well as literature and film, pointing out along the way how a naive conception of misogyny has consistently limited our understanding of the event and its implications. It holds true for court cases, not so random acts of violence, and Hillary Clinton, who is the subject of entire chapter. Manne shows how women can be implicated into this larger structure of moral asymmetry and how difficult it can be to think and behave differently.

In her conclusion Manne quotes some of Shel Silverstein, a poet and author who I only knew through his cartoons for children. Turns out he wrote vile anti-women poetry. His work, and her massive effort guiding us through this ongoing injustice, leaves Manne feeling defeated. She wants to offer a hopeful message, but cannot. The weight of realization and understanding falls heavy upon the reader and even more so on Manne. I don’t believe that it is a fair burden for her to shoulder. She has done brilliant work in shining a new and powerful light on a deep-seated power structure that has existed for millennia. It is going to take a great deal of collective effort for all of us to think this through and offer positive change.

A very good place to start is by reading her book. It doesn’t matter if you don’t think of yourself as a philosopher – it matters across the academy and in the workplace. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

David Potash

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