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Status, Not Sex
Bo Winegard scrutinizes Kate Manne's concept of 'himpathy' -- the disproportionate sympathy powerful men often enjoy in cases of misogynistic behaviour.
Written by Bo Winegard.
The sexual immorality of powerful men has regularly been in the news since the rise of the MeToo movement. Recently, even the apparently staid world of competitive chess was roiled by a sexual-assault scandal involving Alejandro Ramirez, a prominent coach, teacher, and GM. The story is similar to many others in the MeToo genre in which a powerful or respected man’s disturbing, immoral, and possibly illegal sexual behavior is ignored or dismissed for many years despite being widely known.
For some, this is evidence of pervasive misogyny. Men sexually intimidate and harass women with impunity because the West is rife with anti-female bias. The philosopher Kate Manne forwarded a reasonably sophisticated version of this argument in her book, “Down Girl,” which introduced the concept of “himpathy,” or “the inappropriate and disproportionate sympathy powerful men often enjoy in cases of sexual assault, intimate partner violence, homicide and other misogynistic behavior.”
Popular among progressives and derided among conservatives, Manne’s arguments have been polarizing. This is not surprising, of course, since views about sex and sex relations more broadly are also polarized. But it often leads to the twin extremes of dismissive and vituperative reviews on the one side and of credulous and laudatory reviews on the other. A more critical, but respectful approach is missed.
The thesis of this essay is that himpathy (at least the strong version of himpathy) is implausible and is premised on an erroneous estimation of the prevalence and nature of misogyny. This is unfortunate because the phenomenon Manne attempts to explain is, in fact, real—perhaps not ubiquitous, but real. A better explanation should focus on social status and on social norms, for Kate Manne’s focus on misogyny and currently popular oppression narratives distracted her from an obvious point: High-status men’s primary victims are other men. In other words, it is not himpathy that drives the acceptance of the unseemly sexual behavior of powerful man, but a propensity to defer to those with high status.
There are many variants and gradations of the notion of himpathy. For simplicity, we can divide these into two, the strong version and the weak version. The strong version (himpathy SV), which Manne might not endorse, but which other people have espoused, is that people generally sympathize more with men than women because of internalized misogyny. The weak version (himpathy WV) is that people generally sympathize with powerful men more than low status women (or than low status women accusers).
Himpathy SV is almost certainly false. It contradicts experience. Women, especially young women, much more than men are depicted as victims precisely because they elicit more sympathy than men. Harm to a woman is viewed as more tragic than harm to a man. This is likely one reason women are often the key characters in horror films. Watching a killer terrorize women is more disturbing and upsetting than watching a killer terrorize men.
Explicit social norms also favor women. For example, “women and children first” is a popular saying. Of course, when men’s lives are imperiled, they often ignore these norms, but that’s not because they disdain women; it’s because they, like all humans, are selfish. Many societies in the West have been reluctant to allow women into dangerous jobs such as the military and view those who support female conscription as uncouth at best. Furthermore, people who harm women are punished more severely than those who harm men, and women are punished less severely for the same crimes as men.
This is congruent with evolutionary logic, which suggests that society should sympathize more with female victims than male victims (of equal status). Females have the more valuable sex cell. The bigger sex cell. The rarer sex cell. In humans, the disparity in the reproductive value of a modal woman and a modal man can be quite large. And it has important consequences. Consider an extreme case. If there were a group of 100 women and 25 men, then the men could get all the women pregnant. However, if the reverse were the case, then that would create a severe reproductive problem for the social group likely leading to community collapse.
Men’s sex cells are cheap; therefore, men, like a swarm of guard bees protecting a hive, are largely disposable, especially low status men. Therefore, men have almost always been forced to die in war and in other dangerous jobs more often than women.
To my knowledge, Manne’s only response to these arguments is to point to studies that show that people believe men (boys) experience more pain than women. But there is a quite plausible alternative explanation. People believe that boys/men are more tolerant of pain and are more likely to suppress expressions of it. Therefore, when people see a boy and a girl expressing a similar amount of pain, they believe that the boy must be experiencing more of it.
Consider a different example. If shown a film of an adult and a child getting pricked and displaying the same expression, I suspect most viewers would believe that the adult is experiencing more pain. Why? Because adults generally react more stoically to pain than do children. And, indeed, in the study cited above, the effect disappeared once researchers controlled for perceptions of stoicism.
Himpathy SV, therefore, seems completely untenable. In fact, observation, theory, and evidence all suggest that it is the opposite of the truth; and likely most scholars and journalists would ignore it if it weren’t consistent with a common but likely erroneous view that the West is teeming with sexism.
Himpathy WV, however, is a bit more plausible, especially if stripped of its sex-based formulation so that it reads “People value high-status people more that low status people; and they sometimes let high-status people get away with heinous crimes, especially if their victims are low status people.” However, this largely vitiates the him part of himpathy and makes the sympathy a manifestation of a tendency to favor high-status people over others, not of pervasive misogyny. In fact, the degree of this tendency is almost certainly stronger if the high-status person’s victims are men, not women.
In an interview with Vox, Manne forwarded two examples that support the notion that society is “pathologically” sympathetic to powerful men: The Kavanaugh hearings and Brock Turner. (In the “Down Girl” she also discussed Turner.) Manne contended that Trump’s casual dismissals of Ford’s testimony about Kavanaugh were evidence of himpathy. Ford was “totally erased from the discourse.” Trump, in general, is quite callous and transactional so despite Manne’s claim that he showed real sympathy toward Kavanaugh, we shouldn’t be surprised by Trump’s response. (Although, it is worth noting that he did, at one point, call her a “very credible witness.”)
Setting Trump aside, it’s worth noting that (1) Ford testified despite having no corroborating evidence for a very old accusation (thus, she was certainly not erased); and (2) attitudes about Kavanaugh were largely partisan, so this example is not useful. (In her New York Times opinion piece, Manne chided Trump and Kavanaugh for being against abortion, which, she claimed, further illustrates an incapability of sympathizing with women. But this is also a partisan issue, one which divides both men and women, so is a tendentious point.)
The Brock Turner example is quite baffling since he is widely reviled. In the interview with Vox, Manne said, “And what we saw, from his father and his friends, was this wave of sympathy over what the whole ordeal was costing him.” But this is ordinary nepotism and tribalism, not himpathy. That his friends and family sympathized with him is not surprising. And they almost certainly would have if he were a woman as well. Furthermore, they almost certainly would have sympathized with him if his victim had been a man. What’s more informative is the response of the rest of society.
Very few people, in fact, sympathized with Brock Turner, for he is widely depicted as a spoiled, privileged deviant who got a lucky break from a derelict judge. Many were absolutely outraged by his lenient sentence. And the judge became the first California jurist to be recalled from the bench in 86 years! Using Brock Turner to support the case for himpathy is a bit like using “Jaws: The Revenge” (currently 0% at Rotten Tomatoes) to support the case that critics overvalue sequels.
A better explanation for the ability of some powerful men to get away with abominable behavior is that high-status people, both men and women, receive preferential treatment. They are lionized; people naturally defer to them; and people often allow them to get away with otherwise opprobrious behavior. In many ancient law codes, including Anglo-Saxon and Roman among others, high-status people were explicitly treated differently from low status people. And although modern Western laws codes discarded this explicit preference, it stems from a natural propensity that persists. This propensity leads to the promulgation of norms that protect high-status people from scrutiny and punishment. This is not misogyny; it is a kind of classism.
Thus Manne largely ignored (or downplayed) the key variable: Status. And she did not sufficiently discuss the fact that the most common and least respected victims of high-status men are other men. This reminds of Hillary Clinton’s assertion that women have always been the primary victims of war.
It is true and obviously deplorable that some female victims are ignored or even blamed. But the best way to ameliorate this problem is to understand it. Evidence does not support the contention that the West is pervasively misogynistic; in fact, the opposite may very well be true. And it similarly does not support the claim that himpathy is ubiquitous. On the other hand, preferential treatment for high-status men and women is and always has been. And often their victims, men and women alike, have suffered in silence.
Bo Winegard is the Executive Editor of Aporia.