Great Mills High School and the Logic of Misogyny
This week’s tragic school shooting in Maryland offers an interesting lesson in what Cornell philosopher Kate Manne has described as “the logic of misogyny,” in her powerful new book, Down Girl (2018), a careful analysis of the language and thought-structures of patriarchy.
Manne makes a central distinction between sexism, which she understands as “the branch of patriarchal ideology that justifies and rationalizes a patriarchal social order,” and misogyny, which she argues is “a system that polices and enforces its governing norms and expectations.”
Misogyny encompasses a range of behaviors, from physical violence to various kinds of social pressure (often internal as well as external). Sexism is more typically expressed as the scientific or quasi-scientific essentializing of gender norms under the banner of biology.
That distinction is already a fruitful one, for it gives a framework to understand how, for example, Austin Rollins, the shooter in Maryland, and his subsequent portrayal by police as “a lovesick teen,” are distinct but still related moves. Killing a classmate when a “relationship” is over? (The quotes are here because it’s still somewhat unclear just what that means in this case.) According to Manne’s framework, this is misogyny. Calling the murderer a “love-sick teen”? That seems closer to sexism, with his deliberate violence almost a kind of coming-of-age helplessness he was powerless to control.
Manne also notes a puzzling phenomenon she terms “himpathy,” the often shockingly sympathetic portrayal of male perpetrators, often despite even the most violent behaviors (cold-blooded murders, rapes) and the most definitive evidence (eyewitnesses, video). Again, Rollins’ in school killing as an expression of “lovesickness” is a case in point. It also need not be so extreme. “Himpathy” reframes even less lethal misogynistic behaviors into shell-games of agency and self-control, complicating in subtle ways our ability to make moral judgments.
For example, “himpathy” often masquerades as a broad-minded appeal to fairness. It teaches us to seek some proper balance between the punishment a male “deserves” given “all he’s been through” (often because “whatever really happened, now he’s become a victim in all this, too”) versus the justice a woman “deserves” for having suffered at his hands.
“Himpathy” is generous in its offer of context for the perpetrator, making the issue bigger than just “the crime,” per se, and the story therefore not reducible to any bottom line of clear facts or concrete legal definitions of when and how laws were broken.
By making constant appeal to the broader justice to be seen in the light of that context, “himpathy” proposes even that, “given all the facts,” particular punishments (jail time, a recorded felony conviction, sex offender registration, or mere expulsion from school) should not apply for the perpetrator — because, well, he’s more than just a perpetrator. And “fairness” demands that this ought to matter.
Thanks to “himpathy,” the false equivalence of their respective forms of “deserving justice” obscures that it’s her actions (not his), and his ordeal (not hers) that often end up on trial.
Heads, patriarchy wins; tails, we lose.