Tuesday, March 13, 2012

One More and I'm Done with This: Bipartisan Misogyny and Media Bias

In a recent pair of articles and in a Fox News segment, Kirsten Powers has used Rush Limbaugh’s verbal assault on Sandra Fluke as a platform from which to raise concerns about misogyny by media pundits on the other side of the partisan divide.

What she comes up with is a rather telling overview of misogynistic remarks, some more overt, others more subtle. While in my judgment no single case comes close to the outrageous indecency of the recent Limbaugh case (the obsessive, multi-day verbal sexual assault of a young woman who dared to step into the public spotlight to testify on matters important to her), there can be no question that there are voices on the so-called political left who have a habit of ridiculing conservative women by sexually objectifying them.

Bill Maher is the most obvious and serious case, especially with his targeting of Sarah Palin, whom he has called a “twat” and a “c**t.” This is a clear case of dismissing a person through sexually objectifying language: a woman who achieves political prominence is identified with her sexual parts, becoming something to screw rather than a person to be listened to. That Maher did this in a standup comedy routine is a shoddy defense for someone whose career straddles the line between comedy and political punditry.

I don’t agree with much of what Sarah Palin has to say. I find her rhetoric divisive and occasionally dangerous. But to dismiss her in this way is to reinforce the sexist infrastructure of our culture.

Less likely to attract attention than Maher’s use of the c-word is the frequent dismissal of women using gender-specific labels like “bimbo.” But such remarks are also misogynistic. They play into and reinforce sexist gender hierarchies. And Powers offers a nice range of remarks that fall into this category.

All told, Powers makes a compelling case, and the conclusion of her first essay deserves to be taken seriously. Here’s what she says:
It’s time for some equal-opportunity accountability. Without it, the fight against media misogyny will continue to be perceived as a proxy war for the Democratic Party, not a fight for fair treatment of women in the public square.
Powers’ articles and comments were first brought to my attention by a conservative friend who has a long-standing concern about liberal bias in the media. Powers' own concern is not so much the idea that there is a liberal bias in the media in general. Rather, it is with the question of why more liberal political commentators tend to give their own a "pass" when it comes to misogyny. If misogyny is a problem, then it's as big a problem when it happens on your own side of the aisle as when it happens on the other side.

Still, there are those who are arguing based on the media attention Limbaugh has received for his assault on Fluke--and the lack of parity directed to Maher and others on the left--that there is an overall liberal bias in the media. But I don't find this to be a very compelling case for liberal media bias. Although Maher is guilty of the same kind of thing that Limbaugh is guilty of, Limbaugh’s offense has an egregiousness that is hard to match. The distinctive furor over Limbaugh’s recent remarks can readily be explained in terms of their sustained and extreme character, as opposed to the partisan leanings of their source.

After all, this degree of media attention and public condemnation is a first for Limbaugh, even though he’s been engaging in misogynistic attacks on women for decades. What sparked the strong response this time was just how far over the line Limbaugh went.

But I think it is a problem that the broader issue of bipartisan media misogyny has not received more attention than it has—and that for many, Limbaugh represents some isolated horror. What Kirsten Powers’ litany of “liberal” misogynists does, I think, is offer a glimpse of the state of public discourse in general, on both sides of traditional party lines. While she’s accused of trying to make Limbaugh’s rants an occasion to bash liberals (although she professes to be one herself), it is more charitable to see her as using the extreme case as an opportunity to call attention to a broader problem.

The reality seems to be this: There is a lot of sexist discourse out there, on both sides of the political divide, and most of it passes largely under the media’s radar, ignored or trivialized unless, as in the recent Limbaugh case, it rises to the level of verbal sexual assault (or unless pointing it out serves some partisan agenda). In other words, the media tends to treat the rare and extreme cases as something to be horrified at, but doesn’t take much notice of the more pervasive, insidious, and bipartisan sexist behaviors that make such extreme cases possible.

Here, I am reminded of points Catharine MacKinnon makes about rape in Toward a Feminist Theory of the State. As she puts it there, “In feminist analysis, a rape is not an isolated event or moral transgression or individual interchange gone wrong but an act of terrorism and torture within a systematic context of group subjection, like lynching.” On this perspective, rape is not some isolated horror, some anomalous crime. Rather, it is the most vivid and terrible expression of a pervasive system of subjugation.

For MacKinnon, rape is actually a piece of the broader patriarchal system, insofar as the fear of being raped operates in the background of many sexual encounters, helping men to secure the compliance of women who otherwise would not submit to sex. More provocatively, MacKinnon represents rape as an extreme instance of the same kind of thing that is done to women every day in patriarchal societies.

But it serves the status quo to deny this. It serves the interests of the beneficiaries of patriarchy to treat rape, not as an overt distillation of all the covert gender violence endemic in society, but as something that offends what the society is about. Cutting rape off from the broader context of which it is a part, treating it as special and unique, keeps us from noticing all the ways in which our society is doing the same sort of thing, in less vivid form, all the time.

Likewise, treating Limbaugh’s egregious verbal assault on Fluke as if it were an anomalous breach of social standards, an unbelievable and distinctive offense, helps to keep us from paying too much attention to all the ways in which the dismissal of women through sexual objectification is a routine feature of our cultural life, regardless of our politics.

Now in saying all of this, I don’t want to trivialize rape by equating it with offenses that don’t carry the same weight of violation. But I do want to recognize formal similarities, and see how broader social patterns feed into this more extreme kind of human degradation. Likewise, I don’t want to trivialize what Limbaugh did through false equivalences. But I think it’s very important to understand the broader culture, and the routine misogyny (such as when a professional woman is dismisses as a bimbo) which makes these more extreme acts of misogyny possible.

To the extent that the media ignores the more routine misogyny in our culture—to the extent that it fails to situate the extreme offenses within a broader cultural pattern that is deeply implicated in those offenses—the media is helping to protect the status quo from the kinds of progressive cultural critiques we find in feminist thought.

And on this basis, I am prepared to say that the media has a conservative bias--not in the sense that it tends to disproportionately favor the more relatively right-leaning political party, but in the sense that it tends to shield entrenched norms and patterns against seriously challenges that, were they to be taken seriously by society as they perhaps ought to be, would call for quite sweeping social change.


  1. You're right: there is a very insidious (and hypocritical) undercurrent of misogyny from supposedly liberal voices when it comes to people like Palin. It's not like there's a shortage of legitimate criticism you can make about her, but time and again the mob turns to lazy, misogynistic abuse.

    I've not seen the relevant Maher clips, but I'm not sure how much you can read into "c**t." (With more context it might be obvious.) In my experience, it's an insult applied equally to men and women, and though its origins may be misogynistic, whether it's directed at a man or a woman doesn't necessarily make it any more or less offensive, or invest it with any more or less (or different) meaning.

  2. David,

    I'm skeptical of the claim that "c**t" is directed towards men and women equally, but I doubt we'll get anything more than anecdotal evidence here so debating that point is probably unhelpful. So, suppose it is applied equally. There are a couple of points I'd make in that case.

    First, it would seem to me likely that when men are slapped with this label, they are being insulted in something like the same way in which a man is being insulted when he's called a "sissy" (originally an endearment for a sister). The insult comes from being equated with the feminine--something which is insulting only on the assumption that the feminine is subordinate to the masculine. In other words, treating references to women or female body parts as insulting itself plays into misgyny.

    Second, when a woman is slapped with this label, whatever the intent of the speaker, the experience for a woman will be colored by broader patterns of misogyny and sexism. Because women are routinely sexually objectified, when a woman is derogatively identified using a term that refers to female genitalia it will resonate with this broader pattern of sexual objectification. And any man who thinks about this for a minute should understand that. If there is a distinction between intentional homocide and negligent homocide, we might likewise make a distinction between intentional sexism and negligent sexism: Any public figure (especially male) who publicly calls a woman a c**t is at least guilty of the latter, even if he didn't intend to be sexist. He should have known, even if he wasn't thinking about it, the way in which the insult would inculcate feelings of sexual humiliation.

    In short, I'm not convinced that context matters here for determining whether Maher's calling Palin a c**t is misogynistic--although it may be quite relevant for assessing the gravity of the offense.

  3. All food for thought, and I'll continue chewing over this topic in light of what you've said.

    Two initial responses to those points, however. On the first, there comes a point when a metaphor dies. It's easy to trace "bastard" to its origins, for example, but I'm skeptical there are many people who hear or use that word in modern, western English and think "illegitimate child." It's a dead metaphor. Again, in my experience (and I really do mean just in my experience), "c**t" is more dead than alive than as a metaphor. It's used with no more regard for its original meaning and connotations than "bastard," "shit" or "f***er."

    On your second point, given the above, I don't think I can just assume that women feel sexually humiliated every time that insult is directed at them, regardless of context; any more than I'm aware of sexual humiliation as a man when I'm called a "dick" or a "cock," both terms that originate from negative ways males and their sexual organs are perceived.

    Lastly, I'm not thinking of this politically so much as linguistically. I'm just interested in language, and so I constantly think about words and their meaning in terms of their origin, the way they're used now and the often-complicated ways the two relate.

  4. I think people can downplay what comedians say, simply because of their profession. They get laughs, attention, and therefore work and dollars from being outrageous and entertaining. Limbaugh has some thin veneer of wanting to be taken seriously along with his entertainment, so I think he doesn't get the pass that Maher or others would get.

  5. Hi Eric,

    Well, yes, Bill Maher... I try to watch his show when I can and, to be sure sure, there's a lot that can be said against him. For example, he certainly shows no respect for religion (and, for this alone, I don't expect he has many fans among your readers), he seems to have weird ideas about medicine and, yes, he uses crude language that is often offensive. However, one thing I'm pretty sure of, is that he is not a misogynist, which I understand to mean a man who hates woman.

    Perhaps it is important to distinguish what one actually does (or the causes he fights for) from the language he uses. On this account, while Maher may use offensive language, I believe he would not engage in actual sexual discrimination, denigration or violence against women. Whether Mr Limbaugh would qualify as a misogynist I cannot say – I know him only from the clips we see now and then.

    As an example of the opposite situation, consider the totally surreal war against contraception (and reproductive rights in general) that seems to be all the rage in the US these days. In this case the language is certainly very correct, the arguments framed in economic or philosophical terms. You have commented on some of them as a philosopher should, I suppose, by answering specific arguments.

    But, behind the language used, isn't it clear we're witnessing an all-out war against basic women rights? The list of anti-women laws being passed or considered reads like an horror story. One very mild example: an Arizona law would allow a religious employer to fire a woman for the crime of using contraception (yes, I have verified this). Another apparently requires a doctor to lie to a woman requesting an abortion by claiming that it would increase the risk of breast cancer (which is denied by the National Cancer Institute).

    I'm sorry I am not being very philosophical about this but doesn't all this show a total contempt, if not hatred, for women? Aren't these self-righteous fanatics the real misogynists? Have these people no shame?

  6. JP,

    Sorry for not responding sooner. I've been vacationing in a mountain cabin. I have great sympathy for what you're saying here. I think there is an unprecedented reactionary response to the advances in women's rights that is taking place right now, one that is gaining momentum from a diverse set of allies who are mostly concerned about unseating Obama or taking an unnuanced stand "for" religion, but whose agendas enable this disturbing attack.

    And I agree that one huge difference between Rush Limbaugh and Bill Maher is that the former is an energetic participant in this systematic campaign of truncating women's freedoms (whatever his driving motivations) in a way that the latter simply is not.

    But that does not mean that Maher's crude dismissal of conservative women by calling them c**ts and twats doesn't feed into broader misogynistic forces in our culture (whatever his driving motivations). It may be more fitting to say that these acts are misogynistic--insofar as they both reflect and feed misogynistic elements of our culture--than to say that Maher as a person is a misogynist.

    But here's the thing that Powers' remarks made me think about: If people like me are going to take issue with the conservative war on women, we need to do so in a way that acknowledges the ways in which misogyny isn't just an issue for the "other guys" but finds expression on both sides of the political divide. Taking issue with the sexist/misogynistic disempowerment of women can't be a partisan thing--something we rail against only when the culprits are conservatives and the targets liberal/progressive--even if one of the political parties is more implicated in the campaign of real political disempowerment than the other.

    This is true as a matter of principle, but it is also true as a strategic matter: If we give liberal pundits (even comedic pundits) a "pass," we open ourselves to the political right crying foul--and suddenly the issue stops being about the war on women and starts being about our hypocrisy and double standard. Hypocrisy is easier for the broader public to understand than patriarchy, since the latter is like a constant cultural background noise, hard to notice and easy to be distracted from. We can't afford distractions if we want the public to really become conscious of the cultural reality that needs to change.

  7. Hi Eric,

    Thanks for this. As for strategy, you're right in the middle of this and certainly have a feel for what helps and what doesn't that a foreigner from another culture cannot hope to have – I must defer to your judgment on this. I would also guess the emotional response to crude language has a strong cultural element and also depends a lot of one's upbringing. Perhaps this may help explain why many can use such language without entirely realizing the effect it can have on others.

    You mention (in your post) the need for balance within the media. But there is another side to this: it often seems as if the media are striving for a false balance, giving credibility to both sides of an issue as long as some people in power are defending them.

    However, not all issues have two sides, the most dramatic example being perhaps climate change. The existence of a scientific “debate” about the role of humans in changing the climate is almost entirely a creation of the media – the science and evidence is clear and available for all to see. But, for some reason, denial is presented as a legitimate and rational position. For example, I don't see Santorum (an extreme climate change denier) presented as the ignorant he is on this issue. The result of this false balance, in this case, is that what is arguably the most important risk facing humankind (potentially even civilization-threatening) remains largely ignored.

    It's all very well for the media to report accurately what's happening (as I believe most try to do) but wouldn't it be nice if they would also expose nonsense when they see it? But, as it is, it just seems politicians are given a free pass to get away with the most absurd positions.

    But not all is dark: today is Bach's birthday! It's time to enjoy some good music.

  8. JP,

    I agree with you about the way in which a false understanding of "balance" or "objectivity" in the media leads to terribly misleading depictions of reality--and I've made exactly the same argument you make about climate change in this regard. When the overwhelming weight of the evidence favors position A, and a few vested interests drum up a case for not-A, you aren't engaged in objective reporting if you give equal time to defenders of A and not-A and represent this as a real debate.

    The current topic is a bit different from this. It would be more like if there were serious climate-change deniers among the Republicans, who are part of an organized campaign to shut down efforts to stave off a serious catastrophe, whereas on the Democratic side there are these scattered individuals who roll there eyes and make derisive remarks about those who take climate change seriously, but who aren't themselves part of a systematic campaign to shut down efforts to reduce CO2 emissions.

    If you care about the threat posed by climate change, you should take the former climate-change deniers more seriously because they pose a graver obstacle to taking needed action. But the latter are also impeding the cause, and to take a stand against climate-change denial has to mean taking a stand against it even when it crops up among one's supposed political allies--even if it doesn't mean treating actions that aren't equivalent as if they were.

  9. Hi JP

    Interesting you should raise climate science, as it seems to fold back into a number of ongoing discussions on this site. The approach championed by fossil fuel enthusiasts appears to have borrowed heavily from the 'pioneering' work of the tobacco industry, and can be seen in the lobbying of the fast food industry, creationist folk etc.

    The refrain, dangerous because of how beguiling it is to the general public, is that science doesn't really 'know'. The area is 'uncertain', relying upon 'guesses' and 'models', science is 'arrogant', 'closed minded'.

    Hence my interst/obsession with the notion of the best guess, and the distinction between areas where disagreement is reasonable, and where it is downright dangerous. And I agree entirely, climate change strikes me as the great moral issue of our time, and yet the political groups most usually attracted to moralising appear either strangely quiet or downright dismissive.

    Eric, I wonder if your jump from sexualised language to sexual violence may be too easily made here. Some argue the opposite stance, that it is our sensitivity to feminine terms of abuse that creates the power imbalance. I remember feminist peers from my university days gleefully reclaiming the cuss, so to speak. I think the power of language is an extremely important thing to be aware of, but equally that it is a tremendously difficult one to analyse.

    In terms of tactics, the next generation, as ever, will be the key, and earnestness is such a hard sell.


  10. Bernard,

    I should stress, in case it isn't clear, that I don't believe that every case in which derogatory sexual language is used to label people ("slut," "twat") is a case of verbal sexual violence (that is, behavior which violates a person sexually or through their sexuality). That Limbaugh's tirade against Fluke did, in my judgment, rise to the level of violation is part of what makes it so much more egregious than other things out there. Words can be sexist--they can play into or reinforce sexist cultural patterns--without sexually violating their target. And I wouldn't think Maher's insulting words violated Sarah Palin, even if we grant that they were offensive and misogynistic.

    But if we are concerned with the patriarchal marginalization of women, then we should be concerned not merely with overt violence but also with the broader patterns in the culture that feed into the violence in various ways. I don't take the view of some more radical feminists that every patriarchal act is rape, even if I have sympathy for the idea that rape cannot be adequately understood apart from the patriarchal context in which it occurs. Likewise, the more extreme verbal attacks, in which sexual language is used abusively to humiliate a woman, need to be distinguished from sexist language that does not rise to that level--but the former cannot be understood adequately apart from an appreciation of the cultural context of which the latter is also an expression.

    That said, you raise an important issue when it comes to attacks that are largely verbal. A friend of mine in high school was a recent Nigerian immigrant whose family was, essentially, tribal royalty. He had a strong sense of his own dignity...and, before coming to the US, he had no experience with being the target of racism. He reported to me (and I think he was being wholly honest) that when he found himself now the occasional target of racist epithets, he experienced them mostly as silly. They didn't sting, mainly because he existed outside the cultural framework which invested the words with the power to wound--but also because he had such a secure sense of his own dignity that the racist insults just bounced right off.

    This suggests that there may be ways to "declaw" abusive language, insofar as abusive language receives its power from how it is related to broader cultural forces and from the psychological vulnerability of the targets (in part produced by those broader cultural forces).

    But I think this insight can only be taken so far, for three reasons. First, it takes time to erase the cultural contexts that give abusive words their sting. Second, we are products of our culture, and cannot simply extract ourselves from the web of meanings that make us vulnerable to certain kinds of verbal attacks. Third, even if the target of sexist or racist language has acquired a character that confers immunity to the sting of that language, the perpetrator is still operating within the cultural context that invests the words with an abusive meaning--and so means to do something harmful with the words even if no harmful effect actually results.

  11. Hi Eric

    I agree with what you say here. The point I would make is that cultural context is far from homogenous, and there is always a danger of assuming our own cultural context is the relevant one from which to judge, say, the impact of language. My own context, I readily own, is middle aged, liberal, middle class. So, although I do talk to my students about the way they use language and its impact, I also try to be aware of how poor I am at decoding the cultural context of our youth.

    Culture didn't stop evolving with the rise of identity politics in the 1970's, and very often, in my experience, attempts to bridge that gap backfire. When there are larger issues at stake, it might be a mistake to go after the marginal cases, even in the name of even handedness. If the end result is that those who may have been receptive to the greater message see instead humourlessness, and a failure to understand them, important learning opportunities can be lost. Where I'm from, a common criticism of the left is that we're just not that funny. Which seems trite, I know, but not to a sixteen year old, forming the voting prejudices that may steer them for a lifetime.

    As an odd cultural aside, in my country the phrase 'he's a good c' is the highest mark of respect amongst a certain subgroup. Not sure if this is international?


  12. I believe that it's Christian to be a feminist. Until I found a new book, Cover-Up: How the Church Silenced Jesus's True Heirs, I had not ideaof how prominent women were in the early church. For instance, I had never heard of the New Testament apostle, Junia, possibly because the church tried to turn her into a male: Junius (there's no such name).But what's fascinating is that the Jewish followers of Jesus, the subject of the book, seem to have influenced later groups such as the 10th century Cathars and the later Lollards where women as well as men played leading roles. Although this is not the main thesis of the book, the author has thoughtfully provided an appendix covering the subject of empowered women starting with Jesus’s women disciples (such as Mary Magdalene). I think this is a very exciting read. I found it at: http://tinyurl.com/69cazll.