Sexism: An Ameliorative Approach

Sexism: An Ameliorative Approach

In this essay, I will argue that Kate Manne’s account of misogyny as the enforcement mechanism for systemic sexism is persuasive as a novel deontological framework for ameliorating the impact of sexism by changing the way we talk about it. To defend this claim, I will show that her argument overcomes one of the main challenges facing feminist ethical arguments by providing not just an epistemic system but a deontological system.

In her book Down Girl, Kate Manne argues for a prescriptive redefinition of misogyny under an ameliorative lens, “if we want to change the world, we may need to conceptualize it differently.” In the past, arguments about systemic sexism have focused on convincing people that it exists.  In these arguments, systemic sexism is typically presented in the form of disparate impact which is aligned with gender as a result of aggregated microaggressions. The impact is the focus rather than the microaggressions. There are several problems that emerge from what Manne calls this “naïve approach.” First, as an inductive argument, it’s easy to find anecdotes which purport to refute it. In reality this is not how to refute an inductive argument, but it convinces many people to accept their predetermined conclusion that systemic sexism is either not real, not important, or not their problem. Secondly, the attention is focused on the impact rather than on the microaggression that causes it. Manne’s argument moves the attention onto the microaggressions and into the deductive form which can not be refuted as easily.

Marilyn Frye’s Birdcage Theory says that systemic sexism is made up of lots of little pieces that come together to form a problematic system which works like a birdcage; no one wire is the one holding the bird down, it’s all of them working together. You could even remove a wire or two and the bird would not be free. It’s the cage that is the problem, not the individual wires. This is metaphor for many things in society which work together to keep women subjugated. The challenge in making arguments based on this theory is that they are inductive arguments. For example, “Trump is a sexist.” It’s easy to point to anecdotal counter-examples like his several female employees or his relationship with his daughter. These counter-examples don’t really disprove the claim but they muddy the waters enough to make further discussion difficult or impossible. This claim is unlikely to change minds.

Manne offers a radically different approach for how to think about the problem and how to articulate claims about the problem. She says that instead of making an inductive conclusion, we should make a deductive conclusion and instead of talking about disparate impact, we should about microaggressions which she calls down-girl moves. This simple deontological claim on Manne’s part has radically changed the way I think about social justice in general and I say that as someone who already a degree in that. Because this is such a fundamental paradigm shift, I have prepared a graph which explains how different this is from older ideas about how to talk about sexism. In logic, there are four types of arguments: A, E, I, O. The naïve approach uses forms I and O. The Ameliorative approach uses forms A and E; these forms are very different as we will see.

From my previous example, when I said “Trump is a sexist,” the stated premise breaks apart to include several implied premises;

  1. Trump has probably committed many sexist microaggressions
  2. The impact of systemic sexism on women is caused by the aggregated microaggressions.
  3. Therefore Trump is probably responsible for some portion of the impact of systemic sexism on women.

It’s easy to attack that claim from many angles, but the fundamental problem according to Manne is that we are saying probably. It’s too easy to attack an inductive or “probably” argument. Now imagine instead the claim, “Trump strangled his wife.” The stated premise and implied premise are reversed, and no rebuttal is possible. No matter how many women he has hired or what kind of relationship he has with his daughter, he still strangled his wife.

I feel like I have to include at least a little bit of queer theory in this essay and say that while all systems of oppression are different, they all work the same way. In the case of race, I think a good corollary to Manne’s ameliorative approach is Black Lives Matter. Instead of signs and posters reading, “Black people are disproportionately likely to be murdered by police,” the claim that black lives matter simply assumes that, and it’s much harder to credibly attack head-on.

Beyond just changing the form of arguments used, Manne says that we should talk about down-girl moves rather than talking just about impact of systemic sexism. As we can see in the previous example, this is a very effective way to prevent rebuttal while making essentially the same argument about Trump being a sexist. In Manne’s argument, a down-girl move is a microaggression which has the effect of subjugating or subordinating women. It’s not just about being a sexist; it’s also about putting women below men hierarchically. She argues that down-girl moves “will be such that all or most women are positioned as subordinate in relation to some man or men.” These moves do the work of enforcing patriarchy or the hierarchy of genders with men on top. She gives long lists of examples from things like strangulation to humiliation to threats of violence, especially when the aggressor jumps between universal and specific as ER did in his manifesto. “[Because some women are not attracted to me, I will punish all women by attacking some women.]” This move is more than just a sexist microaggression, it’s also a claim that women are below men hierarchically. She also argues that we should focus on the most egregious down-girl acts when making claims about bad actors. For someone like Trump who has strangled a wife, it might make less sense to focus on discussions of his diction or hiring practices, unless that’s specifically the context we’re talking about.

The strongest objection to the ameliorative approach would be epistemic sexism. If an opponent rejects the fundamental premises of feminism or accepts the gender hierarchy, then down-girl moves, sexism, and misogyny are good things. In these cases, the ameliorative claim, “Trump strangled his wife,” could simply be met with, “She probably deserved it.” In these cases, this person is someone who needs to be convinced of many fundamentals before they are ready to discuss why strangling one’s wife is problematic. If we assume that the ameliorative approach is intended to be used with people who believe women are people who deserve equal rights, then I think it stands up to this objection.

One of the main historical challenges facing feminist philosophers is the fact that it’s difficult to map discussions of systemic issues onto individual situations. For example, it’s easy to talk about how in the vast majority of domestic violence cases, men are the perpetrators. The response might be, “that’s other men, it’s not my problem, etc.” It’s hard to point to specific micro-scale things that should change in order to ameliorate the larger macro-scale claim. Outliers are often used wrongly as a rebuttal for arguments about the wage gap; “there are woman CEOs, therefore the wage gap is the fault of women who don’t earn higher wages by working harder.” An ameliorative response might be to fight for equal opportunity hiring practices in response to hiring managers choosing men instead of women. This would ameliorate the problem by removing the capacity for misogyny to impact the decision-making process. In Manne’s words, the ameliorative approach is about actually changing things and making conditions better for women. If we follow her advice and use better argument forms and focus on egregious cases, we are likely to see conditions improve, and that’s what it’s all about!